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As for the usual sonic attributes audiophiles fuss over, the big surprises with the Underwood Ultimate included extended deep bass response, which maintained agility and texture while adding a foundation that made many pieces of music more lifelike. More on that in a bit. The other gratifying performance parameter change was an increase in the sense of soundstage and dimensionality, which was not so common to my Naim experiences. Big and bold would be good terms to use in this context. For orchestral works, of which I am especially fond, the sweep and grandeur as associated with a terrific seat in a very good concert hall were brought closer to reality by the Ultimate than has been the general rule at chez Turoczi before. This benefit, along with the ease of presentation and powerful bass lines, collectively created broad smiles on the faces of my guests and me.

While the majority of my auditioning was accomplished using 16-bit/44.1kHz Redbook discs, I did try other audio formats for the sake of knowing. One of the few DVD-Audio discs in my collection is 3 Concerts, Adam Simmons from Australian audiophile and entrepreneur Kostas Metaxas. In fact, Kostas did the actual engineering on this recording using well-respected pro gear. I had not been able to hear this disc previously in my own rig since nothing I owned or could borrow had DVD-A capability. Now came the time to experience this sound at home. In a word... wow! The Adam Simmons quartet concentrates on jazz offerings, but there were a few tracks featuring other artists whom Metaxas also captured during live, unrehearsed performances. I sense that his microphones were a bit further away from the musicians than most listeners are accustomed to hearing, but the sonic purity of these recordings really came through in this format. It felt as though I was listening to the direct feed from the mic preamps, which is something I often get to enjoy during my own forays into concert recording. Congrats to both Kostas and the Underwood HiFi team.

Speaking of live music, I had a recent opportunity to record a local orchestra performing the Saint-Saens "Organ" Symphony No.3 in a fine church acoustic with our area's best pipe organ in use. That was a sterling rendition and the 16-bit finished product continues to bring me much pleasure. When I saw a copy of the Telarc Hybrid version [SACD-60634] of this piece with Michael Murray at the organ, I thought it would be a good way to test the SACD abilities of the Ultimate. This was conveyed with authority, clarity and sonic directness that brought much satisfaction. The DSD transfer utilized here delivered the musicality and excitement of the performance in gangbuster amounts and the Ultimate had a chance to really strut its stuff. Other random samplings of SACD discs continued to show excellent musicality, but if pressed, I would give the nod to DVD-A, based on the little bit of it that was available to me.

Earlier, I alluded to the fine bass performance of this player and I want to expand a bit on that. It would not come as a surprise for some to think that having a tube output stage in the chain might add a lushness, richness or euphonic warmth to the resultant sound. Usually that implies a compromise in terms of detail and accuracy. Let me say that the Ultimate suffers none of those negative concerns. In fact, while the mids and highs were natural, immediate and clear, the big benefit to bass reproduction was indeed the happy bonus. Listening to pipe organ, big bass drum, upright bass, synthesizer bottom end and even extraneous deep sounds, I never felt that something was bloated, overly ripe or out of place. Textures on bass drum skins were as easy to hear as were piano notes from the left hand end of a Bösendorfer Grand Imperial. This all contributed to making me a happy camper while listening to every style of music in my collection. Regarding those extraneous deep sounds just mentioned, I have become particularly attuned to traffic noise, structure-borne subsonic bangs and other similar non-musical events that occur almost always at the wrong time in a live performance. This is as a result of my recording projects during live concerts in real-world venues which are not immune from such outside intrusions. The bass-heavy footfalls of an energetic conductor on the podium or rumblings of a furnace, for instance, provide frustration for recording engineers but sometimes also carry a surprising fun element for audiophiles who see such intrusions as evidence that the concert happened in front of real people. (When will cough drop manufacturers find a way to produce wrappings that don't make so much noise when being opened?)

One gem of a recording is a recent find coming from Airborne Recording Victoria and the talented Canadian engineer/owner Russell Dawkins. He traveled to the Ukraine to record two interpretations of Romeo and Juliet, one from Prokofiev and the other by Tchaikovsky. These were performed by the Ukrainian Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Aram Gharabekian and Dawkins expended great effort to capture this music in a most natural and purist way. The sound and music are captivating and Russell's efforts were readily demonstrated via the Ultimate player. Instrument placement, textures and timbre are first rate; the ambiance and immediacy of the recording makes for a truly enjoyable listening session. Hearing this same disc on my Naim and two other CDPs presented hints of what was on this CD, but the Ultimate really made sense of it all, especially revealing the positive contributions of his ribbon microphones.

From a different musical direction, I am grateful to my good friend Greg who turned me on to the Australian-born guitarist Tommy Emmanuel. This man plays with a magical technique and heartfelt style that surpasses all expectations. I now own two of his many discs, one called Endless Road, the other Only. I heartily recommend both if you enjoy finger picking at a remarkable level. Chet Atkins became a certified fan of Tommy and the last recording Chet ever made was of the two of them in a 1997 session. While these are not audiophile-approved CDs, the sheer joy of the musicianship and creative interpretations of the music portray what we seek, or should pursue, as music lovers and
audio geeks. Happily, the Ultimate did justice to this material in such cool ways that it was readily possible to forget about frequency response, distortion figures and the usual host of things typically associated with audiophilia nervosa. It has now gotten to the point that I can't wait until Tommy Emmanuel comes within driving distance so that I can hear this genius in live performance.

I won't go into excruciating detail about each of the four favorite Reference Recordings CDs from Keith Johnson's masterful hand that I hold in high regard, but most of the Minnesota Orchestra offerings with Eiji Oue have delicious things to deliver. The Ultimate elicited wonderful listening with all of them.

Some of the other music that helped me to understand this fine disc player in broader terms included Ballads in Blue from varied artists on the Enja label [ENJ-93502]. Interestingly, I found this CD after hearing a number of these tracks via a Burmester sampler. One example of the many tasty goodies here is Dusko Goykovich doing "No Love Without Tears" where the Miles Davis references make for entrancing listening. For a yummy bass workout, Karl Ratzer doing "Farmer's Charm" is bound to please. Just about every track on this Enja disc provides that kind of oasis listening that lets me relax at the end of a busy day, taking pleasure and peace from the musicianship and playback completeness unfolding before me.

Older standards like Joshua Judges Ruth from Lyle Lovett, any of many Pat Metheny discs and Joni Mitchell's bountiful discography were joined by a recent acquisition from Jack Johnson called In Between Dreams [Brush Fire Records B0004149-02]. Here the close mic'd sounds, while not purist by any means, demonstrate the quickness, balance and liveliness of the Ultimate. The attack, sustain and decay of notes especially on the fine guitar work all felt appropriate and involving.

Many of the other recordings used during this review time period are denoted in my PMC IB2 speaker review from December 2005 in our archives if there is a desire to see the breadth of the range of music which comprised the Ultimate evaluation. Throughout this review, the Ultimate delivered music honestly and easily.

Incidentally, having two 6DJ8/6922 tubes in the balanced output stage, there is plenty of room for experimenting with valves of different makes, vintages and so on. I did not undertake that path but it is useful to know it is an option. Likewise for the AC power cord, which I did find made for meaningful differences. The only other tweak I investigated was to place the machine on the Symposium Svelte Shelf with the matching Fat Padz between the base of the player and the top of the Shelf. It was a very beneficial matching.

In closing
The Underwood HiFi Denon DVP-3910 Ultimate disc player combines solid build qualities with exceptional sonic performance and ease of use. My listening setup is configured for two-channel stereo so none of the multi-channel or video aspects of this player were evaluated. However, as a multiple format stereo playback device, the Ultimate is a well-named piece of equipment, reflecting serious design acumen and strong implementation effectiveness.

The Ultimate delivers so much so competently regarding the standard vocabulary of audiophilic parameters/terms that it is very easy to forget those sorts of details (and the usual jargon), allowing the listener instead to settle into the sheer enjoyment of the music recreated so beautifully, effortlessly and naturally.

For those who may need to be budget-conscious or are unable to commit to the fully outfitted version of the Ultimate as utilized here, it is possible to stage the level of modification in several steps and thus make the upgrade path more wallet-friendly. I
received this unit at its full-tilt extent of modding so I am not able to comment on how those intermediate steps translate into evolving performance factors. Walter is well versed on helping to explain those details and likewise to make any of that happen.

Kudos to the Underwood HiFi folks and their collaborating partners at Parts ConneXion for successfully undertaking and executing the Ultimate. It is a highly recommended disc player and should bring many years of fuss-free listening pleasure to any proud owner.
Underwood HiFi website
Parts ConneXion website