In 2011, according to Nielsen/Billboard, US sales of digital music downloads surpassed sales of recordings on physical media for the first time. That statistic is comprised of, almost entirely, sales of compressed music by websites such as iTunes and Amazon. While there are a couple dozen websites selling downloads of CD (16-bit/44.1kHz) or higher resolution, their offerings represent only a small proportion of current releases, and an even tinier fraction of back catalog. In 2013, CDs are still the dominant format for buying uncompressed music, and most of us own hundreds or thousands of them. Not everyone is inclined to rip his entire CD collection to hard drives for playback through a computer; the standalone CD player still has a place in a modern audiophile system.
On the other hand, a component that plays only CDs ignores the very real sonic benefits of higher bit depths and sample rates, as well as the undeniable trend toward downloads and computer-based playback. A number of companies have recognized that we are at this crossroads, and have responded by adding digital inputs -- often including USB -- to their newest CD players. One such is Music Culture, which introduced the Elegance MC 501A ($4490 USD) to succeed their Elegance MC 501.
The German-designed and -built MC 501A measures 18"W x 5.7"H x 16"D and weighs a substantial 26 pounds. The case is made of anodized aluminum on the front, back, top, and bottom, and, on the sides, of a gloss-black plastic reminiscent of a highly polished piano. Beveled edges on the half-inch-thick faceplate make the MC 501A’s appearance sleek rather than imposing, and the gold-toned buttons flanking the CD drawer and display add to the air of sophistication. The remote, too, is a heavy piece of anodized aluminum, and can control other products in Music Culture’s Elegance series -- such as the MC 701 integrated amplifier.
On the rear panel you’ll find the usual IEC power inlet with rocker switch, to put the MC 501A into standby, as well as a coaxial digital output and coaxial and USB digital inputs. Both digital inputs accept sample rates up to 192kHz. The USB receiver is the same XMOS chip found in other high-end DACs, and operates in asynchronous mode; an included CD supplies the Windows driver needed to support sample rates above 96kHz. Disc-spinning duties are handled by a fully shielded CD transport that has been designed to damp vibrations. (Not that it has anything to do with sound quality, but the drawer’s operation was among the quietest and silkiest I’ve experienced.) The MC 501A offers analog output on XLR and RCA, but, unusually, both are specified at the same 2.3V. I verified with Music Culture that the player is not a fully differential design. Still, it may be beneficial to use a balanced connection in some systems so that the cable doesn’t pick up additional noise.
The MC 501A provides the option to upsample digital data to 192kHz, whether those data are read from CD or come through one of the digital inputs. With most material, I found that upsampling smoothed out the sound a bit too much, smearing the leading edges of notes. The soundstage also lost some of its definition. After a number of trials, I decided to just leave it off.
Forget any preconceived notions you might have about Teutonic audio components sounding sterile or analytical; the MC 501A was decidedly warm, with an emphasis on the midrange -- and a beautiful midrange it was. If you, like many audiophiles, are a fan of women singers, you may easily be seduced. I spent a lot of time with the usual suspects -- Alison Krauss, Eva Cassidy, etc. -- as well as with some I’ve never seen cited in audio reviews: Anu Komsi’s Coloratura, with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo (24/96 FLAC, BIS/eclassical); and, since the player is made in Berlin, Ute Lemper’s Berlin Cabaret Songs, from The Decca Sound boxed set (50 CDs, Decca 478 3182). Each voice had its distinctive timbre, but all reached full tonal saturation and forewent any overemphasis of sibilance.
A violin also sings in the soprano range. Through the MC 501A, Hilary Hahn’s instrument, in her recording of Mozart violin sonatas with Natalie Zhu (CD, Deutsche Grammophon B0004771-02), had a sweet, lilting character that made this album all the more delightful. But just because the MC 501A excelled at sweetness didn’t mean that it couldn’t also handle men’s voices. In A Summer’s Day: Swedish Romantic Songs, Frederik Zetterström’s baritone was sufficiently weighty in his duet with Anne Sofie von Otter (24/88.2 FLAC, BIS/eclassical); and Johnny Cash’s had the right blend of twang and depth in All Aboard the Blue Train (24/96 FLAC, Sun/HDtracks).
Not only did the MC 501A excel at tonal richness and lyrical fluidity, it preserved many finer details of musical performance. As much as I enjoyed Cassidy’s voice on her Simply Eva (CD, Blix Street G2-10099), I was continually drawn to the sound of her guitar, and to the way the MC 501A differentiated where her fingers were on the strings relative to the bridge, and which part of each finger she was using to pluck or strum. Similarly, I appreciated the exactitude with which the MC 501A reproduced the transient attack of the piano’s keys in the fast passages of Jonathan Plowright’s recording of solo-piano pieces by Brahms (24/96 FLAC, BIS/eclassical), and the softer beginnings to notes in the more subdued phrases. Rather than being spotlit events, these details remained within the context of the overall performance. This wonderfully smooth sound did come at the expense of a little texture. For instance, I’m used to hearing a little more bow across cellist Christian Poltéra’s strings than the MC 501A retrieved from his and pianist Kathryn Stott’s recording of Dvorák’s Silent Woods (24/96 FLAC, BIS/eclassical) -- and there was a touch less of the electronic haze that usually surrounds Johnny Cash’s voice in “Blue Train.”
The MC 501A’s top end was very forgiving of poorly recorded material. Ever since I wrote an article last year comparing different versions of Sade’s Diamond Life, I’ve been using the 1990 edition (CD, Portrait RK 39581) to test how a component handles a terrible tape-to-digital transfer. The Music Culture made the high end a little less zingy than it often sounds, and while it couldn’t improve Adele’s singing, the MC 501A toned down her overly hot 21 (16/44.1 FLAC, XL Records). But unlike with NAD’s M51 Direct Digital DAC (see “Comparisons,” below), which I reviewed last December, the MC 501A’s tolerance of bad recordings didn’t seem to compromise better ones. Through the NAD, the triangle in the second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No.3, with Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony (CD, CSO Resound CSOR 901), didn’t ring free of the orchestra. Through the Music Culture, not only was the triangle better separated from the other sounds of the ensemble, it had a distinctive pitch and a bell-like quality. Similarly, the MC 501A highlighted the tonal characteristics of the triangle, orchestral bells, and other percussion instruments in Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of one of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (24/176.4 WAV, Reference Recordings’ 2011 HRX sampler), rather than reproducing them as zippy sound effects.
At the other end of the audioband, the MC 501A had a very generous bass and midbass that laid a grand foundation for large orchestral recordings. Unfortunately, as also happens in concert halls that boost the low end, that richness came at the expense of some definition -- such that the notes in fast double-bass passages tended to blur together. Likewise, the lower notes of the three basses in Ray Brown, John Clayton, and Christian McBride’s SuperBass 2 (CD, Telarc 83483) blended into each other; these are more distinct in time and space when I play this disc in my Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP universal disc (but no Blu-ray) player.
Not all music is so active in the nether regions. Ray Brown’s double bass is the only one on the Oscar Peterson Trio’s Night Train (24/96 FLAC, Verve/HDtracks), and the MC 501A’s slight bloom didn’t detract from the music in any way, only adding some extra fullness to Brown’s instrument. Kevin Axt’s electric bass in the title track of Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’ (CD, UMG B0009789-02) is already quite full through a neutral DAC. Played with the MC 501A, it was as deep and broad is ever, yet didn’t overwhelm, and retained its purring tone. A chunky bass note on every beat propels “Don’t Wait Too Long,” from Madeline Peyroux’s Careless Love (CD, Rounder T1661-3192-2). The MC 501A laid these out with sufficient heft while preserving the spaces between them.
Finally, the MC 501A cast a soundstage that was somewhat narrower than usual -- it didn’t extend much outside the speakers -- but exceptionally deep. Willie Nelson’s close-miked voice in his live recording with Wynton Marsalis, Two Men with the Blues (CD, EMI 5 04454 2 4), was set just behind the plane of the speaker baffles, the band spread out behind him. On the disc of Mozart sonatas, Hahn’s violin was left of center and distinctly in front of Zhu’s piano. As the music increased in complexity, the Music Culture didn’t disappoint. When I listened to the Fugue of Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, with Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony (24/176.4 WAV, Reference Recordings 2011 HRX sampler), each group of instruments played from its accustomed place, and the MC 501A did a marvelous job of layering them from front to back.
Ayre Acoustics’ C-5xe ($5950) has been my reference digital source since 2007 (it benefited from the Minimum Phase filter upgrade in 2009). The player, built in Boulder, Colorado, delivered the bolder (sorry) presentation, with bass that was deeper, more authoritative, more articulate. That distinction was apparent across genres, but was most keenly felt with rock. For example, through the Ayre, the firmer attack of the kick drum in “Run Like Hell,” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall (CD, EMI 81243 2), drove this track forward with more energy. The C-5xeMP’s overall tonal balance is more neutral than the MC 501A’s, and its high frequencies are more extended. As a result, the triangle in the Mahler Symphony 3 recording had more shimmer through the Ayre. On the same disc, the brass were a little brassier through the C-5xeMP, a little more burnished through the MC 501A. The disadvantage of a neutral balance is that hot recordings -- i.e., nearly all modern mainstream pop and rock -- sound at least a little aggressive through the Ayre.
The MC 501A’s lower output level -- 2.3V vs. the Ayre’s 4.2V -- meant that I had to match volumes with an SPL meter. Even accounting for that difference, I always heard more with the C-5xeMP. With the Mozart sonatas disc, the MC presented what was unmistakably a violin, but the Ayre offered more of the wood, string, and rosined bow, and ditto for the cello in Silent Woods; with both recordings, I heard more of the piano’s action. The images of each of these instruments that the Ayre placed in my listening room were more solid and palpable than those conjured up by the MC 501A. In the Norwegian Radio Symphony’s recording of Ole Bull’s Concerto Fantastico (24/192 FLAC, 2L), Annar Follesø’s violin was brought more clearly into focus by the C-5xeMP than by the MC 501A, in both its position on the stage and the nuances of its sound. The soundscape was significantly wider, just as deep, and communicated more of the acoustics of the performance venue. The re-creation of the musical event was simply more complete through the Ayre. For a 50% higher price, one should expect a substantial performance increase, and that’s what one gets with the C-5xeMP.
What I haven’t mentioned is that the C-5xeMP has no digital inputs. If you want to play all those hi-rez files you’ve been downloading, you’ll have to burn them to DVD-Audio discs. That didn’t bother me when I first started downloading hi-rez music, but, as my library of downloads continues to expand, it seems an ever more cumbersome solution. And to get an Ayre disc spinner with a USB input means stepping up to the DX-5 -- which, at $9950, costs as much more than the C-5xeMP as the entire price of the MC 501A.
Also in-house during the review period was NAD’s M51 Direct Digital DAC ($1995). The M51 offers many input options, including USB and even HDMI, but has no disc transport. The NAD and the Music Culture had some similar sonic attributes. Both components were warm, but the MC 501A was a little more so, with more intense tone colors and a slightly more present midrange. Both were also exceedingly smooth. On the upside, they omitted the grit and grain that plague lesser DACs. On the downside, both went slightly too far, obscuring a bit of instrumental and vocal texture that the best DACs reveal.
There were also some differences. While bass notes were very slightly soft at their beginnings and exhibited a bit of bloom with both components, the MC 501A’s overall sense of timing was more acute than the M51’s. In my review of the NAD, I said that its relaxed delivery of Ronald Brautigam’s recording of Mozart’s piano concertos Nos. 17 and 26, with the Köln Academy (24/96 FLAC, BIS/eclassical), “made the ensemble’s playing seem a little loose and inattentive.” Through the MC 501A, the orchestra sounded better rehearsed and more engaged. Soundstage depth depends on the preservation of very subtle timing cues, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the M51 also lagged behind the MC 501A in this regard. The NAD countered with superior width -- this being a function, primarily, of channel separation. Which dimension is more important will depend on music, system, and personal preference.
The Music Culture Elegance MC 501A delivers full, rich bass; a vivid, present midrange; and sweet highs. Its sound is more about tone and fluidity than slam and sparkle. The MC 501A won’t bowl you over with detail, but if you sit down and listen to it, you’ll find that most of those details are still there, playing a subservient role to the music -- as they do in real life. This combination of characteristics is inviting on first listen, and shouldn’t fatigue over the long haul. Add to that great looks and excellent build quality, and the Elegance MC 501A is well worth an audition.
. . . S. Andrea Sundaram
- Digital Source -- Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP, NAD M51 Direct Digital DAC
- Amplifier -- GRAAF GM-50
- Speakers -- Esoteric MG-10, REL R-328 subwoofer
- Computer -- Custom laptop running Windows Vista, foobar2000
- Headphone system -- Stax SR-507 and Woo Audio GES
- Interconnects -- Nordost Red Dawn LS, DH Labs Revelation, QED Silver Spiral
- Speaker cables -- DH Labs Q-10
- Power conditioner -- Equi=Tech Son of Q
Music Culture Elegance MC 501A CD player-DAC
Price: $4490 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Music Culture Technology GmbH
Phone: +49 152-28-967-567
Fax: +49 30-484-98-35-50
16 Passaic Avenue, Unit 6
Fairfield, NJ 07004
Phone: (973) 808-4188
Fax: (973) 808-1055