Recommended Components: 2017 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.

A+

Antipodes DX Reference: $6700–$8725
What could tempt the frugal JA into forsaking his computer-based file-playing system for a high-quality dedicated music server? The latter must offer sound quality with which the former does not compete—and that's precisely what he found in the Kiwi-built Antipodes DX Reference. The DX Reference, which runs on the Linux operating system, runs Vortex-Box for setup, control, and disc ripping, and Squeezebox Server for managing the music library. It supports up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM, and DSD64 and 128. With file after file, JA noted that recorded music took on a greater sense of palpable presence—"a tangible Bob [Dylan] was there, standing between the GamuT speakers"—through the Antipodes DX Reference. His conclusion: "My audiophile persona felt that, with the DX, there was a greater sense . . . of involvement with the overall sound."Price without storage is $5700; 1TB $6700; 2TB, $7375. (Vol.38 No.10 WWW)

Aurender N10: $7999 with 4TB storage
Designed in California and manufactured in South Korea, Aurender's N10 is a computer running a modified version of the open-source Linux operating system, and is dedicated to retrieving audio files from an external NAS drive, or a drive plugged into one of its USB ports, or its internal storage, and sending the data to its Class 2 USB output port or to one of its serial digital audio ports. Internal storage comprises two 2TB Western Digital Green hard drives, along with a 240GB solid-state disk (SSD) that is used to cache files before playback. Superb sound quality, decided JA, but DSD files were reproduced with a drop in volume when transcoded to PCM to play via a serial digital port. (Native DSD playback was okay.) "This server is a keeper," he summed up. (Vol.39 No.4 WWW)

Bryston BDP-2: $3295 ★
Essentially a beefed-up BDP-1 (reviewed by LG in Vol.34 No.6), the BDP-2 replaces the original's 0.5GHz processor with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N450, and its single-amp linear power supply with a larger toroidal transformer specified 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 BDP-1, the BDP-2 sounded 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. In 2015, Bryston upgraded the BDP-2's audio board with a new Integrated Audio Device (IAD) that is retrofittable and can be installed in the field. (The new board costs $500.) Following the instructions supplied by Bryston, LG installed the upgrade in his own BDP-2, and while that process wasn't 100% glitch-free, it was over in an hour, and Larry is now sitting up and taking solid nourishment. (Kidding. He's fine.) With the new IAD in place, LG noticed a number of refinements, including quicker percussion transients and the elimination of an etched quality that otherwise plagued some recordings. As he recommends, "If you already own a Bryston BDP-2, don't hesitate to get the IAD upgrade kit." (Vol.36 No.10, Vol.38 No.10, Vol.39 No.2 WWW)

dCS Vivaldi 2.0: $114,996/system as reviewed ★
The latest dCS digital playback system comprises the Vivaldi DAC ($35,999), 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 ($21,999), which can upconvert even the lowest-resolution MP3 data to 24/384, DSD, and DXD, or any format in between; the Vivaldi Master Clock ($14,999), containing two groups of four clock outputs, which can be independently set; and the Vivaldi Transport ($41,999), 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 of the original version. On the test bench, the Vivaldi measured superbly, improving on dCS's Scarlatti in almost every way. "Wow!" said JA, who is working on a Follow-Up. (Vol.37 No.1 WWW)

dCS Rossini Player: $28,499
dCS Rossini Clock: $7499

Boasting the updated version of dCS's signature Ring DAC—which debuted in 2012, in their expensive Vivaldi models—the Rossini Player combines a "Red Book" CD driver with multiple digital inputs and a UPnP network player. The Rossini Player upsamples to the DXD format—PCM at 352.8 or 384kHz—and supports both DoP and native DSD up to DSD128. The Player is compatible with Ethernet and Apple AirPlay, and, as of the time of our review, the most recent version of its iOS app supported Roon endpoint integration. Multiple user-selectable reconstruction filters are offered for both PCM and DSD data; also included are two word-clock input jacks (BNC), for use with dCS's outboard clocks—an upgrade philosophy that, while not strictly necessary, has been found by JA, in his experience with dCS products past, to offer worthwhile sonic improvements. To that end, JA enhanced his review sample of the Rossini Player with the similarly new Rossini Clock, which uses a microcontroller to provide, in the words of dCS, "a more stable result than either oven-controlled crystal oscillators or even atomic clocks." JA wrote that the combo "produced what was, overall, the best sound from digital I have experienced in my system." Of his measurements, all of which included the Rossini Clock, JA wrote that the Rossini Player offers performance "about as good as can be gotten from a thoroughly modern digital audio product." In a Follow-Up, JVS described using the Rossini DAC ($23,999; essentially, a Rossini Player sans transport) in place of his dCS Puccini player: "The Rossini seemed to dive into the center of the music and bring it home in ways the Puccini could not." (Vol.39 No.12, Vol.40 No.1 WWW)

Melco N1A: $1999 $$$
The audio division of Japanese manufacturer Melco—the parent company of the ginormous computer-peripheral manufacturer Buffalo Incorporated—has been resurrected as a maker of networked audio components. The new N1A server, which Melco calls a High Resolution Digital Music Library, contains 4TB of (Seagate) internal storage, the contents of which can be converted to analog by means of Ethernet connection to a network (or direct to a network player), or USB connection to a USB DAC. (Direct-connected network players must offer a hardware-based means of controlling playback.) Using an NDK ultra-low-jitter clock, the N1A also reclocks all data before scooting it on its way. As ML put it, "The Melco N1A Buffaloed my combination of MacBook Pro and Synology NAS. It destroyed them, embarrassed them, gave them a good schooling. Music sounded obviously—frighteningly—more refined, more spacious, and more natural through the N1A. End of story. I can't imagine anyone in this universe who does nothing else while listening to music making the same comparison and not hearing this difference." (Vol.39 No.3 WWW)

Meridian Sooloos 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)

A

Acoustic Research AR-M2 portable player: $1199
The first product to reach the US from a self-described "very well funded," Hong Kong–based Acoustic Research reboot company, the AR-M2 portable music player is approximately the size and shape of an Apple iPhone 6S, only thicker, and supports PCM files up to 192kHz and DSD files up to 5.6MHz (ie, DSD128). It comes with 64GB of internal storage, and its microSD slot accepts storage cards of up to 128GB. The AR player offers WiFi capability and comes preloaded with Tidal and Spotify apps, but lacks a digital input. The M2 has separate line-out and headphone jacks (3.5mm), and the manufacturer estimates nine hours of playback time on a single charge of its 4200mAH battery—an estimate matched by the experience of JA, who also wrote of the player's "rich, extended low frequencies . . . matched at the other end of the audioband by airy-sounding highs." (Using the AR-M2 with AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, JA wrote that the sound was "perhaps a little too rich, and described the Audeze LCD-X 'phones as "a more optimal match.") JA's conclusion: "On balance, if I didn't have to count pennies, I'd go for the $2500 Astell&Kern [AK240]—but for $1300 less, the Acoustic Research comes very close." (Vol.39 No.4, Vol.40 No.2 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)

Astell&Kern AK240 portable player: $2500
"The luxury choice in high-resolution portable music players," according to ML, the Astell&Kern AK240 contains within its milled-from-solid casework dual Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chips, 256GB of internal memory, a microSD slot, separate single-ended and true balanced headphone jacks—and the company's trademark knurled volume knob. With the company's MQS app, the AK240 user can stream, from any Windows or OS computer, PCM files up to 24-bit/192kHz, plus single- and double-rate DSD files. The AK240 can also be enjoyed as a USB DAC, or used as a wired or wireless source component for one's home system. And we haven't even mentioned the vegetable tanning of its Italian-leather case. The AK240 presented ML with performance "at once resolute and finely detailed," though he noted that he's heard richer, riper sound from other products. "The slight thinness I'd heard through the 'phones became more evident through my main system, making less-than-stellar recordings sound a bit rough around the edges. On the other hand, great-sounding recordings, such as Santana's Abraxas in DSD, were given their due by the AK240." Subsequent to ML's review, JA measured the AK240 and declared, "Astell&Kern's AK240 gets a clean bill of health—and I shared ML's enthusiasm for its sound. While the AK240 is expensive, high-resolution sound on the go doesn't get any better. I'm sending the review sample back to iriver before I'm tempted to buy it!" (Vol.37 No.11, Vol.38 No.2, Vol.39 No.4 WWW)

Audio Note CDT One/II: $3287
At the core of the front-loading CDT One/II transport is a Philips L 1210/S mechanism, the stock logic board of which is supplemented with a second board, apparently designed and built by Audio Note. The 11.7" W by 5.7" H by 16.2" D steel case contains a decidedly robust power supply, and a length of Audio Note's AN-V silver interconnect carries the signal to the CDT One/II's outputs: a choice of S/PDIF (RCA) or AES/EBU (XLR). The combination of this transport with Audio Note's DAC 2.1x Signature D/A converter was praised by AD as comprising a CD player almost unrivaled in "the ability to involve me in the magic of notes and rhythms." His conclusion: "Vigorously recommended." JA noted that the Audio Note's error correction "is better than that required by the CD standard, but is not as good as other current transports." (Vol.39 No.1 WWW)

Audio Research REF 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)

Auralic Aries network bridge: $1599
The Auralic Aries network player, which supports the UPnP and OpenHome standards, has inputs for WiFi and Ethernet, plus a recently implemented input for a USB Network-Attached Storage (NAS) device. The Aries user must supply his or her own network router and DAC (digital outputs on the Aries include USB, TosLink, coaxial S/PDIF, and AES/EBU), and must also download the Auralic Lightning DS app—at present available only for the iPad, though Android support is said to be coming. Those requirements fulfilled, the Aries, whose curvaceous body conceals an internal WiFi antenna, can wirelessly stream up to double-DSD, and supports lossless streaming from the services Qobuz and WiMP/Tidal. As ML wrote, "The Aries presented a seemingly lower noise floor than my MacBook Pro. There was a sense of greater resolution, and an increase in dynamic snap similar to what I'd heard with the [Simaudio] MiND." (Vol.38 No.1 WWW)

Ayre Acoustics CX-7eMP: $3950 ★
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 'Recommended 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, Vol.38 No.2 WWW; see also "The Fifth Element" in Vol.34 No.2 and Vol.35 No.4 WWW)

Baetis XR3 media server: $6690–$7560
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." KR's experience of the current XR3 version continues the recommendation. (Vol.37 No.9, Vol.38 No.9 WWW)

Compulab Airtop-D i7 computer: $1423 and up
If you're looking for a flexible alternative to buying a high-end file player—and who among us isn't?—KR suggests you consider buying an affordable computer such as the Compulab Airtop-D i7 and dedicating it to the task. Compulab's desktop computer boasts a fifth-generation Intel Core i7-5775C processor, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive, and an Intel graphics card. According to KR, the affordable Airtop-D i7, which can support up to five additional SATA drives, ran cool even though it lacks a fan, and, when used with HQPlayer, provided a response time that "was almost startling." Some assembly required. (Vol.40 No.1 WWW)

Digibit Aria Music Server: $5995 as reviewed
With their beautifully styled Aria, server specialists DigiBit have entered the hardware market with a prepackaged, dedicated music server that can play multichannel files. The Aria runs a heavily customized version of JRiver, and is available with or without an internal DAC, and with or without on-board 4TB or 2TB file storage, the latter as either solid-state or a hard disk; KR skipped the DAC, owing to its two-channel limitations, but opted for the 2TB hard drive. With the Aria's S/PDIF output connected to his exaSound e28 DAC and with Aria's app downloaded to his iPad, KR was up and running in 10 minutes. Oddly, the Aria's manual makes no mention of multichannel, but, as KR points out, "the Aria handles multichannel files with the same facility as it does two-channel. The only difference is that you need to ask DigiBit to install the appropriate ASIO driver for your device." Even so equipped, the Aria's built-in ripper did not do multichannel; apart from that, as KR wrote, the Aria was "a delight to use and makes no compromise in sound quality. Fundamentally, the Aria's sound was as satisfying as that of other high-quality, computer-based servers." (Vol.38 No.3 WWW)

exaSound PlayPoint Network Audio Player: $1999
Built into the same compact enclosure (6.5" wide by 2.2" high by 9.25" deep) used for exaSound's e28 DAC, the PlayPoint offers a large, multicolor touchscreen, one input (Ethernet), and one output (USB), the last at this time usable only with the e28. For hi-rez multichannel audio, the PlayPoint can be used with: an MPD controller app and a local hard drive; UPnP music-server software on a NAS; or in a Network Audio Adapter (NAA) with Signalyst's HQPlayer. According to KR, use of the PlayPoint "in no way compromises [the e28 DAC's] excellent sound while greatly enhancing its functionality." (Vol.39 No.5 WWW)

Luxman D-06u: $9990
If the question that keeps you up nights is "What's so hard about making a high-end disc player that can also function as a USB DAC?," you'll do well to check out the Luxman D-06u, which plays CDs and SACDs, and supports PCM up to 384kHz and DSD up to 5.64MHz. Notably for those who've been burned buying disc players from little high-end companies that failed to stock enough OEM transports to support the future needs of their loyal customers, Luxman isn't little, and they make their own transports—which, as AD noted, are apparently quite sturdy. AD also loved the sound of the D-06u as both disc player and USB DAC, noting its abilities to communicate "timbral richness," "superb momentum and snap," and the "up-front, tactile, corporeal, and altogether vivid" sound of one of his favorite mono CDs. He concluded by praising the Lux's SACD performance as the best he's enjoyed at home, and its "Red Book" CD performance as "surely in the top five." After testing the Luxman D-06u, JA wrote that, "in many ways, [it] offers excellent measured performance," though he was puzzled by anomalous noise-floor and jitter results, the latter in comparison to Luxman's ostensibly similar DA-06 processor. (Vol.40 No.1 WWW)

Moon by Simaudio 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!" It took three years, but an answer finally came, when MF reviewed the Simaudio Moon Evolution 820S power supply ($8000). Although the 820S can simultaneously power two Moon Evolution components—other candidates include Simaudio's 750D DAC, 740P preamplifier, and 610LP and 810LP phono preamplifiers—MF tried the review sample on the 650D. He found that, "in general, adding the 820S tightened the bottom end and removed smear and edge from the top, while improving high-frequency extension and the sense of air around instruments. Instrumental three-dimensionality improved, and microdynamics were particularly enhanced, probably as a result of the far lower noise floor." MF's conclusion? "My advice to owners of Simaudio's Moon Evolution 650D: Go to your dealer and get an 820S to take home and try. Put it on a credit card if the dealer doesn't trust you, but be prepared to drop $8000—I don't think you'll be returning that 820S to the store." (Vol.34 No.11, Vol.37 No.11 WWW)

MSB Universal Media Transport V: $6995 ★
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 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 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: "When I added [it] to the mix, [the system's sense of] 'thereness' notched up a nanotad." (Vol.37 No.4 WWW)

Oppo BDP-105D: $1299
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)

PonoPlayer: $399 $$$
Conceived by Neil Young, designed by Charles Hansen and Ayre Acoustics, and made possible by Kickstarter funding of $6.2 million—which is $6.2 million more than has been raised by anyone offering to create a digital player of no greater resolution than the Compact Disc—the Toblerone-shaped and unambiguously yellow PonoPlayer has an internal storage capacity of 64GB (bump-up-able to 128GB with the insertion of a microSD card); runs up to 8 hours on a single charge; supports sample rates and word lengths of 192kHz and 24 bits, respectively; incorporates separate 3.5mm output jacks for line out and headphones; and accepts all popular file formats (early pre-release reports suggested that Pono would create their own codec, but that has not come to pass). Files can be downloaded direct from PonoMusic or can be loaded using the company's JRiver-developed desktop application. JA noted that "CD rips sounded excellent through the player," but went on to say that "it was with hi-rez recordings that the PonoPlayer shone brightest." Used as a portable, the Pono "[had] the edge in sound quality" over JA's Astell&Kern AK100, sounding sweeter and warmer; and when he used the Pono to drive his big rig at home, JA said, "I didn't feel I had missed much of the music." The PonoPlayer also measured "very well," irrespective of its affordable price. In a Follow-Up, JA wrote of his experiences using a $70 Surf Cables adapter that allows the PonoPlayer's headphone output to be auditioned in balanced mode. His measurements uncovered a drop in the output signal's noise floor when so configured, and JA reported being "impressed by the increased 'drive' of the balanced playback." He concluded: "the word to describe the sound of this $399 player in balanced mode: transcendent." Class A rating refers to the sound in balanced mode, otherwise high Class B applies. Writing about the pairing of his own PonoPlayer with a pair of ADAM Audio A3x active speakers, ML wrote: "We're talking highly engaging music reproduction." (Vol.38 Nos. 4, 6, 9, 12, Vol.39 No.4 WWW)

Primare CD32: $2495
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)

Questyle Audio QP1R portable player: $999
The China-built QP1R, the size of which JA likens to a pack of cigarettes, is housed in a CNC-machined aluminum chassis, with Gorilla Glass (think: iPhone) front and rear panels. A metal scroll wheel with a central pushbutton dominates the front. On its top edge are a conventional rotary volume knob and two 3.5mm jacks: one for analog output (headphones), the other for both analog (line) and digital (optical S/PDIF) inputs. In the Questyle's OS, gain ranges for the headphone jack are user-selectable to suit specific 'phones. A wide range of file formats are supported at resolutions of up to 24 bits and 192kHz, the player supports DSD64 and DSD128 files in DFF and DSF formats, and the QP1R's 32GB storage capacity can be augmented with microSD cards. JA enjoyed the tactile feedback—a brief vibration—of the QP1R's controls, and while he had problems with the scroll wheel, he loved the player's Return button, which instantly brings up to the Now Playing screen. He also admired the sound, remarking that, with one file in particular, "the Questyle driving the Audeze [LCD-X] headphones was as good as it gets," and noting that, in comparison with his reference PonoPlayer, the Questyle had consistently greater low-frequency weight. Reporting from The Bench, JA noted that "the Questyle QP1R's measured performance was excellent." (Vol.38 No.12 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)

B

EAR Acute Classic: $6795
Descended from EAR's Acute CD player of 2008—itself based on an Arcam player to which EAR fitted a new case, power supply, analog filters, and output stage—the Acute Classic has at its heart a Wolfson-based DAC that can also be used as a USB digital-to-analog processor (192kHz); S/PDIF coaxial (192kHz) and optical (88.2kHz) inputs are also provided. The player's output section uses a pair of ECC88/6DJ8 dual-triode tubes, as well as a pair of proprietary output transformers. In his original review, though he admired the build quality and styling of the chrome-fronted Acute Classic, AD was dismayed by the player's "artificial-sounding textures and consequently fatiguing trebles" and deemed the player not recommendable—a conclusion confirmed by measurements by JA, who observed that "the EAR's digital circuitry is not up to the standard I expect from [designer Tim de Paravicini]." Offered, per Stereophile policy, a chance to comment on the review, de Paravicini felt that there must have been something wrong with the review sample, and submitted another, though not in time for comments based on the second Acute Classic to be included in the review. In testing the second sample, JA noted some improvements in measured performance, including noise components that were 6–10dB lower, output voltage that was lowered to the correct, specified level, and slightly lower harmonic distortion. Perhaps more to the point, AD's listening tests with the second sample revealed notable improvements: "What once was aggressive was now simply forward and punchy and vivid—listenably so." AD concluded that the up-to-spec EAR Acute Classic "seems a bargain, compared to the ca $10,000 players I've been reviewing of late—and one that I can keenly recommend." (Vol.40 Nos. 2 & 3 WWW)

Metronome CD8 S: $8800
In his ongoing search for a $10,000 last CD player, AD happened on this most recent version of the Metronome CD8—a product he describes as "one of the most perfect-looking appliances I've seen"—now enhanced with a USB digital input. Inside its good-looking case is a two-channel, 32-bit AKM Velvet Sound chip capable of supporting up to 768kHz PCM digital and 11.2MHz DSD. That said, DSD compatibility is limited to using the CD8 S in USB DAC mode, since the Metronome's Philips CDM12 Pro2 (v.6.8) disc transport can't play SACDs. Given sufficient warm-up time, the CD8 S rewarded AD with good color and texture and an appealingly "huge" sense of scale. With a CD of orchestral music, "the spatial relationships among various instrument groups were convincing, and instrumental timbres—especially the brass—were believably well saturated." And, while listening to a 44.1kHz file streamed to the CD8 S's D/A converter, AD was "all but spellbound by the combination of clarity, articulation, appropriate roundness of tone, and complete absence of timing distortion brought to the music." While measuring the Metronome, JA found various examples of anomalous behavior, including the appearance of odd-order harmonics with 24-bit data, the appearance of power-supply–related sidebands, and anomalies in the way the DAC handled data sampled higher than 96kHz. (Vol.39 No.3 WWW)

Sony NW-ZX2 portable player: $1199.99
Billed by Sony as a High-Resolution Walkman, the iPhone-sized NW-ZX2 plays PCM files up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD up to 5.6MHz. Its onboard DSP capabilities include Sony's Digital Sound Enhancement Engine for bumping up lo-rez files to "near high-resolution sound quality"; WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities are built-in. The NW-ZX2 has 128GB of onboard storage, plus a 128GB-capable microSD slot for those who think more. ML enjoyed the player's "clean, incisive, lively sound," and while he found the Pono PonoPlayer had a comparatively "meaty and more colorful sound," he praised the NW-ZX2's overall clarity and ability to retrieve subtle details. He also noted the Sony's claimed ability to run 33 hours on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery, and its larger-than-average, pleasant-to-use touchscreen. (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

Sony UHP-H1 universal player: $349.99
Described by Sony as a "Premium Audio and Video Player," the UHP-H1 is compatible with CDs, SACDs, DVDs, BDs, and—a first for Sony—DVD-Audio discs. The UHP-H1 can also process and play various music-file types, but it doesn't support all of these formats in multichannel—the most notable complaint voiced by KR, who described the Sony's sound as "satisfying," although "bass power and extension seemed lacking" and the midrange and treble, though clean and detailed, showed "a hint of glare." Note that a video monitor of some sort is required to set up the Sony, and that use of its (included) remote-control handset is mandatory: there are but two controls on the unit itself. (Vol.39 No.11 WWW)

SOtM sMs-1000SQ Windows Edition with Audiophile Optimizer: $4000 (with sCLK clock upgrade); without sCLK upgrade $3500
KR took aim at this product's crazy-quilt name and wrote that one should refer to it instead as "a Windows-based PC that's designed and optimized to manage a database of music files and stream the music to local or networked DACs, and that supports multiple options for file management, playback, and target devices"—a designation that makes up in clarity for what it lacks in brevity. KR added that the SOtM server comes loaded with apps, including Roon, Tidal, Qobuz, JRiver Media Center, and foobar2000, and that it was "trivially easy to install." However, the server requires the user to install its proprietary ASIO drive, which can be complicated. When all was said and done, KR wrote that the SOtM "sounded just wonderful playing all music files," but described the unit's CPU as the limiting factor, noting that the SOtM would not play ISO files at all and that, asked to convert multichannel DSD files to PCM, the sMS-1000SQ "ran out of steam." (Vol.39 No.7 WWW)

C

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)

D

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)

K

PS Audio Directream Memory Player, Hegel Mohican.

Deletions
Moon by Simaudio MiND network player, PS Audio PerfectWave Memory Player, no longer available; NAD Masters Series M50 Digital Music Player replaced by new M50.2 not yet auditioned; Marantz NA-11S1 media server, Metronome Technologie CD8T Signature, not auditioned in a long time.

COMMENTS
Richard D. George's picture

Thank you for your efforts. These are always informative and interesting.

Comparing this web page for Loudspeakers with my iPad subscription, I believe that there is a section header missing after YG Acoustics Carmel 2 and before Bowers & Wilkins 683 S2.

Richard D. George's picture

Thanks.

rom661's picture

I'm surprised at the age of some of these components; at least two are discontinued. What's up?

John Atkinson's picture
rom661 wrote:
I'm surprised at the age of some of these components; at least two are discontinued. What's up?

We checked with every manufacturer and distributor in January about the current price and availability of everything included in the listing. It is always possible that some products have been discontinued since January.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Leoi's picture

An interesting cartridge to review, in the wake of yout review of the ART-1000, is of the AT ART-7. I've heard it and for the money I think is among the best; it might get a place in the next list of components.

Zenonu's picture

Please hyperlink each component to the manufacturer's website. I should be able to click through on each component w/o having to do a Google Search first. Perhaps some components aren't represented on the web, but that will be the exception rather than the rule.

gaddgadd's picture

Bob Katz compared in a blind listening the Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum Bundle: $5295 (with Voltikus power supply) and the Yggdrasil. Results...50-50. On youtube you will find a video...What are the reasons for this poor rating?
Numerous raving reviews and only Stereophile will tell us we are all wrong. mmhm

TheNoose's picture

Some major names not present...CH Precision, Tidal, Mola Mola, Nagra to name a few. Is that cos' you haven't had them in for testing...?

John Atkinson's picture
TheNoose wrote:
Some major names not present...CH Precision, Tidal, Mola Mola, Nagra to name a few. Is that cos' you haven't had them in for testing...?

That's correct. We have reviewed Nagra components in the past and have published a review of a CH Precision phono preamplifier since this list was compiled.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

TheNoose's picture

Thanks John. Much appreciate your super quick reply, and the basic list done yearly, very helpful to compare major brands. I like it a lot.

z24069's picture

Logged this in 2016 for those lists and with no response. The lists have not changed in many ways so sending again...

There are some fine choices on the Transports, Digital Processors, Preamp and Amp listings. I am puzzled however at the total lack of mention of any Esoteric Audio product. They are current products well known for their performance and musicality. What criteria being utilized could yield a recommended components lists where at least one of their products (or more) would not make it into the results?