Playback Designs Merlot DAC and Syrah Music Server

Simply Intoxicating

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
Playback Designs Merlot,
Playback Designs Syrah
Playback Designs Merlot DAC and Syrah Music Server

It was abundantly clear at the outset that listening through the Syrah/Merlot was going to be memorable—like tasting a first-growth Bordeaux for the first time. The overall tonal character was ripe with a liquid and lively sweetness in the lower treble. Potentially aggressive wind ensembles, or the trumpet solo during the Manhattan Jazz Quintet’s Cover of “Autumn Leaves,” were reproduced with genuine transient and harmonic complexity, followed by a bloom of reverberant decay. Wine fans might call the PBD’s tonal balance “fruit-forward,” but for me this was digital reproduction with a lively sense of musicality. Classical music, either symphonic or chamber, had a ripeness and an elasticity and an acoustic openness that stood in sharp contrast to earlier generations of “Brand X” digital with shriveled treble harmonics, added edge, phasiness, and smear, paper-thin imaging, and a flattening of the soundstage that made every performance sound as if it had been run through a colander. To my ears, Playback Designs sounded more like a digital/analog hybrid, able to hang onto digital’s obvious strengths, such as tonal neutrality, broad dynamics, and firmly resolved low frequencies, while also preserving the harmonics, air, and fluidity of the real thing.

What also propels the Syrah/Merlot into the upper echelon of digital audio was its ability to bring clarity and resolution to instruments at the lowest volume levels. Like a sonic zoom lens Syrah/Merlot zeroed in and precisely described the fine grit of a brushed snare, the singing rattles of a tambourine struck at the back of a symphony hall, the ripple of air off the string from a concert harp, the gentle drone of Joni Mitchell’s dulcimer., This represented the PBD at its finest, and made it one of the first DACs in my experience that could musically and sonically walk and chew gum at the same time.

I’ll Drink to That!
However, what ultimately did it for me was PBD’s resolution of a key issue that separates the good from the great in the digital world—that is, how well the component deals with music’s dimensional world. Can it reproduce a layered section of violins without smearing, or can it track the placement of percussion cues across the back of a symphony hall, or that final reverberant decay of a pair of timpani at the furthest recesses of an auditorium? The PBD can. For example, during the Rutter Requiem, the movement of bass resonances and decaying harmonics throughout the acoustic of the Meyerson Symphony Center was truly remarkable. Overall I felt that the PBD staged music with a very slight forward tilt, at least in comparison to my reference music server, the Lumin S1. Yet, it still extracted sufficient depth to remain convincing. Its lateral staging was exemplary.

Finally, all of the forgoing impressions added to the skill with which the Syrah/Merlot reproduced an instrument’s physical “being” within ambient or three-dimensional space. Vocalists, for example, were not disembodied blobs of unmoored sound, but firmly grounded images with an embodying sense of air dispersed around the edges of their voices. When I cue up the double-DSD file for Cat Stevens’ “Hard Headed Woman,” it’s the intro of the flat-picked acoustic guitar that either sparks my attention and leads me to listen further, or causes my mind to wander off. What is so darn special about the guitar and the overall track? Simple—it’s a classic, all-acoustic, minimalist recording where the live, unvarnished sound of musicians playing together in real time has been truthfully preserved. As reproduced through the PBD, that’s the kind of goosebump realism I encountered.

This impression inspired me to fire up the turntable and listen to my original British Island pressing of Cat Stevens’ Tillerman. This sonic comparison actually narrowed the gap rather than increased it. The DSD struck me with a little more middle-range presence, a bit more overall density, and a thicker, darker bass. The analog in comparison was a bit more fragile and intimate, cymbals and flat-picked acoustics sounded lighter and more delicate. Stevens’ vocals were slightly more forward with the DSD, while the LP found a hint more front-to-back dimension but less energy. Overall a relative toss-up. Those with fancier analog rigs than mine will no doubt argue the case, but what is inarguable is that high-order digital like the PBD is drawing ever closer to my beloved LP playback.

A Sobering Experience
As this listening evaluation drew to a close, I was left with the sense that the historical divisions between digital and analog continue to fall away even as each segment keeps surpassing its preceding generations. The Merlot DAC and Syrah Music Server produced some of the most compellingly musical audio that I’ve heard from a source component—digital or analog—in quite a while. And if that’s not worth raising a glass to and celebrating, well, then I don’t know what is. Drink this one in while you can.

Specs & Pricing

Syrah Music Server
Input: Two USB, one Ethernet
Dimensions: 12" x 3.25" x 9"
Weight: 5.5 lbs.
Price: $6500

Merlot DAC
Outputs: One RCA and one XLR
DAC and filtering: Custom
Dimensions: 12" x 3.25" x 9"
Weight: 8 lbs.
Price: $6500

Alamo, CA 94507 USA 
(925) 820-4780

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