Recommended Components: 2019 Fall Edition Disc Players, Transports & Media Players

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

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

A+

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 drive that's 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. In a Follow-Up, JVS described in detail his efforts to get the most from the N10. In the end, he expressed admiration for this one-box server's ease of use and its ability to connect to a DAC via USB, but noted his ultimate preference for other solutions. (Vol.39 No.4, Vol.42 No.4 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 i7 CPU ($200), 32GB of RAM ($280), a pre-installed SOtM USBhubIN port with independent clock board ($1200), and an HD-Plex linear 400W PSU with Baetis cryo-treated DC cabling ($1220). 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)

dCS Rossini Transport SACD/CD transport: $23,500
Unlike the earlier Rossini Player, which only played CDs, the Rossini Transport uses a new mechanism from Denon that plays both SACDs and CDs. The Transport outputs audio data on twin AES/EBU links, to allow it to send native DSD data and CD data upsampled to DXD, DSD, or double DSD (these both encrypted) to a dCS DAC. JA used the Transport with a Rossini DAC and was mightily impressed by what he heard. He consistently preferred the sound of SACDs played on the Transport compared with the same data sent to the Rossini DAC over his network, feeling that the low frequencies sounded more robust. "Once these words have been laid out on the pages of this issue," JA concluded, "I'll have to return [the Rossini Transport] to dCS. It breaks my heart. (Vol.42 No.5 WWW)

dCS Rossini Player: $28,499
dCS Rossini Clock: $7499
Boasting the updated version of the company's signature Ring DAC, the dCS Rossini Player combines a Red Book CD drive with multiple digital inputs and a UPnP network player. The Rossini Player upsamples to the DXD format—PCM at 352.8kHz 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 supports Roon endpoint integration. JA combined his review sample of the Rossini Player with the similarly new dCS Rossini Clock; summing up his thoughts on both, he 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 incorporated the Rossini Clock, JA wrote that the Rossini Player offers performance that is "about as good as can be gotten from a thoroughly modern digital audio product." In the June 2019 Stereophile, JVS reported on dCS's Rossini software v2.0, which applies to both the Rossini Player and D/A processor. (Vol.39 No.12, Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

dCS Vivaldi 2.0: $114,996/system as reviewed ★
The top 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)

Esoteric N-01: $20,000
The Esoteric N-01 is among the growing number of digital-source components that can decode and play MQA files in addition to DSD and ultra-high-resolution PCM. (The N-01 was still in the process of Roon certification at the time of our review.) Its integral D/A processor is based on the 32-bit AK4497 chipset from AKM, referenced to a voltage-controlled crystal-oscillator clock (an external clock can also be connected via a BNC socket). The N-01 is controlled by Esoteric's Sound Stream app for iOS, which includes portals for Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, and TuneIn Internet radio, and can receive files from an NAS drive, an external HD, USB sticks (FAT32/NTFS format only), an external computer, or a network stream via Ethernet. All of this comes in a robust, twin-layer aluminum-and-steel enclosure that weighs just under 57 lb. Despite some glitches, reportedly now addressed by Esoteric, JVS got on with the Sound Stream app, and reported noteworthy differences in sound between using the volume-control-equipped N-01 with and without a separate preamp, as well as among the unit's user-selectable filter settings. In general, the Esoteric player-DAC struck him as offering strong, well-controlled bottom octaves and a tonal gestalt that was "detailed, balanced, and fleshed out," and a sonic signature that was "a bit yang: stronger in force than in sparkling liquidity." JA's measurements uncovered less-than-ideal performance in the Esoteric's rejection of word-clock jitter, but he found that the N-01 otherwise offered "respectable measured performance." (Vol.41 No.9 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 N13 offers a full-color 5" TFT display—the MBL player recognizes CD text and displays title information—and features an SD-card 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 N13, 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 N13. 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)

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: $4399
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)

Roon Labs Nucleus+: $2498
The first hardware product from software specialists Roon Labs, the Nucleus+ combines an Intel i7 processor/NUC board with 8GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD solid-state drive, the latter hosting the Linux-based Roon Optimized Core Kit (ROCK) operating system and Roon server software. Also provided are a single gigabit Ethernet port, USB 3.0 ports for conversing with external drives and/or USB DACs, a multichannel-friendly HDMI port, a Thunderbolt 3 port, and an internal bay for an HDD or SSD drive. Use of the Nucleus+ requires a Roon subscription ($119/year, $499/lifetime). When JA tried the Nucleus+ he found he had "nothing specific to say about the sound other than that it was always excellent." KR described his efforts at pressing the Nucleus+ into service as a multichannel server. His results were encouraging, although DSP execution was a mixed bag, depending on sample rate and the operation desired, and the strain they put on processing power; upsampling, in particular, "seemed to drain the tank." (Vol.41 No.8, Vol.42 No.3)

Wolf Systems Alpha 3 server: $7195 as reviewed
Wolf Audio Systems specializes in configuring eighth-generation, six-core i7 processors for use as silent (no cooling-fan noise) music servers with prodigious computing power—leading KR, Our Man in the Round, to wonder if there existed a sufficiently powerful Wolf to meet the demands of multichannel playback (!) of hi-rez files (!!) with DSP and/or EQ (
). Wolf suggested this version of their Alpha 3 High Fidelity Audio Server (HFAS), which supports JRiver Media Center and Roon and offers 16GB of RAM, a 2TB SSD for internal storage, and a TEAC Blu-ray transport for ripping and playing CDs. KR was impressed with the Alpha 3—and by Wolf's semi-customized owner's manual and telephone and VPN support. He noted that "the Alpha 3 never blinked, blanked, or unceremoniously rebooted itself; it worked silently and reliably." His verdict: "a great choice for playing hi-rez files of multichannel music." (Vol.42 No.1 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)

ATC CDA2 Mk2 CD player: $4249
An unexpected gem in the product line of a UK speaker specialist, the CDA2 Mk2 majors in the playing of "Red Book" CDs and minors in preamplification. As KM noted, "the beating heart of the revised CDA2 is twofold: a Chinese-made TEAC 5020A-AT CD transport . . . and [AKM's] AK4490EQ DAC chip." Preamp gain comes courtesy of op-amps built around discrete devices, and the USB receiver is an Amanero Combo 384. When using it to play CDs, KM found that "the ATC presented each as a character study of a unique sonic personality telling a singular story," and he praised in particular the player's sonic transparency. Playing files through the ATC's USB input—streaming is not supported—Ken described the sound as "very good overall, including from DSD files, but it lacked the visceral grip of CDs through the ATC's transport." Reporting from his test bench, JA praised the CDA2 Mk2's "generally superb measured performance, though its S/PDIF inputs aren't up to the standard of jitter rejection offered by CD playback and the USB input." (Vol.41 No.12 WWW)

AVM Ovation MP 8.2: $14,995
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)

Bryston BDP-3: $3995
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)

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-day trends in digital source components, the "Red Book"–only, physical-media–only 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," his only reservation being some spuriae at and related to 100Hz. In a Follow-Up, AD commented on the Mohican's unusually study, serenely finished casework, and praised it for not tarting up lousy CDs, but rather for "giving me the arguably deeper and more enduring pleasure of hearing goodness enhanced. This is my new standard in CD playback." (Vol.40 No.5, Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

Kalista DreamPlay One: $43,000
The Kalista DreamPlay One, from French digital-audio specialists Métronome, is a two-box CD player, only one of whose halves—its Elektra power supply—is really a box at all. The other half—the DreamPlay One itself—is an exotic-looking and roughly hexagram-shaped device made of steel, aluminum, and methacrylate. Its modified Philips CDM12PRO transport is exposed and designed for use with a supplied CD puck, also exotic-looking. Both single-ended and balanced outputs are provided, but there are no digital inputs or outputs. A brilliantly executed display screen is integrated within the player's frontmost structure, and incorporates soft-touch buttons for controlling the DreamPlay One's basic functions; the screen also assists in choosing from among the player's six user-selectable digital playback filters, differences between which AD found to be "the smallest real differences . . . I've ever heard." Far more apparent were the distinctions between the Kalista DreamPlay One and most other players of Art's experience: "I really can't recall the last time a CD player was so good that it helped change my mind about music I'd never quite favored." Art described the Kalista as "more tonally balanced" than his aging reference Sony player—only after killing a couple of paragraphs by whining about how difficult it is to write positive reviews—and raved over its abilities to convey instrumental colors, musical momentum and force, realistic scale, and realistic presence. He summed up: "the DreamPlay One is without flaw in every regard but price." Measurer-in-chief JA wrote that, apart from a trace of power-supply ripple, "the Kalista DreamPlay One demonstrates good audio engineering." (Vol.41 No.9 WWW)

LG V30 MQA-capable smartphone: $799
Arguably the only high-fidelity source component that can be used to order a pizza, the V30 smartphone from Korean manufacturer LG offers 64GB of internal memory—expandable to 2TB by means of an optional microSD card—and an ESS Sabre-powered 32-bit DAC. Perhaps most notably, the V30 has a built-in MQA decoder; a streaming app for MQA-friendly Tidal is included, as are apps for Qobuz and YouTube. It can also play PCM files, with or without MQA, up to 24-bit/192kHz, as well as DSD up to DSD256. JVS loaded up his review loaner with plenty of hi-rez files—for over 100 of those files, he had both MQA and PCM versions—and listened through Audeze and Thinksound headphones. He found the LG's sound consistently enjoyable, and in every instance where an MQA version was available for comparison, that was the one he preferred, citing their greater color saturation and liveliness, and for "simply [sounding] more musical." JVS also used the LG phone for streaming, noting that "[w]ithout hi-rez and MQA, CD-quality files streamed via the V30's Tidal app sounded remarkably clear, open, and musical." Yet as impressed as JVS was when using the V30 as a portable, "What blew me away was the sound of the LG V30 through my reference system"—which, we hasten to point out, has Wilson Audio Alexia 2 loudspeakers at one end and, typically, a dCS Rossini DAC at the other. His conclusion: the V30 "belongs in . . . a Class A category all its own." In a Follow-Up, JA wrote, "Overall, [the V30] measures well—not only for a smartphone, but for a legitimate hi-rez player." (Vol.41 Nos. 5 & 7 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)

Naim ND5 XS 2: $3495
Built around Naim's proprietary streaming platform, the ND5 XS 2 player—at present the company's entry-level model—can be used wirelessly or via an Ethernet connection to the user's router. Depending on file type, the Naim supports PCM up to 32/384 and DSD to DSD128, but does not unfold MQA content. The Roon-ready ND5 XS 2 supports Tidal, Chromecast, and Spotify, with Qobuz compatibility said to be in the works. AD found the Naim sounded its best with files played from his laptop via Roon—and that was very good indeed, a beloved Beck track in particular sounding "as good and big and compelling" as he'd ever heard it. Writing from his test bench, JA noted that he was "puzzled" by the Naim's less-than-straightforward jitter performance but noted that the player "otherwise . . . turns in respectable measured performance." AD's conclusion: "a good-sounding, pleasant-to-use player that offers very good value." (Vol.42 No.4)

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)

Sony DMP-Z1: $8500
Weighing as it does a little over 5lb, the Sony DMP-Z1 is less of a Walkman (as the manufacturer describes it) than a SitInTheLimoMan (as JA describes it); however it's labeled, this media player/digital processor/headphone amplifier is unambiguously a luxury product, with convenience features that include a top-mounted color touchscreen; two slots for microSD cards; Bluetooth alongside USB connectivity; MQA support; and a big, gold-plated-brass volume knob—plus user-selectable reconstruction filters and DSP functions. The Sony rewarded JA with sound with "excellent low-frequency weight" but that was a bit too mellow with darker-than-neutral 'phones such as his AudioQuest NightHawks—Audeze LCD-Xes were a better match. “An MQA-encoded classical track sounded simply glorious through the Sony." JA-the-measurer confirmed the impressions of JA-the-listener, noting "superb measured performance, indicative of equally superb analog and digital audio engineering." (Vol.42 No.8)

B

Bryston BCD-3: $3795
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 610dB 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)

Pro-Ject Stream Box S2 Ultra Server: $849
This relatively affordable server/network bridge runs a customized Volumio operating system, which resides in its 12.79GB onboard memory, and can be controlled by either a Web browser or Pro-Ject's own iOS app; it can also be used as a Roon endpoint. Network connectivity is via Ethernet or WiFi (an antenna is included). Tidal and Spotify streaming services are supported, as is Shoutcast internet radio, and the Stream Box S2 Ultra supports PCM up to 32/352.8 and DSD up to DSD256. In JA's system, the Pro-Ject network bridge, controlled by its free app and with a USB-connected DAC, produced sound that was "indistinguishable from that using my [Roon] Nucleus+ with Roon to stream audio over my Ethernet-wired network. Not bad for something that costs only one-third the Roon server's price." (Vol.42 No.4 WWW)

Rega Apollo: $1095 $$$
In 2018, AD tested both the most expensive current-production high-end CD player of his experience (the $43,000 Kalista DreamPlay One) and the least expensive; the latter was the latest version of Rega's humble Apollo, a half-size (8.7" wide) player whose top-loading transport is accessed via a cleverly designed manual-lift lid, and whose DAC chip is a Wolfson WM8742. The Apollo impressed Art with its generally unfussy appearance and ease of use, and, most of all, its compelling sound quality. With a disc-dependent balance that ranged between slightly light and just right, the Rega complemented the well-saturated and -textured sound of AD's tubed electronics, and proved a reliable revealer of pitches, rhythms, and otherwise-unnoticed musical subtleties. His conclusions: "This player has a sonic brilliance—a clarity of detail and musical line, allied with a spatially up-front presentation—that enhances musical engagement. Robustly recommended." Writing from his test bench, JA noted that the Apollo's rejection of word-clock jitter was "not quite to the otherwise excellent standard of digital engineering revealed by the rest of its measured performance." (Vol.41 No.6 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)

K
Pro-Ject CD Box RS2 T CD Transport

Deletions
Compulab Airtop-D i7, replaced by model not yet reviewed. PS Audio DirectStream Memory Player, Sony Playstation 1, discontinued. Metronome CD 8, Melco N1A, not auditioned in a long time.

COMMENTS
Charles E Flynn's picture

From https://cdn.stereophile.com/content/recommended-components-2018-edition-how-use-listings :

Class K

"Keep your eye on this product." Class K is for components that we have not reviewed (or have not finished testing), but that we have reason to believe may be excellent performers. We are not actually recommending these components, only suggesting you give them a listen. Though the report has yet to be published in certain cases, the reviewer and editor sometimes feel confident enough that the reviewer's opinion is sufficiently well formed to include what otherwise would be an entry in one of the other classes, marked (NR).

Enrique Marlborough's picture

Could you add the year of entry to these lists.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It's there.

prerich45's picture

When did the Pulsars go up from $7k/7.7k to $9k?!!!!!!!!! That's a huge increase!!!!!!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The new Pulsar2 Graphene are $9k :-) ..........

brians's picture

I always found it really odd that Stereophile never links the recommended component to its referenced review(s). Really odd, and kind of charming.

AaronGarrett's picture

Are the headphones pictured Sennheiser 800s? Is this a secret recommendation since they aren't on the list?

stereoGoodness's picture

How in the world can the TotalDac still be listed as a Class A+ digital processor? The device's proponent on the Stereophile staff was Michael Lavorgna, who has since been let go by the magazine.

The TotalDac was never properly reviewed by Stereophile, likely because the device's creator knew that it would measure horrendously. Audio Science Review confirmed its terrible engineering, and TotalDac is now closely associated with how audiophilia can go badly wrong.

https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-totaldac-d1-six-dac.8192/

John Atkinson's picture
stereoGoodness wrote:
The TotalDac was never properly reviewed by Stereophile, likely because the device's creator knew that it would measure horrendously.

I don't routinely measure the products reviewed in the magazine's columns, but in hindsight I wish I had have done so with the Total DAC. Even so, back in the day I spent a very pleasant afternoon listening to Michael Lavorgna's system with this DAC.

stereoGoodness wrote:
Audio Science Review confirmed its terrible engineering, and TotalDac is now closely associated with how audiophilia can go badly wrong. https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-totaldac-d1-six-dac.8192/

Oh my!

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Ne casse pas le verre :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'We (at, Stereophile) choose truth over facts' :-) .........

JRT's picture

"TotalDAC" was a wrong-headed approach in engineering, is grossly overpriced for its performance, is grossly over-hyped in its niche market, and it objectively measures very much worse than lower priced DACs. It is a poor solution, and represents poor value.

However, I also think that there is another larger consideration in this that was missed.
No small of number of people like the sound, people who critically listen to their system and to changes in their system.

So a key take-away is that "TotalDAC" provides a good example of the importance of better perceptual weighting in objective measurements. The simple fact that so many seem to like the sound of this "TotalDAC" regardless that it measures so poorly shows that a large body of critical listeners are highly tolerant of its imperfections that show up clearly in objective measurements.

Note that Amir Majidimehr gave it a bad review because of poor objective measurements resulting from poor choices in engineering, but he did not find the resulting sound highly objectionable in his listening tests. Similarly, John Atkinson and Michael Lavorgna were not displeased with the sound in Lavorgna's system. And there seems to be many others.

Since so many critical listeners are highly tolerant of the imperfections of "TotalDAC", and since there are many inexpensive DACs that outperform it, I would suggest that the DACs should receive a rather low weighting in budget allocation. The opportunity cost on this expensive DAC is far too high, could be better spent in something that matters very much more in perceptual weighting such as loudspeakers, a bespoke low frequency (sub-Schroeder) subsystem, improvements in room acoustics, etc.

JRT's picture

Wasting budget resources on expensive esoteric cable assemblies brings little if any performance improvement, and in comparison to moderate cost well engineered solutions the esoteric cable assembles can sometimes degrade system performance.

https://www.stereophile.com/content/adcom-gfa-7805-five-channel-power-amplifier-cable-issues

https://sound-au.com/cable-z.htm

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Regarding sound quality ........ See Stereophile review and measurements of BorderPatrol DAC SE $995 to $1,850 ........ Somewhat similar suboptimal measurements as the TotalDAC ....... Costs lot less ....... Several reviewers liked that BorderPatrol DAC's sound :-) ........

JRT's picture

You get a good DAC and also a good headphone amplifier, plus can be utilized for making objective measurements.

https://www.rme-audio.de/en/products/adi_2-pro.php

Maybe add an inexpensive 2x2 AES/EBU Dante bridge such as the one at the following link.

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1417856-REG/audinate_adp_aes3_au_2x2_2x2_dante_avio_aes3.html

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The Chord Mojo ($570, reviewed by Stereophile) and the Chord Hugo2 ($2,695, reviewed by Hi-Fi News), also are, good quality DACs and headphone amplifiers :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Benchmark DAC3 HGC ($2,199, reviewed by Stereophile, Class-A+) is a DAC, pre-amp and headphone amp :-) ...........

JRT's picture

Those lack AD converters.

Seems like a lot of money to spend for simple DA conversion and an output buffer to drive headphones.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

How many Stereophile readers use/want a AD converter? :-) .........

Benchmark also sells a headphone amp/ pre-amp HPA-4 ($3,000, reviewed by Hi-Fi News) :-) ..........

JRT's picture

For one example group, I suspect some need AD converters to capture the output of their phono preamp to FLAC files.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

How many Stereophile readers want/use AD converters? ......... may be 5% to 10% .......... Which means 90% to 95% Stereophile readers don't want/use and are not interested in AD converters :-) ..........

Stereophile reviewed Ayre Acoustics QA-9 AD converter ....... I think JA1 and MF still sometimes use that Ayre AD converter :-) ........

Stereophile has also reviewed USB output turntables from Sony and Music Hall, which obviously have built-in AD converters :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

BTW ....... Don't post any comments about AD converters on AnalogPlanet ....... Stereophile readers are more tolerant people :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Seems like MF is currently using one of the Lynx Hilo AD/DA converters ......... Some of these Lynx products are available at Sweetwater ........ May be JA1 could review one of these AD/DA converters currently available :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Benchmark also sells just a DAC ..... DAC3-B for $1,699 :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

There are other less expensive DA converters/headphone amps ........ Pro-Ject Pre-Box S2 ($399, reviewed by Stereophile), AudioQuest DragonFly Black and Red ($99 and $199, reviewed by Stereophile) and DragonFly Cobalt ($299, Stereophile review may be forthcoming) :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Schiit Audio makes several headphone-amps/DACs, from $99 to $499 :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The new iBasso DC01 and DC02, DAC/headphone-amps $75 to $79 :-) ..........

Charles E Flynn's picture

You are now officially on your own when it comes to the purchase of a table radio.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Get a Naim Mu-so2 or Qb2 ....... EISA award winner .......Kinda table radio ....... See, S&V review on their website :-) .........

listentomusic's picture

does someone know why is simaudio 340i is gone from the list.it was there is last 2-3 lists

Jim Austin's picture

By long tradition and with some exceptions, components are removed from the list when they have not been auditioned for more than 3 years. The tradition arose from print, and the limited space it allows; this practice could be relaxed online, but then we would have two different lists. (The exceptions, usually, are cases in which a Stereophile reviewer has continuing experience with the product, as when it is part of a reviewing system, and so can continue to vouch for it.)

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Jim Austin is the perfect reviewer for the new Revel Performa top-model, F328BE ($15,000/pair), and compare them to the Revel Ultima Salon2 :-) ............

dial's picture

There's a lack of cheap tonearms with detachable headshell like the ones on dj turntables, some are really excellent.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Guitar Center sells some of those DJ turntables ........ They also sell some Technics TTs, which come with tonearms with detachable head-shells, including some used ones ......... You could check with them :-) ..........

dial's picture

Thanks a lot for your advice, I sold my Stanton DD, the tonearm wasn't removable (I speak about the straight model, a little short, can only use an Ortofon Arkiv on it).
I still miss someone here who wants to review a ZYX cartridge, even a "budget" model. I think it's imported here.

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