REFERENCE COMPONENTS

DIGITAL SOURCES

UPDATED NOVEMBER 2016

INTRODUCTION

FEBRUARY 2015 UPDATE

MARCH 2014 UPDATE

JUNE 2012 UPDATE

MUSIC SERVER VS. CD/SACD

JANUARY 2011 UPDATE

JUNE 2009 UPDATE

DECEMBER 2008 UPDATE

THE FALL 2007 DIGITAL "SHOOTOUT"

THE 2003 DIGITAL "SHOOTOUT"

OTHER INTERESTING DIGITAL SOURCES

READERS LETTERS

INTERNAL LINKS

INTRODUCTION

I (Arthur Salvatore) have a minority input in this component category.

This is because of my very limited experiences with digital sources in general. I actually have much more experience with digital LPs than CDs. The digital components I am most familiar with have mainly been very modest in price. Fortunately for all of us, my associates have had some relevant and extensive experience with Digital Sources and they are quite generous in sharing that information.

Digital's Areas of Superiority

It would be foolish and ignorant to ignore Digital's superiority to Analog in a number of sonic parameters: Precision, outer detail, speed stability, noise and overall purity.

Unfortunately, it also subtracts those aspects of the sound which are the vital essence of music; the conveyor of individuality and emotions. That is why Digital, at present, is more intellectually than emotionally satisfying. This is especially true for those audiophiles who are very familiar with excellent analog sound.

However I, an analog-oriented audiophile at present, still believe that at some point in the future, digital will be superior overall to analog, and even possibly in every single way, and I look forward to that day.

Optimizing Digital Components

IMPORTANT ADVICE: Never turn off any* digital equipment. It usually takes around 2 days of playing for it to "break in" and sound optimum. Once turned off, you have to go through the entire cycle all over again. Accordingly, do not judge digital equipment unless it has been on and operating for at least 48 hours. This is true for even "budget" players.

*Digital components with tubes inside may have to ignore this rule. The rarity of some tubes and the high cost of replacements may offset any sonic benefits.

Audio Magazines and Digital Components

What about the audio magazines? Are they "up-to-date", and do they accurately and thoroughly report to their readers the real facts concerning digital components? Hardly.

This is what one reader wrote to me concerning the magazines' "testing" of CD Transports, which should be the easiest digital component to evaluate:

"It would be quite easy for any magazine to prepare a very high quality test disc with a known data pattern on it, and to read the S/PDIF output into an analyzer for comparison.

Instead, reviewers prefer to rate the transports on their different 'sound', which can only be due to variations in the accuracy of data retrieval.

For me, this failure alone is enough to make all their opinions worthless."

My Response to this Reader

I was not surprised with the important information sent by this reader. It is consistent with the methodology and routines the audio magazines typically employ. In short...

Audio 'reviewers' will never utilize an objective tool to analyze and judge the performance of equipment or accessories. Why not?

This prerequisite would then compromise their present ability to praise and "hype" any piece of audio equipment, especially those models that were obviously mediocre, which is their only real power. This in turn would mean...

The 'reviewers' wouldn't be able to help their "buddies", and the magazines wouldn't be able to help their largest advertisers, which would make them (ultimately) useless to both. Of course, the utilization of objective tools would be very useful to their paying readers, but that is obviously very irrelevant to them, judging by their own actions.

Top

FEBRUARY 2015 UPDATE

An Audio Earthquake (For Me)...

NOW ADDED TO CLASS A (UPPER) DIGITAL SOURCES

APL NWO-Master (Esoteric UX-1Pi) CD/SACD/DVD-A Player

I've delayed writing this for months now, but I've run out of excuses, so here it is: After more than 3 decades of false hopes and frustration, I've finally heard a digital source that I actually enjoy listening to and, importantly, without a serious and disqualifying regret that it wasn't analog instead. First some important background...

My Earliest Digital Experiences

I can still remember the first time I ever heard a digital recording. I believe it was on a CBC station playing Beethoven's 9th Symphony, recorded in Japan. At the time, I was really excited about hearing something that was supposed to be superior to anything else I had experienced, but it didn't take long for me to become profoundly disappointed. The sound reminded me of mediocre solid-state amplification, with washed out harmonics and a thin, dry analytical sound. In short, it was awful. Soon after, the Telarc records became available, and while they had some definite virtues, they also had easily noticeable faults, which kept them from joining the top ranks of recordings. Then, of course, came the first generation of CD players.

The first generation of CD players came out around 2 years after I opened my audio store in the early 1980's. I had no chance of becoming a dealer since the early models came from companies that preferred they weren't sold in a tiny specialty shop. As it turned out, it didn't matter because I was, once again, unimpressed by what I heard from these original players (and I wasn't alone of course). Still, I must emphasize that I was again prejudiced in favor of the early CD players, because of the hype, enthusiastic anecdotal evidence from some customers and the fact that these players weren't hybrids like digital records, but the purest form of this new technology. However, when a customer brought the first Sony player in my store and played it for me and some other people, I heard the same sonic problems I had heard before on the CBC. Some of the other customers heard what I did, but the owner of the player did not back down from his claim that the Sony was far superior to anything available in audio from the past, and that we just couldn't accept a "breakthrough" when we heard it.

Within the next few years, that same scenario repeated itself many times, and with the exact same results. In the end, I didn't carry a CD player in my store until the late 1980's, more than 5 years after the first players became available. (It took the MSB player to finally end my boycott. This was because I could sell it without losing sleep.) In fact, my store ended up being the last analogue holdout in Toronto and my reputation for being an "audio eccentric" became even more established because of this. Not only didn't this bother me at the time, I still feel some satisfaction to this day that I held out for that long, and feel history has proven that my digital-sceptic perspective was correct at that time.

Later Experiences & My Website Dilemma

During the 1990's, my focus was almost entirely on analogue software, which became a priority (if not a panic) when it seemed, for a while, that analogue hardware might even be on its way out or, at the least, completely marginalized. Digital sources improved somewhat during this time, but at a snail's pace. In my store, I primarily sold budget CD players, such as from NAD and Rega etc. The more expensive models which I heard, such as from Wadia, Manley etc, were better for sure, but they still did almost nothing for me, outside of disappointment. So I sold them either either used, meaning trade-ins (at large discounts of course), or as a special order. Then came the Internet explosion in the late 1990's, which I soon realized would be both a challenge and an opportunity for me at the same time.

Since I still owned an audio retail store when I began this website, I decided to both market the components I was representing while also posting all my audio and musical experiences I had the time to share. I even decided to include my audio philosophy and perspective on creating a deeply satisfying audio system. However, I had a serious problem when it came to the evaluation of Digital Sources, since I had limited experience with them and very little interest in catching up. Considering how many different subjects I felt I had to write about at the time, I decided to rely on my most trusted friends ("Associates") to help me in this one area. Since I trusted these people with my own purchases, I felt I could relay the same information and judgments they provided me to other audiophiles, even strangers, without the fear of being hypocritical. Accordingly, my Reference Digital Sources file ended up being dominated by my friends for something like 15 years. Shortly after I started the website, I left the audio business (and Canada) for good, but I decided to not only keep the website going, but to expand on it as far as my capabilities would allow.

More Recent Years

For around 15 years, I received regular updates about various Digital Players from my group of associates. My responsibilities were to flesh out, question, edit and expand on their reported observations, evaluations and results, in order to give them an understandable perspective, sense and continuity. During this period, there was also a transition from (dedicated) Redbook to CD/SACD players, which began in earnest in 2008 and became obvious in 2009, when the top "Reference" models became dominated by just one company, Esoteric, which specializes in SACD players. Earlier, in 2007 to be specific, we had one final Redbook Shootout, which included some of the finest players available. And, consistent with the history of this website, we had unambiguous ("Winners and Losers") results. Unsurprisingly, this article provoked a vicious attack on this website, myself personally and my associates personally. (More on this personal attack below, since it is directly connected and highly relevant to this article, or I wouldn't have brought it up in the first place.)

As for myself, the best digital sound I heard was at the 2004 CES, but I still felt it was far from impressive, and what I heard included the highest quality digital master tapes and some players that cost (far) more than $ 20,000. After these serial frustrating experiences, I decided there was no way I was going to invest in an expensive digital player myself, no matter what deal I could get using my audio connections. Then came 2012, and I felt that maybe something now existed that I could finally take a serious risk with. The specific player that intrigued me was the latest generation, top-of-the-line, single-box CD/SACD player from Esoteric; The K-01.

The Esoteric K-01 or the APL NWO-xxx ?

The K-01 had everything possible that I could want in a SACD/CD player. It had the best transport (Esoteric) ever made; the best available DAC chips (8 per channel!); it was in a single-box, making it practical for my current shelving and it even had a special input for Hi-Rez files from a computer, which reduced the chance of early obsolescence. There was only one serious problem; I couldn't afford it at its retail price of well over $ 20,000 and even when it was later reduced to $ 19,500. My budget was around $ 10,000 max, which means that even my various "contacts" couldn't help me this time. There was the odd used K-01 coming up for sale on Audiogon, but still nowhere near my budget price. (And NO, I wasn't going to settle for the also superb K-03 as some friends advised. I wanted to hear, once and for all, "The Best" in my system, period.) So, I would just have to be patient until time and/or luck came to my assistance. Then something happened which came completely out of the blue...

While waiting for a deal on the K-01, I regularly made a Google search of it every few months, to keep up with K-01 related discussions and maybe I could even get lucky and find one I could afford. While doing so, one website led to another, as usual, and somehow I ended up on the APL website. The first time this happened I left immediately because of my prior negative experiences (see below). However, the second time I landed there I decided to seriously check out the website, since there could be something of interest and value, regardless of the source. It was there that I discovered APL's NWO series of 8 modified Esoteric players that had come out periodically beginning in 2005, with continual updates and improvements, and finishing in 2010 (the NWO- 1, 2, 2.5, 2.5T, 3GO, 3SE, 4SE and "Master", the final iteration of the series).

There were numerous anecdotal raves on the APL Forum about the players and the details of their various improvements over the years (plus plenty more on Audiogon). I soon became enthusiastic myself until I discovered that the latest NWO-Master modification cost $ 25,000, and that was on top of the $ 10,000 cost to first purchase the required Esoteric UX-1 or X-01, which meant the entire package was around $ 35,000, much more than the stock K-01 and, needless to say, ridiculously unaffordable for me. However, I still felt the need to investigate further, and the first issue was obvious: Whether or not the extra $ 15,000 for the "Master" was worth it? To answer this question to my satisfaction (with no direct listening comparison possible), I broke down the two players into three sections; The Transport, the DAC and the Output Stage.

The Esoteric K-01 (Design) Vs. The APL NWO-Master (Design)

Transport- Basically the same for both. The K-01 has a slightly improved version of Esoteric's best VRDS-NEO transport, though the APL has updates in both the power supply and the transport related electronics, which should more than make up for the difference in the transport alone. Still, no big deal between them.

DAC- Here there is no contest. The K-01 has 8 AKM 4399 32 bit chips per channel (the same as the Esoteric D-02 DAC, while the K-03 has half that number), which appears (and is) formidable for a consumer component. However, the APL has 20 of those same chips per channel! Even better, these chips are run "in an unusual way" which provides improved performance (according to APL). This is more than any DAC I'm aware of, at any price.

Output Stage- This is almost another no contest. The K-01's output stage is excellent, but the APL has an all-out tube output stage, using custom Lundahl transformers, with no capacitors in the signal path and the attenuator even avoids using resistors. On top of all this, the APL has an additional "super-precision/super-low jitter clock" and other upgrades to the power supply.

Final Results- Short of some design disaster that could not be foreseen, I felt the APL should easily outperform the K-01 and even rival, if not improve on, the hyper-expensive Esoteric P/D-01 series. Accordingly, the NWO-Master was now the new "most desired single-box player".

But how would I ever find one of them that I could actually afford (with direct sales only, there wasn't even a wholesale price)? It seemed an impossible task, considering both their singular selling price and extreme rarity, but audiophile fickleness was on my side! I had now given up on the K-01 and subsequently stopped looking at the Audiogon ads, but then I found out that APL had their own tiny "For Sale" section on their forum. I decided to check it out and, to my pleasant surprise, there was actually a used NWO-Master for sale!

This NWO-Master had been sitting there for months without my knowledge, starting out at around $ 15,000 or so (the thread has been deleted) and, with a series of price reductions, was now around $ 10,000. It soon hit my price target, so I made an offer and shortly worked out a deal with the owner. The player arrived safely and I immediately made sure that it worked, but I did not listen to it seriously. I had to put it aside, for what turned out to be almost a year, because of previous reviewing commitments (such as the Esoteric DV-50S), but I made up for lost time in the fall of 2014. I broke-in the Redbook section first and later the SACD electronics (500 hours each). I heard some impressive things during this time, but I required some confirmation because of what I felt was the importance of what I was hearing, which I eventually received with two of my associates in early 2015. This provided the confidence for me to report on the results and their implications. So, finally, this is what we observed with the APL NWO-Master:

The Performance of The APL NWO-Master

To begin: I used an IsoTek disc (on "repeat" for many hours) to optimize the performance of the APL. I don't know why, but the IsoTek was able to noticeably improve the APL in virtually every area of performance, more so than any other break-in device I've ever used, on any electronic component. In fact, without the IsoTek, or something equivalent to it, I don't believe it is even possible to hear the APL "at its best". I also used Herbie's Tube Dampers on the two signal tubes, which stick out at the back of the chassis. Now to the meat...

There were three critically important advancements that my associates and I observed with the APL;

1. The sound is the most complete and natural that I've ever heard from any digital source. There is an unprecedented sense of natural body and solidity, noticeably greater than any digital source I've heard, plus the harmonics and timbre are more fully reproduced, better capturing the natural tone of each individual instrument.

2. The APL is also more dynamically expressive than any other digital source I've heard, and at any volume level.

3. The APL is better able to capture the natural flow of the music.

In my experience, it's these three areas that have most separated analogue and digital sources in the last 3+ decades, and the APL addresses them with great success. Further, it is not a coincidence that these three areas are dependent on a component reproducing low-level musical information, which means the APL has a lower sound-floor than any other digital source in our experience.

The APL is also the most immediate digital source I've heard, which is usually quite important. However, because immediacy is not an obvious problem for most good digital sources, the APL's relative improvement, in this instance, doesn't have the same degree of emotional impact, at least for me. The APL also has a natural "sense of space", something that, until now, I've never heard any digital source reproduce, at any price. The image focus is also superb, which means it has outstanding organizational capabilities. Related to this, and maybe even more important, is the APL's reduction of homogenization, especially at louder levels, which is again unprecedented in my experience.

The APL's sound is not as predictable (or mechanical) as other digital sources, and it is even surprising at times, which is a high priority for me. It doesn't have the usual sonic limitations and boundaries you can sense almost immediately, which can make digital boring because of its predictability, like a movie which has the same basic plot you've already seen a hundred times. You may attempt to find it interesting, but your mind can't be fooled that easily and so it simply won't allow it.

The result of all of the above is that the music is better individualized, "humanized" and organized and, ultimately, easier to understand and become emotionally involved with. I don't know how to compliment a component more than this.

Future Improvements

I opened up and looked carefully inside the APL with the goal of finding anything to modify. However, it only took a short time to realize that it was basically impossible to do anything to it, so I didn't even try. To be clear, only an expert can modify or repair this model, because of both the space limitations and the incredible complexity of the design. Maybe the (40) DAC chips can be updated one day, since they will, inevitably, become obsolete, but I have no idea if that is technically possible and/or economically practical.

Still, I strongly believe that I am not presently hearing the APL "at it's very best" for three reasons, one of which deals with a fundamental flaw of the design. First of all, I am currently using a generic power cable, plus my second best interconnect, so there's room for improvement there. Second, I have made no attempt, so far, to isolate the APL from shelf and airborne vibrations. I'm depending entirely on its own internal mass and my solid, wall-mounted stand. Third, as to the "flaw", the APL sends out a powerful pulse when it is turned off, and it's strong enough to damage the amplifiers and speakers. Ordinarily, you would just make certain that the other components are safe by turning off the APL last, but what if you live in an area where there are unexpected AC "blackouts" (such as Florida, where I live)?

Your only option then is to connect the APL to a UPS battery instead of an AC outlet, which is exactly what I have done (unless you don't mind gambling with your system). The UPS battery I've been using is a generic hospital type (and it even includes an AC regenerator), but I will eventually find a similar model specifically designed for audio components, so I reasonably assume there will be another sonic improvement once my current model is replaced.

Comparisons to Analogue

First, it is important that I make this crystal clear: Digital, "at its best" (the APL NWO-Master), is not as good as Analogue, "at its best" (my current phono source), for reproducing music. Further, the performance gap between the two is still quite wide. In fact, I believe that basically anyone can easily notice this gap, and when I write "anyone", I mean even people with no serious interest in music and/or audio. The bottom line is this: Since its debut, now 3 decades ago, Digital has had some (obvious) sonic advantages over Analogue, but they are still easily overcome by analogue's even more important and noticeable sonic advantages. This is true despite all of the sonic improvements made by digital components over these same decades.

What has critically changed this time, for me, is that the APL's performance is musically satisfying even with my current (analogue) perspective, something I have never experienced until now. However, I still feel it is important to describe the serious performance gap between these two sources, when both are heard at their very best. This is a very difficult task and I frankly admit that I have never been totally happy with my previous efforts. This time, I'll attempt an analogy, and then provide the details of two specific A/B direct comparisons, as well as a "bonus comparison".

The most direct audiophile relatable analogy that I can provide is this: Digital to analogue is almost exactly like solid-state to tube amplification. While solid-state amplification has continually improved for decades now, the performance gap between it and tubes still exists. In fact, even a decent, decades-old tube amplifier, with some modest upgrades, can still outperform the most modern transistor amplifier in certain important ways (see PASS Aleph 3 Vs. CJ MV-75). However, nothing can be more relevant than a direct comparison, and so we accordingly made two of them.

Comparison No. 1 - RCA "Shaded Dog" (Classic Records Reissue 33 RPM) Vs. SACD (BMG Reissue)

I have both a LP and SACD reissue of virtually every famous RCA "Shaded Dog", so I chose one of the most famous of them all: Reiner's version of Mussorgsky/Ravel's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (LSC-2201). My associate and I made the comparison one evening after making certain the reference system was totally warmed-up and optimized. The Results: The LP "wiped the floor" with the SACD. There was simply no comparison. The LP was far more immediate, natural and dynamic. "Anyone" could hear the differences in literally less than a minute. The SACD was "quite good", while the LP was outstanding. So, the SACD ended up being a disappointment, especially after being so impressed with the NWO-M in general.

I, on my own this time, have since then listened to the other famous RCA "Shaded Dogs" also reissued on SACD (by BMG), "Pines of Rome", "Scheherazade" etc, and the results were the same as with the "Pictures"; good vs. outstanding. In short- No SACD reissue I've heard can equal a good analogue reissue, at least with an original analogue recording. However, will this general rule also apply with an original digital recording? First though, a...

Bonus Comparison- My associate and I made another related comparison immediately after we listened to the Reiner/Classic LP Reissue of the "Pictures". We wanted to hear how it compared with the Mobile Fidelity/Muti version of "Pictures". I had made this exact same comparison myself around 15 years earlier, but that was with a very different system and room (when I lived in Toronto). The Results- Once again, the Mobile was far superior, maybe even more noticeable now than earlier. It was more immediate, detailed and dynamic. It was also cleaner, more harmonically complete and had a lower sound-floor. The performance was also more interesting. The Reiner was superb to be sure, but the Muti was riveting and "unforgettable". In fact, I doubt I will ever play the Reiner again just for listening pleasure.

Comparison No. 2 - Dead Can Dance "Toward the Within"; CD Vs. SACD Vs. LP

This time, a second associate and I used a digital recording to make the comparisons, which we felt would be a tougher test for the LP. We also decided to include a CD in the mix, to provide an even greater perspective to the experiments. We started with the CD, and had pretty good results, but we both felt the sound was rather flat and grey sounding. Next came the SACD, and the sonic improvements were heard immediately by both of us. The SACD was more immediate, transparent, dynamic and had much greater separation. Finally, we played the LP (a double album), and it improved on the SACD by around the same degree as the SACD previously improved on the CD. In each case, choosing the superior source was a no brainer. It was never close or difficult to choose between them. The only trade-off was the usual surface noise, which was low in any event on the records.

I also made numerous other direct comparisons, on my own, with other CDs and LPs, and in each instance the LP was easily superior. In no case was this a simple preference or a "matter of taste". The differences were too large, important and noticeable for pure personal subjectivity to be a factor. Only those who believe everything about audio, short of measurements, is "subjective", and thus worthless, will disagree with this assumption. (Thus equating those listeners who prefer boom boxes to true high-end audio systems with everyone else.)

The Competitors

Top Row (Left to Right) - "Toward the Within" CD; SACD; RCA/Reiner "Pictures at an Exhibition" BMG SACD

Bottom Row (Left to Right) - Toward the Within 2 LP Album; Classic Records Reissue RCA LSC-2201 "Pictures at an Exhibition" LP

LP Vs SACD

Some Further Thoughts on "Digital Sound" & Its Shortcomings

Note: These thoughts are somewhat random, but I still feel they have some value and should be communicated...

Digital recordings seem to have a "volume sweet spot", where, at their best, everything can sound superb. Unfortunately, both softer and louder volume levels (than this narrow sweet spot) have easily noticeable problems; harmonic and dynamic dropouts at softer volumes, which make the music sound "dead", and a massive sense of confusion, caused by gross homogenization, at louder volumes. It's true that better analogue recordings have some sound-level issues as well, but to a much less noticeable (and frustrating) degree in my experience. Simple music can thus be superb indeed, even in Redbook, and sometimes superior to most analogue recordings, but not analogue at its best.

There is also always a "Here" and "There" barrier with Digital. You rarely, if ever, feel or sense that you are sharing the same (recording) space as the performers, but this "sharing" does happen on a regular basis with better analogue recordings. This same (non-sharing) phenomenon can also be observed with Reference Recording LPs, which are analogue based of course, and otherwise usually superb. I feel this barrier, which inevitably compromises musical "involvement", is caused by a noticeably high sound-floor.

On a superficial level, digital is similar in certain ways to analogue, in that all the basics are present, but that is all irrelevant once a direct comparison is made and you hear, almost immediately, what is still missing, and the vital musical importance of what is missing. Example- With the APL NWO-M, I sense (and physically feel) a body for the first time, but it is still somewhat "ghost-like", and not as human, natural or solid as analogue. Accordingly, the critical gut sense of Presence (and directness) is still compromised, especially when compared to analogue. This "gut sense of tactile presence" (and "directness") is evolutionary and primal, and can be felt immediately and instinctively, without any thought. So, when it's missing, a music listener, without even realizing it, may not take what they are hearing seriously. And this is a fatal problem when the ultimate goal is to become "involved" with the music being played.

Analysis and Implications

While the APL is a first of its kind for me (in terms of performance), I am acutely aware that its (original retail) cost precludes its ownership in the vast majority of systems (including mine). So the first relevant question must be this: Can the outstanding performance of the APL be achieved at a (much) lower price point? I've been thinking about this for a while now and so far I'm not optimistic, at least in the near term. To make my analysis, I broke down the NWO-Master into its three most basic, and indispensable, functional sections: the transport, the DAC and the analogue output stage. So now let's look into each of these three sections individually.

Transport- The NWO-Master uses the highest quality, and the most expensive, transport in consumer audio history. There is no "budget" version of this transport at this time, or one becoming available in the near future, that will equal it in performance. Only Esoteric has the practical and economical capability to manufacture a transport of this quality. The transport's OEM price alone is around $ 5,000 and Esoteric's least expensive player, using this level of transport, sold for around $ 15,000. Worse, there is a further serious expense to both buffer and properly time the output of the transport. The only real alternative to this transport section is a computer hard drive, which, of course, means choosing instead to go the "computer audio" route rather than playing traditional digital software discs (CD/SACD).

DAC- As mentioned above, the APL uses 20 #4399, 32 bit, DAC chips per channel, which may have been unprecedented at the time of its 2010 debut, and is still formidable even in 2015. However, time is a relentless and irresistible nemesis when it comes to digital chip technology. In fact, the recently released Esoteric K-01X already uses the newer 32-bit AK4495S chips and has a 35-bit D/A processing algorithm. Even better chips are on their way, so like every previous (and future) player, the APL is most vulnerable when it comes to advancements in pure processing power. Still, the APL has further advantages as to how it utilizes its chips, plus improvements in its power supply, and all that requires greater costs.

Analogue Output Stage- The NWO-Master has an unique tube output stage, which uses a high quality output transformer instead of a typical capacitor and even has a novel method for signal attenuation. It also has the rare capability to drive any conceivable load, without the requirement of an active line stage. Building such a high quality and versatile output stage, including an appropriate power supply, is relatively costly, and can not be done in an economical manner without some noticeable sonic compromises.

Final Analysis- If digital discs are the musical source, the APL NWO-Master's performance can't be achieved at an economical price because of the transport section requirement alone. The APL's DAC section will be equalled (and even exceeded) over time, but its output stage is also expensive to duplicate, and will remain so indefinitely. So a disc player, performing at this high level, can never be built to sell for under $ 10,000 when purchased new, no matter what manufacturing scale can be imagined in the future to somehow reduce the cost (even by a large company such as OPPO).

What is my most optimistic scenario? I could see a player like the APL eventually selling new for around $ 15,000 to $ 20,000, which is similar to the Esoteric K-01 series. In effect, the APL NWO-Master is basically a "K-01 from the future" which is available now. The extra cost for the APL is the price for not having to wait around until Esoteric reaches the APL's same performance level themselves. This is definitely achievable for Esoteric, with a superior DAC and an improved output stage, and also using their current manufacturing economy of scale to reduce the selling price. (For Example- If Esoteric built the NWO-Master themselves today, it would probably sell for around $ 40,000. Digital advancements, which are inevitable, will lower that price over time, just as we have observed now for decades.)

Still. What do you do if you want the APL's level of performance and can't wait or pay huge money? There is only one option, which I took advantage of myself; The APL NWO-Master must be found used, and this is not as difficult as I first thought. Three NWO-Masters have been put up for sale in last 18 months (including mine), and all of them sold for under $ 10,000. These players are rare yes, but not completely unavailable. If one has the funds and patience a model will be found, probably on Audiogon or APL's own website (see below).

There is another relevant question to contemplate. When will digital sources equal or even surpass analogue sources in strictly performance terms? I have long thought it is "when", and not "if", because of the inevitable increase in digital sampling points. However, based on the past 3 decades, I don't see digital equalling analogue for at least another two decades, if not longer, short of some "breakthrough" that no one is reporting on at this time. The performance gap is still easily noticeable and, even worse for digital, analogue itself continues to improve, making it a moving (away) target.

Conclusions

The most important finding in this entire review is that "Digital" has now become a legitimate and enjoyable source, even for those hyper-critical audiophiles who are used to the performance of outstanding analogue sources. I realize that this is not news to everyone, since this level of performance has been available, albeit for a very high price, for around 5 years now. If this level of performance was available 30 years ago, I could see myself, and many other serious audiophiles, making different component decisions at that time and since then.

However, I still see no need yet to abandon Analogue as the primary source of a serious audio system if the goal is to experience the closest possible connection to the music (and recording). I feel this is true despite all of my enthusiasm demonstrated above.

Personal Note- Here is our updated, current and complete list of Digital Source References:

DIGITAL SOURCE REFERENCES
FEBRUARY 2015 TO PRESENT

Class A (Upper)
Esoteric P-01/D-01 Transport and DAC w/GORb Rubidium Clock (Used Only!)
APL NWO-Master (Esoteric UX-1Pi)
Class A (Lower)
Esoteric K-01 CD/SACD Player

Class B
Esoteric K-03 CD/SACD Player

Class C (Upper)
Esoteric X-03 SE CD/SACD Player (Used Only!)
Class C (Lower)
Esoteric DV-50S CD/SACD Player (Used Only!)

Class D (Entry-Level)
Benchmark DAC & Pre 1
Doge CD6 (Stock or Modified*)
MHZS CD 66 & CD 88 (Modified*)
Oppo (All Models)**

Explanations:
1. Price is a critical factor in Class B, Class C and Class D.
2. The Esoteric X-03 SE and DV-50S are "the best bang for the buck" CD/SACD players.
3. *Coupling capacitors changed to V-Cap (or Solen Film and Foil) Teflon, plus NOS "tube rolling". (DAC chip can also be improved, but only an expert should attempt this change.)
4. **Oppo models have been heard by only two associates. They have not been able to make direct comparisons with any of the models from Class A to Class C.

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Some (Mainly Unavoidable and Unpleasant) Odds, Ends and Absurdities

This is an unpleasant task. Sadly, there is an ugly history between this website and the owner/designer of APL, Alex Peychev. This history is from October 2007, when a "Digital Shootout", conducted and written by my digital associates (I was not involved), was posted on this website (after I edited it) and an APL model was ranked near the bottom (see link to "Reference Digital Sources" below). There was subsequently a post concerning this Shootout on Audio Asylum. This initial post inspired a second post in which my (digital) associates and I were viciously attacked by Charles Hansen (of Ayre), who also had a model with a poor ranking, Peychev (though he was much more measured) and their obsequious Asylum followers. This went on for days.

They made a series of ignorant and groundless (and paranoid) charges of corruption, incompetence, personal bias etc, all without providing a shred of evidence, then or since then, even though the charges, by their nature, would have provided them with numerous third and fourth parties available for confirmation. Peychev, who is a lot smarter (and talented) than Hansen, cut his losses by quickly dropping the subject. In contrast, Hansen kept up the personal attacks for a long time after (including other threads), until, justifiably, he was eventually criticized fiercely himself, even requiring his personal apology at one point.

I, of course, realized that someone would remember this incident once the APL review was posted and, in fact, more than one reader has asked me about it. While this incident has been closed for years now, the present day repercussions of it still must be discussed for the sake of perspective and journalistic integrity. So I decided to not only directly address that specific issue, but also use it as a pretext to discuss a larger subject related to it. Fortunately, this can be kept quite simple...

To make things as crystal clear as possible: When it comes to evaluating any particular component, I don't care if the manufacturer and/or designer is a "saint" or an "asshole". Further, it also doesn't matter to me if the manufacturer is tiny or world famous, or even if the component has just come out or was discontinued 20 years ago. All of that is irrelevant to me, though I recognize that those same issues appear to be highly relevant to most other audio reviewers. These "issues" should also be irrelevant to serious audiophiles as well. In the final analysis, you are buying an inanimate component and not starting a personal relationship with its human source.

However, if a prospective business relationship is problematic for whatever reason, well that IS quite relevant. Accordingly, I must disclose that I've seen a number of posts concerning APL that dealt with delivery delays and a lack of communication. This mainly occurred shortly after the 2007 incident. It appears that APL (and Peychev) moved their headquarters to Europe around that same time and must have had some problems with the logistics. For the record though, I have NOT seen any customer problems or issues posted about APL in the last 4 or 5 years.

So, Alex Peychev's past behavior, and our mutually negative feelings towards each other at that time, had absolutely no bearing during my above evaluation of his component, and this would also be the case with a component from (Hansen's) Ayre. In the end, I'm glad the APL NWO-Master performed as well as it did, because I passed my own "acid test" in real life, rather than just "on paper", which is the typical case when you make a written commitment that is highly unlikely to ever be tested so directly.

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Unfortunately, there is a second unpleasant issue which I also feel I need to deal with. It appears that I now have an anonymous "troll" who, for some mysterious reason, is obsessed with this particular review along with this website's digital history in general. I usually ignore 95+% of the posts I come across discussing this website and myself, positively or negatively, for various reasons. However, I felt these posts were the rare exception, because further clarification was necessary concerning several of the issues mentioned in them.

The moniker used by this troll is "estreeter". He (I assume) claims to live in Thailand. So far I've seen his posts in Audiokarma and head-fi.org. I decided not to reply directly to his charges, but instead wait until the review was posted to clear matters up.

So the two below quotes are from his two posts on Audiokarma, which are related by subject (my bold):

April 8, 2014: "(Salvatore) has even 'fired' the associates he'd previously delegated all digital recommendations on his site to - clearly, they just didn't measure up."

August 5, 2014: "Salvatore has since dumped all his digital associates after his loyal readers began reporting serious quality control issues with their ultra-expensive Esoteric CDPs and transports."

My Reply- Both of these statements are the delusional fantasies of the writer. However, to be fair, maybe I should have been clearer when I announced that my "Digital Associates" would no longer be making contributions to the website as of January 1, 2014, especially since they had made virtually all of the posts on Reference Digital Sources prior to that date.

So, to clarify matters, my digital associates were NOT "fired". Further, there have been NO "serious quality control issues" with the Esoteric digital components that were listed as "References". One reader has had a problem with a deep bass roll-off with his Esoteric K-03, which is still somewhat of a mystery, and that's it. I also don't "recommend" components, I instead have "References". That's three "strikes" so far for "estreeter" (and we are just beginning). Still, there is the question he indirectly raised which I would like to now address: What is the specific reason why my former digital associates are no longer posting on this website? The explanation is both simple and innocent...

In the Fall of 2013, the leading member (and writer) of the digital group informed me that he had decided to market a digital component starting sometime during the Summer of 2014. That, of course, would create a financial conflict of interest, which had never existed before. Accordingly, he and I decided to make a clean break as of January 2014, which was still well in advance of his planned digital business debut. As it turned out, this break was unnecessary, since my associate later changed his mind and never ended up marketing any digital components. Still, I have no regrets for being overly cautious. Finally, in case anyone is wondering, my digital associates haven't had anything new to report within the digital realm during the entire period from January 1, 2014 until today, so nothing has been lost.

A year later, on the head-fi.org website this time, estreeter decided he had more to write about me (my bold):

April 15, 2015: "(Salvatore has) also been a trenchant keyboard warrior on various forums, but I suspect those efforts led to the creation of (his web)site after he was banned from several of the forums."

My Reply- Now we are entering "The Twilight Zone", to be kind. The Reality- I have not been banned from a single forum, let alone "several of the forums". Those are facts, and it even gets worse for estreeter. As anyone remotely familiar with my Internet Career knows by now, far from being "a trenchant keyboard warrior", I have rarely posted on any audio forum. More facts...

There are exactly 48 posts on Audio Asylum (which is more than all other forums combined), and my first post was in 2002, 3 years after I created this website (so another estreeter "suspicion" is proven false). I have made a few posts on Audiogon and Lenco Heaven over the years, and a handful elsewhere, and that's it. Any Google search of my name can verify this actual history, since I have always posted using my actual name and have never used a moniker.

Then estreeter makes another ignorant personal charge in the same post (my bold):

"(Salvatore) embodies everything that I loathe about zealotry in this hobby... (analog v digital, feedback v zero feedback, class A vs the rest)"

My Reply- With his usage of "zealotry", estreeter is now claiming that I am not able to change my opinion about an audio issue even when I'm confronted with direct evidence that contradicts that opinion. Sadly for estreeter's credibility, my audio history, well documented within this website, decisively proves that his claim is another lie. Proof- I went to an idler-drive turntable this decade after more than 4 decades using various belt-drives, and during this same time I also began using an active line stage after avoiding them for 20 years. Those are major audio changes by any measure.

Each approach I currently use (idler-drive turntable, MC cartridge, SUT, tube phono stage, tube line stage, SET amplification, bi-amping, monitors and subwoofers) has been based on numerous direct comparisons and experiments (see my various Essay/Reviews in The Reference Components for the details). I'm always open to a new approach if the results justify it. Ironically, this APL digital review itself, of which estreeter has demonstrated so much interest, is a further example of my ability to acknowledge a new audio perspective. Zealotry, in the end, is almost always self-defeating and even self-destructive (and in many instances far worse than that).

In conclusion, one must surmise that estreeter is an unique individual who not only appears to be a victim of paranoia, but is a shameless liar and/or delusional as well. His perception of reality is so distorted, it has even crossed my mind that he has confused me with someone else, which is the best excuse I can provide for him. Instead, he has become the best argument I can make as to why I don't get involved with "discussions" on audio forums.

Most forums are like MMA, but with no rules and even weapons allowed. Some readers love and even flourish in this state of "intellectual" anarchy, maybe because everyone is (or starts off) "equal". For me, it's almost all useless and a waste of time. In fact, I dread just the thought of "discussing" audio matters with posters like estreeter. It would be hellish. Worst of all, mainly because of its anonymity (the use of monikers), some forums can be potentially dangerous for serious audiophiles looking for true knowledge, direction and insight. "Readers Beware" is my best advice when visiting most audio forums until proven otherwise.

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I would like to have the last of the "odds and ends" actually end on a positive note. So here are some further comments, about the APL NWO-Master and related subjects, from my two (non-digital) associates, who assisted me with the analogue/digital comparisons above, and a highly experienced guest:

"HB" (who was involved with Comparison No. 1)- "From an analogue perspective, this was the first unit I've heard, that with the right software, you think you are listening to analogue. Relaxing with a natural flow. I've heard many digital sources over the decades. I wouldn't bother moving up in steps, just wait for this model used. Like a good tt, you can weed out immediately what is a good recording or not."

"II" (who was involved with Comparison No. 2, and may be the most critical listener I know at this time)- "An excellent achievement. The SACD reproduction is the first digital I've found satisfying and can live with, and I've heard the $ 100,000 players. CD still has too many problems to be enjoyable, specifically the problems with the higher frequencies, which don't match the lower frequencies."

Finally, though not yet an associate, another veteran audiophile, Tom Scata ("thetubeguy1954") (along with his friend Mike) visited me on April 30 this year. We had a long listening session that finished up well into the night. This is part of what Tom posted on Audio Asylum on July 6th: "Arthur's system sounded a lot like my system does when he played digital music, but his was a bit better at everything with even more transparency. However when he played Jean Nantais' Reference TT we moved to another planet. It was honestly that much better!"

The APL NWO-Master

P1000639

P1000645

Relevant Links:

APL Hi-Fi

Electronic Express (Repair Center for APL and other brands)

My Audio System

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MARCH 2014 UPDATE

Esoteric DV-50S CD/SACD Player

I don't have much to say about this model. It is presently a Class C (Lower) Reference Digital Source. I have owned and used a DV-50S since late 2012. It is the SECOND finest sounding digital source I have yet heard in my system in controlled conditions. The retail price was $ 6,000 when it (the updated "S" version) was "new" several years ago, but it's now two generations behind the current generation from Esoteric (K-01, K-03 etc). It sells for $ 1,500, or even less, on the used market, if one makes a serious effort to find one.

The DV-50S replaced the Krell SACD Standard II/III (another excellent value) in my system (and as a "Reference") for several reasons; The DV-50S sounds a little bit better than the Krell (it's more natural); it is usually less expensive to purchase; it is better built than even the Krell; and it even has an excellent DVD (-A) playback (and Home Theater) capability. For me, it was a "no brainer".

In fact, I consider the DV-50S to be one of the finest values available to audiophiles, especially those who are movies buffs as well (it doesn't play Blu-Rays though!). This is why I also described it as "the best bang for the buck" (along with the Esoteric X-03SE). It's not "the best" (it never was), but it's really good, really versatile, really well made (47 lbs!) and a true bargain at its current used selling price.

Future Digital Sources

I can only be brief at this time, though I promise more detailed explanations will come, but there are two items to announce:

1. I no longer have any "Digital Associates" as per 2014, so any new editorial content on Digital Sources will now come from me alone (all previous Digital posts and References still stand), and

2. I now have what is probably the finest single-chassis digital source player ever made, the APL NWO-Master (by Alex Peychev). The review of it is in The Recent File, February 2015, where I also directly compare it to my current analog source (SACD/CD Vs. LP).

Personal Note- Here is our updated, current and complete list of Digital Source References:

DIGITAL SOURCE REFERENCES
FEBRUARY 2015 TO PRESENT

Class A (Upper)
Esoteric P-01/D-01 Transport and DAC w/GORb Rubidium Clock (Used Only!)
APL NWO-Master (Esoteric UX-1Pi)
Class A (Lower)
Esoteric K-01 CD/SACD Player

Class B
Esoteric K-03 CD/SACD Player

Class C (Upper)
Esoteric X-03 SE CD/SACD Player (Used Only!)
Class C (Lower)
Esoteric DV-50S CD/SACD Player (Used Only!)

Class D (Entry-Level)
Benchmark DAC & Pre 1
Doge CD6 (Stock or Modified*)
MHZS CD 66 & CD 88 (Modified*)
Oppo (All Models)**

Explanations:
1. Price is a critical factor in Class B, Class C and Class D.
2. The Esoteric X-03 SE and DV-50S are "the best bang for the buck" CD/SACD players.
3. *Coupling capacitors changed to V-Cap (or Solen Film and Foil) Teflon, plus NOS "tube rolling". (DAC chip can also be improved, but only an expert should attempt this change.)
4. **Oppo models have been heard by only two associates. They have not been able to make direct comparisons with any of the models from Class A to Class C.

JUNE 2012 UPDATE

A New Generation to evaluate...

ESOTERIC K-03 CD/SACD PLAYER

Our same veteran group of associates, who have evaluated (and reported here on) a large number of digital sources over the last decade, have now recently auditioned a model from the latest generation of CD/SACD players. Here is their report, written by their most experienced member, with no editing and my bold:

"Esoteric seems to come up with just the right components to address ever evolving digital requirements. With computer based digital becoming the new digital medium of choice, Esoteric has introduced two* stand alone CD/SACD players with USB input capability and offered at the highest resolution. The dual players, the top of the line K-01 ($ 19,500), and the more reasonably priced K-03 ($ 10,900), not only permit the units to be used as state of the art DACs within a computer based set up, they also serve as top performers in an all in one CD/SACD play back digital front end.

To further entice the prospective buyer, both players incorporate digital remote volume controls, which permit direct connection to an amplifier, thereby obviating the need for a line stage. Both players use the latest DAC technology, which incorporate 35 bit resolution. The extra bits of resolution comes in handy when using the digital volume control, since the greater the attenuation of the signal, the more bits that are lost.

Since the K-01 has not been personally auditioned, this review will be limited to the K-03. After the obligatory 300 hours of break in, the sonic result is a magnificent player on both CD and SACD. Do not pay any attention to a review that appeared in The Absolute Sound, which stated that the CD performance was not up to the SACD standard. Both are uniformly stellar.

On its own, it is exceedingly difficult to find much to complain about the sonics or the build quality of the K-03. Everything about this player exudes excellence. The sound is on par with the best digital has to offer. Compared to the Esoteric P-05/D-05 combination, the K-03 has more weight, body and impact. During dynamic peaks and complex music, it never gets slightly thin or brittle sounding, which the 05s have a tendency to exhibit. The bass has greater extension and more punch.

The new DAC technology of the K-03 is also evident in the high frequencies, which are extended and airy, but not intrinsically harsh or brash. The K-03 is definitely superior overall sonically, and has the added feature of USB compatibility. Furthermore, the need for AES EBU cables to connect the transport to a DAC is eliminated. The K-03 offers better performance, computer compatibility, greater simplicity and lower price. A no brainer in favor of the K-03 compared to the P-05/D-05.

How then does the K-03 fare against the vastly more expensive Esoteric P-03/D-03? Here, the sonic comparison is an interesting one. The separates are more ballsy. They sound more powerful and authoritative. Not by a wide margin, but it is noticeable. The 03s are very smooth and refined sounding, yet the older DAC technology works against it in the high frequencies, which sound a tad muted and rolled off by comparison to the more detailed, airier presentation of the K-03.

The overall sonic presentation of the K-03 and the 03 separates are cut from the same cloth. They are very similar in tonality, soundstaging and timbre. The differences are subtle and are most evident in the frequency extremes. The separates have more weight and body in the bass, while the K-03 is more vivid and translucent in the highs. However, when price, flexibility and simplicity are considered, the K-03 would be the most cost effective choice by any measure. Add the digital remote volume control of the K-03, which the separates lack, and the K-03 is the winner.

The K-03 was not even auditioned in the context of a computer based system. By all accounts, the K-03 DAC is superb and competes with the best at any price. As a CD/SACD player, the K-03 is a true bargain, since it combines state of the art performance, flexibility and build quality at a price not equaled by any other competitor."

*Two more CD/SACD players from Esoteric, the K-05 and K-07, will become available sometime in 2012. They will be considerably less expensive, but they also claim a lower level of performance.

Personal Notes- The K-01 should be evaluated by late June. We have no plans to audition the other new (one-chassis) generation Esoteric players at this time. Based on the above report, the Esoteric P-05/D-05, plus the D-03, have all been removed from our current Digital Source References. The K-03 now joins the current "References", but it will not be specifically categorized until the audition and evaluation of the K-01 is completed. At that time, an updated list of Digital Source References will be posted.

Part Two of a New Generation...

ESOTERIC K-01 CD/SACD PLAYER

Our veteran group of associates, who have evaluated (and reported here on) a large number of digital sources over the last decade, have now auditioned a second model from the latest generation of CD/SACD players. Here is their report, written by their most experienced member, with minor editing and my bold:

"The K-01 is the top of the line single box CD/SACD player offered by Esoteric. Its appearance is identical to the lower priced K-03 (which means beautiful and expensive looking). The difference between the two machines lies in the internals. The K-01 uses twice as many DACS per channel, a more robust and advanced transport and extra power transformers. The K-01 is thusly almost $9,000 more costly ($ 19,500 Vs. $ 10,900). The big question is does that extra expense translate to substantially superior sonics, and is the added expenditure commensurate with the gain in performance?

As discussed in the review of the K-03, the performance for both CD and SACD are exemplary. Very satisfying on every level and in all parameters. Without access to the more expensive Esoteric models, one could easily live with the K-03 with nary a complaint. For most, the K-03 will fulfill all requirements and will be the last player ever purchased. Enter the K-01. Let's cut to the chase and proclaim the K-01 the superior player. It is noticeably superior sonically in a couple of areas, and only subtler better in a few others. In no parameter of sonics, is it inferior. Essentially the K-01 is a refinement of the K-03. It is not a difference in kind nor does it represent an order of magnitude improvement.

K-01 Vs. K-03

Now for the specifics. The first most notable quality of the K-01 is its immense projection of a soundstage. Not only is it expansive, but it has the further quality of being especially focussed. Instruments simply exist in a large soundscape, but precisely separated in the positions they should be. The K-03 slightly miniaturizes those images by comparison.

The K-01 renders frequency extremes with such precision and force, it takes the visceral thrill of listening to music to a new level. The bass especially has weight, impact AND inner detail not experienced by anything short of the fiercely expensive P-01/D-01 with the atomic clock.

The upper frequencies are characterized by incredible extension, air and detail. Never harsh or strident or analytical. Simply natural is what can be heard. The K-03 by contrast, while sounding superb at both frequency extremes, is noticeably compromised. It does not carry the enormous visceral punch or authority in the low frequencies nor is it as effortless at the top. These errors are ones of omission, and are not readily observable without a direct comparison to the K-01.

Another revelatory performance parameter of the K-01 lies in the area of harmonic completeness. The K-01 reveals a wealth of harmonic content, which has the effect of making the music more complex and riveting. The proportion of fundamentals to harmonics is spot on. Many players favor one over the other, which is responsible for errors in tonal balance. For example, if a component errs on the side of reproducing more fundamental of instruments, the sound will be leaner and perhaps psycho acoustically appear faster. When the opposite occurs, and more harmonic content is disproportionately reproduced, the resultant tonality will seem warm or " musical". The K-01 tonal balance is very lifelike and is simply accurate. The K-03, while again very accomplished in this area, subtracts some of the harmonics, especially noticeable with massed strings.

Optimizing Settings

Much has been discussed about the plethora of settings available for CD reproduction. Time can be saved by using no upsampling (ORG) eschewing 2X, 4X or DSD. All of the upsampling settings pervert much of the K-01's magic. Soundstage shrinks, impact is ameliorated and fine detail is obscured. As for filters, my recommendation is S_DYL1. Some might prefer F1R1, but on a high resolution, state of the art system, the former filter sounds more natural.

Caveat- On a system not at a state of the art level, another setting, such as 2X over sampling and FIR1, might be preferable. In any event, experimentation is advised.

Redbook Performance & Conclusion

All of the above comments apply to both SACD and CD performance. However, a feeling persists that it is more in the realm of Redbook that the stellar sonic advances evinced by the K-01 are revealed. SACD reproduction is as good as it gets to be sure, but CD playback seems to be especially benefitted by the K-01. This is a player for those who wish to enjoy both media without compromise.

In conclusion, the K-01 is definitely the finest single box player we've experienced. Its flaws are so minor, and its excellences so great, that listening to digital will prove to be a highly satisfying and involving experience. The K-03 shares many of the same qualities, but simply not to the same degree. If (the extra) $10,000 does not represent a life altering sum, the K-01 is the player to purchase. If that not inconsiderable sum proves to be beyond one's capability, the K-03 is still a superb player, that has no peers we know of at its selling price."

Important Note- All of the Esoteric players, with the exception of the SA-10, must be used with Balanced (XLR) cables to hear them at their best. Otherwise, half of the DACs will be inoperable. This is also true of the Krell Standard SACD player.

Personal Note- Here is our updated and complete list of Digital Source References:

DIGITAL SOURCE REFERENCES
JUNE 2012 TO JANUARY 2015

Class A (Upper)
Esoteric P-01/D-01 Transport and DAC w/GORb Rubidium Clock (Used Only!)
Class A (Lower)
Esoteric K-01 CD/SACD Player

Class B
Esoteric K-03 CD/SACD Player

Class C (Upper)
Esoteric X-03 SE CD/SACD Player (Used Only!)
Class C (Lower)
Esoteric DV-50S CD/SACD Player (Used Only!)

Class D (Entry-Level)
Benchmark DAC & Pre 1
Doge CD6 (Stock or Modified*)
MHZS CD 66 & CD 88 (Modified*)
Oppo (All Models)**

Explanations:
1. Price is a critical factor in Class B, Class C and Class D.
2. The Esoteric X-03 SE and DV-50S are "the best bang for the buck" CD/SACD players.
3. *Coupling capacitors changed to V-Cap (or Solen Film and Foil) Teflon, plus NOS "tube rolling". (DAC chip can also be improved, but only an expert should attempt this change.)
4. **Oppo models have been heard by only one associate. He has not been able to make direct comparisons with any of the models from Class A to Class C.

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MUSIC SERVER VS. CD/SACD

An Important and Relevant Comparison...

Two of my associates, who have considerable experience with the best of today's Digital Source components, made some interesting comparisons at a recent audio show. These are the results that they sent me on my request, with only minor editing and my bold:

"To anyone following the trend in digital playback, it is quite clear that computer based systems are in vogue with CD players being viewed much like turntables were in the early 90's. The argument in favor of computers is that not only are they more convenient in use, they are less costly AND sound better. When have we heard this before? Oh yes, when CD players hit the market and when they were compared to vinyl. We all remember the notorious slogan of "Perfect Sound Forever". Fans of computer based digital seem to be making very similar claims.

To analog devotees, listening to music using a CD/SACD player is sufficiently difficult to reconcile, but actually having music processed through a computer is tantamount to heresy. Conversely, the generation brought up with computers not only completely embraces the concept, it proclaims its inherent superiority. So much so, that the compelling sentiment is that CD/SACD players are on the brink of extinction since they are obsolete technology.

All this talk about computer based digital reproduction peaked this writer's curiosity. With so much hoopla about music servers and computers being the gateway to a new revolution in digital sound reproduction, with no downside on any level to current systems, one would have to be an idiot not to pursue its acquisition and implementation. To determine the real differences between the two methodologies, and in order to make a valid comparison between a computer based system and a CD player, all the variables have to remain constant. The only variable should be the music server versus the CD transport. The same DAC, cables, musical sources and audio system, at the same time, in the same room, must be used. A/B comparisons using the same music burned from a CD onto the music server, and hi rez files downloaded directly to the music server, compared to the same hi rez discs played back on the transport, are required. Well, this is exactly what we undertook.

The music server used in the test is sold direct from the manufacturer, and costs $5,000, and is considered by many as state of the art. Its identity is reluctantly being concealed as part of the agreement in being able to use it in the comparison. The manufacturer of the unit optimized it implementing all the upgraded audiophile options available. He personally burned the CDs supplied to him, and downloaded the hi rez files. He downloaded all the finest music programs currently being used, and proclaimed his system absolute state of the art, and easily capable of outperforming any CD transport in existence. An ipad was used as the monitor and remote.

The comparison was now ready to proceed. Seeing all the music that I have downloaded over the years from the internet and burned from CDs on the ipad was thrilling. At my finger tips in excess of 4,000 tunes were easily and conveniently accessible. I, and my significant other, who has golden ears, passionately were rooting for the server to sound at least as good as the transport. If it outperformed the transport, we considered this a huge bonus. The CD transport being used was the latest MSB Technology ($4,000 retail), which was connected with their matching Signature DAC ($ 25,000) with all the options, including 24/192 USB input and hi rez capability.

We, meaning the manufacturer of the music server, my significant other and myself, first listened to a Redbook CD, John Klemmer "Touch", burned onto the music server. Within 20 seconds of auditioning, my partner and I went from eager anticipation and excitement to puzzlement and disappointment. Being intimately familiar with the sonics of this excellent recording, we became immediately aware that much was missing. The purity and air of the high frequencies, the transparency and immediacy of Klemmer's saxophone were severely compromised. The highs were darker and dirtier, and a slight veil was apparent over the entire sonic presentation.

On the server, we then listened to the RR Rachmaninoff "Symphonic Dances". This was download directly from the internet in hi rez. While it still sounded excellent overall, we sensed that bottom end weight, dynamics and the complete rendering of harmonics seemed compromised. We then switched to the MSB transport and listened to both cuts again. It was painfully obvious how much better the sound became. Music played on the transport was more transparent, immediate, with wider dynamics. The soundstage was more open and focussed and the musical rhythmic flow was simply more natural. The differences were not subtle. It literally took the three of us seconds to hear the deleterious effects imposed by the server.

What does all this mean? As far as I am aware, this comparative test is the only one where all the variables remained constant. The server was purported to be amongst the best, and was set up by the manufacturer himself, who was present and confirmed our findings. There might be a superior music server in existence, but the fact is clear that computer based digital reproduction cannot be considered a priori superior to transports. Indeed, based on this experience, it would appear that computers have a LONG way to go before they are competitive with good transports. Cost is not really a benefit when using a computer, since the price of a top quality DAC is the same whether it is connected to a server, computer or transport. The price differential between a competent transport and laptop or server may or may not be of significance.

Furthermore, the budget DACS, those selling for under $1,000, can sound anywhere from, well budget to pretty good. None are close to state of the art, and do not be fooled into believing that they are. I assume that an audiophile, who is financially restricted, can assemble a computer based digital front end for reasonable cost, and those with unlimited funds can purchase an all out similar set up. Both will provide a plethora of convenience features, but what they will not do is playback music competitively to the finest transport based systems.

Admittedly, based on this single experiment, albeit tightly controlled and in a high resolution audio system, with 3 very acute listeners, the conclusion to be drawn is that it must not be assumed that computer based digital reproduction is inherently superior to transports. The test, at the very least, demonstrates that more controlled testing is necessary before definitive conclusions may be made. The test does demonstrate that simply because a server, or a computer, is your method of choice, do not assume that a CD transport must be inferior. It may or may not be. Start listening and comparing with your own ears."

My Associate's Addendum

"The connection from the server to the DAC was optimized by manufacturer of the server for AES/EBU connection. The same connection was used for the Transport to DAC. The manufacturer of the server was very aware that this was going to be a shoot-out to determine the best sound. He did everything in the building of his unit, and in the ripping of the music, to ensure the highest fidelity: Non compressed wav files. However, not the identical cable, since the cable from the server to the DAC was hardwired from the server. The exact audio show can also not be mentioned, because it may help identify the server."

**********************************************************

We Receive Some Correspondence...

The article posted above was mentioned on "Computer Audio Asylum" (along with a link), and some "controversy" was quickly generated (mainly based on a misinterpretation of what was written, which I will respond to below). I (Arthur Salvatore) have now received two letters from Steve Nugent, of Empirical Audio, which specializes in "Computer Audio", which I felt must be posted. I do this to display the thinking, assumptions and reading "skills" of someone in the Computer Audio business, as well as a prolific poster (4775, and counting).

Here is Mr. Nugent's first letter, without any edits (but my bold), followed by a reply by myself:

"I read your article "MUSIC SERVER VS. CD" which was linked from Audio Asylum.

Your article is very biased and furthermore draws conclusions on a technology based upon tests with a single so called 'best' music server.

What you must understand is that this is a competitive business, and like the Republican campaigns, there are a lot of lies un (sic) untruths published in order to sell more products.

I will agree however that most all-in-one music servers are junk. I have had some of the best names here, because my customers want me to reclock them with my products and make them sound good. This does not mean that computer audio is not superior to CD Transports. It is with certain products. Computer Audio and all-in-on (sic) servers are two different animals, and one should distinguish this difference.

'Cost is not really a benefit when using a computer, since the price of a top quality DAC is the same whether it is connected to a server, computer or transport.'

This is not true either. Good clocking and power supply technology is expensive and you pay for this in a computer audio device. Its (sic) just like buying a really high quality cartridge for your turntable.

I guarantee that there are other computer audio solutions out there that will beat every single transport you put up against them. If you are going to publish such experiements (sic), please do not draw general conclusions from these tests, unless you have tested a broad swath of these types of devices. Doing this just degrades your credibilty (sic).

If computer audio,(not music servers) was not outperforming CD transports, then the likes of John Atkinson and Steven Stone would not be using it. They both use my Off-Ramp 4 product. It recieved (sic) best of show from TAS at RMAF 2010 and 2011, Editors Choice Award, Golden Ear Award from TAS and Recommended Components from Stereophile in 2012.

I recommend that you choose more carefully next time and draw a more realistic conclusion."

My (Unedited) Personal Response to the Reader

Dear Steve,

I don't believe that you did "read your article", or, if you did, not very closely, because in the first sentence you would have noticed that it was NOT I that actually wrote it, but instead the two associates who conducted the comparisons.

Even the manufacturer of the Music Server agreed to the results that were posted. Unlike other comparisons, everything was exactly the same and the manufacturer had all the time in the world to optimize his component.

Frankly, I don't care what John Atkinson (or almost anyone else from a commercial audio magazine) feels about any particular component. You shouldn't either. Why? The reasons are countless...Atkinson has more than 50 amplifiers, at the same time, all described as "the best available"; he has "recommended" more than 60 components in a row; he has more Class A+ (an absurdity in itself) components in certain categories than Class C, etc. etc.

However...

I freely admit that I am no digital expert by any means. Further, I wasn't even there for the actual comparisons, so I will forward your letter to the appropriate parties. If they send me a reply, I promise to send it to you. If I also feel it is worth it, for further edification, I will post your letter and the reply on my website. If I decide to do so, I will inform you beforehand to find out if you would prefer to remain anonymous or not.

Personally speaking, and my two associates agree with me, I can't imagine any audiophile NOT wanting the computer solution to be superior. This was also true when CDs became available, and transistors before them. Audiophiles should be excused for being sceptical of the latest "advance". However, if there is a better method to achieve the best results, as you claim, we would all be interested in hearing it for ourselves.

What we have done so far is report accurately on one direct and fair shoot-out, which proved that the claim of the universal superiority of servers to transports is not justified. We are interested in taking it to the "next level", if such a level exists, as you again claim.

The people involved in these comparisons, with the obvious exception of the Music Server manufacturer, had no financial or emotional stake in the results. I feel that this is not* true in your case. If there was any "bias", as you claim, it was IN FAVOR of the Music Server.

This is clear if you read the article closely: "With so much hoopla about music servers and computers being the gateway to a new revolution in digital sound reproduction, with no downside on any level to current systems, one would have to be an idiot not to pursue its acquisition and implementation".

Finally, my website, in stark contrast to Stereophile and TAS, does not exist "to sell more products".

*Mr. Nugent designs and sells a DAC, reclocker, converter and power supply, all of which he claims are requirements when optimizing Computer Audio. This conclusively demonstrates that Mr. Nugent has a vested financial interest in Computer Audio, while we have none, for either option. Here's the proof, plus a small favor to Mr. Nugent...

Link to Empirical Audio

Steve Nugent's Second Letter

"I dont (sic) object to shootouts, but this was not one of them. The products were not mentioned. The conclusion was that Computer Audio was inferior to CD's. This was the wrong conclusion IMO.

This particular all-in-one server, brand name XXX was inferior to the particular CD transport. This is the real conclusion.

BTW, you are getting a lot of flac (sic) on Asylum for this. Not good for business."

Important Note- Because of the last sentence in Steve Nugent's second letter, my original offer of anonymity is now revoked.

My Response to Steve Nugent's Second Letter

This is a very ignorant letter, which is literally depressing to contemplate. Even worse, the last sentence is both comedic and despicable at the same time. Fortunately, it is short:

Nugent- The products were not mentioned.

My Reply- Yes they were; the MSB Transport and DAC. It was the ($ 5,000) Music Server which was not mentioned, because of a promise we refuse to break. If the manufacturer gives us permission, I can assure you it will be mentioned. (I don't even know the name of the manufacturer myself!)

Nugent- The conclusion was that Computer Audio was inferior to CD's. This was the wrong conclusion IMO.

My Reply- Complete nonsense. We never claimed that "Computer Audio was inferior to CD's" was our "conclusion". This interpretation can only be the result of poor reading skills and/or some misplaced fear.

Nugent- This particular all-in-one server, brand name XXX was inferior to the particular CD transport. This is the real conclusion.

My Reply- True (finally!). This may be the first (and only) correct interpretation that was made by Nugent of the entire article. Anyone, with average reading skills, understood that conclusion from the beginning. However, this particular comparison also proves that it can not be assumed that computers are always superior to good quality transports. That is the main point of the article.

Nugent- BTW, you are getting a lot of flac on Asylum for this. Not good for business.

My Reply- I don't care what kind and amount "of flac" I'm getting on "Asylum". As for "not good for business", this may be the single most ignorant comment I've yet read about my website, which is saying a lot. Why?

I haven't been in the audio business since Fall 2001, more than 10 years ago now. I have a totally non-commercial and independent website, dedicated exclusively to home audio journalism. I also see this remark as some sort of veiled threat. To be clear, I won't be intimidated, because I have no finances at stake. Others (Michael Fremer and Charles Hansen/Ayre) have tried to do so in the past, and they too have failed.

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JANUARY 2011 UPDATE

Our new Digital Source Standards...

ESOTERIC P-01 TRANSPORT
D-01 MONO DAC(S)
GORb RUBIDIUM CLOCK

My veteran team of associates has just finished their evaluation of the top-of-the-line Esoteric digital components. It is now the new "top reference" for them and this website. I have not heard any of these models myself. Below is their short review, written by the most experienced and literate of the group. There's some minor editing and my bold:

"At the outset, let's simply proclaim the Esoteric P-01 Transport ($35,000), D-01 mono DACs ($35,000) mated with the GORb Rubidium clock ($20,000) the finest digital front end we have ever encountered, and, in all likelihood, the loftiest manifestation of digital reproduction now in existence.

Due to the astronomical cost ($ 90,000), it will be more of an academic exercise rather than being instructive as offering insight towards a possible purchase. What an audition with this Esoteric combination will accomplish is allow the listener an opportunity to hear what is possible and how far digital has gone in reproducing music: It is in another musical realm to any other player. It offers insights to CDs and SACDs that heretofore lay buried and hidden in those discs. Regardless of any other player anyone has evaluated, the P-01/D-01/GORb combo will reveal a wealth of music that did not seem to exist before. Most discs will be heard in a manner unlike previously experienced. From subtle nuances to obvious enhancements, the enjoyment of the musical experience will be immeasurably elevated. These are not simply audiophile improvements, but result in a difference of kind. It is akin to experiencing an authentic high end audio system for the first time.

Sonically, the revelations revolve around greater transparency, purity and overall fidelity to the original musical source. As mentioned above, musical details are experienced and clearly delineated that were previously absent. Low level detail is greatly enhanced; ambient cues are more apparent; and the music has more natural air. On a macro level; dynamics are explosive; the low frequencies sound as if extra woofers were added to your speakers; transient impact is scary.

The overall presentation is weightier, with more substance, more complete harmonics (the primary failing of digital) and far greater impact. And, the soundstage; WOW! The walls in the listener room disappear. The soundstage becomes incredibly expansive. It is open and unrestricted, yet with pin point precision within that soundstage. Instruments are placed with disarming exactitude, and the impression changes from listening to reproduced music, to something more like the real thing, happening in your room before your very ears.

Component by Component - Which is the most Important?

Let us now examine each component in this digital combination, to determine what each unit contributes to the final result.

As a unity, it is in a class by itself, but is each unit equally responsible for this breakthrough? The answer is no. The real breakthrough in sound happens with going to the P-01 Transport. It is now abundantly clear that the transport impacts the sound more than any other single entity in this digital trinity. Our journey to the realization of the combination under review began with a P-05/D-05. The P-01 then replaced the P-05, and that is when the huge leap in sound occurred. The difference in upgrading the transport was staggering. Our entire system was elevated to a degree that proved stupefying. The bulk of the improvement described above took place with the introduction of the P-01. To put this in perspective, the P-03/D-03 does not approach the sonic splendor of the P-01/D-05. The latter is in a completely superior sonic realm. In other words, DACs do not play as significant a role in the ultimate sound as transports.

Next in went the D-01s and the GORb, replacing the D-05. Very nice advance in sound, but far less than going from the P-05/D-05 to the P-01/D-05. The better DAC and clock noticeably enhanced the sound, but the improvements were more of an audiophile nature rather than a difference in kind. Actually, a little disappointing. Our expectations were greater, based upon the advance experienced with the P-01. There is no doubt that the inclusion of the D-01 and GORb proved superior to the D-05, but it seemed that more should have happened.

Since there has been a great amount of discussion about the effects of clocks, to determine what the clock brought to the party, the GORb was removed from the system; The sound was instantly degraded. The system lost some of its magic. The massive soundstage shrunk. It become truncated with a diffuse quality within that image. The organic flow of the music now became somewhat disorganized. The disarming realism previously heard sounded more "hi-fi". The GORb definitely made an audible impact.

Due to the effect caused by the GORb, it became obvious that going from the D-05, to the 4 times more expensive D-01s, without the clock, yields an audible, but relatively minor improvement. It certainly is not commensurate with the price differential, even taking into account the laws of diminishing returns. If spending $24,000 more on a DAC means very little to you, then go for the D-01s, since it does sound superior to the D-05.

In conclusion...

Where do we stand on this combination? The P-01/D-01/GORb is without doubt in a class by itself. No other digital front end approaches its sonic beauty. And they are beautifully constructed. Our advice to those who cannot spend $90,000 on a SACD player, but are still prepared to allocate serious funds to a digital front end, is to do the following:

The biggest bang for the buck, and where the substantive advance in sonics occurs, is with the inclusion of the P-01. Therefore secure the P-01 and the D-05. Prior to listening to the D-01/GORb, this combination is still the finest, by a large measure, that we have experienced. If finances permit it down the road, buy the GORb to complete the package.

How all this compares to computer based digital reproduction, we are not in a position to say, since our experience in this area is very limited. Our only exposure to music servers was a $5,000 Fusion Music, connected to the latest Benchmark DAC, and we were decidedly underwhelmed. The Esoteric X-03SE smoked it. For those so inclined, it might be worthwhile experimenting with computer based digital, since it is comparatively inexpensive. For those unwilling to go that route, the Esoteric units, subject to this review, will elevate digital reproduction to heights previously deemed unattainable."

Optimum Settings and Cable Types Used

GORb- 44.1khz and 176.4

P-01 Clock input- Rb in
Upsampled - 176.4/192
Output- XLR Dual

D-01 Input - XLR Dual
Output- XLR

Personal Notes- The critical observation of this review is the finding that the transport has a larger contribution to the final sound than does the DAC, at least at the highest performance levels. While I am no digital expert, I always assumed exactly the opposite was true (and may still be at lower performance levels). This important discovery should make it much easier for readers to find the best digital source to meet their requirements.

Plus another important digital source...

ESOTERIC SA-10 SACD PLAYER

As in the past, this evaluation was made by a group of associates who have heard and compared numerous digital players, with ultra-high resolution systems. None of them have any financial (or other conflicting) interest in digital sources, so they are also completely objective. Here is their most recent observations (some minor editing and my bold):

"After evaluating and living with many of the Esoteric models (X-03SE, P-05/D-05, P-03/D-03), it seemed time to review the entry level player to determine just how it stacks up against its more costly siblings. While Esoteric offers superb performance and build quality at all price points, there is a definite sonic benefit by going to the more expensive models. The SA-10 retails for $3,500, which is significantly less than half of the X-03SE (now $9,500).

The SA-10 is beautifully built, no surprises here as this is the Esoteric hallmark. It also performs at a very high level given its cost, but it is distinctly inferior to the X-03 SE, and not comparable to the Esoteric separates. Now for the details...

The SA-10 retains the basic sound of the X-03 SE. It is very immediate, detailed and transparent. No rolled off highs or smoothing over of details (characteristic of other units such as the Marantz Sa 7 and 11). Most of the information on the source material is reproduced cleanly and accurately. Without access to the X-03 SE or the Esoteric separates, the SA-10 would satisfy most listeners and all listeners who have not heard the state of the art players. Its errors are those of omission. Consequently, it is not apparent what is missing until it is heard.

By moving up to the X-03SE, the improvements revolve around weight and body. The 03 sounds ballsier, gutsier with more flesh on the bones. Midbass has more substance and the harmonics of all instruments and voices are more complete. The SA-10 is slightly threadbare by comparison. The other sonic area of difference lies in the soundstage. While the SA-10 throws an open window on the sound, the X-03 SE expands upon that window and virtually eliminates it. Images are larger and the wall boundaries of the listening room expand.

At its price point, the SA-10 stands out. It is constructed to a very high standard and is overall sonically superior to its competition. While it cannot compete with the far more expensive players in the Esoteric line, it is highly recommended* if $3,500 is the limit to one's budget."

*Personal Notes- Please note that despite the use of this word by my associate, this website only has "References". Further, as I recently promised, here is our updated, current and complete list of Digital Source References:

DIGITAL SOURCE REFERENCES
JANUARY 2011 TO MAY 2012

Class A (Upper)
Esoteric P-01/D-01 Transport and DAC w/GORb Rubidium Clock
Class A (Lower)
Esoteric P-03/D-03 Transport and DAC

Class B (Upper)
Esoteric P-05/D-05 Transport and DAC
Class B (Lower)
Esoteric X-03 SE SACD Player

Class C
Krell Standard SACD Player Mk. II/III (Used Only!)
Esoteric SA-10 SACD Player

Class D (Entry-Level)
Benchmark DAC & Pre 1
Doge CD6 (Stock or Modified*)
MHZS CD 66 & CD 88 (Modified*)

Explanations:
1. Price is a critical factor in Class B, Class C and Class D.
2. The Esoteric X-03 SE, Krell Standard SACD Mk. II/III and the Esoteric SA-10, are now "the best bang for the buck" SACD/CD players.
3. *Coupling capacitors changed to V-Cap or Solen Film and Foil Teflon, plus NOS "tube rolling". (DAC chip can also be improved, but only an expert should attempt this change.)

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JUNE 2009 UPDATE

Esoteric X-03 SE SACD Player

As I promised, this is the first of the two "ultimate" reviews. Once again, (3 of) my associates were involved in the listening sessions. The two high performance systems were also the same, as was the writer, for the sake of continuity. I was not included in these listening sessions. There's some minor editing and my bold:

"Let's cut right to the chase and proclaim that every other CD or SACD player, that sells for $5,000- $10,000, no longer has any validity to be in existence. For those who are budgeting $5K for a player, it is highly recommended you stretch your budget (or buy one used), and for those willing to spend up to $10,000, save your money and buy a X-03 SE. The Esoteric is not only better constructed and designed than any other sub $10,000 digital player, it SOUNDS superior.

Its performance on Redbook is as stellar as it is on SACD. There are no convenience, quality or sonic compromises with this machine relative to the competition. All the players reviewed on this site are now dinosaurs, driven to extinction by this magnificent component. Say goodbye to the MSB, the ARC CD7, and yes, even our beloved Oracle 2500 MK II. All the over $5,000 units, previously evaluated, are seriously outclassed by the X-03 SE, both sonically and in terms of build quality. There is no reason to purchase any other SACD player that sells for anything close to the X-03 SE's price.

The Esoteric takes all the sonic strengths of the Oracle, CD 7 and Krell SACD and combines them into one superb package. All the positive attributes of the Oracle (superb balance, midrange realism, overall transparency ) and the ARC (huge soundstage, exciting rendering of initial transients) and the Krell (wide dynamics, deep, impactful bass) are amalgamated by the Esoteric to produce the finest digital reproducer selling for under $10,000. The only area where another player, in the aforementioned list, still manages a slight level of superiority over the Esoteric, is the Oracle in the midrange, where its reproduction exhibits a tad more complete rendering of harmonics.

The Esoteric, if it was only a Redbook player, would still be the unit to buy compared to the ones previously reviewed. However, its SACD reproduction seriously elevates the level of performance obtainable in the digital realm. For the first time, analog devotees will be able to listen to full orchestra, massed strings, complex acoustic instruments and, get this, enjoy it.

No, it is not analog, but what the X-03 SE does for the first time, is allow analog lovers to gain a measure of musical satisfaction while listening to those little silver (and gold) discs. SACD's inherent superiority, over Redbook, is readily observable with the Esoteric, and this superiority is not simply an "audiophile" improvement. It literally is the difference between certain types of music (i.e orchestral) being essentially unlistenable, to becoming enjoyable. This, my friends, marks a monumental achievement. For vinyl adherents, a new world of musical delight is now unfolding before your ears. Hard to fathom, but it is now a reality - digital reproduction has become rewarding on its own terms.

While the X-03 SE is a breakthrough component at its price point, there is room for sonic improvement. There is another player (that will be the subject of a later review in June) that demonstrates that quite noticeably. However, that advance does come at a financial price and it is not unsubstantial. For now, simply think of the X-03 SE as an instrument that will alter the common perception of what is possible in digital reproduction. It will provide musical enjoyment, while listening to CD/SCADs, that was previously unobtainable at this price level. The Esoteric renders all previous digital efforts selling for under $10,000 obsolete. They are thusly being removed from the components list. At this time, the X-03 SE is the only digital component in Class A."

Personal Note- Due to the game-changing results above, there will now have to be a complete revision of The Digital Source References (the last big revision was in December 2008). The updated Digital References will be posted below.

Another Digital Source Shakeup is completed...

As I promised, this is the second of the two "ultimate" reviews. Once again, (3 of) my associates (plus others) were involved in the listening sessions. The writer was also the same, for the sake of continuity. I was not included in these listening sessions. There's an important personal note at the end of this review, summarizing where we are now. I've made some minor editing and my bold:

Esoteric P-05/D-05 Transport and DAC

"Digital audio reproduction has proven to be especially frustrating for me and many others weened on the finest analog. Inspite of what has been claimed, CD performance has fallen well short of the naturalness afforded by vinyl, and no matter how convenient its many user features, digital has ultimately sounded amusical, especially when it came to reproducing complex groups of acoustic instruments. There simply is not enough bits of information available in the limited accepted standard that has been adopted for Redbook.

Consequently, any demanding music, such as orchestral, small symphony, ancient music using original instruments, etc. was not at all satisfying when played back on those shiny little discs. Simpler music such as small scale jazz, folk or rock (with its electronic instruments) fared somewhat better, but still did not achieve the level of palpability heard on vinyl. Therefore, for many of us, CDs were the medium to use on recordings that were not available on LP or for casual, background enjoyment. Until NOW...

What started with the Krell SACD Standard, and continued with the Esoteric X-03SE, has now culminated in the Esoteric P-05/D-05 DAC/Transport combo. SACD, as experienced with the Krell, provided a glimpse into the capabilities of this medium. Suddenly, the broader standard, with its wider bandwidth, showed promise when playing back symphonic material. For an analog enthusiast, this music almost entered the realm of enjoyability. The X-03SE, took that another step forward. Finally, Heifetz playing the Beethoven and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos (RCA Living Stereo) were not only listenable, but get this, enjoyable. One could actually sit through both works consecutively and not become nauseated. This was a shocking experience. SACD after well recorded SACD (the other RCAs, Mercuries, Water Lillys) provided hours of endless musical satisfaction, without the ubiquitous digital deharmonicization. No, it still did not equal the best analog, but it was rewarding in and of itself.

Piqued by the excellences of the X-03SE, a curiosity to explore just how good SACD could be began to stir. The next logical step was to upgrade to the Esoteric separates- P-05/D-05 combination. Just how much better could the further expenditure of $6,800 and separated DAC and transport provide? The usual laws of high end diminishing returns would suggest a refinement of sorts over the single box X-03SE, but expecting any huge sonic leap would be overly optimistic and essentially unrealistic. What ensued was not only a complete surprise, it was tantamount to a revelation.

After the appropriate burn in period of approximately 500 hours (the combo sounds superb right out of the box- again notwithstanding what the prevailing word is on the street) and set up (meaning top quality dual XLR digital cables to connect the DAC to transport and BNC cable, to activate the word sync between the two units) the P-05/D-05 was a quantum leap in performance over the already stellar X-03SE. The former was superior in every measure, and not by a subtle amount. The differences were instantly observable. It was not necessary to do an A/B comparison. The laundry list of categories included deeper, more explosive bottom end, greater transparency in the midrange, highs were more extended, airier and purer, the soundstage was more expansive, transients were more precise with greater intensity of percussive instruments and the dynamic gradations were much wider.

In short, digital sound took on a purity and naturalness that was previously unheard of. The P-05/D-05 now reproduced ALL types of music with a verisimilitude that was never experienced previously with any digital reproduction. The finest Redbook also sounded better than ever before, but not up to the standard of the best SACDs. Comparisons between the identical CDs, with their SACD counterparts, clearly demonstrated this phenomenon. Many of the RCA Living Stereo recordings with Reiner conducting, the Mercury Living Presence reissues etc, sounded marvelous. As a matter of fact, some of the RCA SACDs were more harmonically complete than even the Classic vinyl reissues, and at least as satisfying to audition.

The P-05/D-05, playing the best produced SACDs, has for the first time, caused a committed analog adherent to thoroughly revel in the enjoyment of all genres of the musical experience. The Esoteric combo has enabled those familiar with the real thing to reach a level of aesthetic satisfaction with music played by it to an unprecedented degree. The inevitable question is: "How does it compare to the finest analog"?

The answer is, while it still lacks vinyl's unique ability to convey the musical message in its most natural state, it is now good enough to be completely enjoyable on its own terms. Vinyl still sounds more real, but SACDs played by the P-05/D-05 are immensely satisfying and musically rewarding. It will take a top flight analog rig to match or exceed the superior reproduction of the Esoteric. That translates to a serious expenditure, at least in the $20K or greater range. A more modest phono set up will prove inferior on many sonic performance parameters. I can actually recommend, for the first time to those who have not yet entered the analog realm, spend that same money on acquiring the P-05/D-05 separates instead. A budget vinyl system will not provide the macro performance of the Esoteric separates. Capturing the weight, impact, dynamics, thunderous low end and transient intensity of the P-05/D-05 on SACD is beyond the purview of a less than state-of-the-art analog set up.

The Esoteric P-05/ D-05 represents a breakthrough in digital reproduction. Those who have lived exclusively within this realm of audio reproduction will be introduced into a new level of performance. Others, who have never been enamored by CD playback, will now become converts to the possibilities offered by SACD. The "perfect sound forever" is finally now, almost 3 decades after its inception, capable of offering the joys that wondrous music can provide. If spending $15K on SACD/CD playback is anywhere near one's budget, do it. You definitely do not need a preamp, as the P-05/D-05 has remote volume capability (and again inspite of any nonsense you might read in audio chat groups and the mainstream audio rags, straight into the amps sounds not only the most transparent, you will not sacrifice ANYTHING in terms of dynamics or bass). There is no digital player we've experienced under $20K that approaches the build quality, and the sonic excellences of the Esoteric P-05/D-05. Nothing!"

Esoteric P-03/D-03 Transport and DAC

"The laws of diminishing returns has finally decided to kick in. Is the 03 combo superior to the 05? Yes, without a doubt. Is it worth almost twice the price? Yes and no. The answer is affirmative if you are an absolute perfectionist and must have the best, with cost being a relatively insignificant factor. No, if the goal is to achieve performance commensurate with the price jump.

By going to the 03s, what is wrought with a further expenditure of $15,000? Firstly, the build quality of the more expensive units is something to behold. The D-03 and P-03 weigh in at a hefty 62 lbs each (versus 31 lbs for the 05 separates). The added mass is relevant in not only impressing your friends, but it does create a chassis that is remarkably rigid and inert. Furthermore, the P-03 uses the upgraded VRSD transport mechanism which is so stable and silky smooth in operation that here is where the greatest impact on the improved sonics takes place.

Sonically, the P-03/D-03 is decidedly smoother with more body. There is an extra degree of harmonic detail revealed as well as the elimination of any chassis induced resonances. This has the effect of creating a more solid, weighty feel to the sound. Bass is a tad more impactful, and when the music gets very dynamic, the sound does not change at all. It stays as completely unruffled as it did at lower levels.

All the sonic enhancements of the 03 to the 05 are fairly subtle, but definitely audible. In testing the transport and dac individually, it became apparent that the P-03 makes more of a difference than the D-03. I would attribute a 60/40 split in its favor. If funds are limited, I can heartily recommend the P-03 with the D-05. If money is no object, the complete P-03/D-03 is still the route to follow. There is one downside to the D-03 that must be mentioned. It has no volume control, which means volume attenuation, whether in the form of a line stage or a passive, becomes necessary.

While prohibitively expensive, the P-03/ D-03 is the finest sounding digital that we have yet encountered. The combination represents a refinement over the already excellent P-05/D-05, but the improvement is no where near the jump experienced by going to the P separates from the single box X-03 SE."

And on a completely different price scale...

BENCHMARK DAC (& PRE 1)

The Benchmark was also recently evaluated by the same (3) associates. This particular group has a considerable amount of experience with digital sources. They also have access to two highly revealing systems as "tools". I have no personal experience with this component. This report was, once again, written by the most literate of the group. There's some very minor editing on my part, plus my bold:

"The Benchmark DAC has received ubiquitous coverage in the audio press. The reviews range from calling it a 'breakthrough' product, that competes and exceeds the performance of the most expensive DACs, to it being classified as among the finest, and, at its reasonable selling price, thereby constitutes a huge bargain. The latest from Benchmark, the DAC PRE 1, is the unit being reviewed here. It has all the latest op amp upgrades, has a built-in preamp to control other digital sources and includes a USB input so it can be connected directly to a computer or music server. The unit was reviewed using a 20 year old Phillips CD player, the Electrocompaniet UP 24/192 EMC, Marantz SA 7 S1 and an Audio Request Fusion Music Server, all as transports.

When connected to the old, inexpensive Phillips CD player, the overall sound was surprisingly good. I would rate it the equivalent of a $2,000 single box CD player. It actually outperformed the Electrocompaniet/Benchmark tandem, which sounded very poor. There seemed to be an electrical incompatibility mating these 2 units. The Electro sounded far superior on its own. This was not the case when the Benchmark was hooked up to the SA 7 (latest version), as this combo outperformed the stand alone Marantz. The combination of the SA7/Benchmark had marginally more purity and slightly better dynamic impact than the Phillips used as a transport, but when the price difference is factored into the equation, it simply did not justify the cost.

The best sound was achieved when the Audio Request was connected to the Benchmark. It easily surpassed the performance of all the other combinations. It sounded superb in all the audiophile categories while exhibiting very few obvious shortcomings. The flexibility afforded the Audio Request made it an attractive option. It burns CDs within 3 minutes in FLAC and WAV file formats, which make the burned CD indistinguishable from the original. Playback from the unit's hard drive definitely was more transparent than when the disc itself was used. While I did not have the opportunity to listen to the Audio Request with any other DACs, I had the nagging feeling that its ultimate performance capabilities were being held back by the DAC PRE 1, because with all the combinations tested, a pervasive sonic signature was evident. I had to conclude that this 'signature' was the 'contribution' being made by the Benchmark.

Compared to 'ultimate' units (see above), the Benchmark DAC PRE 1 is not fully fleshed out in the midrange. While it is pure and transparent, it is not harmonically complete. Its errors are those of omission rather than commission, which makes the Benchmark easy to listen to. The low frequencies are extended, but lack the full measure of weight and impact. Further, during complex, dynamic peaks, the upper midrange gets a tad bright and edgy with the upper range of female voices, for example, tending to thin out. There is also, a slight softening of initial hard transients. Certain percussive instruments, vigorous acoustic guitar strumming for example, have their intensity curtailed, as well as softened, and the transients become somewhat blurred.

While the overall presentation is mostly neutral and uncolored, there is a lack of refinement to the mids and highs that are endemic to the best players. All the flaws mentioned above are relatively subtle and require a high resolution system to discern. In more modest systems, the Benchmark represents excellent value and I can appreciate why it has been so successful.

Where would the DAC PRE 1 really be valuable? For those audiophiles who still have an old, essentially worthless CD player, with a digital-out connection, so that the Benchmark could be used as a DAC. If the preamp function is not necessary, the purchase of the DAC 1 at $500 less (about $1,000 retail), would then cause this combination to be classified as a great bargain, though its performance is still far from competitive to the best available DACs."

The final word, for 2009...

Esoteric P-03/D-03 Transport and DAC- An Update

After more than 3 months of observations, my associates have sent me a more definitive report on this combination. Despite the change in perspective, no change has been made to our current list of Reference Digital Sources. There is only minor editing and my bold:

"After extended, in-depth listening, over a further period of 2 months, the superiority of the P-03/D-03 combination, over the already superb P-05/D-05, has become more significant. The improvement represents far more than a simple refinement. Much more. It is almost, but not quite, as big as the advance from going from the X-03SE to the 05 separates. Everything that was written in the P-03/D-03 review still stands, but the degree of excellences in all the audio parameters of performance are that much more noticeable. The 03 combo is so disarming, that at present its flaws are virtually undetectable. There is no other digital reproducer that we have heard that does anything better than the Esoteric. Yes, some other unit may exist that is its superior, but we have not as yet experienced it.

Due to this phenomenon, the only way it can be determined that it is doing something wrong or less than state of the art, is to compare this player with something that outperforms it in any area. Unfortunately, none are up to the task. Comparing the P-03/D-03 to the finest analog is unfair, since they are very different media. I can reiterate that as a long time vinyl adherent, my last couple of months of musical enjoyment has come via the Esoterics. The sound is that good. SACD after SACD (and even Redbook to a degree) has proved captivating and enthralling with I hate to admit it, little longing for LPs.

Bottom line- The Esoteric P-03/D-03 SACD player will reveal the music residing on your SACDs to an unprecedented degree. The level of musical enjoyment derived therefrom will prove revelatory and equal (but different) on its own terms to analog. If you can afford it, buy them!"

Personal Notes- There will be no further auditions of digital sources until this Fall, at the earliest. We have now completely updated our list of Digital Sources References. This was necessary to avoid any confusion caused by the introduction (to us) of the various Esoteric SACD models. This will also provide the "continuity" I consider critical for credibility.

To be absolutely clear- All the previous "lists" and "references", no matter how recent, are now obsolete, so please ignore them.

DIGITAL SOURCE REFERENCES
FROM JUNE 2009 TO DECEMBER 2010

Class A (Upper)
Esoteric P-03/D-03 Transport and DAC
Class A (Lower)
Esoteric P-05/D-05 Transport and DAC

Class B
Esoteric X-03 SE SACD Player

Class C
Krell Standard SACD Player Mk. II/III (Used Only!)

Class D (Entry-Level)
Benchmark DAC & Pre 1
Doge CD6 (Stock or Modified*)
MHZS CD 66 & CD 88 (Modified*)

Removed:
ARC REF CD 7
ElectroCompaniet UP SE
MSB Platinum DAC III and Reference Transport
Oracle CD 2500 MK II

Explanations:
1. Price is a critical factor in Class B, Class C and Class D (and a main reason for all the removals).
2. The Krell Standard SACD Mk. II/III and the Esoteric X-03 SE, when purchased used, are now "the best bang for the buck" CD players.
3. *Coupling capacitors changed to V-Cap or Solen Film and Foil Teflon, plus NOS "tube rolling". (DAC chip can also be improved, but only an expert should attempt this change.)

DECEMBER 2008 UPDATE

KRELL STANDARD SACD PLAYER MK. II/III

This is the first Krell component, of any type, that has ever been made a "Reference Component" on this website. Because of its relative performance and price (ratio), the previous Digital Source Reference "Hierarchy" had to be radically changed (see below for all the specific details).

Three of my "associates", all of whom have considerable experience with digital sources, of all types, made the actual comparisons and evaluations. I also later purchased a used model myself (a MK II on eBay), and can partially verify some of their observations (within my limited digital source experience). The short "review" just below is what was conveyed to me by the most literate of this veteran audiophile group. There is some slight editing and my bold:

"This version of the Krell is being referred to as the MK II, as it has the large red display, in contrast to the original model with the smaller orange lights, and the MK.III (latest) which has a blue read out. There has been much discussion of reliability problems with the earliest versions. The transport was allegedly prone to malfunction at worse or become noisy at a minimum. The MK. II is supposed to be less susceptible to these maladies, with the current model being claimed to be the least problematic. Confirmation or rebuttal of these assertions are beyond the purview of this review. Suffice it to say that the unit under review was manufactured in the latter part of 2005 and has operated without incident.

At the onset, a confession must be made. Prior to auditioning the unit, this reviewer was predisposed against it due to the fact that no component of any kind that bore the Krell moniker was deemed to be consonant with the realistic reproduction of music. All Krell products possessed that thread bare, harmonically bleached quality that could not be overlooked no matter how fast and detailed otherwise it was overall. Well, all that has changed within the first few notes of listening to the Krell Standard. I was unprepared and taken aback by this player's sonic glory.

A Tale of "Buts"-

Everything that Krell was noted for - big, gutsy bass, wide, explosive dynamics and ultra clean precision were there in spades. All the positive qualities that made Krell the darling of its adherents were very evident. But what about its Achilles Heal? What about all these areas where it previously so badly faltered? But, and a big but, a J-Lo size butt, I mean but. The sound was full bodied, harmonically rich and well balanced from top to bottom (no, I am not obsessed with asses- but a nice butt never hurts).

The SACD Standard was doing it all. Disc after well recorded disc was reproduced with a viscerally thrilling quality. Dynamic gradations were incredibly wide and the ffff range proved positively explosive -as if the player was on steroids, but always in a live concert type of manner, never sounding artificially hyped. The Krell was tenacious in capturing as much of the information on a disc as ever experienced with any player. Nothing seemed to elude its grasp. It excelled in all the audiophile categories - big, spacious soundstage, high resolution, superb rendering of the entire frequency spectrum etc. etc. But, what sets this player apart from all others (with the exception of the Oracle and ARC) is how adeptly it transmits the excitement of live music. The Standard grabs your attention and forces you to listen. Background music becomes an oxymoron. The only other players that accomplish a similar task are the Oracle CD 2500 MK. II and the Audio Research CD 7. The Krell, however, has a trump card- SACD capability.

SACD-

Krell's reproduction on CD is at the highest level of achievement. On par with the ARC and within a hair's breath of the Oracle. The midrange of the CD 2500 is still a tad more fluid, immediate and harmonically complete. With SACDs, this is the finest player I have experienced under $15,000. Previous to the Krell, SACDs proved to be disappointing. Yes, refinements in the upper frequencies and more ambient information were evident in comparison to red book, but these improvements fell into the category of audiophile niceties. The Krell has changed that perception. On the best SACDS, the improvements over CD are now those that enhance the conveyance of the musical message. There are substantive and in some cases revelatory. The Krell is responsible for this change. I am not suggesting that there does not exist other SACD players that can equally reproduce this phenomenon. At this stage, they are beyond my personal experience. The units with which I am familiar do not approach the Krell's achievements in SACD. Those units include the Ayre CX 5E, McCormack UDP 1, Marantz SA 7-S1, Audio Aero Prestige, and Accuphase.

Conclusion-

The Krell Standard is a superlative CD and SACD player. Do not be misled by anyone suggesting otherwise. A used MK. 1 or II can be had for about $2000. Snap it up and do not spend more money unless you are a complete fanatic with very deep pockets. The Krell gets it and with a vengeance."

Personal Notes- I can verify that the bass, dynamic intensity, speed and purity of the Krell SACD Standard Mk. II are the finest I have ever heard in my system. Further, I've had no problems with the transport; it is totally silent, and it only takes the normal few seconds to read the disc and start playing. However, because of the acknowledged transport problems with the Mk. I, plus the fact that none of us has actually heard it, only the Mk. II and the III are now "References". I haven't heard any SACDs yet, but I plan to get a few of them to try out.

As mentioned above, and after a thorough re-evaluation, we have now completely updated our list of Digital Sources References. I want to avoid any confusion caused by the introduction (to us) of the Krell SACD Standard. This will also provide the "continuity" I consider critical for credibility. To be absolutely clear; All the previous "lists", no matter how recent, are now obsolete, so please ignore them.

DIGITAL SOURCE REFERENCES
DECEMBER 2008

Class A (Upper)
Oracle CD 2500 MK II

Class A (Lower)
ARC REF CD 7
Krell Standard SACD Player Mk. II/III

Class B
Doge CD6 (Modified*)
ElectroCompaniet UP SE

Class C
Doge CD6 (Stock)

Class D (Entry-Level)
MHZS CD 66 & CD 88 (Modified*)

Removed:
Accuphase SACD/CD DP77
AMR 77
Audio Aero Prestige SACD
Marantz SA 7S- SACD (latest version)
MHZS CD 66 & 88 (Stock)
Reimyo DAP777

Explanations:
1. There is a larger difference in performance between classes than within classes.
2. Price is a critical factor in Class B, Class C and Class D (and the reason for all the removals).
3. The Krell Standard SACD Mk. II/III, when purchased used, are now "the best bang for the buck" CD players, replacing both the MHZS CD 66 & 88.
4. *Coupling capacitors changed to V-Cap or Solen Film and Foil Teflon, plus NOS "tube rolling". (DAC chip can also be improved, but only an expert should attempt this change.)

Top

THE FALL 2007 DIGITAL "SHOOTOUT"

The below essay/survey was mainly written by an associate, who was, in turn, assisted by his own three "associates". This essay/survey also supercedes every write-up about digital components previously posted on this website.

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The following survey of CD and, in 4 cases, SACD/CD players, was undertaken over a span of two months using a state of the art audio system, whose resolution and lack of inherent colorations, made discerning the sonic quality of the individual units blatantly clear. The conclusions that ensue are based on at least 2 and, at times, 3 individuals' evaluations.

The sonic qualities of the players are delineated as objectively as possible. This is not a case of "complimentary system colorations" or "personal predilections" affecting the ranking. Each player's flaws and strengths are described as heard. Every player was adequately broken in and in top operating condition. The only variable that changed was the component under test.

The auditioning revealed 5 categories of sonic performance:

1. State of the Art (1 player emerged).
2. Close to the above but with a couple of subtle flaws (1 unit fell into this realm).
3. Very good but noticeable failings compared to the higher categories (5 players resided here).
4. Acceptable performance for mid-fi but not in the class of 3. (5 players here).
5. Not acceptable at any price above $ 1,000. (This spot reserved for only one unit).

The players tested included:

1. Doge CD6
2. (Pacific Valve) MHZS CD 66- Modified
3. Reimyo CDT- 777 and DAP777
4. Ayre C-5xe
5. AMR 77
6. Oracle CD 2500 MK II
7. Accuphase SACD/CD DP77
8. ARC REF CD 7
9. APL Denon 3910
10. MHZS CD 66- Stock
11. MHZS CD 88- Stock
12. McCormack UDP-1
13. ElectroCompaniet UP SE

Most CD players currently available fall into one of two sonic categories:

1. Those that are highly detailed, but at the same time somewhat harmonically lean and a bit edgy or

2. Those that are very smooth and easy to listen to, but unfortunately are lacking in detail, transparency and often dynamic excitement.

It is only the great player that combines detail, transparency and wide dynamics with smoothness, and full rendering of harmonics. This kind of digital player is, as we shall see, very rare.

Which player(s) can combine the best of the above qualities? The ability to be full bodied with weight and impact, harmonically complete with a refined upper midrange and highs yet reveal all the detail on a recording characterizes only one of the above tested units. All the others exhibit the above mentioned flaws to a greater or lesser degree. One other is very close but does not meet the standard of that one special player.

Of all the units tested, two were major disappointments based on the rave reviews they garnered by either the major audio magazines, and/or the buzz on the internet audio chat groups, and because they were downright outclassed by all the others (including a couple at much lower prices). For further clarification...

- All players were placed on a well isolated component stand using the feet supplied with each unit;
- All were auditioned in single ended mode only;
- Components capable of reproducing the sound of a whisper and the power of a full orchestra were preferred to those that could do neither;
- Digital reproduction was never confused with analog, since the two media never sound alike and each are viewed in their own realm;
- The more flawed a component and the more colored an audio system, the greater the dependency and interaction between the two.

The players will now be grouped from worst to best. They fall into fairly distinct categories, which will become evident.

Category 5

The worst performer of the group was the Ayre CX 5E. In spite of receiving Stereophile's Product of the Year award and countless positive comments, the Ayre combined the worst characteristics of both sonic categories. It was badly lacking in detail and transparency as well as being dynamically anemic. Instruments were threadbare and lifeless. Soundstage was truncated as if all the music emanated out of a cardboard tube. Three words describe the sonics of the Ayre- Bland, bland, bland. It really has no redeeming qualities for a player at this price point. The $680 MHZS CD 66 is far superior in virtually every aural parameter. This CX 5E was carefully evaluated by 3 serious and knowledgeable, listeners who came to the same conclusions independently.

Category 4

Significantly superior to the Ayre (which is not saying much) are the APL Denon 3910, McCormick UDP 1, MHZS CD 66 -stock and modified) and CD 88. The second major disappointment in this survey is the APL Denon 3910. With all the internet hype about how wonderful this player is, it turns out that it is smooth and non offensive, transforming bright, lean source material into something more listenable. However, detail is glossed over and dynamics are constricted. This is a player for those who want some easy listening with no sonic nasties. At $6,000, the APL is way overpriced and not competitive with much less costly players.

The McCormack UDP 1, another highly touted player (Stereophile Class A) barely makes it into this category, narrowly escaping the realm solely occupied by the Ayre. The McCormack is essentially an amusical player that is bright, edgy and very lean with most of the natural harmonics shaved off. The bass is weak and lacking in body. This unit is what gives digital reproduction its poor image. It typifies all the negatives associated with bits and bytes. Its SACD reproduction is marginally superior to its redbook, being not as fatiguing. This player sounds like it should sell for $500.

The MHZS units are more detailed and transparent with wider dynamic gradations but they can sound a tad aggressive when pushed, especially stock. The sound is quite vivid and lucid but not as refined as the more expensive, better players. Modifying the CD 66 with NOS tubes, Teflon caps etc. certainly improves the performance and makes the MHZS a best buy. It also moves the performance to somewhere between category 4 and 3. The CD 88 is identical to the 66 except that it uses tube rectification. It consequently sounds a touch smoother with a more realistic tone. On the downside, bass is not quite as punchy. But do not be fooled into believing they will provide the sonics of the higher categories of units costing thousands more. For those not that serious about digital reproduction and desiring a well built, great value player, the CD 66 (especially modified) is the ticket. It conveys the music.

Category 3

The Reimyo separates, AMR CD 77, Accuphase DP77, Electrocompaniet and the Doge CD 6 (with NOS tubes being necessary) all fall within this category with differing strengths and weaknesses but their overall sonic performance is fairly equal. The Doge is by far the best value (available direct for $1,400- add $200 for upgraded tubes) and is the most refined sounding of the group. As a matter of fact, from the lower midrange on up, its reproduction competes with the best. It is very detailed, transparent and pure yet harmonically complete. Its achilles heel is its bass, and midbass which is lacking in requisite weight and impact. Dynamically it compresses the music at the ffff range. This player lacks balls. It is beautifully constructed especially at its price.

The AMR has generated tremendous excitement over the internet as well as being the recipient of a rave review in 6 moons.com. Favorable comparisons have been made to the state of the art Zanden separates. Build quality is magnificent. Sonically, however, it did not live up to its advance billing. The AMR falls into the smooth, polite sound camp with sacrifices to detail, dynamics, bass extension, midbass punch and ultimate dynamics. It is a very nice sounding player that will not irritate nor annoy, but neither will it excite nor viscerally impress. Listened to on its own without access to the top two players in this survey, the AMR shortcomings are subtle and may go unnoticed by many. However, the best units here will expose the AMR's errors of omission.

The Accuphase DP77 is sonically a dead ringer for the AMR. They sound so much alike they could be identical twins. Everything said about the AMR applies to the DP77. The Accuphase does offer the advantage of SACD reproduction.

The Reimyo DAC/Transport is the most expensive player in the survey at $13,850. Its performance is not commensurate with that lofty price tag. It does have a midrange to die for. Big, spacious and immediate. Its reproduction in this range is obviously superior to every other unit in this test except for one player that comes within a hair of equalling it. Its main flaws are a lack on control in the low bass, which is accompanied by some wooliness in the midbass and a lean, bright edge in the upper midrange especially evident on complex music being played loud. Consequently, while the Reimyo possesses areas of greatness, it is ultimately precluded from entering the upper categories due to its frequency selectivity and lack of complete balance. Its DAC is superior to its transport which no longer uses the JVC mechanism that the single box Reimyo did. This became evident when the transport was substituted with the MHZS CD 66 CD player. Used as a transport only, the $680 Chinese player essentially equaled the performance of the Reimyo. The Reimyo DAC and CD 66 transport is sonically superior to all the other units in this test with the exception of the top two. At the cost of about $5,800, it represents good value.

The Electrocompaniet UP SE is a big. bold gutsy sounding player that is exceptionally easy to live with since its errors are only ones of omission and its strengths considerable. It is the most dynamic of the group with bass and midbass reproduction that also stands alone. Tremendous weight and impact in the lower registers. This unit is exceptionally smooth and harmonically complete. The highs are not the least bit bright or edgy, instead erring on the side of being a tad rolled off and overly smooth. The main failings of the Electro are that it slightly blunts initial transients, softening them and reducing their intensity and low level detail is not fully conveyed. Overall, the UPSE sounds somewhat on the dark side. Systems that are overly lean (those using Thiel, Wilson, B & W coupled with Krell, or DCS electronics for example) will find the Electro a welcome relief.

Category 2

The Audio Research REF 7 is significantly superior to all the other players discussed above. It does everything superbly, which is its major strength. It is beautifully balanced from top to bottom. Its frequency response is exceptionally linear, its dynamics explosive, and its detail portrayal is revelatory. It passes along all the information with pristine clarity and full harmonics. In two areas it proved unique- transient purity and impact and soundstaging. The initial transient, heard through the ARC takes on an intensity and visceral impact that will get the heart a pounding. It is sheer excitement. Up to this point, no player came close to replicating this phenomenon. Furthermore, the sound field the ARC generates knows no bounds.It is huge when the source material is so recorded. Sounds way beyond the speakers are plainly experienced yet within that massive sound scape there is focus and precision of instrumental localization.

Does the ARC have any flaws. Yes, there are two. They are subtle and not obtrusive but they do exist. The first is a lack of midbass power, weight and body. Drums do not have the impact they could nor does double bass and cello possess the growl they should. The other is a slight leaning out of the harmonics in the upper midrange accompanied by a slight tendency towards stridency in this range. The flaws are there to be sure, but the ARC is so special that they do not really detract from the pleasure derived from listening to music through it. If the category 1 unit did not exist, the ARC would be the player to have. It brings life and excitement to the musical experience and makes one forget the hardware and focus instead on what this hobby should be really about- the music.

Category 1

The player that has it all and proved the most satisfying is the Oracle CD 2500 MK II. The Oracle sounds as stunning as it looks. For once, beauty and substance combined in one package. The 2500 has no obvious flaws which is what sets it apart from the rest. It is the best or close to that in all areas and ultimately that is what makes it unique. While other players may exceed its performance in certain respects (i.e Reimyo's glorious midrange or ARC's unbridled soundstage), no other player conveys the musical message with so little of its own personality. It really gets out of the way and allows the music to flow without coloration, distortion or omission. There is no point ruminating about its wide dynamic gradations or thunderous bass or its pristine clarity or its harmonic completeness etc, etc. Suffice it to say that its excellences are so overwhelming, that the listener becomes disarmed and flounders to conjure up any salient criticisms. The ARC is close in overall performance but the Oracle takes it to a subtle but tangible higher level.

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Personal Notes- I did not participate in this "shoot-out". I have only heard the Pacific Valve 66 (modified) and the Oracle (in Toronto). The actual writer and the other participants will remain anonymous, as they have requested. I will simply ignore any requests for their identity. I will vouch for both their objectivity and competence, along with the above description of the audio system(s) used in the auditions. These results have been since independently confirmed by another (4th) "associate", in an entirely different location and with an entirely different system.

I will post differing opinions, if they appear both sincere and credible, but I won't engage in any fruitless debates about the merits, or lack of them, of players I haven't even heard myself.

Finally, for sake of continuity, and to avoid any confusion, here is how these players are now positioned in Reference Digital Sources:

Class A (Upper)
Oracle CD 2500 MK II

Class A (Lower)
ARC REF CD 7

Class B (Upper)
Accuphase SACD/CD DP77
AMR 77
Doge CD6 (Modified)
ElectroCompaniet UP SE
Reimyo DAP777 with MHZS CD 66 Transport

Class B (Lower)
Doge CD6 (Stock)
MHZS CD 66 & CD 88 (Modified)

Class C
MHZS CD 66 & 88 (Stock)

August 2008 Addendum

As I promised a number of months ago, here is the addendum to the Fall 2007 Digital Shootout.

Both of the below CD players join the Class B (Upper) Reference Digital Sources above. The short "review" below was written by one of my associates, who had two other associates assist in this evaluation. They were unanimous in their conclusions, as was also the case with the above original "Shootout" from last Fall. I've made some minor edits and additions for clarity and my bold:

Marantz SA 7S- SACD (latest version)
Audio Aero Prestige SACD

Let's cut to the chase- Both are excellent players and fit into the upper reaches of Category 3 (Category 1 being the highest and 5 the lowest). Both are beautifully constructed with the Marantz representing superb value.

Marantz SA -7S-1- Does everything well. No obvious flaws. Similar to the Accuphase SACD/CD DP77 in quality and sonics. Very smooth and refined with no sense of edge or brightness. Well balanced from top to bottom, with errors being those of omissions. For those looking for the last word in detail, this is not the player to own. If overall listening ease is of highest priority, the Marantz will be sure to please. The SACD and CD sound almost identical.

Audio Aero Prestige - Expensive, but well built and it does have the advantage of having an integral preamp with the added convenience of remote volume. Overall performance is top notch, but a different sonic perspective than the Marantz. It is more detailed and transparent than the Marantz, but conversely not quite as smooth or forgiving on less than stellar recordings. Upper midrange has a predisposition to be slightly lean. SACD and CD performance at par.

Both of these players would form the basis of a very high end audio system. They have differing strengths and weaknesses and personal preference will determine which player is preferred. The Audio Aero is twice the price of the Marantz, but the Prestige's high quality, built-in preamp and the added convenience of remote volume, narrows the financial gap between the two.

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The "Shootout Spoof"

As it sadly turned out, a number of "audiophiles" became incensed with the above shoot-out. These were mainly two of the audio manufacturers that didn't do well in the above survey, along with their more insecure followers, and some others, who felt that the directness and sincerity of our observations and opinions reflected badly on the state of the (now sad and pandering) mainstream audio press (Stereophile and TAS). You can read their "imaginative" though totally false, reckless and hysterical charges at Audio Asylum (Digital Drive). In the end, not a shred of actual evidence to support their "claims" was ever offered by any of them. That's not surprising, since no one involved in the above shootout had a financial and/or personal interest in CD players.

Of course, we responded with the actual facts, which people of this type predictably ignored, so we then decided to gently ridicule them as well. I rarely take this line of reply, but the posted charges were so fraudulent, ridiculous and even disgusting at times, that the perpertrators truly deserved it. Here is the link to THE FALL 2007 DIGITAL "SHOOTOUT" SPOOF of the above shootout. We hope you enjoy it as much as it was enjoyable for us to write it.

Whatever you do though, do not mistake this spoof for "reality". Reality is what is above, the spoof is for fun only.

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PACIFIC VALVE MHZS CD 66 & 88 CD PLAYERS- These are, by far, the finest CD players that I or any of my associates have heard at anywhere near their selling price ($699/$799 plus shipping). In fact, we don't know of even one CD player for less than $ 3,000 that even equals (let alone surpasses) their performance after modifications (outside of the Doge CD 6 mentioned above). They are among (if not) the greatest value(s) in audio at this time, and not only for the sonics.

The Pacific Valves overall build quality (32 lbs.), the (top-loading) transport and even the remote control are all outstanding, and they (using tubes) can be even further improved by a simple modification* (Solen Teflon coupling capacitors) plus some routine tube rolling (two 12AX7).

To improve on these two players' sonics, especially after the above mentioned modification/tube optimization, you will have to spend "big money", and even then, you must spend it wisely, because even truly expensive players will not equal the performance of the Pacific Valves unless they are among the best within their price category.

I haven't yet heard the 88, but an associate compared it directly to the 66, and felt that the 88's tube rectification provided it with slightly improved harmonic completeness and natural body, though at the sonic expense of slightly less tight and detailed bass. Overall then- a small advantage to the 88.

*Even this modification will still void the manufacturer's 1 Year warranty.

Modification Details

Solen Teflons-Film and Foil-450 Volts- one .47uF per channel and one .1uF in the cathode power supply, which can be metallized. That's 3 Teflon caps in total.

There are also two other modifications which I haven't yet performed on my player, but have worked well for my associates:

1. Replacing the entire (3"/4") output wire harness, going to the RCA Females, with high quality wire.
2. Adding film .1uf/600 volt caps to the existing electrolytic power supply capacitors (this will be tricky due to the small space - Be Careful!)

To perform these last two modifications, you must entirely remove the circuit board from the chassis, removing screws from the back fist and then undoing the wiring harnesses. It's somewhat time consuming, but it only has to be done once.

Transport Potential

As is mentioned above, the MHZS CD 66 & 88 are superb transports, if nothing else. Accordingly, an audiophile can purchase them initially as a stand-alone CD player, then use them later as a transport if a top notch DAC becomes desirable in the future.

MHZS CD66 DAC CHIP IDENTIFIED AS A FAKE

I received this letter about the MHZS CD66 from a reader. I had heard about this DAC chip controversy previously, but I wasn't sure what the truth was. However, there is a much larger issue than whether or not MHZS lied about what DAC chip they used. First the letter, with a little editing and my bold, then my response.

"...The so-called proprietary MHZS DAC is actually a BB DAC if you lift off the head. Take a look at this web site here:

http://www.lampizator.eu/LAMPIZATOR/REFERENCES/MHZS/MHZS_CD66F.html

I bought the MHZS CD66 player on the strength of what you thought about it - and certainly in my system is does not disappoint - but despite this, you just cannot recommend any fakes... at the end of the day if the Chinese are lying about this player, you must let your viewers know about this clearly.

I now have to think about getting another player despite this sounding good - I can't live with a lie!" (8/08)

My Response

I believe the reader, and his source, are correct about the BB chip, which also means that MHZS lied about it. I don't hesitate using the word "lied" in this instance, because, unlike the mainstream audio press, I don't believe in some billion-to-one coincidence and/or that audio manufacturers are always innocent, no matter what the evidence demonstrates. However, the important issue we have here is how to respond to this knowledge.

This reader "can't live with a lie", despite the MHZS 66 "sounding good", so he may sell it. I also own a MHZS CD66, but I'm not selling mine, and I advised him, in my personal reply to his letter, that he also shouldn't sell his, at least not for that reason. Now let me explain why I am keeping mine, despite the lie about the DAC chip being used.

First of all, I (or we) don't "recommend" any component. I have "References" on this website, not "Recommendations". This official change in wording was made almost 6 months ago, but, in spirit, it was always "references", from the beginning. The difference in meaning between these two words is important. A "reference" is just that, a benchmark in performance; in a certain parameter, or for the money, or without any qualification. A "recommendation" is different. Ideally, it is personal, and focused to an individual or a group. You can "recommend" a general philosophy, or a strategy, but not a particular component in general. The only exception is if that component was simultaneously "the best", affordable to all and worked in all systems. No such component has ever existed, and maybe never will.

The MHZS CD66 is a Reference on this website. It, along with the MHZS CD88 and Doge CD6, are the finest performing digital sources, that we know of, below $ 3,000. The fact that MHZS deliberately misled purchasers about what chip they used doesn't change the player's actual performance, which is outstanding for the money (or its build quality, which is also outstanding for the money). So while their "reputation" may (and should) have changed, obviously for the worst, the actual sound has NOT. This all leads us to "The Big Picture", and its related questions:

What are our ultimate goals as audiophiles, and how do we best achieve them?

Personally, I want the best (highest fidelity) audio system I can afford, and I'll do anything to get that system, short of criminal and/or unethical behavior. For me, this means ignoring, when ever possible, hyperbole, false claims, outright lies, obnoxious behavior and even raw hatred from others. While admittedly unpleasant, and ideally absent in the world of our hopes, these negative hurdles are all irrelevant when it comes to building the audio system of your dreams. They are just distractions. You should be interested in, and focused on, only the (potential) performance of the components, and not who makes them and how they market them.*

You are not marrying either the manufacturers of the components, or the components themselves. There is no "relationship" to consider. Audio components are strictly lifeless tools for you to use for your enjoyment. This may appear cold and ruthless, but that is the best (and only) approach to take if you want to reach your goals with the least amount of time, expense and effort. The only "relationship" you should have, as audiophiles, is with the music and the musicians. Don't waste your emotions on things and objects.

Now, as an audiophile, I admit I love outstanding audio components, but only in the abstract. I never love the individual components themselves. I do "love" their performance, admire the skill it took to design and build them, and appreciate how they enhance my life. However, a true and serious audiophile is always fickle. He or she must be, because "true love" is a decided hindrance in this case. When something better comes along, and it always does, even if it takes decades, you don't want "love", or any other emotion, interfering with your ultimate goals.

*Example- I have been contemptuous of the way Linn has marketed their LP-12 turntable for 20+ years, but I still have it listed as a Reference on this website. Its proven performance, and reliability, trump all the cynical "BS" associated with it, from both the manufacturer and (too) many of the owners.

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THE 2003 DIGITAL "SHOOTOUT"

Below are the details of a 2003 "shoot-out" of some top-notch digital sources that took place in Toronto, Canada. This was done with a group of experienced listeners, who were also the owners of the participating components in the matchup. I was not involved in any manner with this comparison, but I am confident of the participants' competence, honesty and lack of any conflict of interest. The results described below were unanimous.

The "adversaries" were the:
Wadia 861,
Audio Aero Capitole 24/192 (latest model),
Gamut CD-1,
Audio Aero Capitole (early version),
and the Alchemist Forsetti Transport and DAC
.

The preferred models, from the best to the worst were:

1. Wadia 861 (all the listeners felt the Wadia was noticeably superior to the others)
2. Audio Aero Capitole 24/192 (latest model), which had a slight advantage over the ...
3. Alchemist Forsetti Transport and DAC, which had slightly larger advantage over the...
4. Audio Aero Capitole (early version), which had a large advantage over the
5. Gamut CD-1 (which all the listeners, including the owner, felt was the worst of the bunch, by far)

Additionally, the Audio Aero models appeared to be way overpriced considering their build quality. One important quote: "The Gamut sounded like it had a 'filter' in the signal path." They all felt both frequency extremes were rolled-off in this model. 7/03

Further Information on "The Toronto 2003 Digital Shootout"- One member of the listening panel that was involved in the "digital shootout" described above, sent further information to me. He has had extensive experience listening to some of the finest components within the last few years, and he has no business or personal conflicts. He is also a former customer of mine. I felt his (edited) observations and judgements should be shared:

"There are many digital sources you have not heard and merit consideration as recommendations. There are several solutions (albeit, they are two-box transport/dac combos) that I have heard or currently own that surpass your recommendations.

1. The Gamut CD-1 is extremely over-rated. Your associate and I confirmed this, as I brought it to him and we evaluated it. Clean clear highs, however lack of a full-bodied nature and absence of any impactful bass. I am glad to see this was reported correctly.

2. The Sim Audio Eclipse (which I owned for two years- outboard p/s; uses Phillips best pro transport) has outstanding build quality and can easily run with the Wadia 861. They are two of the best one-box redbook players. HOWEVER, they are eclipsed (pun intended) by the best two-box solutions, of which the combination below I would now term as 'world class' at it's price point.

3. My current combo will blow away anything on your 'list': Spectral SDR 3000SL transport (uses the best version of the Teac VRDS clamping system, of which a LESSER model is used in your 'favorite' Wadia 861 by the way...) combined with an Audio Note 3.1x 'Balanced' (transformer-coupled output; 1-bit; no brickwall filtering; all silver-wired; etc., etc.) Dac. The Spectral retails for $9,000 and the Audio Note for $6,000. I ... have received indescribable pleasure from this setup...

Accessories/setup include the Kharma Grand Reference 75-ohm digital IC; a GW Labs jitter reducer/signal amplifier b/w trans and dac (yes, I was skeptical as well putting anything else in the signal path, but it IS a noticeable improvement, and confirmed by a couple of friends in the U.S. who have the exact digital combo I am describing). Also- Ensemble Isolink isolation transformers (2) feed cleaner power to the trans and dac (lowered sound-floor and superior coherency and soundstaging are immediately evident with the addition of these isolated transformers- i.e.- in your analog world, an analogy might be that VPI SDS?).

I don't have time today to describe sonically the benefits of the above setup, but suffice to say it handily trounces any one-box setup I have heard or owned (yes, the Capitole MK I was mine, AND we demo'd the MK II as well...). The detail retrieval from the transport is second to none, and the natural realism; harmonic completeness and top-to-bottom frequency response from the dac is superb.

And by the way, this is through an Audion Premier Anniversary edition preamp; ASL 1009 monoblocks (modified); and Coincident Total Victory speakers." (8/03)

Another Reader on Digital Front-Ends- A reader, who also knows the participating reader above, sent me a letter that offers a further perspective on the same digital components.

"I went on an odyssey of digital front ends in the last four years, and I have ended up with the same front end as your reader with the Spectral/Audio Note. It is one of the best digital front-ends I have heard, with the exception possibly of the new Meitner. It has a naturalness and ease unknown to me previously by digital. It manages this without over-smoothing the sound. The midrange is very open and clear, without digital artifacts. The highs are very good for digital, and the bass is perfectly natural and extended. It gives my Well Tempered Reference/ Symphonic Line RG-8, ASR Mini Basis Phono combo a run for the money, but the analog is superior. analog still sounds bigger, less mechanical, and more vivid.

I recommended to your reader to try a few tweaks to the Spectral (a Shakti Stone inside the transport over the digital section), and to roll some NOS tubes for the Audio Note. The Audio Note is much improved by a Bendix 5852 Rectifier tube, and some special 6992s - Seimens CCa or Amperex Oranges are my preference. I also had the Audio Aero Prima 192K DAC with the Spectral transport previously, and I agree with your* assessment there too."

*Note- Despite this observation, I must point out that none of the "assessments" concerning any of these digital components are mine (Arthur Salvatore). (8/03)

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Other Interesting Digital Sources

MSB PLATINUM DAC III and Reference Transport

This CD Transport and DAC combination was evaluated by (3 of) my associates. They have a considerable amount of experience with digital sources, and have access to two highly revealing systems as "tools". There's some very minor editing on my part, plus my bold:

"This is the latest incarnation of the top of the line MSB gear with superb build quality and the finest DACS, chips etc. The units are priced at $8,500 for the DAC (with volume controls) and $5,000 for the transport. The volume pots permit direct connection to an amplifier thereby obviating the requirement of a preamp.

I will not delve into all the algorithms and sampling rates available with the DAC (and there are many), as interested parties can explore this on their own. Suffice it to state, that the MSB combination is at the top of the heap in CD playback. Its flaws are minor, and of a subtractive nature, while its virtues are abundant. The MSB always sounds composed, refined and transparent without being veiled or dull. Its smoothness is a result of the player's lack of resonances and absence of any upper frequency aberrations. The combo will reveal pretty much all the musical information residing in those silver discs (sometimes gold) with very little editorializing.

The MSB's greatest sonic strength lies in its overall balance. The sound is very organized with great frequency uniformity. There is nothing about the sonics that is distracting or off putting. So, where does the pair not measure up to what the best digital has to offer? There are other players that are more explosive dynamically or have "ballsier" bass. That is not to suggest that the MSB is deficient in these areas. Rather, it suggests that other players are a little better in these performance parameters.

The main caution with the MSB duo revolves around the price and lack of SACD playback. $13,500 is a lot of cash for a CD player that, while it is in the upper echelon of performance, does not rise above it. Furthermore, once great SACD sound has been experienced, it leaves no doubt that it offers far greater resolution than Redbook." (3/09)

Personal Note- The MSB's (relative) problem with its "price" is offset by its built-in preamplifier (with volume pots) plus its capability of future performance upgrades (which are inevitable with digital sources). However, its lack of SACD capability can not be finessed, and will be viewed by many as its fatal disadvantage.

MCINTOSH MCD 201- SACD PLAYER

This is the latest CD/SACD player evaluated by (3 of) my associates. They have a considerable amount of experience with digital sources, and have access to two highly revealing systems as "tools". There's some very minor editing on my part, plus my bold:

"This unit has the traditional Mac appearance (for better or worse), is nicely constructed and is reasonably priced at $3,300. A very nice feature is an analog volume control, both on the unit and on the remote, which means a direct connection to an amplifier works very well, as the player can output up to 6 volts. This particular unit was 2 years old, in excellent condition, and had hundreds of hours of play.

The 201 was only auditioned in the direct mode, without the use of a line stage. I had high hopes for this player, but within minutes of spinning the first SACD, they were all but dashed. The sound was dull, lack luster and grainy. Impact and dynamics were compressed and the bass was soft and lacking impact. The Mac also exhibited an upper midrange glare that become obtrusive on female vocals and brass instruments. The CD performance sounded virtually identical to SACD.

In short, the MCD 201 is a very mediocre player, that is bettered by many at its price point. Its SACD sound is so unexceptional, that it does not offer any substantive improvement over Redbook. This player is to be avoided, even at used prices of around $1,600." (2/09)

MANLEY LABS REFERENCE DAC- This DAC was very expensive ($10K+), but it was also the finest DAC ever made at one time. It is now discontinued. There is no 96/24, but it does have a volume control, HDCD capability and a polarity switch as well. The output stage is tube of course. This unit is still one of the closest avenues to analog ever made. According to one of my associates, this model even outperforms the Manley replacement, though it doesn't have all the (preamplifier) flexibility of the new model.

It is available used, now and then, at a big discount over the original cost (Audiogon). At its used price, normally around $ 5,000 or even less, it is a really good value, especially considering both its sonics and superb build quality.

SAKURA "FLAT FISH" CD PLAYER- This unit is deceptively small, like all their other components, but it sounds huge and is one of the finest "all in one" CD players available right now. My sources even prefer it to the ultra expensive LINN player.

This player requires a volume pot and it is expensive for its size and shape, but it is fairly priced for its relative performance. It is superior to the Alchemist Forsetti just below.

ALCHEMIST FORSETTI TRANSPORT & DAC- A superb combination with balanced outputs controlled by its own analog volume control. This is for those who want a minimalist digital-only system. Very well built and with unique cosmetics.

Recent News- These two components are now discontinued, and must be found used. That makes them an even better value as far as I am concerned. I heard them most recently in August 2005, and I still consider them superb performers.

Note- The first three players below were once in Class C. They have all been obsoleted by the Pacific Valve MHZS CD 66. Their current descriptions do not yet reflect the existance of the Pacific Valve.

MSB LINK- This is a breakthrough component and it is, by far, the best DAC for the money. You have to go the Alchemist Forsetti to beat it out and it has 96/24 conversion as a bonus. The Link requires the Pioneer Elite DVD Player 05 (for its coaxial output) and the WireWorld Gold Starlight III coaxial cable for best performance. There are also a number of "factory upgrades" available as well that will further improve its performance. They should be approached with caution since their accumulated cost might be greater than a (now or future) superior Class B model.

ALCHEMIST NEXUS- This unit has excellent sound, the best at its price for an all in one player, and it’s well built. This component is for those who don’t want separates. It is superior to the (Entry-Level) Parasound, NADS and Rotels. In short: True Class C performance.

AH! TJOEB'99- This CD player is actually a modified Marantz. It uses (6922) tubes in the analog output stage. It is available only direct from the modifier, Upscale Audio. There are a few different alternatives and I haven't heard them all. The prices are in the $ 500 to $ 700 price range.

The Marantz chassis and transport they use are cheaply made and the play button regularly requires more than one pressing to become engaged, a minor irritation. However, the sound quality is excellent at this price point, though I must stress that it is not as good as much of the hype (audioreview.com) would suggest.

Its main strength is its overall naturalness, which is a rare quality at this price. Other audio parameters are also good, with its weakest area being "the bass". For acoustical music, this is the best player we know for under $ 1,000 (new).

This model can be further improved with modifications (better coupling capacitors) and superior tubes. This URL (http://www.hifi-notes.com/ahtjoeb99home-en.htm) may have some relevant information for an owner or prospective purchaser. Finally, the word "tjoeb" means "tube" in Dutch.

Further- The above description was written more than three years ago (August 2000). This fact must be taken into serious consideration when comparing this unit to the most recent models. It is safe to assume that something is now better for the money in today's market, though there is no guarantee of that.

NOVA PHYSICS "MEMORY" CD PLAYER- I haven't seen or heard this player, which isn't surprisng, since I've never been on digital hardware's "front-line", but the theory behind this component appears very logical, imaginative and relevant to me. In fact, based on the detailed description of its versatile capabilities, and the all-out manner of its execution, see below, I would say it's the single most desirable CD player ever made.

A veteran audio writer and reviewer, from Positive Feedback, Clark Johnsen, has already posted a good write-up about it. I recommend this essay to any reader who is serious about digital reproduction. Purchasing one of them is a different matter. You're on your own at that point, because the price is $ 10,000 according to another reader. (If you do purchase one though, I would like to hear about the results.) There's even more good news for vinyl fans. Here is a highly relevant note from the other reader:

"This (Nova) player is evidently a super-duper CD writer to boot, but the very most exiting thing for vinyl enthusiasts is that this deck is available with an option to make CDs from analog sources. Most of us vinyl folks would love to be able to have a high quality system for making CDs from our records, and almost everything I've seen out there requires one hell of a computer, special software, and it helps to have a Master's degree to learn to use it."

Here are the two links to Clark's essay and the manufacturer's new webpage:

http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue24/cjdiaries.htm

http://www.memoryplayer.info/

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READERS LETTERS

**********************************************************

CAVEAT-Please be advised that the readers’ letters posted on this site are solely the opinion of that reader and may not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions of Arthur Salvatore or High-End Audio. These letters furthermore, are not to be taken as being endorsed by Arthur Salvatore or High-End Audio. They are posted because they may be edifying, thought provoking or entertaining.

**********************************************************

FURTHER INFORMATION ON THE NOVA PHYSICS "MEMORY"

Here's the latest information (6/06) I have received from a reader about this innovative CD player. There's only a little editing (my bold):

"This morning, I had a lengthy conversation with George Bischoff from Nova Physics, one of the co-designers of the Memory CD Player. He was president of Melos. He told me that some of the information on the www.memoryplay.info web site is not entirely accurate (or let’s just say outdated, because there was obviously no attempt to mislead). He (Bischoff) gave me permission to relay this to you:

The Memory CD, sold as a stand-alone transport, sells for $9,950. It includes the capability to store between 65 and 80 CDs in memory (depending upon the length of the CDs). There is, however, a version that allows the player to connect directly to an amplifier (given your preference for this type of connection, I know this will spark your interest). It contains a 32-bit DAC and has a vacuum tube output (based on the 6DJ8/6922/EC88, etc.) and volume control. Sorry, but I forgot to ask how many tubes are utilized. This latter version sells for $14,400.

Two of the options on the earlier web site are NOT available: (1) the plan for streaming audio has been discarded, as Mr. Bischoff has concerns about internet viruses infecting the player & (2) the home theater option.

Digital recording is available from analog sources to digital as a $1,000 option. The music library maximum is currently now at 400 CDs, and that add-on is a modest increase of $400 to the purchase price. He is not comfortable at the present time with more storage than that because he said that if the memory were compromised, due to something like a power surge or lightning strike, the work to reconstruct the CD library would be more time-consuming than most people would want to deal with.

One option, not mentioned before, is a unique form of remote control. For $ 650, Nova Physics will furnish a Dell Inspiron 1300 laptop with a connectivity program (this represents a $ 100 markup over the purchase price of the computer direct from Dell). He told me the program will work on other laptops, so I would assume the price for the connectivity program would be approximately $ 100."

If you wish to contact Nova Physics, here are the particulars:

Nova Physics Group
9100 E. Florida Ave.
Denver, CO 80247
(877) 272-1567

Personal Notes- I'm not usually excited about "digital" anything, including both hardware and software, but I admit that this component has me intrigued. I think it is because of its imaginative, fundamental and highly desirable innovations; which may well mean a possible sonic breakthrough and for also the improved ergonomics and flexibilty of use. It's a dream player, in many way, for both digital and analog-oriented audiophiles. We can only hope now that the final results matches the inspiration, and, in the longer run, this type of player becomes available at a much lower price. This brings us to...

The other side of this important story. So here's a letter from a another reader, with a different angle about the Nova Memory player, and any other future player using the same, or similar, technology. Here it is, with no editing:

"I have been talking to a number of people about the Memory player and I have learned that some of their unique marketing claims may not be all that special.

They claim that the player avoids the ECC error correction used in CD players, and repositions the laser with many reads until it gets an accurate read using their Read Until Right technology. This type of technology already exists in almost all modern computers. Most computer CD/DVD drives do not use ECC correction when they rip music to a hard drive. Modern computers also in conjunction with quality ripping software, read and re-read each bit many times until they determine the data is accurate. The CD/DVD drive adjusts the position/angle of the laser etc, to accomplish this.

Nova claims claim that they read the data into memory and then send it to a Dac, and that this is unique. All computers send data to memory before it is sent to the DAC. Music never is played directly off a hard disk, or off a disc when using modern playback software like iTunes, Windows Media Player etc.

The case that the player uses is a common PC ATX computer case sold for custom built Home Theater PCs. This type of case can only be used for a Windows type computer system (or Linux), no other components would fit in it, and it wouldn’t make any sense to use a case like this or modify it for custom components, because the cost and time would far outweigh any benefit. So the player is obviously built from the ready-made computer parts that most Windows computers are made of. http://www.silverstonetek.com/products-lc18.htm

So is the Memory Player unique, or is it a repackaging of the many computer-based music playback systems that people are building for themselves these days? If so, why the high price? Is this another case of obfuscating a common process that others have developed and selling it as unique that has been all too common in the history of High End Audio? Many serious audiophiles have been reporting that contrary to expectations that computer audio sounds better than their traditional CD systems. I think that many traditional audiophiles have avoided these systems because of the complexity and general unease with computers. Perhaps it is time to listen to some of these and hear what all the fuss is about?"

Personal Notes- One of my closest friends, who is also an "associate", recently built a dedicated computer, from scratch, to be his digital audio source. So what is written above, is not just the reader's "theory". Since computer technology gets better (and cheaper!) as predictably as the day follows the night, it appears reasonably certain that DIY computer/digital/audio kits, or fully assembled models, will eventually become available. If that wasn't enough to look forward to, don't forget that when using common computer parts, the retail prices will have to be "normal", in stark contrast to "audio prices".

In short- We may be at the beginning of a digital audio revolution. It will start with the true "pioneers"; DIY hobbyists who will attempt to build a new generation of digital components for the love and challenge of it. It will grow from there, though without any help from the "mainstream" audio press, who are much too close to the current digital audio manufacturers to report on this potentially breakthrough development. Eventually, even the "big boys" will have to acknowledge what's happening, which means "audiophile" versions will become available. Whether they will be any more than just aesthetic and ergonomic enhancements, for a premium price, remains to be seen.

Manley Reference DAC
and various other components

Here's an interesting and broad-ranging letter from a reader with a lot of valuable information and observations about optimizing the Manley Reference DAC*, along with some other high performance components. I like the way this audiophile relentlessly and systematically seeks out improvements. I recommend this method, even if the full scope can't be copied due to time and monetary restraints. Here's his letter, with very minor editing and my bold:

"I have followed your writings for several years and finally wanted to share my experience with the Manley DAC. I have owned this for almost 4 years now.

To give you an idea as to the rest of the system before I discuss details of the Manley. This will give you an idea as to what I seek in a system.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Clearaudio Ref TT with two arms: Graham 2.2 and Zeta.
I use a combination of Clearaudio Accurate, Koetsu RWS, Audioquest 7000 (recently rebuilt) and an old old Supex 9000 (also recently rebuilt) which sounds outstanding for this price bracket. Rework was done by a small company called the Soundsmith. He has several options for different cantilever and stylus materials at very realistic prices.

Phono stage: Aesthetix Io - Heavily modified by GNSC, but still looking to replace remaining 0.22 uf caps with SonicCap Platinums. Will take the Io PS to GNSC for replacement of some diodes, regulators and possibly wiring.

Line stage: Aesthetix Callisto Sig - I know you are not a fan of line stages, but this brings on life to all systems I have heard it with vs. CD players straight into amps.

I have put a ton of effort to find tubes for the Aesthetix pieces.
Quite a mixture of Telefunken 12ax7, Sylvania 5751, Valvo and Miniwatt Pinched Waist 6922, Siemens 6DJ8 A-getter, Tungsol and RCA Redbase 6SN7, Mullard UK EL34, etc.
These tubes took the units far far beyond what nearly everyone has heard with the stock Sovtek tubes. But even with stock Sovtek tubes, these units handily outperform so many many preamps out there in the context of layering space, piano textures and strings.

Rives PARC Parametric EQ - With many ASC columns on the front wall, and ASC treatments on back wall, there is still much bass energy that is out of control. It really masks the midrange and treble clarity. I was concerned this device would destroy the incredible decays and ambience of the system but this miraculously was not the case.....only a reduction in dynamic contrasts occured. This problem was later greatly resolved when changing from Purist Dominus PC to the Stealth Dream PC on the PARC. The PARC, at least for now, is critical to achieve the tonal coherency in the system for this 13x19 room.

Amps - CAT JL-3 Signature. Like the Aesthetix pieces, I have gone through much effort to find phenomenol small signal tubes for these. Again the 6922 pinched waist, Sylvania 5751 and various 5693 tubes for the 12au7 socket. I currently run with 2 matched sets of 16 6550 Winged-C tubes.

Cabling is a mixture of Stealth Dream and M5000 PCs, Indra IC with a 10m Purist Dominus from Callisto to JL-3s, Purist Opis spkr cable.

Speakers - 10 year-old pair of SoundLab A1, updated backplate electronics but not the latest high-efficiency panels.

CDP - An old Pioneer PD65 which has been a great workhorse as a transport. It has an SPDIF RCA digital output which drives a Genesis TimeLens and then into the Manley via Marigo 5.7 cable. The Genesis helps significantly to bring on greater dimensionality to voice and piano....this is not subtle.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Now onto the Manley.

Stock unit:

Strengths: Portrays piano like no other digital piece I have heard. It can sometimes be a little too much of a good thing, but it truly conveys the placement of a paino before you. Massed strings, saxaphone, voice, lower-frequency percussion: decays like no other piece I have heard.

Weaknesses: Lacking authority and extension in bottom octave. Never boomy, does not artificially extend upper bass to compensate for lack of ultimate coverage, but other players, e.g., Wadia 861, render bass control significantly beyond the Manley. Top-most trebles also lack coverage and extension. Fundamentals of notes are strong, but the follow-through of the harmonics for elements like the top-most saxaphone notes, cymbals, etc., lack the detail and reach that is heard from others.....again, the Wadia 861.

After hearing many other digital systems, and I often took the Manley DAC with me to friends' homes, I was acutely aware of its character and how it exceled over its rivals...but also what attention it might need if ever mod'd.

Modified unit:

I contacted Steve Huntley at GNSC about the possibility to improve this unit without affecting its magic in the middle 6-7 octaves. We agreed up to two passes to try and achieve this effort.

The first was to work to open up the top-end. With a couple of cap changes on the audio stage, some Bybee filters on output, and a few undisclosed minor changes elsewhere, he did indeed bring on life on top that the unit never had at all. The pair of caps just in front of the 7044 tubes were the ones that were replaced and made a HUGE improvement to open up the top end. Absolutely amazing transformation. The fundamentals were as strong and full and rich as ever, but now the harmonics could breath and extend far back from the speakers.

A direct comparison to the Wadia 27, fully decked out by Steve: I must say it was now darn close as to which unit rendered the top end with more clarity and extension. The Wadia got the edge, but not by much. But the Wadia was so far behind the Manley when it came to the layering and structure of voice and guitar....not even close. The Wadia for me anyway was too clinical. But the Wadia still had an incredible rendition of the bottom octave.

Second change was to replace all the caps on the D/A board to Black Gate. This was 18 2200uf/35v caps. The Black Gates are a bit larger in diameter than the stock caps, but the board is high enough to mount some on the bottom of the board so as to fit them all. He added some chassis dampening materials to the side panels as well. I did not get to hear this as we ended up losing one of the DACC013 modules in the process (see below).

It took us 9 months to locate another product which used this chip. Once this chip was harvested and put into the Manley, just this last week, I can finally hear this unit like I never could have imagined. The unit's fundamental strengths are unchanged and with the last updates, there is now much more control in the lowest frequencies.

So a few pointers here:

Power cable is critical to this unit. I tried many and only a few allow the Manley to bring on its 3-D capability. The Purist Dominus was absolutely magical here, but it tends to roll off the highs. I tried a Virtual Dynamics Revelation and it brought on far greater extension at the frequency extremes, but it also robbed the 3-D magic. The Kubala- Sosna cables are wonderful to convey more detail at the extremes, but they too can be a bit flat in the portrayal of dimensionality. The cables to beat here are the Stealths: M5000 is an excellent performer, but it was the Dream which for the first time allowed me to hear the twang of piano strings with CD playback. The cable is insanely priced, but without it, you are not hearing the Manley's ability.

As for replacing the D/A chips, this would be an interesting thing to consider, but I suspect it too would change the character of the unit to a point of regret. I also have a Classe DAC-1, which uses the UA chips, but a different model, and this has similarities of the Manley in how it portrays dimensionality, decays, ambience. So few digital systems get this fundamental character right. No matter how good a piece does everything else, it if fails here, I reject it. So I wonder if trying a different chip might mess this up this magical sonic quality.

And please be careful when you work in the unit. It's an issue of the risk of damage or destruction of a chip during the mods, as explained above. The D/A chips are fragile. So all care must be taken when working in this as the consequences can be high if one of the UA chips is destroyed. These chips are no longer available, and I do not know if anything out there today that is a pin-for-pin replacement."

*Personal Note- My Manley Reference DAC is "for sale". I'm only asking $ 3,500 for it, and it's in excellent shape. I would keep it, but the investment is not worth my pitiful CD collection. Someone will appreciate it a lot more than me.

RESOLUTION AUDIO OPUS 21 CDP- A reader sent me a letter with some observations on this component. I felt they should be shared. There's some small editing;

"I just bought a Resolution Audio Opus 21 CDP, which in my opinion is great for the money. It retails for $ 3,500, but you can usually find it used for $ 2,500. While its not state of the art, it is excellent value for money. I had a well known manufacturer/dealer tell me that he uses it at shows over the $30k DAC he sells, because he has not come across a partnering transport he feels betters the Opus 21 overall (however he is very much into musicality)." (12/07)

Personal Notes- I'm not familiar with this component. It's probably worth checking out, but digital dedicated computers may be the real future for audiophiles. (I'm on my best behavior today. I'm making no comment on the reader's "musicality" reference.)

Pacific Valve MHZS CD-88E (Tube Rolling)

This reader, a former customer of mine from "the old days" in Toronto, sent me some useful information about his tube rolling experiments with CD-88E CD player. Minor editing and my bold:

"I have the MHZS CD-88E and found out that the regulator tube, OB2, has quite a profound effect on the bass response. I went with a Sylvania Gold Brand OB2WA and I love the bass, as it became 'real', faster and cleaner. My finishing touch was a pair of Tung Sol ECC803S, which really took the player to the next level." (1/08)

DIGITAL SOURCE "BIAS"?

This is a small part of what a reader wrote to me in a recent letter (which was otherwise complimentary):

"I have a bone to pick with your personal bias against digital audio."

My Reply

I receive letters similar to this a few times a year. The gist of all of them is that I must be blissfully unaware of all the many problems (mainly distortions) inherent in phono sources and tube electronics (especially single-ended models), and how much better the respective alternatives, digital sources and solid-state electronics, are in comparison.

I don’t believe I have any “bias” against digital audio. In fact, there are a considerable number of digital recordings in The Supreme Recordings (which are, of course, all LPs). I'm not aware of any other LP list that has such a large number of digital records. I believe this alone proves my lack of bias. I even state, in My Audio Philosophy, that digital will be superior eventually. It’s only a matter of time when there are enough data points to outperform analog in every way that will convince (or fool) the best ear. Further...

The “world is not digital” (excuse) is not my main argument against (current) digital audio. My focus has always been strictly on the sonic results and a specific and noticeable problem that digital audio has, which I describe, in detail, in many places on this website. I am fully aware that digital is superior to analog in many, if not most, ways. I even list the many areas digital is superior to analog in My Audio Philosophy.

If anything, I was biased IN FAVOR of digital recordings, meaning CDs (which were supposed to sound just like a “master tape”), when they came out in the early 1980’s. Then I heard the actual results. Nothing since then has made me change this fundamental perspective, though both sources have obviously improved. Many other people have also heard this problem (a high sound-floor causing a loss of low-level information), though it is almost always described with frustratingly meaningless terms: "digital isn't musical!" and/or "digital isn't involving!".

So yes, I do hear all the problems with analog (phono) sources. I always have, along with countless other audiophiles, because they're not difficult to hear. It doesn't even take the ultimate experience of hearing live music to then hear phono problems by comparison. All you have to do is hear a really good master tape (analog or digital), or a LIVE concert on a good FM station (which is now sadly rare), or just a really good CD. However, I strongly believe that digital is still (overall) inferior to (good) phono analog, because its main problem is even more noticeable and, much more importantly, emotionally distracting.

Now, turning back to the (overly) confident writers of these various critiques...

All of these letters, posts and claims about the many "problems" of tube amplifiers, and phono sources, that are seemingly being totally ignored by their users, are missing something by their writers. It is this fundamental perspective....

It must never be forgotten that any true audiophile always wants the next generation of components, or sources*, to be superior to the last. As for myself, I have no nostalgic or blind emotional commitment to vinyl or anything else (such as tube electronics). I am certainly as “ruthless” when it comes to audio as I advise others to be.

Everything I evaluate is based on what I hear and experience, and I almost always back it up with other audiophiles I have learned to trust (especially if there's a "mystery" or a conflict). If you read my reviews (or essays) on those components I consider(ed) outstanding**, you will learn the precise evolutionary steps I/we experienced to reach my/our present outlook.

Of vital importance, there were many “surprises” along the way. A “surprise” is extremely critical in audio (or any endeavor). It means that I recognized that I was “wrong” at the time, and I then changed my views based entirely on these new experiences. It also means, obviously, that I am open to new ideas and I have the ability to admit that I’m wrong if and when I'm proven wrong. Sometimes a surprise is "painful" (especially to the ego), but it is always best in the long run if you want to grow as a person (or a listener).

*With the one exception of "original pressing fundamentalists", who refuse to concede that any reissue can ever equal, let alone exceed, the sonic quality of the first pressing of any record.

**Bent Audio Silver Step-Up Transformer,
ZYX Cartridges,
Coincident Pure Reference speakers and
Coincident Frankenstein amps

KRELL DIGITAL (MORE OBSERVATIONS)

A reader sent me two letters about his experiences with Krell Digital Sources. I combined them. Some editing since the reader's mother tongue is not English. My bold as usual:

"Just to add a little contribution to your... digital ranking. I´ve been using a Krell KPS 30i as DAC for a couple of years with my Jadis J-1 transport. It has come to my system on a trade and it was a jaw dropping experience. Nothing I had in the DAC area surpasses its performance, just to mention: ML 360s, Jadis JSL and JS2 Mkii, Proceed, Krell AVs (as a DAC only...it was pure shit) or CD Players like: Canary Audio CD-100, Sony 777es, Classe CDP 1.5, Cary Audio and...

It gives what I love the most on music, accuracy of timbre, seductive sound but with all the Krell pros as well.

The KPS30i is a later 90's unit. It's a CD player with digital inputs. The DAC section is similar to the Ref 64´s one . Other very good units are the KPS25i and even the KPS20il.

Since in my country we use 50hz, and the Krells are frequency sensitive, the Krell unit is connected to a PS Audio P-300 that comes with a frequency selector. Maybe that is helping its performance a lot and surely it will benefit any Krell digital unit." (12/08)

Personal Note- I have no experience with any of these digital models (the Krells or the others). However, these older Krell models may be now going for "a song" in North America, so they may be interesting to try out without taking a big monetary risk.

KRELL STANDARD SACD PLAYER, LECTOR CDP-7 (AND MORE)

A reader sent me his observations about a variety of components. The most important to me (because it was the most unexpected) was his direct comparison of the Lector CDP-7 with the Krell Standard. There's some minor editing and my bold:

"I read with interest your December 2008 update adding the Krell Standard to Class A (lower) Digital Sources. In order to put things in perspective, allow me to summarize my digital odyssey throughout the past few years. My vinyl collection consist of approximately 1,500 albums. In the recent years my CD (including some 100 to 150 SACDs) collection has grown to about 800 albums.

When CDs first came out I, like most audiophiles, did not take them seriously. I used a 5-CD unit to play the few CDs I owned. I certainly did not want to invest what I considered mega-bucks for the few "audiophile" units that started to sprout in the early days of digital.

When technology improved, and players started to become available at a more reasonable price, I took the plunge and purchased a Super Njoe Tjoeb. I still use this unit in my secondary system. It was certainly revelatory compared to the 5-CD gizmo I had been using. I felt then that digital was beginning to come of age, but still vinyl reigned supreme. I recall using the Sheffield Track Record, which I owned in both formats, to convince my non-audiophile friends that vinyl was far from dead. They were astonished to discover that the CDs they were buying were not PERFECT MUSIC as they had been led to believe by the music industry publicity machine.

When SACDs started coming out, I was interested in the industry's claims of wider dynamic range, improved bass, etc. However, my Njoe Tjoeb could not reproduce the SACD layer of hybrid SACDs. So I started to look for an SACD player. I found a Marantz SA-11S1 on Audiogon at a price I could afford. I could then play both CDs and SACDs on the one machine and relegated the other Marantz (Njoe Tjoeb) to the secondary system.

I then heard about the Oracle CD 2500 player and the rave reviews it received including your rating on your website. (I do not put too much value on 'rave' reviews in publications other than yours). I thought it better get good reviews for $9,000+. A dealer in a neighboring county advertized an Oracle CD 2500 on Audiogon. I contacted him and he offered to come to my home as he traveled to my town every couple of weeks. He would bring the 2500 for a comparative listening session. He was kind enough to spend some 3 to 4 hours with me as we listened to over 40 cuts from various CDs and SACDs. Depending on the cuts the Oracle was either clearly superior or slightly superior to my Marantz.

At the time, my system output end consisted of Atma-Spheres MA-1 amps driving the Soliloquys 6.5. Even though the Oracle won the contest, I was not prepared to pay the $7,000 for the used CD-only unit in spite of its sexy looks (I do not have to deal with WAF since I live alone). Qualitatively, it was not worth the difference to me. So I kept the Marantz SA-11S1. A little later, I acquired a pair of ASL Hurricanes on Audiogon to replace the A-S. I won't go into details as that is another story. Suffice it to say that I was happy with the change.

A local dealer was selling Lector equipment. Once, while at his home/store, he played some CDs on the CDP-7 and it sounded quite impressive. However, his system was quite different from mine and he agreed to let me try out the unit at my home. I did so for a few days and I was sold. The CDP-7 trounced the Marantz on both CD and SACD sources, even though the Marantz should have had an edge on the SACDs. I ordered a brand-new CDP-7, and it is now my main digital source. I kept the Marantz to play the odd non-hybrid SACD that would not play on the Lector.

Recently, by sheer chance, I had the opportunity to purchase used replacements for my amps and speakers. I am now the happy owner of a pair of Coincident Pure References, driven by a pair of Frankensteins MkII. I thought I had died and gone to heaven after I got the system set up. The Lector sounded even better on digital sources than it did before.

Now we come to the pertinent part. Your and your associates' evaluation of the Krell SACD Standard and its ranking in Class A aroused my attention. Like you, I had never thought much of the Krell line. Nevertheless, since it was ranked just below the Oracle which I had heard and it outclassed (de-listed) the Marantz SA-7S SACD machine (the SA-11s1's big brother), I was intrigued. So intrigued that I recently purchased a used Krell Standard MKIII SACD machine on Audiogon, and I just finished a head-to-head listening session. It clearly outclassed my Marantz SA-11S1. But the kicker is that, after listening to 46 cuts from various CDs on the Lector and on the Krell, the winner is...the Lector! I won't go into the details of my scoring method (subjective as they all are) but the Lector scored 207 and the Krell 170.

The bottom line is that you and your associates should give the Lector a try. Unfortunately, the price went up since I purchased mine due, I think, in great part to a distributorship change. However it is still less expensive (under $6,000 brand new) than the Oracle 2500 and the ARC Ref CD7 ($9,000+ brand new). Some people on some forums have found the Lector "dark-sounding". They are certainly entitled to their opinion, but it is not mine. Maybe they should look at their system's synergy."

I STAND CORRECTED?...

CD Compared to SACD

One of my most veteran readers (and contributors) sent me this letter, which challened my assumptions about CD versus SACD audio reproduction. I'm not an "expert" on digital technology (as is this reader, who has asked to remain anonymous), so I am not even going to attempt a point by point rebuttal.

However, I still feel it is important to read my Personal Note below. I also have complete trust in my 4 associates' observations and judgment that SACD is far superior to CD, when both methods are implemented at the highest level (see Reference Digital Sources). Here is the reader's letter, with very minor editing and my bold:

"I noticed your comments on SACD vs CD, where you say:

I have enough rudimentary knowledge about digital sources to know that it is impossible, everything being equal, for a SACD to be sonically inferior to a CD. Digital audio comes down to sheer numbers to recreate the original analog (music) signal, which means it's completely illogical to state that more (SACD) 'data points' (the numbers) can be less accurate and complete than fewer (CD) 'data points'.

The problem is that SACD is NOT a digital system comparable to PCM (be it CD's 16 Bit/44.1KHz or modern higher resolutions). SACD uses DSD, which is basically a single bit delta sigma modulator (AD) direct output. The system therefore samples at 1 Bit with a sample frequency of 2.8224 MHz.

This means in strictly information theory principles SACD encodes 64 possible states for a 44.1KHz sample rate signal, compared to 65536 possible states encoded on CD for a 44.1KHz sample rate. This means SACD has actually many fewer real data points than CD. It seeks to overcome this by applying very agressive noise shaping, if this is successful is a matter of debate.

Of course, this whole debate is a little redundant, as all modern audio Analog to Digital converters use delta sigma modulation just as for SACD, though several run at 128 or 256 times the sample rate - so they can contain twice or four times the "data points" of SACD, which is however still much less real resolution than afforded IN PRINCIPLE by the CD format and a pitiful fraction of what modern high resolution formats offer.

Now if the playback system also includes delta sigma DAC's (which in essence again MUST BY PRINCIPLE downgrade any signal from CD to their inherent limitations) one may argue that simply feeding the Delta Sigma Modulator signal directly to the demodulator results in less degradation and hence has the potential to sound better. However, not all playback systems rely on Delta Sigma DAC's (though the majority since the late 90's have).

We may debate the relative sonic merits in length, however this is done elsewhere on an ongoing basis. What I would like to correct is the simple mistake of assuming that SACD contains actually more 'data points' than CD, which it does not do in principle, though a CD derived from a SACD style Delta Sigma Modulator will of course have at best the same information to work with and the process of conversion is usually lossy. Again, not all CDs are derived this way however, so some may contain much more real information than a SACD.

So, in short, SACD is one more of Sony's 'Perfect Sound Forever' marketing ploys, high resolution PCM is at least in principle much superior. In then end much more depends on the implementation (and recordings) though, than on the format."

Personal Note- This is what is written about SACD Vs. CD in Wikipedia:

"SACD is a disc of identical physical dimensions to a standard compact disc; the density of the disc is the same as a DVD... A stereo SACD recording can stream data at an uncompressed rate of 5.6 Mbps; four times the rate for Red Book CD stereo audio."

Dynamic range- CD- 96 dB SACD- 120 dB
Frequency range- CD- 20 Hz to 20 kHz SACD- 20 Hz to 50 kHz,
and, most important to me...
Disc capacity- CD- 700 MB SACD- 7.95 GB

Bottom Line- As long as SACD requires and uses greater "disc capacity" per channel than does CD, I will not back down on my technical claim (quoted above). (02/10)

A Reader Strongly Disagrees with our Assessment...

Esoteric K-01 CD/SACD Player

A reader has some serious issues with our observations and evaluation of the Esoteric K-01 player. I respond to his letter below. A lot of editing, since English is not the reader's mother tongue, and my bold:

"I am writing you about the K-01, which I owned for more than 3 months. It was very well broken in during my comparisons (it had about 2,000hrs). I completely disagree with the positive comments made about the K-01. It completely lacks the musicality of even the P-03/D-03 with atomic clock, that I compared it with for more than 3 weeks, by using all filter options, etc.

I must say that the posted comment: 'The bass especially has weight, impact AND inner detail not experienced by anything short of the fiercely expensive P-01/D-01 with the atomic clock' is an absolute joke and is not true.

Forgive me for being blunt, but they sound like the words of a dealer trying to push the K-01 and K-03 sales. I am one of the first in the US who owned the K-01 and compared it with the P-01/D-03/g0rb, P-03/D-03/g0rb, and the Krell evo 505 side by side. You can ask Tim Crable from Esoteric. Also, it is the musicality that counts, and not the extension of bass or treble nor the detail level achieved. It simply doesn't have the organic body of the separates. It is dry. It lacks the refinement of the bigger brothers.

I also experimented with the K-01 as a transport and I found that the transport was the weakest link when compared with P-03 or P-01. The K-01 sounded more musical with the P-03 or P-01. So now I am comparing the D-02 with the older dacs. It has been 4 months now.

In short, the K-01 is only better than the older X-01, and not any better than the P-03/D-03. There is a difference between musicality and naturalness of a product -'quality'- and the the things like having more detailed, more extended, etc... 'quantity'.

I simply lost my trust in your excellent web site."

My Reply- A number of my associates, and not I, auditioned and reviewed the K-01, and they stand by their review, and I stand by them. They felt something was either wrong with the player or the reader's system. Also, needless to say, they are not "Esoteric dealers", now or in the past, despite the reader's concerns.

As for the substance of the reader's complaints, I obviously can not directly address them, but I do know that the K-01 has been raved about by many other experienced audiophiles and reviewers, and not just this website. This can be confirmed by a simple Google search. Still, in every instance, including this website, there has been some direct criticism of the K-01, either in comparison with the finest single players it competes with, or with the finest available separates (which all cost even more). In the final analysis though, no one else has been as critical of the K-01's performance to anywhere remotely to the degree of this reader.

From a technical viewpoint, the K-01 has two important advantages over the 03/Combo, and they are where it counts the most: It has Esoteric's most advanced transport mechanism, the VMK-3.5-20S, which is otherwise only in the P-02, and it "has two 32-bit monaural D/A converters with eight parallel/differential DAC circuits used per channel". The 03/combo, being separates, must obviously have its own advantages, but none of them are as critical to the overall performance as the K-01's two advantages.

Finally, I always avoid becoming involved with any dispute, or even a simple discussion, of a component's so-called "musicality", since I strongly believe it is, at best, a completely meaningless and, accordingly, useless word.

Addendum- Below is a link to the informative and entertaining thread that initiated my interest in the new Esoteric players. The posters are all enthusiastic audiophiles, some of them with considerable experience, and no conflicts of interest. They also make the same critically important comparisons as did the reader above, though with far different results. I was even moved by one of the posts, which rarely happens when the topic is audio related. (10/12)

Head-Fi.Org Esoteric K-01/K-03 Thread

Some Observations from a Veteran Reader

I received this letter from a reader who has extensive experience with many of the finest audio components ever made. Even better, he has compared these components to each other, and is not hesitant with directly stating his observations and evaluations. There is some minor editing and my bold:

"I have discovered a CD player design that seems to repeatedly generate good sound from CDs. This design is a non-oversampling DAC, combined with a triode output stage. I have had several CD players/DAC over the past 12 yrs, but the ones that always sounded great had this design configuration: Audionote DAC 3.1, modified by Ken Stevens, Zanden top of the line separates and, most recently, the Acoustic Plan Vadi. The Vadi has been the best sounding of them all - it uses a very well made transformer coupled all triode output stage. I have to be honest and say that I like it as much as many records - better than many actually. Only the well engineered/mastered records still beat it. It has the depth and vibrant colors of analog, with the quickness and clarity of digital. It just lacks that degree of 'roundness' that makes analog so appealing. It is a marvelous CD player!" (08/13)

The Esoteric K-03 SACD Player Mystery

I received two disturbing e-mails from a reader in Europe, one in 2013 and one in 2014, concerning the Esoteric K-03, which is a Reference Component on this website. The K-03 has also received many other laudatory reviews since it was released around three years ago. I also include a relevant photo that the reader attached to his second letter. (Please excuse some duplication within the letters. The reader asked me to delay the posting of his first e-mail, desiring some confirmation first.) I provide some personal comments at the bottom. Here they are, with some minor editing and my bold:

The Reader's First Letter, from October 2013...

"I have recently upgraded my digital source from Esoteric P-05/D-05 separates to the newer K-03. There seems to be a problem with the K-03 though,...

Compared to the P-05/D-05, I immediately noticed a lack of deep bass on the K-03 through the balanced outputs, which are always supposed to sound better on Esoteric gear, due to their fully balanced design. Since I have a software and a frequency sweep CD, to measure the frequency response of a component (or of a listening room using the appropriate microphone), I measured the frequency output directly from the XLR outputs of the P-05/D-05 combo and the K-03. The results confirmed my initial impression... The K-03 rolls off the deep bass frequencies quite noticeably below 60Hz, reaching a peak at 20Hz were the difference is between -3dB and -4dB with respect to linearity. However, through the RCA outputs no such thing happens: through the RCA outputs the frequency response is completely flat from 20Hz upwards, which is what one would expect from a decent digital source.

This difference in low frequency output between the XLR and the RCA outputs of the K-03 is clearly audible with a full range speaker system, like the Coincident Pure Reference Extreme. Through the XLR outputs the low bass loses punch and dynamics.

I have contacted Esoteric many times with regards to this issue, and they refuse to give a coherent answer. This is very frustrating, considering the cost of this player... The only option they offer is to send in the unit to the main technical service in Europe (Germany), with the warning that the warranty will not cover the service if the measurements of the unit are according to their specs. But they refuse to tell me which the correct specs are... not very fair! All in all very mysterious, or perhaps suspicious, I would say...

In my humble opinion, this looks like a design fault from Esoteric. Why should such a high end player have an unbalanced frequency response over the XLR outputs only? All other aspects of the sound are wonderful and completely coherent with the review on your website. I love the sound of the K-03 player, even through the RCA outputs!

I wonder if you or any of your associates could be interested in measuring the frequency output of the K-03 player like I did. Probably you could reproduce my results and if that happens, I'm afraid that would necessarily have consequences for your actual digital sources recommendations. In that case it would be interesting to publish the results and perhaps check if the K-01 also suffers from the same flaw."

The Reader's Second Letter, from March 2014...

"After many months of patience, I have finally given up. Esoteric is not offering any solution- and after an initial answer where they even offered to me the possibility of returning the unit, now the only answer I get is silence. Due to the high cost of sending the unit to Japan, I asked them to send a replacement output stage (which according to Esoteric could be the cause of my problem with amplifiers with too low input impedance) to their local technical service in order to substitute my faulty outputs stage. My statement that the Coincident Frankensteins have a 100K Ohm input impedance, and therefore could not be the cause of the problem did not convince them… They have never answered to that e-mail, and since then I only get silence as an answer to all my subsequent e-mails… As you can imagine, I am extremely frustrated by what I consider the worst customer care service I have ever seen in Europe.

I kindly ask for your help in order to understand what is happening with the low frequency output of my Esoteric K-03 player. In addition to the description of the problem in my previous e-mails, I can now give you some additional information:

My Esoteric K-03 unit has a rolled off bass output through its XLR analog outputs, as described in my previous e-mail. This problem only appears on the XLR outputs, while the output through the RCA is perfectly flat down to 20Hz. But now I have an additional very valuable piece of information. Due to the high cost of sending the unit to Japan for an inspection, I decided to do it in a more clever way. I looked for the nearest Esoteric dealer in my town and took my computer and software with me in order to measure the frequency output of the RCA and XLR of that demo K-03 unit. Surprise, surprise… the result was exactly the same as with my K-03 unit: a clear roll off in the low bass output of the XLR analog outputs. So now I am completely sure that the XLR outputs of two different Esoteric K-03 units have EXACTLY the same rolled off low frequency output!

My measurements were taken directly from the K-03 outputs, so no amplifier impedance issue has had any influence on these results (this is something that Esoteric still refuses to understand after many months of e-mails). The problem is really frustrating for such a costly player, even more so considering that theoretically the balanced outputs should deliver the best sound (I have been told that only the XLR outputs make use of all the DAC chips, while the RCA outputs only use half* of them).

(*Editor-We've been told this as well, and have even posted it, but I'm not absolutely certain of it. Confirmation of this with certainty, yes or no, would be greatly appreciated.)

For your info, I have attached a computer screen snapshot showing the difference in the low frequency output between the XLR and the RCA outputs of my Esoteric K-03 unit. One chart shows the difference measured directly from the Esoteric K-03 analog outputs (here you can clearly appreciate a roll off from the XLR outputs, which increases as the frequency approaches 20Hz). The second chart (see below) shows the consequence this has on my 'in room' frequency response (which is what I really hear).

To understand its relevance, please consider that my first room mode is at around 35Hz, where my system has always produced a peek in the bass response, no matter which source I have used (since a frequency mode is a physical phenomenon that only depends on the room measures). The XLR outputs clearly produce a totally flawed low frequency response with almost no output until 50Hz, which proves that the output volume at 35Hz is so low that it even cannot excite the first of my frequency modes. Just compare it to the frequency response through the RCA outputs, where the peak at around 35 Hz is evident!

My suspicion is that there is a design flaw in the output stage of the K-03. I wonder if you... have the possibility of listening to a K-03 unit and measure if what I am saying is true**. Should I be right, I suppose Esoteric will have to react in some way. They cannot afford to ignore such a serious issue."

**I don't have access to a K-03 (or K-01), and I also have no ability to measure such a roll-off if I did. As far as I know, no measurments were taken when the K-03 was reviewed, almost two years ago now, on this website.

Personal Notes- Below is the letter I sent to this reader, with some minor editing:

"I can't explain what you are hearing (or measuring). The only possible explanation I can think of is that there is an added capacitor in series with the XLR output (but not the RCA output), which would also cause other sonic compromises besides just the roll-off in the deep bass. As I've noted to you earlier, I have not heard the K-03 (or K-01) myself, but my associates have heard it over a lengthy period of time, in their own systems, and they never heard any problem associated with the XLR outputs. In fact, they informed me that the XLR outputs sounded better than the RCA outputs, in all areas.

This direct contradiction, assuming all of you are correct in your observations, may be explained by the possibility that the European model has a different output stage than the North American model. If so, this is news to me (and probably a lot of other audiophiles).

I will post your letters to my website, along with the picture you sent me that displays the actual room measurement of the severe deep bass roll-off. Maybe someone can explain this anomaly to our satisfaction. In any event, this information should be known, as soon as possible, by the wider audiophile population.

This website has, since June 2009, made "References" of 7 of Esoteric's finest (and most expensive) digital source components. As far as I'm concerned, Esoteric owes you and many other concerned audiophiles as well, a serious explanation for this problem, which has now been scientifically confirmed by you, using actual measurements, and even with a second K-03 test model."

Esoteric K-03 In-Room Frequency Response
RCA Vs XLR

K03 RCA vs XLR in room frequency response


A Quick Response from a Helpful Reader...

I received this message, from a second reader, living in the U.S., only a day after the original post above. My bold:

"I just finished reading the post regarding the Esoteric K-03. This problem immediately received my attention since I have owned the K-03 since December 2013. In the dealer's showroom there was no problem with bass roll-off what so ever. When I looked to see how it was cabled, they were using RCA connections. I assumed when I got my unit home that it would perform even better with XLR cables.

Once getting the unit at home, using XLR cables, the bass was anemic compared to what I heard at the dealer. Reading through the manual, I discovered there is a setting for a +6db increase in output when using XLR cables. Once I did this setting, the bass performance was back, with no other compromises in the sound. If ever you shut the unit down, it automatically defaults to the 0db setting. The 0db setting is for use with non-XLR cables.

Is the individual from Europe aware of this? He did not make mention of this anywhere in the article you posted."

And then a quick reply back from the original reader...

The original reader, from Europe, was forwarded the second reader's suggestion above (before I posted it here), and he replied back quickly. My bold:

"I knew about this possibility and I have just tested it again on my system. The +6dB setting does exactly what the manual says: it 'doubles' the output volume of the XLR output compared to the RCA output, while the +0dB setting leaves the RCA and XLR output volume equal. Unfortunately, the +6dB does not solve the bass roll-off problem. At least not to my ears. When you put on a track with real low bass content, there is always something missing compared to the sound of the RCA outputs.

My computer crashed a few weeks ago, and I have still not reinstalled the Sound Analyzer software on it. As soon as I do that, I will be able to measure the bass output with XLR +0dB and XLR +6dB setting. I am pretty sure that it will confirm what I am saying." (03/14)

Personal Note- This easy change in settings seems almost "too good to be true". You would think Esoteric would have immediately informed the first reader about this option when he initially reported the problem with the deep bass. Any new information about this topic will be posted as soon as possible, including future graphs.

A Minimalist Digital System

A reader recently sent me some interesting information about his system based on a Minimalist strategy, which is similar to what I put together in the past and may do so again in the future. What I really like about this system is that it is so easy, for anyone, to duplicate. Here are his two edited letters:

"Although having some good vinyl recordings, I have a minimalist setup with only a CD player. Reducing the components in the chain to the absolute minimum has proven to be most effective for the lowest possible sound-floor. I have an external listening room with the following setup : CD-Player, cinch (RCA) cable, modified Quicksilver 8417 amps with built in Goldpoint volume control, speaker cables and custom built open baffles, based on Hartley current production MSG 220 full range speakers; no crossover, no correction. Below 70 Hz, an active custom built subwoofer, based on the Hartley 24" takes over down to about 13 Hz.

This setup is extremely delicate regarding the digital source and the cinch cable from the latter to the amps. To this date, only one digital source and one cinch cable have excelled in the most important aspects: dynamics, immediacy and precise reproduction and imaging of very low level information. Philips CD 104 and self constructed cinch cable: The Philips cd player is stock and the only modification is the replacement of cinch cable.

The construction of the cinch cable is ridiculously simple. It consists of a simple cinch cable with very small signal conductor, that is completely striped of the surrounding ground conductor. Instead, a run-of-the-mill speaker cable is used to connect the ground path. The ground path forming speaker cable is considerably longer than the signal path cable, so that a close parallel arrangement is avoided.

There was not even a subtle audible difference between 10 cm of cable length or 120 cm. The cable itself has absolutely no influence on the sound. Of course, if placed adjacently to a power supply cable, the absent shielding takes its toll. But even then, the hum is only audible when placing the ear close to the speaker, where as the gain in reproduced low level information is immediately heard from the normal listening position. At home on my STAX headphones, I have experienced qualitatively the same, with only the above described setup wholly fulfilling my expectations.

Of course, the experienced low level information depends on the source CD as well. But with recordings such as the first pressings of Dire Strait albums (true for all albums prior to "Brothers in Arms") or many of Philips silver line classics recordings, or the first CD pressing of "Belafonte at Carnegie Hall", the experienced difference with any other digital source I ever heard is at least your Level 5. To me, at the moment, I could not think of really listening to music otherwise."

Editor's Note- Below is the reader's 2nd letter, which answered some of my questions relating to his 1st letter (mainly concerning the age and quality of the Philips CD 104), and he even included some pictures I requested.

"From my experience, I would rather say that the Philips general potential is almost always spoiled by cables, and that it is hardly ever used in a configuration that lets it show its capabilities. I’am not sure if it is because of the emitter follower output stage, but the Philips CD 104 is very sensitive to cable capacitance and the input impedance of the following stage.

My former digital setup consisted of an Alchemist Forseti DAC, which I still consider to be quite good. It was a direct competition between the Forseti and the Philips that changed my understanding of digital audio. I chose a vocal track (I think number 9) of Karajan’s "Die Walküre“ to connect the Philips directly to the Quicksilvers, because of the low volume level, and compared it to the Forseti. The Philips sounded much more neutral, detailed and immediate.

But, on the other hand, every inch of cable compromises the very strengths of the player. There are only two ways to experience the full potential: Either shorten the stock cable to less than 5 inches and connect it to a high impedance gain stage (50k or more), or replace the cable with a very very low capacitance version, which I wrote about in my first letter, and combine it with 10k or higher input impedance.

Over the years, on several occasions, a compromised performance of the player was always amended by correcting these aspects. Some weeks ago I listened to an OPPO 103 with the STAX reference Model SR-009. Compared to the Philips 104, it sounded clinical, neutral and correct, but completely uninteresting. Simply put: Digital. Where as with the Philips, I experience the same emotional connection to the music as with a very good turntable." (11/2014)

Personal Note- As I've written many times, a minimalist system (bypassing an active line stage) is "the ideal", but it can only work if the source, either analog or digital, has the required energy to directly drive the power amplifier. Unfortunately, most sources lack this "required energy". However, if the source is actually up to the task, no other configuration, at any price, can equal its level of performance.

1st Picture - The Back of the Philips CD 104
(RCA Female Output Bypassed)

Reader's Philips CD 104 Setup 2

2nd Picture - Philips CD 104 and Quicksilver Amplifiers
(Volume Pot is to the right of the amplifier's RCA Female Input)

Reader's Philips CD 104 Setup

Katzenberger SACD & Blu-Ray Recordings

As any veteran (or observant) reader of this website knows, I have never claimed to be any type of "expert" when it comes to either digital sources or digital software. The only exception to this admission would be (if it even qualifies as such) my search, discovery and listing of some high quality records that were digitally recorded (in The Supreme Recordings of course). This long-time, digital-avoidance, status quo has only very recently began to change (with the Esoteric DV-50S review in March 2014). However, for obvious reasons, my entry into the "digital world" will be in "baby steps", at least for a while.

Below is my first digital software report, which must be brief because of my lack of a broad perspective. Still, I will attempt to provide some real and relevant substance to this broad topic (or why bother).

Earlier this year, I received three musical discs from Katzenberger Music Production, located in Germany, two of which are SACD, while the other is a Blu-Ray (which is a first for me). The first SACD is piano and voice (Mezzo-Soprano), while the music is Classical (Schubert, Faure, Schumann, Mendelssohn etc). The second SACD is solo harp, and the music is again Classical (Bach, Albeniz, Faure etc). The third disc, a Blu-Ray, is modern jazz (Von Kalnein).

All three have outstanding sonics; pure, fast, natural and immediate, as should be expected considering they are using minimalist recording techniques, plus high quality microphones and electronics. The two SACDs also include "Special" bonus tracks, miked differently than the standard tracks, which allow observational testing of the audio system in use. However, of the three discs, considering just the sonics alone, it is the third disc, the Blu-Ray, that proved to be, by far, the most interesting for me.

I was not able to listen to this disc on my Reference System. My current digital source (APL/Esoteric NWO-Master) lacks the capability to play a Blu-Ray, so I used my home theater system instead, which is "OK", but far from being anything "special" of its type, let alone compared to a dedicated audio system. However, this large disadvantage made the results even more relevant and undeniable for me, because it demonstrated not only the ordinary and expected strengths of a good digital recording, it also provided powerful and undeniable evidence for what I believe is Digital's true sonic* trump card: Multi-channel capability.

Obviously, like virtually every audiophile, I've heard multi-channel sound in many different circumstances, and I've also heard high-quality digital recordings, so I can only theorize that this is the first time I've heard both simultaneously, because if what I heard wasn't a "revelation", it was very close to one, at least for me. How? This Blu-Ray has combined outstanding retention of natural musical information (soft and loud), with the superb organization of that same information, while also avoiding any obvious amusical artifacts. The end result is a spontaneous/involuntary (and even primal) feeling that what you are hearing is "real", and that is a very rare (and desirable) experience, especially for any serious audiophile.

Of course, this was 5-channel sound, which is most likely what made this recording truly "special", but that's the point. Yes, analog, using the same 5-channels, may arguably be even better, but that is now basically only an academic argument, because analog, in actual practice, has long been limited to 2 channels. In short, it's now possible that the best digital recordings, at least those which take full advantage of all of its capabilities (meaning 5 channels), may be superior to even the best (2 channel) analog can now offer.

The Bottom Line- The best sound I've heard, overall, is still from an analog source. However, I've now experienced a digital recording that may be as good, or even superior, if it is played on an optimized and dedicated system that, at least "theoretically", is possible to put together today. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if someone already has such a system. Maybe I'm behind the times, but I long ago predicted that "Digital" should eventually overtake "analog", though I wasn't able to predict when this would happen. Maybe it already has, even though "extreme" efforts have to be made to accomplish this change in status, but that is almost always the case when "crossing the Rubicon". So, as an "Audio Perfectionist", I must acknowledge what I experienced, and think about when (not if), and how, to best enter this "New World". (11/2014)

*In contrast to Digital's long recognized advantages in long-term storage and now ease of transmission.

Relevant Link:

Katzenberger Music Productions

Another Suggestion Concerning...

The Esoteric K-03 SACD Player Mystery

A reader sent me his perspective on the Esoteric K-03 deep bass roll-off discussed earlier last year (March 2014). Here it is with minor editing and my bold:

"I read with interest the letters you published regarding the issue with bass response from the XLR output of the K-03. I have been a happy user of the K-03 for a year and before that the X-05. All along, I have been using XLR cables (Siltech 550i, Cardas Clear, Cardas Golden Reference, Sommer Excelsior…) for connection to my preamps (initially Mark Levinson 380 then Pass Labs X1) without any bass issue that was mentioned in the letters. I know of other audiophiles using the K-03 and the K-01 (they have the same output stage) and none of them have encountered that issue. My understanding is that both the XLR and RCA outputs are direct-coupled, WITHOUT any capacitor in the signal path, so the suspicion that the coupling capacitor is the culprit should not be the case.

With no information about that readers setup (he didn’t mentioned his preamp or cables) my hunch is that the preamp may be the culprit. As we know well not all preamps are truly balanced (my old Mark Levinson No.26 is not) and hence they have to incorporate a balanced input buffer stage to receive a balance signal and convert it to a single ended signal for the preamp gain and volume control stages. This input conversion stage may degrade the balance signal (it does with the ML 26).

Another potential issue may be the overall design of the preamp itself. A friend brought his tube preamp to my home for an audition of my power amp and speakers (he considered his preamp to be of reference level). After inserting his preamp into my system, the bass impact and dynamics disappeared regardless of the cables we tried. His initial reaction was that my power amp (Mark Levinson 431) was no match for his very old Krell and determined that my ML 431 was a dog.

I had sold my ML 380 preamp at that point of time and hence was using the digital volume control of the K-03 as a temporary preamp. After I removed his tube preamp, all the bass impact and dynamics were back. My friend was very impressed with the sound quality of my ML 431 and ended up buying it from me. Moreover, he was also very impressed by the K-03 and ended up buying a new K-03 and dumped his tube preamp, Krell power amp and CDP/DAC altogether. His tube preamp is a well-known local brand, using premium grade components and with a separate chassis for the power supply, and selling at around US $3,800, so it is not chopped liver!

I would like to recommend the reader to turn on the digital volume control feature of the K-03 and connect it directly to his power amp and give it a try. A proper high quality preamp is still the way to go with K-03. I later bought a Pass Labs X1 and found that it can offer much better soundstaging, harmonic richness, dynamics and bass impact compare to the 'free' preamp. I am not complaining about the digital volume control of the K-03 for it has beaten quite a few preamps in my setup including the highly regarded Jeff Rowland Capri. I just want to reiterate the fact that a high quality preamp can give better results." (02/15)

CD Playback Phase Inversion

A reader recently sent me this provocative assertion:

"Approximately 92% of all compact discs play inverted on approximately 92% of CD players"

Personal Notes- I would like to hear from anyone who can confirm or repudiate this claim with solid evidence. Also, any system can be brought back to "in phase" by simply switching the polarity of the speaker cables. Further, many systems are themselves "out of phase". This means the sound would already be "in phase" in this scenario, without any change. Bottom Line- All audiophiles should experiment with switching phase using the speaker cables. One position will usually provide the best sound with a majority of musical software. (07/15)

A Critical and Interesting Take On...

OPPO DIGITAL PLAYERS

A veteran reader has taken issue with the placement of all Oppo players in my Class D ("Entry-Level") Digital Source References (see below). The OPPO players will remain there nonetheless, but I still felt the reader had some interesting oberservations that should be shared, so I decided to post his two letters. There's some minor editing and my bold:

Letter One:

"I realize that digital is NOT your area, but clearly your classification of all Oppo players as Class D is as ridiculous as classifying all Dynavector cartridges as Class B.

I would classify NONE of the Oppos, unmodified, as Class D, but, regardless, only the Oppo BDP-95, BPD-105 and BDP-105D have any place at all in the company of the other Class D players. The BDP-83, BDP-93 and BDP-103 players have altogether too many audio compromises to sit anywhere near the audio-oriented "BDP-n5" units. And, while the Oppo 95, 105 and 105D are very impressive in their ability to competently process such a wide variety of musical sources, their sound stages are relatively shallow, and their sound has a distinct (if relatively subtle) digital edge, which some attribute to the ESS Sabre DAC.

I have the JLTi Level 4 enhanced Oppo BDP-95 (http://customanalogue.com/oppo_L3.htm). The modifications cost considerably more than the player. In its modified form, including radical changes to the way that the ESS Sabre DAC is managed, and, effectively, removing jitter from ALL digital inputs, eliminating differences between digital sources (USB, Optical, LAN, transport), I have no doubt that the JLTi version is a solid contender for a class considerably above Class D.

The JLTi-enhanced Oppo players ARE most definitely worthy of inclusion. With sufficiently good source material (e.g. the David Zinman Mahler 2nd Symphony on RCA SACD) you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to a 100% analog recording and reproduction."

My Reply to the Reader's First Letter, with some minor editing and my bold:

I believe you are being much too hard on me. I profoundly disagree with your analogy. There is a huge difference between the Dynavector cartridges. Any person with healthy hearing can observe them, not just audiophiles, and no one in audio would dispute this. There are even audible differences between the exact same models because of mechanical tolerances.

In contrast, there are many audio "objectivists", such as Peter Aczel of the Audio Critic (plus Arny Krueger's "gang"), who claim there are no definitive audible differences between ANY CD players "properly designed", no matter what the price and technology and, further, they also claim that there is no advantage to a SACD compared to even a MP3.

I have no personal experience with the Oppo players, but some of my associates have had experience with a variety of their players, and multiple readers have also sent me their observations over the years. This is why I placed the players in that category, but no higher. I believe they are a safe choice and a Reference for that category, but nothing more than that.

I will post your letter for perspective, but I can't believe your last statement about "thinking you were listening to 100% analog". Of the digital players I've heard, only the APL modified Esoteric player I now have rarely reaches that standard, though I realize that my analogue experiences may be very different than yours.

The reader's Second letter, in reply to my above letter to the reader...

"I maintain my position regarding the vast difference between the competent Oppo BDP-83, 93 and 103 on the one hand, and the much more musical BDP-95 and 105 on the other.

Regarding the experience of being able to imagine I was listening to an analogue source, with specific recordings on my JLTi-modified Oppo-95, it was as unexpected and confounding to me, as it sounds preposterous to you. Certainly you have the benefit of near state of the art music reproduction hardware, and I do not, but my turntable system is no slouch, within its relatively modest budget. I do, however, also attend classical concerts regularly in several different auditoriums, so I know the sound of real music. As a not very good amateur pianist, I can generally tell the difference between a Steinway and a Yamaha concert grand and easily recognize the sound of a Bechstein, a Bosendorfer or a Stuart & Sons piano, which each have very distinct timbres.

I have heard a $ 20,000 Audio Note phono preamp, and it IS better than my $ 2,000 reengineered Eastern Electric MiniMax, but they are not in different worlds. In contrast, the phono preamp of my Dogé 8 LP does not come near my modded MiniMax for realism.

Many years ago, I wrote to you with details of a massive modification of my then Linn LP12, bringing it well into the hi-fi realm. It was nevertheless shocking to hear it put up against the Once Analog turntable built by Vince Hamilton, who did my Linn modifications. I now own a Once Analog turntable, with an Audio Origami PU7 arm and Lyra Kleos cartridge. Feeding the modded MiniMax, it is a good record playing system, and trounces many much more expensive systems I have heard. As secretary of the Audiophile Society of NSW, I get to hear a lot of expensive systems.

My JLTi-modded Oppo BDP-95 digital player sounding 'analogue', is no mean feat (and that is certainly not what I hear from most recordings on it). I have heard no other players which have been able to do this, apart from these modded Oppo BDP-95 and modded BDP-105 players. The difference between these two is interesting. The modded BDP-95 sounds slightly darker and very slightly more expansive, while the modded BDP-105 sounds a tiny bit 'faster' and more incisive, but both can display an uncanny ability to resolve space around voices and reproduce hall ambiance which I only ever expect to hear in a good analogue setup.

I know that testing has shown a stark inability of people to differentiate between CD and SACD. Maybe my brain is wired differently (or maybe my player is wired differently), but I have a number of RCA and Mercury recordings from the 60s on vinyl, SACD, and red-book CD and, while the vinyl is in a different league to the digital, I can pick (and prefer) the SACD every time over the CD.

Not a blind test, but I had some acquaintances over and we listened to my Classic Records Clarity 45RPM of Nora Jones Come Away With Me, followed by a high quality CD recording of it, and then a high resolution (192K) download, returning after that to re-listen to the Clarity 45. The Clarity 45 is really superb - it even convinced one Nora Jones hater that she might be worth listening to. We could only stand about 30 seconds of the CD after that (although the owner of the CD said it was the best he had ever heard it). In contrast, the 192K download was very listenable and it was only on replaying the Clarity that we could hear how much more it took us into the studio than the hi-res digital." (10/15)

The Memory Player

A reader sent me his observations about the above digital player, which I know about but have never heard. Since he also owns my top digital reference, I felt his letter was relevant and should be shared. There's some minor editing and my bold:

"It was with great interest that I just read your comments on the APL NWO-Master player. I would encourage you to try and secure The Memory Player developed and sold by Sam Laufer. I recently acquired a fully flushed one, and find it exceptional. I believe Clement Perry has been correct in praising this product.

The Player, as mentioned, was used, and the original owner, who lives in Europe, did not remove the music he had recorded on it. I was unfamiliar with much of it, but kept thinking, as I listened, that the recording engineers in Europe really do a great job. After about three days I suddenly realized that it was the Player that was making the difference!

I personally feel it surpasses the APL in the areas of transparency and immediacy. I am VERY impressed. I also own the APL Master, so have some degree of legitimacy."

Digital Source "Warm-Up"

A reader sent me some information and an important link pertaining to the subject of digital source warm-up. The advice on this website, which originally came from my (far more) experienced digital associates, is to never shut down the digital source, unless it uses tubes. There's some minor editing and my bold:

"You have always said in the Digital Sources section of Reference Components that it all needs substantial warm up period, even budget equipment, to sound its best. This is absolutely true.

DACs generally consist of myriad resistor ladder networks, and for high resolution these resistors must be extremely accurate. The resistors will vary until the DAC is at even temperature, and because they draw very little current, this takes a long time.

Audioquest made some measurements on warm-up of a very low cost USB DAC they make that proves this is a real phenomenon with objective evidence. Proof positive." (11/15)

Link: http://www.audioquest.com/resource_tools/downloads/whitepapers/Phase-Noise-Jitter-Report-0317-14.pdf

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