Alright guys, I've done a lot of listening to this CD player and decided that comparing it to my current source might shed some light on its qualities. I should preface this with some notes on my set up which is in flux right now and has not settled in properly. After a year of lusting after a pair of Avlar Prodigy speakers, I finally bought them. They're not fitting in very well yet though. The high end is too pronounced and can get downright screechy sometimes. The problem seems to be a combination of room treatment and crossover, so assessing the M2 is a little more challenging.
For this comparison I have my Mac-Mini set up strictly for audio, all unnecessary processes shut down, SST, 5gb RAM, running Audirvana Plus to a Mapleshade modified M2tech HiFace USB to S/PDIF converter to an Audio-gd NFS-2 DAC to input 1 of a Virtue Sensation 901, platinum bypass, Dodd tube buffer to a pair of Avlar Prodigies.
The M2 is going into input 2 of the Sensation. To level the playing field as much as possible I took out my "Sweet Spot" IC's (made by our very own Sonny here on AC) and used matching sets of old but decent Straight Wire Laser Link IC's. The sound levels were very close, I only had to make a very slight volume adjustment between the two sources.
I started with a simple spiritual called "My Soul is a Witness" by Alvin Youngblood Hart And Sharon Jones from the soundtrack of "The Great Debaters". It's simple and repetitive so you can focus on just a few things: an intensely raspy guitar, a rich male vocal with a female voice answering. At first I heard no difference at all between the two setups. But as I listened over time the M2 revealed a slightly smoother, relaxed character in the high end, specifically on the hard transients: a clap, or a string twang. I liked it better than the Mac.
Next, I put on cut 4 on the "Cinema Paradiso" soundtrack. This score, like most of Ennio Morricone's scores has a very specific sound (I was told he records all his scores in his own studio with the same musicians and he steals shamelessly from himself!). Overall the M2 again sounded a little better. The highs were a little recessed and attacks smoother, but that seemed to make it sound more organic and natural. I didn't notice any loss of detail, the detail was there but a little less pronounced. There is a very demanding few bars in this cue in that there is a series of three or four very loud and clean high pitched bells. One of these bells is so piercing that coming from the Mac/Audio-gd combo, it hurts. Again, the M2 took just enough edge off that bell to make it not hurt.
Next I played the first few cuts from "Love" by The Beatles. I like this for the Beatles because it's a new mix, they could go anywhere they wanted and it resulted in a more modern and rich experience for me. The first cut is an acapella version of "Because". Immediately it was apparent that the M2 had a deeper soundstage and felt more organic. The Mac/Audio-gd combo was more in your face and more 2D. However, when the album transitions into "Get Back" and all the cacophony that surrounds this mix, I couldn't tell the difference between the two, they sounded identical.
Next I put on John Corigliano's "The Red Violin Concerto" with Joshua Bell on violin. This isn't the movie score, this is a concerto adapted from the score. There was nothing new to report, the differences were pretty consistent with what I was hearing in "Cinema Paradiso".
I compared several others. Miles Davis's "So What" on "Kind of Blue". Things started getting spooky here. The soundstage was wider with the Mac, deeper with the M2. Mile's horn sounded more "right" with the M2, but the saxes sounded more "right" with the Mac. The Mac definitely showed more detail and layers especially on the saxes.
With the obligatory Diana Krall, "Peel Me a Grape", they both were very close, but there was more separation in the instruments with the Mac.
On the Doobie Brothers, "For Someone Special", the tambour of the male vocal was more complex and resonant with the M2. The Mac smoothed it out and it had less personality. I would have expected the opposite.
I was still bothered by the high end emphasis I was getting from the Avlars, so I swapped them out for a pair of Tannoy bookshelf PBM-5 passive monitors. It's no secret I love these speakers. They've fallen out of favor in the recording industry because they don't really give you an honest sound, but it's a real sweet and satisfying sound - and they're really cheap! Anyway, what you trade for the sweetness is detail and they can't quite handle the really high energy transients and they can distort a little.
I played all the same cuts and to my surprise the difference in the violins on the two orchestral cuts were more noticeable in the upper registers than with the Avlars. The harshness of Mac/Audio-gd combo was more apparent. I would have guessed the difference wouldn't have been as noticeable. On the other hand, I could tell no difference whatsoever on "Because", they sounded identical. "Because" is mostly midrange, so the real difference I was noticing between these two sources was in the high end.
At this point I ran a digital coax from the M2 to the Audio-gd DAC so I could A/B the M2 DAC and the Audio-gd DAC using the M2 for a transport and take the Mac out of the equation entirely.
The result? The same differences were still there, but to a lesser degree. The Audio-gd DAC was very slightly more clinical, the attacks very slightly harsher and while the detail in the high end was a little more emphasized, the overall sound was a little less natural.
You might have noticed that I didn't address the mid and lower range differences. That's because I just couldn't hear any, they both sounded great and the same.
Overall, I found the differences between these systems to be very minor. They both sounded very good. The Mac seemed to have a slightly increasing curve starting around 2-3K, or maybe it was the M2 gradually dipping, who knows. But those slight differences resulted in one consistent quality: naturalness. The M2 clearly gave me a more organic, natural and real feeling musical experience.
It's too bad my system isn't really in the groove yet and that has certainly colored what I heard, but I hope I was able to compensate accurately for the shortcomings. So to the best of my ability I'm happy to report that the M2 is an excellent transport and DAC and compares favorably to a fairly tweaked out Mac-Mini system. Apples and oranges? Perhaps. But it's the best CD player/DAC I've heard in this system
I'm also pissed because now I'm compelled to upgrade my DAC and maybe the S/PDIF interface, or should I go toslink? Is it the Mac? Should I go back to the Squeezebox? Bi-amping! That's the answer, a good analogue active crossover. Maybe it's just an attenuator. Or do I need to look more closely at cones and spikes and magic rocks? Arghhhh….SETH!