2014 Recommended Components Fall Edition Disc Players, Transports & Media Players

SACD, DVD-A, & CD Players & Transports & Media Players

Editor's Note: SACD and DVD-A player ratings are based on how they sound with their respective hi-rez media, not CD.


Bryston BDP-2: $2995
Essentially a beefed-up BDP-1, the BDP-2 replaces the original's 0.5GHz processor with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N450 and upgrades its single-amp linear power supply with a larger toroidal transformer specced to provide 10 amps of peak current. In addition, the BDP-2 has two Ethernet connectors (instead of the BDP-1's one), six USB ports (instead of four), a new eSATA connector, and accommodations for an internal SSD data-storage card. Compared to the original, the BDP-2 was just as detailed and dynamic, but offered significantly faster load times and produced highs that were more effortless, said LG. The latest improvements "greatly enrich this digital player's versatility and value," he concluded. (Vol.36 No.10 WWW)

Bryston BDP-1: $2195 ★
Simple in function and purist in design, the plug'n'play BDP-1 digital audio player is basically a Linux computer optimized for streaming audio files. Based on the user-friendly Auraliti L-1000, the BDP-1 plays digital files from external flash drives or portable hard drives plugged into one of its four USB 2.0 ports; it adds an AES/EBU output to the Auraliti's S/PDIF and has a front-panel display and keypad to control playback. Once properly set up and configured and used with Bryston's BDA-1 DAC, the BDP-1 produced open highs, a rich midrange, stunning dynamic range, and three-dimensional imaging, said LG. JA, too, was impressed: "Bryston's BDP-1 proved to be an excellent-performing digital source, with a low-jitter, bit-accurate data output capable of operating at sample rates up to 192kHz." BR-2 remote control adds $375. (Vol.34 No.6 WWW)

dCS Vivaldi: $108,496/system as reviewed
The latest dCS digital playback system comprises the Vivaldi DAC ($34,999), which can decode every digital resolution from MP3 to DSD and DXD, provides 10 filter options (six for PCM, four for DSD), and offers every digital input other than Ethernet; the Vivaldi Upsampler ($19,999), which can upconvert even the lowest-resolution MP3 data to 24/384, DSD, and DXD, or any format in between; the Vivaldi Master Clock ($13,499), containing two groups of four clock outputs, which can be independently set; and the Vivaldi Transport ($39,999), a smooth, quiet, quick-booting SACD/CD drive based on TEAC's Esoteric VRDS Neo disc mechanism, controlled by dCS-designed signal-processing electronics, and capable of upsampling CDs to DSD or DXD. In addition to updated casework and cosmetics, the Vivaldi products use a complete revision of dCS's Ring DAC topology, increasing the Ring DAC's available dynamic range and decreasing its jitter. Though setup was complicated, the Vivaldi components produced "a texturally supple, delicate, musically involving sound filled with color and life," said MF. On the test bench, the Vivaldi measured superbly, improving on dCS's Scarlatti in almost every way. "Wow!" said JA. (Vol.37 No.1 WWW)

dCS Scarlatti: $82,246/system as reviewed ★
This complex, sophisticated four-box system includes the dual-laser SACD/CD Scarlatti Transport ($32,999), with DSD datastream output via IEEE1394 FireWire interface; the Scarlatti DAC ($23,999), with dCS-patented Ring DAC topology and switchable reconstruction filters; the Scarlatti Master Clock ($9999), with eight independently buffered outputs; and the Scarlatti Upsampler ($12,999), with switchable filters that upsample data to high-sample-rate PCM or DSD. USB input operates in the much preferred asynchronous mode; version shipping August 2012 included 24/192 LPCM and DSD over USB. With both SACDs and CDs, the Scarlatti stack produced sound that was effortless, transparent, tonally neutral, and dimensional, said MF. "The dCS Scarlatti is the best-sounding, most satisfying digital playback system I've heard." JA noted "state-of-the-art" measured performance. (Vol.32 No.8 WWW)

dCS Puccini: $18,999 ★
The Puccini, the least-expensive model in the new dCS line, is a one-box SACD/CD player with both balanced and unbalanced analog outputs; it has pairs of digital inputs and outputs, and can be partnered with the external Puccini U-Clock ($5499), which offers 24-bit/192kHz support as of the summer of 2011 and adds a USB input. (DSD over USB was scheduled for the summer of 2012.) The Puccini employs dCS's Ring DAC and the bombproof UMK5 Esoteric transport mechanism, while the U-Clock's USB port uses a Texas Instruments TAS 1020B USB receiver chip operating in asynchronous mode. With its convincing low frequencies, outstanding midrange clarity, "righteous sense of musical flow," and state-of-the-art measured performance, the Puccini produced a sound that allowed JA to almost forget he was listening to recordings. The V1.2 firmware upgrade eliminates the low-level, low-frequency idle tone JA discovered with SACD playback, and adds three new low-pass filters for CD playback and external 44.1kHz-sampled data: Classic, which has the same linear-phase characteristic as the Puccini's earlier DSD filter; Long, said to have better anti-imaging performance than Classic; and Asym, free from pre-ringing but with a larger degree of post-ringing on transients. JA heard no substantial difference between the Classic and Long filters, but with the Asym filter engaged there was a greater ease to the overall sound and images were more dimensional. "Highly recommended." (Vol.32 No.12, Vol.33 No.10 WWW)

Krell Cipher: $12,000
Outwardly similar to Krell's earlier Evolution 505, the Cipher weighs 29 lbs and measures 17.3" W by 6" H by 17.3" D. Its aircraft-grade aluminum case is available in silver or black, and has rounded edges and slotted sides for a graceful appearance. Like the 505 and other components in the Evolution series, the Cipher incorporates Krell's proprietary CAST current-drive circuitry. Whereas the 505 had a single stereo D/A converter, the Cipher uses a pair of 24-bit/192kHz DACs, which deliver higher current to the analog stages and expand the dynamic range by 3dB. The Cipher excelled at "revealing the finest subtleties of a musical passage, untangling the knottiest complexities, and showering light on the tonal colors of a voice, an instrument, or an ensemble," said FK. Compared to the Audio Research Reference CD9, the Cipher was just as open, detailed, and emotionally compelling, but sacrificed some harmonic bloom for leading-edge definition, said FK. JA noted superb measured performance. (Vol.35 No.5 WWW; Vol.36 No.10 WWW)

Marantz NA-11S1 media server: $3499
Launched to celebrate Marantz's 60th anniversary, the NA-11S1 is a remote-controlled, network-connected media player and D/A processor with two user-selectable digital filters and direct access to SiriusXM, Pandora, Spotify (separate subscription required), and Internet radio. A front-panel type-A USB connector can be used both to connect an iPod and to play up to 24-bit/96kHz files from a USB memory stick, while a rear-panel USB2.0B port allows the NA-11S1 to decode high-resolution PCM and DSD audio streamed from a PC. Though it can play WMA, MP3, ALAC, WAV, and FLAC files, the NA-11S1 is incompatible with AIFF files. The player also has a front-panel headphone jack, coaxial and optical S/PDIF outputs (on XLRs), and balanced and unbalanced analog outputs (on RCAs). The Marantz held its own against the 12-times-more-expensive MSB Diamond DAC IV, with a sound that was smooth, warm, and natural, only slightly sacrificing leading-edge definition, dynamics, and sense of pace, said JA. "This is a first-rate D/A converter that offers sound quality competitive with the best at a relatively affordable price," he summed up. (Vol.36 No.10 WWW)

Meridian Digital Media System: $7000–$10,500 depending on options ★
Originally branded as Sooloos, this hard-drive–based networked music system includes the Source:One system controller with 24-bit/192kHz converters sourced from RME, two-channel analog and digital outputs, and four-port Ethernet switch; the Store/Twinstore hard drive with mirrored storage for the contents of over 2000 CDs (encoded in the lossless FLAC format); and the Control:One, a 17" LCD touchscreen display/interface with CD drive. Additionally, Sooloos's ControlPC software can be used to control the system and manage hard-drive data. Setup and use were simple and intuitive. "Using the Sooloos got me more deeply involved with my music library than at any time since I began collecting many years ago," commended JI. "If you have thousands of albums on a music server, there is simply no better way to manage them," he adds. Linked to the Meridian Reference 861 pre-pro via its S/PDIF output, the Sooloos produced dynamic, involving performances. "When used as a digital source for a quality DAC, the Sooloos was as good as any other CD source I've tried," praised KR. JI notes as of February 2009 that almost a year after he first set up the Sooloos, it still holds its own against iTunes and other server products that have appeared in the last 12 months. As of summer 2009, the Control:One touchscreen interface became the Control 10 and has a handy S/PDIF out, which means you can use the DAC of your choice. All of the Control 10's networking hardware is contained in its slim base; it offers a wealth of connectors, including S/PDIF and Meridian SpeakerLink outputs, DC power in, and an Ethernet port, and allows the importing of hi-rez audio and WAV files. In addition, many of the Sooloos's stock features have been made more intuitive while reducing the number of interim steps for faster management of your music library. The Control 15 ($7500), the latest version of the Sooloos touchscreen, comes with a 500G internal hard drive, while the Media Drive 600 ($5000), the current RAID 1 housing component, has room for a mirrored pair of 2TB hard disks. The Control 15 lacks a DAC but is now compatible with virtually all non-DRM file types, and its S/PDIF output supports resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz. JI: "I still don't think there's a better overall music-server system for the music lover and audiophile who wants to do away with the clutter of CDs and iTunes" and agrees with MF that the Control 15 was fully competitive with the cost-no-object MSB disc transport. (Vol.31 No.9, Vol.32 No.10, Vol.35 No.7 WWW)

MSB Platinum Data CD IV: $3995
Designed to match MSB's Diamond DAC IV, the Platinum Data CD IV transport is compatible with CDs or WAV files (up to 32-bit/384kHz) on DVD-R, and provides coaxial, TosLink, AES/EBU, and MSB Network outputs. It spins CDs at up to 40 times the real-time rate, then rereads each sector to ensure correct data retrieval; if it finds any differences, the MSB assumes that all reads were incorrect, and adjusts spin speed, tracking, and laser focus as many times as necessary to achieve a "perfect" result. While the MSB outclassed the Oppo BDP-83, offering greater detail, scale, and dynamics, JI was hard-pressed to pick a favorite between the MSB and his Meridian Sooloos server. Signature Transport Power Base adds $3495. (Vol.35 No.10 WWW)

NAD Masters Series M50 Digital Music Player: $2499
Offered by NAD as "computer audio without the computer," the Masters Series M50 looks like a high-end disc player—its front-mounted, slot-loading CD mechanism allows it to function as such—but is, in fact, a 24-bit/192kHz file player. Intended for use with an external file-storage device and an outboard D/A converter—it lacks an internal hard drive, and its varied output jacks are digital only—the M50 supports most PCM files, as well as the cloud services Rdio, Slacker, TuneIn, WiMP, Qobuz, and HighResAudio. As for ripping files, unless the M50 doesn't detect a storage device—in which case it simply plays whatever CD is fed into its slot—its control software gives the user a choice of prompts or defaults, automatically indexes the rips, and retrieves from the Internet all metadata and "artwork." In our review, the M50 played music files from both its companion NAD Master Series M52 Music Vault storage device ($1999) and an Ethernet-connected NAS on JA's home network, and worked well with both NAD's Master Series M51 DAC ($1999) and the Auralic Vega converter, although JA preferred the more robust-sounding Auralic. Overall, JA rated the M50 "a true high-end source." (Vol.37 No.5 WWW)

Playback Designs MPS-5 Reference: $17,000 ★
Designed by Sony and Studer alum Andreas Koch and made in the US, the MPS-5 is a slim, single-box, fixed-output, two-channel SACD/CD player, upgradeable to multichannel by adding Playback Designs' outboard MPD-5 DAC. Its digital input/output section is carried in the chassis's upper section, while the lower section houses a modified TEAC Esoteric SACD/CD transport and the player's analog output circuitry. The MPS-5 includes Playback Designs' Frequency Arrival System, said to completely eliminate jitter from the audio signal. Once broken in, the MPS-5 produced a "masterfully neutral top-to-bottom tonal balance" with well-extended bass and open, airy highs, said MF. Compared to the dCS Scarlatti, the MPS-5 sounded "somewhat cooler and more analytical," but offered slightly better transparency and three-dimensionality. Although JA found the MPS-5's error correction "astounding," he was puzzled by its relatively high levels of background noise which appeared to reduce the player's intrinsic resolution on SACD closer to that typical of CD. Compared to the Marantz SA-KI-Pearl, the MPS-5 sounded, to MF, "faster, tighter, more resolving, better extended, and more expressive, particularly on the bottom." The MPS-5 traded the delicacy, richness, and atmospherics of the Ayre DX-5 for greater dynamics, blacker backgrounds, and more three-dimensionality, said MF. Compared with the Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D, the MPS-5 had similarly sharp transient attack but lacked clarity, texture, bass control, and focus, felt MF. 2012 producion has USB-X to handle DSD datastreams. (Vol.33 Nos.2, 7, & 12, Vol.34 No.11 WWW)


Aesthetix Saturn Romulus: $7000
The Saturn Romulus is a robustly built, remote-controlled, tubed CD player–DAC. Its digital section uses Gordon Rankin's Streamlength asynchronous USB protocol, a Motorola DSP56362 chip in the filter section, a Burr-Brown PCM 1792A DAC chip, and includes a full complement of digital inputs that decode every resolution up to 24-bit/192kHz. The analog circuit is a zero-feedback design, with both balanced and unbalanced outputs, driven by two 12AX7 and two 6DJ8 or 6922 tubes. Though it lacked the image specificity and soundstage depth of the Benchmark DAC1 USB, the Romulus combined excellent dynamic impact and bass slam with sweet mids and highs, said JI. "The design, engineering, and build quality are top-notch for its price—and for the tube enthusiast, it's a no-brainer," he concluded. Though the Romulus measured well overall, JA discovered that its high analog noise floor obscures its effective resolution of digital data with >16-bit word lengths. Switched-resistor volume control adds $1000. (Vol.36 No.10 WWW)

Audio Note CD-4.1x: $12,000 ★
Audio Note's current flagship CD player is a top-loading, single-box design with an 18-bit Analog Devices AD1865N non-oversampling D/A chip, a robust Philips CD-Pro2LF transport mechanism, and a stereo pair of 6H23N dual-triode output tubes. Though it lacked ambience and air, the Audio Note had a chunky, involving sound, and excelled at presenting "the sonic flesh and blood" of even the most poorly recorded CDs, said AD. JA's measurements uncovered poor intermodulation performance and very high levels of jitter. "The CD-4.1x is a paradox," he said. "Does it sound good because of how it measures or despite it?" (Vol.35 No.7 WWW)

Audio Research CD9: $13,000
The CD9 is a top-loading, remote-controlled, tubed CD player with optional on-the-fly upsampling, two digital construction filters, and a full set of digital inputs and outputs. Four 6H30 dual-triode tubes drive the analog section; a fifth 6H30 and a 6550C regulate the power supply. The CD9 uses four digital-to-analog converters (two per channel, each in dual-mono mode) and handles resolutions up to 24 bits and sample rates up to 192kHz. Though just as open, detailed, and emotionally compelling as the similarly priced Krell Cipher, the CD9 traded the solid-state player's better-defined transient attacks for body and harmonic bloom, said FK. "The CD9 is a superb machine for spinning CDs and streaming hi-rez downloads, a superb source for today and tomorrow," he concluded. (Vol.36 No.10 WWW)

Ayre Acoustics CX-7eMP: $3500 ★
In his measurements, JA concluded that the original CX-7 CD player was "a model of modern CD-playing design....[It] sounds as clean as it looks. Its balance is vibrant, its bass well-defined and deep, its highs clean, detailed, and well-resolved." He was impressed by the way the original CX-7 preserved the "fragile sense of an acoustic around recorded instruments....Nothing sounded confused or obscured via the CX-7." While appearing physically unchanged, the CX-7e has undergone several upgrades, including a new FPGA chip. Sounding "superbly rich, smooth, and detailed," with "velvety highs and an enormously deep bass," the CX-7e "fully deserves a Class A rating in Stereophile's ëRecommended Components,'" decreed JA after auditioning an early version of the "E" revision. The improved Ayre offered a more vivid and tactile presentation, distinguishing itself as "an almost aggressively rhythmic player, yet one with a wide open and transparent view of the sound," said AD. "Taut and tuneful, much better than original CX-7," adds WP. RD's new reference for high-end CD players. Further testing showed that the CX-7e exhibited excellent measured performance, though its noise floor wasn't as low as that of the C-5xe. WP preferred the rhythmic drive and huge soundstage of Ayre's C-5xe universal player. Now supplied with MP upgrade—upgrading a CX-7e to MP status costs $250–$900, depending on the age of the unit, and includes a reconfigured DAC, upgraded wiring, and new operating-system firmware for faster track access. The CX-7eMP produced a more natural onset and decay of transients with better-defined air around instruments, resulting in a sound that was "more like live music and less like a recording," said RD. Compared to the Luxman D-05, the Ayre was more articulate and focused but lacked the Luxman's full, rich midrange, said JM. (Vol.26 No.5, Vol.27 No.12, Vol.29 No.2, Vol.31 No.1, Vol.32 Nos.2 & 10; Vol.35 No.4 WWW; see also "The Fifth Element" in Vol.34 No.2 and Vol.35 No.4 WWW)

Baetis XR2 media server: $4995
In a world of high-end media servers that support only two-channel playback, the multichannel Baetis XR2—described by KR as "a complete hardware-and-software package to which the user need add nothing but more storage"—stands out. Essentially a fourth-generation IntelCore i7 computer, the cooling system of which has been optimized for silent operation, the XR2 runs Windows 7 and uses JRiver Media Center playback software. During setup, an icon on the computer's desktop allows a Baetis technician to "see" and control the XR2 while speaking on the phone with the user; thus KR was up and running in no time: "After boot-up, I loaded JRiver's Media Center 19, clicked on a music file, and was able to play via S/PDIF immediately." KR put his multichannel aspirations on temporary hold, compared the S/PDIF output with that of other players and servers, and concluded that the XR2 "produced the best two-channel sound from every DAC I tried" at every level of resolution, including DSD-over-PCM. Turning to multichannel playback via the Baetis's USB and HDMI outputs, KR was equally impressed, observing that his go-to multichannel disc "had never, ever sounded better. Every instrument was right in the room, and well defined from left to right and from front to back. Luscious." (Vol.37 No.9 WWW)

Metronome Technologie CD8T Signature: $10,975
Made in France, the exquisitely built CD8T Signature CD player measures 17.5" W by 4.5" H by 17" D and, thanks in part to its three toroidal transformers, weighs 33 lbs. It uses a top-loading Philips CDM12 transport mechanism and a single 6922 tube, and has a 24-bit/192kHz-capable asynchronous USB input, an S/PDIF output, and balanced and single-ended stereo outputs. It produced coherent, compelling overall sound with superb low-level resolution, an excellent sense of space, and an absence of anything digital, said ST. "The Metronome Technologie CD8T is more than an exceptional work of engineering: it is an expression and triumph of art," he concluded. Solid-state CD8 costs $9875. (Vol.36 No.11)

MSB Universal Media Transport Plus: $5995
Based on the Oppo BDP-103 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray player—"a great place to start, and a player I'd already had in my video system for a year," said JI—the Universal Media Transport plus plays CDs, DVDs, BDs, and SACDs, as well as most popular music-file codecs (it has a USB Type A jack for memory sticks). The UMT plus retains Oppo's onboard video circuitry but uses MSB's own audio processing. Its use requires one of four MSB power-supply options, ranging in price from $595 to $5995. While reviewing MSB's Analog DAC (see Digital Processors), JI achieved good results with the UMT plus: "When I added [it] to the mix, [the system's sense of] 'thereness' notched up a nanotad." (Vol.37 No.4 WWW)

Oppo BDP-105: $1199
Oppo BDP-103: $499 $$$

Oppo's latest universal disc players offer a host of versatile and powerful features. The BDP-103 has two HDMI inputs; two HDMI outputs; a DLNA-compatible Ethernet port; three USB ports to handle hi-rez audio, video, and picture files; and an RJ-45 jack to access the Internet for audio and video streaming. It offers bass management, channel-balance and -delay settings, and remote control of input selection and volume. In a larger, heavier chassis, the BDP-105 adds three digital inputs (asynchronous USB-B and S/PDIF on coax and TosLink) and has two eight-channel Sabre32 ES9018 DAC chips—one for its 7.1-channel RCA output, the other for its dedicated two-channel outputs on RCA and XLR jacks. Compared with the '103, the '105 sounded cleaner, smoother, and more detailed, regardless of source or number of channels, said KR. Though the '103 was "no slouch," Kal was more impressed by the more versatile '105. "I know of no other high-quality player with such a comprehensive feature set," he said, deciding that Class B was appropriate for the '103. A free firmware upgrade provides multichannel DSD capability and supports exFAT drives, but doesn't currently offer gapless playback of DSD files. KR was thrilled: "The electricity and communication I experienced were unprecedented." (Vol.36 Nos.5 & 7 WWW)

Parasound Halo CD 1: $4500
Inside Parasound's first Halo-series CD player are a computer optical-disc drive, an R-core transformer, an analog power supply, and an Intel single-board computer running Linux and DSP software from Holm Acoustics of Denmark. Internal partitions of thick aluminum isolate the disc drive from the power supply and computer circuitry. The CD 1 spins CDs at four times the usual speed and plays digital data from solid-state memory; every bit is read at least twice, and the reads must match, before being sent on to a memory buffer. Compared to Musical Fidelity's M1CDT transport, the Halo CD 1 was significantly quieter and produced a larger, more spacious sound, said JM. "Class A," he concluded. ST praised the CD 1's sweet, nonfatiguing smoothness. "This is the way to do computer audio," he said. Compared to the NAD M51 D/A processor, the Parasound added a touch more midbass and lacked a slight amount of recorded ambience, said JA. On the test bench, the Halo CD 1 exhibited excellent measured performance, highlighted by the best error correction JA had ever encountered in a CD player. Incompatible with pre-emphasized CD-Rs, but as those are extraordinarily rare, this is not a real-world limitation. (Vol.36 Nos. 6, 7, & 12; Vol.37 No.1 WWW)

Primare CD32: $2850
Primare's CD32 is a single-box CD player featuring balanced and single-ended analog outputs, a choice of three digital outputs (S/PDIF, TosLink, AES/EBU), and a USB Type A digital input, intended for thumb drives, via which the user can play MP3 files (but nothing else). The remote handset allows the user to select among three pre-conversion upsampling modes: the original 16-bit/44.1kHz signal, or the same datastream upsampled to 48 or 96kHz. BD praised the CD32 for allowing instruments to sound like their real selves, with "violins [sounding] articulate and especially captivating." The Primare's spatial performance was also impressive, as was how it conveyed the relationship between the recording space and the instruments within: "The CD32 allowed . . . guitars to pressurize the space around them in just the way an acoustic guitar—even an amplified one—will in concert." Compared with its predecessor, Primare's CD31, BD wrote that "the CD32 improved on all the areas where the CD31 was strong, and addressed the areas where it wasn't." JA's measurements gave the Primare a clean bill of health, noting in particular the player's "superb error correction." (Vol.37 No.6 WWW)

Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center: $6495
With its large, retro-modern alphanumeric display and top panel of scalloped aluminum waves, the gorgeous Cantata has one of the most distinct appearances in all of digital audio. It combines a digital preamp, CD player, and DAC in a single slim chassis and offers Ethernet, USB, TosLink, AES/EBU, and coax inputs, as well as balanced and unbalanced stereo outputs. A free app allows the user to control all functions via iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, and the optional Pont Neuf USB-to-Ethernet Bridge ($400) permits wireless streaming of resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz. Compared to the Benchmark DAC1 USB, the Cantata offered equal clarity but sounded noticeably smoother and more natural, said JI. On the test bench, the Cantata lacked low-level linearity but exhibited superb rejection of jitter and error correction, said JA. (Vol.34 No.11 WWW)

Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D: $9000
The beautifully built 650D is a single-box CD player and DAC with AES/EBU, S/PDIF, TosLink, and USB digital inputs; S/PDIF and AES/EBU digital outputs; and balanced and unbalanced analog outputs. It uses ESS Technology's Sabre32 Ultra DAC chip and employs individual toroidal transformers for the digital and analog power supplies. The Simaudio had a muscular, rhythmically solid sound with clean, fast transient articulation, excellent transparency, outstanding soundstage depth and width, and analog-like imaging, said MF. JA was impressed by the Sim's superb measured performance: "It's hard to see how it could be any better!" (Vol.34 No.11 WWW)

Sony HAP-Z1ES media player: $1999.99
One might not guess from its 16.75"-wide, 32-lb chassis that the Sony HAP-Z1ES is, essentially, a very high-quality iPod—albeit one that, in KR's words, "improves on Apple's paradigm in every way but portability." Not intended for use as a D/A converter—it has no digital inputs—the HAP-Z1ES combines a 1TB hard drive with a processor that can "remaster" any file to DSD128; a Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) claimed to improve the sound of compressed files; wired and wireless Ethernet connectivity for Internet radio streaming from one's computer; and the ability to play almost any two-channel music-file format, lossless or lossy, including DSD. The DSEE feature is automatically disabled for DSD files—smartly presumed uncompressed—while the DSD "remastering" can be disabled, if not conveniently. KR was unimpressed with its remote handset, preferring by far the control app available for Android and iOS, but was very pleased with the Sony's sound: "An integrated, single-box [file] player of the highest sonic quality." JA praised the HAP-Z1ES's "impressive measured performance." (Vol.37 No.5 WWW)


Astell&Kern AK100 Mk.2: $899
Housed in an elegant case of black-anodized aluminum, the AK100 is a battery-powered, portable, high-resolution media player and D/A processor with a 2.4" touchscreen, 32GB of internal memory, and two Micro-SD card slots. It supports the usual file types, including those encoded with Apple's Lossless codec, and uses a Wolfson WM8740 DAC chip capable of handling resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz. The review sample didn't offer gapless playback, but this was addressed with a summer 2013 firmware update. Compared to the Apple iPod Classic, the AK100 sounded more musical and had a greater sense of ease, said JA. Used as a standalone DAC in JA's main system, the AK100 lacked some soundstage definition but performed well overall. "Astell&Kern's AK100 is a true high-end source component," JA concluded. Current firmware (v.2.30) now supports gapless file playback, allows the AK100 to be used as a USB DAC, and permits the playback of DSD64 files transcoded to high-resolution PCM. Mk.2 identical to version reviewed but has output impedance of 3 ohms and now includes leather case as standard. (Vol.36 No.8, Vol.37 No.3 WWW)

Musical Fidelity M1CDT transport: $999
Made to match the M1SDAC, with which it shares a remote control, the M1CDT transport measures just 8.6" W by 3.9" H by 11.7" D, has a slot-loading transport mechanism, and offers S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and TosLink outputs. Partnered with the M1SDAC, the M1CDT had a rich, full-bodied, spacious sound that was easy to listen to and enjoy, said ST. Compared to the more expensive Parasound Halo CD 1, however, the M1CDT sounded looser, less controlled, and less relaxed. (Vol.36 No.10)


Music Hall c-dac15.3: $549
The Music Hall c-dac 15.3 is considerably more than its model name suggests: It is indeed a digital-to-analog converter, with three inputs—USB, TosLink, coaxial—and 24-bit/192kHz performance, the latter thanks to its tried-and-true Burr-Brown PCM1796 DAC chip. Yet it's also a CD player, thanks to the inclusion of a Sanyo HD850 disc transport that Music Hall claims is mounted "mid-ship": nautical but nice! Like Music Hall's a15.3 integrated amplifier, the Chinese-made c-dac is supplied in black casework with a full-width (16.9") faceplate of brushed aluminum. Used by SM with the a15.3 amp, the c-dac 15.3 "brought [the] music forward and enveloped me in brilliant sound," with extended highs and snappy transients, if less smoothness and body than the NAD C 515BEE CD player. (Vol.37 No.6 WWW)

NAD C 516BEE: $299
NAD's entry-level CD player replaces their C 515BEE, which had been SM's reference. The new model uses a different transport mechanism, a more powerful digital signal processor, a revised microprocessor, new firmware, a revised power supply for lower power consumption in Standby mode, and an automatic standby feature that puts the player to sleep when not in use. Though the new model retains the old model's size (17" W by 2.75" H by 9.5" D), the front panel has been subtly updated with a thinner disc drawer, larger display, and slightly smaller, rounder buttons. SM found that the new model's disc drawer opened and closed slightly more smoothly, quietly, and slowly. Sonically, the two players were virtually identical, though the new model may have been "slightly more extended on top, slightly more effervescent and polished overall," said SM. "For the money, I don't think you'll find a better CD player," he concluded. (Vol.36 No.10 WWW)

Sony Playstation 1: around $25 used $$$ ★
A first-generation Sony PlayStation (SCPH-1001) is made of gray plastic, has a set of RCA analog outputs, and comes equipped with a game controller and power cord. When used with Cardas Neutral Reference interconnects, the PS1 offered an "extended, open, and agile" sound, said AD who declared the PS1 an "insanely high value." JM was unimpressed by the player's user interface and noisy disc mechanism, however, and found that switching to cheaper cables resulted in a threadbare midrange and treble. Nevertheless, he admitted, "For $25, it sounds wonderful." AD agreed, noting that the PS1 combined "slightly diminished" frequency extremes with a "superior level of rhythmic acuity" for a smooth and involving sound. Prices have climbed to as much as $70 on online commerce sites such as eBay and Audiogon. Some disagreement among the magazine's scribes: Low Class B, according to AD; Class D, according to JM; JA splits the difference, but warns that later-generation PS1s use a less well-specified DAC and lack the RCA output jacks: ignore them, he says. Compared with the Emotiva ERC-2, the Sony lacked treble clarity and bass weight, but offered a fleshier midrange and was more forgiving of poorly recorded material, said SM. (Vol.31 Nos.4 & 7, Vol.35 No.1 WWW)


Apple iPod classic, 160GB: $249 as reviewed ★
This sleek and sassy data-storage unit is capable of playing lossy compressed (MP3, AAC), lossless compressed (ALC), and uncompressed (AIFF, WAV) digital audio files delighted JA and WP. WP was surprised to find the iPod worthy of serious audiophile consideration: "The open nature of the iPod's playback format—or, more properly speaking, its lack of a single playback standard—means that the player can offer the sound quality its owner demands of it." Files ripped in AIFF were "indistinguishable from the original CD," with impressive dynamics, detailed imaging, and extended frequency extremes. JA: "Excellent, cost-effective audio engineering from an unexpected source." Stereophile's "Editor's Choice" and "Budget Product of the Year" for 2003. Current version significantly revised and offers 160GB hard-drive capacity as standard. Current version offers superb measured performance. JA is an enthusiastic owner. (Vol.26 No.10 WWW)

Parasound Zcd: $400 ★
Like all of Parasound's Z products, the basic-black Zcd measures 9.5" W by 2" H by 10" D, and has front-panel rack-mounting holes; a silver-colored option, without mounting holes, is also now available. The neatly organized rear panel offers a wealth of connections, including: Variable and Fixed analog outputs; a video output; a 3.5mm stereo line input; coaxial and optical digital outputs; and a USB input for MP3 playback. Though MP3s played from a flash drive lacked the immediacy, clarity, and impact of their CD counterparts, they often sounded less mechanical. Compared to the NAD C 515BEE, the Zcd sounded faster, tighter, more aggressive, and produced a taller but shallower soundstage with less well-delineated images, said SM. (Vol.35 No.10 WWW)

Tascam CD-200: $599.99
Built around the new audio-specific CD-5020A CD transport from TEAC, TASCAM's parent company, the rack-mountable CD-200 offers both single-ended analog outputs and coaxial and optical digital outputs. Features include a front-mounted ¼" headphone jack and, for the player's analog outputs, a pitch control with a range of ±12% (its zero point is securely detented). The CD-200 can also play disc-encoded MP3 and WAV files, and its asking price includes a remote handset. JM noted that the CD-200, used as either a transport or a one-box CD player, performed flawlessly, and added that the TASCAM was "the quietest affordable CD player I've ever used." Although its sonic performance was handily bettered by the "read-until-right" Parasound Halo CD 1, JM found "nothing at all to complain about" in the TASCAM—which, he hastens to advise, is "widely discounted." (Vol.37 No.8 WWW)


Astell&Kern AK-120 and AK-240.

HiFiMan HM-602, Luxman D-05, Marantz CD5004, Rega Apollo-R, Sony SCD-XA5400ES, T+A Music Player Balanced, all not auditioned in a long time.

j22928's picture

Why is Stereophile afraid to test a fully tricked out current model Linn LP12? The mush in Recommended Components just doesn't cut it.

John Atkinson's picture
Why is Stereophile afraid to test a fully tricked out current model Linn LP12?


John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

daveyf's picture

Actually the top end LP12 Klimax is as follows: LP12, Cirkus. Keel, Radikal D, Tramp 2, Ekos SE-1. Also a Urika phono stage and a Kandid cartridge. If you are still using a Lingo and a Ekos, you simply have no idea as to what the table can bring. A 2007 model LP12 compared to a 2015 Linn LP12 Klimax is like comparing a Prius to a Tesla, they are both electric based, but that's where the similarity ends.

winefix's picture

Where does this speaker place?

John Atkinson's picture
Where does this speaker place?

It hasn't been reviewed yet. (Our review is provisionally scheduled to appear in the January 2015 issue of Stereophile.)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

chrisstu's picture

Greetings. I could not find an indication of what the star means when it appears next to a component. Thanks

John Atkinson's picture
I could not find an indication of what the star means when it appears next to a component.

A ★ indicates a product that has been on this list in one incarnation or another since the "Recommended Components" listing in Vol.34 No.10 (October 2011).

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

It's easy to see who JA Caters to .
Gentlemen , this is the 21st Century , Edison Players are a bit long of tooth , aren't they ?
Is there enough customer base there to support a Main Industry Mag. ? , I see the snaps of the Shows where the Product Rooms have a few old geezers like me sitting around on folding chairs .
I wonder if Motor Trend will now be giving 4 Barrel Carburetors from Holly a nice A+ recommendation ? or the 1957 Chevy Convertible ?

to JA ; even Ivor at LINN has gone over to 16/44.1
Are you lads starting a new Chapter of "Flat Earth Society" ?

Tony in Michigan

Allen Fant's picture

I concur gentleman, this particular issue, appears to get weaker every year?

j22928's picture

2007 was pre-Radikal, pre-Urika and pre-Kandid.

jimtavegia's picture

Vinyl and turntable sales, USB DACs and Streamers, and download sales all increasing. I can think of no better reason than all the turntables showing up. CD sales down and will continue to do so, but I do believe that the used CD market is strong. It is for me.

handler's picture

May I suggest the placement of the KEF LS50 in "Class A" be revisited. Having owned both it and the Revel M106, and having made my own recordings, the Revel is more "true to the recording" throughout the audio band. In fairness to all manufactures, I believe either some competing designs to the LS50 deserve to be moved up a class, or the Kef be moved down.

Ajani's picture

Being a Revel fan, I was a bit disappointed that the M106 wasn't rated Class A like the LS50. I would love to read a comparison between the LS50 and the M106 in Stereophile. It would be interesting to see whether the respective class ratings would remain the same after a direct comparison.

John Atkinson's picture
I would love to read a comparison between the LS50 and the M106 in Stereophile.

I am planning on publishing this comparison in the January 2015 issue.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

corrective_unconscious's picture

I don't know your lead times or, obviously, who that other poster is, but did you already plan to do this comparison or did you decide to take a suggestion here? (I'll be interested in the comparison either way.)

John Atkinson's picture
I don't know your lead times or, obviously, who that other poster is, but did you already plan to do this comparison or did you decide to take a suggestion here?

I set-up the Revel M106es in my listening room last week, so I could write a follow-up. Yes, it was the suggestion in this thread that triggered the idea of my also obtaining samples of the KEF LS50.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

handler's picture

Thank you, Mr. Atkinson. It's nice to hear the readership has a voice here on Stereophile.com

It'll be interesting to read your thoughts. I ended up keeping the Revel in lieu of the Kef. I did not expect to like the Revel as much as I do.

Dr.Kamiya's picture

Any idea what will happen to Pioneer and TAD speakers as Pioneer merges its HiFi business with Onkyo? Some of what I've read suggests that only the AV Receiver business will be sold, and I fervently hope that is true.

John Atkinson's picture
Any idea what will happen to Pioneer and TAD speakers as Pioneer merges its HiFi business with Onkyo?

We don't know what will happen to Pioneer-branded products, but TAD's Andrew Jones tells us that the TAD brand will stay in Pioneer's portfolio of brands.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Anon2's picture

Dynaudio has come out with a new active speaker, the Focus XD. The gist of the very limited initial product information is that the speaker also has some sort of DAC capability.

On the subject of Dynaudio, does anyone want to posit any observations on what the differences might be between the Excite X14 and the Focus 160, which both received accolades in this latest edition of Stereophile?

What electronics would warrant, or would require, the Focus 160 for the additional outlay? Yes, I could go to a dealer, but this entails parking, expressways, gas, and a forgone weekend. Any thoughts before one takes the plunge to take up a dealer's time and effort?

Something's good (not fishy) in Denmark!

lo fi's picture


Will John Atkinson be providing objective measurements to accompany John Marks's praiseful review of the ATC SCM19 speaker?

John Atkinson's picture
lo fi wrote:
Will John Atkinson be providing objective measurements to accompany John Marks's praiseful review of the ATC SCM19 speaker?

No plans to, I am afraid.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

lo fi's picture

Damn! ;)

Lago's picture

Why is the Sophia 3 in A Class Restricted Extreme LF, if they numbers for Frequency Response are: +/-3 dB 20 Hz - 22.5 kHz?


MBL-Russia's picture

Es ist fantastisch!

Dushyant's picture

From your introductory comments, I understand that full-range class A products have LF extension down to 20Hz. It is confirmed by reviews and specs. What about the full-range class B and class C? Just scanning through the list shows that most, if not all, products in these categories do not have LF extension to 20Hz. My question then is what are your criteria for full-range in class B and class C? The restricted LF makes sense for all classes.