Digital Source Component Reviews: First Impressions
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I've received several questions via e-mail and PM about the various reviews in process, and then I read eric343's post asking me to provide some brief impressions, so I figured I'd do that:

Music Hall MMF CD-25: This player retails for $600, and is about tied with the Arcam Diva CD-72T so far as my top choice of the trio of under-$1000 players I’m reviewing (though they sound absolutely nothing alike). What's to like about this Music Hall? Beautiful to look at. Solid build quality and finish. Sonically, there's exceptional detail, extended treble, and it sounds even more exceptional during HDCD playback. It also has good, airy soundstaging, but could use a touch more bass authority. What's not to like? Very unattractive remote (not terribly intuitive either); the porthole display doesn't tell you much (compared to other modern players).

NAD C541i: Retail price of $500. This is the top of NAD's classic line of CD players. It appears to have solved any tracking issues some of the previous C541's and C540's exhibited. Build quality is good. It has an attractive appearance that is, well, very NAD. Sonically, this player is suh-mooth, though maybe at the expense of a little detail (until you pop in an HDCD-encoded disc, that is). One of the least fatiguing players I've yet listened to in the sub-$1000 range, I prefer this player's sound to my recently purchased DVP-NS500V's redbook playback -- I find the DVP-NS500V's redbook playback to be a bit lean-bodied in comparison. The remote is an odd-shaped number -- one of those things that's love/hate, but I happen to dig it. Also, it's too bad it doesn't have a removable power cord for power cord tweaking. Impressive at retail, at around $400 street, this thing's a steal. This player makes me marvel at what's available for under $500 in CD players.

Arcam Diva CD72T: Retailing for about $800, this Diva rocks big time. This player has the most driving bass of any of the one-boxers I have here. The CD72T is a bit like the NAD C541i but with more detail, more bass control, and slightly deeper bass extension. When I'm listening to pop and rock, the Diva CD72T has become one of my favorites, second only to the MSB GoldLINK III with this kind of music -- this is a fun player to rock with. Additionally, the build quality is superb. And the Diva CD72T (like its other non-Alpha siblings, the CD92 and CD23T) is one of the handsomest components I have ever laid eyes on -- no, there’s no billet aluminum, or jeweled-finish fascias, but its uncluttered, barely curved, ultra-clean lines find great aesthetic favor with me for some reason. I also dig how it reads CD-text from CDs so encoded, and the very thorough display. On the wishlist? A simpler remote control, HDCD decoding. I’d also like to have more extended, sweeter treble, which brings me to....

Creek CD-53 Reference: As far as one-box players go, I am madly in love with the CD-53 Reference. The Creek, without question, extracts more detail from CDs than any of the other one-boxers I've run through my rig. Though tonally very neutral, the music that comes out of this unit is dynamic, tactile, and exciting as heck. Given that I listen mostly to jazz, soundtracks and classical, this player’s neutrality is much appreciated. Its build quality is very good (as it should be, retailing for $1895), and it is extremely attractive in a utilitarian, Rolex-ish way. On the wishlist? A more thorough display.

MSB GoldLINK DAC III with P1000 Power Base: This was the first DAC to arrive, and it was my first home experience with a digital source component marketed as an upsampler (24/96). With the upsampler off, this $2294 combination fell somewhere between the Arcam Diva CD72T and the Creek with me. Flip up the upsampling switch, and soundstage opened up -- way up. Not only does the soundstage open up, but also every voice and instrument occupies a more solid, real place within the image. I was sold on upsampling, almost from the get-go. But, just to be certain, I gave it more and more listening time, and, yeah, I really like this upsampling thing. The GoldLINK III makes big, strong bass, beautifully full mids, and liquid treble. At almost $2300, this is an expensive combination. Going without the Power Base will save you about $400, but you'll also give up a wee bit of the bass weight and image solidity. Wishlist? These two pieces look like a pair of boxes one would find in a rack of servers -- just too utilitarian, in my opinion. But they are built like tanks, from the case to the high-quality RCA jacks that don't feel like they'd wiggle under force of a crowbar. By the way, these comments are based on the SCD-C333ES as transport.

Bel Canto DAC2: This is another upsampling DAC (24/192), retailing for about $1300. So far, this is the component that might most fit my needs, in terms of function and price. The soundstage is even bigger than the MSB's in every dimension -- simply put, it's enormous. But, compared to the MSB, it does give up a wee bit of individual instrument and voice solidity within the image (but not much). Upsampling on this DAC is always on, but I don't mind this at all -- after hearing it, I don't imagine I'd want it off. The DAC2 gives up a little bit of the bass impact compared to the MSB, but betters the MSB as far as treble extension goes; and, like the MSB, it is as grain-free, from top to bottom, as the Creek CD53 Reference. The Bel Canto DAC2 gets me very close to the Creek's near-perfect tonal balance -- with the added benefit of a significantly greater sense of space and air -- that, given the price, it'll be a tough value to beat. These comments are based on the SCD-C333ES as transport. Considering price and performance, I’m as in love with this DAC as I am that CD53 Reference by Creek. Amazingly enough, this DAC is a rather small box that weighs all of three or four pounds. Build quality is very good. Any complaints? Yeah. The form factor can be a major pain in the ass as far as placement goes (you’ll know what I mean when I post photos of the thing).

I should note that I haven't yet received any of the Musical Fidelity upsampling gear, but the first of the two pieces they're sending (the A3.2 CD player) should be arriving any day now. Musical Fidelity has received high praise from users and the press with their upsampling gear, so I'm very much looking forward to hearing them in my rig (the second Musical Fidelity piece coming is the upcoming 308 -- a choke-regulated non-nuvistor version of their now-famouss NuVista 3D CD upsampling CD player). I wanted to get my hands on the A324 DAC, but they are on constant backorder, and so have no A324 to send me at this time. I figure the A3.2 and the 308 should tell me the Musical Fidelity upsampling story in full.

One very big surprise for me was the digital cable issue. I have cheapie RCA-RCA S/PDIF coaxial cable I purchased locally; Acoustic Zen sent me a MC^2 digital cable; and Cardas sent their Lightning 15 and Neutral Reference Video digital cables. I'll say it -- digital cables can make every bit as much of a difference as analog interconnects. So far the MC^2 is easily the top peformer, as it seems to allow the upsampling DACs' airiness to come through the best. I should say that the Cardas cables just arrived, so I haven't been able to put much time into them or give them much of a "run-in". I'll say more about the Cardas digital cables after more time with them.

As I write the full reviews, I will make sure to expand on everything I've said above, as well as mention which of the many interconnects and power cords I've reviewed (and in some cases am still reviewing) work best in my rig with the various components.

Next full review from me that I'll put up will be a relatively short write-up of the Brand X portable tube amplifier. The developer of that amp sent me a re-worked version of it, so I'm putting together a brief write-up of both versions I've used. Then the Tara review (which is pretty much done), the Stealth review (which is almost done), and then I'll start with the full digital component reviews.

On the second set of cable reviews -- those are coming down the road. I just received the JPS Labs cables back from Kelly, so I'm looking forward to seeing how those match up with the various components still here. I have been using the Cardas Golden Cross and Golden Reference analog interconnects a lot, and I will say the following -- the Cardas Golden Reference, from component to component and rig to rig, has so far been the absolute best performing analog interconnect cable I've used so far, but I don't want to say too much more than that right now (mostly because I'm out of time, and because I'll be discussing them in the upcoming component reviews -- as well as in the dedicated review of these cables -- down the road).

Sorry my reviews are behind schedule (as they always seem to be), but my work schedule has been particularly brutal these past few months, and it's sometimes hard for me to even find time to reply to posts I want to reply to, and answer PM's and e-mails (I'm sorry if you've written me and have received late responses and/or no response yet). Thankfully (at least for me), my work (no matter how busy) means I'm almost always around one of my rigs, so listening time certainly isn't an issue.

Thanks to those people curious enough about the reviews to ask about 'em. I hope this provides you with at least some of the preliminary information you were asking for.
 
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kelly

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What happened to the Wadia?
 
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post-156733
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Quote:

Originally posted by kelly
What happened to the Wadia?


I was told by them that it could be a while. And it seems that's the case. Eventually, I should have the opportunity to review the 301 and 861, but it may be some time still.

They're local to me, so maybe one day I'll drop in and stand at the end of the assembly line, arms outstretched.


I'll give them a call.
 
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kelly

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That's cool.

I was afraid you'd changed your mind about reviewing them.

Thanks for the updates on the other sources. I don't really care if the Wadias aren't around in time for direct comparison. I doubt the difference will be so subtle as to require direct AB.
 
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taoster

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jude, your prelimanary impressions are always an awesome read. they are as good as a full review by any other standards. brillant!

like always, teasing leads to more questions. so ill start, would love to hear your comment on the cardas lightning 15 and cardas neutral coax as i am planning to buy one end month. any quick comment would be much appreciated.

also, would it be possible to comment each players transport quality in your final review.


long live the head-fi king.
 
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grinch

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great impressions jude! your impressions are definitely full reviews by my standards and your "full reviews" are novels of detail.


do any of these sources have balanced connections? i'm wondering because i think i want to upgrade my source and i'm looking to try out upsampling and balanced source. i figure if i'm going to upgrade, i might as well do it right..

can't wait for the rest of the reviews and good luck on the wadia!
 
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wasifazim

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A pity that none of these players have AES/EBU digital outputs..would be interesting to get your opinion on whether 1)AES/EBU cables sound "different" from digital RCAs, and 2) whether variances between AES/EBU cables are as pronounced as those between different models of RCA-terminated digital cables (given how impedance mismatch isn't an issue with the former)...

- Wasif.
 
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dhwilkin

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jude, if you get a chance, how about throwing in the Arcam FMJ23 and Cary 308 into the comparison? Both are around the cost of the Creek, and are getting some extremely impressive reviews.

Of course, thanks for the well-written first impressions. You know, after pondering why jude's reviews take so long, I'm beginning to think they are like fine wines: They simply have to age for awhile before they're ready to amaze the world.
 
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Jude,

I think you and I will get our MF 308 right around the same time(I'm hoping before my B-day on 8-8).I have the MF DAC right now and this thing is amazing.MF has the digital thing figured out.

I also say again that Upsampling is the savior of redbook digital.While it does not always make every disc sound better,the improvements to most discs are no less than astonishing.

BTW,the people at MF are great, they simply have the very best dealer and press relations I have seen.I have always had a love/hate relationship with NAD digital,pehaps because I use tube gear and they are'nt a good match,but the latest players are the very best yet from NAD.

That whole digital cables thing has me freaked out as well,they just should'nt make that big a difference,but do.Being an Arcam dealer excludes me from gushing about the players but I'm glad you like them.
 
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Excellent review, Jude!


I especially liked your impressions of the Creek; I've been curious, but have been unable to actually hear one.

Thanks, also, for the comparison of the MSB and Bel Canto DAC's. I'm in complete agreement with you guys; this upsampling thing really does seem to work. It adds some spaciousness to the sound and presentation (although it does seem to slightly soften the distinct musical images) and makes voices and instruments sound more "real" by imparting a sense of body and dimensionality that isn't present normally. I have 24/96 upsampling; I wonder what improvements are realized in moving to 24/192.

Thanks again - outstanding review.
 
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Jude,
Maybe I missed it, but can you comment on how these other players stack up against your 333ES for Redbook? Where would you place the 333ES in relation to all these others? Thanks.

markl
 
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eric343

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Whoa! All I wanted was a paragraph or two


Great read, Jude. If you ever felt like it, you could probably work for/start your own audio mag.

Although I'll respectfully disagree with the Arcam treble thing, but who cares



Tuberoller: I didn't know you were an Arcam dealer! You gotta put up a website, man! (if only with your phone number, a few photos, and a list of manufacturers you carry)
 
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Quote:

So far the MC^2 is easily the top peformer, as it seems to allow the upsampling DACs' airiness to come through the best.


Cool, I have one of those. Now all I need is a DAC.
 
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DarkAngel

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Bel Canto Dac 2
Is on my short list (being a Dac 1.1 owner) since I am familiar with its sound. Upgraded AC cords and ICs can greatly improve its sound, if you think the soundstage is big now try adding a VD Reference AC cord, OMG! Also don't tell Ricky (or KW) that the AZ Mc2 digital cable sounds much better than other digital cables...... heh,heh,heh
I believe soundstage.com will release review of Dac 2 very soon. BTW.....can I buy that used Dac 2 before you return it?

What do you mean Bel Canto Dac 2 is hard to connect?
Bel Canto Dac 1.1

Would also really like to get my hands on that Musical Fidelty 308 CDP , but Bel Canto Dac 2 could hold me over for a while.

Keep up the good work Jude!
 
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****************************
I have been using the Cardas Golden Cross and Golden Reference analog interconnects a lot, and I will say the following -- the Cardas Golden Reference, from component to component and rig to rig, has so far been the absolute best performing analog interconnect cable I've used so far

*****************************

Ouch, my wallet is in pain:
Cardas Gold Cross - $835 1m pair
Cards Gold Ref - $917 1m pair
 
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