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First Listen: PS Audio PerfectWave Memory Player Transport

First Listen: PS Audio PerfectWave Memory Player Transport

About a week ago, I wrote a blog on PS Audio’s somewhat unorthodox, DSD-centric DirectStream DAC.Consider this a Round Two. This blog will highlight the network-attached, disc player/transport the firm offers as a companion for use with its DACs: the £2,999 PerfectWave Memory Player Transport (or PWT for short).

While the DirectStream DAC is a relatively new offering for PS Audio, the PerfectWave Transport has been available since about 2009. At the time, the PWT was envisioned as the ideal complement to the firm’s then reigning flagship DAC called—you guessed it—the PerfectWave DAC (which, unlike the present-day DirectStream DAC, used purely PCM-based technology). But even though the PWT comes from an earlier generation of product development, the concepts used in its design are still technically valid and musically worthwhile, meaning the PWT remains a fine potential companion to the new-generation DirectStream DAC.

The Basics
The PWT features a robustly constructed chassis and is styled to match both the earlier PerfectWave DAC and current DirectStream DAC. By design, the units are configured so that they may be stacked atop one another, simply by unscrewing and removing the upper unit’s rubber feet (aluminium guides moulded on the bottom of the chassis help align one unit with the other for stacking purposes). The PWT front panel presents a Ready/Operate pushbutton switch, a disc drawer, and a medium-sized, full-colour touchscreen. The rear panel provides coaxial and optical S/PDIF digital outputs, an AES/EBU output, and an I2S output, plus an RJ-45 type Ethernet jack, an SD card slot, and an RS-232 port.

The full-colour display typically shows Play, Stop, Repeat, and Eject touch controls, plus a window that shows which disc track is presently playing, along with a progress bar that shows elapsed time and time remaining for the track. In circumstances where the PWT is network-connected, the display will also show cover art plus basic metadata (artist, album title, etc.) for the album in play. Finally, the PWT comes with a remote control that is nearly identical to the one supplied with the DirectStream DAC. I found it was easy to control the PWT from the DirectStream DAC’s remote, so I left the PWT’s remote unopened in its box.

On the surface, the PWT appears to be a straightforward ‘CD transport’, but the PWT can also play WAV-format, PCM files at resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz from either CD or DVD-format discs. Ponder that last sentence for a moment or two and you can begin to imagine the possibilities. You could, for instance, buy high-res downloads of your favourite music, then burn those files to a CD or, more likely, a DVD, and then play them through the PerfectWave Transport. Similarly, you could burn a favourite high-res playlist to a CD or DVD and play the material through the PWT, and so on.

But why would you go to the bother of burning and then playing discs, if you could just as easily play those high-res files directly from your computer to the DirectStream DAC? The answer, in a nutshell, is that there is the possibility that the PerfectWave Transport might actually be a better sounding ‘delivery vehicle’ for your digital audio files.

 

Memory-based Playback
For starters, it is important to grasp that the PWT does not so much ‘play’ discs as it reads them and then loads their contents sequentially into a 64MB solid-state buffer memory that PS Audio terms a ‘Digital Lens’. This means that disc contents are played solely from memory (hence the name ‘Memory Player’)—never directly from the disc. A PS Audio background document flatly states,

It is the fact that you are listening to the stored version of what’s on the disc that helps the music sound so lifelike and spacious. CD players all stream music directly off the CD while a PerfectWave Memory Player always plays out of its memory; never the disc.”

Astute readers will point out that many of today’s better computer music software packages (e.g., jRiver Media Center and others) also provide settings that allow music to be played exclusively from memory, and not from storage drives, which raises the question of whether the PWT offers meaningful sonic advantages or not. PS Audio responds by pointing out that, in contrast to a computer-based playback system, the PWT offers lowers noise, a simpler data flow-path, plus a higher precision clock (and a simpler clocking schema overall).

Before designing the PWT, PS Audio says it experimented extensively with “modified PC motherboards and output cards to extract and manage the data from both a hard drive and a ROM drive,” eventually concluding that PC-based systems were sonically unsatisfactory. PS Audio observes that PC-based environments proved “too noisy and the peripherals (sound cards and interfaces) measured well but relied on massive data manipulation and sample rate conversion to achieve low jitter.” To address the shortcomings observed in these PC-based experiments, the firm decided to move forward with its purpose-built PerfectWave Memory Player Transport, stressing that that, “no computer parts were used in the building of this remarkable system.”

 

High-Res Capable
Memory playback is not the PWT’s only noteworthy feature as the player also can handle high res-files up to 192/24 as would typically be burned to DVD discs. To this end, the PWT is based not on a CD drive, but rather on a DVD drive said to, “get bit perfect results without traditional error correction.” PS Audio explains that, “the PWT (drive) uses a multiple read technique which reads the data on the disc until it’s verified as bit perfect,” and then adds or loads the data into the Digital Lens memory. Once the digital audio data is loaded into the Digital Lens, PS notes that, “there is no clock information attached to (the files)—just the raw and pure music extracted from the disc.” Finally, the output of the Lens is, “forwarded to the PWT output through a fixed high precision, low-jitter asynchronous clock,” meaning that the PWT is “one of the few true asynchronous transport in the world.”

I2S Digital Audio Interface
The PWT offers the expected and familiar AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital outputs, but also offers a relatively uncommon I2S digital output, which PS Audio says is the best sounding of the lot. As you might expect, then, the DirectStream DAC supports I2S inputs, as did the earlier PerfectWave DAC. For those unfamiliar with the term, I2S is an acronym that stands for ‘Inter-IC Sound’ or ‘Integrated Interchip Sound’, where I2S is a serial bus interface standard used for connecting digital audio devices, and has long been a feature of PS Audio DACs.

The distinguishing feature of the I2S bus is that it separates clock and serial data signals—an approach said to result in lower jitter than in interface systems that embed the clock signals within the digital audio data stream. Happily, the I2S bus uses HDMI format connectors and cables, which simplifies cabling requirements considerably. On the advice of Signature Systems, PS Audio’s UK distributor, we have done most of our listening via the I2S interface between the PWT and the DirectStream DAC, using an AudioQuest Carbon HDMI cable for our connections.

Network-Enabled
One other feature shows the forward-looking character of PWT as compared to competing CD transports: specifically, the PerfectWave Transport is Ethernet-enabled and thus capable of accessing the Internet and PS Audio’s GlobalNet. Network connectivity allows the PWT to look up and store (on an included SD card) most relevant metadata and cover artwork for any discs that are played, so that album artwork or metadata can be displayed in real-time on the PWT’s colour screen. (I chose not to take advantage of this feature in order to simplify cabling in my main listening room, as the room does not have hardwired Ethernet connectivity and I did not wish to install an Apple Airport Extreme or Express system solely for purposes of this test.)


 

 

How It Sounds
PS Audio claims the PWT produces “far better sound” than most other digital source components, adding that, “gone are the digital artifacts we become so used to. With the Memory Player you hear every detail on your disc and that’s a revelation for many.” By their very nature, such performance claims are easier to make than they are to substantiate, so that I felt some comparative listening tests were in order.

To set a level playing field, I chose some musical reference material for which I have both factory-made 192/24 DVD-type data discs and corresponding 192/24 WAV files. Then, I played the high-res discs through the PWT (using the I2S connection to the PS Audio DirectStream DAC) and compared the resulting sound to the sound of two other digital source components playing the equivalent 192/24 WAV files through the DirectStream DAC via USB connections.

The two other sources were my Lenovo/Windows/jRiver-based music server and the somewhat server-like AURALiC ARIES network bridge—again, with both sources playing 192/24 WAV files that had been ripped from the exact same discs I was playing through the PWT. Here’s what I’ve observed thus far.

PerfectWave Transport vs. Lenovo/Windows/jRiver music server

Overall, I was struck by how similar the PWT and the Lenovo-based server sounded. Both sources offered excellent resolution, a good measure of focus, generally neutral voicing, and sharply drawn dynamic contrasts. Both sources did an admirable job of presenting abundant layers of inner detail, yet without becoming unduly bright or analytical. In fairness, I should mention that my Lenovo server is configured so that, like the PWT, it plays digital music files only from memory (a reasonably large SSD)—never directly from my music library disc. If I were a pollster, I would say the few, subtle differences I did hear probably fell within the “statistical margin of error.” Under blind testing conditions, I doubt I could reliably tell the two sources apart.

Even so, some very small differences did emerge. First, the PWT conveyed perhaps the tiniest smidgeon more low-level treble detail than the server did, and second, the PWT carved the leading edges of fast-rising transient sounds ever so slightly more crisply than the server did.

Did the PWT decisively outperform the PC-based server (or vice versa)? No. Nevertheless, the PWT easily held its own in direct comparison with my thoroughly modern music server, which is more than can be said for most CD players/transports I’ve tried.

PerfectWave Transport vs. AURALiC ARIES network bridge
I found readily discernible sonic differences between the PWT and the AURALiC ARIES, though declaring a ‘winner’ would be more a matter of taste and preferences than of decisive performance advantages for one source or the other.

The PWT continued to sound as I described it in the comparison above, delivering what is—by any rational standard—a sophisticated and masterful treatment of the music at hand.

The AURALiC ARIES sounded somewhat similar to the PWT, but with sonic differences that became increasingly apparent as listening time accumulated. Specifically, the ARIES produced even wider and deeper soundstages than the PWT did, while enabling images to more readily break free from the baffles of my reference speakers, which further enhanced perceived three-dimensionality. Second, the ARIES rendered instrumental timbres with unforced qualities of natural, organic warmth and superb purity of timbre (meaning the mix of fundamentals, partials, and upper harmonics seemed almost perfectly balanced). Where the PWT undeniably offered terrific hi-fi sound, the ARIES rendered music with an overall ‘feel’ that got eerily close to the sound of the real thing.

Nevertheless, the PWT once again offered superior rendition of low-level treble details, more crisply drawn transient edges, and perhaps somewhat more dramatic or incisive dynamic contrasts—sonic qualities that are very desirable in their own right.

Thus, there is no clear-cut ‘winner’ in this comparison, although the ARIES does offer musical strengths that stand in compelling contrast to the strengths of the PWT (and to my Lenovo-based music server). Whether the PWT is your sonic ‘cup of tea’ or not, there’s no denying that it is a CD (and high-res) transport to be reckoned with.

I’m looking forward to using the PWT (and other digital sources) in my upcoming Hi-Fi+ review of PS Audio’s DirectStream DAC, which should appear several months from now. 

Until then, Happy Listening.

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