Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC; Accustic Arts Drive-1; Audio Aero Prima [on review]
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe2; Wyetech Labs Pearl [on loan]
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88, Butler Audio 2250 [on review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo; Gallo Acoustics Reference 3
Cables: Stealth Audio Varidig S/PDIF, Stealth Audio Indra (x2), Crystal Cable Reference speaker cable and power cords; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature for source components; Walker Audio Velocitor
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; 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 wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs; Mapleshade 4" solid maple platform under BPT conditioner
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 pricing: $3,995/pr

A happy victim of its own success in the marketplace, this review's January 2004 intro took until now to reach the finish line. A second review loaner only became available in November of 04 to replace the original. To not tie up the then-scarce supply of PLayers, the original unit had been expedited to the Japanese distributor before I left on my extended Spring vacation in February of last year. The next two pages are the original intro annotated with brief notes where appropriate. The concluding performance commentary of the present 'finale' follows on page 3:

High Deaf. When talking SACD and DVD-A 'super-resolution' formats, it's easy to overlook that they haven't replaced 16-bit/44.1kHz as of any particular date. They haven't become the new de facto standard. They haven't become the now only legalized vehicle brand to motor down your local audio highway with. Never mind highway. Thus far, we should more properly call it predominantly obscure back-country roads. You see, CDs continue to be pressed. New CDs continue to be recorded, mastered and sold in exponentially vastly larger quantities than both new-fangled formats combined (supposedly even vinyl sales eclipsed them last year). Consider those listeners whose musical tastes are broad, who continue on a monthly basis to purchase nine newly minted CDs for every one SACD or DVD-A. With them, the corporate battle cry to embrace Hi-Def audio has fallen mostly on deaf ears. High Deaf! This explains the rise of the universal rather than dedicated SACD or DVD-A machines. Unless you wanted to hitch your horse to one of the two new buggies exclusively; or already owned a state-of-the-art RedBook player and merely required the add-on SACD/DVD-A functionality in a secondary machine - the only sensible consumer option really is the universal one.

Consider the math. From a pure numbers' perspective, a commercially successful universal machine must support 90% RedBook and 10% 'hi-rez' playback. For some, this division could lean yet farther in favor of CD (moi, for example). Curiously enough, the first and second generation universal players were nearly unanimously considered optimized for the 10% of new software. They were proclaimed less satisfying than truly state-of-the-art CD-only machines for the dominant 90% of regular 'lo-rez' music which, by implication, now became relegated to the junk yard of the old and passé. Oh really? My extensive collection of irreplacable CDs passé? Schweinehund! Even an outsider can appreciate that the time seemed ripe for the rise of the no-compromise RedBook-happy universal player. Guess what? The first such contenders have arrived on the scene, with the Esoteric DV-50, Linn Uni-Disc and today's Bel Canto Design PLayer arguably among the most exciting forerunners. [Since then, Classé and Krell have entered the fold, Esoteric has updated its DV-50 and introduced even dearer models, Audio Aero is about to introduce a machine, Meridian has theirs, McCormack theirs, Denons and Sonys are being modded left and right and there could be yet others that escape my notice at the moment - Ed.]

Bel Canto's PLayer PL-1A adds a small but important wrinkle to this scenario. What if your primary interest were audio? In a strategic move guaranteed to appeal to audiophiles such as yours truly, John Stronczer decided to issue a special "audiophile version" of his original $8,900 video-centric PLayer. Omit the cross-color suppression, DCDI adaptive motion, film mode and H/V sync circuitry. Omit the state-of-the-art Faroudja engine which loads down the power supply even when not in use and thus generates noise. Omit four front panel buttons thus rendered obsolete. Subtly tweak the remaining circuitry for the best-possible audio performance which since has replaced the original BurrBrown I/V conversation and balanced output driver amp chip with one optimized for audio use. It also appears in the firm's PRe2 two-channel preamp and is said to sport ultra-low distortion figures measurably superior to the earlier video-optimized chip that electrically measured the same and came from the same house of BurrBrown/Texas Instruments. Implement a massive +/-5V supply rail for the monster crystal oscillator that's described as going beyond regular consumer audio designs to be more akin to ultra low-noise transmission broadcast architectures.

My review mission for the 'audio' PLayer is twofold: Determine how closely it approaches, parallels or eclipses the RedBook performance of my Zanden DAC tethered to the stand-alone Accustic Arts Drive-1; and explore so-called high-resolution software vis-à-vis my finest RedBook samples to get a handle on what -- when either format is supported by completely uncompromised hardware -- these rather than all the other public ears would perceive by comparison. Here's now the very unit as introduced at CES 2004.

Lifting its skirt for a look-see (not for nothing is it called the PLayer), I was greeted by two-story circuit board architecture in the internal real estate's right third, and a massive, completely caged AC power filter and rectification module on its left. Hardly anything remains of the Pioneer transport platform save for one or two small control-logic boards.

With serious review observations reserved for later, today's exercise inserts the PLayer into my usual reference system; slaves its digital BNC output to my Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII with the Furutech Digi Ref. cable for convenient RedBook comparisons via the remote-controlled Bel Canto PRe2 preamp; then tests a few SACDs and DVD-As to get a first whiff of the implied superiority (or not) of the 'super' formats. Think of this introducion then more of a software than hardware-based inquiry - Ye olde Editor getting his SACD/DVD-A legs after too much time on the terra firma of RedBook focus.