Recommended Components: 2018 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: $6950–$15,530
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." Current version dispenses with VortexBox in favor of a proprietary operating system. (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)

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. In the December 2017 Stereophile, JVS wrote of the Vivaldi DAC's upgrade to v.2.02 firmware, which enables DSD128 file playback and includes other refinements; MQA compatibility, though anticipated, was not available at the time of our review. Compared to the same DAC running v.1.2 firmware, the upgraded DAC presented JVS with more vividly saturated tonal colors—"I was so impressed by the degree of color saturation that, to fully bask in the sound, I turned the lights out"—and, in place of dryness, "an iridescent clarity to timbres and textures." (Vol.37 No.1, Vol.40 No.12 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)

MBL Noble Line N31: $15,400
Designed to play "Red Book" CDs and, via its USB and other digital inputs, music files up to 24/192 and DSD64 (DoP), the Noble Line N31 is less a digital-audio Swiss Army knife than a luxuriantly attractive, 40-lb monument to the idea of perfecting the playback of audiophilia's best-loved digital formats. Built around the ESS Sabre 9018 DAC, the N31 offers a full-color 5" TFT display—the MBL player recognizes CD text and displays title information—and features an SDcard slot for firmware updates, a choice of three playback filters, and a remote handset that lights up before the person reaching for it has even touched it. Listening to CDs and even a CD-R through the N31, JA was impressed by the "sheer tangibility" of the MBL's sound, noting that, with its Min filter engaged, the N31 "gracefully reproduced" one "overcooked" track, and that the differences among its three filters was "greater in degree than with other DACs." Through the MBL's USB inputs, even iPhones and iPads, their own volume controls disarmed by the MBL's USB input, offered "excellent" sound quality. While raising an eyebrow at the lack of a network port and the fact that the player's filters can't be selected via the remote handset, JA concluded that digital sound "doesn't get any better" than what he heard from the N31. JA noted that the MBL offered 21 bits of resolution—the current state of the art of digital audio. This prompted JA the measurer to agree with JA the listener: "Digital audio engineering doesn't get any better." (Vol.41 No.2 WWW)

Melco N1A: $2499 $$$
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)

Merging Technologies Merging+Player Multichannel-8: $13,500
Noting the enthusiasm shown by "normal" audiophiles for proprietary music players that can be controlled by a tablet or smartphone, KR hailed the appearance of the surround-sound–friendly Merging+Player Multichannel-8 from the Swiss firm Merging Technologies, whose Merging+NADAC D/A converter so impressed him (see elsewhere in Recommended Components). Indeed, the Merging+Player is essentially that very DAC plus a player in the same box, said box now enhanced with a pair of USB inputs. The user is required to supply little more than speakers, amplifiers, and a subscription to Roon, which serves the Merging+Player as user interface. The Merging+Player can handle PCM up to 24/352.8 and DSD64, and has the processing power to do so with or without EQ—although KR mused that it could benefit from more horsepower, "if only to improve the user experience." Still, KR found the standalone Merging+Player to sound no different from his reference Roon-equipped Baetis server—high praise. He described it as "a one-box system of the highest quality." (Vol.41 No.3 WWW)

NAD Masters Series M50.2: $3999
The M50.2 combines the functions of two Masters Series predecessors, the M50 Digital Music Player and M52 Digital Music Vault, yet sells for $499 less than the combined price of both. And, as JA noted, the M50.2 offered "much the same functionality" as the considerably more expensive Aurender N10 and Antipodes DX Reference, making NAD's latest digital source especially noteworthy. With two 2TB hard disks (in a RAID array) for file storage and a CD drive for ripping—or just playing—"Red Book" CDs, the Roon-ready M50.2 can be controlled via its front-panel display or a BluOS app; Ethernet connectivity is supplemented with WiFi and Bluetooth aptX, and supported streaming services include Tidal, Spotify, HDtracks, and others. PCM up to 24/192 is supported, a DoP decoder for DSD files is said to be in the works, and the M50.2 is MQA-compatible, although to get the full benefits of that codec during playback requires an MQA-compatible DAC. (Used with JA's non–MQA-compatible PS Audio DAC, the NAD performed the first audio-origami "unfolding" of streamed MQA files, indicating optimal performance with that format.) Used to play 24/192 files, the NAD rewarded JA "with sound quality [that was] indistinguishable" from that of his other servers. (Vol.40 No.12 WWW)

PS Audio DirectStream Memory Player: $5999
PS Audio's DirectStream Memory Player retains the Digital Lens RAM of its predecessor, the PerfectWave Transport—but here it buffers the digital throughput only enough to stay ahead of the bitstream. (The PerfectWave delayed the music signal by as much as 30 seconds.) As with other contemporary PSA products, the DirectStream Memory Player uses proprietary code on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). Its mechanical-drive innards are based on those of an Oppo universal disc player, a result of which is the new transport's ability to play Blu-ray discs—without video output—and, when used with PS Audio's own DirectStream DAC, the DSD layers of SACDs. (A proprietary PS Audio handshake protocol had to be developed to prevent the DirectStream Memory player from outputting DSD, which would violate Sony's copyrights.) In comparing the sound of the DirectStream Memory Player to that of his PerfectWave Transport, RD noted an improvement in CD playback that, ironically or not, reduced "the margin of superiority of DSD over CD." He concluded that "there's life in the ol' CD yet." (Vol.40 No.10 WWW)

A

Acoustic Research AR-M2 portable player: $999
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 [$1999] Astell&Kern [AK240]—but for $1300 less, the Acoustic Research comes very close." (Vol.39 No.4, Vol.40 No.2 WWW)

Astell&Kern A&ultima SP1000: $3499
Astell&Kern's new flagship portable player, available in stainless steel or copper, offers 256GB of built-in memory (plus a slot for a microSD card of up to 256GB), along with the ability to play 32-bit/384kHz PCM and up to DSD256. Tidal and a Japanese streaming service called Groovers are supported: once A&K's downloadable MQS Streaming Server software (not to be confused with the music-file format MQA), is installed on the user's computer, the A&ultima SP1000 can stream and/or download files via WiFi. A battery charger is not included—what do you want for $3499, to live forever?—but the proud owner can use an iPhone charger; A&K suggests that a full charge lasts 12 hours. MF loved the A&K's Android-based operating system and, after reading its quick-start guide, found himself "navigating [the player's] menus with ease." Best of all, with some tracks, the sound of the A&ultima impressed him as "thrillingly transparent, delicate, and analog-like." JA's measurements confirmed the A&ultima SP1000's low output impedance, and that, apart from an apparent problem with the implementation of the reconstruction filter with 96kHz data, the player "acquitted itself well on the test bench." (Vol.40 No.11 WWW)

Audio Note CDT One/II: $3653
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)

AVM Ovation MP 8.2: $10,995
The multifunction Ovation MP 8.2—it combines in one box a CD player, a streamer, a file player, and a USB DAC—will be remembered by AD as the product with which he learned to love streaming, in particular hi-rez recordings from Tidal: "My streaming experiences with the MP 8.2 would, in the end, comprise the greatest single impediment to my saying goodbye to it." Part of the reason for that was surely the product's ease of installation and setup, AD praising AVM's instructions on the making of Ethernet connections as "commendably clear and straightforward"—although another part may well have been the inclusion of a dual-triode tube in the output-stage filter of its 32/384 DAC. AD also had good results playing files on the Roon-ready AVM player, and he praised the sound of its CD player—with the MP 8.2's Smooth filter setting activated—as offering "superb color and texture." Writing from his test bench, JA noted the AVM's higher-than-CD-standard output voltage and praised its "excellent rejection of word-clock jitter"—its slight analog-domain distortions he blamed on the tube—and concluded by stating that the MP 8.2 "offers generally excellent measured performance." AD's conclusion: "I am very impressed." An optional remote handset adds $699 to the price; the downloadable iOS- and Android-friendly control app is free. (Vol.41 No.2 WWW)

Baetis Prodigy X server: $4995 (without options)
In spite of having more bells and whistles than its predecessor, the Baetis XR3, the new Prodigy X sells for a lower base price. That said, a number of options are available—and KR's review sample had more than a few, including a faster CPU ($200), 32GB of RAM ($180), a pre-installed SOtM USBhubIN port with independent clock board ($790), and an HD-Plex linear power supply ($1550). Used with JRiver Media Center and his own exaSound e28 multichannel DAC, the Prodigy X treated KR to "marginally less noise at [the] speaker outlets," a bottom end that was "a bit tighter," and "greater overall clarity." Kal summed up the Prodigy X: "Another evolutionary step in an already distinguished line." In his "Music in the Round" column for the November 2017 Stereophile, KR noted that the Prodigy X "is now running the latest versions of Roon and JRiver Media Center (respectively v1.3/build 247 and v23.0.22)." (Vol.41 No.2 WWW)

Bryston BDP-3: $3495
In February 2017, Bryston upgraded their BDP-2 digital player to BDP-3 status, with refinements including an even faster Intel Quad-core processor; a Bryston-manufactured integrated audio device (IAD) in place of a soundcard; a custom Intel Celeron motherboard; a bigger power supply; and two additional USB ports, for a total of eight—three of which use the faster USB 3.0 protocol. Bryston's tried-and-true player now supports up to 32/384 PCM and DSD128. The BDP-3 supports Tidal, and can be configured as a Roon endpoint. LG sent his BDP-2 to the Bryston factory for conversion to BDP-3 status (a $1500 upgrade) and found that the new media-player software displays more album art and metadata; more important, he found slight improvements in sound over the BDP-2, including improved bass extension and clearer, more open, more detailed presentations of well-recorded choral music. (Vol.41 No.1 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 2 Music Server: $5000
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: $8495
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 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 820S power supply ($8000). Although the 820S can simultaneously power two Moon 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 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)

Oppo Digital UDP-205 universal disc player: $1299
The UDP-205 is a universal disc player capable of playing any commonly available 12cm silver disc (except HD DVD), and decode and/or output all audio and/or video content. Pricey for an Oppo player, it rewards its buyer with a sturdy, good-looking case, tidy displays swept clean of all external apps, and a transport mechanism described by KR as "fast, silent, and deadly effective," with track changes that "seemed quicker than with previous Oppos." Another feature, this one of particular interest to audiophiles, is an Audio Only HDMI output for which the standard video clock is replaced with its own dedicated, high-stability, ultra-low-jitter clock. (A second HDMI output, labeled Main, contains video content and marches to the standard clock.) In comparing the two outputs, KR concluded that music playback from the Audio Only output did indeed sound "somewhat smoother, with less haze and, consequently, greater resolution of very low-level signals." KR also "loved the UDP-205's sound" through its analog outputs, noting that its DAC section—designed around dual ESS ES9038PRO Sabre Pro chips—offers a choice of user-selectable filter characteristics. Significantly for some hobbyists, apart from its use as a disc player, the Oppo can be used as a multichannel music server and multichannel DAC. KR's conclusion: "Even if it didn't have a disc transport, I could recommend it." (Vol.40 No.11 WWW)

Playback Designs Sonoma Syrah server: $6500
Andreas Koch, who managed the development of the original eight-channel DSD recording console (dubbed the Sonoma) and went on to found Playback Designs, created the Sonoma Syrah server as part of a multichannel system, to be used in tandem with up to three of his company's Sonoma Merlot stereo DACs ($6500 each; see elsewhere in this edition of "Recommended Components"), with a separately available Playback Designs USB-XIII Digital Interface ($2500) acting as a master clock. The Syrah measures 12" wide by 3.25" high by 9" deep, and the only distinguishing features on its faceplate—one surface of an aluminum casting that also serves as the enclosure's top—are three small LEDs; apart from those, all user interactions are performed via tablet (iPad or Android). An RJ45 jack is provided for network connection, and two USB-A jacks for input/output. The Syrah comes with a 1TB internal drive, upgradable to 2TB. KR found setup—as described above, with Playback Designs DACs and interface—"uncomplicated," but had reservations about the Sonoma Syrah's somewhat dated user interface. He was pleased by the system's "transparent and unrestrained sound," and its "extremely deep, detailed soundstages and very articulate bass." (Vol.40 No.9 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)

B

Bryston BCD-3: $3495
AD, whose preoccupation with obsolete technologies now extends to physical digital media, continues to seek out The Last CD Player You'll Ever Buy, in which context he auditioned the Bryston BCD-3—a product that eschews both digital inputs and hi-rez media to focus on playback of "Red Book" CDs. (That said, the BCD-3 does have AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital-output jacks, for use with an outboard DAC.) The BCD-3 is built around the AKM AK4490 DAC chip—two per channel, in differential mode—and uses a metal-encased disc transport from the Austrian company StreamUnlimited, healthy supplies of which Bryston claims to already have on hand for future repairs. AD thoroughly enjoyed his time with the BCD-3, which did virtually everything he could have asked for: It played bluegrass music with drive and color, offered musically nuanced and pleasantly tactile playback of dense classical recordings, and even exposed the top-end glare heard on one disc as originating with his ancient Sony disc player, not the recording itself—which had "fine color and clarity" through the Bryston. AD concluded that the Bryston BCD-3 "offers very good value for the money. I could easily, happily live with it, and can just as easily recommend it." JA's measurements revealed nothing untoward—just "superb audio engineering." (Vol.40 No.8 WWW)

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)

Fidelizer Nimitra Server: $1395
A fanless implementation of an Intel Celeron J1900 2GHz processor, the Nimitra is the first server from Thailand-based Fidelizer, who specialize in using Windows as a music-playback platform. Measuring only 8.9" by 7.9" by 1.7" and supplied with an outboard power supply (a 12V brick; Fidelizer's larger and reportedly better Nikola supply is a $495 option), the Nimitra is bundled with dBPoweramp's Asset UPnP file access and the JPlay app for streaming output—and is, as KR reported, multichannel-compatible. Kal used the Fidelizer Nimitra with his miniDSP uDAC-8 multichannel processor—"setup was almost trivial," he said—and found the combination "absolutely delightful," and "easily the equal of" his Mac mini–based server: "Finally, a great-sounding and affordable multichannel server that works with USB or with HDMI!" (Vol.40 No.7 WWW)

Hegel Music Systems Mohican: $5000
With a name that suggests it's among the last of a dying breed and a design brief that all but sneers at present trends in digital source components, the "Red Book"–only, physical-media–only Mohican is the brainchild of Hegel founder and chief designer Ben Holter, whose stated intention was "to put my best effort and everything I got into making the highest quality CD player I can." Built in Norway, the Mohican uses a Sanyo transport and an AKM DAC chip to play 16-bit/44.1kHz discs without upsampling. A digital output (BNC) is provided, along with balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) analog outputs. Following his listening tests, HR praised the Mohican's coherence and "simple, unobstructed clarity," while noting that it didn't communicate natural textures as well as some contemporary standalone DACs. That said, he praised the Hegel player for perhaps giving "new meaning to that old cliché: future-proof." Measurer-in-chief JA observed that the Mohican "demonstrates appropriate audio engineering." (Vol.40 No.5 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)

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

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)

K

COMMENTS
supamark's picture

You have the KEF Blade II listed class A full range, and the KEF Reference 5 in class A (restricted LF) yet their frequency respnse in JA's room is essentially the same at 20 Hz (both have a -10dB point below 20 Hz in JA's room)... what's up with that?

link to Ref 5 review measurements page:
https://www.stereophile.com/content/kef-reference-5-loudspeaker-measurem...

John Atkinson's picture
supamark wrote:
You have the KEF Blade II listed class A full range, and the KEF Reference 5 in class A (restricted LF) yet their frequency respnse in JA's room is essentially the same at 20 Hz (both have a -10dB point below 20 Hz in JA's room)... what's up with that?

Judgment call on my part.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

waynel's picture

Was surprised to see this amp on the list considering you said you could not recommend it.

John Atkinson's picture
waynel wrote:
Was surprised to see this amp on the list considering you said you could not recommend it.

This amplifier didn't measure well but I defer to my reviewers' judgments on sound quality when deciding on the ratings.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

supamark's picture

fair enough.

Joe8423's picture

but I've been reading JA's opinions for quite a while and I've concluded that his personal opinions on audio components are the product of terrible hearing and/or terrible taste. I have no criticisms of how he does his job as editor of stereophile. I just can't get my head around his opinions of specific components/speakers.

John Atkinson's picture
Joe8423 wrote:
I've been reading JA's opinions for quite a while and I've concluded that his personal opinions on audio components are the product of terrible hearing and/or terrible taste.

I do have my hearing checked regularly, so it must be my taste :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

mrkaic's picture

...this is a lovely artful reply. Congrats, dude!

Indydan's picture

This is off topic. But, Will Art Dudley or someone else be visiting and reporting on the Montreal audio fest?

John Atkinson's picture
Indydan wrote:
Will Art Dudley or someone else be visiting and reporting on the Montreal audio fest?

Art Dudley and Robert Schryer will be attending the Montreal show for Stereophile.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Indydan's picture

Thanks for the information.

FredisDead's picture

I have learned over the years not to take the rankings seriously, but these are essentially the same speakers, one designed for larger rooms and one designed for smaller rooms. I can't help but believe that the magazine is unduly influenced by John Devore's description of the O/93 as being built down to a lower price point. I don't think JD was fair to his own babies. Since it was Art Dudley whom was the major proponent of the O/96 and since he now has a smaller listening room, it would be great if he were to audition the O/93's in his new room and let us know if he hears a qualitative difference.

ken mac's picture

John [DeVore] has no influence on how we write or review his speakers.
I owned and reviewed many of Johns' speakers (owned 8, Super 8, Nines; reviewed Super 8s, 3s, Nines, O/93) long before I joined Stereophile.
The 2 speakers are not really alike, and not designed for different sized rooms, I believe. I've heard both many times and prefer my O/93s. John makes extremely natural sounding loudspeakers that work well in many systems, hence their popularity.

tonykaz's picture

I'm not much of a Fan of Vinyl nowadays but still... shouldn't there be a phono cartridge in the Same Class as that A+ Turntable for $30,000 or the one for $104,000 ? and.. are there only two "A+" Turntables ?

I can understand, of course. I was a Big Time Phono Cartridge Shop, once upon a time. I know fully well the difficulties involved in proper set up of Phono Cartridges and their Arm and all things tracking, etc,etc,etc,etc,etc,etc,etc..... phew.

Committing to review Phono Cartridges is an elaborate set of burdens to put upon any competent reviewer lacking an Assistant ( like ole HP at TAS had ).

We at Esoteric Audio reviewed ( and had "Active" ) every phono Cartridge we sold, it was an exhausting commitment. Koetsu was A+.

Proper playback of RedBook via one of the many A+ Rated Players is a God Send compared to the Mechanical Complexity of revolving mechanisms and those mechanical transducers having astonishingly low output.

My two great Audiophile Philosophers ( HR & Steve G ) still have vinyl "lives" and rather vast vinyl collection commitments that I'm happily well past, their commentaries have substantial merit because they both have that vast history of experiences giving them the heft of "Earned Confidence" so.....

Stereophile should give them both the A+ Recommended placement : HR for Writing and Steve G for Vlog.

Tony in Michigan

z24069's picture

The list once again contains (many of the same) names of some great offerings from many manufacturers.

It is still beyond explanation however (IMHO) how Esoteric offerings are totally missing from yet another issues of recommended components. The K-01X (now K-01Xs), Grandioso K1, etc...are among some of the finest digital playback gear (same to be said for the 2-box and 4-box options) in the world. Clearly they belong on this list and the lack of focus on evaluating and listing these products with their peers definitely needs to be cured once and for all.

Great issue over all; you are however missing several key entries from Esoteric and others.

Thank you,

John Atkinson's picture
z24069 wrote:
It is still beyond explanation however (IMHO) how Esoteric offerings are totally missing from yet another issues of recommended components.

I have explained this before. If we haven't reviewed a company's products in the past 3 years, they are not included in "Recommended Components." With the changes in Esoteric's US distribution, we have been waiting for things to settle down. However, we do have a review of the Esoteric N-01 scheduled for our August issue.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Ola Harstrom's picture

Was interested to see how this would be rated.

Is HR's coverage (Gramophone Dreams #11 -->so it should perhaps have been in the Fall of 2017 edition...?) not considered a formal review?

Tx!

DavidNC's picture

We read these 'best of' or 'recommended component' reviews with an interest as to where our own products stand against the opposition.
So I looked for Vitus.....nowhere !! Not on any list !!
So I searched Vitus (on this site) and found no mention since 2011 !!
Surely Vitus deserve a 'review' even if it's not liked ??

jazzman1040's picture

This list is chock full of traditional designs, but has few representatives of fully active speakers. Even for the LS50 you selected the passive version when all reviews I've read suggest the active version is far superior. I count only the KIi's as fully active? In a world where technology is advancing incredibly fast, where ease of use is of primary importance for all except for a select few (maybe only readers of Stereophile?), shouldn't this list include more than a few active speaker selections? Or maybe they don't measure up? For value it would seem they win hands down. On performance, most critics I've read agree that actives are the way to go. So what gives?

sara023's picture
X