Theory + Application Elektroakustik (T+A) may be the biggest and most technically innovative high-end audio company you’ve heard little or nothing about. The Germany company has been on a long-term growth trajectory but has intentionally kept a low profile in the U.S. so that it could focus on the European and Asian markets. That’s unfortunate for those of us in North America because T+A makes an extensive range of technically innovative, beautifully built, forward-looking, great-sounding products that are fairly priced.
Founded in 1978 by Siegfried Amft, T+A began life as a loudspeaker company with just two employees. Amft still heads the company, which has grown to a staff of more than a hundred. Fourteen of the employees are graduate-level engineers, many of them specialists in fields such as circuit-board layout, software development, and mechanical engineering. The company’s history is one of fundamental technical research driving product development. T+A is as far from a marketing-driven “me-too” company as you’ll find. For example, the company designs and builds its own disc-transport mechanisms from metal rather than buying off-the-shelf plastic mass-market drives. T+A also writes its own software, including the filters in its digital products. I was astonished to discover that T+A was creating its own software-based digital filters way back in 1989, a time when I thought that only Wadia and Theta Digital possessed that capability.
The PDP 3000 HV CD/SACD player and DAC reviewed here exemplifies T+A’s engineering-driven approach. The company’s flagship digital product is packed with sophisticated design and lavish execution. I got an inside look at the PDP 3000 HV during the Munich show where I sat down with T+A’s lead designer, Lothar Wiemann. A physicist by education, Wiemann has been with T+A for more than 30 years. The 57-pound player’s top panel features a round see-through window that shows off the internals. The massive chassis is made from aluminum, with isolated compartments for the digital and analog power supplies, and separate compartments for the digital and analog circuits. The transport is housed in its own aluminum chamber. This construction isolates the subsections magnetically and mechanically, and prevents coupling via RF. The exterior metalwork, which is available in dark grey or silver, is exemplary, as is the feel of the controls and the sophistication of their operation. Press the drawer-open button and the tray glides out with a smoothness and solidity that is unmatched in my experience. I would not have been surprised to learn that the PDP 3000 HV was priced at twice its U.S. retail of $22,500 (alas, up from $19,500 before the Euro-Dollar valuation swing this summer).
The front panel is dominated by two large knobs that select inputs and access the player’s extensive menu. Those inputs include USB, AES/EBU, three SPDIF on RCA, two SPDIF on BNC jacks, and two TosLink optical. All these inputs can be named via the remote control’s keypad. The remote control is a large, heavy unit machined from metal. The markings are a bit cryptic; you must refer to the table in the owner’s manual to decipher their meanings. The disc drawer sits beneath a large display that shows the selected input, track number or time, and the set-up functions.
The rear panel has a couple of unusual twists. First, the PDP 3000 HV requires two AC cords, one for the player’s digital power supply and another for the analog supply. The second twist is two sets of analog outputs, one for PCM sources and the other for DSD sources. Dual outputs are offered because the PDP 3000 HV employs completely separate signal paths for PCM and DSD decoding, all the way through the analog output stages and output jacks. Most DSD-capable DACs simply convert DSD to PCM for conversion to analog. T+A wanted to build a statement product without the compromise of designing a single DAC and analog output stage that would work for both DSD and PCM. This arrangement, however, requires two pairs of interconnects between the PDP 3000 HV and your preamplifier if you plan on listening to DSD downloads or SACDs. If you’re not that hardcore, a menu setting will route all signals through the PCM output stage with a small penalty in DSD sound quality.
Much effort went into optimizing the performance with SACD and DSD sources. In addition to separate signal paths for PCM and DSD, the DSD DAC is a T+A custom design realized with discrete components rather than an off-the-shelf chip. In addition, the PDP 3000 HV allows you to select between two SACD and three DSD filters and noise-shaping algorithms to optimize the sound quality for different systems and DSD sample rates (see sidebar). I’m not aware of any other DSD DAC with either a discrete custom DSD DAC or selectable DSD filters.
I describe the PDP 3000 HV’s technical details in the sidebar, but here’s a synopsis: custom digital filters, completely separate signal paths for DSD and PCM, an all-discrete signal path including the current-to-voltage converter, dual-differential PCM DACs, custom discrete DSD DAC, isolated digital and analog power supplies including dual power cords, custom metal transport mechanism, an elaborate power supply, massive aluminum chassis, no op-amps in the signal path, and extensive jitter reduction. That’s an impressive list of design features.
I should mention that if you find the PDP 3000 HV appealing but it’s beyond your budget, and you don’t need disc playback, consider T+A’s $3995 DAC 8. It is based on the same design concepts as the PDP 3000 HV but in a less elaborate implementation. It still offers the discrete 1-bit DSD converter, selectable DSD filters, and many other T+A technologies. I haven’t heard the DAC 8 but based on my experience with the PDP 3000 HV, I expect it to be outstanding.