Where CD playback is concerned, here's the golden news for you and the rusty realization for me - I couldn't lock onto a single definable difference between the PLayer pure and the PLayer routed, BNC-to-BNC, through the Zanden. To begin with, the latter's analog output halves the industry standard signal strength to 1 volt - half the gain, 3dB less attenuation on the preamp, right? Not quite. Careful listening certainly did settle on a 6 display-digits differential, confirming via listening that the preamp's attenuation steps proceed in 0.5dB increments. End of story? Not quite. I remained restless that true matching would have required that elusive 0.25dB step I didn't have.

The PRe6 automatically inserts a few seconds of first volume ramp-down, then up again whenever you switch inputs. This prevents heart attacks should the gain between sources be badly mismatched. You'd find out soon enough, true, but this software-driven feature prevents brutal suddenness. To duplicate a seamless A/B when I realized I'd need all the help I could get, I'd next pause the PLayer, switch inputs, wait for the tiny relay click to confirm that the 'cross-fade' volume changes had finalized, hit play again and ... eventually gave up. This particular test proved futile. Accounting for the possibility of not having volumes matched to 100% accuracy, the handwriting on the usual shopping list of differences -- timbre, tonal balance, performer placement, ambient visibility, image density etc -- proved illegible. Did that mean that adding the $10,000 Zanden and one classy interconnect accomplished nothing?

If differences were to be teased out, I had to revert to standard protocol, be patient rather than trigger-happy, take the time and listen to tracks from beginning to end, then switch sources.

Listening to a full song beginning to end is, naturally, the only way to listen to music for pleasure. It's also the only way to listen to music as a reviewer when you're chasing the dragon's tail of micro- and macro dynamics; separation of instrumental lines; and the finer layers of gestalt. I retain a modest suspicion -- or self-righteous hope perhaps? -- that more time would reveal minute differences which, once understood and localized, would thereafter be repeatably apparent. Let me illustrate my conundrum. Imagine yourself sitting on the back porch. You follow the transition-less change of light as the sun settles. If your brain could record freeze frames and externalize them side-by-side as in a gallery, frames included, you could define the measurable amount of time it took -- minutes or seconds -- before noticeable changes manifested as a function of shifting mixtures of light intensity, shadows, color saturations and hue progressions. Without that theoretical freeze-frame function, could you still use a stop watch and trigger it each time you noticed a change? Or would the changes come on so gradually, smoothly and seamlessly as to render the whole exercise impossible? How about adding into this equation the very tacit changes of mood and feelings that accompany sunsets with their blossoming and subsequent fading of colors, the concomitant heightening of intensity as your vision sharpens to account for the sheer loss of brightness? Could you separate those feelings from the sheer visual data your eyes registered? Would you have to account for multi-sensory inputs?

While there were certain feeling-domain indicators of potential subtle shifts between both presentations, they clearly weren't the usual clear-cut subjects that make up our common coarse reviewer vocabulary. Rather, it seemed that I was watching a sunset, closed my eyes for a few seconds, opened them again and then tried to determine whether anything in the sky had already changed or not. That's the kind of challenging questions the PLayer posed.

Having spent a good two hours with one single CD -- the stunning Weeshuis by the Dutch immigrant camp's ®chestra -- I had to conclude the following: The PLayer's RedBook playback was every bit the equal of the mighty Zanden DAC and, arguably, identical or at the very least so fiendishly close that only elongated listening sessions with a very wide range of material could even hope to unearth anything of minor significance.

Having enjoyed the Zanden Model 5000 as a constant companion for considerable time now, I'm keenly attuned to what distinguishes it - I know what to listen for to latch onto differences in digital gear. With the PLayer and the time at my disposal, I couldn't. If you've read my Zanden review and seen its subsequent "Best of Year 2003" award, you'll surely grasp the significance of today's juxtaposition and outcome. On to SACD.

While I knew that playing DVD-As would mandate a monitor to access the submenus, I wasn't prepared to having to do the same for accessing the CD layer of a hybrid SACD title.

If the Chinese Shanling Corporation could incorporate a simple CD/SACD toggle on the front panel and remote of its SCD-T200, why, I wondered, did American ingenuity force us to access this basic audio function via an external monitor screen jacked into one of the PLayer's composite video outs? What if TV screens were banned from your audio room? Mike McCormick, Bel Canto's tall sales manager, explained that they're considering packaging a small 4" LCD screen with the PLayer to accommodate exactly such scenarios. Unlike in their taller PRePRo, the PLayer's central drawer and fascia height conspire against the requisite space for an integral video display. However, a small screen implemented in an upscale remote could be a worthwhile future endeavor while a pre-programmed macro function on the existing remote might be another clever option.

Alas, because of the PLayer's status as a true universal rather than CD/SACD-only machine, its DVD compatibility necessitates connection to a monitor screen simply as a native function of the DVD format. There's no way around this audio/visual integration requirement. Hence Bel Canto's idea to use a small, innocuous and affordable external display makes perfect if reluctant audiophile sense. I borrowed a small 12" TV from our secondary VCR setup and found access to the hybrid disc's CD layer in the Options menu of Initial Settings. Outside of a small pop through the speakers whenever the PLayer first responded to this remote command, the transitions between layers worked flawlessly.

Using André Geraissati's Canto das Áquas [Cavi Records SACD-001] of Brazilian instrumental music, I quickly made the following observations - though I hesitate to come to any premature conclusions until I have been exposed to a much wider variety of 'hi-rez' software: The SACD layer had marginally better ambient retrieval. But it wasn't a matter of profound superiority at all. Appreciable to trained audiophiles? Yes, faintly. Cause to proclaim massive technological advances or paradigm shifts? Certainly not. More significant perhaps, the previous session with the admittedly superbly recorded ®chestra clearly played in the very same league of acutely 'audible space' around and behind the musicians. It lacked nothing by comparison nor did it make the SACD seem preferable or better. Call it equal footing then.

The real fun commenced when I cued up the Blue Moon Award-in-waiting Circus Hiëronymous Bosch with Flairck & Corpus, a gift from Henk & Marja in Holland. Imagine this creative Dutch production as a Cirque de Soleil-style extravaganza, albeit with reversed emphasis: Six true master musicians assume the spotlight in the foreground while the 4-5 acrobats perform on a raised stage behind them. The famously outlandish and phantasmagorical paintings of the older Bosch create theme and inspiration for costumes and choreography, with quality of musicianship out of this world. I had already previewed this masterpiece on our modest 3-channel video system. Hearing this music now on a state-of-the-art audio rig even when merely mated to a puny 1-foot diagonal image of the above miniature television was thrilling beyond belief. That's where this audiophile had a preview of his scheduled conversion experience to video integration: Concert videos; The Buena Vista Club; symphonic rehearsals; Carlos Saura's Tango and Flamenco productions ...

Perhaps there will be a stealthily mounted flat-panel screen of relatively modest 27 diagonal inches in our reluctant scribe's future audio room? Mounted perhaps out-of-mind behind and above his equipment rack? To be honest, my admittedly brief first blush with universality in digital players generated far more excitement over this prospect (DVD-based concert experiences) than picture-less SACD that didn't seem superior to truly first-rate RedBook played back through truly first-rate equipment. At CES, Mark Waldrep of AIX Recordings gifted me with a few samples of his direct-to-DVD music productions sporting add-on musician interviews and other special featurettes. Upon my return to Taos, I will systematically explore so-called 'hi-rez' software to dig far deeper into this PLayer. However, I'm already very suspicious of referring to RedBook categorically and by extension as 'low- or mid-rez'. That would seem to be nothing more than a lazy marketing ploy to drive consumer awareness to greener pastures over yonder while the Cherry trees in our own CD backyards are in full bloom.

What you already should take away from today's first dipping of the toes into the universal waters? Priced just like the Esoteric DV-50 [at the time - Ed.], the PLayer PL-1A is a bona fide state-of-the-art CD player, period. Even if you did not access any of its add-on functionality even once, you'd be assured access to uncompromised RedBook performance the equal of my acclaimed $10,000 outboard tube DAC. And that still requires a suitable transport, a digital interconnect and a second power cord. And it couldn't do SACD or DVD-A if it stood on its head. This CD-based consideration for today's review subject was really the first and tallest hurdle any universal player hoping to kindle my personal excitement had to overcome. To repeat myself, the PLayer managed in one fell swoop and on first attempt, with plenty of clearance and to enthusiastic applause. We'll revisit its added functionality and many technical features with extensive SACD/DVD-A testing as well as conventional DVD video performance on a mid-sized Sony Trinitron come April. However, I dare already predict that Bel Canto has a massively potent winner on their hands....