Tuesday, July 05, 2005

CD-playback: CEC + Perpetual Tech vs. Mark Levinson 390S

Some two weeks ago I had to send my Mark Levinson 390S CD-player to service (once again, should I say?). Since an idea without music for several weeks was no option, I installed CEC TL51 transport and Perpetual Technologies P-1A/P-3A combo from my Stax earphones system into my primary system - and was very surprised by results.

Some background. PT's P-1A digital-to-digital processor and P-3A DAC have been well covered by audiophile magazines, see for example Stereophile'’s review. My P-3A and external Monolithic Sound power supply are modified by ModWright to the highest Signature II level (see Stereophile's follow-up review of ModWright units). My experience with modded units in my Stax system has only been positive, yet I have never used PT combo in my primary system.

When I purchased CEC TL51 transport some 2 years ago, the decision was based on its impressive soundstage capabilities against other transports I listened in a dealer's facilities. I suspect that CEC's trademark design aspect, i.e. its belt-driven CD-drive (like in analogue turntables), is material for this point.

First I connected only PT P-3A DAC with Monolithic Sound power supply into my pre-amp, using Alpha Core's Sapphire Silver RCA interconnects. As I've had some 4 years with my Levinson 390S CD-player, my long-term memory footprint is pretty solid, i.e. I can definitely spot difference against other CD-playback system. Well, CEC + PT DAC did sound OK, but not on the same league as ML390S (see also Stereophile's review). What idiomatic language of audio reviews you want to use, it was just not happening on the same level as with ML390S. As I said earlier, Levinson service tends to take time, so I figured that I can do a little of damage control. Time for system building and tweaking.

I added PT P-1A D/D processor to feed P-3A DAC. Definitely an improvement, same thing when I installed PT combo on Townshend 3D platform. Resolution wise it was behind ML, but I got some impressive soundstaging, the gain in depth was in particular noticeable.

In order to make things even, I replaced Alpha Core's Sapphire interconnects by the same Siltech interconnects than with ML in a system. As I usually run my system full balanced, in order to use Siltech G6 XLR interconnects I had to install Cardas'’ RCA/XLR converters on the P-3A'’s side. The digital cable from transport to P-1A was Siltech G5 Golden Ridge, between PT units standard i2s cable. The result was unexpected, actually I was flabbergasted. This combo gave in practically nothing in comparison with ML 390S, on the contrary. Where ML's soundstage is a triangle shaped, deep between the speakers, CEC/PT combo'’s breadth and depth of soundstaging was huge in comparison, and very well layered. If you are familiar with the expression of soundstage's corners illuminated, that's what I got.

I still experienced some lack of ultimate resolution, but where ML is a tad warm sounding due to rather generous midbass, CEC/PT combo'’s bass goes deeper and presents bass lines better. While some tracks demonstrated that ML has a better rhythmic grip, attack and timing, CEC/PT combo's biggest allure is its musicality, with capital M. Reproduction of ambience and elusive impression of liveliness and vitality are another strengths, despite combo having less ultimate resolution than ML.

As said, I was stupefied and yet I wanted to see how far this combo can go. I remember reading about Revelation Audio's PT specific cables. To cut a long story short, some days later I received by courier service Revelation Audio'’s Parable Cryo-Silver Reference Power cords and the Prophecy Cryo-Silver Reference i2s Digital Link cable to replace rather wimpish standard cables. If you want more information about the construction of these cables and another reviewer's comments, see this review on-line. I have nothing to add and nothing to subtract, the reviewer expressed exactly my findings of these cables: more of everything, and then some. Simple, fabulous cables and must to have upgrade for PT owners. I am in awe what this combo can do, palpability and presence of the music has kept me clued on my listening chair for two days.

Good lesson here. What on paper looks like an underdog, produces more enjoyment than a component costing twice as much. But yet, lets remember that combo in a question is a modded one - and it was never a budget combo to start with. For me this is yet another proof that the system building through synergies is the ultimate art. And like art itself, results can sometimes be unpredictable. When ML 390S comes back from service, it'll assume a new role in my secondary system, driving Stax earphones. What I miss in attack, timing and resolution, the slightly "larger than life" presentation compensates. Or maybe my preferences shall change one day, and ML returns - who knows.

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