Denon DCD-A110 SACD Player and PMA-A110 Integrated Amplifier Review

Posted on 21st May, 2021

Denon DCD-A110 SACD Player and PMA-A110 Integrated Amplifier Review

Jimmy Hughes celebrates a prestigious new Anniversary edition silver disc spinner and amplifier combination…

Denon

DCD-A110 SACD Player

PMA-A110 Integrated Amplifier

US$3,199 RRP, $US3,599 RRP respectively

There’s nothing minimalist about Denon’s DCD-A110 and PMA-A110 Anniversary models. Unashamedly retro, they sport style and heft redolent of Japanese high end from the nineteen-eighties. They have been designed to celebrate the company’s 110th anniversary – Nippon Denki Onkyō Kabushikigaisha produced its first horn gramophone in 1910, no less.

This dynamic duo is an impressive statement, offering handsome styling, battleship build quality and excellent specifications. The gunmetal grey finish is very attractive, and that slight curve near the top of the front panel is a classy touch, as is the laser-etched logo on the lower right. The knobs and buttons have a silky but solid feel, while the volume control is smooth and nicely damped.

While outwardly, there’s a superficial resemblance to Denon’s existing DCD-2500NE and PMA-2500NE, the Anniversary models are different internally, with many upgrades, revisions and improvements. Indeed they have more in common with the high-end DCD-SX-1 and PMA-SX-1 SACD player and amplifier. These expensive flagship items, made exclusively for the home market, are unavailable outside Japan. Some of the technology used in the latter duo finds its way into this pairing – the idea being to offer a taste of this extra performance at a much lower price. As proof of Denon’s confidence, all Anniversary models come with a five-year warranty.

UP CLOSE

Although Super Audio Compact Disc never really caught on in the wider world, many small classical labels support it vigorously, and it remains hugely popular in Japan. Most SACDs are dual-layer types, so can be played as regular CDs on conventional players. Blu-ray Pure Audio discs are not supported. Be warned, though, that with dual-layer SACDs, the DCD-A110 always chooses the CD layer by default. Multichannel playback of surround recordings is not possible, but you can access the front channel layer in two-channel stereo. The CD layer is user-selectable, allowing CD/SACD comparisons to be made.

When the DCD-A110 is partnered by a PMA-A110, you can listen via the player’s analogue outputs using its own internal DAC, or the DAC in the amplifier. These options should sound near-identical, but I formed a definite preference for the DAC in the amp, which can only be used when playing CDs. SACD uses the player’s internal DAC, and Ultra AL32 processing is disabled. As there’s no missing information, it’s not needed. Unlike some players, the DCD-A110 has no digital inputs, so you can’t use its DAC with other sources.

Delivering a claimed 80W RMS per channel (160W into 4 ohms), the PMA-A110 has a built-in DAC and MM/MC phono stage. It offers three unbalanced line inputs plus digital ins – coaxial, optical and USB – covering sampling rates up to 192kHz/24-bit, with 1.8MHz to 11.2MHz DSD via the USB. Bass and treble tone controls (+/- 8dB) and a left/right stereo balance pot are included, Source Direct allows these to be bypassed, while Analog Mode cuts power to the DAC so the amplifier can function with its digital circuits switched off for better sound quality.

Both feature Denon’s Ultra AL32 digital processing. This features four DACs and supports up to 24-bit, 192kHz PCM digital signals. Special algorithms create a smoother less-stepped waveform that Denon says is closer to that of the original analogue signal. CD’s 44.1kHz is upsampled to 1.4112MHz, as algorithms smooth the waveform to improve sound quality. By carefully restoring data lost during digital encoding for CD, Denon says the end result is a more finely detailed sound that has less noise.

The power amp is a dual-mono design with separate mains transformers for each channel. Preamp and digital circuits are housed in separate screened areas. Great care has been taken to keep signal paths short for best sound quality, Denon says. While the range of digital inputs is comprehensive, it’s disappointing not to have a balanced XLR line input. You get input sockets for an external preamp, allowing the PMA-A110 to be used as a power amp, but no preamp out. There are fixed line-level outputs for use with a recorder, and a single set of 4mm speaker binding posts.

THE LISTENING

I auditioned this pair after using the Cyrus i9-XR amplifier and its matching CDR-Xi CD player. The Denon components sounded noticeably brighter and more open, with extra presence and immediacy. The Cyrus combination gave a slightly darker tonal balance. While the solid fullness of the Cyrus components had been very satisfying, the extra brilliance and assertiveness of the Denon duo proved extremely engaging. A crisp sense of pace and forward motion ensured the music sounded lively and exciting.

Background vocals and backing instruments seemed clearer than usual. For example, with Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers, I came across a subtle shift of harmony in the violin line that I’d never noticed before – and was shocked! I mean, it’s a track I’d only listened to a zillion times before. Somehow, the Denon combination had made the backing strings a tad more audible than usual. So I heard a slight pitch variation usually obscured by all the other things going on. Remarkable.

While the DCD-A110 does a very good job with SACDs, its main talent is persuading normal CDs to sound more like hi-res formats. Playing the BIS hybrid SACD recording of Bartok’s ballet The Wooden Prince, the CD layer sounded almost as good as SACD. The latter added extra air and space, plus slightly greater depth and a tad more clarity and refinement. SACD was also more relaxed than CD, reproducing Bartok’s pungent, spiky music with less effort and strain. Yet while qualitative differences were there, they weren’t massive.

So I think the DCD-A110 makes CD sound better than it is. However, results from CD were slightly less impressive when the DCD-A110 was used via its internal DAC – giving a truer/fairer CD/SACD comparison – rather than the DAC in the PMA-A110. Denon says that its use of special capacitors – as found in the flagship DCD-SX-1/PMA-SX-1 – helps deliver a sound it calls “vivid and spacious”. While wary of advertising hype, maybe there’s something in this.

For example, with the DCD-A110 driving the DAC in the PMC-A110, the impression of depth and space was enhanced compared to the player’s internal DAC, making things sound slightly cleaner and better separated. As the DACs in both amp and player are identical, I was surprised to hear this difference. Possibly the amplifier DAC sounds better due to shorter analogue signal paths, and no interconnect cables? The amplifier’s DAC also works very well with other CD transports, so hopefully, you’ll find it upgrades your existing silver disc spinner.

Playing Handel’s Acis and Galatea with William Christie on an Erato CD, I was impressed by the space and ambience around voices and instruments. I’d previously judged this recording good but far from outstanding, so I was delighted to hear it sounding so detailed and transparent. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue had extra subtlety and depth. Bill Evans’ delicate piano chords on Blue in Green had more space around them with greater presence. You could readily sense the decay of each note; the piano cutting through more easily. Some of the sax solos sounded amazingly big in terms of projection.

The Denon duo produced a wide stereo soundstage, with solid placement of voices and instruments. Because the sound had such fine projection, stereo imaging seemed more vivid and dimensional than is sometimes the case with digital sources. The SACD layer felt slightly more holographic than CD, but not by a huge amount. The CD layer seemed a tad drier and less open. SACD certainly had something extra – it sounded more effortless and natural.

The PMA-A110’s built-in phono stage proved extremely able. Indeed, when I heard that previously unnoticed change of harmony during Unchained Melody, it was with vinyl and not CD. While CD could sometimes sound a tad hard tonally, LP always sounded sweet, open, and natural – just as it should!

Both machines run fairly warm, surprisingly so. There’s an auto power feature that switches the items off when they’re left unused for about half an hour, which you can disable if you prefer them to stay on. The disc transport in the DCD-A110 is virtually silent during operation. It reads most discs without skipping or jumping, but proved less capable and sure-footed than my Audiolab 8000CDT when playing ‘corrupted’ CDs that had suffered corrosion.

THE VERDICT

Overall, Denon’s DCD-A110 and PMA-A110 proved to a very rewarding combination. Sounding open, lively, clean and extremely engaging, the DCD-A110 delivered some of the best SACD sound I’ve heard – but its performance on CD really impressed me. Savvy design and care over small details ensure the PMA-A110 delivers excellent results. Although not massively powerful on paper, subjectively, it gives the impression of having muscle to spare. Delivering fast crisp dynamics and plenty of drive, it really rocks. This combo isn’t cheap but delivers a suitably expensive sound and is well worth hearing for yourself.

For more information visit Denon

James Michael Hughes's avatar

James Michael Hughes

An avid audiophile for many decades, Jimmy has been writing about hi-fi since 1980 in a host of British magazines, from What Hi-Fi to Hi-Fi Choice. Based in London, England, he’s one of the UK’s most prolific record and CD collectors – no streaming service can yet match his amazing music collection!

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