In assessing the sound of the various inputs before beginning the evaluation, I discovered that I couldn’t get the AES/EBU input to lock to the Aurender W20. Fortunately, the PDP 3000 HV offers coaxial inputs on BNC jacks, which don’t suffer the technical and sonic compromises of RCA digital inputs. I slightly preferred the sound via the BNC inputs compared with USB, although the best-sounding configuration was with a Berkeley Alpha USB between the Aurender and the PDP 3000 HV. Note that you must use the USB input for decoding DSD files.
Starting with CD playback and PCM files of various resolutions, the PDP 3000 HV revealed itself to be a first-rate CD player and DAC. The player had certain qualities that were exceptional, particularly the sense of musical flow, rhythmic expression, and visceral involvement in the music. It’s endlessly interesting to hear familiar music through a new playback device; the new product under evaluation sometimes pushes different musical buttons. That is, the way in which I engage with music is a little different with some products. With the PDP 3000 HV I found myself more immersed in music’s rhythmic power and dynamic expression. Although the PDP 3000 HV hit all the critical listening checkmarks, it had something extra—a visceral energy that connected me with music on its most fundamental level.
Perhaps part of this character is due to the PDP 3000 HV’s powerful, robust, and dynamically “tight” presentation that conveyed the physicality of music. It wasn’t just that the bottom end was weighty and dynamic; there was more to why the player had such an energetic and upbeat quality that was deeply engaging. I think that the PDP 3000 HV more accurately reproduces the timing information in music, contributing to the sense of live music making. The PDP 3000 HV has a powerful rhythmic pull that connects on a deeper level than, for example, encouraging a dissection of the soundstage. This quality was evident on the 96/24 download of Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues. The PDP 3000 HV nailed the precise timing and transient pop of the exquisitely intricate percussion and James-Brown-esque rhythm guitar (and the way that they worked together), conveying this album’s remarkable whole-body propulsive feel. Many DACs, by contrast, dilute this aspect of the music. The PDP 3000 HV had an uncanny ability to convey a sense of upbeat energy, as though the musicians were not just technically better but also more engaged in the performance. Of course, a music-reproduction component can’t make musicians sound “better”; it can only more accurately convey their musicianship, which is what the PDP 3000 HV did consistently. (Incidentally, two days after listening to this album I cued it up again through the Aurender’s iPad app and after about 30 seconds thought that something had gone wrong in my system. The sound was hard, bright, spitty in the treble, flat, and generally unpleasant by comparison. Three or four songs in I realized that I was listening to an old CD rip I had made, not to the 96/24 download, both of which were on the Aurender server.)
This rhythmic energy and involvement extended to all kinds of music. The great Freddie Hubbard-penned track “Byrdlike” from George Cables’ 1979 album Cables’ Vision, an album I’ve been listening to for decades, was rendered by the T+A with freshness, the be-bop melody and extended virtuoso solos coming alive, all driven by Peter Erskine’s powerful drumming. The music just had an urgency and flow that were remarkable.
The overall spatial perspective was on the immediate and upfront side rather than relaxed. It was like sitting a few rows closer to the orchestra rather than mid-hall. This quality conveyed startling palpability and presence, yet the sound never crossed the line into sounding forward or dry. Moreover, the immediacy was accompanied by good soundstage depth, fine layering of images within that depth, and a wonderful bloom and air around image outlines.
The differences in sound between the four digital filters for PCM reproduction were greater than those of filter choices I’ve heard in other DACs. The outstanding dynamic alacrity, immediacy, and front-of-the-hall perspective described are in part the result of filter I chose for most of my daily listening (T+A calls the filter “Bezier”). Choose a different filter and the sound becomes a bit more relaxed. The precise sense of timing described is diluted somewhat with the other filters, but those filters have their own merits, including a bit smoother treble. Fortunately, it’s easy to switch filters on the fly from the remote control.
With most CD/SACD players, the improvement in SACD over CD or CD-quality files is significant. But in the PDP 3000 HV, SACD and DSD files sounded massively better than CD-quality PCM. The T+A produced what was, by a wide margin, the best SACD and DSD sound I’ve ever heard. The clarity, transparency, dynamics, and resolution were simply stunning. On the terrific Chesky hybrid SACD Jazz in the Key of Blue by drummer Jimmy Cobb (the drummer on Kind of Blue, incidentally), the T+A player produced a stunningly realistic sound on Roy Hargrove’s trumpet, in timbre, dynamics, resolution of fine detail, and that ineffable impression of the instrument being in the room with you. Cobb’s gentle brush work was portrayed with tremendous resolution; this delicate sound was imbued with a dense filigreed texture that was utterly realistic. The background vocals on the track “Gaia” from James Taylor’s Hourglass were also superbly rendered; I could hear the individual voices like never before, and the soprano sax floated in three-dimensional space.
In addition to enjoying and evaluating the sound of well-worn SACDs, I played some sample tracks from Blue Coast Music, an audiophile label that records exclusively in high-speed DSD, and makes those recordings available for download. Note that unlike many DSD recordings, Blue Coast’s titles remain in the DSD format with no intermediate conversions to PCM. This approach, along with their purist recording techniques, result in some spectacular-sounding recordings. I’m not big on singer-songwriters, a staple of the Blue Coast catalog, but I found some music to enjoy. Guitarist Alex de Grassi performing “St. James Infirmary” on solo acoustic guitar, decoded by the PDP 3000 HV, wasn’t just the most realistic guitar recording I’ve heard, but also one of the most realistic recordings of any instrument in my experience. So great was the PDP 3000 HV’s transparency to sources that the sound had an almost “fool-you” realism.
Another wonderful DSD recording is the recently released album of James Matheson’s compositions on Yarlung Records, downloaded in double-DSD from the website nativedsd.com. The album includes Matheson’s String Quartet, recorded late last year at Samueli Theater, part of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California. I was fortunate to have attended a later Yarlung recording session in this hall. The recording was made in quad-DSD (DSD256) and is available for download in that format, but I was able to listen only to the DSD128 version because the Aurender W20 doesn’t currently support DSD256. In DSD128, the string quartet was rendered by the PDP 3000 HV with exceptional vitality and timbral realism. The PDP 3000 HV’s dynamic alacrity and visceral quality described earlier beautifully conveyed this music’s unusual rhythmic flow. The album includes a piece for piano and soprano called Times Alone that was stunning in every way: the timbre and dynamics of the piano, the palpability and purity of the soprano, and the way that the instruments were presented spatially within the acoustic. It was all well served by the PDP 3000 HV.