Universal Player Breaks Sound Barrier!
McCormack UDP-1 Universal Disc Player
Many said it just couldn't be done. The harder people tried, the more we all learned more about just how serious all the obstacles were, and the more pessimistic the outlook seemed to become. Wings fell off airframes, buffeting caused catastrophe, and controls became useless at steering and controlling the airplane. Unless you lived through that period of the 1940s as an adult, it's hard to appreciate how utterly, absolutely impenetrable the sound barrier seemed to be. The sound barrier was like a law of Nature unto itself. And many technically knowledgeable people believed that man might never be able to penetrate through and surpass the sound barrier.
Likewise, since the advent of the DVD player, many technically knowledgeable people have believed that a DVD player (or worse yet a universal player) would never be able to surpass the sound barrier, to provide true high fidelity sound. The best dedicated CD players had already been refined to the point of providing excellent high fidelity sound. And, for all us music lovers, our vast libraries of music on CD (as well as vinyl records) demanded that we provide ourselves with the best possible sound from these treasured libraries of two channel music. Indeed, even today the best two channel recordings remain benchmarks for the best sonic fidelity, including realistic spatial imaging (since most of today's multichannel recordings are regrettably made in ping-pong multi-mono, rather than true spatial surround). Then, when the first DVD players were introduced, it was painfully obvious that their sonic fidelity was far worse than most CD players (when playing CDs, and by inference also when playing other media). This giant sonic step backwards was a disappointment to everyone, but no surprise to technically knowledgeable people. The innards of a DVD players (and worse yet universal players) are far more complex than the innards of a CD player, and there are many more possibilities for noise, interference, contamination, jitter, etc. - all of which are technically known to degrade sonic quality. These complex gremlins threatened to forever keep DVD or universal players below a certain threshold of sonic quality, just as the complex aerodynamics associated with the sound barrier had threatened to keep mankind from ever traveling faster than the speed of sound. To technically knowledgeable people, it seemed very likely that no DVD or universal player could ever break the sound barrier, could ever sound as good as a reference quality dedicated CD player, for the very important job of playing our treasured huge library of music on CDs.
Would we music lovers forever be burdened with needing two silver disc players, one with true high fidelity sound for playing music from CD, and another with inevitably compromised sonics for playing DVDs for our home theater? And what about playing the supposedly higher fidelity super format silver discs, SACD and DVD-A? Would they ironically be inevitably and forever relegated to the player with lesser sonic fidelity? In short, would a universal player ever be able to surpass the sound barrier, and deliver true high fidelity sound that was truly as good as a reference quality dedicated CD player? The future outlook seemed bleak, and our only hope lay in an abstract, general faith in history and the tenacity of ingenious human endeavor.
You see, CD players themselves sounded pretty sad when first introduced in 1984, yet their sound has been steadily refined over two decades, thanks to the tenacious efforts of many ingenious engineers, discovering new complex problems in digital reproduction and then figuring out how to fix them - until we now have quite magnificent sound from the best CD players. Hopefully, history might repeat itself with DVD and universal players. Hopefully, the seemingly impenetrable sound barrier for the much more complex DVD and universal players might someday be surpassed, to give us all sound from a single universal player that would fully equal the sound of the best dedicated CD players while playing our treasured library of CD music. And of course such a breakthrough universal player would also be capable of giving us far better sound from film soundtracks, not to mention the new high resolution audio formats, than other universal players.
Someday, maybe. Maybe someday. Well, that someday is now here.
Back in 1947, the world was shocked to learn that what had seemed impossible was suddenly a fait accompli, that man had decisively surpassed the sound barrier. We were shocked, and you will be too, to hear this brand new universal player surpass the sound barrier. We were shocked to hear this new universal player not only equal but actually decisively surpass the sound of our long standing reference dedicated CD player, the Audio Aero Capitole 24/196, playing music CDs. In fact, upon our first quick audition, this brand new universal player sounded so extraordinary and promising that we immediately put it away on a shelf, to break it in thoroughly and be sure that we were giving it an equal footing with all the other universal players and dedicated CD players on hand in our lab. For 500 straight hours we had it (and all other candidate players) simultaneously playing multiple copies of Reference Recordings' Tutti CD nonstop (this CD has an outstanding range of spectral energy content). Only then did we sit down for serious sonic comparisons.
The sonic comparison findings were clear and obvious from the outset. This new universal player digs deeper into the music and reveals far more than any other universal player, and indeed reveals more than any of the dedicated reference quality CD players we had on hand in our lab, including the Audio Aero. It simply and magically gave us more of the music from CDs than we had ever heard before.
There are many sonic aspects in which this new universal player surpassed all the other players, especially in four key areas. First, it achieved more revealing transparency. For the entire spectrum, for the entire loudness range, and from simple music to complex, it simply gave us more information and more music to hear. Its superiority was especially remarkable when the music got dense and complex; other players got congested and opaque, but this player maintained its pristine purity and pellucid transparency.
Second, this new universal player achieved outstanding individuation of instruments, sounds, and voices within mass ensembles. For example, in the choral selection of track 12 of Tutti, the voices are not quite in perfect synch on the attack of words beginning with "s", "t", and "ch". With all other players, these sounds each come through as a single, congealed, homogenized ensemble voice, but with this new universal player, you can easily hear the individual voices of the chorus, some starting the "t" sound a bit earlier than other voices. This might seem like a small point, but it is actually a key indicator of an overall sense of realism, the kind of true sonic fidelity that puts you right there with the music and the musicians, instead of merely listening to a canned reproduction in your room.
Third, this new universal player achieves stunning reproduction of high frequencies, with trebles that are fast, extended, airy, sweet, delicate, and articulate. Treble reproduction has always been a problematic weak spot for the 16/44 CD format, for a number of technical reasons. The Audio Aero dedicated CD player had done a superb job with music's difficult trebles, employing complex and powerful signal processing to achieve this. But this new universal player does even better, handily surpassing even the Audio Aero's outstanding treble sonics. Note that one chief benefit of the new high resolution formats (SACD and DVD-A) is better treble reproduction, due to their extended bandwidth. But this new universal player delivers similar treble reproduction benefits, even from the standard CD format, thereby making the better CDs in your large CD library sound more as though they had been encoded in one of the new super audio formats. This one sonic benefit alone makes it worth your money to get this new universal player, just for the better sound you'll hear from your large investment in CDs (even if you never use it for playing anything but CDs). And think of the money you'll save by not needing to re-purchase the same titles as re-issued on a super audio format.
Fourth, this new universal player sets new spatial imaging standards in lateral imaging. Again, the Audio Aero was superb in stage width, surpassing most other reference quality CD players, but this new universal player is better yet. This new universal player achieves a breathtaking spread and curtain of sound, between and beyond the speaker locations. And, at every point along this broad curtain of sound, it achieves pinpoint localization specificity. Even the best competing players seem vague or ambiguous in lateral localization, compared to the solid, believable, firmly anchored presence of the images achieved by this new universal player. This player's presentation of the portrayed stage image is slightly more up front than many other players (including the Audio Aero), which put the music at a greater distance, so this player's portrayal is not quite as rich in depth and ambience halo as some of the best competing players, especially those with tonally recessed midranges, but which presentation you prefer is a matter of taste.
This new universal player employs only solid state circuitry, but has a sonic personality which is at what we would call the ideal halfway point between tube and solid state sound. It has the clean purity and articulate clarity we hear from the best solid state circuitry, while still having a touch of the delicate sweetness and subtle liquidity heard from the best tube circuits. Its sonic personality is not as overtly liquid as that of tube circuits, so it is a drier sound than tube sound, but it does not get hard or sterile as many other solid state circuits do. And it has much better bass (with more solid impact and better definition) than CD players with tube circuits (e.g. the Audio Aero).
When humans finally broke the sound barrier in 1947, it was achieved by Chuck Yeager, riding in out of the West on a machine appropriately called the X-1, and Yeager instantly became a folk hero. When a universal player finally broke the sound barrier in 2004, it was likewise achieved by a folk hero riding in out of the West. That folk hero is Steve McCormack, already famed for achieving magic by heavily modifying existing circuits and products, and the machine he is piloting is the brand new McCormack UDP-1 universal player. They should re-christen this machine the X-1.
From CDs to High Resolution Audio Discs
We saw above that the UDP-1 is superb at playing standard red book CDs, smashing the sound barrier for universal players by being the very first universal player to be worthy of playing CDs in a high end audio system, and indeed being such a sonic breakthrough that it amazingly surpassed the sonics of even the best dedicated CD players we had on hand in our lab. This makes the UDP-1 the player of choice, even if you presently only need the best sounding CD player (with its capability for other disc formats being a nice bonus, for when you want to expand your repertoire in the future).
The UDP-1's CD playing preeminence is also invaluable when the UDP-1 is used in a home theater surround sound system. Many of us value the best sonics for playing all program sources, and we know how important truly good surround sound quality is, even with home theater, for achieving the magic of suspension of disbelief and being transported to an alternative venue (after all it is the sound that is all around you and defining that alternative 3D space, whereas the picture is only a flat 2D image that is only in front of you). So many of us pour our best sonic efforts into our home theater and surround sound system, making the system worthy of playing CDs, not just film soundtracks. We also know that the ambience extraction and delay capabilities of a surround system can wonderfully enrich the experience of hearing two channel recordings from CD, but we don't want to sacrifice basic sonic quality just to get surround ambience benefits, so again it is important to have the best sounding CD playing capability built into our surround system.
We, like you, have a huge musical (as well as dollar) investment locked up in our CD library, so we want the best sounding CD player in our high end surround system, in order to do justice to this huge treasure trove of music on CD. Formerly, this would have required investing in a separate dedicated CD player, in order to get the best sonic quality from CDs to feed into a high quality surround sound system. But now, with the arrival of the UDP-1 and its preeminent sonics playing CDs, all of us only need one player for our surround system. You don't need a separate dedicated CD player to get the best sound from your library of CDs, since the UDP-1 will give you even better sound. Note that many high end dedicated CD players sell for more than the UDP-1, so you when you buy your UDP-1 you can regard your purchase as getting the best sounding dedicated CD player at a slight discount, plus getting for free a universal player that also plays high resolution audio discs and film soundtracks.
The UDP-1's prowess at playing CDs is unique, special, and very important, as discussed above, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. This McCormack player really comes into its element when playing high resolution audio discs, and, as it struts its stuff, its margin of sonic superiority over other players grows even greater. The sonic fortes of the UDP-1 are in transparency, resolution, finesse, subtlety, bandwidth, speed, and spatial imaging. And these are precisely the same sonic properties in which high resolution audio discs are superior to red book CDs. So it is natural that the McCormack takes to these high resolution discs like a duck to water, and exploits their sonic virtues better than any other player we have yet heard.
The sonic improvements promised by high resolution audio discs are manifold and very important, but it takes the very best player to deliver on this sonic promise. Most other players do sound somewhat better on high resolution audio discs than on CD, but none have reached the heights that the UDP-1 offers, and offers with such consummate ease.
Why do high resolution audio discs offer the promise of sounding so much better? First, they offer higher bit resolution in accurately representing the signal's amplitude, which is especially important for correctly reproducing the subtle details of music. In previous research experiments, we found that we could hear musical details (on an analog system) which measured as being more than 21 bits below maximum signal level. This research thus proved that the 16 bits of redbook CD did not offer sufficient resolution of signal amplitude to bring you all the subtle musical details that humans can hear and appreciate in a live performance (and in a high quality analog recording). The 24 bit resolution of 24 bit PCM, as in DVD-A high resolution audio discs, is the first digital medium to surpass the 21 bit criterion established by our previous research. And the fact that we humans can hear down to at least 21 bits resolution means that the improved resolution of 24 bit PCM, beyond the 16 bits of redbook CD, is sonically important, not just a spec that looks impressive on paper.
Note also that 24 bit PCM offers a full 24 bits of resolution for all frequencies within its bandwidth. What about the other prevalent high resolution format, DSD or SACD? It offers about 20 bits of resolution at lower frequencies, from the bass through the midrange, which also is an audibly important improvement over 16 bit PCM. However, DSD/SACD does not maintain its full resolution to higher frequencies, as the PCM of DVD-A does. In their zeal for achieving impressive specs on paper, the designers of DSD/SACD imposed too much time averaging on the signal at higher frequencies, thereby literally discarding transient musical information. This discarding of musical information of course lowers the true resolution of DSD/SACD at higher audio frequencies, and does so to such a degree that SACD has demonstrably less information at high frequencies than redbook CD, which implies that SACD's true resolution at higher frequencies, for musical transients, is actually worse (less) than 16 bits. Incidentally, as we have discussed extensively in other articles, DSD/SACD still measures well at higher frequencies with endlessly repeating sine waves as a test signal, but this test measurement is irrelevant to music and human hearing, because an endlessly repeating sine wave is not degraded at all by extensive temporal averaging, whereas the transients of real music are severely degraded (indeed obliterated) by the extensive temporal averaging that DSD/SACD imposes. So you should not believe the seemingly impressive specs you might see elsewhere for DSD/SACD's upper frequency performance.
The second major advantage of high resolution audio discs is that they can offer 2 to 4 times the bandwidth of CD, thereby allowing for the possibility of reproducing trebles with more finesse and ease, as well as the possibility of extending the reproduced bandwidth beyond 20 kHz.
It's debatable whether and in what ways human hearing might be able to detect and appreciate bandwidth extension beyond 20 kHz. But we know that it is important for accurately capturing and reproducing musical information. For example, in previous research experiments we measured the spectral content of a gentle cymbal kiss. Being a singular transient, its spectral content looked like a mountain, with an infinitely dense and very wide spectral content tapering down from a peak, both to lower frequencies (nearly down to DC) and to much higher frequencies. But of special interest here is the frequency of the peak itself, which we might regard as being equivalent to the fundamental frequency of this musical sound, and was certainly the frequency at which there was the most spectral energy. That frequency, ladies and gentlemen (drum roll please), was 40 kHz! This means that, to accurately capture and reproduce this gentle cymbal sound, the disc playback medium would have to have a bandwidth of at least 80 kHz. A high resolution audio disc with 192 kHz PCM sampling can indeed meet this requirement, but no other audio medium yet does.
Some folks might argue that human hearing cannot detect or appreciate response to 80 kHz, or beyond 20 kHz. These folks note correctly that hearing tests show that 20 kHz is the upper limit to which human hearing responds to a sine wave. But this human hearing test, using a single sine wave as a test signal, might well be irrelevant to some of the ways that the human ear/brain detects and appreciates the upper frequency characteristics of a real music signal. For example, the human ear/brain is excellent at performing time domain analysis, such as detecting and analyzing the quality of a musical attack transient. The temporal nature and quality of such attack transients is in fact changed when the bandwidth of a system is reduced from say 80 kHz to just 20 kHz, and it is possible that your ear/brain's excellent temporal analysis capability might be able to detect and respond to this change in the temporal nature of a musical attack transient, whereby you could hear the improvement in the quality (e.g. the speed and airiness and relaxed ease) of musical transients when reproduced via a medium having 80 kHz bandwidth instead of merely 20 kHz bandwidth.
To test this, we previously conducted a research experiment wherein we introduced a filter into an analog system that rolled off the frequency response at 100 kHz. We were able to detect the introduction of this filter, and heard a subtle degradation in the quality of high frequency musical
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