Luxman D 38u (£2395)

A CD player with a valve displayed in the front panel: Luxman references its own past for the D-38u, a machine that oozes retro, right down to its chunky wooden sleeve

Compact Disc was only launched in 1982/3, which – though its demise is perhaps now in sight – doesn’t seem that long ago. Yet here is Luxman with a player that is decidedly two-channel-only, its digital outputs are limited to coaxial and Toslink optical, it arrives with a wooden case, and it features a design touch that refers directly to one of its ancestors. If that’s not retro, what is?
   But Luxman, cleverly, has never been shoehorned into a genre, having excelled in every area save speaker manufacture. Its amps have a cult following, as did the vacuum-hold-down turntables, and the company always delivered decent CD players. What made consumers sit up and take notice in the late 1980s, when the medium was still new-ish, was a range of hybrid components with valves that could be seen through the face-plate. The players in the series were the D-105u and D-107u, which found a niche amongst tube-ophiles who couldn’t afford a CAL Tempest II.
   No one laughed at this conceit, because Lux had a long tradition with valves. Its small stereo power amplifiers were appealing in the way of Dynaco’s Stereo 70, and it was part of a group of Japanese companies – think Accuphase, Stax, etc – who were respected for their high-end integrity and credibility. Now, with Luxman firmly ‘reborn’, and with its valve amplification securely a part of the current tube community, the return of the ’105, or a variation thereof, seems obvious.

Only it isn’t quite the same. Aside from a more up-to-date chip in place of the ’105’s late-1980s 16-bit DAC, the new unit doesn’t aspire to the cleverness of its granddaddy. It’s less ambitious in most ways, shorn as it is of features like a track fade-in-fade-out facility to aid tape copiers (shock horror!), a numeric keypad and other niceties – not the least being a pre-warm-up control on the panel for the D-105u’s two 6CG7s. Which gives us a clue to the major difference.
   In the new player, the ECC82/12AU7 acts as a tube buffer, not as a complete analogue output stage. In this respect, it’s reminiscent of the curious Musical Fidelity X-10D, which allowed you to add ‘valve sound’ after the fact to line-level devices. As Paul Miller described the presence of D-38u’s valve, ‘It serves no useful purpose than to add distortion over the top 40dB of the player’s dynamic range’. But, because it’s switchable from the fascia – the toggle bypasses it so you’re hearing the D-38u as a solid-state player with Class A output – you can decide if it adds euphonic colours or mere distortion. It is not to be regarded as a ‘proper’ tube-or-transistor option like that provided by the selectable outputs of the Musical Fidelity kW DM-25 DAC. It proves not as clear-cut as you might wish, for the effect varies in impact depending on the ancillaries: the cables, the system components and even the CDs played. Unfortunately, the tube/tranny switch is the one thing not duplicated on the remote control, so you have to go over to the unit to switch it in or out. When you switch to transistor on the Luxman, the valve switches off; switching back requires a few seconds to take effect, so A/B listening involves a minor delay.

Beyond this single nod – in spirit if not practice – to the D-105u, the Luxman D-38u Tube CD Player is a companion to the SQ-38u Tube Integrated Amplifier. One has to love the irony of a player designed to look like a component that pre-dates CD; but that was why the SQ-38u is so styled, and I am not one to argue with retro. If anything, it made me unfairly pre-disposed towards liking it, so I’m admitting this up front… Visible tube and vintage styling aside, the D-38u is a serious-enough design to warrant interest. Physically, its chassis consists of a 16mm thick MDF case with wood veneer, and an 8mm aluminium front panel. It is a CD-only device rather than an SACD player like many of its stable-mates, its transport mounted on a 15mm aluminium base plate for added stability. The transport feeds a 24-bit, 192kHz PCM1754 Burr-Brown DAC.
   Operationally, you have the choice between tube and solid-state output, 1/4in socket headphone output with volume control, a large display with a three-stage dimmer function, ‘power ring’ on/off indicator to match the other Luxman 38 Series components, full-function remote (bar the output selection) with wooden trim and, at the back, the choice of Toslink optical or RCA coaxial digital outputs.
   Only one aspect of operation marred the experience: the most sluggish tray action I can recall, with the tendency to close itself before the disc was in place.

I fed the Luxman into the Audio Research Reference 5 and Anniversary preamps, feeding the Quad II-eighty monoblocks driving Wilson Sophia 3s. For comparison purposes, I used a pair of two-box references: the Marantz CD-12/DA-12 and the Musical Fidelity kW system.
   Only a few tracks were needed to determine that the differences between the solid-state and tube operational modes were minimal – certainly they weren’t as pronounced as that of the two output stages of the kW-DM25 DAC. It did, however, take a bit of acclimatising, because the effect of the tube buffer had varying impact, despite the subtle nature of the change.
   Unlike the kW DAC, which I always prefer in valve-output mode, the Luxman is so music-dependent that I was grateful for the front panel switch to choose between tube and transistor. Currently going through a phase of listening to cover albums, I dug out the 1990s remastering of David Bowie’s Pin-Ups, which rewarded me with killer takes of 1960s classics. The percussion and piano on both ‘See Emily Play’ and ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone’ point out a slight textural change between the two operating modes.
   The solid-state output offered a crisper snare attack, and piano runs and tickles that ‘glistened’, while the tube option had a mild softening effect. The trouble is, it was less noticeable than changing interconnects. Where a repeatable difference exists – again, not necessarily qualitative – was the change in the textures of fuzz guitar. Writing about the quality of deliberate distortion and rasp seems like a foolhardy way of defining the nature of a CD player, but those whose ears are attuned to amplified guitar will notice that the emphasis of the fuzztone ‘zzzzz’ changes – buzzier with the solid-state and more like a hum with the tubes.

Thanks to HFN/RR reader Alfie Forcer, I picked up the astonishing Under Cover by Ozzy Osbourne, whose taste in music is diametrically opposed to his taste in wives. The opening fuzz salvo of ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ allowed me to repeat the above, confirming that the texture changes. Guitarists will appreciate this if they’re obsessed with the difference between makes of accessory boxes, or can detect a Vox amp from a Marshall from a Peavey at 100 metres and at 120dB.
   Ozzy drops the decibels for track 2, a near-acoustic, achingly-respectful take of ‘In My Life’ that allows you to savour the percussion, but with silky harmonies above, and a loping, sliding electric bass that suggested that the valve setting acts a bit like an LS3/5a: there’s a tiny lift in the upper bass, as well as a positional shift slightly in front of the line of the speakers.
   Neither setting seemed to affect the soundstage, which was consistently wide, truly panoramic, but a touch shallow compared to the aged Marantz. Still, it didn’t diminish the wash of sound – no, make that ‘a flood’ – when Ozzy covered my all-time favourite riff-rock classic, Mountain’s ‘Mississippi Queen’. With Mountain’s Leslie West hammering out the lead, and with the signature cow bell acting as metronome, the Luxman slipped from delicate to Jurassic without any qualms. But so thunderous is the track that the subtle changes from tube to tranny were masked. Either way, West’s guitar soared and sizzled, whether in full-fuzz mode or ear-piercing hyper-treble. And that’s all that matters, if it can inspire some unashamed air-guitar posturing.

Country music poses an entirely different tonal/ textural challenge to gut-crushing rock, Leon Russell’s homage to the genre, Hank Wilson’s Back! embracing the signature sounds to an almost satirical level. Snappy, redneck bass, trashy drum sound, whiny fiddling, staccato banjo, twangy guitars and his own, ultra-nasal vocal delivery – they’re all here. So well-recorded is this set from ’73, that the listener can zoom in on any one of the instruments and compare the airiness of acoustic guitar with the plangent drone of country-flavoured violin and the liquidity of pedal steel.
   ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ can turn any 20-stone-of-muscle, long-distance truck driver into a quivering mass of chick-lit torment. The Luxman places the instruments in an arc behind Russell, creating a honky-tonk set that’s so convincing you can almost taste the hickory-smoked ribs you washed down with a bottle of Pabst. The richness of the Marantz CD12/DA12 is most closely approached when in tube mode, but the solid-state setting better suits the piano. Try not picturing a pianist with sleeve garters and a cigar clenched between his teeth.
   Above it all, there’s Russell’s inimitable voice. Although his image is less pure country than Willie or Waylon, it’s impossible to resist the pathos of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. Via the D-38u, in either mode, the fluidity of the pedal steel and the luscious schmaltziness of the strings possessed a clarity and lightness of touch that reminded me of Theta’s best DACs, way back then.
   What the funk, I thought. This player is not genre-specific, moving from metal to cornpone with ease. Rod Stewart’s lavishly produced Soulbook, the remastered John Lennon catalogue, Ray Davies’ recent duets set – any variations in the sound due to the flicking of that switch could not disguise the fundamental nature of the Luxman: an elegant-sounding, if subdued player, designed as it should have been … to match a deliciously retro all-valve integrated.

You’re right to think that I love this player for all the wrong reasons. I adore the looks. I smile whenever I see a valve glow. If they’re the wrong reasons for adoring a hi-fi component, then shoot me.

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Originally published in the March 2011 issue