CES 2004: High End SACD & Universal Players On Sale

CES 2004: In contrast to last year’s show, CES 2004 featured a number of high end SACD and Universal SACD & DVD-A players on sale and ready for delivery. Readers of High Fidelity Review will recall that at last year’s show, and even the Home Entertainment 2003 (HE 2003) show held last year in San Francisco, there were a number of interesting high end players that were announced and shown but they were not available for purchase.

The good news is that these players are for the most part shipping and we are even seeing some additional models and products from the companies that had been planning their entry into this market. Certainly a good sign for the high end of the high rez audio field. Here are some highlights from the trip to the high end audio exhibits at the Alexis Park today.

Bel Canto Announces PL1A Universal Player
At last year’s show, I told you about the Bel Canto PL1 Universal SACD & DVD-A Multichannel player which was due out by mid 2003. The PL1 (also known as the Bel Canto PLayer) is a full featured player that is highlighted by Bel Canto’s proprietary analog output section and a “video off” feature that is said to offer reduced video crosstalk when playing audio only format discs.

The good news from CES 2004 is that the PL1 did indeed ship shortly after the HE 2003 show mentioned earlier. After some initial backorder problems due to the unit’s popularity (when shipped in the summer, there was a 3 week waiting list pending), it is now generally available at a list price of $8,990.

An interesting thing happened to the product as it entered the market. Many of Bel Canto’s customers are teaming the player with high end video processors and scalers which have some of the same video enhancement circuitry that is in the PL1. With that in mind, Bel Canto announced the upcoming availability of the new PL1A Universal player. The PL1A is due out in 3 months at a price that will be $1,000 below the PL1’s list price. For that price, you get all of the PL1’s audio circuitry (and performance) along with most of the video processing power and features as well.

Mike McCormack from Bel Canto told me that they were surprised in the interest for such a product but after hearing the interest and requests from their dealers and customers they decided to bring the PL1A to market. I’m sure that audiophile fans of Bel Canto’s products, and those who have been considering the PL1 will want to look at the PL1A as a new and interesting option.



dCS Enhances SACD System With Master Clock
dCS is best known for its professional PCM and DSD Digital to Analog Converters (DACs). A couple of years ago, they enhanced their audiophile offerings with an SACD transport called the Verdi that connected to their DACs via a 1394 firewire interface (the first such SACD product with firewire). The combination runs about $20,000 for stereo SACD and CD playback but is often cited as one of the best in audiophile circles.

At CES 2004, dCS is showing their new “Verona” Master Clock product which matches the look of the Verdi and their Elgar Plus PCM and DSD DAC. The Master Clock is said to “tighten up and focus” the sound of the Verdi/Elgar Plus or Verdi/Delius combination for Stereo SACD or CD playback. While I didn’t get a chance to hear the clock unit switched in and out, the setup with the clock active did indeed sound very fine when playing the Opus 3 Tribute to Louis Armstrong native DSD recorded Super Audio CD disc.

dCS is confident when dealers demo the Master Clock when it arrives at stores at the end of the month, dCS fans will want to add the Master Clock to their system. A note, the product will not come cheap. It is slated to be priced just under what a new dCS Purcell unit costs. So dCS owners and fans will want to visit their dealer and do some listening when the Verona arrives.

Music Hall’s Maverick SACD Player Ships
The news from Roy Halls’ Music Hall company at CES was also good. The long awaited “Maverick” 2 channel SACD player which I mentioned from last year’s CES and HE 2003 shows has shipped and is available from some dealers at a list price of $1,499. The unit is a 2 channel SACD and CD player that features a core player with a Sony mechanism made by the Shanling company in China with extensive mods and audio circuitry added by Music Hall to Roy Hall’s personal specifications. (Shanling’s involvement in the player is not a surprise since Music Hall is the U.S. distributor for Shanling’s flashy looking SCD-T200 tube 2 channel SACD and CD player).

I got to hear the final production version of the Maverick and once again found it to be a very nice sounding 2 channel SACD player for the price. The only glitch here is that the unit’s popularity has caused it to be sold out in the U.S. market at the moment. But the Music Hall staff tells me that a new batch of the players is already headed for the U.S. shores, so it should be available again from dealers who may be sold out in the weeks ahead.



MSB Technologies Offers SACD DAC Connector “Upgrade”
MSB Technologies was at the show, and like several of the firms in this report, they have now shipped their Super DVD Audio Player product. High Fidelity Review readers will recall that the Super DVD Audio player was previewed at last year’s CES show. It featured SACD and DVD-A playback as well as offering Dolby Digital and DTS for Home Theater playback of DVD Video discs. The unit also includes 24 bit 192k MSB DACs, 192k upsampling, 6 channel analog outputs as well as a variety of digital outputs including coax, firewire and MSB’s own 192k cat 5 digital outputs. The unit’s price remains at $7,995 and is at the show in a static display.

New this year is the “MSB Master Card” upgrade for “any SACD player on the market” according to the firm. For $795, MSB will add a board and MSB’s proprietary 192k cat 5 digital output to your player. From there, you can add any of the firm’s DACs (they range in price from $499 to $7,000) to provide a high resolution output than is found on the stock player according to the firm’s spec sheet on the product.

It will be interesting to see how much interest there is in this product since several small firms now offer mods to SACD players that include upgraded analog output sections for less than the price of the MSB connector and Master Card. Also of note, even though MSB bills this as a SACD upgrade, the “fine print” on the spec sheet notes that it will work with “combo CD, DVD or Universal players”. This suggests that the Master Card will also work for CD and DVD-A players as well.

A Preview of the Meitner SACD Transport & 2 Channel DAC
Also on display at CES 2004 is a first look at the upcoming SACD Transport and 2 Channel DAC from Ed Meitner’s EMM Labs. To find these units, one has to travel to the very back of the Alexis Park displays in Room 2801, which makes me wonder how many people may miss this demo. If you do travel to the room, you will see both of these upcoming products which are due out in the next month or so. As with the previous Meitner audiophile products, they will be available from Chambers Audio’s Blue Light Audio division in the Northwest as well as some dealers around the country.

The new Digital Control Center 2 (DCC2) is a 2 channel DAC and preamp combination that offers a combination of a 2 channel DSD Meitner designed DAC and 2 channels of preamp features from EMM’s popular Switchman II preamp/switcher. It will go for a suggested list price of $9,995. Key features on the unit according to the firm include:

  • AES-EBU, coax, toslink digial inputs for redbook CD players
  • ST-glass and BNC inputs for use with the new Meitner CDSD Transport
  • 2 Channel EMM Labs balanced DSD digital to analog converters
  • 2 analog inputs (1 balanced or RCA unbalanced and 1 RCA unbalanced only)
  • Switchman volume control circuitry to drive amps directly via balanced and RCA analog outputs
  • Line-level balanced and RCA outputs for a separate preamp

Active power-factor corrected power supply

The new companion product to the DCC2 is the EMM Labs CDSD Transport. It uses a Philips SACD drive and transport that is married with circuitry and electronics designed from EMM Labs. The transport will replace the modified (or some called “Meitnerized”) version of the SACD-1000 SACD player that has been used to date to drive Meitner’s DAC6e 6 channel DSD DAC and the new DCC2 DSD DAC and Preamp units. Like the DCC2 the CDSD features new styling from EMM Labs that drops the rack mount design of their pro and DAC6 audiophile units in favor of a squared silver case, blue lighting and a more elegant appearance in general (see photo below). The CDSD will sell for a suggested list price “around $5,000” when it comes out in the next month or so.

I ran into company owner Ed Meitner and general manager Greg Soo at the Tenor Audio room at the show. They tell me that the DCC2 offers slightly better sound than the firm’s existing DAC6e product for Stereo SACD and CD fans. It does this by eliminating the Line Driver circuitry needed to interface the DAC6 with an external preamp or switcher. While there wasn’t a DAC6e in the room to test out their claim, the Stereo sound produced from the DCC2/CDSD combo from some SACDs and CDs being played in the room did prove that these are very nice units and ones that will gain some fans in the audiophile market.

Some Software News
There’s more to talk about from the CES exhibits at the Alexis Park. But before I do that, let me share with you some news about new SACD releases at the show in the next report.