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The Memory Player - Mark Porzilli's Player Grows Up, Part 1
as reviewed by Ross Wagner
"Yes, we can now see through to the music as never before."
Please keep these twelve words in mind. And if you can stay with me through to the end, you may have taken a vital step towards an appreciation of music reproduction as you have never heard it before. Let's begin.
This particular Memory Player version incorporates many major upgrades to Mark Porzilli's first generation model dating back five years. (See Arnis Balgalvis' 2006 review in Positive Feedback Online Issue 28.) The design of this 'grown up' beta unit includes virtually all the sonic refinements of an elegant new model soon to arrive at dealers. Thus one might call this 'review' unit a stalking horse (a beta model) for what is coming around the bend.
Our subject unit occupies the somewhat dated box of yesteryear. Yet, according to Porzilli, the beta unit and the new unit coming to a store near you are sonic twins.
Whether we are talking about my beta unit, or the spiffy new unit, The Memory Player is a rectangular prism... not much bigger than a bread box. Not heavy, not even 25 pounds. There's a lot of stuff in there... transport, hard drive, flash memory, a DAC, output stages, USB ports, etc. Mine even has a pair of 5-foot balanced interconnects ready to reach to a stereo amp or monoblocks. Connect the amps to a pair of speakers and you're almost in business. (You will need to spring for a cheap monitor to view what you are doing. Want to be trendy? Opt for an iPad instead. And try tip-toes under The Memory Player. Yeah, I know it defies reason but a set of the big brass ones from Pierre at Mapleshade are likely to make a difference.)
Also, let's quickly note that the physical operation of this beta unit has been speeded up in every way from the 5-year-old original. Still, frankly, it is not as simplified as some of the competition, nor is it nearly as simple to operate as The Memory Player that will come to market shortly. Total elimination of drag and drop awaits those purchasing the new model. I should state, however, that I am quite comfortable with the operation of this beta unit. It is second nature to me now. Remarkable, actually, because I am not of the new computer generation. My 5-year-old granddaughter is quickly outpacing my skills with a mouse.
In this beta unit, there are two libraries for music, one for conventional CD's and one for Hires stuff you might download from who knows where. Both are on the hard drive with a capacity of roughly 1000 CD's. While loading to the hard drive, music is upsampled to 32 bits, and the titles are filed alphabetically. If you would like, simply pop in another two terabytes of memory and double the capacity. Streaming... no problem and whoops... almost forgot the USB ports. Listen to the music your friends import on their 'thumb drives.'
But let's listen to our 'review' unit. Once your music is in the library of the hard drive, move your selection from the library to flash memory and thence to player. Click on I.D.E.A.S., (Impulse Discharge of Events in Atemporal Space)ówe are well past my pay grade nowóto reduce jitter to values not seen before in the industry according to the designer. Note that both the beta unit and the new production unit retain the design features of the first Memory Player... RUR (Read until Right replacing conventional error correction, use of flash memory rather than playing from the hard drive, etc.)
Now you're ready to listen. If you have moved an entire CD, ninety seconds have passed and you have not had to move from your chair. If you have chosen a single cut, the process might take as little as 15 seconds. Please note the forthcoming new unit eliminates the steps I have just described. To operate the new unit, one need only make your music selection and all the rest is automatic. Click and play. What a luxury! Have to get one of those.
I should spend a moment or two on the subject of jitter. Mark Porzilli, the designer, is convinced that the low jitter thresholds, now considered state of the art, are still too high... much too high. Porzilli reports that jitter in The Memory Player is well below nanoseconds, and into femtoseconds, 10x lower than most atomic clocking players. Mark feels there is no such thing as an inaudible jitter level; zero jitter would be just fine. The Memory Player approaches that level asymptotically.
Great. Now to the business of reproducing music correctly. Remember, I said we'll talk mostly about the music? Let's get started.
As hinted previously, I grew up in the analog/vinyl/tubes generation. Further, I listened primarily to classical music, some old jazz and folk as well. Lately, I have developed a liking for some popular music and esoteric stuff as well. Even some 'audiophile' material.
I am a regular concert-goer at Carnegie Hall in New York. Thus you should not be surprised that unamplified music is my Shangri-La. OMG, I've never been to a 120dB rock concert (and therefore still retain the ability to hear just barely into the highest octave.) Important to share this with you, otherwise my observations about music reproduction with The Memory Player will have no point of reference.
Frankly I don't much care for digital sound as most of us experience it. Violins and sopranos screech. The higher the frequency, the more nervous I become. Here comes high 'C'. EEK! That's not the great Anna Moffo in her prime. It is a glassy shriek, devoid of texture. Not music. I do, however, like digital's ability to present wide dynamic range (although, curiously, many pop and rock digital recordings compress like crazy... maybe because they are made to be played in cars where music must survive high ambient noise levels). Digital bass can be impressive, but is often overdone.
I don't much care for analog either unless it is done right, in which case it can be special. The vinyl ritual can be tedious, however. After the business of washing the LP (as many as eight individual steps), adjusting the tone arm height for the angle of the cutter, the thickness of the vinyl and label to label variations... being sure the azimuth is correctly set (did I forget anything?), you drop the arm hoping to have found the exact point where your music starts. Note I did not mention clicks and pops because I assume all your vinyl is mint. Good turntable rigs can cost many times more than The Memory Player. And you will also need a pricey cartridge, a world class phonostage, a preamp and a bunch of overpriced interconnects as well to splice your vinyl system together. In my opinion, vinyl analog is for the masochistic hobbyist who lusts for state-of-the-art retro. Better to buy a vintage Ferrari? Buy both? (I'm poking fun here. I respect vinyl lovers and enjoy listening if I'm sitting as they jockey the LP's.)
The sound of the beta Memory Player in my room is no less than exquisite. But one must allow that The Memory Player is but one part of a sound system that needs to be described. The room is 26 x 17 x 9. Listening is near-field, with 17 feet behind the speakers. Oh, the speakers... they are prototypes of a new vertical line source, designed by Mark Porzilli (and constructed, with a few tweaks, by Rod Handley). Each side sports 56 silk dome tweeters mounted approximately 5 inches directly in front of 16 mid-range drivers. (But don't the tweeters get in the way of the mids? No, according to Porzilli, the tweeters are invisible to the mids. The secret is in his chosen geometry.) To continue...a half mile of teflon-coated silver wire ties everything together. Don't know much about the crossovers except that they are simple and consist of just three parts buried in the base of the speakers. Crossover point is around 6000Hz, well out of the range of instrument fundamentals. Woofers, each with two 18" drivers from an early Pipedream system, are located 40 inches behind the columns and come into play, using an electronic crossover, at around 55Hz. If you are counting, the mids handle over 6 full octaves.
A word about near-field listening, which puzzles many who drop by to listen to my present system. They often ask, "Isn't near-field like listening to head phones?" The answer is "no". Head phones place the music in your head. Near-field fills the room with music... an important distinction.
The power amplifiers are also designed by Mark Porzilli... the Millennium 1000 monoblock tube amps (Melos MAT 1000, 400 watts a side) of yesteryear as modified by Mark some years later to Melos 402's, and executed by the late Wilbur Guering. That modification not only improved the sound of the amp, but made it more reliable as well. (Just between us folks, there is still a bit of room to further improve reliability.) The reason to use the Melos, rather than the more reliable Hurricanes which are also on hand, is that the Melos provide more mid bass punch before the crossover cutoff and are more elegant on top. Bi-wired Nordost Valhalla (classic and still among the most desirable of speaker cables) links the amps to the speakers.
So what is so special about the music? To start, the stage fills the entire space behind the speakers, left to right (and beyond with some recordings), front to back and top to bottom. Imaging reveals sensational depth with older 3-miked recordings and is usually at and sometimes behind the rear wall of the room. The image is more forward, but still behind the speakers, with modern multi-mic'd recordings. Speakers disappear entirely whatever the source.
There is no apparent effort in reproducing the music, regardless of volume. Highs are sweet, extended, detailed with gobs of air (on most CD's digititis is history, gone). Note that the detail is not etched. Rather it is smooth, relaxed, and natural.
Midrange is rich and beautifully articulated. Again the word 'natural' comes into play. The sound is effortless, without strain. Imaging is spot on. Instruments and vocalists are three-dimensional. One can breathe the air.
Bass, down to the mid twenties, provides a solid foundation for the music without calling attention to it.
What a pleasure to hear The Memory Player unravel the complexities of a 100 piece orchestra and spread the image the full width, height, and depth of the stage. Instead of a jambalaya of sound, we hear the careful integration of instruments into a musical event.
At the same time The Memory Player preserves the color and tone of individual instruments... the pluck of a guitar string, the delicate and defined airiness of a flute or a piccolo. The instrument is neither harsh nor soft... it is natural, lifelike... as you would want to hear it.
Some of you, no doubt, would like a technical discussion of just how Porzilli, working closely with Sam Laufer of Laufer-Teknik, evolved the current Memory Player. Alas, as hinted earlier in this review, such matters are not my forte. I refer you to The Memory Player's new website. Information is there in detail, except for those aspects of the design which are proprietary. Much head-scratching will surely follow, especially from those who are equipped with more than a basic knowledge of digital theory. Like Captain Kirk of Star Trek, has Porzilli gone where few men have gone before? Is Porzilli a pioneer, an Edison of Audio, exploring new worlds? (If past is prologue, a lively dialog shall soon mushroom on the internet.) Not being technically oriented, I am interested but not distracted by arcane arguments about digital theory. Thus I am free to listen, to enjoy, surrendering to the music.
Throughout my recent audio life since the advent of the CD perhaps 25 years ago, my wish has been to combine the practicality of digital with the sonic virtues of analog done right. That is why I was drawn to The Memory Player. I have followed its development from its inception 5 or so years ago to the much refined present-day version. In my opinion the current Memory Player preserves the musicality of analog while adding the many virtues of digital (both sonic and operational).
Simply put, as I listen to music I am now drawn into the space in which it was recorded. Often and depending, of course, on the quality of the recording there is a thrilling sense of verisimilitude.
The Memory Player has done for digital what modern turntables and cartridges have done for analog vinyl... optimized the medium. Given: analog vinyl can satisfy the music lover; however, with the advent of the latest Memory Player, one can make a convincing argument that digital has moved substantially ahead of analog. To repeat, I said 'ahead'. I am comfortable defending that position
Long shunned by audio purists, I think it fair to say that digitally produced music, presented through The Memory Player, now surpasses analog vinyl as the high-end audio industry state of the art technology. Digital, after a long adolescence, has finally come of age.
Yes, we can now see through to the music as never before.
Part 2, a review of the new model of The Memory Player, will appear in a few months. It will focus on the all-important simplification of its operation, its appearance and a bevy of new features. Ross Wagner
The Memory Player