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Dr. Sardonicus tells a Tale of Two Players …or, the Dickens you Say!
The Vacuum State JLTi Sony (Balanced Output Modded) Universal Player …and the dCS P8i SACD Player
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…"
As I have reached the peak of my involvement with audio over the past year (through my work with PF Online) …I am more firmly convinced then ever of the inherent "craziness" of audiophiles, audio designers, audio representers …and audio …whatevers…
I have reached this conclusion over time, from watching and listening to my brethren at various meetings and show venues. I have interacted with them in various ways, and through various media, and I have sat in dumb animal wonder while I contemplated some of the communications I have received in person, via phone and email.
This …all coupled with long years of academic preparation in communication theory, psychology, and other "human sciences," so I am able to recognize pathology when I see it.
Experiences germane to forming this world view opinion include, but are far from limited to such things as:
And so on and so on.
Now that I have offended pretty much everyone, the obvious question is …why the rant Doctor?
I have watched the gleeful pronouncements that "SACD is dead" since, well, since it was born …and yet, we see more players and more products daily. Has it replaced Redbook CD? No, but who said it would? Has Sony done a good job in supporting it? Of course not, but hey, who is surprised by that?
We live in a world of increasing audio options, where supposedly long-moribund vinyl marches merrily along, and people listen to their tunes on everything from ancient Victrolas to Nano-driven ear buds. My GF's eighteen year old daughter resurrected a turntable from someone in the family and is now happily engaged in a meat- and digital-free (well, kinda) existence.
But dark clouds loom. There is this almost Nazi-like need for world domination that runs through audiophilia. We engage in bloody, ongoing internecine battles of supremacy for topologies and methods to a degree virtually unknown in other connoisseurial past times. It's not about music; it's about confrontation and control. Who wins and who loses. Can you imagine a Ferrari owner trashing someone who drives a McLaren F1? Or a quarter horse fan, dissing Appaloosas? It would be considered aberrant and rude, which of course, it is.
This is why I gently suggest that audio people, by and large, are nuts, and they are all too often bad tempered nuts in the bargain.
You may find your idyllic audio path is created by horns, vinyl records and vintage 2A3 tubes, or it may be framed by 1000 watts of MOSFET, coupled to a thousand pounds of dynamic driver speakers, sourced with Red Book CDs, or maybe you take joy only in pure SACD with no routing through the dark land of PCM, or find that taking DSD through PCM is the best way …but folks, and I offer this gentle admonition complete with your preference in mood altering libations …it's just your preference. And it can, and does, all live side-by-side. You get to pick. But please, after you pick, don't try to jam it down someone else's throat, or treat them like they have a social disease if they disagree with your preferences!
Pure fact, SACD isn't dead, any more than vinyl is dead.
Cool thing is, you can have it all. Vinyl, tubes, solid state, Redbook CD, SACD, DVD-a, MP3, Edison cylinders …everything. Well, you can't have L-cassettes, but that was just wrong anyway.
In the foreseeable future, probably nothing will completely replace CDs as a primary distribution medium, simply because the average person is perfectly satisfied with CDs, or is looking for increased portability and simplicity, as represented in the various forms of mobile compressed digital audio.
Lament this as you will, but it simply means that the hegemony of control is lost. Decentralization means no one is in control any longer. I remember how resentful I was when local record stores finally just said, "No more vinyl, period." Now, the vinyl is back, God Bless diversity.
Artists can make and release their own recordings. Hobby-recordists can make better recordings than at any time in history, for minor ducats. Playback can go with you where ever you roam, or sit proudly in your dedicated listening room, in massive sartorial splendor. It isn't about domination or winning; it's about CHOICE. And there has never been a time in audio where there has been more to chose from.
There, whew, I feel so much better!
Ok, now …on to two noteworthy, but very dissimilar SACD players.
The Vacuum State JLTi/Sony Universal Player
The first of these two highlighted players starts life as 3/4 sized, mass-produced Sony NS92V Universal DVD player, originally retailing for a few hundred dollars and modified by Vacuum State. The mods consist of: a new reference clock, a custom output stage and considerable attention to back-EMF noise reduction. Both single-ended and balanced versions are available ($1650 and $1850, respectively).
Since my system is predominantly balanced, I opted for the balanced model.
It arrives in the original Sony box, over-stickered. Light, small, unprepossessing, and virtually indistinguishable from one of my resident Sony DVD players, even to the same remote control.
As fate would have it, at that very moment in time when the JLTi arrived, I had shifted my BAT stuff out of service, and ended up using the JLTi in single-ended mode, initially. In unbalanced mode it was very quiet and subdued, and significantly lower in output than what I was accustomed to.
Note, in either mode this player is inappropriate for passive attenuators, or running directly into amplification …apparently they have another machine with similar mods, but a higher native output that works in these applications.
Overall, my initial impressions were that the sound was smooth, refined and without edge of any kind, both in Red Book and SACD. This is a player that will never scratch your ears. But, since I am on record as stating it is stupid to run balanced equipment in single-ended mode, I deferred serious listening until my reference BAT equipment was back in place.
Detail was very good in both playback modes, but the soundstage is a little smaller than I am accustomed to (remember, my day-to-day driver is the Lindemann 820, and I have yet to hear it's equal in single-box players).
As with my initial impressions, I found no grain or glare. This is a very easy player to listen to.
They recommend weighting it. I found one of my Maine Coons (20 lbs +) sitting on it one day, but it did not seem to appreciably impact the sonics …perhaps the weight has to be non-corporeal. Not knowing the crush depth for this diminutive player, I was reluctant to put anything heavier than a fat cat on it.
The balanced connectors on the rear plate are shoehorned in and it is a close fit with standard high quality Neutrik connectors Jennifer uses in her cables. I found it amusing that the Jena Labs interconnects I used with the JLTi were both heavier and more expensive than the player they served.
Strengths are: Affordable. A fatigue-free presentation (achieved in part, I suspect, by a slightly attenuated high end), with very good levels of detail, reasonable dynamics and very good pacing. A very pleasant presentation, overall.
Downsides are: Relatively modest output, its diminutive size and weight. Smallish soundstage, and somewhat reduced frequency extremes, most noticeably in the bottom end which was a little light in the loafers. However, with most modest two way speakers, one would never know about the bass issue.
Bottom line? If you are looking for an SACD player for under two grand, that also works well on Redbook, you have to seriously consider this player. It is not embarrassed by players costing multiples of its retail.
The dCS P8i SACD Player
dCS is one of the most recognizable names in high end audio, specifically for their cost no object, multi-unit digital playback systems. So it was with great interest I saw they were offering a single box player, right smack in the same price range as my beloved Lindemann (@$12-13K US).
I have been trying very hard to stay current with top of the heap for SACD players, which has proven to be both challenging and …challenging.
For the record, I freely admit that on an hourly basis, I listen more to Redbook than anything else. I have …thousands and thousands of them …and I doubt very seriously that Faith No More, The Feelies, Massive Attack, Steve Earle, and Eddie Reader are ever going to see vinyl or SACD. But, I also listen to SACD and vinyl a lot …I just have less program material on either.
Periodically I will run down some spurious rumor that someone has developed a metamagical process for making 44.1k equivalent to, or even better than 2.88. I see in the Internet blogs the controversy still rages as to SACD sounding better than Red Book. Silly stuff. DSD done correctly technically eclipses 44.1 PCM. Period. From measured frequency response and dynamic range, to what to most humans perceive as an obvious leap in resolution, DSD is the best we have right now. However, SACD doesn't always mean pure DSD. In fact, in all too many cases it means everything BUT DSD, until it gets spun off on to SACD.
There are lots of variations in implementation of SACD machines. One of the more common is actually downsampling to PCM. Curious choice, but let me tell you from experience, there are rabid proponents who strongly assert that downsampled DSD is sonically superior to native resolution DSD. Personally, I find that absurd, but finding things absurd is hardly rare in this arena.
Some manufacturers heavily upsample PCM and keep PCM and DSD separate in the same machine. Others run PCM into DSD… and so on. Fact is, designers and manufacturers will be experimenting with high resolution playback for the foreseeable future. As well, they should.
The P-8 is a single box, two-channel SACD/CD player, with both single-ended and balanced analog outputs, two digital outputs (AES3 and S/PDIF), two digital inputs (AES3 and S/PDIF), and word-clock input and output jacks (BNC). The unit upsamples PCM data to DSD (as does the Meitner).
The manufacturer's description indicates that the P-8 utilizes the famous "Ring DAC" technology, with a high-precision, voltage-controlled crystal oscillator. The Ring DAC is a discrete, 5-bit converter operating at a 64-times oversampling rate. This translates to 2.822MHz for both DSD and PCM. When set for SACD playback, the DSD data is fed directly to the converter, while in PCM data can be upsampled to DSD. This is user selectable through the menu button. Interestingly, there is a choice of four reconstruction filters CD playback, selected by the Menu button. After some brief experimentation, I settled on number four in my system. It was somewhat less aggressive than the others.
The unit is moderately large and heavy, but not overly so; the tank-like construction of the Esoteric and Lindemann players is not in evidence.
Functionally, the unit is idiosyncratic to say the least. I ended up being very frustrated with this fine sounding player over purely functional issues.
It is fairly plain in appearance, but reasonably attractive. Most notable is its "thin-line" design, which proves to be problematic in some ways. There is a rotary control on the front face for analog output volume. The display is small, and orange and never clearly visible from my listening position, which was hugely annoying.
While I was told there would be a software upgrade, I never received one, so I went ahead with the unit as delivered. Among other things, the vaporware software was supposed to allow for actually activating digital inputs and allowing for such things as "repeat" functions, which are not present in the initial version of the machine …a very odd omission in my opinion.
The back panel is a nightmare. The owner's manual warns that aftermarket power cords will probably not fit, and they don't …but things are so tight back there, that after seating XLR cables, they can only be removed with the aid of a device other than your fingers. Interconnects and power cables commensurate with the price of this unit are most probably going to be too thick and large to fit.
The unit comes without feet, I suppose with the assumption you will want to use your own. I used Black Diamond "Those Things."
Pop a disc in and you will be reminded of the long load time of the original Sony SCD-1, but it gets worse. The machine is so slow to respond to the remote, you end up punching commands in more than once. I had to adopt a Zen like patience to avoid this. Even changing tracks takes considerable time…
But How Does it Sound?
Based on its operational quirks I was tempted to simply box the P8 up and send it back. However, I am a cranky old man, and I deal with too many pieces of audio to have ANY patience, so I decided to shelve that part of the experience, and concentrate on sonics.
This is a great sounding player, if your tastes run to what David Robinson describes as "Technicolor Digital." The P8 is not so much forward sounding (and you can reduce this effect somewhat by selecting the number 4 filter) as it is …perhaps just a bit more vivid than reality. This makes for excitement and a wealth of detail on most recordings, and more than a hint of aggressiveness on others. The sound is fast, dynamic, punchy, vivid and analytical. And these defining characteristics hold true for both CD and SACD playback.
Having the dCS and the Lindemann together was the perfect framed contrast and a real education. These two players, are almost identically priced, are both at the top of the SACD playback quality heap, and yet both are absolutely and totally different in design and execution, so much to the point that I cannot imagine listeners NOT being polarized by these two fine machines.
I absolutely understand why someone would easily and comfortably pick one over the other, strictly out of sonic preferences, without regard for quality issues.
THIS is because these two machines (the dCS and Lindemann) present us with a clear choice. It is not a subtle trade off of respective ills and strengths, but two wonderful sounding players that do their job in very different ways, with very different results.
As I did A/B comparisons, my conscripted listeners immediately lined up on one side or the other. It literally took SECONDS for preferences to emerge, and one defined, no one ever recanted or changed their minds.
And I think this is SO cool!
If you think that SACD is dead, you are incorrect. More recordings and more worthy machines emerge weekly.
If you think that moving to SACD is like getting married and you can no longer date outside the relationship …well, you are just silly; it's a machine, not a life-style choice.
If you think that SACD requires mega buck systems and players to hear the difference, you are also incorrect. The JLTi is a great example of a modestly price player that is hugely enjoyable both in Redbook and SACD playback, for under $2k.
If you think you are relegated to picking from among subtly different SACD playback options, driven primarily by price, you are also wrong; the dCS and Lindemann SACD players are worlds apart in sonics and operation, but very comparable in overall quality of construction and price.
Now, ain't that just great?
Now, I just need to get my hands on that new Meitner one-box player!
dCS - US distributor
Audiophile Systems, Ltd.,
Retail: $13,995 US
JLTi (Just Listen To It)
Retail: $1650 (unbalanced), $1850 (balanced)