Luxman D-03X CD Player Review
Rafael Todes samples a Japanese silver disc spinner that’s high-end in every way, except its price…
D-03X Compact Disc Player
Luxman Corporation is a high-end Japanese brand with a fascinating history. Founded way back in 1925 by two brothers, the company effectively became the radio equipment department of the Kinsuido Picture Frame Store in Osaka, importing radio equipment from the US and Europe. It swiftly vertically integrated to produce the parts for these radios, transformers and switches, and thus began its long and illustrious hi-fi history.
Warp forward to the nineteen seventies, and the company had become one of Japan’s leading tube amplifier specialists, renowned for making products with a sweet, warm sound. This would have been a redoubtable achievement had this not been during the ‘thermionic Dark Ages’ – an era when practically everyone wanted a new-fangled solid-state amplifier with its apparently superior measured performance and higher output power.
Despite giving the hi-fi world some legendary products, Luxman was duly sold to consumer electronics specialist Alpine, and this arguably proved a tricky fit. Then in 2009, the company was acquired by Taiwan-based IAG, which owns a portfolio of vintage British brands such as Quad and Wharfedale. Here, one might say, the company is more at home – being better able to express its own unique identity.
IAG ownership has given Luxman the space to be its quirky audiophile self – as evidenced by the £3,500 D-03X CD player you see here which was announced in April. It could almost be an eighties throwback in its styling and ergonomics because it has the look and feel of an old school high-end Japanese silver disc spinner from that period. Yet still, as we’ll see, there’s a touch of the modern about it too – albeit very well hidden…
Measuring 440x133x410mm, the D-03X is heavy at 13.2kg and exudes a feeling of high-end quality; there’s a box chassis frame, and the base is made from 8mm aluminium rather than the usual steel pressing, for example. The thick alloy fascia has large and practical buttons, perhaps – dare I say it – designed for the more ‘mature’ user. It’s incredibly easy to operate, and you even have the option of zooming in on the display which for me with my eyesight is a godsend. The supplied remote also accesses all the necessary features and is encased in aluminium just as you’d expect from a high-end player – no fiddly smartphone apps here, thanks.
The modern feature that the D-03X conspicuously lacks is streaming functionality; the Luxman is an old school silver disc spinner – and that’s your lot. Well almost, because it does have digital inputs; it would be a shame to waste those Texas Instruments PCM1795 DAC chips inside, running in dual mono configuration. There’s also an Asahi Kasei AK4118AEQ digital audio transceiver chip, giving S/PDIF digital connectivity plus USB. The latter works up to 32-bit, 384kHz resolution in PCM plus DSD up to 11.2MHz – while the optical and coaxial inputs accept PCM up to 24/192. The Luxman will also play MQA CDs on its internal transport mechanism, or decode MQA over its USB, optical and coaxial inputs if you’re that way inclined.
This being a product from a company with a history of meticulous audiophile engineering, the D-03X has all the gratuitous circuit tweakery you could wish for. This includes internal wiring with proprietary Luxman OFC cable, the power supply has an Ol-core-type transformer with custom-designed capacitors, plus Schottky diodes for DC conversion efficiency in the CD section. Overall it feels a very nicely put together product with the air of a classic ‘Japanese battleship’ at not quite such a destructive price.
Hooked up to my reference system – comprising a pair of VAC Phi Monobloc power amplifiers, Townshend Allegri Ref preamplifier and a couple of B&W 802D3 loudspeakers – the D-03X acquitted itself very well. It’s an unashamedly luxurious and refined sounding machine, yet it would be wholly wrong for you to infer from this that it sounds boring.
For example, Sir George Solti conducting the Tannhäuser overture was a rounded and rather beautiful experience. It was all there – a sweet and mellifluous tonality that was a long way apart from so much modern digital fare. Mozart’s 22nd Piano Concerto with Barenboim conducting and directing the Berlin Philharmonic was the same; the delicacy of sound on those beautiful woodwind solos was clear to hear. It really caught the chamber-music like feel to the overture of the first movement, never sounding processed, digital and/or electronic.
Listening to Bernstein conducting Copland’s Appalachian Spring with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra – a recording made in the nineteen sixties, it showed great insight. This recording should sound dated – rather like looking through a vintage lens – and the Luxman caught this tonal patina perfectly. The classic Columbia sound is of course quite distinct, but the D-03X didn’t airbrush over it. It was an interesting contrast to my reference dCS DAC – which although technically brilliant – can shine too harsh a light on things, and the recording suddenly doesn’t seem to make sense. Not so here; there were clarity and precision, without any sense of things becoming too clinical.
Another key facet of this player is its excellent rhythmic snap; it serves up a musical performance that’s thoroughly engaging in a way you wouldn’t quite expect from a CD spinner at this price. With the Copland, the Luxman sounded like it had been born to play this music. The resulting performance was thoroughly engaging, and when the music danced with those tightly syncopated rhythms, the D-03X seemed to be smiling out at me. It’s often the case that the reverse happens with mid-to-high-end CD players and DACs; the better they get in a technical sense, the more they lose their lust for life, so to speak. There’s always the risk that more revealing music sources simply disclose the unpleasant truth about recordings, but this didn’t do that at all.
It’s fair to say that the Luxman is not a headbanger. It’s not the most impactful CD player or DAC I’ve heard, choosing not to push the dynamic range of a performance to the absolute maximum. It serves up a ‘fifth row back in the concert hall’ type of listening experience, rather than taking you up on stage and ramming your ear against the first violinist. Orchestras are presented well but don’t have the detailed holographic layout of my pricier Esoteric K-05 player or the dCS Bartók DAC. You’re not assaulted by the music, yet that’s not to say it’s not an enjoyable listen. Instead, you take your pleasures from the tonal smoothness and authenticity; piano tone, for example, has a really luxurious feel to it, like pure milk chocolate.
This machine delivers a really impressive performance via Compact Disc then, but how does its fare via its external digital inputs? Some modern jazz courtesy of Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue sounded rather special; played out from my MacBook Pro courtesy of Audirvana and feeding into the Luxman’s USB digital input, I was struck by how infectious the groove was – reminding me what an amazing sound source laptops can be. There was something in the tail of percussive notes that didn’t quite sound natural enough, but I’m really splitting hairs. Oh, the joys of digital mastering!
Finally, I couldn’t resist trying my own Esoteric K-05 as a digital transport feeding the Luxman via its S/PDIF DAC input – and the result proved really interesting. Playing Kraftwerk’s classic miniature electro symphony Computer Love, I found the newer D-03X’s digital converter sounded more luminous than the Esoteric, with an extra hint of vibrancy to the music. All credit to the newbie if it can better what was once a state-of-the-art high-end machine; it shows that in the digital world things are moving on apace.
Despite having a distinctive retro look and feel, this superbly constructed CD player has some thoroughly modern engineering inside, which works to great effect. Sonically, Luxman’s new D-03X presents itself in a seriously sophisticated way, offering an interesting and appealing listening experience whatever music you care to play. Ergonomically, it’s classically elegant, and unapologetically not aimed at twenty-five year olds who live their lives on their smartphones.
So if you’re after a user-experience that’s as refined as its sound, then this is a great choice. Best of all, it offers the experience of owning a cost-no-object Japanese flagship machine, without actually being one.
For more information, visit Luxman.
Gifted violinist Rafael is one quarter of the Allegri String Quartet, playing second fiddle. Once a member of the CBSO under Sir Simon Rattle, he now teaches at London’s Junior Royal Academy. A long-time audiophile, he’s still on a quest for the perfect sound.
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