Welcome to the Best Digital Players section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2022.
The Guide is more than “We heartily endorse this [fill in the blank].” This collection represents our enthusiasm. Every product listed in this guide is beloved by at least one team member. These products have elicited responses such as “I was gobsmacked every minute I spent with this” or “The shipping box was wet with the tears of my lost innocence” or, too often, just “Take my money!” In other words, this isn’t about high-end audio products that we merely like. These are the products we love — and we think you will, too.
No list like this can ever be complete since we’re bound to forget something that has duly impressed the heck out of us. We’ve attempted to capture a moment in time — one year — and collect together, in one place, all of those products that we want to have and hold and use in our own systems right now.
If you’re looking for our list of “the best stuff to check out right now” — the best loudspeakers, CD players, amplifiers, turntables, cartridges, preamplifiers, DACs and more — this is it.
The Best Digital Players
The Best Digital Players portion of our buyers guide is broken down into subcategories, such as DACs, Servers and Streamers, Digital Music Streaming, Transports and SACD Players. Each section is organized by price in ascending order. Enjoy!
The Best Digital Players: DACs
iFi ZEN Blue V2 ($189 USD)
Yes, we’re including a Bluetooth option, because truth be told this is the perfect gateway device for allowing the kids (or grandkids) of the digital age a chance to take the wheel of any major (or minor) hi-fi system. The reason we chose the iFi ZEN Blue V2 is that it sounds amazing right out of the box, will connect to virtually anything with a Bluetooth signal, and features one of the better DACs based on the ESS chipset. Features include digital, single-ended, and balanced outputs.
Schiit Bifrost (starting at $699 USD)
This affordable DAC from Schiit comes in two options. The cheaper one is built around the smooth sounding AKM4490 chipset while the pricier (but still affordable) multibit version takes advantage of Schiit’s know-how from their top-of-the-line Yggdrasil converter. Both versions are worth their money—expect the AKM to have a slightly less defined bass while maintaining an excellent midrange, while the Multibit version adds crispier high frequencies to the mix. Both are modular and upgradable designs.
BorderPatrol SE-i DAC (starting at $1,075 USD)
Measurements, schmeasurements—do yourself a favor and try this BorderPatrol DAC. Yes, it’s a Redbook-only converter, and yes, it sports NOS chips. And so what? Chances are, you’ve never heard digital like this, and certainly at nowhere near its price. There is no oversampling, no up-sampling, and no filtering. This is “do no harm,” taken seriously. Add a choke-input and tube rectified power supply, and forget David, here you have an Audio Goliath. Clear, open, transparent, sound flows forth like sweet water poured from the hands of friendly, loving gods. According to the musicians who made it, this was how your music was supposed to sound.
Merason Frerot with POW1 LPSU ($1,350 USD)
Small, simple and relatively inexpensive for the performance it offers, this DAC is perfect for audiophiles who don’t require a lot of bells and whistles but do want superb sound quality. We found the Swiss-built Merason Frerot to be perfect for streaming Qobuz, and for mating with an equally high-value streamer like the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3. Optional Pow1 LPSU ($900), improves sound quality across the board. A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
Denafrips Pontus II (starting at $2,298 USD)
A Chinese-built DAC sold directly through a Singapore source, the Pontus sounds like a risky purchase. We got one, tested it, and discovered that it featured a “lot of cutting-edge DAC tech” and that “the price is certainly right.” “It sounded so good we’re curious about how much better the higher level Denafrips DACs are,” we concluded.
CEC DA5 (starting at $3,700 USD)
From the Japanese company that gave us belt-drive digital transports back in the ’90s, this DAC was exceptionally easy to install, use, and the sound quality across several types of formats and upsampling rates was consistently excellent. (DSD is strongly supported.) When combined with the classic TL-5 transport, the CEC duo becomes a playback powerhouse at under the $7K mark. A Reviewers Choice winner.
The Ayazi, built in Greece, excelled at uncovering inner detail and being incredibly silent–the two. of course, go hand in hand. We “consistently achieved excellent sound from several sources and wildly different systems, and it provided us with a clear view of what the big DACs can do.” A Reviewer’s Choice winner, along with the companion 3R Master Time Re-Clocking Platform. When added between any DAC and the source, the 3R “music tightened up and the overall presentation was much easier to take in all at once.”
Merason DAC-1 ($5,500 USD)
We felt that while there are many excellent sub-$6K DACs out there, the Merason is one of the best DACs we’ve heard at any price–so much so that we would still be impressed with it if it was much more expensive. Sonically, it can go toe-to-toe with plenty of the big boy DACs. “What you get is a product that seems to be built for the audiophile that is primarily interested in performance and doesn’t require a lot of fancy features or gold-plated-with-a-screen visuals.”
Bricasti M1 Classic ($9,000 USD)
Although it’s the lowest priced of Bricasti Design’s perfectionist DAC products, we feel that the M1 Classic is one of the best overall DACs we’ve used. Since this model has been around for a few years, it’s been carefully tweaked out and improved to wring out the best possible sound for the price. Your money buys not only top-tier sonics and lots of input/output and digital filter options, but also a perfectionist-built unit that looks spectacular inside and out.
TotalDAC d1-tube-mk 2 ($10,985 USD)
This R2R Ladder DAC from France truly impressed us with its inclusion of a tube line stage and its “simply massive detail, especially in the high frequencies.” Despite the tubes, we found that the TotalDAC delivers a sound where “clean is the name of the game,” except when you run things in NOS mode and discover the musical presentation is more rounded and organic–the best of both worlds! A Reviewer’s Choice award winner.
Mola Mola Tambaqui ($13,400 USD)
If the Mola Mola Tambaqui were a city, it would be Utrecht. It’s prim and proper by all appearances, the manicured image of perfection, and yet beneath it all it still has that signature Dutch warmth and character, even if a little more formally served than in Amsterdam. The Mola Mola Tambaqui is ultra-fi digital sprinkled with a little extra sonic coziness, and taken down the price ladder several rungs. Looking for Summit-Fi without the price tag? This little fishy could just be your ticket upstream.
Bricasti M1 Limited Edition ($15,000 USD)
Although we feel that the Bricasti Design M1 Classic is one of the best all-around DACs on the market, the LE ups the ante with gold-plated chassis parts, changes in the internal wiring and power supplies, better isolation feet that integrate StillPoints, all yielding a more liquid overall sound. That results in a DAC that provides more information at low volumes as well as “a hair more clarity.”
dCS Bartok ($16,250 USD)
A descendant of the classic Rossini and Vivaldi DACs from dCS, the Bartok also includes a wonderful headphone amplifier, making it the perfect base camp for some high-wire headphone listening and digital streaming. It’s the sound that we look for “in the best analog rigs and what digital aspires to sound like.”
LampizatOr Pacific DAC (starting at $27,000 USD)
We felt that the sound of this LampizatOr DAC was “deeply impressive,” and it changed the way we interpreted digital audio. This is a particularly sweet-sounding DAC, an “all-out assault on digital conversion” that’s incredibly musical and satisfying. Considered one of the best digital players we’ve ever heard, barring none.
dCS Vivaldi Digital Stack (DAC $38,000 USD / Master Clock $17,500 USD / Upsampler $24,500 USD)
The dCS Vivaldi digital stack comprised of the dCS Vivaldi DAC, dCS Vivaldi Master Clock and dCS Upsampler provides some of the most engaging digital reproduction we have heard. It provides digital convenience and the musical engagement that we love from our analog rigs. Although the Vivaldi 2.0 has been on the market for a few years, the stream software and application updates (Mosiac) from dCS have kept it fresh. We haven’t seen anything yet that has provided more engaging playback at this level.
The Best Digital Players: Servers and Streamers
Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3 (starting at $1,399 USD)
We found this all-in-one music server, streamer and DAC to be the perfect argument for finally getting rid of your CD collection. Easy to use, with all functions accessible through the wonderful Innuos app, the Zen Mini Mk. 3 was the “last hint we needed to enter a world without physical media, at least the digital kind.” The LPSU should be considered essential just for the mere improvements to the overall sound quality.
Naim Mu-so 2nd Generation ($1,690 USD)
The second generation of the original Naim Mu-so digital player is such an addictive one-box solution–it’s what got some of us into streaming in the first place. You get multiple streaming choices, internet radio and all sorts of wireless digital connectivity options–now you can even attach it to your Smart TV and use it as a stellar sound bar thanks to those impressive drivers packed into this compact box. Still the most interesting table radio ever made, because it can be so much more.
Grimm Audio MU1 ($11,625 USD)
“If you’re in the pursuit of the best, I can see this server taking an epic system to the very summit of the peak. For the true digital perfectionist, this could very well be the perfect piece of summit-fi you didn’t know you needed. For the rest of us, there’s many great flavors of beer.” said Grover Neville about his time with the Grimm MU1. See more in the review linked above.
Innuos Statement Music Server ($15,100 USD)
This two-box server plays all file formats and offers stupendous sound quality as long as connect with USB, which is the only option. Every system we “dropped it into, no matter how good, sounded better with the Statement at the front of the chain. Given what we currently know, the Innuos Statement is the best server there is.” An Editor’s Choice winner and one of the best digital players on the planet.
Aurender A30 Music Server ($18,000 USD)
This is an audiophile-grade server, with 8TB (!) of storage, with a killer DAC included that has all the best numbers: “768KHz/32bit dual-mono DAC designed around the AKM AK4497 chipset, with support for “native” DSD at up to 8x.” By the way, it’s also a full-function preamp that can be hooked up to your favorite amp by either RCA or XLR. Expensive, but not for what it does: “For the rest of us, the Aurender A30 is an excellent end of the line.” An Editor’s Choice winner.
The Best Digital Players: Music Streaming
Qobuz Music Streaming (individual Studio Premier plans start at $14.99 USD per month)
High-resolution streaming, unlimited access to music and digital liner notes. Everything needed for deep dives into your favourite genre or artist is at your fingertips. Discovery is also part of the plan, as Qobuz curated playlists can become the perfect discovery tool.
Radiooooo, The Musical Time Machine (Listen Free or Annual Plan for $49 USD)
What started as a project between friends in France, turned into a world-wide collaborative effort to catalog music from around the world, decade by decade, along the lines of a curated aesthetic. Almost everything we’ve heard on Radiooooo is a certified banger thanks to the work of curators and contributors bringing their A-game to the table when it comes to submitting rare gems and cultural standards to the music pool. Worth the annual subscription, and keep your pen and paper handy.
The Best Digital Players: Transports and SACD Players
Rotel CD14MKII ($899 USD)
Rotel once made affordable CD players that brought excellent digital sound to the masses for the first time, and the new CD14MkII captures much of that pioneering spirit. The CD14 is much more of a modern machine, obviously, with plenty of connectivity options. We found it to be a brilliant match with the Audio by Van Alstine DVA Digital Preamplifier.
Sparkler Audio S503 Spiral Disc Player ($1,500 USD)
This simple top-loading CD player from the mind of the former head designer of 47 Laboratories is old-fashioned through and through. But with Sparkler Audio’s Ether integrated amplifier, the sound was clean and up-front. The Spiral is one of the best digital players we’ve seen but can also be used as just a transport. Finicky operation, but still well worth the modest price.
CEC TL-5 Transport (starting at $3,095 USD)
The latest version of the classic CEC belt-drive transport is still here, still relevant, and perhaps one of the quietest transports we’ve heard despite its basic cosmetics and very reasonable price. With the DA5 DAC from CEC, the TL-5 represents an exquisite solution for audiophiles who still want to hear their redbook CDs in all their glory without having to rip their entire music collections to a server. A Reviewers Choice winner.
McIntosh MCD600 ($7,000 USD)
This McIntosh Labs spinner is ideal for those audiophiles committed to maintaining their CD collections, especially when a significant number of those discs are SACDs. Beautiful and packed with features, not to mention a great-sounding DAC, the MCD600 only has one shortcoming: you can’t break the DAC out from the transport. If you don’t need those capabilities, the 600 will make an ideal “last CD player you’ll ever own.”
Audio Research CD6-SE ($10,000 USD)
The number of audiophiles who need a state-of-the-art one-box $10,000 CD player is shrinking every day, but that didn’t stop us from thinking that the CD6-SE was one of the best-sounding digital playback components we’ve heard. Modern connectivity options and a superb DAC allowed us to use the Audio Research Corporation spinner in a number of digital configurations, but when it comes to making redbook CDs sound a lot like hi-rez downloads the CD6-SE stands out from the pack.
Esoteric P-02X ($20,000 USD)
This CD and SACD transport has all the bells and whistles, including the proprietary VS-DD Spindle servo driver and a double-decker circuit layout that creates the shortest signal paths. This latest version of the trusted Esoteric transport includes a much classier remote as well as newly expanded connectivity options.