In Eugene, Oregon, where I live, there used to be a mom-and-pop electronics store downtown, near the bus station and public library. It was the kind of place you went to pick up a pair of old Advent or Infinity speakers, a new stylus for your vintage record changer, a used CD or DVD player, or basic lamp cord to wire up your living-room stereo -- everything you needed for a cheap but good system was there. It was called Thompson Electronics, and I guess it had been there since the 1960s, occupying a storefront kitty-corner to the St. Vincent de Paul, where I’d sometimes scrounge for used LPs. Making only one downtown stop, I could get mounting screws for a phono cartridge and a new old record.
At Thompson’s, two long walls were loaded with used gear: the north end was electronics and turntables, the south was all speakers. At the far west end was a glass counter and, behind it, the door to a mysterious back room where I supposed a tech, maybe the family savant, worked on refurbishing and repairing old gear. The ever-affable counter guy was tall and rangy, with thinning blond hair, always dressed in a white shirt and gabardine pants. When I needed a tiny nut for a cartridge screw, he’d rummage around in a plastic tackle box under the counter until he found one that fit. When I asked how much, he’d just wave me off. “Next time!”
Once, years ago, I went to Thompson’s to buy RCA patch cords or ask about getting some old speakers refoamed. Right away, I saw something distinctive on the middle shelf along the north wall: a vintage stereo integrated amplifier in a case of light brown wood with a gleaming faceplate of silky champagne gold, on it an impressive array of knobs of various sizes. I wondered what all those controls were for. On closer inspection, I saw a Stereo/Mono switch, a Balance control, knobs for Left/Right Bass and Treble boost or cut, and a five-position input selector. The faceplate had squared-off ledges at top and bottom, and a long, horizontal, scooped-out half-oval of guttering. Finely and almost imperceptibly silkscreened along the bottom ledge were the words “lux amplifier.” This was the legendary SQ-38D, the vacuum-tube integrated amplifier that likely cinched Luxman’s reputation for quality hi-fi.
The rangy counterman told me it belonged to the store’s owner, Mr. Thompson himself. “I can’t believe he’s willing to part with it. It’s such a classic.”
For some reason I resisted the urge to buy that SQ-38D, but it’s stuck in my mind all these years. Now, I’ve just had a second chance, in a way. Luxman recently released the D-380 CD player ($5495 USD), a stylish model whose classic looks -- that familiar and distinctive wooden case -- hark back to the glory days of this tradition. It also has solid-state and tubed output, selectable by the user, and a 32-bit DAC.
Background and development
In an exchange of e-mails, representatives of Luxman told me that the D-380 CD player is the companion model to their new LX-380 integrated amplifier, matching its appearance in such details as the outer wooden box and aluminum faceplate -- a throwback to Luxman’s 38-series components of the 1960s, of which the SQ-38D was the first, in 1964. The D-380 also harks back to that series’ sonic flexibility, featuring the ability to fine-tune its sound on the fly while playing a CD by selecting tubed or solid-state output with the flip of a switch on the front panel. The solid-state output stage connects directly to the DAC chip, while the tubed output uses a single ECC82 triode tube, audio-grade film capacitors, and a dedicated output transformer. Luxman claims that each output stage has its own distinctive sound.
A lot of attention was paid to the choice of DAC chipset. After extensive listening tests, Luxman chose Texas Instruments’ 32-bit PCM5102A because it supports 192kHz processing and includes a high-grade buffer amp. It also has an embedded digital filter that permits the selection of other tonal qualities on the fly. Filter 1 is the normal finite impulse response (FIR) type, Filter 2 a low-latency infinite impulse response (IIR). For us laymen, this just means they sound different.
The D-380 uses an integrated circuit to reduce jitter -- audible distortion caused by fluctuations on the time axis during the digital-to-analog conversion process. There’s also a new, custom, low-height, high-sound-quality capacitor that was developed to preserve finer sonic details. The D-380’s internal wiring is of oxygen-free copper, shielded and spirally wrapped on each core, to further enhance microdetail.
Description and setup
The Luxman D-380 arrived double boxed, supported within by blocks of polystyrene. Inside were the stock power cord, sheets on safety cautions, and a 32-page owner’s manual that capably explained setup and operation, its text and illustrations easy to follow. I lifted out the player, removed its protective cloth sock and thin paper wrap, then paused a moment to admire the rich, tasteful brown of its wooden case and the soft, silver gleam of its aluminum faceplate.
I slid the D-380 onto the second shelf of the Box Furniture console in my living room, just below my Viva Solista integrated amplifier. The D-380’s dimensions are fairly standard at 17.3”W x 6.6”H x 11.25”D; it weighs 23.8 pounds. Its round, metal-wrapped feet, each about the circumference of a quarter, have a smooth, only slightly compliant material on the undersurface that made it easy to slide the player across the wooden shelf. The D-380’s appearance and physical presence are gentle, subtle, luxurious.
The layout of the faceplate is simple, functional, and attractive. A bold, horizontal groove runs the width of the faceplate, about one-fourth of the way down. Above the groove are, at far left, an on/off button labeled Operation; to its right are Luxman’s name and the player’s model number. Farther to the right is a large indicator light that flashes on warmup, then is surrounded by a glowing amber ring during operation; at far right is the sensor for the infrared remote control.
Below the groove, from left to right, are the disc tray, its Open/Close button, and a handsome Lucite display. The D-380’s screen is backlit with orange-amber characters that clearly display the track number and progress -- those who are nearsighted or have other vision problems can increase the size of these characters as much as fourfold by using a button on the remote control. When you select tubed output, a window at the far left of the display prominently reveals the ECC82 tube lying elegantly on its side, its filaments glowing glorious amber under the dark sheen of the Lucite. Finally, below the display are the toggle switch for selecting Vacuum Tube or Solid State Output and the usual suite of buttons governing disc operation: Play, Pause, Stop, and Previous and Next track. Delicately incised in the bottom-right corner of the faceplate is the Luxman logo. The wooden case extends all the way to the back, framing the D-380’s rear panel as neatly and attractively as it does the front. The entire look exudes sophistication.
That rear panel is relatively empty: At left is a pair of single-ended L/R analog outputs (RCA), and below them the digital outputs, on single coaxial (RCA) and optical (TosLink) jacks. There are no balanced connections. Round plastic covers are provided for the analog and digital outs to keep the connections free of dust during shipping or when not in use. On the right is the IEC power inlet, into which I plugged a Zu Cable Mission power cord rather than Luxman’s stock cord.
The D-380’s beefy remote control (batteries included) is about the width of an iPhone and almost twice its length. It has a case of silvery aluminum, and pushbuttons for all functions other than Operation and the Vacuum Tube/Solid State toggle. The remote is the only way to choose between the D-380’s FIR and IIR filters, enlarge the display characters, or select random or repeat play.
I plugged a pair of Zu Mission interconnects (RCA) into the D-380’s analog outs and their other ends into the VAC Standard preamplifier sitting beside the Luxman. I then spent a few minutes familiarizing myself with all controls on the faceplate and remote, turned the player on, selected Solid State Output, and fiddled with the disc-playing functions (including repeat and random play). Each time I switched between filters, the player made a soft, delayed click. When I selected a specific track, the D-380 took about three seconds to execute the command. This delay took some getting used to -- at first I thought the player or the remote was faulty -- but I soon got the hang of it.
Luxman recommends at least 50 hours of run-in time for the D-380, but its solid-state output sounded good right off the bat. Burning in the tubed output stage did take all of 50 hours, however -- its sound was a bit wonky at first, then it settled in nicely. Switching between solid-state and tubed output and between Filters 1 and 2, I gravitated to tubed and Filter 2. This combo sounded more organic, with slightly better bass. Filter 1 seemed leaner and more detailed, with a touch more top-end extension and clarity, but also tended toward sibilance with some music. But I heard less difference between the tubed and solid-state outputs than between Filters 1 and 2 -- both sounded, for the most part, rich and involving.
The first recording I took notes on was the title track of Paquito D’Rivera’s Song for Maura (CD, Paquito SSC 4554), a somewhat languid and enthralling ballad. D’Rivera’s clarinet sounded rich, woody, and perfectly clear throughout, ranging far across its upper and lower registers, sometimes with bite, other times with an aching, bluesy sweetness. It was a special treat when it was accompanied by Fabio Torres’s piano. Paulo Paulelli’s double bass was tight and tuneful, and there was great touch and flow to the ensemble, which hit all its cues on time and painted an exquisite soundscape full of clear tonal colors and a diversity of well-defined textures. Torres’s solo was soulful and highly articulate, with pianissimo trills and light left-hand chording. And when the pace shifted and the band started to swing, the emotional tone morphed too, evolving from an enchanting ballad to a thrilling waltz. What I heard demonstrated the D-380’s precision of timing, its tonal dexterity, and its abilities to present a broad, stable soundstage, a fairly wide dynamic range, and especially good tonal purity and precision.
Hilary Hahn’s interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto No.2, BWV 1042, with Jeffrey Kahane leading the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (CD, Deutsche Grammophon B0000986-02), was a more challenging test of the D-380’s ability to reproduce complex digital information as music. In the first movement, Allegro, I heard a sharp, piquant violin solo against a rich, intricate string accompaniment and gutsy harpsichord. There were superb contrasts of tone among the solo violin, orchestral strings, and harpsichord, their rich harmonics never sounding glossy, smeared, or electronic. Details were so wondrous, I could hear the vibrating wood of Hahn’s violin in its midrange and felt its sweet bite at the top of its range. I could also hear in Hahn’s solos that her individual notes evolved, morphed, fattened, then thinned into a penetrating vibrato. Dynamic contrasts were impressive as the full chamber orchestra dropped away for quieter solo passages, the harpsichord digging deep in repeated figures as Hahn drew out her phrasing in the conclusion of the movement, displaying her instrument’s great warmth and mordancy of sound. But I kept wondering about the music’s dynamism and pulse -- the sound didn’t extend out into the room during orchestral swells, though the harpsichord had real thump.
By contrast, “Why,” from Annie Lennox’s Diva (CD, Arista 07822-18704-2), opened with a lavish-sounding beat doubled on bass and kickdrum, fat and just lightly impactful, with an appropriate foundational pulse that I could feel in the flesh and bones of my lower body. There were tasty tambourine shakes and syncopated bongos along the edges of the beat and a tinkling keyboard instrument that sounded like an electronic glockenspiel. I could hear the deft brushwork on the snare drum as a thick, hauntingly repeated line was plucked on an Irish harp. Lennox’s voice was dry, yet emotionally expressive and powerfully plaintive. This is a huge, bravura production number -- the phrase symphonic rock came to mind -- but Lennox’s voice cut through the rich, surrounding tapestry of instrumental sound, with the subtle yet affecting echo effects of occasional electronic reverberation. Finally, her coda of hip-hop lyrics came urgently, and her whispered declaration at tune’s end was a powerful emotional surprise. The music’s spirit suffused and subsumed all audiophilic observations.
I flat loved the way the D-380 sounded with a longtime favorite CD of mine that was my introduction to the pleasures of hearing a trained operatic voice: mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux’s Arias for Farinelli, with René Jacobs conducting the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin (CD, Harmonia Mundi 901778). Genaux sounded uniformly rich and smooth in tone, the D-380 tracing with consummate ease the subtlest nuances of her lines, her challenging rapid vibrato, her high trills. The astonishing dynamic swings of her singing, full of beautiful roulades and pulsing vibrato, were excellent, the image of her voice sailing like a translucent comet over the pitching swells of the period-instrument orchestra. There was no raggedness, no trace of glare in the sounds of voice or strings.
My living-room CD player is an Ayon CD-1, designed in Austria and built in China. When last available, some 11 years ago, it cost $4299 -- $1196 less than the Luxman D-380. I’ve loved the Ayon’s big, bold sound for the kind of listening I usually do in my living room, which is focused on relaxation, casual enjoyment, and entertaining. Though the Ayon’s looks -- a black-anodized case of high-grade, 8mm-thick brushed aluminum with rounded shoulders and a top-loading disc drive -- are in stark contrast with the Luxman’s, the two players share many technical similarities. The maximum resolution of which the Ayon’s DAC chip is capable, 24-bit/192Hz, is the same as the Luxman’s, though the Ayon uses a Monarchy Audio M24 DAC and Sony’s KSS-213Q transport. The Ayon’s output is exclusively tubed, through pairs of 6H30 and 6922 tubes from Electro-Harmonix. Via its tubed output, the Luxman player’s signal/noise ratio is comparable, at 105dB, to the Ayon’s 108dB. And like the Luxman, the Ayon’s circuits are enhanced with boutique capacitors (made by Solen and Mundorf) that are arguably comparable in quality to the Luxman’s proprietary caps. But the most significant difference between these players is found in the Ayon’s specifications: its output level is a whopping 5V at 30 ohms output impedance in unbalanced (RCA) mode, 12V at 170 ohms in balanced (XLR). The Luxman D-380’s outputs are far lower: 2.4V from its tubed stage, 2.1V from solid state, both at 300 ohms. The Ayon’s dimmable display shows only the track number and progress, and can’t be enlarged, or read from very far away. And the Ayon’s On/Off rocker is tucked under its case at front left, like a devilish little secret.
Right off, with Annie Lennox’s “Why,” I felt the music was livelier through the Ayon CD-1, with better images and more air around instruments. The soundfield was extremely rich and pulsed organically around Lennox’s plaintive singing. Her voice sounded a touch nasal through the Ayon, yet starkly urgent in the hip-hop rhymes, until the track ends in her breathy whispers. Overall, the Ayon rocked harder than the Luxman.
This contrast continued through Hilary Hahn’s recording of the first movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto No.2. As with the Luxman, the orchestral sound was fine and mighty and full, but with a bit more thump and momentum in crescendos. Dynamic contrasts had great swing and flow, from tutti passages to fine string work in more delicate, pp passages. With this baroque music as with rock, the Ayon had a wondrously robust sound -- strings were very upfront and present, with fine warmth and a touch of bite. The sound of Hahn’s violin was expressive and spritely, with delicious harmonics and superb textural contrasts between it and the orchestral strings. Yet I also felt that the top notes shaded into some hashiness and gloss, with a slight electronic cast, this especially evident in orchestral tutti and Hahn’s highest notes. The Luxman, by contrast, may have at first sounded somewhat less impressive, but its sound was far sweeter and more nuanced, full of inner details, and ultimately more organic. I thought the Ayon CD-1 might be better for a party, the Luxman D-380 better for more private, serious listening. Though powerful, the Ayon’s sound isn’t as refined as the Luxman’s. Here, the Luxman sounded far more natural, the Ayon more electronic.
The same held true with Paquito D’Rivera’s “Song for Maura.” The Ayon CD-1 produced great depth and warmth of sound -- D’Rivera’s clarinet was expressive, the lyrical nuances of his playing very evident. His instrument was definitely forward on the soundstage, the band arranged behind and around it. Fabio Torres comped with precisely timed chords that bloomed in rich harmonics in the air of my living room. But the overall sound tended to get overly saturated and opaque at times, with too-emphatic dynamics in the presence range. By contrast, I felt the Luxman’s sound was finely balanced throughout the audioband. The Ayon’s sound is more immediately affecting; the Luxman’s is more nuanced, with no risk of listening fatigue.
These qualities were especially evident with strong female voices. The sound of Vivica Genaux’s Arias for Farinelli had a definite electronic cast through the Ayon, her mezzo-soprano sounding tinny and overdriven at times, thin, with an unfortunately amusical shadow of slight chalkiness and ringing. Her rapid trills grated, and her top notes -- gorgeous through the Luxman -- now sounded ragged. The challenge of reproducing the sound of a trained operatic voice demonstrated that the Luxman was easily the more sophisticated player. The Ayon has the fatter, ostensibly more dynamic sound of a Tri-Planar tonearm; the Luxman’s sound was more evenhanded, more balanced throughout the audioband, with greater textural detail like an arm from Graham Engineering.
Luxman has done a lot to make the D-380 CD player easy to use, sound good, and look even better. This gem of a component is well suited to anyone interested in getting the most from a CD collection with minimal fuss and a bit of flexibility in use and settings to adjust its sound quality. A luxurious-looking component for anyone who appreciates the design of classic audio gear, it should look good anywhere -- on a top, a bottom, or inner shelf.
More important, its refined, well-balanced sound is suitable for a wide variety of musical genres, and its intelligently designed display and useful remote control make it intuitive to operate. Its price, though high, is still a great value for the extraordinary level of its performance.
I’d love to hold on to the Luxman D-380 -- its looks and functionality easily fit my living-room system, and its sound clearly bests what I have now. With the D-380, Luxman celebrates one of the greatest traditions in audio electronics with the finest dedicated CD player I’ve ever had in my system.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Speakers -- Reference 3A L’Integrale
- Subwoofer -- REL R-305
- Integrated amplifier -- Viva Solista (run direct)
- Preamplifier -- VAC Standard
- CD player -- Ayon CD-1
- Speaker cables -- Zu Libtec with Libtec jumpers
- Interconnects -- Atlas Questor (RCA), Zu Mission (RCA)
- Power cords -- Cardas Golden Reference, Harmonix X-DC Studio Master, Zu Mission
- Audio rack -- Box Furniture
- Accessories -- Isoclean 105F power strip with Cardas Golden Reference power cord, Furutech GTX-D NCF(R) Ultimate AC duplex receptacle, Oyaide R-1 duplex receptacle
Luxman D-380 CD Player
Price: $5495 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Luxman America Inc.
27 Kent Street, Suite 105A
Ballston Spa, NY 12020