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A better-sounding way to play CDs

PS Audio's PerfectWave Transport and Digital-to-Analog Converter not only gets the very best sound from CDs, it can also play high-resolution music downloads.

The PS Audio PerfectWave Transport and DAC
PS Audio

I've owned, listened to, and reviewed a lot of high-end CD players, but none of them sounded as good as PS Audio's PerfectWave Transport and Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) components.

The Transport uses a CD-ROM drive mechanism that "reads" and rereads the data on the CD as many times as necessary until a bit-perfect match is achieved. PS Audio's Web site says the CD's data is placed in a 64MB memory buffer as the music plays, so you're not directly listening to the CD. To prove that claim remove the disc from the Transport and the music will continue playing for approximately 30 seconds!

The Transport can also play high-resolution WAV files off DVDs, with sample rates up to 192-kHz with 24-bit resolution. I had a few of these DVDs on hand for this review, and the PerfectWave components really shined with high-resolution audio.

The Transport and PerfectWave DAC can be hooked up in all the usual ways--coaxial, Toslink optical, balanced XLR, Ethernet--and via HDMI. The catch is that this HDMI connection only works between PerfectWave components. The DAC can be used with any digitally connected source such as a CD player, CD transport, satellite receiver, music server or computer. The Transport and DAC are beautifully constructed components, and both feature easy-to-read color touch-screen displays. The Transport and DAC are loaded with innovative design details, which are fully covered on the PS Audio Web site.

For this review I used my Dynaudio C1 speakers and Pass Labs XA100.5 power amplifiers for all of my listening tests. The sound of the Transport and DAC are radically better than what I've heard at home from CDs, approaching SACD quality on some of the better sounding CDs. There was a relaxed, unforced quality to Tom Waits' "Glitter and Doom, Live" concert CD that in some ways reminds me of analog sound, but with improved resolution of fine detail. The transient snap of drums is extremely realistic; the transparency of the sound, so pure and clean, was far beyond what I've heard from my Oppo BDP-83SE Blu-ray player. The Oppo is no slouch, but it sounded dynamically flatter, veiled and cloudy by comparison.

On acoustic music, like the Low Anthem's new "Smart Flesh" CD, the PerfectWave duo gave me not only the sound of the band, but I could also hear the sound of their voices and instruments bouncing around the acoustics of the Pasta Sauce Factory where the CD was recorded. I felt like I was in the Factory with the band.

I've never really liked the sound of the Jefferson Airplane's "Surrealistic Pillow," until I heard it with the Transport and DAC. Before, the band's sound was drenched in too much reverberation, but the Transport and DAC clarified the vocals and instruments, allowing them to stand apart from the reverberation. I now think the sound is pretty good, which is great, because I've always loved the music.

The Transport and DAC sounded even better playing Reference Recordings' HRx ultra-high-resolution (176.4-kHz/24-bit) music DVDs. There the sound was even sweeter, and the vast soundstage behind the speakers was broad and deep. The Reference DVD's stereo images were three-dimensionally solid and palpable, and in that sense the recordings sounded more like a great LP, but the resolution was superior to LPs. Bass definition and articulation were spectacularly rendered.

That's great, but I own around 3,000 CDs and the Transport and DAC "connected the dots" better than any previous CD system I've tried. If you averaged the cost of my CDs to $10 each, that would add up to a $30,000 investment (the collection dates back to 1983). Viewed in that context, the Transport and DAC's $6,000 total price isn't out of line for wealthy audiophiles with large CD collections. The DAC is future-proof in the sense it can bring out the best with high-resolution downloaded music.

Also noteworthy is that PS Audio manufactures the PerfectWave components in the U.S. Each one is built from start to finish by one PS Audio technician. When you unbox and examine each piece, it's easy to see that they take pride in their work. PS Audio previously built products in China, but they found that most Chinese factories are geared to mass production, and less well-suited to building low-volume high-end gear. In the end, it made more sense to build the PerfectWave components in Boulder, Colo.

Check the PS Audio Web site to find an online or brick-and-mortar dealer near you; they also have 50 overseas distributors.