High Deaf. When talking SACD and DVD-A 'super-resolution' formats, it's easy to overlook that they haven't replaced 16-bit/44.1kHz as of any particular date. They haven't become the new de facto standard. They haven't become the now only legalized vehicle brand to motor down your local audio highway with. Never mind highway. Thus far, we should more properly call them predominantly obscure back country roads. You see, CDs continue to be pressed. New CDs continue to be recorded, mastered and sold in exponentially vastly larger quantities than both new-fangled formats combined (supposedly even vinyl sales eclipsed them last year). Consider those whose musical tastes are broad, who continue, on a monthly basis, to purchase nine newly minted CDs for every one SACD or DVD-A they might add to their collections. With them, the corporate battle cry to embrace Hi-Def audio has fallen mostly on deaf ears. High Deaf! This explains the rise of the universal rather than dedicated SACD or DVD-A machines. Unless you wanted to hitch your horse to one of the two new buggies exclusively; or already owned a state-of-the-art RedBook player and merely required the add-on SACD/DVD-A functionality in a secondary machine - the only sensible consumer option really is the universal one.

Consider the math. From a pure numbers' perspective, a commercially successful universal machine must support 90% RedBook and 10% 'hi-rez' playback. For some, this division could lean yet farther in favor of CD. Curiously enough, the first and second generation universal players were nearly unanimously considered optimized for the new 10% of software. They were proclaimed less satisfying than truly state-of-the-art CD-only machines for the dominant 90% of regular 'lo-rez' music which, by implication, now became relegated to the junk yard of the old and passé. Oh really? My extensive collection of irreplacable CDs passé? Schweinehund! Even an outsider can appreciate that the time seemed ripe for the rise of the no-compromise RedBook-happy universal player. Guess what? The first such contenders have arrived on the scene, with the Esoteric DV-50, Linn Uni-Disc and today's Bel Canto Design PLayer arguably among the most exciting forerunners.

Bel Canto's new PLayer PL-1A adds a small but important wrinkle to this scenario. What if your primary interest were audio? In a strategic move guaranteed to appeal to audiophiles such as yours truly, John Stronczer decided to issue a special "audiophile version" of his original $8,900 PLayer. Omit the cross-color suppression, DCDI adaptive motion, film mode and H/V sync circuitry. Omit the state-of-the-art Faroudja engine. Omit four front panel buttons thus rendered obsolete. Subtly tweak the remaining circuitry for the best-possible audio performance. Oh, and I nearly forgot - tighten your company's belt, reduce profit margins and drop the price to $5,490. Okay? Imagine Joe Pesci doing it Lethal Weapon-style, in his hilarious skit tirade against the cellphone giants: "First they fuck you. And then they really fuck you. And then they fuck you some more. Okay? Okay?" Joe Pesci's high-strung Leo Getz would quickly mellow out when he finally getz the new PLayer's proposition: The only one taking a hit here is Bel Canto proper, something that meetings with the uneasy corporate accountant probably justified by predicting accelerated sales at -- sadly for the account -- shabbier profits. So lighten up, Leo!

My review mission for the 'audio' PLayer is twofold: To determine how closely it approaches, parallels or eclipses the RedBook performance of my Zanden DAC temporarily turbo-charged with its matching Zanden transport (and Gregory Soo of EMM Labs has already agreed to make available review loaners of their new two-channel transport/DAC-Pre Meitner combo); and to explore so-called high-resolution software vis-à-vis my finest RedBook samples to get a handle on what --when either format is supported by completely uncompromised hardware -- these rather than all the other public ears would perceive by comparison. Here's now the very unit as introduced at CES a few weeks ago:

Lifting its skirt for a look-see (not for nothing is it called the PLayer), I was greeted by two-story circuit board architecture in the internal real estate's right third, and a massive, completely caged AC power filter and rectification module on its left. Hardly anything remains of the Pioneer transport platform save for one or two small control-logic boards.

With serious review observations reserved for April, today's exercise inserts the PLayer into my usual reference system; slaves its digital BNC output to my Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII with the Furutech Digi Ref. cable for convenient RedBook comparisons via the remote-controlled Bel Canto PRe6 preamp; then tests a few SACDs and DVD-As to get a first whiff of the implied superiority (or not) of the 'super' formats. Think of this introducion then more of a software than hardware-based inquiry - Ye olde Editor getting his SACD/DVD-A legs after too much time on the terra firma of RedBook focus.