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Positive Feedback ISSUE 30
march/april 2007


From Clark Johnsen’s Diaries: A Follow-up on the Memory Player
by Clark Johnsen


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Back in Issue 24 I wrote about the new Nova Physics Memory Player. In fact, it was Positive Feedback that carried the first report of this revolutionary CD playback device, which subsequently became many reviewers’ darling, both here and elsewhere, with other reviews apparently due soon.

Myself, I had not heard it until the recent CES, a report on which shall be filed for the next issue of PFO. Meanwhile I learned that early production of the Player had been limited (although the second run is now in progress), and that every reviewer who had one, insisted on buying it. Therefore, so far as I know, only a single unit has landed in private hands.

As it happens, I know the gentleman, and am therefore pleased to be able to share his remarks on the Memory Player, as well as those of his associate in whose system it was also heard. These are the first responses I've seen from individuals who are not actual reviewers; moreover, they possess literary merit.

First from the happy owner, Alan Eichenbaum, an attorney in Florida who's also connected to the Scaena loudspeaker company.

From Alan Eichenbaum...

I have owned two of the most highly regarded digital front ends extant, the EMM Labs and dCS (including the SACD capabilities on both of the aforementioned) as well as the Forsell, Lector, Stibbert, Theta, Spectral, and on and on. I have listened to almost all the others out there. The Memory Player is so different in its presentation that it's difficult for me to describe exactly what I hear. What I had read previously did not prepare me for this—the reviewers too conservative or maybe you just can't understand by reading about it w/o hearing it. In fact I am sure that is true—because it is hard to describe something you yourself have just experienced for the first time to someone who hasn't experienced it at all. Like the first orgasm.

NOTE these comments are based on listening in my system—I did not hear this in Las Vegas to the same extent in either of the two systems using the MP there—perhaps it was the rooms, perhaps because of a mediocre SS amp, and I am back using tube amplification now—but here goes.  The listening is totally devoid of ANY point where the music is harsh, fatiguing or causes you to shut down your hearing to protect against passages that are clearly stressed, that you know are stressed and you know from prior listening are coming. Even CDs that I could not tolerate listening to at my preferred listening level, or even much lower levels—such as Dave Matthews, Crash—which always sound like a  harsh discordant mixture of sounds (to wit, cacophonous) when all of the various instruments and sounds are played simultaneously. Heretofore I thought it was just a lousy recording—but it is somehow decongested—the original previously unrevealed integrity maintained.

It seems to me that all other CD playback somehow truncates the notes and voices to some small or large degree—the truncation somehow gets filled in with what then sounds unnatural, harsh, artificial—maybe that's what jitter is—I don't know. By way of analogy, one could speak the sentence, "I am going to the store in one hour"—if that sentence were somehow morphed into being music it would have a flow to it, a naturalness—but to me normal CD digital sounds like someone saying "I go store hour"; basically we know what the sentence is, but if it were music it would be choppy, incomplete, robbed of some of the beauty that sound and music convey.

Now imagine six, eight, ten or more instruments all at the same time intoning, "I go store hour".  Its seems that the normal CD playback creates the missing words with a substitute, and sometimes it does this better than others, or it doesn't create the missing at all, and it is in those spaces, the missing words or missing parts of a note or voice that the harshness, the fatigue, the sterility occur and more importantly some precious music, some magical quality is lost.

I don't know what the MP does or how—but it allows for an unimpeded flow that seems devoid of artificial filler; it allows the precious parts, the cues that tell us we are listening to musicians and instruments played by them, to come through—the magic that we sometimes hear—happens far more often and better than ever previously heard. I have not yet found the CD that I can play at any comfortable level—and that means loud—that causes me to shut down my listening, to protect my ears anticipatorily. And that makes for the most natural presentation I have ever experienced partly because those moments when you get lost in the music are no longer interrupted by those moments when you are slapped back to reality by a passage that screams, "This is so not real!"   Thus you get lost longer, more often and more deeply on a complete CD, uninterrupted by that unfriendly reminder.

Virtually every CD I put into Memory playback sounded considerably better than I had ever heard it before—surprisingly and particularly on those that I had found to be "poorly recorded". Not that the good recordings weren't better—they were—but the "poor ones" were transformed to good. Even good recordings with bad parts were transformed. Patricia Barber's Café Blue is a very good CD—particularly the FIM and Mobile Fidelity CDs. I have listened to the cut "Nardis" hundreds of times—there is a smashing of cymbals 7 minutes in or so that I just have never heard sound good—NOT EVER—generally it sounds like white noise to me—a hash-like static that ruins the experience of the entire 11 minute cut—the speed and violence of the frenetic thrashing of metal is just beyond modern playback, particularly CD, but vinyl as well. But on the MP—it was good—I could tell what it was—not perfect—but so far beyond what I had previously heard that it was stunning. It is my ultimate torture test, usually for me as well as for the system. But not any more. Hence SACD and normal CD playback are no longer viable options. This is not just a better CD player. It is a different experience.

Next up

Then from his pal and mine, Rob Hart, who formerly operated Audiotweakers but has no business connection to the Nova Physics Group. (Note: I allowed him to edit his remarks, after he learned of my intention to publish them.)

From Rob Hart...

How good is your system? Even if you have a megabuck analog rig, you simply cannot know until you hear it with the Memory Player. That’s my opinion as of just last night.

Most high-end enthusiasts have been brainwashed to believe that we need to spend BIG bucks on pre, amp, speakers, cabling as well as the source. I'm here to tell you it may not be so.

While the $22K MSRP I have tied up in my entire system is not chump change, many audiophiles have 2-3 times that much in their speakers, let alone systems. Not only is my impression of the MP valid for those with more than $20K systems, but for anyone looking for a hassle-free, tweak-free CD playback medium that not only rivals analog, but may even better it! And we’re talking plain old Redbook here.

My Stibbert ranks among Harry Pearson's top tier of digital playback units. Taking mine a few steps further, I also added after-market isolation columns, cryoed NOS tubes, and Herbie Tube Dampers. Total digital source dollars—$7K. Fellow audiophiles feel my system is very musical, although not the equal of their significantly more expensive analog rigs. I have to agree.

Yesterday I had the unique pleasure of hearing the Nova Physics Memory Player (MP) in my system for several hours. First we listened to the Stibbert, followed by the same disc played back from the MP flash drive. From the very first note out of the latter, it was immediately obvious that no matter how well done, conventional digital playback (whether over- or up-sampled) has a stickiness and an electronic edge that has long kept analog comfortably in place as the audio king.

The best digital units available do a better job of minimizing digital problems, but not eliminating them. When I heard the MP side-by-side with the Stibbert, I realized how conventional digital processing fails to recreate the live (or recorded) musical events' pacing, imaging, timing, upper-mid to high frequencies, and musical ease.

Considering that digital manufacturers have been struggling with these exact same issues for over 20 years, one wonders why someone hasn't decided to think outside the box. That someone would seem to be Mark [Porzilli, designer of the former Melos line of electronics, the original Pipedreams loudspeakers and now the new Scaenas].

Using the MP built-in volume control (no signal loss I could detect) also saves the cost of a preamp, an additional power cord, shelving and isolation devices. In my own system the savings would be over $10K! Alas, the net cost of about $8K [with built-in DAC] is still too rich for my blood, but for anyone who has the disposable income and a passion for unparalleled music playback, coupled with a demand for convenience, I would not hesitate.

I have friends with extraordinary turntable rigs that cost much more than a full tilt MP, and yet the MP is in another league from them, too. My sense is you would have to use 15- or 30-ips master tapes in an attempt to level the field. The MP puts SOTA music playback at anyone's fingertips, and it stores approximately 300 discs.

Caution: Once you've experienced the MP in your own home, the hook is set.