Last autumn Philips introduced four new CD players, rang ing from the budget—but reportedly very acceptable—model CD380 costing as little as £149 to their new flagship model Philips CD880 at around £500. Always on the lookout for what Europe can offer in the face of Japanese CD dominance, I have been using this top model for the last month alongside the house Sony CDP555ES which has become something of a reference of sorts until something better (it can't be much better!) appears over the horizon. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" has by now become firmly established as a proverb and it was certainly well to the fore in the minds of the Philips team when they planned this Philips CD880; so much so that one of my first moves was to look at the rear plate expecting to see the label "Made in Japan" (they could have had it made in their Marantz division) but no, it clearly says "Made in Belgium".

Unlike the majority of Philips audio products which rely heavily on the extensive use of plastics materials in their construction, the Philips CD880 is assembled on a heavy die-cast frame, with a thick steel baseplate on trendy 'drum' feet, a copper-plated steel rear panel and extruded black anodized aluminium control panel. It reverts to the original CDM1 metal-based mechanism, now in Mark II form, and in consequence the whole machine has taken on an air of substance and quality only let down by the thin undamped sheet-steel top cover. Even so it weighs in at over 10kg, some three times the weight of run-of-the-mill Philips models. The Far-Eastern flavouring is considerably reinforced when, on switching on, two rather pointless illuminated turquoise bars appear and by the large and thoroughly comprehensive fluorescent display panel; this clearly indicates everything one could wish to know about the chosen disc's contents and illustrates any decision one might wish to make about the way in which it is to be played. Other oriental touches embrace a full set of features such as Music Scan, Random order programming (of tracks, indexes or timing points up to 20), A to B repeat, Shuffle, Disc repeat, Copy pause, Skip and Twospeed search up or down. Also included is FTS (favourite track selection) a Philips original which enables the user to commit to the machine's non-volatile memory his or her choice of tracks from 135 discs at 675 points for automatic recognition and repetition at any time. On the spur of the moment I can't think of anything useful, apart perhaps from pitch variation, which the Philips CD880 will not do; clearly a lot of lessons have been learnt since the early Philips models. Most of the foregoing operations can also be accomplished via the hand-held infra-red remote control.

Although this is adequately labelled, the colours and typeface are badly chosen so that, in anything less than full room lighting, you will have to rely on memorizing the position of the buttons, all 31 of them— fortunately their grouping and shape helps. Two most important buttons are comparatively isolated and easily found; these provide an additional facility, the remote control of volume. Previous Philips machines with this useful feature have been marred by the large notchy steps which their controls introduced. In this case a new digital control circuit is incorporated giving 64 steps of Id B each and its setting is summarized by a small bargraph on the fluorescent display. Two sets of gold-plated output sockets are provided on the rear panel for fixed and variable outputs and it is as well to remember that, with the volume set at maximum, the signal voltage at the variable sockets is roughly twice that normalized at the fixed outputs---3-75 Volts as against 1-95 Volts on my sample. Fortunately the volume setting is also held by the non-volatile memory so that, when the machine is switched on, the output level is automatically set to where you last left it. Other connections are provided at the rear for coupling to Philips system remote controls and there are switched digital outputs, both coaxial and optical. A two-metre fixed mains lead and a rear panel fuse are fitted.

Internally the Philips CD880 is laid out in familiar style; the drawer loading mechanism on the left side in front of the single power transformer which has three secondary windings providing separate supplies for the servo, digital and analogue sections. The rectifiers, capacitors and regulating circuits are on a separate printed circuit board adjacent. The disc mechanism is also an advance on previous models, the loading drawer moving smoothly and comparatively quietly, although still not quite the equal of the fast silent glide of the Sony models; however in the playing conditions silence is complete unless you choose to put your ear in close proximity to the case.

I was surprised to find that in so recent a machine the tray had no provision for the 3-inch single disc so an adaptor would be required, but as this capability is known to exist in their cheaper machines, perhaps my early sample was ahead of the game. The Philips swinging arm laser assembly has been further refined and its action speeded up to compete with the one-second track access achieved elsewhere. At no time have I detected any jumps, skips, read-out errors or other lost information whilst using this machine. There is a printed circuit panel carrying all the control push switches and indicator connections but all the major components are on one large, double-sided pcb which occupies all the right-hand side of the internal space. There is evidence here of considerable care in the choice of components, particularly around the TDA1541 digital-to-analogue convertor chip and many Cerafine capacitors are to be seen both here and around the digital volume circuit board. As with all the latest Philips models, l6-bit 4-times oversampling is the order of the day and here they claim to have selected both the digital filter and the DAC chip for top specification.

Both the keypad on the machine and the remote control adopt the standard 1 to 9 plus 0 telephone layout but the fluorescent display has a 5/4 calendar format; the keys have a one second 'dwell' to permit the transmission of a second digit for double figure tracks up to 99. The remaining buttons are clearly labelled and, in conjunction with the displayed information, make this an easy machine to use and one is soon on good terms with it. A further rather unusual feature is the provision of a separate internal headphone amplifier together with its own front-panel volume control. Here Philips have pitched the source impedance at 150 Ohms, a rather clever choice which optimizes the performance and averages the sound pressure levels when using headphones of varying impedance between say 30 and 600 Ohms, although an even wider range can be used at some loss of power transfer.

Performance
Measurements made showed that the Philips CD880 specification can be taken as accurate and in fact, as published, it is not particularly demanding. Philips obviously believe it is not worth joining the numbers game in order to produce figures which have little relation to practical conditions. For example many machines show a 10dB better signal-to-noise ratio but at 103dB who cares? (It actually measured 106dB.) Similarly the channel separation measurement is in fact set by this noise in the down channel rather than any coupling between them. There were indications of lost very low level signals, the — 90dB computer-generated lk Hz tone from the test disc being barely recognizable, both audibly (when suitably 'blown up') and visibly on the oscilloscope; dithered signals however would fare better than this, and in any case little importance can be attached to this observation in terms of music. And as music is what it is all about, let us turn now to the listening tests.

I suppose the best recommendation is that the Philips CD880 has been in constant use since its arrival; right from the start it was obvious that it set a very high standard in a completely unspectacular way by-passing all my usual test discs satisfactorily; a selection chosen to identify quickly any obvious deficiencies or inaccuracies in reproduction. It is, in my opinion, the best-sounding Philips machine so far and, if one looks for differences between it and the chosen reference, then it illustrates an interesting and never really explained phenomenon which I call the A B A effect. Briefly, going from the reference A to the test machine B, shows little change, but reverting to A after an interval is more revealing. On this basis I would say that there is a trace of veiling apparent in the Philips sound, even if it is only from a very thin gauze. There is also a slightly woolly character to the lower middle and bass which becomes marginally less definite and compartmented. The overall effect is of a rather well-filled and slightly-warmed response. The recent rather lush recital disc of Wagnerian operatic scenes with Jessye Norman, Klaus Tennstedt and the LPO in EMI's Abbey Road studio shows this up well (EMI CD CDC7 49759-2, 11/88). On the whole, focus, separation and sense of depth are well maintained and it is unlikely that anyone without the advantage of instantaneous comparison would ever drop on to either of the areas I have questioned; if they did they might well prefer the Philips.

Although lacking some of the constructional solidity of the better Japanese machines, this Philips CD880 is not deficient in facilities or sound quality and comes complete with fibre optics coupling lead and a superior set of phono-to-phono leads for the more usual connection. At £499 in the shops it represents good if not exceptional value for money.