The first thing you’ll notice about the Emotiva ERC-1 CD player is that it looks great. The faceplate of the player and the remote are brushed aluminum painted black accented with unfinished brushed aluminum at the edges. Nice. When it’s turned on the buttons on the face of the player light up with blue halos. This player would look right at home next to Macintosh gear.
Stare at it a while longer and you’ll notice something distinctly different – the ERC-1 is a slot loader. No drawer, no lid. Slide your disc half way in and internal goblins, mechanisms, something, will do the rest. The loading mechanism does make a little noise as its working, sounds somewhat like the drawer on a CD player (not surprising I guess) but a bit more substantial.
- Design: 2 Channel Slot Loading CD Player
- Codecs: Redbook CD, HDCD, MP3
- Analog Outputs: 1 Set XLR Balanced, 2 Sets RCA Unbalanced
- Digital Outputs: 1 RCA S/PDIF, 1 Optical (TosLink)
- Output Voltage: 1V rms (7V peak)
- MFR: 20 Hz – 20 kHz ± 0.1 dB
- THD+N: ?0.01? 0dB 1kHz
- Digital Output Filter: 24-Bit, 384 kHz (Analog Devices 1955?
- Analog Output Filter Frequency: 80 kHz (-3dB)
- Dimensions: 4.25″ H x 17″ W x 14″ D
- Weight: 17.5 Pounds
- MSRP: $399 USA
Design and Setup
Substantial is a good word for the player itself. Pleasingly hefty at 17 lbs it feels very solid. A rap on the top of the player seems like normal sheet metal but a wrap on the bottom sounds like there is some dampening material down there. The remote is just beyond reproach. One of the best remotes I’ve had the pleasure to apply my thumb to, hefty but not heavy and great to look at, much like the remote for the Primaluna Dialogue II that I’ve also been reviewing.
I began with the ECR-1 plugged into my standard Simaudio system rather than the Primaluna to minimize the changes I was subjecting my ears to. I used the balanced out from the ERC-1 to the one balanced input available on the Sim. What will I do if I want to use that balanced input for a phono stage? These are the things I worry about.
The first CD I played was Live at Kexp, Vol 2. If you haven’t experienced the joy of a radio station the way it should be, tune your computer or squeezebox to kexp.org and expand your mind. This station is a combination of the legendary Seattle college radio station KCMU and the generous coffers of Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project. If I ever become a multi billionaire, from selling shoes or software or expertly penned stereo equipment reviews I will start such a station here in Portland. Of course it will be pointless because everyone will be getting their music off the internet but still I’ll do it, it’s just the right thing to do.
Live at Kexp, Vol 2 is a series of live recordings of various bands (Lyric’s Born, Gang of Four, Thievery Corporation, Drive By Truckers, many more) at the Kexp studio. The performances are all so good I’m sure I would not know they were live if I didn’t read it on the CD cover. The recording is a little constrained on the top end and the Emotiva reproduced that faithfully. It also conveyed the rockin’ nature of these songs very, very well. Technically I think this was accomplished by some excellent bass. Powerful bass with lots of texture and detail. No generalized thumps that might be bass guitar notes or the bass drum. Every drum is different, and bass guitarists fret (bad pun!) for hours over how to sound unique. Well the good ones do. This was not lost in the Emotiva. At this point I didn’t know if the ERC-1 was going to benefit from some break-in, it didn’t need any to please me. If there was any break in over time I didn’t notice it.
Lulabies to Violaine collects all the Cocteau Twins EP’s into 4 discs, except for those that are on Lullabies to Violaine Vol. 2 (2 discs) of course. The packaging on Vol 1 is exquisite, the paper has a rubbery feel, like it’s been dipped in some mind enhancing chemical. Probably it has. I chose this disc because like a lot of Cocteau Twins the original recordings were made back when CD’s were really bad and even these reissues lack the space and ease of newer CD’s. The instruments all seem crammed into a small space. The ERC-1 did an admiral job, actually it was a great job with these discs, I listened longer than I recall ever listening to these. The player’s ability to separate out the instruments was key to this I think. The ERC-1 I found does an excellent job at presenting the detail of each instrument in its own space, without sounding shrill or tilted to the high end.
I did a lot of back and forth comparison between the ERC-1 and my vintage Naim CDS2 using Lykke Li’s Youth Novels. I highly recommend this record, lots of sweet vocals, poetic lyrics and novel arrangements. And, I could highly recommend that you play it through either of these players. The ERC-1 beat my Naim when it came to presenting each instrument in its own space. In fact, it would be hard to imagine doing much better than the ERC-1 in that department.
The ERC-1 was also the bass master, possibly owing to the balanced connection to the rest of my system. Not only was the bass deeper and more powerful, it was more defined, the texture of the bass notes was presented in stark relief, same as the other instruments. The Naim on the other hand presented more of the midrange sweetness. Ms. Li’s voice is all about sweetness and I definitely found more if it here. Similar with piano or horns, they sounded a little more like their real-life counterparts through the Naim. Same with the bass, while maybe not as commanding as the Emotiva it was more life-like. And overall the Naim’s presentation was more musical, analog-like. Keep in mind that the Naim when new, cost more than 27 (that’s twen-ty-seven) times as much as the Emotiva.
Another comparison – I hooked up the optical digital out from the Emotiva to my (Modded) Bel Canto Dac1. At first I was hard pressed to tell the difference between the two. The ERC-1 had a little more extension on both ends, the Bel Canto seemed a little softer throughout, slightly smeared. After I while I could more reliably discern the difference. The Emotiva was better, no smearing.
Balanced v. Single Ended
I connected one set of the single ended outputs available on the ERC-1 to my preamp inputs where the Bel Canto had been and did some more A-B comparisons. The main difference was in the bass and midrange. Through the balanced connections the bass notes had more texture and through the mids each instrument was better defined. The treble single ended was probably a little looser – it had a little of that tendency that I notice when the Furman power conditioner is removed from my system – the treble seems to soar but is it just noisy? This was much more subtle than the Furman effect but that kind of thing.
Why should the ERC-1 sound better than other players? Well they went all out on some audiophile approved features such as separate power supplies for each of the major sections: Transport, Display, Digital, Analog. Also too, each of those sections is shielded. Balanced outputs as I mentioned. The DAC is the AD1955 from Analog Devices. The Analog Devices website says that this chip supports 24 bit, 192 kHz samples. The Emotiva takes advantage of this support and I support them in doing so. That chip also supports HDCD decoding and that is also implemented by the ERC-1. Finally the signal is created in its final analog state by Burr Brown OPA2134 Op Amps. If Martha Stuart were an audiophile she’d say ‘These are good things’.
Inserting the disc is a leap of faith.
The slot loader took a little getting used to, with a drawer loading mechanism you feel like you’re putting the disc in a drawer. Of course you’ll be able to get it out, just open the drawer. Fine until the drawer won’t open of course. With a slot loader you are pushing a disc into a black box and it seems a little less certain that you will get it back again. Actually, your chances are about the same with either mechanism. With the Emotiva there is a pretty firm resistance when the disc is about half way in, if almost feels like there’s already something in there and you shouldn’t be pushing much harder. About then the mechanism comes to life and the disc slowly disappears inside the black box.
The manual describes the mechanism as ‘magnetic’. I had to ask Lonnie Vaughn (General Manager of Emotiva) what that meant, here’s what he said: “Inside of the loader mechanism there is an internal tray with 2) arms on top of the tray. When a CD is detected the arms are lowered on top of the CD magnetically to hold the CD in place as the tray is moved back and lowered into position for playing. Once in position the arms are released and the unit comes to life. This is a brand new design for a loader mechanism that is night and day from the previous slot load systems that you might be familiar with. If you remember all of the slot loaders up until now used rubber coated rollers to pull in and eject the CDs. If the rollers got dirty it would scratch the CDs, well this won’t happen on this system. Once a CD is inserted the optical sensors pick up the presence of the CD, the magnetic arms are lowered and the internal tray moves into or ejects the CDs and they never pass by any rollers.”
But why go with a slot loading mechanism at all? “Originally we looked into a tray load system because that is what everyone is used too, but I hate plastic trays (with a passion). I checked with every company who made loaders and no one makes a metal tray anymore. So rather than build a beautiful player with a flimsy plastic tray, I choose to go with a slot load system.”
The Emotiva never failed to return my disc to me unscathed except for one troubling incident for which I am probably the guilty party. While trying to load the above mentioned Cocteau Twins CD, part of a four disc set that is not easily replaced, I pressed the ‘Eject’ button to wake up the player rather than the ‘Standby’ button. I then proceeded to try to insert the disc just as the loading mechanism started to move (to the ‘ready’ position I imagine). The mechanism grabbed the disc hard and pinched it so that it was only half way in and cocked at an angle.
Arrrrrg. I had visions of having to take off the top cover and god knows what else… well, before all that, I simply tried tugging on the disc. It took a firm tug but it came right out and I could see no scratches at first. I was imagining the worst because it really grabbed that puppy. Eventually I did see that the very outside of the disc did have a scratch, maybe 3/16″ long, half of which was outside of the data area. Whew. I pushed it in flat and enjoyed. I was able to play the disc all the way through with no incident. This is something to think about though if children, clumsy neighbors or perhaps a knowledgeable, caring but otherwise inattentive audiophile is going to be operating the stereo. To be totally fair, there is a chance I had caused this scratch sometime in the past by dropping the disc or using it to slice vegetables on but I don’t recall any such incidents.
Even before this I was a little fearful to try a DualDisc because it is slightly thicker than a standard CD. I haven’t seen one of these in the store for years it seems but I still have a couple of prized DualDisc releases including Massive Attack’s Collected. This is a disc that has gotten stuck in my DVD player which has a normal tray loading mechanism. The trick I learned there was to press ‘stop’ before ‘eject’ so that the disc could stop spinning. All of which goes to show how tight the margins are for even this old school loading mechanism. Dualdiscs discs have become so passe’ that only I worry about them, they are not mentioned in the manual for the ERC-1. The folks at Emotiva assured me though that if it fit through the slot it would not be a problem. It did and they were right, no problem. It went in and came out. In between the sound was great.
The manual does mention that no disc cleaners of any kind should be used. As I have become partial to the occasional treatment with an anti-static CD cleaner (yes I am the crazy audiophile reviewer) I had to ask Lonnie – why no cleaners? Once the method was understood (all residual liquid is dried off before play) he agreed there should be no issue. I did clean only a couple of the discs I played, the difference, if any, was less than I’m used to but my theory on these things is that by removing the static from a rapidly spinning disc these cleaners eliminate a noise source and perhaps demagnetize or de-staticize the player – because it does seem like one doesn’t have to clean every disc. It’s more like a treatment for the player than the disc. Still, the real test for something subtle like this would be long term ‘how long did you listen’ logs, not A-B.
What is missing from this player? A Digital input. I think all CD players should have this. If you’re paying for a good DAC in there, even if you’re not paying all that much, you should be able to use it with your portable player (and your portable player should have a digital out), your squeezebox and your laptop. All this would keep the player from becoming land fill before it’s time and save you from having to buy a separate DAC.
Some other things I wanted to mention but can’t figure out where to put unless it’s here: The display when fully lit up is pretty bright. Too much so if your room is dark. There is a ‘Dim’ button on the remote though which turns off everything except the numeric display. This is how I did most of my listening. I did not hear a difference with the display on or off if you’re wondering. Also, I did try the Emotiva through the Primaluna, I found nothing that would alter my conclusions. Tune into the Primaluna review for more!
All the time I had the ERC-1 I kept thinking of that intergalactic invading army, seeking revenge on planet Earth in ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, “Due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was swallowed by a small dog.” Either Emotiva has miscalculated how much they could charge for a CD player this good or all the other hifi manufactures have miscalculated how much they should charge. Don’t get me started…too late… the remote control for my preamp costs the same as this CD Player (which has an excellent remote of its own!). I could go on but you know all too well how much this stuff costs.
Emotiva keeps costs down by manufacturing in China and having internet only sales. I’m a little torn by this as I know people that are employed in this country in the manufacture of audio equipment. Some of them are decent people. And not particularly overpaid. Same with audio retail, and your local HiFi shop performs a service – but on the other hand not every town has one. And I have to think that Emotiva keeps costs down in part because they keep costs down, that is, they aim for a low price and work to achieve it. Obviously that is not the norm in high end audio gear.
The sound from the ERC-1 compares very well with high end CD players, even those that cost an order of magnitude more, it has a plethora of outputs including balanced, a fabulous remote, it looks great on the shelf, clearly designed by some people who care about what they are doing… highly recommended.