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Reviewer: Chip Stern
Source: Upscale Audio Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 vacuum tube CD player (in 24/192 Super Tjoeb configuration); California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD-CD Player; Rega Planar 25 turntable with Rega RB600 tone-arm and Grado Statement Master low-output phono cartridge
Preamp/Integrated: VTL 5.5 vacuum tube preamp; Rogue Audio Stealth phono preamp; Manley Massive Passive; Rogue Audio Magnum 99 vacuum tube preamp; Mesa Tigris
Amps: Rogue Audio M150s
Speakers: Acoustic Zen Adagios; Joseph Audio RM25si Signature Mk2 & RM7si Signature Mk2; Dynaudio Confidence C1; Meadowlark Swallows; Epos ELS-3; Alon/Nola Li'l Rascals
Cables: Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II interconnects; Audioquest Panther interconnects and CV-6 speaker cables; Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold interconnects and speaker cables; JPS Labs Superconductor 3 interconnects and speaker cable; JPS Labs Aluminata interconnects; JPS Labs Aluminata, Kaptovator, Digital and Analog AC cords; Acoustic Zen Gargantua 2 and Absolute AC cords
Stands: Two PolyCrystal equipment racks, a PolyCrystal amp stand and PolyCrystal speaker stands
Power line conditioning: Equi=Tech Q650 and 2Q Balanced Power isolation transformers; Monster Cable AVS 2000 automatic voltage stabilizer
Tweaks & Accessories: JPS Labs Kaptovator outlet center; Mondial Magic-Splitter; NEC CT-2070S monitor; Ringmat 330 and Signal Guard II isolation stand (turntable); Shakti Stones (electromagnetic stabilizers); PolyCrystal cones; Argent Room Lens; Echo Busters Bass Busters and absorptive and diffusive panels
Room size: 14' x 20' x 10', long-wall setup
Review Component Retail: $3995
|To Tweak or Not To Tweak
[Cough... prepare for a long, throat-clearing preamble.] Following my review of the Denon DVD-2900 universal disc player with Underwood Hi-Fi Level-1 Modifications, a recurring leitmotif concerning the practice of audiophile tweaking insinuated its way into my tiny brain pan again and again, often at the instigation of readers who wanted to know if such and such a mod, with a tubed output stage, a beefed up power supply or more sophisticated capacitors in the analog output stage would result in a true karmic revelation. It was my pleasure to meet up with one of these earnest fellows in a chance encounter at an audio dealer's showroom; he'd done the deed on one of those way-cool tubed Shanling SACD/CD players and was a reasonably happy camper, though he waxed ambivalent as to his ability to discern a relatively subtle set of differences. Wasn't quite sure what he was hearing. A touch of buyer's remorse? I suggested he'd have been better served by investing that money in a good after-market AC cord.
Which is not to say he didn't get his money's worth. But it does suggest the possibility, however remote, that despite the superb post-op work performed by talented techies and the growth of this after-care market into a burgeoning cottage industry, sometimes, just maybe, the folks best qualified to do the mods are the people who designed the gear in the first place.
Such is the evolutionary nature of audio and the process by which a good idea may be refined or even lead to a more advanced configuration. However, as the modsters have made plain, there are times when a fundamental tweak is often enough to elevate the performance parameters of good gear to more rarefied plateaus.
Audio designer Steve McCormack has been turning out sophisticated preamp and amplifier designs since 1987. McCormack Audio was absorbed into the heralded Conrad-Johnson constellation back in 1998 and McCormack's most recent designs (such as the splendid DNA500 power amp currently in residence at the 6moons archives) were designed for, manufactured and distributed by CJ. Nevertheless, all throughout this period -- right up to this moment -- Steve steadfastly addressed the issue of incremental upgrades by nurturing his own modification business as a rewarding spin-off from ongoing projects involving new designs.
Clearly, Steve McCormack is a serial tweak.
"Yes, I'm a recidivist - a repeat offender," McCormack confesses. "Obviously, I am a believer in tweaking things and doing after-market modifications. There's a lot that can be done in that realm and if you like the unit to begin with, then it makes some sense to play with it; but if it doesn't synergize with what your system is doing or if you are not pleased with its basic performance for whatever reasons, then no amount of tweaking will make that right."
In light of this emerging paradigm and because the upgrade aspects of Steve's creative output consumed so much of his time, he recently left Conrad Johnson in an amiable parting of the ways to devote his time to the modsters and to chip away at a sophisticated new preamp design - as time permits.
"It happened around CES time, in January of this year  when it became official and we went upon our separate journeys - wishing each other all the best, of course. We certainly enjoyed a very creative, productive working relationship; the ongoing popularity of the DNA-500 and the continuing acceptance of the UDP-1 is a creative legacy I am quite proud of. The thing is that I've been wanting for a long time to design and build some new products that have been kicking around in my head for a couple of years, and in practical terms, my own business SMc Audio has really taken over all of my time and my life. I didn't really have any time to do anything else."
When you ponder Steve McCormack's business model, it strikes one as quite sensible in terms of a crowded marketplace for high end gear: by addressing his end user's affection for McCormack's original creative output and their desire to kick things up a notch by elevating performance parameters to more contemporary standards, the designer and the end user come together in an ongoing cooperative endeavor - to forestall that inevitable march to the elephant's grave yard of bygone gear.
The reality of design motifs and the demands of production engineering are often quite distinct. When cost is no object, well, hell's bells, balls to walls, full speed ahead and the price point be damned...however, it is a much greater challenge to maximize performance parameters when trying to slot an end product into some repeatable/consistent production process, as well as holding down costs in order to attain reasonable price point projections.
There is design engineering then and production engineering and the twain ain't the same. That is to say, okay, we have a working prototype that everyone seems to like, how can we bring it in at a saleable price point and maintain reliability and consistency throughout the production run and well beyond? If you can no longer get certain premium parts, you can't maintain existing products in the field. Recently the American distributor for a major manufacturer found themselves in the unenviable position of having several limited edition disc players come back in for service, wherein they had to scramble to get them back in service because the transport mechanism that the manufacturer had outsourced was no longer being made. Oops.
There haven't been many more highly regarded digital front end components than the Linn CD12, a pricey but impeccable performer. As great as the Linn 1.1 Unidisk sounds, I have yet to speak with any audiophile or dealer whose eyes didn't dampen appreciably when stating unequivocally that the Linn 1.1 didn't approach the CD12's audio verity on Redbook CD playback. So why did Linn discontinue that legendary component? Because even so self-sufficient a manufacturer as Linn still has to outsource certain critical components and when said parts were no longer being manufactured, Linn had to marshal its remaining inventory to maintain its product base in the field.
"But, Chip, you should hear your speakers with two of these $300 capacitors in the crossover network... a big improvement in transient response and soundstaging. They could upgrade the present model and only increase the price by $600." Well, actually, if you decide, what the hell, let's use the most expensive capacitors known to man, your $5000 speaker now will retail more on the order of $8000-9000, which defeats the whole purpose of that design if indeed you were trying to bring it in at something vaguely resembling an affordable price point. And for most carbon-based life forms residing on Planet Earth, cost indeed remains an object.
|A New Sense of Refinement
As such, Steve McCormack's modification business points up the conundrum which audio designers and manufacturers often face: to supersede or super size? With their highly regarded UDP-1, Steve McCormack, Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson obviously felt the latter to be the correct call. In concluding that they already had an extremely effective audio platform, by employing some strategically targeted tweaks on their end, they could significantly enhance performance in a Deluxe Edition while adding only $500 to MSRP, which now clocked in at $3995.
|"This is a case where the UDP-1 turned out to be very popular, and it exceeded our very own|
|expectations to some degree," McCormack recalls. "You always hope that a product will take off like that but you're never really sure until it does. So with Bill and Lew's natural conservatism, their initial impulse was to bring it in as inexpensively as possibly while hitting the basic performance parameters we wanted to hit. And I've gotten pretty good over the years at working to a price point...doing that sort of thing where I'm juggling the various parameters with parts and what not, to deliver excellent performance and keep the costs quite reasonable. And then, later on, when they saw that the piece was selling well, they were getting bombarded with requests for higher performance - if it was there to be had. And so the decision was made to create a Deluxe version of that piece and part of the back-story was also that Bill and Lew were looking into a separate player for Conrad Johnson. Let's just say it's a real complex set of issues and a much bigger can of worms than most people would appreciate to put something like that together. And I think they looked into that carefully and felt that the performance of the UDP-1 was so good as it was, that with a Deluxe version to serve their needs with a faceplate design to match the Conrad Johnson gear, all of those things came together and only bumped the price from $3499 to $3995. And it was immediately so popular that they made the decision to stop making the standard version altogether."
Having had the original in-house for several months, I was well suited to comment on the apparent aural enhancements, which are readily apparent and quite musical, though a set of revisions, which as Lew Johnson pointed out to me, consist entirely of parts, not circuit upgrades. "The polypropylene output coupling capacitors are bypassed by .15uF CJD polystyrenes," Lew explained, "while eight local power supply bypass caps that were a composite of electrolytic and polypropylene are replaced with CJD polystyrenes; 10 critical resistors are replaced with Vishays; three polypropylene capacitors in the main power supplies are by-passed with .15 uF polystyrenes - and three of the main power supply electrolytics (needed to get sufficient capacitance) are upgraded to higher-speed electrolytics."
Herein, the manufacturer essentially implements a series of enhancements designed to bring performance and resolution up several notches, not unlike what many of the boutique after-sale tweakers do, although when you move beyond parts into tubed output stages, beefier power supplies and more sophisticated clocks, the cost increase is much more dramatic and thus bumps up the cost at which the manufacturer could sell the unit. In such cases, if the end user isn't up to such major surgery, it's generally time for manufacturers to roll up their sleeves and design a more sophisticated and expansive platform from the ground up.
"Well," McCormack explains, "the end user can experiment with power cords and interconnects and isolation bases and anything that applies to the disc itself; a whole lot of peripheral things can be experimented with. But there is practically nothing the end user can do in terms of messing around inside the machine, which is probably just as well...in this case anyway, the tendency being to improve things right up to the point where you break it. Some people have no concept how difficult it is to work inside this particular UDP-1 configuration."
"So for all intents and purposes," I wondered aloud, "could Steve McCormack in his alter ego as a serial tweak upgrade the UDP-1 Deluxe any farther?"
|"I would say no, not realistically. It's just not in the cards for Bill and Lew or me to be messing around and changing the video sub-system or putting in a DVI or an HDMI connector, which a lot of videophiles would like to see - that's just not going to happen, at least not in this particular package as it now exists. It really accomplishes everything we had set out for it at that price point, I've been very pleased with its performance and I'm just that much happier that Conrad Johnson made the decision to go ahead on a Deluxe version. As a physical piece, literally getting in there and working on it and doing anything to it, is extremely difficult. From a practical stand point, I wouldn't do anything further|
|to it. I would be more inclined to start from a fresh platform if I were to look into exploring the possibilities of doing more in terms of performance and features." Which begs|
|the question, how much digital front end does one need? At $3995, the UDP-1 offers consumers a hell of a lot of bang for the buck. To garner more dramatic enhancements and sonic reproduction, you'd need to contemplate units retailing for upwards of $2000-$4000-$7000 more.
How then did I experience the original UDP-1 and how has its sonic performance been enhanced in its deluxe iteration? In a word, refinement. In more than one word, it lets more sunshine in.
|As you move up the digital food chain and get into more sophisticated gear, you gain a good deal in terms of air and transparency, low level detail and resolution, timbral and harmonic accuracy. However, sometimes such digital platforms can sound a little light in the loafers. That is to say, while the sense of delicacy and detail can be enthralling, such digital decks often lack body and weight, rhythm and pacing, a physical dimension that conveys the emotion and immediacy of music. Such digital platforms are often a tad analytical - not the case with the original release of the UDP-1,|
|nor has that generally been my experience with Steve McCormack's audio designs, let alone Conrad-Johnson's flagship products.
|During my extended time with the McCormack DNA500, I was always captivated by the unit's solid foundation in the bass -- cleanly focused and articulated -- which rendered transients with palpable immediacy and believability. In a similar manner did the UDP-1 gain a devout following and user base. Unlike some of its more gossamer competitors, the UDP-1 projected the kind of warmth, body and fullness which made it less fatiguing and easier to listen to than some brighter, more analytical sounding designs. Or as Fats Waller once put it, "All that meat and no potatoes."
|Likewise for the vibrant sense of attack one experienced on the leading edge of transients,|
|say of a wooden stick tippling on a bronze cymbal. Or the supple nuances of touch and attack, the complex interplay of fundamentals and overtones in the decay of a fine acoustic piano, the brassy spit and blare of a horn. They all possessed musical immediacy and believability, a dynamic physical presence and harmonic completeness that bespoke musical instruments in an acoustic space, not something abstract and weightless floating alluringly in the inky blackness of the digital domain like ghosts of music past. Or as Baron Von Frankenstein might have exulted, "It's alive, alive I tell you - alive!"
Listening...And More Listening
|However, if you reference your own recollections of the Baron's castle, you'll recall how things could get a touch shadowy by torchlight. For all its stellar dynamics, generally uncolored tonality and high degrees of resolution, one's sense of soundstage illumination was somewhat muted. I don't mean that the player sounded dull or compressed, murky or smeared, colored or lugubrious...no, it's more as though the UDP-1 was lacking another level of contrast between shadow and light, a greater differentiation between the foreground and background, between sound and silence. If it erred at all, it was on the side of warmth and midrange, a fuller more voluptuous voicing which made it very easy to listen to the fat woman sing.
|Early on in the audition process, I can recall a late night immersion in the electric-acoustic jazz funk of Miles Davis, Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett, Michael Henderson and Jack DeJohnette on The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 [Sony], a stunning live 6-CD box set chronicling one of the trumpeter's greatest and most under-documented ensembles in the post Bitches Brew milieu. For some listeners this might seem a kind of dicey disc to evaluate an audiophile component with but Pilgrims, in the real world people listen to all manner of music, not all of it polite, pristine and politically correct. These exemplary live recordings possess elements of both the electric and acoustic milieu -- of an amplified sound system, direct sound and room cues -- in nicely graduated proportions, from the weighty, chakra-rocking impact of Michael Henderson's immense sounding Fender Jazz Bass/Marshall combo and Keith Jarrett's roiling/bell-like electric piano/organ combo to the snap, crackle and pop of Jack DeJohnette's jazz-tuned drum kit and percussionist Airto Moreia's colorful arsenal of little acoustic sounds - culminating in the relatively processed and unprocessed cry of leader|
|Davis's blues-inflected wah-wah trumpet and saxophonist Bartz's sanctified alto and soprano (Moreia joined the band on the second night of its engagement while guitarist John McLaughlin sat in on the final night, which were documented on the only previously released episodes of this engagement as Live Evil).
|The spot-on believability of the music's leading edge attack and surprising dynamic range, the all impactful rhythm and pacing, the warm surge of power I gleaned from my first go-round with the original UDP-1 was significantly enlivened in the Deluxe version: higher resolution, blacker backgrounds and a clearer sense|
|of ambience. Tiny room cues and small scale details, which might have been somewhat shaded in the original version (such as the relationship between the bandstand and the audience, the room ambience and all of Airto's boney, metallic and skin-induced little scrapes, pings, rattles and hollers peeking through the mists) were rendered with enhanced lucidity. The entire musical presentation seemed more vivid as the UDP-1 Deluxe breathed more life into the music. The sense of transparency was more pronounced and as a direct result, the soundstage seemed larger and more illuminated - as if someone had parted the drapes and opened up a window, letting a fresh breeze and sunshine into the room. Oh, and check off enhanced image specificity among the sonic benefits conferred by all this new-found air and light, rendered all the more palpable by clearer, blacker backgrounds - the better to depict a capacious, expansive sense of acoustic space.
|The Deluxe enhances the sheer authority of the original UDP-1 with layer upon layer of detail and (here's that word again), refinement. And we're talking about a CD here, not some enhanced format. Of course you can hear all sorts of extra rez and dimensionality in the cheaper SACD players and DVD decks when playing the higher resolution formats - but generally at the expense of CD performance. What's the point of investing big bucks in a universal disc player if its CD reproduction is ordinary in the extreme? With the UDP-1 the listener is immediately aware as I am wont to say (with apologies to Dorothy Parker), that there is so much more there there. The UDP-1 does an exemplary job of translating the large and small gestures which suggest live performance ambience, as a perception of instruments in an actual room or acoustic space.|
As I was wrapping up this review, I had discover that one of my earliest musical epiphanies was now available on SACD - Bela Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra as performed by The Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Fritz Reiner from an October 22, 1955 two-track stereo recording session (this BMG/RCA Red Seal package also contains December 28-29, 1958 three-track live recordings direct to tubed reel-to-reels of Bartók's Music for Strings, Perucssion and Celeste and Hungarian Sketches).
|I was born in 1952 and have been listening to these performances since I was four years old. I've bought numerous other recordings of this piece but inevitably returned to Reiner's definitive interpretation, ultimately in the digital domain, to particular effect on a fine JVC XRCD release which came out a few years back. However, nothing prepared me for the unembellished sonic perfection remastering supervisor John Newton and his technical team achieved in translating the elegant purity of these early Lewis Layton 'Living Stereo' recordings (the earliest two-track masters were recorded on a proprietary RCA RT-21 ¼" 30ips tape machines, wired to a pair of mono mixers, each dedicated to one tape track). This is precisely the opportunity which got me excited about SACDs as both a performance and archiving format in the first place; without any tawdry tricks or enhancements.
|I've been listening to these performances for 50 years and to all those folks pooh-poohing the SACD format, let me assure you that the resolution of the format was so realistic, it was as if I were hearing them for the first time. The UDP-1 Deluxe did a dandy job of reproducing a goose-pimple inducing soundstage and of translating a realistic ebb and flow of orchestral swells and fleshing out tiny virtuoso turns with grace, realism and power. I was struck by how much more I could hear of the hall on these DSD masters, how much more expansive the soundstaging was and how effortlessly the Deluxe reproduced the acoustic layering of individual voices and sections alike, from massed strings and brass to lonely solo oboes and harps peeking out of the firmament, a perfect depiction of the composer's vast dynamic canvas from pianissimo to fortissimo.
|Likewise on smaller scale recordings such as solo piano, the UDP-1 renders the organic complexity of acoustic instruments with lifelike veracity. You don't necessarily feel as though you are listening to a recording of a piano, but rather directly to a piano in a believable acoustic space. Herein, the enhanced transparency and lucidity of the Deluxe iteration's resolution made for more compelling, involving experiences. I spent a good deal of time listening to|
|Todd Garfinkle's superb MA recording of pianist Ito Ema performing Schumann: Kinderszenen, Davidsbündlertänze on her own 1903 Steinway D concert grand (recorded at Harmony Hall with MA Records' customized 96kHz recording system, microphone amp and a pair of Bruel & Kjaer 4006 omni-directional microphones). The UDP-1 did a lovely job of portraying the delicate balance Garfinkle achieved between the instrument and the acoustic space on her opening interpretation of the composer's whimsical "Tales Of Distant Lands".|
|Does the Deluxe have a sound signature? Sure. It projects a sense of body and warmth throughout a deep, spacious canvas. Warmth? It ain't so much a warm sound as a mellow one. Nor is it especially bright but rather sweet, open and transparent, with a natural midrange timbre and nicely textured midrange layering.|
|Given the warmer nature of the original, it's worth noting how the $500 Deluxe mod confers enhanced high frequency realism. It makes the invisible play of open expanses of space and room reflections and lingering overtones more convincing. Returning to Ito Ema's Schumann recital for MA, this is a fairly warm recording to begin with, not so closely miked as some recordists might hear it, more like a really prime first balcony center seat where one is looking down at the piano. There is a natural bloom to the room, the lovely way all those|
|hammered strings pop through the firmament only to dissolve into back of the house, richly shrouded in hall ambience as vapor trails of overtones and reverberations comingle and linger and recede as the leading edge of transient project deep into the cheap seats. And the UDP-1 doesn't fudge that.
|For a different take on the acoustic piano with a much closer recorded perspective, I turned to the work of one my favorite recording engineers, Jim Anderson, in one of the finest acoustic spaces in New York City (Avatar Studios), featuring a jazz pianist whose range of articulation, sense of clarity and concision, rhythmic exuberance and harmonic depth make for one of the finest solo piano recitals in my sonic menagerie - Pete Malinverni's Theme & Variations [Reservoir Music]. The sonic enhancements on the Deluxe version are particularly evident on this recording: an enhanced sense of speed and articulation as evident in the immediacy of the attack and nuances of Malinverni's touch; a touch less butter and more white wine in the midrange; a|
|greater sense of ease and extension in the higher frequencies...not to mention tighter, tauter, more limber bass. All of which serves to enhance the percussive immediacy of Malinverni's attack and the ringing, bell-like clarity of the instrument itself while fleshing out the crisscrossing interplay and phasing contrasts between both hands.
|Earlier reviews of the original UDP-1 have spoken glowingly of its simplicity of set-up and ease of operation. Not unlike the more purist-oriented audiophile paradigm Charlie Hansen at Ayre conjured with his esteemed $6000 K-5xe (a dedicated 2-channel stereo universal disc player which eschews all multi-channel and video capabilities), the McCormack UDP-1 Deluxe was clearly engineered with audio devotees in mind. For all that, I still enjoyed a host of excellent DVD-V discs with which to gauge in passing the relative audio/video experience of some excellent concert recordings, including James Levine conducting Wagner's complete Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera [on Deutsche Grammophon], Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight, a DVD performance disc of Weather Report (featuring Zawinul, Shorter, Jaco, Erskine and Robert Thomas from their fantastic 3-CD/1-DVD Legacy Box Set retrospective) and a vintage European concert performance by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers with the drummer's every-man-a-dude "Moanin'" line-up.
|The UDP-1's sonic resolution on "Das Rheingold" was stellar - and let me tell you, the final fanfare as our hero ascends the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, the low end crescendos rolling up on balloon tires, is among the grandest, most majestic pieces of music I've ever heard.|
|More striking was the UDP-1's nicely textured control of visual details. In the course of apologizing for the ancient state of my NEC monitor one night, I thought I espied some manner of video distortion (or perhaps t'was dust on the screen), when suddenly a friend and I realized it was actually some sort of diaphanous scrim, a parchment-thin screen through which light and shadows and etched patterns conveyed a sense of distance against a matte painting further in the background. I was suitably impressed by the video resolution of the McCormack and hey, for a 20-year old monitor tenuously tethered to the modern world of digital resolution by a seven-meter JPS Labs Ultraconductor S-Video cable, maybe my NEC ain't so bad after all. Still, I leave more profound conclusions to those supplicants who bask in the aura of huge modern flat screens and plasmas.
|As for the manner in which the UDP-1 handles DVD-V, DVD-A and SACD audio discs, it took on all comers with exemplary bug-free performance. While I enjoy a proliferation of fine SACD source material, both of vintage analog remasters and dedicated DSD recordings, there are not a whole lot of DVD-A discs worth a bucket of steam out there. Take new best friend on Straight Ahead Records, a Dual-Disc DVD recorded direct to two-track by Scott Sedillo and mastered by golden-eared patriarch of resolution, Bernie Grundman's The Jazz Composer's Song Book, a lovely straight ahead session chaired by bassist John Heard. In comparing and contrasting the CD side of the disc with the DVD layer on a performance of "Doodlin", the|
|UDP-1 Deluxe evinced a greater sense of expansiveness and relaxation on the DVD side. There was surely more air, a more enhanced perception of an acoustic space, a wealth of textural and harmonic information. This added overtone gravy was especially apparent during Heard's bass solo and I thought the attack on the ride cymbal to be a tad more rounded, the relationship between the fundamental and overtones more fleshed out. This is a fairly close-miked, meat and potatoes jazz recording, so there were more instrumental details to ponder than room cues although I did observe how the CD layer seemed a bit hotter in terms of absolute gain if less expansive in the spatial domain.
And well, yes, I did eventually find one exemplary DVD-A disc to verify the UDP-1's command of resolution: Ry Cooder's state-of-the-art production of The Buena vista Social Club on World Circuit/Nonesuch - a rare example of a DVD-A master done right in that it exceeded the sound of the CD release. The UDP-1 projects the acoustic intensity and immediacy of these intimate live studio sessions with a vivid aural focus, indicating in passing how much potential this medium had sonically when done right. Too bad that the recording industry fumbled things so badly that this format was essentially dead on arrival. There is definitely something to be said for enhanced PCM resolution and playback.
|In comparing two further high resolution digital formats with their Redbook CD counterparts (the live-to-DSD SACD version of pianist Arcadi Volodos' Schubert: Piano Works on Sony Classical, and the remarkable 24-96, direct to optical disc, two-channel recording of Jonathan Faralli's Arts Audio/DVD-V audio disc of Percussion XX), the Redbook side of the ledger was surprisingly satisfying. I thought I discerned some apparent gain-related differences on the Volodos performance of the "Sonata In G", greater presence as it were, while the SACD possessed more subtle layers of room cues and ambient detail, a warmer more expansive presence. The UDP-|
|1 projected a greater sense of ease in its depiction of the acoustic space and the interplay between instrument and room, in this case, an immense one: the Sofiensaal in Vienna, a former bath house/dance hall in which Strauss often held court, where Solti recorded his Ring Cycle - and which burned down a month after this recording was made in the summer of 2001.
In both formats, the UDP-1 Deluxe tracked the big dynamic flourishes with great élan, though on the SACD layer one could readily discern wider dynamic shift and enhanced low-level resolution. There was a certain ambient glow and luster to how the instrument overtones resonated, dissolved and seemed suspended in a capacious expanse of space and silence. As for Percussion XX, an amazingly realistic selection of 20th century percussion compositions (and one of my favorite blow-your-shorts-off audiophile discs), the McCormack gave a most satisfying depiction of the original 24/96 recording in the CD version but believe me, you'll find yourself reaching for the check book if you hear what it does with the DVD-V audio disc version. Again, not just a question of greater resolution and dynamic range but there is simply so much more low level information, such as coppery trueness with which sound radiates out into the room in gonglike waves from timpani hits. And boy does the UDP-1 ever track the incredible impact of that bone-rattling metallic hit which begins John Cage "Cartridge Music" (a compressed spring?).
If anything sold me on the commanding musicality of the UDP-1, it was how utterly believable the physical presence and image specificity were in my room. Employing the ultra-revealing Dynaudio Confidence C1 mini monitors, any weaknesses anywhere in the signal chain will be framed in harsh relief. By the same token, it imparts the breath of life onto true high resolutions components and source materials. It was amazing how little if any sense of a localized point source the UDP-1 conveyed - like I was a couple of tables back in the Village Vanguard getting a lap dance in rhythm.
|The premature internment of high resolution formats has been overwrought and oversold. The folly of the recording industry's DVD-A rollout (and some of the dubious audio disasters which accompanied it) does not preclude one's immense enjoyment of DVD-V audio discs and the odd DVD-A. As for SACDs, as I've already indicated in my advocacy of the recent RCA Red Seal reissues, the option of sitting in the control room circa 1958 and listening to live music playback on a grand old tubed reel-to-reel is nothing to sniff at, let alone the excitement of listening to truly well done live-to-DSD recordings (Marc Levinson need not apply), such as the Volodos Schubert solo piano|
|disc, or one of my favorites, that remarkable Tom Jung experimental recording of drummer Steve Davis on the DMP label, A Quality of Silence.
Still, all things being equal, while the ability to access enhanced resolution formats is a glorious option, it doesn't mean squat if the CD-Redbook resolution isn't more than up to snuff. Well, a friend at the esteemed high-end audio retailer Sound Works in Kensington, Maryland sold quite a few UDP-1s during his residency, in both their original and Deluxe iterations, and often characterized the McCormack UDP-1 universal disc player admiringly as "...a poor man's Linn 1.1."
Long-time followers of my audio adventures may recall that I often spoke of the Linn 1.1 with considerable passion. And really, for all intents and purposes, it is neither germane nor really fair to compare the $4000 McCormack UDP-1 universal player with the $11,000 Linn 1.1 Unidisk, any more than it is fair to compare the UDP-1 with the now discontinued $14,000 Reimyo CDP-777 (they couldn't get the transports anymore, either). I've had the opportunity to audition the Reimyo CDP-777 on my audiophile buddy Michael Polizzi's all-singing all-dancing super system (replete with the surprising 300B punch of a VAC 30/30 and Dynaudio Confidence C4 loudspeakers), and like the Linn 1.1, it occupies a far more rarefied level of resolution and sonic sophistication as the suggested retail price would suggest. And while there is often not a direct correlation between price and performance, you surely get what you pay for with these impeccable digital source components.
As I approached the final furlongs in this review process, the Linn 1.1 went bye-bye. And in so passing, it drove home one of the enduring rules of high end audio - out of sight, out of mind. In this case, the more I listened to the UDP-1, the more my recollections of the Linn 1.1 began to pale by comparison. Mind you, such comparisons are predicated on a difference of $7000 in cost to the consumer. And yes, while the Linn 1.1 surely offers more absolute detail, many visitors to my den found themselves gravitating more towards the warmth and fullness and engaging slam (the ease, body and musicality) of the UDP-1 than the ultra-revealing precision, analytical detail and surreal dimensionality of the Linn 1.1.
I'd guesstimate that the UDP-1 delivers about 85-90% of the overall resolution, detail and ambient retrieval of the Linn for $7000 less. That extra 10% or so that the Linn delivers is damn significant - question is, having heard the difference, can you afford to pay for it. So a poor man's Linn? Having said goodbye to the Linn, the McCormack UDP-1 Deluxe sounds pretty damn good and those shopping for a dependable, affordable, elegantly musical performer will find themselves wanting for little. What both machines have in common is sweetness, clarity and linearity; an exquisite level of detail and soundstaging; exceptional rhythmic authority and an exquisite depiction of space. The Linn is appreciably more dimensional and perhaps boasts blacker backgrounds. Other than that distinction, pretty close.
The McCormack UDP-1 is simple to use and set up and pretty much bullet-proof in terms of reliability as one might expect from a Conrad Johnson product. Where some high-end players are fairly finicky about what discs they will play, the UDP-1 shrugged off such distinctions and played any number of discs which made the Linn go "sorry". I can recall only one time over the past year when the UDP-1 glitched out on me and then after a fairly extended period in the repeat entire disc mode. Couldn't get it to boot up another disc so I turned off the power, unplugged the AC cord for a couple of minutes, rebooted the unit, reset it for two channel and afterwards all was well. The glitch never reoccurred, nor did any others.
So the parts mod really extends the top end in a very musical way, not silky or rolled off as one might suspect from the more warmly voiced standard version, but sparkling and sweet without fatiguing brightness or glare; with greater soundstage depth and image specificity; more tightly focused bass; better midrange layering; blacker backgrounds and a clearer sense of ambience. I can hardly wait to hear how Conrad Johnson finally ups the ante on universal disc players themselves, no doubt with a tubed output stage in a dedicated new platform based on what they have learned from this no-nonsense musical performer. Until then, there's no need to wait - the UDP-1 Deluxe is ready when you are.
|Quality of packing: Solid.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Simple.
Condition of component received: Original unit, no apparent wear (came back from factory having received deluxe modification).
Completeness of delivery: Basic.
Quality of owner's manual: Concise. Complete.
Website comments: Basic, no frills.
Warranty: 2 years parts and labor to original purchaser.
Global distribution: Worldwide through Conrad Johnson dealer network.
Human interactions: Gentlemen.
Other: Quality audio gear by music lovers for music lovers.
Pricing: Quite reasonable by no-compromise high end audio standards - high value/high performance.
Application conditions: No issues to speak of.
Final comments & suggestions: None.
|Chip Stern's website|