McCormack Audio UDP-1 universal disc player

The modification of disc players is a hot topic on the various audio newsgroups, where the discussion includes do-it-yourself options and the recommendations of commercial modifiers. These range from tweak guys to such serious engineering firms as EMM Labs and everything in between. Not surprisingly, the objects of these endeavors are usually players made by one of the electronic behemoths: Sony, Philips, Technics, Toshiba, etc. In fact, it was just such a discussion that precipitated John Atkinson's purchase of and recent comments on a stock Toshiba 3950 player, a popular target of modifiers.

But mods are nothing new. In fact, they're not much different from what's practiced by most high-end manufacturers, who buy transports from the same handful of producers and use the same control electronics. In addition, the library of integrated circuits used for the signal processing of CD, SACD, and DVD-Audio signals comes entirely from a few OEM chip houses (Analog Devices, Burr-Brown, Cirrus, Motorola, etc.), often supplemented by chips by those same mass-market component producers. As a result, high-end disc players can bear uncanny resemblances not only to one other, but sometimes to the far cheaper players found in the big-box electronics supermarkets.

This is not to say that high-end components are "me too" products, but acknowledges that they themselves already much tweaked, and that the differences between them lie in the choices of components, the implementations of original DSP algorithms, and, most important, in developing and building the products to performance levels that will satisfy audiophiles.

McCormack Audio's UDP-1 universal disc player is another brainchild of Steve McCormack, who made his name, years back, as the mover behind The Mod Squad, a West Coast tweak-and-modify firm. Since then McCormack products have always borne the stamp of Steve's original thinking, as well as a reputation for quality, performance, and reliability. However, McCormack is now based on the East Coast, under the wing of Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson of Conrad-Johnson. Steve McCormack's more recent products, exemplified by the new DNA amplifiers, the MAP-1 multichannel preamplifier, and now the UDP-1, have a bit more flash than the old Mod Squad gear. And while flash contributes not at all to good sound, it does give some additional pride of ownership.

Audio & video—or audio vs video?
The UDP-1 can do almost anything you might demand of a universal multichannel player. In addition to plain-vanilla CD, SACD, DVD-Video, and DVD-Audio discs, this baby decodes Dolby Digital, DTS, and even MP3 files, with file displays better than anything this side of Windows. The front-panel layout is fairly standard for a player based on a Pioneer transport. There's a moderately sized display panel beneath the central disc tray. To the left are only the Standby pushbutton and indicator; to the right is a staggered array of buttons for disc load, stop, pause, and play (top row), and progressive/interlaced scan, video off, skip-track forward and skip-track back (bottom row). The rear panel has TosLink and coax digital audio outputs; stereo L/R and multichannel L/C/R/LS/RS/Sub analog audio outputs; composite, S-video, and component video outputs; and an IEC power connector. These few controls and connectors are entirely adequate for all of the UDP-1's regular operations; the complexity comes with the remote control and the onscreen menus.

The remote is more comprehensive than most. Suffice it to say you'll use it much more than the few controls on the front panel, even if you're much less sedentary than I. In addition to the remote's direct track-access buttons (without the annoying ">10" button!), Audio can switch playback formats, Surround invokes a faux surround effect in two channels, and there are many other buttons that, with a display, give one full control without having to rise from one's seat. Uncommon among audio players is the UDP-1's inclusion of a selectable multispeed jog wheel for fine control of video program playback. At the bottom of the remote is a group of buttons that can be set to control a TV or monitor from a small list. Sadly, it can't be set to control the matching McCormack MAP-1 preamp. Duh.

All of this wouldn't mean much if the onscreen display, or graphic user interface (GUI), weren't up to snuff. Overall, I found the UDP-1's menu organization, navigation, assistance, and display the best I've used to date. First, the multicolored panels of the menus are a welcome change from the typical single color. Second and more important, the UDP-1's menus offer onscreen help and explanations of the options, often in simpler and clearer terms than does the small print in the poorly organized manual. Third, the array of options for audio and video setup is impressively wide, including track programming, bass management (settings limited to Small and Large), distance compensation for multichannel speakers, as well as meaningful video calibration controls. One can even have a running display, in real time, of the magnitude of the audio datastream. With all this richness, the UDP-1's operation is easy to understand, and there's a helpful setup navigator for first-time users.

The UDP-1's feature set seems, however, to be philosophically inconsistent. On their website and in all their documentation, McCormack emphasizes the player's audio performance. Also, while offering video-processing specs of high quality, the player lacks video upsampling for HD displays or a DVI or HDMI video output, all of which are becoming de rigueur in video circles. Yet the exploitation of all of the UDP-1's audio capabilities pretty much demands the use of a video monitor—the front display is unreadable from more than 2–3' away, and flashes "GUI" in response to most attempts to change tasks beyond what the front-panel pushbuttons can do. Sure, you can remember a pushbutton sequence to make a change, but I think that's asking too much of the user.

McCormack Audio
2733 Merrilee Drive
Fairfax, VA 22031
(703) 573-9665