- Category: Full-Length Reviews
- Created on Thursday, 01 September 2011 00:00
- Written by Vade Forrester
“If You’re Not Getting into Computer-Based Audio Now, You’re Crazy.” That was the title of the “Opinion” editorial of April 1, 2011, by Doug Schneider, Publisher of the SoundStage! Network. Although our esteemed publisher admitted that the title was a deliberately provocative overstatement, he closed his article with this: “but you may well be nuts if you invest big money in a new CD player when it’s pretty obvious that the present and future of digital playback are computer-based solutions.”
Yet what follows here is a review of another disc player. Does that make us guilty of rank hypocrisy or, even worse, of capitulating to manufacturer pressure?
Worry not: The MSB Technology Universal Media Transport ($3995 USD without power supply) redefines universal to include the playback of music files from a computer, as well as every major audio format found on a 4.7” (120mm) disc: Blu-ray, DVD-Audio, SACD, HDCD, and CD, plus a number of video formats. It will also play FLAC and WAV music files from a USB or eSATA hard drive plugged directly into it, or from one of Reference Recordings’ HRx discs. It will also play computer audio files streamed over a wired or wireless network. So when MSB claims that the Universal Media Transport is universal, they mean a lot more than do most makers of “universal” players.
Most of the flexibility of the Universal Media Transport (UMT) comes from its ancestor, the Oppo Digital BDP-93 universal disc player. Unlike some manufacturers, MSB Technology is very upfront about the UMT’s lineage. But Oppo’s BDP-93 and upscale BDP-95 models are bargains at their respective prices of $499 and $999, so there’s bound to have been some cost-cutting to make such bargains possible. Other companies, too, have modified one of the Oppo models with better parts and beefier power supplies, but MSB’s upgrade of the Oppo BDP-93 is far more substantial. There’s no way a modification of the BDP-93’s original DAC and analog circuitry could begin to approach the performance of the superb DACs MSB already manufactures, so, as the UMT’s very name implies, MSB discarded the BDP-93’s DAC and analog output circuitry altogether. The result is strictly a disc transport, and it requires an external DAC. While there are some good reasons to pair the UMT with an MSB Technology model, it will work with other DACs as well.
In addition to Oppo’s excellent transport, MSB has retained the BDP-93’s very fine video section and its display, to which they’ve added a robust external power supply and a bevy of digital outputs so that the UMT can connect to most current DACs. Although the UMT’s video section is reportedly excellent, in this review I discuss only its two-channel audio playback of CD, SACD, DVD-A, and computer audio music files. I also tried one of Reference Recordings’ HRx discs, which basically contain 24-bit/176.4kHz WAV files copied directly from the master recordings.
For the UMT’s separate 12V power supply, MSB has four to choose from, ranging from the Outboard Desktop Supply ($595), which looks like the power supply you’d get with a laptop computer, to the Platinum Power Base ($2495), the Signature Power Base ($3495), and the Diamond Power Base ($4495) reviewed here. A Power Base can run both a UMT and one of MSB’s matching DACs, though the better supply is designed to augment the DAC alone; both types of model come in casework styled like the UMT’s. The UMT, Power Bases, and DACs all include MSB's Isorack Damping Feet, which encourage you to stack them. Although stacking components is usually a questionable practice, the Isorack foot -- a cylinder at the corner of the component, with a spike on the bottom and a cup at the top to accept the spike of an Isorack above -- provides a direct path from each component directly to the shelf. Because an MSB component’s Isorack feet are slightly taller than the component itself, the cases don’t touch each other. Spikes and cups are embedded in a soft substance (it may be Sorbothane) to further isolate the MSB components from vibrations and resonances. I don’t have any way of measuring resonances in audio components, but it seems reasonable to me that Isorack Damping Feet would virtually eliminate vibration transmission when MSB components are stacked. And if you like what the Isoracks do, MSB offers an amplifier with them -- you could stack an entire system’s electronics on a single shelf or amp stand. To further damp vibrations, the UMT and its power supply are made of aluminum slabs screwed together. The front panels are semicylindrical extrusions of aluminum.
The UMT and Power Bases are available in matte white or black, with blue anodized heatsinks along both sides. The matte white isn’t really white, but a flat aluminum finish I’d describe as gray. But hey, I’m a guy; what do I know about colors? For an additional $350, you can get the heatsinks in any color you want.
If you’re wondering how you’d play an SACD through a standard DAC, so was I. Basically, the UMT converts SACD’s DSD signal to PCM. But wait -- wouldn’t that infringe on Sony’s licensing agreement? Indeed it would; so, to honor that licensing arrangement, the UMT can play SACDs only through MSB DACs, which have a proprietary connection. With that connection, when you play an SACD the front panel of the DAC tells you it’s converted the DSD signal to 32/384 PCM, then downsampled that to 32/352.8. Want surround sound from your SACDs? The UMT is currently just a two-channel model, but a surround-sound version is coming -- for another $1995.
An unbranded remote control is provided; I suspect it’s a standard Oppo remote. It’s plastic and lightweight, which I prefer; it won’t damage my foot or coffee table when I drop it.
The UMT’s output jacks allow you to connect it to just about any DAC. There are S/PDIF outputs on coax, BNC, or optical TosLink, as well as an AES/EBU balanced output, which MSB recommends for use with other DACs. Then there’s the proprietary MSB Network output, which uses a 32-bit path. Output levels are a bit high -- 3.6V RMS through the S/PDIF outputs and 7.5V RMS through the AES/EBU output -- but they can be adjusted. When the Oppo transport reads data from a disc, the data are stored in memory and reclocked for low jitter (2 picoseconds is specified). If a non-MSB DAC is used, data are converted to 24 bits.
If you want to play computer audio files, you’ll need an external monitor to display them -- Oppo’s display is just not up to it. The monitor doesn’t need to be huge or high-definition; a standard TV with a small screen should suffice. MSB is working on a remote control that will let you select music files to play back. This sounds like a perfect job for one of the new tablet computers: It could serve as both display and remote control.
You can also stream audio files from a computer or network drive, which MSB recommends as a way to ensure that you don’t run out of storage space. Lacking the necessary Ethernet wiring in my home, I was unable to evaluate this option; however, playback of files from an attached hard drive should approximate the sound of streamed files.
Setup and use
Since I had both the UMT and an MSB Signature DAC IV, I first tried them together, using the recommended MSB Network connection. Since for a non-MSB DAC the UMT’s manual recommends using an AES/EBU cable, I used a Wireworld Gold Starlight 52. I installed the UMT and the DAC IV, as well as a Diamond Power Base to power both units, on the bottom shelf of my equipment rack. I made good use of MSB’s Isorack Damping Feet and stacked the three MSBs: Power Base on bottom, UMT in the middle, Signature DAC IV on top (the DAC IV has an iLink II connection for an iPod on its top panel, so it needed to be topmost). I connected the UMT to the DAC IV via the MSB Network, for which a cable was provided.
After verifying that the MSBs were working properly, I burned them in. MSB’s literature says that while the company is not convinced of the need for burn-in, they suggest 100 hours of it -- and then say that customers have told them that a month’s worth is appropriate. Wondering why MSB couldn’t provide a less confusing recommendation for how long the UMT might actually take to burn in, I compromised: I inserted a disc in the UMT’s drawer and left it on Repeat for 300 hours. That should burn in the UMT, the Power Base, the DAC IV, and the MSB Network cable, I thought. I used one of MSB’s power cords, which looked substantial, to connect the Power Base supply to a wall plug.
Since my Auraliti-based server uses a USB 2.0 Western Digital Elements 1.5TB hard drive loaded with audio files, I connected that drive to the UMT’s rear USB input with a Wireworld Starlight 52 USB cable. The drive contains both CD- and higher-resolution (up to 24/192) files, most of them in FLAC or WAV format, both of which the UMT can play directly. And because experience has taught me that everything needs burn-in, after I’d connected the hard drive to the UMT, I let that play for another 200 hours.
For a display, I connected a small TV to the UMT via its composite output. It wasn’t ideal, but it did the job. Once I could view the names of the files stored on the hard drive, I could use the remote to select the ones I wanted to play. Selecting a whole playlist was a bit of a challenge, but fortunately, when I selected the first file in a folder, the UMT went on to play the entire folder. Because most of my recordings are of classical music, playing a folder at a time is essentially equivalent to playing an entire disc at a time. There was one curious anomaly: When the UMT displayed the music stored on the hard drive, folders weren’t listed in strict alphabetical order, as a computer can display them. The MSB listed the folders on my hard drive beginning with A, then on through the alphabet in a seemingly normal manner -- but some directories were missing. Scrolling further down the directory showed another section of folder names, again beginning with A and proceeding through the alphabet. The UMT didn’t omit any directories, but it could take me some time to find them. MSB told me that the Oppo software that implements the directory’s browsing mode was at fault, and had scheduled an update to fix it.
If you’re going to use an attached hard drive to store your music files, you’ll need a separate computer to rip CDs to the hard drive, or to download from an Internet source. Your standard desktop computer will work just fine. If you use a Mac, you’ll need software to convert AIFF and ALAC files to WAV and FLAC so that the UMT can play them. I tried to get the UMT to play an AIFF file, but, as expected, it refused.
There are a lot of exotic discs out there -- SACD, DVD-A, HRx -- but for each release on those formats there are probably 1000 CDs. The acid test for a disc spinner is still how it sounds when playing CDs.
“Folia Rodrigo Martinez,” from Jordi Savall’s La Folia 1490-1701 (CD, Alia Vox AFA 9805), is probably my favorite test track. It has deep bass, dynamics that change continuously, musical information of great density, and fast transients. Probably most important, the music is thoroughly delightful -- I can listen to it endlessly without getting tired of it. The first impression I noted when playing this track through the MSB UMT was how deep and well-defined the bass was. There was real power from the bass drum, good pitch definition, and, more than from other sources, good bass definition, which revealed that the bass was well integrated into the overall musical tapestry. Melodies flowed energetically, and percussion instruments maintained good definition throughout. Sometimes, through other gear, they run together into a background cacophony; the UMT kept them distinct.
Another favorite is the Ensemble a Sei Voci performing Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere (CD, Astrée E 8524). The UMT made each singer in this a cappella group sound distinct, and more like a real member of a small chorus. Some of the harmony parts were unusually distinct, but still well blended into the overall group sound. The soundstage was quite realistic without any dimension being exaggerated. Overall, the UMT reproduced this recording with energy, spaciousness, and clarity.
I then played Jennifer Warnes’ “The Panther,” from her album The Well (CD, Sin-Drome SDR SD8960). The UMT revealed exquisite treble detail -- more than I’ve heard through any other source -- that revealed a slight high-frequency emphasis. However, this seemed less prominent than I’ve heard from many digital sources, and the sound was relaxed, with none of the hardness that so often goes with overemphasized highs. With my system, which has a slight high-frequency rolloff, the balance was close to ideal; but I imagine that in a system that already sounds bright, the UMT’s highs could be a bit much.
Chris Jones’ “God Moves on the Water,” from his Roadhouses & Automobiles (CD, Stockfisch SFR 357.6027.2), really boogied. There was tons of energy, with deep bass and realistic instrumental detail. Here, too, there was a slight HF emphasis -- but it was very slight, with no edginess or distortion.
The UMT played WAV and FLAC files without a glitch. The music on Ottmar Liebert’s One Guitar (24/96 FLAC, Spiral Subwave/HDtracks) flowed with lots of energy, dynamics were both powerful and precise, and the sound was spacious without being cavernous. Liebert’s guitar sounded detailed, but without all the squeaks and thumps you sometimes hear from a recording that’s been too closely miked.
One audiophile favorite is Rebecca Pidgeon’s “Spanish Harlem,” from her The Raven (24/88.2 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks). It sounded pristine and detailed through the UMT, which revealed nuances not usually obvious. The sound was relaxed and natural, and the leading edges of transients were well defined but not unnaturally emphasized.
In Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with pianist Jon Nakamatsu, conductor Jeff Tyzik, and the Rochester Philharmonic (24/88 FLAC, Harmonia Mundi/HDtracks), instrumental detail was plentiful and realistic. Instruments seemed just a bit more harmonically fleshed out than usual, and macro- and microdynamics were precisely rendered. This syncopated work depends on very precise timing to make the music flow believably -- and it really swung! Overall, the sound was effortless and relaxed, with no strain or distortion.
The Tallis Scholars’ recording of Allegri’s Miserere (24/96 FLAC, Gimell/Gimell) was striking. “Clarity, purity, and precision,” say my listening notes -- and the soundstage was the largest and most detailed I’ve heard. Vocal nuances were subtle but detailed: I could hear the characteristics of each singer’s voice, but they weren’t unnaturally highlighted. It was as if someone had turned on the lights in a semidarkened room.
When I played Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (24/176.4 WAV, Reference HRx/Elusive Disc), the spacious sound had considerable impact and weight. Since MSB claims that the UMT will play HRx discs directly, I gave that a try. It worked, but the files sounded much better after being copied to and played from a hard drive -- just as they were designed to. A listening buddy observed that the music played directly from an HRx disc sounded like a different recording -- and not a better one.
I connected my vintage Meridian 500 CD transport to my Audio Research DAC8, using the same Wireworld AES/EBU cable I’d used for the UMT. (I keep the Meridian because I have no intention of ripping my entire CD collection to my server.)
With Warnes singing “The Panther,” there was no high-frequency emphasis as I’d heard from the UMT -- just the normal frequency balance I usually hear. “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” had somewhat less bass, in terms of both frequency extension and impact; otherwise, the Meridian transport was as dynamic and tuneful as the UMT. The spatial qualities of the recording venue for Miserere sounded more homogenized, and voices in the small group were less distinct. Chris Jones’ “God Moves on the Water” didn’t have the slight high-frequency elevation I’d heard from the UMT, and there was no lack of flow in the musical momentum -- something the Meridian is renowned for. Bass impact was good, but the UMT’s was more detailed.
The Auraliti PK100 file player ($799) functionally resembles the UMT’s computer-audio section: it can play WAV, FLAC, AIFF, and MP3 files. Since both players will play music files from an external USB hard drive, I used the same hard drive and music files with the Auraliti. An S/PDIF cable connected the Auraliti to the DAC8.
Ottmar Liebert’s One Guitar projected less energy than through the UMT. Pidgeon’s voice in “Spanish Harlem” sounded just as relaxed as through the UMT, but leading-edge transients sounded somewhat less well defined. Rhapsody in Blue sounded as well defined and relaxed as through the UMT, but the latter had more exuberant dynamics and energy. Allegri’s Miserere sounded spacious and detailed, but the UMT’s soundstage was considerably more three-dimensional and the voices sounded more realistic. And there was a smidgen of glare in the voices that I hadn’t noticed before with the Auraliti/DAC8 combo.
The UMT sounded superb with my Audio Research DAC8, but to hear the MSB at its best, it really needs an MSB DAC, such as the Signature Platinum DAC IV I used. And only with an MSB DAC will the UMT play SACDs.
It would have been useful to compare the UMT with similar products in its price range, but I don’t think any products are similar to it.
MSB Technology’s Universal Media Transport isn’t cheap. Neither is a Rolls-Royce. However, the MSB UMT isn’t just a CD player -- it’s as close to a truly universal player as anything I’ve seen. Its ability to play computer audio files gives it the capability of a digital music server, so you don’t need to worry about our publisher’s admonition -- with the UMT, you can get into computer-based audio whenever you want. Lots of modern DACs, MSB’s included, have digital inputs that allow you to connect just about any digital source you can imagine, but the UMT has an internal computer-audio file player that lets you play files stored on an attached hard drive or streamed from a home network. And it doesn’t just play them -- it plays them superbly.
Everything about the UMT smacks of quality and attention to detail. It’s built like the proverbial brick outhouse, and considering how many functions it provides, it’s quite user friendly. The MSB UMT is a serious assault on the state of the transport art. Its price reflects that, but so does its sound. If you have deep pockets and a love for the finest audio equipment, and the finest sound, I urge you to audition the MSB Technology Universal Media Transport.
. . . Vade Forrester
- Speakers -- Affirm Audio Lumination, JL Audio Fathom f110 subwoofers (2)
- Amplifiers -- Audio Research VS115, Atma-Sphere S-30 Mk.III, Art Audio PX-25
- Preamplifiers -- Audio Research PH5 phono preamp and LS26 line stage
- Sources -- Linn LP12 turntable on custom isolation base, Graham Engineering 2.2 tonearm, van den Hul Platinum Frog cartridge; Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player; Hewlett-Packard dv7-3188cl laptop computer running 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium and foobar2000 v.1.0.3 music-server software; iPod Touch connected to Wadia 170iTransport digital music dock; Meridian 500 CD transport; all servers and digital players connected to a Benchmark DAC1 Pre or Audio Research DAC8 D/A converter
- Speaker cables -- Purist Audio Design Venustas, Blue Marble Audio, Crystal Cable CrystalSpeak Micro, Audience Au24 e, Clarity Cables Organic
- Interconnects -- Crystal Cable Piccolo, TG Audio High Purity Revised, Clarity Cables Organic, Audience Au24 e, Purist Audio Design Venustas
- Digital cables -- Wireworld Starlight 52 USB and Gold Starlight 6 S/PDIF
- Power cords -- Purist Audio Design Venustas, Blue Marble Audio Blue Lightning, Clarity Cables Vortex, Audience powerChord e
- Power conditioners and distribution -- Audience aR6-T, IsoTek EVO3 Sirius
MSB Technology Universal Media Transport
Price: $3995 USD plus power supply ($595-$4495).
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
MSB Technology Corporation
5601 Freedom Blvd.
Aptos, CA 95003
Phone: (716) 688-3527
Fax: (831) 662-3800
MSB Technology responds:
When we first looked at the new Oppo BDP-93 it appeared to try and be all things to all people, which is often not a good idea. But the harder we looked at the front end and feature set, the better it got. Knowing we could design a dedicated MSB processing board with bit-perfect buffering, memory playback, virtually zero jitter, and other proprietary MSB technologies, we built a prototype that outperformed our expectations.
We feel that Vade has correctly identified the virtues of the sound we worked so hard to achieve. He often mentions the impact of the sound, precise dynamics, well-defined powerful bass, good pitch definition, etc. We feel it is what gives the music the elusive "pace and rhythm" that has been described over the years.
Also, our engineering and listening teams have always identified the smear and harshness and lack of space that seems to always accompany the very dense harmonics of instruments such as intense solo classical piano, multiple horns, multiple violins, or multiple voices. We hoped that this smear and congestion and lack of space were not a permanent part of all digital recordings for the last 27 years. As a design goal we set out to design DACs that were a significant improvement in resolution and information recovery. As we improved the DACs we discovered that the source quality became even more critical, so we designed the UMT and the Data CD IV, which then caused us to go back and improve the DAC, etc. We now feel that the dense information and dense harmonic structure has always been available in digital recordings waiting to be correctly unraveled, and revealed. Vade notices these virtues in his favorite test track from Folia Rodrigo Martinez with "musical information of great density and fast transients," "melodies flowed energetically," "sometimes through other gear they run together into a background cacophony, the UMT kept them distinct."
We have also found that the correct resolution of these dense harmonics always seems to be accompanied by a significant improvement in the soundstage, transporting us from one venue to the next across different recordings. Vade confirms this in his comments during his review of the Tallis Scholars: "the soundstage was the largest and most detailed I’ve heard."
We are puzzled by Vade’s result with the HRx discs. All of the sources available in the UMT are bit perfect and because of the disc re-read in the transport, the data result should sound at least as good as playing from the hard drive. In our tests the HRx discs sounded wonderful as they also did when streaming from a computer network or from a HDD. Since the beginning of this review many months ago, MSB has identified a system-dependant ground issue when using a display with the UMT that can add ground noise through the MSB Network. It seems it can affect certain sources and not others. This issue does not affect the coax, balanced AES/EBU, or TosLink outputs. There is a new Isolated MSB Network Pro I2S option available that also features isolated grounds, higher bandwidth, and further lowering what is already vanishingly low jitter and noise (beyond measurement). This will address and solve any issues when a display is connected to the UMT or the particular system has ground-noise issues as a result of the components being plugged into different wall outlets and any number of other noise-generating possibilities. A word of advice to the reader, in general: keep in mind that any ground "noise" is often not heard but gets amplified in analog circuits causing vague sonic issues and potential problems with any digital equipment. One precaution is to plug all equipment into the same outlet or at least the same electrical "phase" if you must use two outlets.
All of us at MSB would like to thank Vade Forrester for his considerable effort and diligence in digging into the extensive features and multiple sources that the MSB Universal Media Transport provides. This was no small feat and everyone at MSB deeply appreciates his translation of our life’s work and passion.
National Sales Manager