Sonic Frontiers Transport 3 CD transport & Processor 3 D/A processor Page 3
The P-3's tonal balance was also very neutral to my ears, certainly more so than that produced by previous SF digital products. This unit was a thin sliver on the light side of neutral, but not even close to being bright or harsh when playing natural, well-made recordings. The P-3's bass performance was a big leap forward from that of the SFD-2 Mk.II. There was nary a hint of the P-3's tube pedigree apparent in the bottom end. The low to midbass was delicately textured and tuneful, yet capable of substantial impact and authority. I've heard one or two units whose overall low-frequency timbre is a shade richer than the P-3's, though I'd be hard-pressed to call it more accurate. The midrange was hard to fault by any standard, while the treble sounded more extended and open than any unit I've had in my system. Perhaps the combination of the processor's flat yet delicately nuanced upper treble, with its superb transient focus, contributed to the slightly light tilt of its overall tonal character.
Of course, most of these sonic traits are interrelated; in the P-3 they jelled to present a wide-open, continuous soundfield in the front half of my listening room that seemed uniformly alive, with a luminescent quality within which the correct physical proportions of instruments and vocalists were perceived. This was in contrast to the tendency to spotlight individual sonic images within their own immediate acoustic envelopes that can be heard from otherwise decent components that lack the last measure of ambience resolution I heard from the P-3. These soundstaging attributes were particularly apparent on supremely natural-sounding discs such as Stereophile's new Duet CD (STPH012-2). The opening track of Erwin Schulhoff's Sonata for Solo Violin teleports me every time to the Santa Fe chapel where this piece was recorded. Through the P-3, that feeling of genuine presence takes on an extra measure of realism.
Another example of the P-3's resolution prowess was in the alternating, marchlike build-up and release of musical tension throughout the opening title track of Mephisto & Co., Reference Recordings' recent and Witches' Brew-like HDCD-encoded compilation (RR-82CD). I never heard the P-3 congeal or compress an orchestral climax. This is one of the fundamental shortcomings of lesser designs, and of earlier digital in general: when the going gets tough, the soundstage tends to smear and flatten, often becoming aggressive and shrill. Other HDCD recordings also sounded their best yet through the P-3. However, many of my favorite discs lack such encoding; using HDCD-encoded software when comparing this processor to models employing other digital filter techniques tends to stack the deck. Therefore, most of my direct comparisons with other components were done with non-HDCD recordings.
With the Transport 3
So far, all of my comments regarding the P-3 were gleaned from using one of two Muse transports (the Model 5 CD-only, and the new Model 8 DVD/CD spinner), my souped-up Theta Data II, or the PCM output on a Pioneer DV-500 DVD/CD player. Digital links were many, but I primarily used the Kimber/Illuminati Orchid and Cardas AES/EBU, as well as S/PDIF cables from Illuminati, MIT, Cardas, and Marigo.
Hooking up the Transport 3 to the Processor 3 showed the synergistic match between the two Sonic Frontiers components, even without the I2S-E connection. The T-3 driving other processors was truly formidable as well. Using standard interface options, I consistently experienced a degree of enhanced focus and a bit more solidity to sonic images and their acoustic environments compared to that from the other transports tested, regardless of the processor used.
However, the real news with the T-3 was the impact of connecting its I2S-E output to the P-3. I felt as if I'd just put on a new pair of glasses! Every virtue of a good I2S connection described in the accompanying Sidebar was added to the P-3's inherent attributes outlined above! Dynamic contrast and low-level harmonic details became even more focused, while the whole presentation took on a notably greater degree of ease and presence. Sibilants also sounded more natural. Without I2S-E, the T-3/P-3 combination is a definite contender for the brass ring among current Class A digital rigs. With I2S-E, the pair stand at the pinnacle of the CD hill, in my experience.
The Digital Conundrum
The compact disc no doubt has many good years of viability ahead of it, and I can't think of a better way of getting the most out of that format than by using both of Sonic Frontiers' new CD source components. Had their I2S-Enhanced-equipped Transport 3 and Processor 3 been available over a year ago, I could have easily recommended them without qualification to those searching for cutting-edge CD playback. It's obvious that I was smitten by their standard-setting performance, excellent ergonomics, and great looks. As it is, though, the watershed format changes now upon us add the following caveats to my recommendations.
Obviously, only well-heeled audiophiles, or those who simply must have the best and are willing to go deep into hock, will be in the market for a $14,000 digital front-end. Evidence indicates that there are a fair number of music lovers in each category. For these groups, I readily endorse SF's T-3/P-3 combo as the highest example of the CD art I've heard so far. Indeed, if this fits your description, you should consider both products as a single-purchase, two-box CD player rather than as separates—that is, as long as you can envision owning a separate transport for CDs and another for DVD A/V discs, both of which could be connected to an upgraded Processor 3 when the proposed standards are fully sorted out and more hi-rez 96kHz software becomes available. There's also a far smaller category of very wealthy individuals who buy and sell top-tier components regularly for the sport of "having owned the best," and who will certainly want to add this combo to their quivers.
However, even though the Transport 3 is the best-sounding CD transport I've had in my system, and a true joy to operate, I can't endorse a $6999 disc-spinner as a stand-alone unit for most audiophiles—particularly if they expect the transport to be upgradeable to DVD status. Such a mod would likely be very expensive and complicated, if not impossible. Instead, I suspect that SF will incorporate many of the advances seen in the T-3 into an entirely new DVD-based model in the near future.
The Processor 3, on the other hand, has such well thought-out modularity, such low inherent jitter, such a quiet noise floor, and such world-class sonics that it easily earned five stars with a bullet as a stand-alone unit for playing CDs. I'm also confident that it will provide a solid platform for DVD-based audio processing when SF and you are ready to make that jump. In addition, though Sonic Frontiers' I2S-Enhanced interface will likely require some modifications to comply with the demands of the new format, it's perfectly fine for the CD medium.
A final category of audiophile for whom the P-3 is particularly suited are those who either own or can buy a used SFT-1 transport or SFCD-1 player, both each of which SF will upgrade to I2S-Enhanced status for $700, including cable, daughterboard, and sheet-metal modifications. (It's well worth it.) While that won't match the ultimate performance of the T-3/P-3 combo, it'll get you very close indeed.
Has Sonic Frontiers really outdone themselves again? Yes, indeed!