CES '08: Disc Players, Transports, and DACs

Show report
Disc players
Boulder Amplifiers 1021
CES '08: Disc Players, Transports, and DACs

I usually cover all digital products at shows, but this year I split the task with Alan Taffel. I took the disc players, transports, and DACs, and Alan tackled “Next-Gen Audio” (hard-disk-drive storage, Web-based content acquisition, wireless access, and highend products with Ethernet ports). This turned out to be a good move, as this show saw the introduction of many conventional digital playback products, along with a wide range of next-generation gear that signals a new direction in high-end digital playback. Some products, however, didn’t fall so neatly into defined categories. A good example is Boulder’s new 1021 Disc Player. I took one look at the machine and thought “Why hasn’t someone done this before?” The “this” in that question is a large LCD display that provides a listing of tracks on the disc, with highlighting of the track that’s playing. The 1021 has an internal database of metadata for tens of thousands of titles, along with an Ethernet jack for connecting to the Internet to retrieve metadata for new titles or those not in the database. These features required Boulder to include a computer in the 1021 and write the control software from scratch

On the audio side, the player is built around the transport mechanism’s mechanical integrity. The on-board computer not only runs the player, it also controls an audio buffer than can store more than one minute of audio data. The front-panel display shows where you are in a track, along with the current listening point in the buffer. Digital filtering is provided by custom Boulder-written software running on a DSP platform. As you might expect from this sophisticated feature set and buildquality, the 1021 isn’t cheap: $24,000. Another harbinger of the future of digital playback was perhaps the coolest new item at the show—PS Audio’s Memory Transport. The slim device is a CD transport that incorporates a jitter-removing Digital Lens buffer (up to nine minutes of stereo audio) and an HDMI output carrying data on an I2S (pronounced “I squared S”) bus. The I2S connection uses a separate clock line so that the low-jitter output from the Digital Lens isn’t corrupted by the SPDIF interface. PS Audio will offer a matching digital-to-analog converter with HDMI input.

But that’s only part of the Memory Transport’s story. You can connect external hard drives via USB or Ethernet ports and rip CDs from the Memory Transport to the hard drives. The drives can be located outside the listening room where you won’t hear them whirring. You can then access music on the hard drives via the Memory Transport’s front-panel graphic display, or better yet, through an Wi-Fi-enabled Apple iTouch ($299) running a custom application that allows you to scroll through album art with the touch of a finger. In essence, the Memory Transport is a music server built with high-end sensibilities, a terrific user interface, and a bargain price ($1695). (One reason the price is so low is that you supply your own hard drives.)

Accuphase debuted its DP-700 CD/SACD player that uses a novel DAC architecture. When playing SACD, the 2.8224MHz Direct Stream Digital bitstream decoded from the disc is upconverted by 2x and then input to a series of delay lines, with each delay line feeding its own DAC. The result is digital-toanalog conversion that has inherent in it a high-pass filter with perfectly linear phase characteristics. This so-called “moving average filter” obviates the need for a separate low-pass filter after the DACs. The transport mechanism is beautifully built—as is the rest of this $22,000 machine.

Three of the guys behind HDCD and the Pacific Microsonics Model Two professional HDCD encoder have formed Berkley Audio Design Associates to deliver high-quality consumer products. Their first endeavor is the Alpha DAC, a $5000 unit that will decode high-res sources (up to 192kHz/24-bit). The Alpha offers different digital-filter options, HDCD decoding, balanced and single-ended analog outputs, advanced jitterrejection, and a variable-level analog output for driving power amplifiers directly (IR remote control supplied). The forwardlooking Alpha is firmware upgradable, and features a BADA port for future support of HDMI and other DRM formats. The Alpha sounded magnificent decoding 176.4kHz/24-bit Reference Recordings HRx files driving TAD Reference One loudspeakers (one of the show’s best sounds).

Esoteric expanded its “X” series with the new X-05 CD/ SACD player. The player brings many of Esoteric’s technologies to a lower price point, particularly the VRDS transport mechanism. The new VRDS-Neo/VMK-5 mechanism offers the stability and precision of the previous-generation VRDS mechanism in a more affordable implementation. A new patentpending disc-handling system, called “differential gearing,” provides exceptionally smooth operation with fewer parts and reportedly greater long-term reliability. The X-05 is a dual mono design that features dual-differential DACs. Price: $5500.

Edge Electronics has upgraded its highly regarded GCD CD player ($6038) with new parts, including an entirely fresh and different transport mechanism that’s damped and suspended in the chassis. I heard the unit with Edge’s newly upgraded preamp and 12.1 signature power amplifier, and thought it was also one of the show’s best sounds.

A new CD/SACD player from Wadia expands on the company’s proprietary technologies. The upscale 781 runs Wadia’s DigiMaster 2.5 upsampling and filtering software that creates 1.4112 million samples per second at 24 bits. A new jitter-reduction circuit (ClockLink) reportedly provides “state-of-the-art” performance from both CD and SACD, and the 781 includes a discrete version of Wadia’s SwiftCurrent current-to-voltage converter. The Class A output stage uses no global feedback. The $12,000 781 is also available as the 781i, with the latter adding digital inputs and digital outputs for a $1500 price premium.

NAD has always produced benchmarks of performance at affordable price points, a trend the company hopes to continue with the new C515BEE CD player. The $299 C515BEE is the matching companion to NAD’s new C315 integrated amplifier ($349), and sports multiple regulated power supplies (including completely separate analog and digital supplies), separate analog and digital boards, and the latest 192kHz/24-bit DACs. Watch for a full review of this promising pair.

MBL demonstrated the final production version of its new 1622 Reference CD/SACD/DVD-A transport. The gorgeous 1622 outputs high-resolution data via HDMI to MBL’s newly upgraded DAC. The combination reportedly reduces jitter to inaudible levels. The chassis work and finish of this $25,000 device is simply stunning.

Data Conversion Systems (dCS) introduced a one-box CD/ SACD player packed with dCS’ technologies, most notably its Ring DAC. The $19,995 Puccini is a scaled-down version of the company’s three-box, $45,000 Paganini that debuted a few months ago. The Puccini can drive a power amplifier directly from its balanced or unbalanced analog output jacks. Digital inputs and outputs are included, as is a word-clock input for adding an external clock.

Many audiophiles aren’t aware that Meridian Audio and its co-founder Bob Stuart conduct fundamental research on DSP, psychoacoustics, digital audio, and the correlations between technical performance and what we hear. Bob Stuart was made a Fellow of the Audio Engineering Society for his work in this area.

In the quest to improve the sound possible from the CD format, the Meridian team developed a new filter algorithm that eliminates pre-echo in digital filters, which Meridian discovered is largely responsible for many of the sonic flaws associated with CD. This new filter architecture, which is the subject of an AES paper, is available in the new 808.2 CD/DVD-A player. The so-called “apodising” filter is “minimum phase” rather than the conventional “linear phase,” and requires DSP power of a whopping 150MIPS (millions of instructions per second) per channel to execute.

I heard the 808.2 ($15,000) driving Meridian’s new DSP7200 ($35,000), with the system connected via CAT-5 cable carrying balanced digital signals. The DSP7200 is an active DSP speaker, meaning that it takes in digital data from a transport and executes the crossover in the digital domain. The filtered digital signal for each driver is then converted to analog with its own D/A converter, and separate amplifiers power each driver in the enclosure. The DSP processing can achieve any crossover characteristics and perfectly time-align the outputs from the individual drive units.

This system was one of the show’s best sounds. Specifically, the music wasn’t overlaid with the “CD fingerprint” of hard timbres and a sense of constriction. Rather, the system made CDs sound almost like high-resolution sources. It was impossible to ascribe this characteristic to just one of the components in the system, but according to Bob Stuart, much of that quality I heard is the result of the new digital filter. With no replacement for the CD in sight, it becomes imperative to get the best sound from the CD catalog—and this new filter could be a big step in that direction. Watch for a full review of the 808.2 and DSP7200, along with technical details on the new filter.

Other Significant Introductions

I’ll report on a few significant products outside my beat that my colleagues missed because of the show’s massive size.

First, Mark Levinson (the company) showed early versions of two promising new power amplifiers, the No.53 and No.532. The No. 532 is a stereo linear amplifier with 200Wpc into 8 ohms (400Wpc into 4 ohms). What got me excited about the No.532 is that the amplifier is a ground-up effort by the same designer who created the outstanding No.433, which I’ve been using nearly exclusively for the past year. The new amplifier has a 40% shorter signal path than the No.433, and being a twochannel amplifier (the No.433 has three channels), more of the build cost can go into each channel. The No.532 will be available in May at $15,000.

Mark Levinson’s second amplifier offering is very different. The No.53 monoblock employs an output stage that is based on switching technology, but is unlike any previous switching amplifier. The output stage, a proprietary technology developed by parent company Harman International, delivers 500W into 8 ohms and doubles its output power as the impedance is halved, all the way down to 2kW into 2 ohms. According to the company, the No.53 is the best-sounding amplifier Mark Levinson has ever created. The $50,000-per-pair monoblocks go on sale in May.

Pass Labs made two significant product introductions at the show. The first is the INT-150 reported on by Neil Gader earlier. The second is the new X.5 series of power amplifiers. The five new models range from the 30Wpc XA-30.5 to the 200Wpc XA-200.5. All the new amplifiers feature sonic improvements over the earlier models, along with a 20% increase in efficiency, greatly increased ability to deliver current to low-impedance loads, and improved bias control. All the amplifiers in the X.5 series are pure Class-A. I’m scheduled to receive the 100Wpc XA-100.5 monoblocks for audition.

Shows are not the ideal venue for evaluating cables, but I heard three cable demos that were startling. The first was in the Transparent Audio room where the company introduced MM2 technology. MM2, now used in every cable in the Transparent line, reportedly “encompasses significant advances in network design and calibration, network topology and assembly, resonance damping, superior network components, and connector technology.”

I heard a side-by-side comparison of a mid-level loudspeaker cable from the existing MM line with the same model with MM2 technology. The difference was quite significant—like switching from a mid-level cable to a top-of-the-line model. Notably, all prices will remain the same for the new models.

Crystal Cable also put on a demo of its new Dreamline cable, comparing it with the company’s previous products. The improvement in soundstaging, bloom, timbre, and resolution was striking.

Turntable manufacturer Basis Audio demonstrated the transparency of its new loudspeaker cables by playing its system connected with 1.9 meter runs of speaker cable, and then substituting the right channel’s 1.9 meter run with one 19 meters long. It’s not a good idea to use different lengths of loudspeaker cable, but I could hear no difference with the longer cable run. Over at the Hilton, a venue many of my colleagues didn’t have the time to visit given the show’s size, Focal introduced a new, more affordable line in its Electra series called the Electra S. (JV reviewed the Electra 1007Be in Issue 176.) Focal has replaced the beryllium tweeter with a conventional dome tweeter and spent less money on the cabinet finish to knock $2000 off the price ($8000 vs. $6000). Focal had a static display, so I couldn’t hear the new models.