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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Home Cinema/Audiophile Review!
Oppo UDP-203 Universal Audio Player:
"The New King Of The All-In-One UDPs"


Brevis...
Price: $549
Likes: video, audio performance
Dislikes: I would not dare complain
Wow Factor: best of  budget audiophile UPs
More info: Oppo UDP-503

by John Gatski
 Oppo Digital has always been the bang for the buck leader for universal disc players and, more recently, DA converters. The BDP-93 and 95, the BDP-103 and 105, as well as the HA-1 and HA-2 headphone amps are amazing performers, based on their generation status.
  Oppo recently refreshed the line with three new products: the new UDP-203 (replaces the long-running BDP-103 universal player) reviewed here, the UDP-205 universal flagship (replacing the BDP-105), and the Wi-Fi wireless/wired Sonica hi-res DAC, which uses the same  wireless hi-res smart device play capability as the best-buy Sonica wireless speaker.
  For this review we will focus on the UDP-203, which is, perhaps, the best audiophile player/DAC you can buy for the money.

Features
  The UDP-203 is an all new entry player from Oppo. No longer designated as a Blu-ray player (BDP), it is now tagged as a universal player (UDP), which previous models were anyway. From an audio improvement standpoint, the UDP-203 features a new DAC chip, the premium 32-bit DAC from AKM; the AK4458VN is an eight-channel DAC  chip with support for formats — such as 192 kHz/32-bit PCM and multi-channel DSD. 
  AKM D/A chips are used in numerous high-end stereo DACs, including the Bryston BDA-3, TEAC UD-503 and the well-regarded Hegel units. Anthem also uses the multi-channel AKM chip in its top-rated receivers and pre/pros.
  As an all-in-one comprehensive audio/video player, it still takes a really good DAC to outperform the UDP-203. Overall, I give it a 10 out of 10, and an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

  Having listened to virtually every Oppo ever made, the AKM-equipped UDP-203 is the best sounding, entry-level budget player the company has ever produced. The BDP-93 and BDP-103 used Cirrus DAC chips, which were good, but did not have the ultimate resolution and ease of listening character of this AKM chip. Music listeners who want one great sounding player for CDs, SACDS, DVD-As, downloads, etc. will find that the UDP-203 can be a budget, single-player solution. It is that good.
  The Oppo UDP-203 and its new big brother, the UDP-205 are just about the only multichannel players that still come standard with analog outputs. Most other players  are audio via HDMI. The UDP-203 includes eight analog outputs for 7.1 (subwoofer, main L/R, center, L/R surrounds, and back channels L/R).

Oppo still equips UDPs with analog outputs

  As with previous Oppos, you can still use the player as the decoder/level controller for your multi-channel amps (look ma, no preamp) by simply doing the onboard setup and using the variable option  volume through the remote control.
  Oppo also modernized the video playback by adding 4K native playback via HDMI 2.0 and 4K upscaling, as well as HDR (high dynamic range) processing, which really increases the color accuracy and dimensionality of video playback. The quad-core video engine offers up equate quality via 1080 or 4K.
  Other useful features include two HDMI outputs (including the 4K), an HDMI input, front panel and rear panel USB 2 inputs so you can plug in a drive or use the UDP as the player for PCM up to 24/192 and DSD up to 5.6 MHz.

For just over $500, good parts abound in the  UDP-503

  The transport has been beefed up and is considerably faster than the BDP-103. The high-precision, well-balanced laser optical disc loader ensures smooth, reliable playback of all types of disc media. An optimized laser mechanism provides super fast disc loading and strong error detection & correction.
  Even though the UDP-203 is the “budget” entry level Oppo player, nothing about it seems low cost. While, you now see under $100 BD players that seem like throwaways with low cost plastic build, the UDP is still first class all the way; a rigid steel chassis, premium disc drives, gold plated connectors and that spacious, big button Oppo remote that we have come to love.

The setup
  I used the UDP-203 as a high quality home cinema player and as an audiophile player. In the home cinema room, the Oppo was used as a BD player/audio player linked to an Anthem AVM-60 pre/pro for HDMI connection, to an Audio Control Maestro 3 M3 pre/pro for analog connection, and I also ran it directly into an AudioControl Pantages amplifier via the player’s analog outputs, engaging the remote control’s variable volume feature for level control.
  The rest of the system included my professional Westlake LC 8.1 speakers for front L/R, a Westlake LC2.65 center channel and two NHT One rear surround speakers. The Paradigm Sub 15 subwoofer handled the low bass duties.
  All cables were via the Wireworld Eclipse line, including speakers, interconnects and HDMI. Essential Sound Products Essence Reference II power cables were used on every component.
  The audiophile setup matched the UDP-203 with a number of current DACS, including the Benchmark DAC-3 HGC, Mytek Brooklyn and TEAC UD-503. Preamps on hand were the Coda High Current solid state and the Rogue Audio RP-5 tube pre. Reference listening amps included the new Bryston Cube 14B, Rogue Audio Medussa hybrid Class D/tube, Merrill Audio Veritas all Class-D monobocks and Pass Labs Int.-60 integrated. Speaker listening was done primarily on MartinLogan Montis.

In the home cinema
  Through the Anthem AVM-60, as I expected, the UDP-203 played BD discs exceptionally well with better video color accuracy, clarity and sharpness than my stock Oppo BDP-105. I did not even have to tinker with the standard video settings to get a visually impressive-looking film reproduction for movies, such as Lord of The Rings, Gravity and Apocalypto.
  The AVP HDMI link meant I was only hearing the Anthem’s analog audio part of the equation, which is outstanding. But to hear the UDP-203‘s multichannel DAC quality, I also ran the system with the Oppo as the pre-pro/player, if you will.

Oppo still includes a real-button, heavy duty remote

  I connected the main HDMI output directly to the Sony Bravia 60-inch LED TV, and using the player’s handy onboard, crossover, distance and level settings menus, I had the player ready to go in 15 minutes.
  Using the player to directly drive a 5 channel AudiControl Pantages  amplifier, the sound on the last X-Man film, Logan, was quite good. Eliminating an entire component from the chain conveys a directness and dynamics punch to multiple channel soundtracks. 
  Oppo also modernized the video playback by adding 4K native playback via HDMI 2.0 and 4K upscaling, as well as HDR (high dynamic range) processing, which really increases the color accuracy and dimensionality of video playback. The quad-core video engine offers up equate quality via 1080 or 4K.

  The aforementioned BDs and many others showcased the player-direct audio that matched the excellent picture. Though it is a standard digital volume control in the player, the overall subjective impression was on par with most mid-priced and higher pre/pros. Trust me. You can use this player without a pre-pro, if you don’t use more than one component.

The audiophile audition
  Turning to music playback via the AudioControl Maestro M3 pre/pro analog input connections, the UDP-203‘s SACD multichannel playback of the Warren BernhardtSo Real SACD was  definitely audiophile caliber. A well-recorded,  multichannel music is an experience to behold — music with more natural spatial audio cues from the rear and sides, if done correctly. This Tom Jung-produced, piano, bass and drums direct-to-DSD multichannel recording is one of the best, and it showed through the Oppo.
  As a stereo hi-res music player, I really liked the UDP-203 much better than the prior BDP-103, which always had a bit of graininess in the low treble. The new player is ultra smooth, thanks to the AKM chip, but also super precise. My impression is that the UDP-203 also sounds better than the stock BDP-105 with ESS 9018 chip, which can be overly soft on warm recordings.
 Versus the old high-end stock BDP-105 that used the vaunted ESS 9018 chip, I liked the airy transient character of the AKM D/A better on the Miles Davis SACD. Again, I think the AKM is less warm than the 9018, and I mean that in a good way.

  Listening to the Miles Davis Someday My Prince Will Come SACD showcases horn harmonics with both trumpet and saxophone, combined with some mighty fine drumming. The UDP’s sound was pretty much dead on with the TEAC-UD-503 DAC sound quality, which is a best buy D/A in my book.
  Versus the old high-end stock BDP-105 that used the vaunted ESS 9018 chip, I liked the airy transient character of the AKM D/A better on the Miles Davis SACD. Again, I think the AKM is less warm than the 9018, and I mean that in a good way.
  I compared the UDP against the $2,200 Benchmark DAC 3 HGC with the new ESS 9028Pro chip. These new ESS Pro D/A chips have a signature more like the new AKM chips, but a bit more dynamic energy accuracy that makes the Benchmark one of the best DACs out there. There is a bit more finesse and sense of dynamic energy with the Benchmark when comparing it to the UDP-203 player. It is easier to hear these difference when listening to the D/As via headphone than in the room via speakers,

UDP-203 acquitted itself quite well with hi-res music

   If you are looking for the UDP-203 to beat out all the best standalone DACs, that is a tall order. Still, as an under $600, all-in-one player/DAC, most listeners using the UDP-203 will be quite happy. I could certainly live with the Oppo as the primary DAC in my home cinema/audiophile room system
  During the review process, I had not one glitch, snafu or non-functioning feature on the ‘203. No out of nowhere software freezes that require a hard power reboot, or thumb drive tracks that would not play. All discs played, as did numerous HDtracks downloads I played from  a SanDisk Extreme thumb drive via the front USB port. With my small LG LED attached, the 203 is an easy-to-use alternative to computer playback of hi-res music.

The verdict
  The Oppo UDP-203 is the best-sounding budget player Oppo has ever produced, and is one of the last few universal players that features analog outputs. With significant audio improvement over its predecessor and outstanding video for 4K and 1080P video that rivals video processors that cost much more, it also is a true home cinema player bargain.


"Still The Bang-for-The Buck 
  As an audiophile player, it ups both the 103 and 105 in subjective play quality, and it can play music from lots of different formats, SACD, DSD files, DVD-A, Dual Disc, music files from a stick, servers, etc.  As an all-in-one comprehensive audio/video player, it still takes a really good DAC to outperform the UDP-203. Overall, I give it a 10 out of 10, and an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

   John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via email: everything.audio@verizon.net

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Audiophile Review!
Merrill Audio VERITAS
Class-D Monoblock Amplifier
"The Evolution of Class D"



Brevis
Price: $12,000 per mono pair
Likes: Class D accuracy, quality build
Dislikes: pricey, no onboard RCA input
Wow Factor: Class D has really evolved

by John Gatski
  Although analog amplifiers, with their beefy power supplies and massive build, still dominate the audiophile landscape, Class D (or digital amplifiers) has been quietly (and cooly evolving) into quite good sounding iterations. I am a big fan of the Rogue Audio tube/Class D hybrid amp, and I have quickly become a fan of the more upscale Merrill Audio VERITAS monoblocks reviewed here.
  Priced at a high-end price of $12,000 per pair, the Merrill VERITAS monoblock amplifier is a Class D amplifier that utilizes the Hypex NC1200 Class D module, tweaked by designer Merrill Wettasinghe. Unlike a Class A or AB amplifier, the Class D design operates very efficiently in terms of power use, and can offer significant power in small, lighter boxes that use a fraction of AC power of a conventional amp.
  The knock on Class D has been varying sound quality, with descriptions from edgy to sterile in varying degrees; good for the less sensitive bass frequencies but hard on the ears in the midrange and treble.
  However, newer Class D amps have come a long way and amps like the Merrill VERITAS, show that you can get a very musical, detailed, and spacious  stereo image that is smooth but accurate.

  This pricey, yet extremely detailed, musically neutral amplifier offers a classy, pedigreed look and exudes a sonic character that extracts the last bit of accuracy from the best sources and preamplifiers.

  Designer Merrill Wettasinghe, president of Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, says that VERITAS showcases the company’s “audio purity” philosophy. “The design philosophy was not to get in the way of the music. That means the audio signal has to be amplified cleanly, with the full dynamic range and speed and not get bogged down by the load,” Wettasinghe explained.
  According to Wettasinghe, the VERITAS amplifier was designed around Class D and SMPS power supplies, as this design can deliver “extreme sonic performance” at a reasonable cost.
  “Music is much closer to a square wave then it is to a sine wave,” he elaborated. “The unconscious recognition of live music is the immediacy of the sound - notes, vocals, percussion. Getting the rise time is critical in music reproduction and should be the audio holy grail — rather than childhood-reminiscent, euphonic warmth.”

Accurate converter deserves an accurate amplifier

  Wettasinghe said that Hypex Class D design was chosen because of its potential sonic superiority over any other circuit or design, including Class A. Having a 2 milliohm output impedance and power/frequency response that is independent of load, means more accurate reproduction of the signal.
  Wettasinghe added that the VERITAS circuit design addresses “critical Class D factors such as dead time and distortion, which are  prevalent in other Class D circuits, and are greatly minimized here by using appropriate 5th-order feedback loops. While some have chosen to slow this module down, I have chosen to let it free — without ring and overshoot.”
  In addressing the VERITAS switch mode power supply, Wettasinghe points out that an equivalent linear power supply for such a power amp would be more than a hundred pounds and ten times larger. He said the VERITAS’ overall efficiency is 85 percent at higher power levels.

Features
  The VERITAS monoblock is a beautiful, solid, high-end amp that feels and looks upscale. Although each amp only weighs 33 pounds, they are rated at 400 watts output at 4 ohms (800 at 4 ohms/1,200@2 ohms). The signal to noise is positively DAC like at -128 dB. Distortion spec is .004 percent at 200 watts. Factory rated gain is listed at 26 dB. Other specs include damping factor, 2,000 at 4Ω; and a frequency response from 0 Hz to 50 kHz, 0/-3dB, Gain: 26dB.

Hypex NC1200 module is key to VERITAS design

  The VERITAS was built with high-grade circuit boards, premium components and ultra thick PC boards for the surface mounted components. High-end power cords and Cardas XLR to RCA converters are also available as options.  It is a high-end looking amp with a refined feel. For $12,000 it should exude a certain top-tier appearance and build, and it does. The back panel includes Cardas balanced XLR inputs and IEC AC cord connection. Color options are red, black and silver. Each amp comes with mounting feet.

The setup
  I am no stranger to Class D amplifiers as I have listened to various iterations in pro and hi-fi since the 1990s. I actually own a Rogue Audio Medusa hybrid/tube Class D amp that uses Hypex modules as well. The Rogue is quite transparent and leans more toward the accuracy and vibrancy of a solid state amp than a traditional tube amp. It sounds great with my electrostatics.

  Via the electrostatic ML Montis, the VERITAS really shined its spotlight on The Anthony Wilson Trio’s — Our Gang SACD. Because of the plump, midbass of the Hammond organ playing, some amps can sound soggy on this recording. But from the first play of the title cut, the VERITAS nailed the tone balance perfectly.

  So with the Rogue and a plethora of other amps for comparison, I eagerly put the VERITAS into the EAN evaluation system. Components included a Benchmark DAC3 HGC DAC, Mytek Digital Brooklyn DAC, an Oppo Sonica DAC and a  Resonessence VERITAS DAC/preamp (some coincidence, eh?).
  For straight-ahead preamps, I linked the VERITAS to a Rogue Audio RP-5 tube preamplifier, an older Coda (still one of the most accurate out there) and a Pass Labs XP-10 MOSFET preamp.
  For comparison amps, I had on hand the aforementioned Rogue Medusa hybrid tube/Class D stereo amp, a Pass Labs INT-160.8 integrated (review upcoming),  and a new Bryston 14B SST Cube.
  Speakers included my MartinLogan Montis electrostatics, ATC SCM40 (review upcoming), a pair of Amphion Argon3S stand speakers and a pair of Westlake LC8.1 stand speakers. Cables were all Wireworld Eclipse including speakers cables and interconnects and digital connections. Power cables were from Essential Sound Products.

The audition
  The Class D amplifier criticism always seems to be that it lacks warmth and character versus analog amps, but as a reviewer who plays music, and records music as well as listen via the finer hi-fi products, I appreciate the detail, accuracy and bass precision of Class D’s better amps.
  They also have come a long way in delivering this precision without the harshness of the original Class Ds, thanks to developers such as Hypex, and the innovative manufacturers such as Merrill and Rogue Audio who implement these modules.
  Like the Rogue Medusa, I found the VERITAS, super clean and a master at transient response. There is a readily apparent air around instruments such as violin, drum cymbals, piano notes and classical guitar that magnifies hi-res recording accuracy. It is not a warm filter, analog quality, but a precise presence that allows me to listen deep into the music.
  Via the electrostatic ML Montis, the VERITAS really shined its spotlight on The Anthony Wilson TrioOur Gang SACD. Because of the plump, midbass of the Hammond organ playing, some amps can sound soggy on this recording. But from the first play of the title cut, the VERITAS nailed the tone balance perfectly.

Simple, but effective, back panel with balanced line input

  The snare hits, the jazz guitar note runs and the drum cymbals came through with a blend of space and dynamics that showcase the warm DSD recording. Like the Rogue Audio Medusa, the Merrill VERITAS also made an impression when I played the uptempo cut “Time Flies” (love that drum kit). The really good Class D amps keep control of individual dynamics of the various instruments of this recording — without blurring them together.
  And I am happy to report that the VERITAS is pretty darn smooth sounding. It did not exhibit any of the “digititis” of cheap Class D amps. Even at loud levels, I did not experience any ear grit on the Anthony Wilson Trio SACD.
  Switching to (no pun intended) a violin recording, 2L’s MOZART Violin Concertos 
(Marianne Thorsen, violin; TrondheimSolistene,Øyvind Gimse, conductor) at 24 bit/352 DXD, I wanted to hear if the VERITAS could transit those string to bow harmonics of the violin without succumbing to the edginess of old Class D or even hard-sounding analog solid state amps.

“The design philosophy was not to get in the way of the music. That means the audio signal has to be amplified cleanly, with the full dynamic range and speed and not get bogged down by the load.” 
—Merrill Wettasinghe

  Again, the sonic impression via the hi-res download was one of spacious detail and complexity of the violin playing, but it was not harsh. It was not warm or rich, but  quite neutral. Damn I like that.
  Okay, how about trumpets and other instruments? Those can sound hard through hi-fi gear, just by the nature of the instrument’s sound projection. So I popped in the Miles DavisSomeday My Prince Will Come SACD. The hi-res transfer of Mr. Davis’ highly rated 1963 recording sounds fabulous with good amplifiers with an intimate yet open performance of the small combo. Trumpet and sax tones are dynamic but a little understated as is the bass and drums. Cymbals, and snare have an open airy quality.
  The VERITAS duo and ML’s really nailed this recording as well. That precision in the upper bass to low treble removes a veil that lesser amps leave on the recording playback. While listening to this album, I did not think about analog, digital, MOSFET, bipolar, tube, etc. I just simply enjoyed the wide space presentation of each instrument and that uncanny accuracy VERITAS projects. I had the same sense of music when I auditioned the Rogue Medusa. I think the better Class D amps are perfect for electrostatic speakers.


ML Montis, VERITAS  excelled in transient response


  With the accurate, precision persona the Merrill amp had in spades, I had to listen to one of the transient rich recordings ever made, the Warren BernhardtSo Real SACD, recorded by Tom Jung for DMP in 2000.
   As mentioned many times in my reviews, the drum cymbals and percussion of the title track is one of the best demo tracks for room “air” and the realistic portrayal of space from a  recording.
  And as I expected the VERITAS projected the cut with precise relay of the upper register piano notes attack and decay, as well as those brush, airy drum cymbals. And when you hear the drummer rolling the drum stick around the snare in stereo, it is like you are sitting right there. That was the clincher for me.  Nowhere did I hear an etched, thin quality to the music. Music sounded like music. It was warm, not cold , hard or soft; it was great sounding performances coming out of this amplifier.
  With the impressive impression of Jazz and Classical, I switched off to Pop Music. Fleetwood Mac — Rumours, in 24-bit, has a bright EQ’d character that is detailed, but can sound edgy if the amp takes it over the line. When playing the hit “Dreams,” the treble splash of the cymbals does get pushed, but the VERITAS revealed the brightness without descending into grain. It just sounds a little bright, like the recording. But man, the open space around the drums and multi-tracked acoustic guitars on the song’s chorus is really brought out by the VERITAS.
  I popped in the limited SACD version of Celine DionFalling Into You, a fantastic sounding, 1996-produced hi-res Pop album with a mix of hits, ballads and uptempo dance songs.

Special edition SACD gets royal treatment via Merrill amps

  Ms. Dion's powerful vocals shined on the Eric Carmen cut "All By Myself." Her voice was full and emotive with a massive dose of dynamic range in the final chorus. I did not get a sense that there was anything artificial about the albums via VERITAS. No Class D blandness or emotion disconnectedness. In fact, quite the opposite, the amp’s precision character allowed me to hear deeper to the mix.
  How about dense, hard Rock music? I played the HDtracks 24-bit download of NirvanaNevermind. The fuzzy guitars and haze of Grunge hangs over this album, but the hi-res mix opens it up. Good amps can bring out the separation of instruments and vocal mix without exacerbating Kurt Cobain’s guitars sonic hardness. I have played Class D amp pro speakers that sounded awful with Nevermind.
  That was not the case with the Merrill VERITAS, they kicked out the open, sonic haze of Smells Like Teen Spirit without imparting extra tizziness. Again, the neutral nature of VERITAS makes it seem less compressed than conventional amps.
  Overall, all these listening impressions were repeatable with different pairings of the other speakers and preamps. Each component added their own bit to the equation, but the VERITAS was always clean, dynamic and presently detailed through every pair of speakers. The ML's ability to deliver space front  to back and side to side made it a go-to match up with the VERITAS. But the ATC SCM40 three-ways also really worked well with the Class D amps. An accurate speaker paired with an accurate amp sure fills the bill in my book.


  When I reviewed the Rogue Medusa in 2012, I was plenty impressed with its Class D hybrid design, with abundant treble detail, midrange accuracy and succinct bass performance. In comparison, however, I think the new VERITAS ekes out even more “space” and “air” — and generally sounds smoother than Medusa, which is now a few years old (maybe a tube upgrade is in order.) The Merrill monoblock‘s premium parts selection, plus the upgraded design tweaks, push the VERITAS to the next level of Class D. Of course, you pay for it in the list price.
  The only functional negative (besides having to shell out $12,000) regarding the VERITAS is that there are no onboard single-ended RCA inputs.You have to use unbalanced-to-XLR converters to connect RCA cables. You can order the Cardas XLR-to-RCA converters as an option, about $165 for a pair. You can also purchase optional Cardas power cords.

The verdict
  For those willing to shell out $12,000 for high-end power amps, I have no problem recommending the Merrill VERITAS Class D amplifier as a luxury class audiophile product. This pricey, yet extremely detailed, musically neutral amplifier offers a classy, pedigreed look and exudes a sonic character that extracts the last bit of accuracy from the best sources and preamplifiers.
  Yes, the pair is much pricier than mid-tier priced audiophile amps, but not as expensive as say the $80,000 XS Pass amp, or some of the Boulder amplifier models. In fact, there are numerous $10,000 plus high-end amplifiers that audiophiles are willing to buy — just like there are $100,000 cars that rich folks will plunk down their money on.
  As a luxury class amplifier implementing a first-rate Class D topology, the Merrill Class D VERITAS deserves a listen, and it receives the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

   John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via email: everything.audio@verizon.net