T+A Music Player Media Streamer September 2012
My first reaction on setting up the latest version of T+A elektroakustik's Music Player Balanced ($4400) was one of familiarity. Apparent on the outside were the same clean, beautiful design, build quality, and attention to detail that had impressed me when I reviewed the original Music Player ($4000) in our August 2009 issue. But a closer inspection revealed that T+A's engineers have been busy (footnote 1).
First off, the display seems easier to read, and several new buttons have sprouted on the front panel. On the back, new connections have popped out all over. In addition to the variable stereo RCA outputs and the coax digital output are new, fixed pairs of RCA and balanced XLR outs. The digital inputs now include three (!) S/PDIF and two TosLink. Also new are two USB jacks: one for an iPod or T+A's iPod Dock accessory, and the other, labeled HDD, for a USB hard drive. Note that this second, Type A USB connector is not intended to be used with your computer so that the Music Player can function as a USB DAC, but the interested user could add an inexpensive USBS/PDIF converter.
And, as on the original Music Player, there's that all-important local area network (LAN) connection, for attaching the Music Player Balanced (MPB) to a home network for Internet radio and other streaming devices, such as a network-attached storage (NAS) unit. The MPB can also stream via WiFi, though I did most of my listening with it connected via Ethernet cable to an eight-port switch plugged into my router. There's still a CD drawer, to attend to your Olde Worlde media, as well as an FM tuner.
Inside, as its expanded name implies, the Music Player is now Balanced from its digital/analog converter (which now includes 32-bit Burr-Brown chipsets) through its differential and fully balanced analog outputs. The digital options have all been upgraded as well: the S/PDIF, USB stick, and LAN inputs can now accept up to 24-bit/192kHz, and TosLink maxes out at 24/96. If you set up your LAN using the WiFi antenna, you may get less than 24/192, depending on conditions. I was able to consistently get 24/96 at a distance of about 24' from my wireless router, through two walls and cabinets; higher rates were problematic. I wasn't really surprisedat any given time, half a dozen devices are tethered to our WiFi.
The most important new feature for me, and possibly for you, turned out to be the new, optional FD100 remote control ($600), which can control everything. More on that in a bit. In my review of the original Music Player, I spent a lot of time on the comprehensive Web radio features; this time, I focused on higher-quality digital sources.
Port-A-Party: I first tried all of the MPB's various digital ports, beginning by connecting T+A's iPod Dock ($290) to the rear USB jack labeled iPod. When attached to the Dock, an iPod's display goes blank and cedes control to the T+A and the included remoteor, even better, to the optional FD100 remote. One quirk: With the iPod Dock plugged in, the Standby button must be hit twice to get the MPB to light up: the first tap turns on the iPod, the second the T+A. Without the Dock, pressing Standby once does the trick.
Since you can't use the MPB as a USB DAC with a computer as a source, an NAS is the best way to stream from a digital library stored on a hard drive. I set up the MPB with a Western Digital NAS, which contains files at all resolutions up to 24/192. This is where the new FD100 remote really shone. At the top of the FD100 is a small color screen that's used for navigation with the iPod Dock, and displays album-cover art and album info.
When an NAS is used via the MPB's LAN input, the MPB's display shows a file's streaming rate, which is different from the display of bit depth and sampling rate of the DACs I usually review. A 16/44.1 file shows up with a bit rate of "1411k," a 24/176 file as "8467k," a 24/192 file as "9216k," etc. However, when using one of the digital inputs (other than LAN), the MPB displays a range of sampling rates: eg, "44.148kHz" for a typical 16/44.1 source, and "88.296kHz" for a 24/96 source. I love having this data displayed, and maybe I missed it in the settings, but I would prefer that it be consistent between sources. The FD100 remote, however, always displayed the precise sampling rate.
All that aside, once I had the remote and the MPB dialed in, I found them a breeze to use. Using the MPB as a disc player, radio receiver, and NAS drive hub was about all I could imagine most all-digital audiophiles needing (well, maybe a universal disc player would be nice); operating the NAS was so quick and easy with the remote as to make me want to stick with a hard drive stuffed with files. You can still control an NAS with an iPad app (I used Linn's free Kinsky app), but now that the remote has a clean branching-menu interface, I quickly found myself preferring the slim FD100, which was always ready to go, over the comparatively hefty, pokey iPad.
If your NAS contains a huge collection of music, I can imagine that the branching approach used by almost all UPnP Streaming Clients could slow down file access. Really, the only way to go as a step up is either a well-designed iPad app or something like the Meridian Sooloos interface. An iPad app might be more superficially impressive as a music-library interface, but I doubt it will be as quick to fire up and use as T+A's FD100and in any case, you'll then be controlling your library with one app, and your volume, input choices, etc., with another app or device. Some devices let you control volume with an iPadbut unless I leave my iPad screen on all the time, I've found iPad apps cumbersome to use when I want to quickly mute something or just skip a track.
As I wrote this, T+A told me that they're working on an iPad app for the MPB, but I'd probably still prefer something like their FD100 to control my system. Having a set of hard buttons on a svelte remote that responds as soon as you touch it is a luxury that an iPad, no matter how cool the app, still can't provide. And the FD100's buttons look like little Skittles fruit candies; round and shiny is always appealing.
Bound for Sound: I no longer have the original Music Player, and three years is too long to retain aural memories with any accuracy. So I compared the MPB with my reference Benchmark DAC1 USB, and with a dCS Debussy DAC that had just arrived.
Sonically, the MPB hewed closer to the $11,000 dCS than to the lower-priced Benchmark ($1295), which I think most folks would consider a plus. The T+A had a top end with more finesse than the Benchmark's, while creating a solid soundstage and a properly balanced bottom end. And in comparing the MPB's digital inputs (LAN, S/PDIF, iPod), I found, as I had in my review of the MP, that playing the same digital file yielded consistent results, regardless of the source.
T+A had also sent along their companion integrated amplifier, the Power Plant Balanced ($3100), to which I coupled the MPB via balanced interconnects. Though on paper, at 140Wpc into 8 ohms, the PPB is underpowered for my MartinLogan Prodigy speakers, the sound was dynamic and robust, and would likely be perfect for a large apartment or modest-size listening room. Operating both the MPB and PPB with the FD100 remote was easy and intuitivea complete and relatively compact audiophile-grade system for around $8000 for which you just need to add speakers.
In this age of iPad and iPhone apps and endless choices of digital music, it's interesting that an old-school, hard-button remote control and an updated digital hub could still be considered the better way to go. But thanks to the immediacy that a physical remote provides in running a system, combined with the FD100's well-thought-out screen and interface, the T+A elektroakustik Music Player Balanced is exactly that. Jon Iverson
Footnote 1: T+A elektroakustik GmbH & Co. KG, Planckstrasse 9-11, D-32052 Herford, Germany. Tel: (49) (0)52-21-7676-0. Fax: (49) (0)52-21-7676-76. Web: www.taelektroakustik.com. US distributor: Dynaudio North America, 1140 Tower Lane, Bensenville, IL 60106. Tel: (630) 238-4200. Fax: (630) 238-0112. Web: www.dynaudiousa.com.