EAR Acute Classic

Copyright 2018 © Troels Gravesen

Are CDs a dying format? Try google "cd dying format" and you'll find lots of discussions and statistics surprisingly showing that CDs are still an attractive business. People like to collect stuff. We like tangible things. There are many reasons, which I won't dig into this here.
Despite being a vinyl addict, I have quite some CDs and I use CDs a lot! It's a fast and convenient way of playing music - and it's robust. It's my #1 workshop tool for testing loudspeakers. It's faster than setting up a computer and a DAC. Maybe not much, but convenience wins. And for some reason, I think CDs sound a little better compared to playing the same ripped tracks from my computer. People often bring their 13" macs and I'm seldom impressed by what I hear from their musical libraries.
I've been more than satisfied with my two modified Shanling CD players (see under Gear), but if this EAR product could bring me even a tiny bit closer to the music, I'd be willing to pay a significant amount of money for it. Thus, the EAR Acute Classic was purchased. I've come to like the products from EAR and like my two pre-amplifiers, this CD player is stuffed with transformers - and tubes. The Acute tubed output stage has enough gain to run a power-amplifier, thus an option for a very simple set-up. Using an XLR splitter it can even run my EAR-861/GlowMaster KT88 power amplifiers and a pair of Hypex modules.
I hate the term "burn-in", being such a misused concept. First and foremost the concept is used extensively by manufacturers to getting customers used to a product they're not really happy with. "Just wait until in fully burned in". Sometimes as much as 300 hours are recommended! Someone told his speaker cables took 300 hours before fully "opening up". I'd say: Get a life!
What goes on in our brains is a key player in the concept of burn-in. We may set our eyes on product A and compare it to product B, but knowledge is a terrible thing, as we're already biased in our perception of what is hitting our ears - and we can easily fool ourselves to like or dislike something based on knowledge. Many people listen to speakers with their eyes rather than their ears. If it looks good - it sounds good. If all speakers at the show in Munich was hidden behind acoustically transparent curtains, I'm sure we'd get some different show reports.
Now, the Acute has a volume control, which makes A-B comparison quite easy as two players can easily be tuned to exactly the same SPL. Starting the CDs at the same and switching between the two is easy and quickly tells the difference in sound. Right out of the box - still cold from 24 hours in an UPS van/storage - it really didn't impress me. It sounded quite the same as my modified Shanling T80 player. So, I left it on for a couple of days before starting some serious testing. I brought my computer, installed the driver, and started listening to some 24/192 files - and that certainly came out well. At least a DAC I can live with - the few times I actually use it.
And so did CDs. "Vinyl quality" as stated on EAR website? Not at all. Sometimes it's better than vinyl. No noise. There are some really bad CDs and there are some really good CDs - as is very much the case for vinyl. But "vinyl quality"  is meant to break down your last resistance towards buying a seriously expensive CD player at a time when people say it's going extinct. The thing is that the Acute has a treble smoothness my other players have not - and this was really what I was after. The bass and midrange is as good as the CD allows. When 16 bit is what it's going to be, then this player helps me get what I want. Have I gotten "used to" the sound of the Acute after a couple of weeks? Has my brain fooled me to believe it's better than what I had before? A victim of self-delusion? Hmm... maybe all of that, but at the end of the day, if a product makes you happy, then who can tell you're wrong?

Having had the Acute Classic now for a couple of months, the problem is that I keep moving it back and forth from the living room to the workshop. It just does things better than my Shanling CD player. Buy another one or the Acute 4/DAC4? Hmm... tough decisions. The "4" combo is serious money.

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Looking at the interior, this product seems very well planned and executed, contrary to some other products from EAR. No "ups, we need an extra wire here", "ups, these tubes are too tall to fit the cage", "ups, we have a spelling error on these top plates, but we ordered 1000 pcs...".