Music in the Round #55 Page 2
Altogether, I think the Bryston SP-3 is the first great audiophile preamplifier-processor. Sure, it will also work superbly for home-theater fans, but its combination of features, controls, and purity of sound make the SP-3 especially appealing to those who love to listen to music, regardless of the number of channels, and whether or not accompanied by images.
Electrocompaniet EMP 2 High Performance Balanced Multiformat Player
The above is the official name of Electrocompaniet's latest player. Basically, the EMP 2 is a universal disc player that will play all current commercial music discs (CD, SACD, DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, Blu-ray) and read any encoding format any of them is likely to contain.
It's common knowledge that all the universal players that have so far appeared have been based on a handful of "platforms" that have been adapted, modified, enhanced, expanded, or merely repackaged. They also have HDMI outputs, in addition to varying arrays of other digital and analog outputs. This is nothing new. Back before BD, when I reviewed what was then regarded as a universal player, the McCormack MDP-1, it was already apparent that many high-end universal players shared a basic design or platform that was originally marketed as an inexpensive player by its manufacturer.
The EMP 2 ($3995) is based on the Oppo BDP-93 ($499), but that's no biggie anymore. I wanted to review the EMP 2 because I wanted to see what an established, reliable high-end company might do with the Oppo. When I asked, EC replied that, although they begin with the Oppo platform, "the only things we use are the drive, video board, and, in this case, the power supply; everything else is EC made." So, while "Oppos have op-amp circuitry . . . EC uses discrete circuitry . . . we make and use our own 24/192 DAC . . . and we built our own fully balanced analog output board." A Texas Instruments SRC4193 chip, an asynchronous converter, is used to upsample all PCM signals to 192kHz before sending them to a CS4398 24-bit/192kHz D/A converter, which also supports direct DSD input. While the Oppo's multichannel analog outputs are retained, the EMP 2's stereo output is fully balanced, DC-coupled (DC-servo for DC offset control), employs no feedback, and drives the XLR stereo output jacks with high-bias, class-A output.
I opened up the EMP 2 to see what was under the hood and found that EC's statements were accurate. In addition to the boards and connections seen in a stock BDP-93, there is a small PCB in series with the control PCB and front-panel controls. There is also a large PCB at the rear, mounted over the main audio board. Because this supports the XLR outputs at the top of the rear panel and must clear the main audio board, it is mounted upside down; I could see only the board traces, not the components themselves.
The EMP 2 is larger and heavier than the Oppo BDP-93 (22 lbs vs 10.8 lbs), and stands more securely on three rather substantial isolation pods. EC has replaced the four touch buttons for disc navigation with as many buttons that actually click when pressed. This improvement made me realize why I always use Oppo players' remote controls: Aside from tray Open/Close, the front-panel buttons that operate the actions are hard to see, and hard to identify by touch. The Oppo's excellent remote remains unchanged, as does the rest of the accessory kit, but the front-panel USB jack has been omitted, perhaps to accommodate the new pushbuttons.
Convenient control and aesthetics aside, the EMP 2's major feature is its unique, two-channel balanced analog output. Thus, in a way, this column really is not a wholly appropriate venue for its review as all of the features so critical for multichannel, high-resolution audio and video are pretty much what they are in the Oppo. This isn't a bad thing, though it would have been nice had EC put some work into upgrading the multichannel single-ended outputs.
Has the effort that EC put into the balanced analog outputs paid off? If so, is the difference worth the $3496 gap in price between the EMP 2 and the Oppo? I'd listened to the EMP 2 via the Bryston SP-3 for a while and really enjoyed it, but suspected I should try to objectify any comparisonthe difference might be subtle but critical. So after I'd brought the Bryston back from Connecticut, I gave my wife two pairs of AudioQuest 1m-long XLR interconnects and told her to plug them into the SP-3's two pairs of balanced inputs, leave their other ends hanging over the top of the chassis, and not indicate to me in any way which input she'd plugged which pair into. When I returned, I had no clue which pair was plugged into Balanced 1 and which into Balanced 2. I connected one pair to the EMP 2 and the other to an Oppo BDP-95. (I don't have an Oppo BDP-93, which, at any rate, doesn't have XLR outputs.)
I then put pairs of identical discs in the two players and, using one remote to run both, loaded and played them in sync while switching between Balanced 1 and 2. First, I realized that one player was about 2.5dB louder than the other; I was able to match the levels in the Bryston SP-3's Source Setup menu without knowing which player I was tweaking. I listened to extensive excerpts from the two-channel tracks of five SACD/CDs:
J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto 5; Richard Egarr, Academy of Ancient Music (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807461.62)
Grieg: Piano Concerto; Sa Chen, Lawrence Foster, Gulbenkian Orchestra (Pentatone PTC 5186 444)
Mozart: Quartet for Oboe & Strings in F, K.370; Robin Williams, Alexander Janiczek, Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Linn CKD 376)
Holst: The Planets; Sir Andrew Davis, BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHSA 5086)
Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer; Marek Janowski, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Pentatone PTC 5186 400)
Although I don't expect to hear more than small but, hopefully, consistent differences among excellent alternatives, it is just such small differences that underlie one person's affection for one component, and someone else's doting on another. The differences here were very small but consistent. Player 1 offered a more spacious sound, with well-delineated voices and instruments; Player 2 seemed to depict a more coherent ensemble sense that was particularly effective in tuttis. Player 1 seemed less warm, but had more than adequate low frequencies, while Player 2 offered impressive weight, especially with the Adam speakers.
Player 1 was the Oppo BDP-95, Player 2 the Electrocompaniet EMP 2. For the diehard fan of two-channel analog sound, the EMP 2's balanced connections should be heard. Electrocompaniet has done a great job with them; their particularly clear, powerful sound might just suit your ears and your system. But it's hard to recommend the EMP 2 to multichannel fans, or to those who rely on HDMI connection, even though the Electrocompaniet's appearance and operational solidity can't be denied.