Welcome to the Digital Players section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2023.
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 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!
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.
Merason Frerot with POW1 LPSU ($1,475 + $900 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.
BorderPatrol SE-i DAC (starting at $1,525 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.
Denafrips Pontus II (starting at $1,817.31 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 $2,701 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 $6K mark. A Reviewers Choice winner.
Lab12 DAC1 ($3,290 USD)
Like most products from this Greek company, this tubed DAC is built around a distinguished level of playback that stands out from other converters at this price point. The DAC1 excels at presenting some of the most “analog” sound we’ve heard streaming, a sound that’s relaxed and open. A Reviewers Choice Award winner.
The Ayazi, built in Greece, excelled at uncovering inner detail and being incredibly silent–the two. of course, go hand in hand as digital players. 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.”
Holo Audio May KTE ($5,598 USD)
Holo Audio is known for its use of a discrete R2R topology for its digital players which converts digital-to-analog by utilization of a Resistor Ladder circuit, with native support for DSD1024 and PCM up to 1.536MHz. Holo audio also states that the new linear compensation circuitry resulting from the use of resistors has addressed many of the issues with NOS DACs. The May KTE presents “auditory honesty in such a refined way that you can’t help but want to listen to music.” A Reviewers Choice winner.
Merason DAC-1 ($6,000 USD)
We felt that while there are many excellent DACs out there for around the same amount of money, the Merason is one of the best digital players we’ve heard at any price–so much so that we would still be impressed with it if it was far 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.”
Meitner MA3 ($10,000 USD)
The Meitner MA3 works as both a streamer and a DAC—plug it into a router via ethernet and you can run Roon or Meitner’s own application. “One of those rare digital players that is good enough to live up to the price point. It is vanishingly transparent, fast, smooth and incredibly wide bandwidth.” A Reviewers Choice award winner.
TotalDAC d1-tube-mk 2 (9,900 eu)
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.
dCS Bartok (starting at $17,950 USD)
A descendant of the classic Rossini and Vivaldi DACs from dCS, the Bartok digital players also include 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.
Servers and Streamers
Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3 (starting at $1,599 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 of these digital players.
Naim Mu-so 2nd Generation ($1,799 USD)
The second generation of the original Naim Mu-so digital players are 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.
Matrix Audio Element M2 ($3,099 USD)
While it did lack the ultimate “you are there” mid-bass authenticity of more expensive streamers, the Element H2 won us over because it was physically elegant and unobtrusive. It worked mostly without a hitch, and the overall user experience was vastly superior to most reference-level streamers and other digital players. “Think Mercedes Roadster over Lexus SUV. Think ragtop, not crossover.”
Innuos Statement Music Server (starting at $16,700 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.” While we considered the stock Statement to be one of the finest digital players available, the new NEXTGEN power supply, an extra $5,000, brings even more clarity and less noise to the mix. An Editor’s Choice winner.
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.
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 favorite 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.
Transports and CD/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.
Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” CD Player ($1,995 USD)
An intriguing new answer to the question of whether or not you should buy a new CD player after your present one dies. The tiny Japanese-made Ballade, brought to North America by Victor Kung of VK Music, is digital playback that relies on the parts that sound the best, rather than the fanciest new chip. Old-school in its scope, the S515u nevertheless offers incredible sound quality–and its minimalism, over time, becomes downright charming. A Reviewers Choice award winner.
CEC TL-5 Transport (starting at $2,199 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.
Audio Note UK CDT One/II ($4,958 USD)
It’s strange to think that a “mere” CD transport can impact the sound of digital playback despite the DAC used, but the CDT One/II is essential for maintaining that open, lively and full-range Audio Note UK sound that favors tonality most of all. It’s a very intriguing choice among digital players. Review forthcoming.