When our prematurely greyed editor discovered that I own both an SACD player and a high opinion about this new-fangled format, it wasn't before long that he suggested to closely look at a more expensive player than my ground floor Sony. Being a greedy audiophile, I naturally jumped at my first chance to hear a fully tricked-out unit chez Paul's. Srajan offered the two-channel Music Hall Maverick SACD player via the upgrade-path off ramp of Walter Liederman and Chris Johnson. He'd written up a few of their collaboration already, felt the time had come to spread forthcoming offerings to our growing stable of writers, with Mike Healey covering their upgraded Outlaw Audio monos, John Potis the hot-rodded Quad preamp and Chip Stern the tweaked Denon DVD-2900 universal machine.

While I appreciate the sonic benefits of SACD on my modest CDN$200 Sony SCD-XE670, I was curious to audition a more expensive unit, especially one that upsampled conventional CDs. I wanted to know if upsampling was the magic bullet others had claimed. The Maverick also happened to be a good ol' two-channel player - no multichannel functionality at all. No sir! I'm not about to add the complexity of three more channels to my system. I neither have the funds, room nor inclination. I don't think that surround-sound does much to enhance musicality though it may provide more audiophile fireworks for those who just must have the latest techno-gizmology. I confess I'm more into tapping my two-footed toes.

The Maverick is a Chinese-built Shanling made for the US-based Music Hall brand which also acts as the importer/distributor for Creek, Epos and Shanling proper. The Maverick basically repackages the Shanling T-200 by omitting its tubes, top-loading transport and gussied-up styling. Familiar with Roy Hall's high-value reputation, I suspect that his goal was to offer most of the T-200's performance at a lower, even more competitive price. Unlike the T-200, today's more Spartan player includes upsampling via the ubiquitous Crystal CS8420 24/96 sample rate converter. The drive mechanism is Sony's top-line KHM 234AAA laser head and servo system as used in its $5000 SCD-1.

SACD decoding is performed by Sony's own CXD 2752 chip while Redbook DAC duties are handled by a single 24/96 Burr-Brown PCM 1738. The Mav weighs in at 22 lbs and sports a thick, nicely finished aluminum fascia. Two transformers housed inside provide separate power for analog and digital sub-systems. The Maverick comes with a hefty full-function metal remote and retails for US$1495. Now enter the Royal Canadian Mod Squad.

The subject of today's review's had a magic wand waved over its innards, compliments of fellow Canuck Chris Johnson's Parts ConneXion, and available exclusively through Walter Liederman's Underwood HiFi, a veteran retailer known online as underwoodwally. Some of you may recall Chris from his days as founder and president of Sonic Frontiers. Our southerly US readers may remember Georgia-based retail chain HiFi Buys of which Walter was a senior partner. To call these two gentlemen experienced in the world of High-End audio would be a grave understatement. The Level-1 modified Maverick benefits from the following upgrades:
  • Power Supply: 8 ultra-fast, soft-recovery Hexfred International Rectifier and Fred Vishay-Telefunken diodes
  • 8 BlackGate FK and N Series electrolytic capacitors
  • 3 Auricap metallized polypropylene power supply bypass capacitors
  • Output Stage: 18 Riken Ohm Japanese 0.5-watt Carbon composite signal-path resistors with gold-plated leads
  • 4 BlackGate FK-Series electrolytic output coupling capacitors
  • 2 .022uf 200V Rel-Cap Teflon output-coupling bypass caps
  • 10 Rel-Cap RTE 2% radial-lead polystyrene signal caps (square case, epoxy encapsulated)
  • 2 custom-made adaptor PC boards for 'ultra high performance' Burr-Brown OPA627 op amps as the main output buffers
  • DH Labs 99.99% pure silver Teflon tape wrap (Air Matrix style) jacketed solid-core output wire
  • Miscellaneous: 2 sheets of SoundCoat dampening material for the internal chassis
  • WBT 4% silver-content solder for all parts upgrades
  • 4 EAR compliant Sorbothane feet
  • Labor: 5 hours

he Level-1 Maverick retails for US$1990 + shipping. If you wish to have your stock unit upgraded, set aside US$900. Furthermore, the standard Music Hall 12-month warranty fully honors these tweaked units by special agreement with Underwood HiFi. According to Walter's and Chris' on-line notes, the following are the claimed sonic benefits:

  • The player is now much smoother, with a far more liquid midrange, the solid state glare replaced with a neutral presentation that isn't tubes but much closer to what a tube player can offer. This alone makes the mod well worth the price. But there's more.
  • The unit's noise floor is lower; the black of silences is blacker, resolving more low level detail and ambience retrieval.
  • The unit is more dynamic, micro dynamic contrasts are much improved. Highs seem to go on forever and there is much more air in the presentation.
  • Transparency is improved to allow looking farther into the soundstage.
  • Images are sized better and more focused. Stage width and depth are improved.
  • Bass slam and extension are dramatically improved, with fuller weight and new authority in the critical mid-bass region where the Maverick now competes with much more expensive players .

As a cost-conscious audiophile, modifying stock gear makes good sense to me. A tweaked piece with premium-quality parts can be offered at a far lower retail -- or surcharge -- than the original manufacturer could ever hope to provide. Since the Maverick is built to a set price point as most anything in audio, utilizing more expensive components would plug into the standard 1:5 mark-up of build cost vs. retail to exponentially explode the final selling price. A third-party modifier such as Underwood/PCX simply needn't use the same math to cover their own expenses and make a fair profit to boot. Therefore, the $1990 Level-1 Maverick should be able to hold its own with far more expensive players.

While Paul's assumption is 100% correct, his current system context doesn't allow him to truly verify the potential extent of this insightful statement. For greater context -- and under the proviso that the Maverick is indeed identical to the solid-state circuit of the Shanling T-200 which I reviewed; and that the obvious difference (the top-loading transport) doesn't significantly impact sonics by comparison -- let me remind the reader that the Level-2 modified
T-200 slightly eclipsed my personal $13K digital front end, comprised of the Cairn Fog 24/192 CDP as transport, the Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC and the Ortho Spectrum AR2000 buffer/filter. I should add that a very experienced listener recently evaluated the Zanden against the SACD-capable dCS stack and found the Japanese 16/44 DAC preferable in most though not all areas. While clearly lacking the Shanling's fancy uptown cosmetics, this round-about tale might put Paul's musings into perspective, to help prospective buyers recognize the greater neighborhood in which the Maverick might actually sing and dance - Ed.

'Round back, there's a three-prong IEC power inlet with a master power switch, one coaxial digital output and one pair of RCA analog outputs. The front adds the standard control buttons of open/close; play/pause; stop; skip forward, skip backward; and power on [blue]/standby [red]. All other functions -- including activating upsampling and toggling between SACD and CD playback -- are purely on the remote. Don't lose it, sez Paul before prophesying great frustration in your future otherwise.

Upfront, the central round display distinguishes the Mav from other players. The upsampler LED sits above the text/number readout, changing from red [standard Redbook] to violet [upsampler engaged] to blue [SACD]. While attractive, this display is virtually useless beyond six feet unless you habitually kept a pair of binoculars handy. The tiny alphanumeric readout indicates track number, elapsed time and playback status only. The remote, on the other hand, is excellent. It's fashioned from metal and has a nice, hefty feel about it. Don't drop it on the cat or you'll get hissed at. The buttons are well laid-out and easily navigated by touch and relative position alone.

Hard Knox & Durty Sox

The Maverick was auditioned with my Bryston B60 integrated and Meadowlark Kestrel 2s, signal distribution ably handled by JPS Labs' Ultraconductors, Superconductor + and, just recently, a pair of DH Labs Q10 speaker cables. AC was enhanced by a Blue Circle BC86 MkII Power Line Pillow and a brace of Wireworld Aurora III AC cables. My Rotel RCD-971 and Sony SCD-XE670 players stood by as comparators. The Houston Mini-2 EL34 based integrated, Song Audio SA-34B SET and Level-1 & Level-2 Unison Research Unicos also served time leashed to the Maverick, with CDs and non-hybrid SACDs wildly enhanced by Walker Audio's Vivid cleaning solution. This creamy fluid is wiped onto the business side of the discs and lightly buffed to a shine. Every CD or SACD I've tried this stuff on has sounded - well, more vivid as a result. Digital glare is reduced, definition and musical detail noticeably improved. This tweak really works. At $45 for a 3.5oz bottle, this has got to be one of the best bang-for-your-dollar tweaks around. Suffice to say, no disc gets spun 'round here until it has been properly vivified.

Out of the box, I had problems with the Maverick. At first, my Kestrels clearly relayed hum and mechanical noise - with a loaded disc, I listened to the drive mechanism spin up, then make all sorts of clicks and pops during playback like a worn-out record. It didn't matter what the disc or format, the problem persisted. I double-checked all connections but this annoying electronic noise refused to vanish. Contemplating the Maverick's grounded AC plug, I flashed on potential ground loops, pulled out a cheater plug from the audiophile tool box, plugged it in, hit play and voilà - problem banished, no further annoyances through my loudspeakers. Phew!

To confirm that this wasn't a fluke result, I switched out the cheater plug several times and floated my amp as well. In each instance, the noise disappeared when one of the components' grounds was lifted. Rather than suffer any potential sonic degradation from this adaptor plug, I loosened the ground wire from the Maverick's motherboard and carefully covered the exposed end with electrical tape. I knew I wasn't in violation of any electrical code nor at risk of possible electrocution since my integrated amp remained properly grounded.

I also discovered that Le Mav refused to play several of my discs, including certain standard Redbooks, CDRs and SACDs. On at least two hybrid SACDs, the Music Hall would refuse to switch between layers. This was most frustrating since all of these recordings play perfectly fine on my Rotel RCD-971, Sony SCD-XE670, PC, laptop and two car decks. Upon informing Chris Johnson, Music Hall quickly sent a replacement chip to hopefully eliminate these disc read errors. Upon arrival, I replaced the offending chip. While a couple of unreadable discs became readable, others remained in limbo. What was going on? I again contacted Chris who requested that I bring in the Maverick for a diagnostic check-up. He suspected shipping damage. As I work within a half hour's drive from Chris, this was a painless request. After a few days, he e-mailed me for pick-up. It appears that my disc read errors were indeed the result of an intermittent solder joint likely loosened during shipping which, after all, originates in remote China. Chris reseated all components, tested all connections and the Maverick's worked flawlessly since.

Well, with two exceptions. My aforementioned troublesome hybrid disc now played, but only if the Maverick was in SACD playback mode before inserting it. The machine would still refuse to switch layers via remote. Having examined the disc, both Chris and I agreed that it was marginally readable due to the thinness of its reflective layer. However, difficulties persisted with a pair of Kodak CDRs. Chris explained that CDRs are made with a plethora of different colour polymers and metal densities depending on lab and maker. He suggested that the Maverick's error correction mechanism was very sensitive to such variations and recommended I copy the Kodaks onto different blanks. Eureka - thank you Chris: Black Memorex blanks solved the issue, incidentally the kind I've found to be the most reliable and best-sounding of all digital blank media tried to date. Suffice to say, the Maverick has a very low tolerance for discs with manufacturing anomalies.

I did not have a stock Mav to compare between the pedestrian and tweaked versions - no blow-by-blow accounts of sonic differences hence. However, my parallel experience with the Level-1 and -2 modified Unison Research Unicos suggests that the basic character is retained while the performance envelope significantly widens. Think of dropping a beefier, more powerful engine into the family sedan. Basic handling characteristics remain recognizable but performance explodes forward: Vroom, vroom, gimme room!