Prior to break-in, the Maverick sounded edgy and bright - no big surprise. After 24 hours of continuous playback, the Maverick became noticeably smoother. I didn't plan any serious listening until past the 100-hour mark. On standard CD playback without upsampling engaged, the Maverick had a refined, smooth, full-bodied yet clean sound. Other than that, nothing jumped out or screamed at me. Without comparing it to my own players, it was difficult to discern any character at all. Voices and instruments were well-defined and positioned solidly within a deep and wide soundstage. The noise floor was incredibly low, offering up exemplary ambience and detail retrieval. I got the impression that Le Mav was extracting far more musical information off my silver discs than I knew were hiding there. But this was never thrown out at me in exaggeration, nor did it turn overly dry, analytical or mechanical. In fact, it was quite invigorating, my toes never failing to tap along with the tunes. Unlike my less expensive players, the Mav was not at all sluggish nor rhythmically restrained, with a bottom end that extended way down and offered excellent slam and great articulation. I could not detect any ripeness or bloat.

"Nightclub Jitters" is one of my favorite tracks from the late, great Replacements' Pleased To Meet Me [Sire 2-25557]. It's a stripped-down number with only vocals, drums, sax and double bass. I'd always felt Tommy Stinson's double bass to be slightly boomy and ill-defined, approaching that dreaded one-note bass syndrome. With the Maverick in place, I got an extra octave of reach and superior pitch definition, sensing the woody resonances of Stinson's bass in my chest. There was clearly more information in those pits than assumed. The all-important midrange sounded superb, with wonderfully palpable presence and dimensional vocals. I've grooved to Tom Waits' surreal Rain Dogs (Island 422-826382-2) on several players, but the Maverick was the first to fully convey a sensation of the chest and throat behind Tom's gravelly pipes.

Maverick highs were extended and clean, with a lovely shimmer on massed strings that became especially evident in the Adagio of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony [DG 459 6782], with Pierre Boulez coaxing an incandescent performance from the Wiener Philharmoniker. During those lovely tonal modulations at the climaxes, the strings sounded so ethereal, so unearthly, that I could almost sense myself floating in mid-air. Knowing of Bruckner's religious convictions, this was no doubt the effect he intended to create. Piano sounded completely natural, its percussive resonance and decay portrayed accurately. However, I did detect a hint of grain on cymbals and triangles. This minor blemish disappeared when I swapped out my Bryston B60 for the Song Audio SA-34 SET or Houston Mini-2 integrateds. Either the tubes were rounding off the ultrasonic edges or, my B60 was slightly coarse, recalling Srajan's regular missive that you won't recognize certain shortcomings until better nibbles on your ear.

I don't want to over-emphasize this point as it was quite subtle and likely system-related. Perhaps further break-in would have banished it? It certainly did not impede my ability to enjoy music playback at all.

To up or not sample

What would upsampling sound like? Would it do what many have claimed, be the silver bullet in the vampire's heart? Engaging the CS8420 sample rate converter did give a somewhat smoother presentation - but then dynamics and drive were slightly impeded. However, that slight grain mentioned earlier all but disappeared even on my Bryston. There was a degree of spatial alteration that I've heard referred to as improved ambient retrieval. To my ears, it sounded unnatural and slightly phasey. Music appeared marginally more processed, even sterile, as though the additional filtering adversely affected time and phase response. This posed a small dilemma. Should one pursue the smoother, cleaner presentation of upsampling at the expense of drive and dynamics? Should one accept a degree of edge and grain for a less artificial, more musically coherent performance? The good news was that I could switch back and forth on the fly. At first, it was difficult to choose one over the other, with preference shifting from disc to disc. I eventually abandoned upsampling a few weeks into this experiment. Accordingly, I wouldn't lose sleep if a machine I was after didn't incorporate it. If upsampling were a $500 add-on option on my existing players, I'd probably spend that money on CDs instead [CS8420 diagram below].

From what I could gather from various sites and audio journals, upsampling or sample rate conversion is an attempt to eliminate the sonic shortcomings of standard 16/44 conversion by increasing, via interpolation, the sampling frequency from 44kHz to 96kHz or higher. An additional oversampling filter (or sample rate converter) is series-connected to the existing oversampling filter, which, in many cases, may actually reside inside the DAC chip itself. The concept is to upshift anti-aliasing noise into extreme ultrasonic regions where a low-order, gentle reconstruction filter avoids the higher-order, drastic "brickwall" artifacts of gross phase errors and bright, edgy, fatiguing sound. While upsampling clearly doesn't increase resolution, music playback should, in theory and as a function of minimized conversion damage, sound smoother, less brittle and edgy. If all of this rings a bit like oversampling, you might be correct. There's a bit of verbal controversy as to what distinguishes up- from oversampling. I suspect a fair degree of marketing hype at work but in the end, the proof's in the pudding. Based on the Maverick's implementation, I'm not convinced that upsampling is the so-called magic bullet at all.

Super-Sounding Super Audio

SACD playback bettered standard and upsampled Redbook CD every which way from here to Sunday, with more complete data retrieval, greater space and ambient recovery, more frequency extremes extension. Bass wasn't just deeper but fuller and more defined. SACD had a more open, natural flow than CD - somewhat reminiscent of analogue. Music breathed easier and was far more liquid and natural. CD has always sounded a bit boxed-in and rhythmically reticent to my ears, not conveying quite that unfettered sense of ease of analog and SACD. As much as CD playback has improved in recent years, I still hear a slight edge and grain on most recordings.

I got a sense of just how good the Maverick was when comparing it directly against my Sony and Rotel. While I can easily hear the benefits of SACD advances even on my lowly $200 Sony, the Maverick thoroughly trounced it in every department as you'd expect. Frequency extension was increased, soundstaging, imaging and dynamics all greatly enhanced. However, while the Sony was clearly surpassed by the Music Hall, my cheaper player wasn't completely unlistenable. It just puttered along with admirably easily listening, shelved-off frequency extremes, more two-dimensional soundstaging and a noticeable lack of harmonic midrange richness. Its sins were of omission, however, so this listener instinctively focused on what was there and right rather than tune into what was lacking.

On the wrong system and due to its complex scoring and atonality, Messiaen's Turangalila Symphonie can sound like an orchestral plane crash. Of the versions I've heard, Riccardo Chailly's Decca recording [470 627-2] strikes the ideal balance between orchestra and Theremin-based Ondes Martenot [below in concert version]. Most other recordings bury this bizarre electronic instrument in the mix to make it hard to follow. The Maverick had no trouble unraveling this outrageous score and allowed me to hear individual lines that were obscured on my Sony player, including the whoops and chirps of the Martenot. Conveying the glorious Concertgebouw acoustics with exceptional alacrity, drums rolled right to the back of the hall and up the walls. In the liner notes, conductor/composer Pierre Boulez is quoted with "Messiaen didn't compose, he juxtaposed". I finally understood that remark. For the first time, I could appreciate this score and almost hear color the way Messiaen did.

I never thought to own a Bluegrass recording, ever, with blame for that due to John Boorman's Deliverance flick. Regardless, Jorma Kaukonen's Blue Country Heart [Sony CS 86394] was completely engrossing, with the "Blue Country Road" micro-dynamics and subtle inflections of dobro, guitar and fiddle not only clearly audible but causing both more organic flow and greater life and spunk. These characteristics remained noticeable on the Sony only to a considerably lesser degree. Flipping both players back to Redbook playback was illuminating, with the Sony completely obliterated though I should add that I never use it in CD mode since the Rotel easily outclasses it.

Despite the Maverick's exceptional SACD showing, it was really Redbook CD playback that had me enthralled, likely swayed by the Underwood/Parts ConneXion enhancements to the output stage and power supply. Truth be told, the Mav's 16/44 performance was so good, I'd consider purchasing it for that alone. Compared to my Rotel RCD-971, the Maverick's possessed of a truckload more slam. Bass went not only deep but remained tight and tuneful. Music was more liquid and flowed easier. Both frequency extremes were more extended. There was less glare and edge, with superior micro detail, stage width and apparent depth.

Few conductors could evoke the atmosphere and spirit of Gallic music as Ernest Ansermet. Though his band, the Suisse Romande, could get a little rough around the edges, they certainly had passion. The Maverick was adept at exhibiting the scale and sweep of Debussy's La Mer [Decca 470 255-2]. In the conclusion of the third sketch, its ability to dig deep and fully render the lower strings conjured a palpable image of a surging sea, with a thunderous conclusion never before noticed with such intensity on my Rotel. Not bad for a 46-year old recording.

Ry Cooder's groovy Cuban-Surf fusion album, Mambo Sinuendo [Nonesuch 2-79691] with Manuel Galaban, showed the Rotel to have muddier, slightly bloated bass and somewhat impede the funky swirl and drive of the title track. Less refined, a modicum more forward, the Rotel was still relatively full-bodied and dynamic but the lead guitars had obviously greater presence on the Maverick, with the recording venue clearly identifiable as well as transmitting that Herb Alpert's horn was spliced in from another session.

Solomon Burke's Don't Give Up On Me [Fat Possum 80358-2] is one of my favorite finds this year, with one of Soul's greatest voices delivering the performance of a lifetime. On "Fast Train", the Rotel removed about twenty years and fifty pounds from The Bishop. I heard less chest and a more constrained soundstage. The Maverick fully plumbed Burke's deep growl right down into his sternum. The backing vocals were clearer and more defined. The bass and drums had greater extension and impact. Incidentally, this disc was one example of where standard playback sounded superior to upsampled playback. The additional filter added a slight, thin edge and flattened dynamics a touch.

In every single instance, the Maverick sounded more alive, dynamic and resolved than my Rotel, far more than I thought it would. The Mav had a beguiling liquidity and natural flow that made it hard for me to leave the room to assault more productive things like mowing the lawn or stopping the kids from killing each other. "Don't make me come in there! As soon as Mahler's 8th is done, you're both going to be in big trouble!"

Did I mention that the Level-1 Maverick and Level-2 Unison Research Unico made for a blockbuster pairing? This tweaked duo plus my Kestrel2s produced one humdinger of a loaded performance: Technicolor, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling sound with awesome slam and musicality. I find it hard to believe that a more expensive setup could beat this combo for sheer musicality. For more details on the modded Unico, stay tuned.

How much for that doggy in the window?

The Level-1 Maverick appears to be a terrific buy. It has full bandwidth delivery without sounding dry or sterile; excels at mining the pits and strata from CDs and SACDs in a musically captivating and invigorating fashion; and has given me much enjoyment. Apart from a couple of initial hiccups, the underwhelming display legibility and essentialness of the remote to access certain features, it gets an enthusiastic thumbs up. Although the Maverick is positioned as primarily a SACD player, its CD playback is so righteous that you should consider it regardless of its SACD capability. Although I ultimately didn't care for its upsampling, that's readily defeated and might strike you differently. To a penny-pinching, frugal 'phile like me, purchasing a hot-rodded unit like the Level-1 Maverick makes a ton of sense. I doubt any manufacturer could offer such premium internal quality parts and sound for $1990. Two grand, anybody, to get an ailing audiophile back on the straight and narrow?

Manufacturer's website
Underwood Hifi website
Parts ConneXion website