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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIV DAC; Accustic Arts Drive-1; Bel Canto Design PLayer PL-1A [on review]; Audio Aero Prima SE [on review]
Preamp/Integrated: AUDIOPAX Model 5
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88
Speakers: Avantgarde Acoustics Duo
Cables: Crystal Cable Reference complete wire set of analog and digital interconnects, speaker cables and power cords; Z-Cable Reference Cyclone power cords on both powerline conditioner; 2 x Stealth Audio Cables Indra analogue & Sextet S/PDIF cable
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell and IsoClean wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $7,500 [$300 for optional learning remote]

Small specialty makers of digital audio are nearly doomed by definition. They must play endless follow-the-(clueless?)-leader and chase the big dogs. How so? By the time they've released their own unit
-- based on a platform by Sony, Philips, Pioneer, Samsung or the like -- those suppliers might have moved on. They discontinue or change vital ingredients in the platform to force the small maker into redesign. (Incidentally, small in their world can easily equate to someone large in our world - like Krell for example.) Worse, these suppliers might be about to abandon a particular format altogether. It's been merely a year since my first encounter with Bel Canto's PLayer PL-1A [refer to it for unchanged technical coverage and photos].


Already, there are rumors that SACD might have been orphaned by its own mother. Meanwhile, new formats loom on the horizon; forebodingly so for those who'd like to settle down and call it a day. Can you imagine how these HighEnd makers must feel? What the good ol' audio doc would like to order in the hear-it-now? One machine that'll do it all in equally splendiferous style. Supporters of all current formats would be invited. They'd mix, mingle and party. They'd have such a good time as to not give a damn whom the invite list of next year might have to include - BlueRay, HD DVD, whatever. (Some of it begins to smack of change for the sheer sake of change, doesn't it?)


For the average music lover, this scenario likely places the main emphasis for a here/now dream machine on state-of-the-art RedBook CD playback. Thereafter, priorities could diverge into video (DVD) or hi-rez music (DVD/A and SACD in stereo or multi-channel respectively). Like the Esoteric, Linn and McCormack entries, the PLayer is squarely targeted at our kind of audience. Still, Andrew Everhard of England's Home Cinema declares that it outputs "the best image quality ever - prepare to lust after the world's top DVD player." Since your scribe lacks the necessary context to make such statements, we'll take Andrew's word for it. However, I will chime in with my own enthusiasm for the PLayer's picture quality as displayed on our 27" Sony Trinitron (conventional CRT technology so affordable but well done that to get equivalent quality with one of the new-fangled flat-panel options would cost a lot more just to join the in-crowd).


Many of the descriptors from the audiophile lexicon apply to the PLayer's image quality - depth of field or three-dimensionality staging for example. Details in darkly-lit movies like Dare Devil were phenomenal, allowing one to make out objects and action in the shadows that lesser machines obscure and flatten out. Reminders that one is looking at a fixed two-dimensional screen without any depth were completely obliterated, the viewing stage's back wall removed. Subtle gradations of skin tones revealed subliminal facial motions that rendered actors far more expressive. It was as though the performers had taken a crash course in stage acting to no longer require close-ups to emote strongly without words. The usual pixilation that becomes starkly obvious when you get close to the TV screen vanished - equivalent to the removal of grain audiophiles talk about. Color saturation was superior as though our Cambridge Azur 540D's
tonal palette suffered 'dynamic compression' by comparison. Simply put, picture quality was stupendous. Going back to a lower standard afterwards was a cold-turkey unpleasantness to the senses. So call the PLayer truly addictive for movie watchers. My wife described it best, in fact. Going back to our Cambridge machine made her feel aloof and distant whereas watching DVDs over the PLayer was nearly like watching a life performance on an intimate NYC stage. The deeper reaches of the picture where depth occurs were noticeably less distinct with the cheaper machine. Everything flattened out and became more two-dimensional. But of course, talking pictures is not the focus of our review here. However, one more comment related to its video performance if I may.


The PLayer's higher sensitivity to used DVDs -- of the kind we pick up at significant discounts from two local grocery stores with their own in-house video departments -- meant that where the Cambridge wouldn't blink or stutter, the PLayer would on occasion. Invariably, some disc treatment with Walker Audio's Vivid would fix the offending discs, suggesting that since the Vivid doesn't remove scratches but works as an optical enhancer (manufacturer's explanation), we're probably talking a higher intolerance to dirt, finger prints and sundry surface shmeer on the part of the PLayer's laser mechanism. To be sure, this only ever became something to watch for with pre-owned DVDs. Except for one which was actually visibly scratched, cleaning them religiously remedied any tracking errors.


If you don't opt for the upgraded remote, switching between layers of hybrid SACDs requires a monitor to access the appropriate menu. The absence of a simple front-panel and/or remote button that shuttles between these two common layers is a function of the video-centric Pioneer platform. It simply makes no concessions to such audiophile wishes. Though Bel Canto was well aware of how desirable and practical such a front-panel feature would be, there was simply no way to implement it on the hardware front. That's where the learning 10-in-1 remote comes in. Its preprogrammed-plus-learning chops and ability to replace up to 10 component-specific remotes makes it as universal as the PLayer itself. Snazzier yet,
Bel Canto has preprogrammed the rather long string of actions usually navigated by external screen and through the PLayer's sub menus into one macro command for each possible scenario: CD to SACD5.1; CD to SACD2.0; SACD to CD. You find those on the 'smart' menu screen. Now you can switch without needing a television or computer monitor in your audio-only rig. Bravo. Of course, why you would want to select the presumably inferior CD layer when you own a first-rate SACD player is another matter entirely. But if it's something you see yourself doing, acquire this functionality with the upgraded remote (it now comes stock with the PRe2, PRe6 and eVo2i and is preprogrammed for all Bel Canto components). It's sophisticated, slick, touch-screen based, backlit and even comes with a wall-wart battery charger for its 4 x AAA batteries. Simply plug the adaptor into the remote and charge the batteries during use. If you switch between hybrid layers, be sure to aim the remote at the PLayer for the full amount of time the little green firing indicator at the top of the remote keeps flashing. It lets you know that the remote is scrolling through the chained command codes. Once completed, the Player display confirms the operation as shown above. Works like a charm, too. Sweet.


To take the PLayer's measure as an ace CD player, I hitched its analog outputs to the just-reviewed Audio Aero Prima SE. I consider that to be the current champ in state-of-the-art RedBook playback (based, naturally, on what I've heard - reviewers too play perennial catch-up with the bleeding edge). Serving as an integrated DAC/preamp -- no conversion of the analog inputs -- I next connected the PLayer's digital output to the Prima's digital input via Serguei Timachev's Indra-like Sextet to remotely compare sonics between the two digital machines from my seat.


Truth be told, I didn't really expect the PLayer to equal the Prima SE. The former is an all-in-one universal machine, the latter a CD-only piece without a transport. You'd figure something has to give, somewhere. Right? In my mind at least, the real question became how close the PLayer might come and what, in particular, it might have to leave on the table as a function of being able to do so much more than merely process standard CDs. Since my first encounter with Mister PLayer, my system has undergone a few upgrades - new transport, new cables, new powerline conditioner, new preamp, additional GPA rack. As a result, overall resolution has increased. Where I couldn't tell my Zanden DAC and the PLayer apart as of last January, there now were differences though as with everything else in audio that dances in these realms, we're talking subtle, not coarse.


Therein lies an important reminder. Some of the minute differences reviewers talk about become audible only when a system is extremely dialed and resolving. While arguably a prerequisite for reviewing gear of a certain caliber, it's not a requirement to enjoying music at all. Nor do all differences noted in such systems necessarily carry much significance. From a certain point onward, the consideration of such differences becomes more entertainment value, something abstract one registers to stay 'in the loop' about the hobby rather than anything relevant to one's personal situation. With this out of the way, what observations would the initial Prima/PLayer comparison net?


After all, this hookup scheme didn't really compare apples to apples. The Prima's 6012-based sub-miniature tube output stage deliberately became the same final analog output stage for both players, with the French machine the preamp that drove my Brazilian tube monos. Only the subsequent parallel hookup through my Audipax Model 5 (with both machines' analog outputs connected to a separate preamp) would truly separate out the comparison. Here's what happened.