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Arcam Radia CD5

In Wim Wenders’ excellent film Perfect Day (which focuses on the life of a jovial toilet cleaner in Tokyo), a young woman picks up a cassette tape as if it’s an object of wonder, exclaiming “I really love the sound of these”. While it’s a poignant moment, personally I couldn’t disagree more. Having. grown up in the 70s, I know there is little to praise in the sound of a C60 tape, or very much else about the cassette format for that matter - except its portability.

When CD burst onto the market in 1982, sound quality skyrocketed. And it is testament to getting something right that, despite the plethora of streaming platforms, services and devices, CD (and of course vinyl) hangs on in there for reasons of quality, convenience, familiarity - and, no doubt a hefty dose of nostalgia. Though I doubt if anyone is really quite sure why the format remains such a compelling force for music fans. 

Which brings me to the latest CD player to market, part of the distinctively designed Radia range of components from Arcam. The Cambridgeshire-based brand is well versed in this digital medium, having launched the first totally UK-designed and -manufactured CD player nearly 40 years ago. 

When the Radia range was launched towards the end of last year, the immediate thought (even before listening to it) was that the somewhat safe designs that had become an Arcam standard had been booted into the long grass. Here was a new era of classy, slick modernity without any hint of flashness or snobbery. 

The profile is low: the CD5 is just 83mm tall. Its aluminium casing is finished in an attractive matt black with soft grey lettering, just the hint of a yellow circle around the largish standby button, and a slim LCD info panel which is far from glaring. At times, when the lighting is bright, this can be just a little too subtle, being difficult to see from any distance.

What you have with the Radia CD5 player is no gimmickry, no ‘extra’ features - just a plain CD player, and it’s all the more welcome for it. The only exception is the USB socket on the back that can accept a drive with your own music in a variety of formats – ACC, FLAC, and WAV are the most mainstream. 

A small array of buttons on the front provides control. To the left, one each for ‘stop’ and ‘eject’, the latter smoothly and quietly opening and closing the tray without fuss or judder. To the right there’s the usual ‘pause/play’ and ‘skip forwards/backwards’ - and that’s about it. The larger ‘standby’ button powers up the unit and the ‘auto power off’ feature comes into action if the CD5 sits idle for 20 minutes. 

The back panel is just as minimal, with a small selection of connections: analogue line in (which is likely to be the main choice) and digital coaxial if you want to stay in the digital domain. There’s also a digital optical connection, a power switch and the aforementioned USB (which is also used for software upgrades).

The player comes with a small remote control that performs fewer functions than it should - but in fairness, it’s geared towards being used as a full Radia system control.

Sound quality

Most of my music consumption these days is from my NAS drive or via a streaming service, and it is fair to say I am a tad reticent about returning to CD, having caught some slightly judgmental comments of the “why are you bringing the CDs back?” variety from certain people in the house…

But it turns out I love the experience, not just going through the ritual of deciding what to play, but because of the quality of the sound the Arcam delivers. From the get-go, everything that I load into the tray sounds terrific. There is a quality to the CD5 sound that is difficult to measure - it’s called ‘fun’. The music, irrespective of genre, sounds great - even dodgy old recordings of John Lee Hooker take on a liveliness and involvement that is a perfect demonstration of just how emotional music can be. Arcam has always been noted for its accuracy in reproduction, and the CD5 is no exception.

One of my favourite CDs from 2010 is a collaboration between Cuban and Malian musicians - and via the CD5 these chaps take on new life, with every pluck of the double bass string sounding fully rounded and finished before the ‘blonk’ of the balaphone joins in harmoniously. This is minimalist music perfectly and evocatively reproduced, making you want to reach for a cigar and a mojito…

At the other end of the scale is Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra tackling Beethoven’s massive choral work Missa Solemnis - it’s epic in every sense. The CD5 delivers a perfect, spine-tingling rendition of all 80 minutes of the event, from the plaintive soprano solos to the full force of the massed choir.

In truth, there is nothing in my collection that the CD5 turns its nose up at. It is a lovely, memory-driven experience, delving deep and delivering some really evocative listens. 

Living with

One of the joys of listening to CD, for me at least, is taking the time to listen to a whole album as opposed to skittering around with playlists. If there is such a concept, it is forced relaxation - and in this state of gentle, reflective repose, the CD5 is an absolute joy to listen to thanks to its infectious and engaging output. There are some operational irritants, sure, but these are minor in the grander scheme.

Take the speed of operation for example. To put it politely, nothing is rushed. Press the ‘eject’ button for the loading tray (there isn’t one on the remote), and the machine takes a moment to consider things before opening the tray. Load the CD and it returns just as unobtrusively - then you have time to relax while the machine gets ready to play the first track. If you are an advocate of slow travel, everything moves at a pace that will chime well with you. 

The remote control is a source of mild frustration. Understandably, it has been designed for use with other Radia components as a system - as a stand-alone control it doesn’t do very much. For example, the ‘volume’ control only works with Radia amplifiers; some of the sub-menu selections (‘skip’ and ‘shuffle’, for example) aren’t the most intuitive to find. Stick to ‘play’, track selection and ‘power on/off’ and you are on safer ground.

I am a fan of the styling - it is distinct and classy (although some may find it doesn’t sit too happily with other components in a non-Radia system). It is primarily designed to be part of a range, of course - although it (generally) works just as well as part of a hybrid system.


CD doesn’t get everyone’s mojo working, and you may have got rid of your collection. For those that haven’t, the Radia CD5 could be the answer to keeping your collection alive. The sonic qualities are impressive and tremendously enjoyable, especially given the £700 price. It has some minor frustrating operational characteristics, sure, but you will (probably) get used to those - so the balance is very much on the positive side and the CD5 is extremely good value for money. I’m not alone in this view - my retail contacts tell me it is shaping up to be a big seller in the modest CD player market.

Listening notes

Miles Davis The Birth of Cool

Charity shops are a treasure-trove of CDs - this gem, in perfect condition, cost £2 from Cancer Research and features tracks from Miles Davis’s nonet from 1949/50. It’s a gorgeous selection of recordings, full of life, harmony and balance, with excellent soundstaging too.

Afrocubism Afrocubism

A must for any world music collection and/or Buena Vista Social Club fans - many of the same artists are here. The album features musicians from both Mali and Cuba, and is perhaps an acquired taste - but it’s difficult to find a duff track, and the vibe is relaxing and energetic at the same time.

Alabama 3 Speed of the Sound of Loneliness

A classic from the 90s, Alabama’s acid house/country collective (in reality from Brixton, and still touring) tackle a John Prine track with gusto and characteristic bonkersness. Plenty of synth and heavy bass makes it sound as fresh and anarchic as it did 27 years ago.

What the press say

Why you should buy it

You have a CD collection, a tired, ugly, 20-year-old player, and you want something with a fresh distinctive design that sounds terrific while not costing the earth. And it could well be your last CD player… 

Video review

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