The Music Hall Maverick SACD/CD Player
|The Music Hall Maverick SACD/CD Player
A Release from Music Hell
I’ve always had high regard for Roy Hall of Music Hall. Blessed with a wry irreverence and ironic sense of humor, he is refreshingly free of High End pretension. The UK products that he imports and distributes in the USA – Creek Audio and Epos speakers – have always been benchmark musical communicators, reasonably priced and so musically adroit that one wonders why anyone would spend more. Roy’s Music Hall private label offers a complete line of Europe-sourced turntables and tonearms that have become lynchpins in the affordable-priced turntable market. The Music Hall brand is also home to some exceptional CD players of which the Maverick, at $1495, is the most expensive. The Maverick offers SACD and up-sampled playback of conventional CD’s.
No one can accuse me of being a CD enthusiast. For the first dozen years of the CD’s existence I couldn’t stand being in the same room with it, the sound providing dictionary examples of “harsh,” “grating,” “artificial,” and “nasty.” Even more loathsome was the format’s effect on music. Instrumental timbre was false, instruments emerged from incoherent amorphous space and played without rhythm, shading, phrasing or subtle dynamic variation. I used to use John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix as my primary references whenever a new CD player claimed to have perfected the perfect sound forever. Since the music of these too giants could change the universe (and create and destroy it too) it was the perfect test for CD. Any playback format that ruined the fire and cosmic energy of this music was worthless, nay criminal, to this music lover.
Thanks to the late Hunter S. Thompson it is almost impossible to use the word loathing without adding the word fear. When it became clear that the CD was here to stay and that its marketing strategy involved killing off the analogue LP, the end of recorded music as I knew it threatened. My strategy was to buy as many LPs as I could get my filthy dollars around and wait until the whole loathsome CD thing blew over. I bought over 5,000 LPs (fortunately my listening was almost exclusively classical at the time) and waited for CD to either improve, or for a new format to supplant it.
Watching CD players evolve over the past two decades was to experience tragedy and comedy simultaneously. Super-expensive CD players became obsolete almost overnight as new chipsets and CD transports developed for mass market products made them pointless and non-repairable. Future archaeologists are going to wonder about the weird phenomenon of the 1980’s and 1990’s of using strange and heavy electronic devices to prop doors open, anchor fishing boats, and to keep pet rhinos in check.
By the mid-90’s, CD players had improved to the point where absence of aural pain was no longer the prime criterion for player quality. Whether this was due to better studio encoders, the improvement of chipsets, the identification of jitter as a prime culprit for the format’s a-musicality, or simply Orpheus showing mercy to long-suffering music lovers and leading them out of musical hell is difficult to say. But whatever Audio Alchemy did to voodoo the signal to 18 bits in their DTI Pro 149 suddenly produced sound that could be identified as being played by instruments. I personally had despaired of it ever happening.
As attempts to reduce jitter became more successful, and over/up sampling chipsets evolved, and manufacturers started applying the basics of intelligent power supply design and component isolation techniques within the chassis, the format finally started becoming viable. Although descriptions of sonic quality and musical performance were always asterisked by “for CD” and the inevitable “but not as good as analogue,” intermediate-priced CD players started becoming a safe bet. The rationale for investing in a state-of-the-art player was more or less stopped in its tracks by the emergence of the two new higher resolution digital formats – SACD and DVD-A – which made buying an all-out and very expensive CD-only player a high risk for future boat anchor duty. Consequently I did not invest heavily in CD players, nor did I build up a library of CDs.
None of this is new or profound. Many music lovers did the same. And I suspect many now face the same dilemma: buy a high-quality CD-only player, or buy a multi-format and almost pocket change-priced universal player spinning onto the market from the home theater world. Those intensely annoyed by the Big Brother/ 1984marketing that launched and solidified the CD, can only laugh at the half-assed incompetence of SACD and DVD-A promotion. Ask mass-market music stores about the two super formats and the response is too often bovine ignorance or very slim pickings. Even Internet searching shows little SACD or DVD-A availability other than re-issue titles that one likely already owns in LP and CD format. Certainly the generation that grew up with CD as their default has no interest in a higher fidelity digital format: the low-rez compressed MP3 rules the roost. And despite claims that multi-channel music and video playback are the wave of the future (and mass-marketschlockmongers stocking nothing else as if to guarantee it) nobody I know owns, or even wants, a multi-channel HT system.
I approached the Maverick as primarily an up-sampling CD player, with SACD and straight CD as garnishes. Certainly the difference between straight CD and upsampling on this player was marked enough sonically to make upsampling the default way to go. Played thus, the Maverick is a very refined and subtle CD player, capable of great finesse, grace and nuance. These abilities are so rare in CD players that they bear emphasizing and admiration. Many CD players that are free from edge and harshness also gloss over the subtle details of musical performance that help ascertain artistry and quality of the music-making. The Maverick is refreshingly free of this dumbing-down of the signal: the player is no Muzak-like, milksop anodyne.
Reproduction of the frequency bandwidth is of one piece: tight, dynamic bass flows into an articulate mid-band with excellent lyric intelligibility and up into an edge-free yet transient-coherent top end. The top end doesn’t accentuate the CD’s limited high frequency response: there’s no feeling of being of being six foot tall in a room with seven foot ceilings. Most important though is the Maverick’s ability to track rhythms and to lay out the architecture of the music so that each instrument’s contribution arrives on time and in sync with the larger movement of the music. This is as important in reproducing The Meters as it is in reproducing Mozart’s wind concerti, and has been the bane of CD players in the past. Yes, the asterisk still applies, and the Maverick lagged behind my analogue sources, but the Maverick did allow that internal movement with the music that often flowers physically into air guitar, drums, violin, accordion and krumhorn.
SACD playback was a significant notch up in fidelity and naturalness. Donovan’s spoken introduction to Atlantis was so clearly articulated that those wanting to learn the Scots purr and burr accent could use the Maverick as a reference teaching aid. Since I had LP versions of the dozen SACD’s I used for audition, instant comparisons were available. SACD playback was very good indeed, though still outdone by analogue LP’s better sense of timing, rhythm, accent, punctuation, and flow. I did not feel the need to apologize for the Maverick though: its unraveling of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out showed excellent articulation of the music’s unusual time signatures, and with the late Olatunji’s polyrhythmic Drums of Passion, I found that I could follow seven different rhythms simultaneously. It was much easier to do with analogue LP, but since much of the dreck foisted upon us as “High End” cannot even do one rhythm right, the Maverick deserves special praise. One clear advantage of the SACD was better bass clarity and bandwidth compared to bass-filtered LP’s: the phantom bass players of many 50’s and 60’s jazz recordings were suddenly incarnate, and making their full contribution to the musical argument.
About the only weakness of the Maverick was its slight reticence to fully express raunchy, lewd and pulsing music with the proper lasciviousness and filth. While you could feel the Funk, you couldn’t quite smell it. Playing CD without over-sampling helped a bit here. Evoking the other musical chakras was so good however that one can easily forgive overlook this slight deficiency. The grace, resolution, and subtlety of the Maverick allow partnering it with very sophisticated electronics and speakers.
My main issue with digital has been the technology’s weakness in tracking the initial transient of a note, its flowering, and its decay accurately. Since the perception of music depends on getting this right, it’s no surprise much digital sounds so a-musical. Timbre in particular suffers from weak tracking of the transient envelope. My final test with review gear is often to just sit back and ask, “Does that really sound like the instrument?” Straight CD playback allowed the ‘CD-ishness’ to be slightly audible; over-sampled CD placed it near the threshold of perception (I had to consciously listen for it); SACD was quite good. Though the asterisk still applies.
The Maverick wasn’t fussy about set-up; its individual feet, each of which consists of multiple smaller pods, provide effective isolation. Using state-of-the-art isolation systems (the Townshend 3-D Seismic Sink, the Ganymede VCS, and the Stillpoints Universal Resonance Dampers and Component Stand) did not produce the wholesale transmogrification they do on most components, so I played the Maverick ‘neat.’ After screwing around with various aftermarket power cords, I found that they did not improve the Maverick’s music making and so used the supplied item. The inexpensive and supremely musically coherent DNM Solid-Core and the Origin Live Reference interconnects produced both wonderful sound and deeply communicative music. One won’t need to invest another $2000 to get the Maverick to sing.
The Maverick is an excellent SACD/CD player at any price. At $1495 it is very attractive indeed and a must-listen for anyone searching for musical results without investing in future landfill fodder. Thanks, Roy for another great product.
• Top grade Sony SACD decoder chip, CXD2752
• 24-bit/96kHz Upsampling via Crystal CS8420 sample rate converter
• Burr-Brown PCM1738 24-bit/192kHz DAC for standard CD and SACD
• Rigid full aluminum chassis and faceplate
• Sony KHM 234AAA laser head and servo system
• 2 transformers provide separate power to the analog and digital systems
• Vibration-canceling dimpled rubber feet
• Remote controllable standby/power function
• Easily readable and dimmable florescent display
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