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UDP-1 Deluxe Universal Disc player: From Remarkable to Sublime
as reviewed by Greg Weaver
I haven't reviewed that many optical disc players over the years. The reason is quite simple; I didn't much like them. In fact, the first CD player I owned that offered a true glimmer of hope for the red book CD format was the Luxman D105u, circa 1989. Utilizing a pair of 6CG7 output tubes, the D105u was one of the first players I heard that began to musically tame that era's all-too-prevalent digital "edge" and really offer an engaging glimpse into the musical event. By the mid 1990s, Mark Schifter and Peter Madnick of Audio Alchemy had come along, inaugurating the paradigm shift away from the one box player to the many box system complete with transport, reclocking device, DAC, and upsampler. Dealers loved it because it created both a need for four components instead of just one as well as an entirely new upgrade path. However, when audio pioneer Steve McCormack released his long awaited UDP-1 Universal player, my digital playback world finally reverted to just one box.
Much has been written about the remarkable UDP-1. Now in its third year of production, at $3495 the UDP-1 has been added to the Class A list of Stereophile's Recommended Components. In Issue 80 of the International Audio/Video Review, J. Peter Moncrieff said, "The McCormack UDP-1 stunningly advances the state of the audio art for playing silver discs, and all kinds of silver discs. It sonically outperforms all other silver disc players, even those whose design is specialized for a particular kind of silver disc (e.g. Redbook CD), and even those selling for far more money. The McCormack UDP-1 is a must-have product for anyone who is serious about sound, whether music or movie, whether stereo or surround. And, at its moderate price, you can't afford not to have one."
I can affirm that all the press is true. I ordered mine in the spring of 2004 and haven't once looked back—at least, until CES 2006. While visiting with friends Steve McCormack and Jim Merod in the Conrad-Johnson/McCormack Audio suite at the Alexis Park, Lew Johnson announced the UDP-1 Deluxe/Conrad-Johnson edition. Though bearing two designations, under the hood, both iterations are identical. The Deluxe comes with a titanium anodized front panel to match the finish on the current McCormack equipment line-up while the Conrad-Johnson edition comes with a champagne gold finished front panel to match the current Conrad-Johnson livery and will be available only from C-J dealers. A custom black finished face is available at extra cost should it be desired, according to Steve McCormack.
Based around a core Pioneer Elite D45A, the stock UDP-1 is built on custom boards with both a significantly enhanced power supply and analog section. The supply is made up of four independent MOSFET zero-feedback voltage regulators feeding the analog output stage and DACs. This power supply has its own power transformer for maximum isolation. The DACs are all Burr-Brown 24-bit/192kHz devices for superb digital-to-analog conversion, including native PCM and DSD decoding. Finally, the analog output stage is carefully designed using the latest op-amp technology and premium associated parts, all to deliver this outstanding level audio performance.
Though the video section of the UDP-1 remains essentially untouched, its audio performance is so exceptional that I have yet to remove it from my two channel rig and drop it into my theater. In fact, I would expect that my situation is not unique for anyone who has separate music and theatre systems. After all, in Steve McCormack's own words, it was, "…designed to deliver on the promise of the new, high-resolution disc formats (DVD-A and SACD) as well as standard CDs at a level of performance that has not been seen anywhere near its price."
The impetus for this snapshot appraisal came when my stock UDP-1 returned from its round-trip to McCormack Audio of Virginia. The choice to upgrade an existing unit like mine does nothing for the player's external appearance, short of the addition of a tag to the back face indicating the Deluxe status and the date of the upgrade. In other words, the stock faceplate is left unchanged. However, as one might expect from the originator of Hot-Roding (how many of you out there can say "Mod Squad"?), the Deluxe upgrade of the original player is achieved by the substitution of custom metal foil resistors in strategic circuit locations and by bypassing or upgrading capacitors in the power supply and analog stage. While the methodology may seem less than exciting, I can assure you that the result is nothing short of dazzling.
After about 6 days of unattended repeat play, I sat down to listen in earnest. Being no stranger to the results of hot roding, though I had expected a noticeable improvement, I had no reason to anticipate such a significant sonic evolution. In essence, the Deluxe version of the UDP-1 offers more—of everything.
The deepest bass is more articulate and, for a lack of a better description, more analog sounding, while midbass is offered with even more discriminating detail. Double bass or bass guitar runs, timpani, kettle, and contemporary drum kit work, even lower registers from piano and strings, are woven into the musical tapestry with more body and bloom.
Midrange is even richer and more harmonically fleshed out than before—nearly dripping with texture, full of expansive richness and warmth. I mean juicy, tangible, conspicuous substance, reminiscent of the best of what tubes have to offer.
Upper mids and treble are more airy, detailed and focused, yet every bit as natural and involving as the best that I can recall, even from the likes of Audio Aero or Linn über players. Overall tonality is richer, more alive with tonal color, and more vivid, much closer to the vibrant character of live music than before the updates.
Where the soundstage had been extremely good, especially in its portrayal of width and depth, the Deluxe is slightly enhanced in those dimensions, with the most significant improvements being a newfound capacity to reconstruct height and better focus to the rear corners. While images had been excellent in both size and location, they were now better fleshed out, corporal, almost wholly tangible.
The resulting transparency, transient speed and dynamic expression afforded to music played back on the Deluxe is compelling, permitting the sound to flow with a virtually unrestricted and natural sense of pace and rhythm that is so fundamental to true musical communication. It just gets out of the way and liberates music…
All of these considerable improvements reap further benefit as they stem from a slightly darker, quieter background than the stock UDP-1 tenders. I did the bulk of my evaluation with red book CD because they comprise the overwhelming majority of my 116 mm disc collection, as I suspect is still the case with most audiophiles. However, I am happy to report that these whole-scale advances held universal across the more limited samplings I did with the SACD and DVD-A formats.
To my mind, the Deluxe edition of the UDP-1 represents a significant advance over the stock unit, one much more indicative of a replacement rather than a "mere" upgrade. Pressed to enumerate the sonic differences between the stock ($3495) and Deluxe or Conrad-Johnson ($3995) versions, I would say that the stock UDP-1 scored 93 out of a possible 100, while the Deluxe earns a solid 98 on that same scale. Anyone out there who has been at this game for any length of time is sure to understand that attaining an increase in performance of some five percent for five hundred bucks is all but impossible. Strike that; was all but impossible. Steve McCormack has done it—again!
McCormack Audio Corporation of Virginia had a clear winner in the stock UDP-1. With the Deluxe/Conrad-Johnson Edition, they have redefined the benchmark, captured a best in class, and created a most provocative over-achiever; one that will soon have the competition looking over their shoulder—if they aren't already!
If you are looking to spend as much as ten grand or more on a universal player, be sure you audition a broken-in McCormack Audio UDP-1 Deluxe/Conrad-Johnson Edition. After you hear it, you may be surprised at how difficult it will be obtain significantly better performance for any amount of money. Enjoy! Greg Weaver
No link for the Deluxe/Conrad-Johnson Edition yet, but watch the McCormack site
You may work with your dealer, write firstname.lastname@example.org or call 703-573-9665 to arrange your upgrade