Audio Space T-88A vacuum tube CD player
Review by Tim Smith
As an admirer and owner of DACs with vacuum tube output stages I jumped at the opportunity to review the Audio Space T-88-A CD player, itself driven by three 6N11 (6922) tubes. Audio Space is probably Asia’s most reputable audio company. It might be the best known and most trusted East Asian brand in North America, with a quarter-century track record. Headquartered in Hong Kong and owned by Peter Lau, Audio Space makes most of its gear on the mainland. Prices are a bit higher than most Chi-Fi but quality control is much higher and Audio Space’s designs are original, not knock-offs of Euro-designs. With several prize-winning products in its large stable of goods, Audio Space can compete with anything made in Europe, Japan or North America. The icing on the cake? There is a well established distributor in Canada, Charisma Audio of Markham, Ontario. Few Chinese-made products can claim that. Given the choice between buying from the Greater Toronto Area or straight outta Kowloon, most of us would opt for Toronto.
The minute I opened the box, I could sense that everything about this product oozed high quality. Behold the careful packaging, the fit and finish, the well-written owner’s manual, the handsome remote control. The T88-A weighs in at 9kg or 20 pounds.
The T-88A has a Sanyo CD transport at its heart, a tried, true, tested device. The classic Burr-Brown PCM 1742 chip does the conversion up to 24 bit/176.4 kHz. The player comes with single ended outputs (using either a tubed output stage or a solid state one) and with balanced XLR outputs. The power supply has a low noise toroidal transformer. The T-88A comes in silver or black. It outputs 2.3V in single ended mode and 4.6V in balanced mode. Dynamic range is a claimed 100 dB. Signal-to-noise ratio is >110 dB via solid state output and > 98 dB with tube output. I had no hiss through my tweeters when the T88-A was turned on and idle. The machine makes no mechanical hum. When you change tracks via remote and when the disc is fully played, the T88-A makes a faint click. I’ve had this sort of thing before with other CD players including a Musical Fidelity. It’s not a problem or a flaw but intentional and you should be aware of it. The T88-A read every disc I spun with perfection. The tray seems rock solid. The display is legible and well conceived.
Having recently gone ‘off’ the balanced sound–I much prefer my Wyred4Sound SX-1000 monos in single ended mode–I no longer had any XLR cables at hand so I listened only in single ended mode. I used several amplifiers from my Coincident Dynamo SE to my Line Magnetic 518IA to my ARC LS-17/Wyred4Sound SX-1000 combo. I used Harbeth and Magnepan speakers.
Through the tubed output I found the sound to be fast, open, holographic, and airy. Solo classical guitar was as large and detailed as I have heard in my room. There is body galore, with snap and bite. Electric guitar was even better. For example, on “Disfarmer,” a Bill Frisell recording with the violinist Jenny Scheinman, I found Frisell’s guitar to have exceptionally powerful grunt. Scheinman’s violin was detailed but never glassy or etchy. Using the tube output, the sonic signature is modern Audio Research style, with one foot in tubes (holography, air) the other firmly planted in solid state (speed, dryness, deep bass). It’s ARC LS-17 not Modwright LS-100.
Tubes, letting off steam.
The T88-A keeps its composure with complex orchestral music, never getting congested. It seems better able to stay focused and anchored than my Musical Paradise M-1 DAC. It seems not quite as warm but more sure footed, with almost a Naim CD5i-like snappiness. This is one fast player. Compared with the CD stage of my Marantz SA-15S2 Special Edition SACD player, the Audio Space seems to go deeper, with drier and more convincing bass. The sound is more open and airy–certainly less tonally dense in the midrange–with a firmer foundation below and more sparkle up top. In other words the Audio Space is not rolled off à la Marantz. It is more agile, more neutral, less romantic. In a word, more accurate. It loves to rock. It has ample grunt down below.
The T88-A had no trouble keeping pace with Calvin Broadus’ rapid-fire delivery. Synthesized bass was crunchy and punchy. In tube output mode, the T88-A loves vocals. From Billie Holiday to Sarah Harmer to Nina Persson, the T88-A threw massive vocal images with just a touch of grain. The T88-A did a great job of hanging onto the decay of Glenn Gould’s piano notes. John Bonham’s drums were conveyed with a great deal of force and speed.
This player is, I think, a perfect solution for those of us with large collections of poorly recorded rock music who cannot be bothered to rip thousands of CDs to disc. The T88-A will keep the pace and deliver the hammer blows when called upon, but through the tubed output it will take just that tiny little bit of glassiness and glare out of the recording–as my Marantz does–without robbing the music of its pulsing beat. It’s a perfect compromise between truth and romance.
Through the tube stage output, I could get a little more romance by hooking up the T88-A to one of my several single-ended amps. The T88-A puts out 2.3 V in single ended mode via RCA (the standard is 2.0 V). You really will notice that extra 0.3 V when using a low wattage amplifier. I found the T88-A mated well with my Harbeth Compact 7s and the Super HL5 Plus I have on review for 6moons.
After listening on and off for several weeks through nothing but the tubed output, I finally switched to the solid state output a couple weeks ago. Tube snob fool that I am! As much as I loved the T88-A’s tubed output, I preferred the solid state output. I found it to generate a meatier, warmer, thicker, more tonally dense flavour, which is the type of sound I prefer. It really was like switching to a new machine. There was more thrust, a more propulsive feel to acoustic instruments. Overtones seemed fully fleshed out. The Fender Rhodes of Marc Cary seemed more nuanced, wavier, spacier. This can only be considered a wonderful thing–you are getting two CD players for the price of one–and possibly three, since I did not listen via balanced XLR output. Through the solid state outputs, I found the sound more engaging, smoother even. True it was not up there with the Accuphase DC-37 DAC I have on loan (five times more expensive) but it was similar–dark, rich, fuller sounding. Suave, yes, but one need not be rico to drink up.
On top, literally and figuratively, the magnificent Accuphase DC-37. The best DAC to grace my house. Via solid state output mode, the Audio Space T88-A provides more than a taste of the Accuphase. With the tubed output, the Audio Space T88-A turned the Harbeth Super HL5 Plus into a planar-like imaging machine.
At $1,840 the Audio Space T88-A competes with far more expensive gear. In solid state output mode it reminds me a bit of a $5,500 Resonessence Labs Mirus I had in the house for a few weeks on review. It has that richness, smoothness and fluidity that vinyl lovers seek. But it gives up nothing in the detail department: on Agnes Obel’s haunting track “Riverside” (CD: Philharmonics) I can readily discern the various vocal tracks. With my other CD players and DACs, ranging in price from $450 to $2,500, I have to strain to hear the same thing.
The sticker price of the Audio Space T88-A is one-fifth that of the Accuphase DC-37 but for standard resolution redbook fare the T88-A is four-fifths as good. The Accuphase wins with its total absence of grain, its druggingly delicious fluidity, its sheer musicality, its ability to make you forget you are listening to 0s and 1s. (The Accuphase is also a DSD-capable DAC and in that sense obviously the T88-A cannot compare or compete). I could happily use the T88-A as my reference CD player. It’s a versatile instrument with at least two and possibly three sonic flavours. Highly recommended.
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