Recommended Components 2020 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 Audio 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 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 Rossini SACD 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 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)

Gryphon Ethos: $39,000
Released at a time when new CD players in general are rarities, let alone ones that cost as much as a 2020 Alfa Giulia, the Gryphon Ethos entices with its user-selectable upsampling (up to 24/384 PCM or DSD128) and digital filters (seven PCM, three DSD), its USB-addressable D/A processor (up to 32/384 PCM or DSD512), its choice of single-ended and balanced outputs, and its "eye-catching and resolutely retro styling"—that last one according to JVS, who also noted that the DAC does not decode MQA and that the player does not play SACDs. JVS also found that upsampling CDs "to either DSD or PCM enhanced listening with additional air and depth . . . . I liked the upsampling feature a lot." Jason's conclusion: "The Ethos is one open, marvelously detailed, and fresh-sounding unit that makes listening an absolute joy." Measurer-in-chief JA added to that assessment: "The Gryphon Ethos offers excellent audio engineering." Because it plays only CDs, A+ rating applies only to its use as a DAC .(Vol.43 No.1 WWW)

Innuos Statement: $13,750 and up
See JVS's review in this issue.

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 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 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
Merging Technologies MERGING+PLAYER Stereo: $12,500
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-soundfriendly 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)

Métronome c|AQWO: $26,000
Métronome t|AQWO: $24,000
A combination of Métronome's c|AQWO D/A processor ($26,000) and t|AQWO transport ($24,000), this four-box SACD/CD player—each of the two above-named units has its own outboard Métronome Elektra power supply—provides the lucky owner with a means of not only playing the hi-rez layer of an SACD but also upsampling it to DSD256 or to 24-bit/384kHz PCM, the latter transformation also available to Red Book CDs. (Refer to the full review for details on the combination's output and input options, which defy description in a brief précis such as this.) JVS enjoyed the Métronome combination and singled out the c|AQWO DAC for its "non-fatiguing, easy-on-the-ears sound that some would consider analog-like." Writing from his lab, JA noted that the t|AQWO transport's error correction was "one of the best I have encountered." Apart from "disappointing" jitter performance via its AES/EBU and TosLink connections—all was well via HDMI—the c|AQWO DAC "did well on the test bench." (Vol.43 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 WWW)

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

Astell&Kern A&ultima SP1000: $2999
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: $49,000
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)

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 or network switch. 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 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)

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 WWW)

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 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)

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)

K
Pro-Ject CD Box RS2 T CD Transport

Deletions
Acoustic Research AR-M2, no current US distribution. Luxman D-06U, SOtM sMs-1000SQ Windows Edition, not auditioned in a long time.

COMMENTS
Bogolu Haranath's picture

Time for Stereophile to review the Denafrips flagship Terminator DAC (under $5k) :-) ........

Kempff's picture

Audioquest Nightowl Carbon (and its Nighthawk sibling) have been discontinued.

There's a new version of the Chord Mojo? Do you know something no one else does?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

AQ NightOwl Carbon is listed under Class-B headphones :-) .......

Kempff's picture

That’s my point. Discontinued items aren’t supposed to be listed.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be the people who worked on the list are dis-connected :-) ........

Jim Austin's picture

When we contacted companies about changes in their product lines, as we do before every Recommended Components issue, we were told by AudioQuest that the NightHawk and the NightOwl were still current products.

As for the Mojo, the reason given for its deletion from the list is in error--my error. It is the Hugo, not the Mojo, that has been replaced. The Mojo was deleted because it was last auditioned by a Stereophile writer in the February issue, 2016. Unless awarded a star, components typically "age out" after about three years.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Kempff's picture

I guess one hand doesn't know what the other is doing at AQ. They sent out a letter to dealers over a year ago announcing that they were "leaving the headphone category," and they stopped producing the nightbirds at that time. But their website still features them as if they're current.

I'm not sure I understand about the Mojo, though. There are quite a few things on the RC list that were reviewed before the Mojo and don't have stars -- the Audeze LCD-X and Senn HD-650, to pick a couple from the same page. Besides, the Mojo surely deserves a star if anything does: it's a classic, sounds fantastic, and has no competition at its price point. It was the RC listing and JA's review that convinced me to take the plunge, and I've loved it ever since.

Jim Austin's picture

Thanks for your note. Well, the HD-650 should have a star, and I'm going to give it one; there aren't many headphones (HD-600 to name one) that have been around as long and still perform well. In any case, I own a pair, and I think JA1 does, too. As you can read in the intro to the section, we keep things on the list if a reviewer has recent experience and still finds the product worthy. The LCD-X is an example of that: JA owns a pair and uses them often.

That's the general case: Products that were reviewed longer ago than the Mojo but still on the list are there because they are in some reviewer's system.

I've never heard the Mojo, but based on its reputation, I certainly respect it. Whether it's a "classic" is of course a judgment call; smart people can disagree.

Best Wishes,

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

to "excellent" ?

Are some reviewers assigning the Excellent designation but not quite meaning it unless the "truly" adverb precedes the critical adjective? Is this a "secret" writers code word for some reason ?

Why do people feel the need to crutch support their declarations with clumsy adverbs?, seems like it dilutes the most important concepts and fosters mistrust of the Writers intentions.

Those dam Brits have taken to say'n "to be honest" or "if I'm honest" . ( We don't see it here, thank you. )
Feels like the Brit leading off with "If I'm honest" is someone I shouldn't be listening to. ( especially if it's coming from a Religious Minister that buys a series of my Sunday performance Sermons ).

My Audio Importing, Manufacturing & Retailing experiences reveal these Recommended Component Issues to have critical influence in the buying decisions of Audiophiles. Your gifted "fiancé of audio adventures" ( Mr.HR ) is probably the most influential man of letters in this here entire Industry. Mr.Steve G. is souring into Cassey Neistat territory with his Audio related YouTube dailies, big hair & colorful shirts. ( he only needs an electric scooter to ride the now-Empty Streets of Manhattan ) The NEW Steve G. is makning 33.3 look like its soooooo Old-School tired. Of course, I approve.

Tony in Venice

Tony in Sunny Venice

ps .. by the way, Audiologists are still using Astell & Kern players.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

To be honest, I think these recommended component lists are very excellent :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

BTW ....... Tom Brady is gonna play in a town near you :-) .......

tonykaz's picture

and...

Who cares ?

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

You don't know the record holder, 6 times Super Bowl winner? :-) .......

tonykaz's picture

I have a super bowl that holds 5 cups of cereal.

Tony in Venice

ps. I'm probably not a proper American

Tromatic's picture

Oddly enough I can believe someone who praises the Chinese government does not know who Brady is, although I do agree with "who cares".

tonykaz's picture

Who? I don't know anyone like this .

Tony in Venice

Tromatic's picture

In one of your voluminous screeds about how racist the US is if IRC.
I was going to post something about how the typical Uighur would disagree with you but that would have been off-topic. I'll look for it if you wish, but it may take some time.

I can see how you would forget.

tonykaz's picture

You might have the wrong fellow. I'm contending that China has been an Industrial Quality Leader for the last 5 Centuries ( with the recent decades being the exception )

I do not approve of my GMCorp. going to Asia to take free Labor while abandoning our local legacy Labor.

What is IRC ?

Graham Luke's picture

We must wean ourselves off this curse.
Well, we wouldn't buy stuff from Kim Jong Un so why are we buying it from the PRC....?

misterc59's picture

Sorry, don't know how this ended up under this comment, plus the body of my post went AWOL. I think I'll wait until the posting gods have (hopefully) fixed the problem...

Bogolu Haranath's picture

$400 Project Pre Box S2 is listed in Class-A digital processors ........ To be honest, I think that is very excellent :-) ........

Indydan's picture

To be honest. You should listen to more music, and post less.

tonykaz's picture

"to be honest" is the actual writer saying that he is not normally an honest reporter.

So, I ask, are you being facetious ? I think yes as your comments are typically concise.

Tony in Venice

ps. I'm not here for Music, I'm here for the Literary ( editorial ) Content. I can select Audio Gear without reviewer guidance. I have an Audiologist & Psychiatrist to help me synchronize my personal hearing curves, tastes and synapse tunings. I seem to prefer Class A and still haven't been able to tune-in Class D amplification as satisfactorily as the Norther Europeans have achieved.

Ortofan's picture

... the Pro-Ject Amp Box RS, which combines Hypex class D power amp modules with a vacuum tube input buffer stage.
You could buy one with your $1,200 UBI and still have some change left over.
It's even available at those Best Buy stores with a Magnolia department.

https://www.pro-jectusa.com/en-us/products/pro-ject-box-designs/amplifiers/rs-line/amp-box-rs

Bogolu Haranath's picture

HR could review the Amp Box RS :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

I can't thank you.

Of course you proffer dam good advice, as usual.

I'm something of a Maverick Brand Ambassador for Schiit & PS Audio ( although either Company would & should say that I'm strictly out-on-my-own and not part of their operations ) I think that Mr.s Stoddard and McGowan are both men of high integrity ( maybe even including M.Moffat who might be a horrible smart ass and proud of it )

I was once a Dealer for PS Audio ( 1980s ) and Tyll introduced me to Schiit back in 2011. Both outfits manufacture in the USA, service their products, answer customers, make A+ level products and price sensibly. What's not to like except for Schiit's dam Name and their stupid rear mounted power switches.

As far as those UBIs are concerned, the Corporate worshiping donkeys may not allow we civilians the same life saving financial treatment being lavished on their sponsoring donor Class. Boeing to accept $60 Billion after ruining their financials with the 787 and 737 mismanagements.

Fingers crossed on those $1,200 ea. with $5,000 per family, I'll be investing in Color changing LED Lighting.

Tony in Venice

Ortofan's picture

... Maverick Brand Ambassador for Schiit Audio - and since Messrs. Stoddard and Moffat seem to know their way around tubes, as well as transistors - perhaps you could suggest to them that they design a variation of the Vidar power amp with a vacuum tube front end. It could effectively be a budget version of the PS Audio BHK amp.

tonykaz's picture

I'm certain that Mr.Stoddard would entertain your own personal inquiry far more than they would value my nudging suggestions which typically get tossed ( like my standard insistant demand for ALLLLL dam power switching be located on the dam FRONT panel AND! Dammit, change the Brand Name to Stoddard & Moffat like any respectable Company would normally do!!!

I love your idea for Product Development Improvements. ( go ahead and nominate yourself to Schiit's advisory board, I'll second it)

Are you sure about Moffat and tubes ? I wonder if he's cooking up a nice tube DAC?

Tony in Venice

tonykaz's picture

I'm certain that Mr.Stoddard would entertain your own personal inquiry far more than they would value my nudging suggestions which typically get tossed ( like my standard insistant demand for ALLLLL dam power switching be located on the dam FRONT panel AND! Dammit, change the Brand Name to Stoddard & Moffat like any respectable Company would normally do!!!

I love your idea for Product Development Improvements. ( go ahead and nominate yourself to Schiit's advisory board, I'll second it)

Are you sure about Moffat and tubes ? I wonder if he's cooking up a nice tube DAC?

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Your idea of a tube DAC is a smart idea for S. Audio ........ They could offer that DAC with a choice of tube or transistor output ......... They could also offer a choice of multiple digital reconstruction filters for that DAC :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

Why does it need multiple reconstruction?

I suspect that we are already past the point where DACs feature discernible sound quality differences, although professionals like Bob Katz carefully choose converters and can hear details beyond "normal" amateur listeners.

But...

... for the sake of outlandish Pricing, Schiit could offer a DAC made up of ONLY Tubes, much like the very first IBM Computer needing a very large room. Price it at, say..., 3 Million Dollars. Lets give em sumpt'n to talk about.

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

*

tonykaz's picture

...

Bogolu Haranath's picture

*

tonykaz's picture

...

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Almost all of the DACs which offer multiple filters, also offer the standard linear phase 'brick-wall' filter ...... Some listeners choose other types of filters because, they say that, those filters sound more 'analog like' .......... Those other filters are available with a push of a button ....... Similarly, tube or transistor output could be chosen with a push of a button :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

When Mr.Tony and Mr.Ortofan become the board members of S. Audio, they could make the suggestion about the above mentioned tube DAC :-) .......

tonykaz's picture

Sir Ortofan is leagues beyond me in logical expressions, I would never be welcomed to that exclusive Board of Directors ( BOD ).

Can Orto fandom be explained?

Tony in Venice

tonykaz's picture

Sir Ortofan is leagues beyond me in logical expressions, I would never be welcomed to that exclusive Board of Directors ( BOD ).

Can Orto fandom be explained?

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Mr.Ortofan got a 'face tat' which says 'I got the power' :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Or ..... May be the tattoo says 'Better at 70' :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Mr.Indydan ........ To be honest, you should listen to more music and read less posts or, better yet, read no posts at all :-) .......

tonykaz's picture

looks like a $1,200 UBI per person with a married cap ( possibly $2,500 )

Tony in Venice

enrique majluf's picture

Dear Misters. of Stereophile, it seems to me that they have made a mistake in removing the DAC Bryston from the list, since Larry Greenhill has them within his teams for his reviews, as well as other components of Bryston. His last review was on February 27, 2020. You can't say you haven't been auditioned in a long time.

jay.levine's picture

Just curious how that decision is made? I have a VTA 120 from Bob Latino and it too can be purchased fully assembled--great amp for the money (along with his mono-blocks)--surely they along with a couple of other similar amps deserve attention.

davemill's picture

I am wondering why the B&W 702 S2 are considered “Full Range” while their specifications don’t go to 20 Hz. Stereophile’s review measurements also don’t support this categorization. If these really aren’t “Restricted Extreme LF”, the same should apply to the Revel Performa F228Be.

davemill's picture

I am wondering why the B&W 702 S2 are considered “Full Range” while their specifications don’t go to 20 Hz. Stereophile’s review measurements also don’t support this categorization. If these really aren’t “Restricted Extreme LF”, the same should apply to the Revel Performa F228Be. Perhaps this rule only applies to Class A, I may have just answered my own question. This seems arbitrary to even have Restricted Extreme LF categorization for the other classes unless there are different requirements for them?.

brams's picture

It is not very clear (at least to me) how items rated in one class are subjectively considered to be superior performers to those in the class below. To clarify this it would be helpful in each case to include a small blurb in the comments for each item not considered to be in class A as to why they were not included in the class above. For example the comment for an item in class B would say " Misses class A because in all systems tested it lacked the ultimate resolution of the lowest ranked item currently considered to be in class A" or "Is slightly too sweet or bright to be considered neutral".

In some cases the reasoning can be gleaned by careful reading of the reviews (and perhaps that is Stereophile's intent), but in many cases it is simply not clear.

As a case in point, consider the case of the Kef Reference 5. It is rated as class B while the LS50 is rated as class A LF. However a reading of the Reference 5 review specifically with comparison to other speakers (eg. Magico) currently listed as class A provides no clue to the reason for the ranking especially relative to the ranking of the LS50. Yes, the Reference 5 appears to be slightly sweeter than other class A speakers, but we are also told that its high end performance is similar to the class A Magico.

Now I have heard both the LS50 and Reference 5 in various systems. I also own the little brother to the Reference 5, the Reference 1. It is my opinion that there is no sane person who after hearing all three who could realistically make the case that the LS50 is anywhere near the performance of either Reference speaker. This opinion appears to be supported by any objective testing I have seen. How then does Stereophile explain this discrepancy?

Stereophile owes it to its readers to explain such anomalies as it risks casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Recommended Components list. Perhaps there is a valid reason in the example provided. If so, I would like to hear it. Your general comments in the "How We Do It" section does not appear to cover this.

Alan Marcy's picture

Hi! Stirful & other text addicts. I wandered into good sound visiting a surviving friend who ran off to Paris, France after he got his PHD at the University of Minnesota to teach Romance Languages at the Sorbonne. We are both offline (Text-talk for too old for anyone to care that he is now (Class
D) a dread illegal alien in France) after running Sorbonne until they demanded he retire. He has since married his lover in this US of A, is free of her homeland, China. They had visited her family in China and were happy to get their marriage approved. Families are perhaps as picky as loyal readers of this fine publication, even online.I HAVE UTFERED
i have ordered, om the comments om Vlass===]]]

ckassf Vkass S,

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