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

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