Basic Sound Quality
The Burmester consistently got to the soul of the music.
It did an excellent job with the better high-resolution recordings that I referred to earlier. It brought out their exceptional upper-octave life and air, and still kept all the warmth of the midrange. Bass was equally excellent, as was soundstage width, depth, and detail. I kept trying to fault its performance, but the unit kept dragging me back into the music. In the end, the only fault I could find was that it is not suited for background music. Its sound is too compelling and involving.
At the same time, it kept reminding me just how good better-quality CD and 16-bit 44.1k or 48k recordings can be. Returning to points I’ve made earlier, it showed me that some supposedly “high-resolution” recordings are simply remasterings of analog recordings or digital recordings that don’t really benefit from being “hi-res,” but do benefit from a great digital player.
Furthermore, not every modern remastering on either CD or “hi-res” was better than a older recording on CD. This was scarcely surprising. Anyone who is aware of what it takes to remaster some older mastertapes to digital has to question whether a new effort to transcribe a “baked” old mastertape is really a more musical or authoritative source.
I did not really expect this level of sound quality. Most digital units that come my way for review also come with a vast amount of written hype as to why their one unique approach is the revealed truth, and then rapidly demonstrate that it is isn’t the moment I start listening.
I’m not sure that being understated is a clear sign of superior performance, but I am basing my praise on comparing a wide range of classical, jazz, rock, and pop recordings played back thought the Burmester MC151 with the sound of the same recordings on the Sooloos and using JRiver with Oppo and PS Audio DACs. I also focused on recordings of acoustic instruments where I have some practical experience as to what a live recording should sound like, and I judged the results largely on the basis of musical sound quality in a good hall.
Listening to the Competition: Oppo BPD-93
As you might expect, the Oppo BPD-93 did not prove to be to be a competitor. The Burmester provided more realistic musical detail, superior dynamic life and contrasts, more natural upper-octave air and detail, and a better sense of the soundstage. It was also clear that the Oppo BPD-93 was not an ideal unit for reproducing percussion detail, including the differences among given types of cymbals. The Burmester’s margin of superiority was consistent and musically important. It made the music come far more alive.
At the same time, the Oppo still demonstrated that you can get really good performance from a really affordable unit. The Oppo BPD-93 did a good job with recordings up to the 24-bit/192kHz level. Unlike a number of more expensive units, it did not seem to tweak the sound of the upper midrange to emphasize detail. It is not “forgiving” in the sense that it loses upper-midrange energy or detail, and it produces a natural sound with good recordings of female voice, upper brass and woodwinds, violin, and flute. It may not be great, but it is still solid evidence that good high-end sound can be cheap.
Listening to the Competition: Oppo BPD-105D
The sound of the Oppo BPD-105, which costs all of $1199, was a more significant improvement over the Oppo BPD-93 than I expected. The Burmester MC151 was still consistently better in all the same ways, but the Oppo BPD-105D was able to get better sound out of any decent recording than the Oppo BPD-93. It provided cleaner and more musical and natural upper-midrange and soundstage detail.
(Let me also note that my comparisons of the Burmester and Oppo apply to high-end stereo music. I use an Oppo BPD-105 in my home-theater system and for surround-music listening. I’ve not found any clear reason to opt for more expensive DACs for movie purposes, and I’ve only found a very limited number of surround-music recordings on SACD, DVD-A, Blu-ray, or PC recording by firms like AIX that really call for a major investment in surround sound.)
The Oppo BPD 105D is not an MC151, but it does a very good job with most multichannel SACDs, DVD-As, and movie soundtracks.
Listening to the Competition: PS Audio DirectStream DAC with the Bridge
PS Audio’s new DirectStream DAC is far more competitive with the Burmester, particularly with its firmware upgrades. It does cost $5999, but there are many more expensive units that don’t sound as good—and there are solid reasons for paying for this quality of player.
I do prefer a slightly warmer acoustic in both recordings and concert halls than the Direct Stream provides. I’m a mid-hall listener when it comes to live music, I don’t want the kind of a nearfield or immersive sound that I feel hardens the upper midrange of strings, brass, woodwinds, or voice.
The DirectStream DAC has, however, gotten steadily better in all of these areas with firmware upgrades. It now pushes the envelope in digital sound quality; it works as well with JRiver as JRiver permits; and it has both volume and balance controls, which means it can fully bypass a preamp—and even do a damn good job with phono if you hook the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter up to its digital inputs.
I’d still pick the Burmester for bass detail and energy, and for the musical realism of strings, brass, woodwinds, and female voice on the best recordings. The margin, however, is not great. Both do very well with low-level musical information, and massed strings, choral music, soundstage detail.
Sooloos Control 15
The Sooloos Control 15 is a music control system and not a full player with a DAC. It is designed for use with a separate DAC or digital preamp, and is not cheap—$7500—although pricing of this (and other Sooloos options) seems to be changing.
As I said earlier, I prefer some of its operating features to those of the Burmester because I like the ease in modifying musical titles, recording preferences, and loading downloads; and particularly the ease in queuing up recordings of the same song or movement, and bands of the same music on different recordings.
Digital tends to age in dog years, however, and digital music stored on the Sooloos does not provide quite the same level of natural musical detail, life, and air with really good recordings as the Burmester does. It is still very good in direct comparisons, but it may be beginning to show its age in spite of various upgrades.