APL Extreme!

This is a translation of the Norwegian article published in the Fidelity magazine, and at www.audiofidelity.no

Oh yeah, Fidelity knows APL from before. Guess that’s why we are overly exited when Alex Peychev renews the APL entry level player, the DSD-S. Now with XE at the end of the name. Let’s hear if those two letters can make any difference!

 

APL front

 

Yours truly is not going to hide the fact that APL in my ears produce a couple of best DAC solutions the world has seen. Fidelity former reference, the APL DAC Master, was right up there with the very best. Consequently, there was no doubt in my mind when the opportunity to test APL’s latest entry-level, DSD S Xtreme Edition, came along.

 

Peychev is in good tradition among his constructor counterparts, having little or no deeper respect for competing gear. I have lived in a very happy relationship with the splendid Marantz SA11S3 for a while, and had some questions around this player in conjunction with this test. Peychev was not particularly impressed by it, and dismissed it as “a cheap DVD drive and full of cheap components.” I therefore find it a touch interesting that APL choose a low-cost Pioneer player (PD 50) as drive for its new DAC; compared to SA11, it’s a pure rattle box! That said, not much Pioneer is left inside, while outside showing only a discreet APL sign, plus some changes to the backplate. Anyway, it feels like a huge leap downwards, going from Marantz’ heavy, solid and silky smooth mechanics, to this thin, shaky mass product. Fortunately , such views are quickly forgotten the second the APL starts playing, but still.
Inside, the Pioneer has been thoroughly “APL’ed”; the cabinet and transport remains, but the switch mode power supply is replaced with APL’s own transformer based variant including a completely different and significantly more costly rectification. Furthermore, it has been installed a PCM to DSD converter controlled by a sophisticated clock circuit with extremely low jitter. Basically, on the inside, this is closely a thoroughbred DTR-M, (APL’s top model), but with an obvious simpler chassis and mechanics. For an after all “limited budget”, this is a reasonable solution, although obviously simpler than the M, from a mechanical point of view.

Note:  See feedback from APL below.

 

Out of the revised Pioneer drive comes a DSD128 signal fed via APL’s proprietary connector cable. Note that this is from a red book CD; SACD will feed it’s native DSD64 signal undisturbed directly to the DAC. In principle, one can therefore say that APL in a sense makes an SACD (at least) out of all the silver discs, although this assertion definitely can be debated. By the way, DSD128 implies a sampling rate 128 times faster than a normal CD, also called Double rate DSD, as it is double the sampling frequency of a normal SACD signal. This solution seems to have some effect on the sound, and, to anticipate events a bit, I can already tell that this APL is more or less source independent. Now it is the recording quality that matters more than whether it is a SACD or a normal red book CD in the tray. But after all, the best of all is when you put a well recorded SACD in the drawer, anything else would have come as a surprise.

 
Fidelity has previously reviewed the DSD-S, and, as this now has been thoroughly revamped, it’s about time to check out what difference the XE acronym possibly can make. Since Alex Peychev has clear preferences for vinyl players, he uses his familiar Kuzma Stabi with Kuzma 4Point arm and Dynavector XV-1S p.u. as reference, working hard to get as close to this sound character as possible. He has now implemented new upgrades in both power supply and DAC, and has installed a brand new Class A FET output stage in APL’s current entry-level player. There is no global feedback in circuits, but a small local feedback in the output stage. And yeah, Peychev is clearly onto something here, this is probably the first time the sound structure of the vinyl rig and the digital system have such clear similarities, also in my private setup.
APL DSD S XE comes with a handy, sturdy remote that controls input selection, display lighting, volume, plus choice between DSD-frequency,  64 and 128, respectively. The DAC is as a whole single ended, there is no balanced or XLR connectors as standard, but XLR output can be ordered for an additional cost.

 
Note that DSD S also can be used as pre-amplifier, so now we’re looking at something exciting. Many will, with good reasons, mean that it is stupid buying a CD player in 2016 (I don’t!), but in this case you also buy a preamplifier and DAC at the same time, for the same price. So, suddenly, the price is not so absurd, anyway. If you are among those who have left the analog frailty behind, you’ll with the APL DSD-S EX have a top-notch starting point for serious hifi. Yes, I’ve used it on a power amplifier costing less than 600,- USD, and the result was astonishing, I promise. I have as long as I can remember been clear on the message of source first, and APL underscores this message with all the authority in the world! Fact is, this APL plays so convincing that we proclaim it to be one of the absolute most affordable ultra-high-end products we’ve had inside our doors!

 
We have hooked it up against several units, used both as a pre-amplifier and as clean DAC. We’ve used it in three different rooms. The DSD-S XE has impressed in all settings. Not that it set any new standards right out of the box, then and there I learned, among other things, how good the Marantz SA11S3 is, for example. Initially, it was almost impossible to decide which was playing better of the two, although it was quite differently presented. But the first couple of hundred hours changed this view significantly. One other interesting thing that has gradually emerged with an almost challenging intelligibility, is how good Spotify Connect is! Sure, I know that Tidal is better. What I did not know until I got APL into the system, however, was that Spotify could secede itself this much from what I thought were natural limitations, and deliver musical experiences with such excellence. Yes, I have heard very interesting things from Spotify also with other good DAC’s (as Exogal) and good amplifiers (like Spec), but again APL sets up a new milestone. This is how good Spotify can sound in 2016! Nobody can guess that it is Spotify they’re listening to, and, I have no trouble enjoying every second of a good recordings also in that setting. I do it daily! By this, it is not said that it is just as great as if I play a good SACD recording, of course not. But it is certainly damned much fresher than if I play a “normal” CD in almost any “normal” CD player I can name. And just that is nothing short of astonishing!

 

APL bak

 
Most of the time we have played through McIntosh MA8000, mostly driving the huge Aurum Vulkan 8R, but periodically also Spendor’s amazing A6R. The cables conveying all this beautiful music is made of Chord Cable Company and Atlas. Also, we’ve played in Fidelity’s grand hall, see separate second opinion (Fidelity 63).
First CD out is the Norwegian poetic singer Odd Børretzen, and his “Syv sørgelige sanger, og tre triste” (“Seven woeful songs and three sad” ).”Bekkelaget Blues” is my favorite on the album, and the APL player delivers this with a conviction out of this world. This red book CD has a strong presence, and, even if my Marantz SA11S3 plays this with great gusto, it can’t copy the realism from the APL. The vocals now appear even clearer, also communicating the emotional message without limitations. Control of soundscapes is almost physical in its presence, all the details are there, without forcing themselves on the listener, or drawing the attention in any negative way. The clearest difference between SA11 and DSD S is anyway the lower octaves, where the APL is significantly more transparent than the somewhat softened Marantz. I could go on and on, ’cause there are conceivable differences all the way, but I choose instead to swap music piece, before we proceed.
Even more interesting it is to listen to Ole Paus sonically imperfect recording “Hva hjertet ser” (“What the heart can see”). Recorded under rather seedy circumstances in Chile, and, many years ago I interviewed Paus when this album was new; the stories concerning this recording is so absurd, that I think I have to get it in print one day. Briefly put, in a particularly frustrated moment, Paus tried scaring off Santiago’s paramilitary police all by himself. Ingeniously. He survived (just), and it created a lot of funny rumors and hence access to good musicians. This is audible for example on the intense track “Engelen” (“The angel”). APL DSD-S EX is blowing an entirely new life into this track, or the whole album, for that matter. So if you wonder why Sissel Kyrkjebø performed the song “Innerst i sjelen” (“Deepest in the soul”), have a listen to Paus’ own version on this album. This is how it should sound. But now I get carried away. The very best APL does with this song, is that the emotional strength becomes almost intrusive in all its nakedness. Bass reproduction is beyond rescue, but we live okay with it, as long as we can embark on a journey deep into Santiago’s parks and soul. I’ve never experienced anything close to this reproduction of this record, period.

 
Having such an excellent SACD player at hand , we just can’t omit 2L, Lindberg Lyd, TrondheimSolistene, Marianne Thorsen, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I will never claim that Aurum Vulkan are world champions in conveying the timbral qualities from strings, but with APL in front of the chain, they will at least make a sparkling effort. They are still not Germany’s response to Response speakers, but hell what an elegance they get, all of a sudden! So even if the top unit still add a little chill, now even solo violin sound so silky smooth that I almost believe in it. Plus, the control of the events is so total here, that I just give in, and enjoy the moment. Room and transparency is unrivaled, elegance likewise. And, if I want even more authentic sounds, I have, after all, a couple of Spendors lurking in the shadows somewhere…
But I want APL to help us out so that also Vulkan can play with their classic muscles, so we insert a Telarc SACD, more specifically Debussy’s “Holiday Morning.” One thing being the timbral richness; this piece boils over with both instrumental diversity and an authentic experience of the acoustics from Cincinnati Music Hall, and even the Aurums conveys this with conviction. Mesmerizing. But anyway, even this strong experience is topped by the enormous size and vehemence. Here, the components finds together in a holy trinity, totally shattering body, mind and room. What a delivery of sheer power ! What a control, what a dynamic expression! Holy sh**, where are my pills!?
Alright, so I’m about to become an adult, I have understood. But I have to play a little boy music too. Here we find the poorest recordings, sloppiest dynamics, plus the most deaf producers and musicians. Anyway, we need an illusion we can love!
So let’s lend an ear to one of the most puzzling Black Sabbath-constellations, where Ian Gillan in an unusually animated moments suddenly found himself as the singer in a band he should never have been in. “Disturbing the priest” can stand as a testament of this madness, what saves this miserable recording I actually don’t understand, but somehow this works. Normally, I can just tolerate this played on vintage gear, or through PA at absurd volume, so ears distorts anyway, but through good hifi? Well, now it actually plays both tough and with a touch of an incomprehensible clarity. Not too soft or boring, either. Do not ask me how this happens, but some strange way this substandard recording gets a new life in APL’s proficient circuits. Nice!

 
I have previously had a couple of downright magical experiences with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, and their song “Hunting humans”. Especially, the Audio Note DAC 4.1x Signature made a sacred moment with this song. Can APL even come close to that? Can it be just as threatening, doomsday dark and fierce, yet so airy and organic? Can it make the song come to life, so you almost think that this mediocre recording is pure high-end? I would say that we are very, very close. I feel that the mentioned Audio Note had a touch more of that pure organic timbre richness, but everything else is on par. Maybe we hear an ever so slight edge on drum beats, but everything else is a raw demonstration of power.

 
What a DAC! What a pre-amplifier! What a CD player! Oh, I know, the people have spoken, and hifi-nerds have emphasized it; CD drive is out, streaming is in. I hereby ask you to reconsider. Because, APL has with its DSD S XE created a new future for playback of silver discs. Every single recording is given new life through the somewhat simple (but heavily modified) Pioneer player, and the wonderful and user-friendly DAC. No, it’s not a cheap player. But then again, that is also audible! Remember, you really only need a reasonable power amplifier at the rear of this unit, immediately making the price become much more acceptable.
The APL DSD-S XE is one of the most amazing products I’ve had the undivided pleasure to share some euphoric hours with. APL rules digital big time!

APL DSD-S XE CD-player / DAC

Approximate price € 10 000,-

Contact www.aplhifi.com for details

Feedback from APL on CD-drives:

The actual CD/SACD/DVD transport is not the heavy looking enclosure or the slick and smooth moving aluminum disc tray. 

Most important part of the transport is what is hidden inside. Namely, it is the laser pick-up, tracking motor, spindle motor and their associated mechanisms. 

Pioneer has long traditions with professional CD/DVD-ROM drives of very high quality, meaning enormous amount of hours reliable operation under extreme working conditions. 

This is why Pioneer designed a transport with brushless DC motors, special mechanics for laser movement and also extremely well-made and long lasting laser pick-up. 

Pioneer implemented this exact same design in their top disc players for home use and PD-50 is their latest one. It may seem “flimsy” because of the light feel and plastic tray, but those parts have nothing to do with spinning the disc, only with loading the disc. The heart of the Pioneer PD-50 is an ultra-reliable CD/DVD-ROM professional quality disc spinner that is much better made than most high-end audio products, cost no object. I will not provide names of high-end audio manufacturers, but what is hidden behind the heavy and slick look and feel is a really low quality CD disc spinner made for home use. In most cases both spindle and tracking motors are regular (very cheap) DC motors with brushes, combined with unreliable laser pick-up heads. 

There are CD/SACD players/transport examples costing more than $30,000 using Philips or Sony transport that costs only $20 as a replacement part. Yes, the whole assembly with motors and laser pick-up costs $20. 

In short, it will be next to impossible outperforming my Pioneer-based disc spinner with any other digital transport product, cost no object. 

Best regards,

Alex

Proff hifi?

NOTE: English summary after the Norwegian article

Test av IMG stageline STA-1000D

STA-1000D

 

Klasse D. Lett, solid, billig. 2 x 250 Watt, minst, bygget for å tåle det meste, og med de nydelige Pascal-blokkene som drivende kraft, hvordan kan hifi-folket gå forbi denne forsterkeren?

Når vi vet at denne forsterkeren altså benytter de samme forsterkerkretsene som Gato DIA 250, (Pascal S-PRO 2) da er det lov å heve øyenbrynene. Prisen vi ser på er nemlig ikke 10, 30 eller 50 tusenlapper, den er 5. Mer nøyaktig 4799,-. Hallo, dette er jo på NAD-nivå, eller vel så det. Det er dessuten velkjent at profflyd er beregnet på hard bruk, det skal bare virke, ikke sant. Det er så definitivt en fordel også for hifi, kan vi vel si, uten å overdrive det særlig. Kjenner opptil flere som er møkk lei av masse plunder, og månedsvis med venting på forsterkere som aldri ser ut til å bli fikset. Her har hjemmemarkedet mye å lære av proffene, såpass skal være sikkert. Ellers bør det nevnes for hjemmekinofolket spesielt, at STA-1000D også leveres i en DSP-versjon til en svært fornuftig sum, sjekk www.monacor.no

P1030746
Mye luft for pengene!

Som allerede hintet til i mine bloginnlegg, viste det seg allikevel at denne omtalen ikke kom helt smertefritt; kompatibilitet er slett ikke alltid garantert på tvers av profesjonsgrensene, nei. Nærmere bestemt dreier det seg om at IMG STA-1000D har en uvanlig lav inngangsimpedans, hvilket surret det litt til for mine ymse forforsterkere. Dessuten, stikk i strid med normalen, er det her single end inngangen som er lavest, en SE forforsterker må her altså se inn i 5 kOhm, definitivt ikke rørforsterkerenes favoritt! Den balanserte inngangen holder seg på 10 kOhm, dette er også temmelig lavt for en viss andel av forforsterkerne i handelen, dessverre, men det finnes da noen, heldigvis. Det finnes enkelte DAC’er med volumkontroll som kan vise til svært lav utgangsimpedans, og i så henseende burde være greit tilpasset drift av også lavimpedant last. Tommelfingerregelen sier utgangsimpedans:inngangsimpendans > 1:20, jeg synes personlig det burde være 1:100, men her er det absolutt åpent for egen eksperimentering. I korte trekk bør du se etter en DAC eller forforsterker med utgangsimpedans under 100 Ohm på de balanserte utgangene, i hvertfall.

Nå er vi i utgangspunktet på lavbudsjett her. Derfor tenker jeg ikke anbefale dyre, sofistikerte løsninger som forforsterker, heller. Bruktmarkedet bør definitivt være plassen å lete. Parasound P3 er en glitrende forforsterker som finnes brukt for i området 3000,-, men tenker du en rent digital løsning, kjør gjerne Hegel HD20 med volumstyrt XLR ut. Jeg kan like gjerne røpe men en gang at IMG STA-1000D har visse begrensninger i klanglige kvaliteter, så det er ikke så viktig å satse alt på en dyr, flott forforsterker uansett. Unngå en hver rørdrevet forforsterker, det vil ha liten nytte. Det finnes gode og dyre løsninger som lett driver STA-1000D, men jeg opplever ikke at det er verdt prisen, dessverre. Dette vil jeg komme tilbake til etter hvert.

Men la oss for ordens skyld også beskrive hvordan den oppfører seg som PA-forsterker, tross alt er det dette den er bygget for. Jeg innrømmer at det er usedvanlig behagelig å slippe 20 kilos forsterkere, med masse viftestøy. STA-1000D starter nemlig ikke vifta før den behøves, et eller annet sted ved 60-graders temperatur, eller så. I testperioden har den ikke startet en eneste gang. Det betyr allikevel ikke at jeg har spilt lavt! Ergo kan den være i et normalt rom i lag med lytteren, uten å pådra seg allmen irritasjon. Helt stille er den, helt til den blir bedt om å levere varene. Da leverer den kontant, tøft og presist, spesielt er jeg imponert over kontrollen på basselementene. I sitt prissegment står den seg svært så godt rent lydmessig, selv om jeg tror profesjonelle brukere helst ønsker seg en brokoplet enhet for å få nok skyv for et helt band. Nå kan den selvsagt også brokoples på enkelt vis, så det finnes absolutt muligheter ved større effektbehov.

Klipsch KP-2002-C2
Sjeldne Klipsch-høyttalere

Jeg har spilt den på Klipsch proffhøyttalere, de nær ukjente KP-2002-C2, bestykket med en 12-tommer og et horn i lukket kasse. Sammenlignet med konkurrentene i prisklassen spiller IMG STA-1000D i retning av litt høfligere, men også med et sykt godt grep om basselementet. Stille og elegant på lavt volum, kontrollert og kontrollerende om du spiller høyt. Det er en form for styringsvilje her som er helt enorm, og jeg er rimelig sikker på at vi har å gjøre med svært høy dempefaktor. Helt rått kontant og presist er det, og ettersom man vet at man brokople Pascal-enheten til en 1000W monoenhet, har vi vel her en soleklar kandidat til subwooferdrift. Nå vet jeg for øvrig av bitter erfaring at Pascalblokkene vrenger stygt og plutselig, du skal være litt forsiktig med for høye belastning, uansett hva du lar den drive. Men for hobbybandet, må jo disse lette, styringsvillige blokkene være et særs fornuftig kjøp.

P1030750
Mye greier på liten plass!

Men det var dette med hifi, da. Høyttalere hvis oppgave er å narre ut mikrodetaljer og liv, hvordan fungerer det? La oss for eksempel sette den opp oppstrøms et par Aurum Vulkan, og høre litt på hva det gir av resultater. Når jeg omsider fikk fatt i en solid forforsterker i form av Musical Innovation Mi23, var det endelig klart for en oppvisning i hva proffmarkedet kan tilby oss for en liten sum penger. Vel, rett på sak, det er ikke stort. Jeg har allerede nevnt kontrollen. Jo, den er der fortsatt i stort monn. Men de harde fakta viser oss en forsterker med lite annet. Dette er ikke finsmakernes banehalvdel på noen som helst måte. Her mangler alt som minner om klangstruktur, frivol dynamikk og livsbejaende musikkformidling. Dette er kynisk, gjerrig og tørt. Det gjør meg vel enda et hakk mer imponert over Gato, og hva de har fått til med de samme kretser, selv om heller ikke DIA-250 er siste skrik i levende og nær følelsesformidling, er den i det minste på svært trygg grunn innen absolutt alle hifi-parametre. I motsetning til IMG STA-1000D, altså, som ikke har annet enn kontroll å prale med. Selv ikke myke, varme innspillinger fra Stockfisch briljerer i dette oppsettet. Og bemerk da at vi har å gjøre med en formidabel kilde og forforsterker, det blir ikke bedre av å hive inn en Rotel foran!

For å sjekke dette litt nøyere, satte jeg inn et par enklere høyttalere, og fikk nøyaktig samme resultat. Gjerrig og kort, dødt og distansert. Men igjen viste IMG-forsterkeren seg oppgaven verdig med hensyn til kontroll av bassmembraner. Dette fører også til en subjektiv opplevelse av manglende frekvensmessig dybde, eller en viss mangel på illusjon av størrelse og kraft, faktisk. Dette er dog ikke akkurat tilfellet, kraft er det som nevnt ingen mangel på. Man kan spille absurd høyt uten at forsterkeren lar seg merke med det på noen som helst måte, men som nevnt er dette et tveegget sverd. Plutselig er det slutt på overskuddet, og da koster det ofte penger, nye høyttalerelementer kan være sjokkerende dyre, faktisk.

P1030747
Pascal leverer et fleksibelt produkt, men implementering betyr tydeligvis mye!

Vel, dette betyr at vårt håp om en sensjasjonelt god effektforsterker for ikkeno’ penger, var svært så optimistisk. Jeg ville valgt en integrert NAD hvilken som helst dag hele uka. Dersom du har en sub du behøver forsterker til, stille saken seg dog annerledes, da bør denne rimelige, stramme og kraftige forsterkeren ha mye å gi. Men at det fortsatt ikke finnes en fri lunch, må vi nok faktisk leve med en stund til!

IMG STA-1000D, klasse D effektforsterker 2x250W i 8 Ohm 2 x 500 i 4 Ohm, pris 4799,-

Importør: Monacor

English summary:

This professional PA amplifier uses the same Pascal class D card as the fantastic Gato DIA-250. Obviously it’s more to it than just that, implementation has a lot to say. Note that this power amp has a very low input impedance, normal hifi pre-amps may struggle, valve pre-amps are useless in this set-up. A fair pre amp or DAC with volume control, and an output impedance below 100 Ohm, will normally handle the load of 5 kOhm (SE) and 10 kOhm (balanced).

Even though using the Pascal S-PRO2, there is not much resemblance with the smooth Gato. The IMG serves us with a very controlled sound, no or little timbral qualities or liveliness in the reproduction. Control, however, is tremendous. Works wonderful on professional speakers, never loosing grip on speaker units, holding the iron fist tight at any volume. Tried with typically hifi-speakers as Aurum Vulkan, it’s a completely different beast, even if the control is kept, the sound is not what I’d call hifi. This is dry, non communicative and tight, might work fine for a small band, but not good for a spoilt hifi-nerd.

The IMG STA-1000D might serve very well as a (bridged) sub amplifier, or for pure PA-applications, but for music lovers listening to hifi speakers, I’d suggest a NAD instead. It is good value for money if you count cost on each Watt you get, but apart from that, this is nothing for the normal hifi-buff! 🙂