Acquiring a taste for the sound of the Music Player Balanced was a non-issue. I liked this thing from the first streamed note. The MPB has a very neutral sound one could listen to for hours on end. When I started listening to the MPB I thought to myself this streamer has some serious competition from the original Lumin ($7,200) and Linn Akurate DSM ($8,500). These two products came to mind as I still had them in my system and I would be able to compare them to the T+A streamer. As strange as this sounds, I had long forgotten the price of the Music Player Balanced. Throughout this review period I assumed all three components were in the same ballpark. Two days ago I inquired about the price one more time and was reminded the Music Player Balanced retails for $4,500 without the optional $310 preamp module. That didn't change my opinion about sound quality but certainly changed how I see the MPB in light of the competition. The Music Player Balanced sounds different from the Lumin and Akurate DSM and may sound just as good or better than both depending on the listener's taste. Priced thousands of dollars less than the original Lumin and Akurate DSM, the Music Player Balanced is sitting in a great position. Sound equal to the "big guys" at a much more palatable price.
Music Player Balanced
The Music Player Balanced is both a CD player and a DAC with several digital inputs. The digital inputs include a Streaming Client (wired Ethernet, wireless LAN, USB disk, iPod/iPhone), FM Tuner, CD player, and five S/PDIF inputs (3 coaxial RCA supporting 192 kHz maximum, 2 optical TosLink supporting 96 kHz maximum). (Note: There isn't a USB audio input to use this unit as a USB DAC). The MPB contains a single coaxial digital output for those interested in using the MPB as a transport or Ethernet to coaxial converter. The internal DAC consists of fully symmetrical dual mono TI PCM1795 chips. The chip itself is capable of both PCM and DSD conversion but according to T+A, "The hardware of the MusicPlayer is designed to support all kinds of PCM files from compressed to high resolution PCM but no DSD. As DSD has lower resolution compared to HD PCM, a higher high frequency noise floor and poorer dynamics we do not see any advantage in DSD. We prefer a straight PCM signal path without the risk of degrading the PCM performance by adding additional circuits and longer signal paths for DSD." Computer Audiophile readers considering a network streamer should take this opinion into account when researching their purchases. Some manufacturers support native DSD or DoP, while others support converting DSD to high resolution PCM prior to playback. There is no single correct or better way to which everyone agrees. I highly recommend listening and also looking at one's music collection to see if DSD playback is a requirement. Some listeners don't even care about high resolution PCM let alone DSD. It comes down to each individual's requirements and prioritization of features and sound quality. There isn't a right or wrong answer with respect to DSD and PCM.
The Music Player Balanced features several buttons on the front panel that are all duplicated on the remote control. At first using either the front panel or remote control are a bit overwhelming. Those of us not used to T+A products have a little learning curve to work through, but it's nothing a good dealer can't easily explain. Plus, once the MPB is playing music there's nothing more to do. I received the version without a preamp module. This module provides users the ability to control volume and adjust EQ settings when necessary. Without these features I rarely used the MPB remote or the front panel interface. I selected the Streaming Client digital input and left the unit alone until I was ready to run through all the menus and options. What may appear as overwhelming at first blush isn't really an issue after spending a half hour playing with the unit and giving the manual a once-over.
Computer audiophiles researching the T+A Music Player Balanced will likely be most interested in its network playback capabilities. The MPB is a UPnP and DLNA compliant digital Media Renderer. The unit can function as a digital media Control Point but using it this way is quite unpractical as the user would have to browse a NAS folder structure from the front panel of the MPB. Readers interested in learning more about the aforementioned terms and standards should read The Complete Guide To HiFi UPnP / DLNA Network Audio located in the Computer Audiophile Academy. Using the Music Player Balanced in the most usual way requires a digital Media Server and Control Point attached to the same network as the MPB digital Media Renderer. The Media Server can be on a number of different devices such as a Mac or PC running JRiver Media Center or a NAS running its own media server software. There are plenty of options for UPnP / DLNA Media Servers. The Control Point, as the name suggests, is how the user controls playback. This is usually via an iPad or Android device running a UPnP / DLNA capable app. T+A supplies its own free Control Point app through the App Store for iOS devices.
The T+A Control app offers some of the same features as the front panel and standard remote control. Controlling the CD player and selecting sources and inverting polarity can be done with any of the three control options. The main purpose of the app is controlling music playback. When it comes to the T+A Control app I have to give it a D on a scale of A to F. I had some issues with the app that were resolved by turning off other UPnP devices on my network. I can live with that. The app also crashed when searching for an artist and selecting that artist. I understand T+A has released a few updates to the app store recently and is working on fixing some iOS 7 issues. I can also live with that. However, the app itself is rudimentary at best. It's counterintuitive and can't easily be figured out by even advanced computer audiophiles. For example, viewing the queue or the tracks in line to play next requires selecting the word Add near the bottom of the screen. This is definitely a learnable thing, but counterintuitive nonetheless. The app doesn't feature any press & hold functionality that most people who've ever used a smartphone understand. For example, adding an album to the queue is unacceptable. A smartphone savvy user may find the album he wants to hear and press and hold his finger on that album. In most circumstances a little menu pops up and asks if the album should be played now, next, or at the end of the current playlist. I couldn't find any such press and hold functionality. In addition, the only way I found to add an entire album to the playlist was to select each track individually. This lackluster app is enough to get people started listening to music, but I recommend unequivocally that users try other UPnP / DLNA Control Point applications. Please note, the lack of a decent iPad app doesn't give me the slightest hesitation in highly recommending the T+A Music Player Balanced. Think of using a different Control Point application the same as putting aftermarket tires on one's car. Sure the factory tires will get the job done, but they won't come close to doing the job of a speciality aftermarket tire.
The T+A Music Player Balanced was connected directly to a Pass Labs INT-30A class A integrated amplifier via balanced cables. The INT-30A was connected to my TAD CR-1 loudspeakers. This is a very simple system with a single pair of interconnects and single pair of speaker cables. Volume control was handled exclusively by the Pass Labs integrated amp. I connected the original Lumin and the Linn Akurate DSM via balanced cables to Input Two of the Pass amp (one device at a time obviously). All systems were connected to my Gigabit Ethernet network (The MPB wireless doesn't support high resolution playback), and were served files from a Windows 8.1 CAPS Zuma PC running JRiver Media Center connected to a Synology DM1812+ NAS. I used JRemote as the Control Point to select music and direct it to the appropriate renderer.
Prior to comparing the T+A Music Player Balanced I listen to the unit extensively to get acquainted with its sonic signature. The MPB features two filter options, "Oversampling 1 is a classic FIR filter with an extremely linear frequency response and Oversampling 2 is a peak-optimised filter – superb in 'timing' and dynamics." I tried both options and like the more linear #1 filter best. The Music Player Balanced is a very good DAC that I had no problems listening to for hours without fatigue. I rolled through an entire 50+ song playlist numerous times during the review period. I also listened to more classical through the MPB than I have in a very long time. Reference Recordings' Britten's Orchestra by the Kansas City Symphony was terrific in this system. Frequently I lose focus and my attention drifts to other things when listening to classic. This time was completely different. The Music Player Balanced sounded neutral without bumps on top or the bottom end. The higher frequencies had the right amount of weight behind them so as not to sound too light and airy. Listening to a cymbal or bell ring out was a real treat with the MPB. Mid-range acoustic guitar from Jack Johnson, Ottmar Liebert, and Joe Pass sounded lush and appropriately enveloping. Gary Karr's Bass Virtuoso album (HDAD) ripped at 24/192 sounds exquisite through the MPB and the Pass Labs integrated. Gary's double bass reaches tight low notes with such texture it's a pleasure that's almost palpable. The sound of the T+A MPB is even more respectable when comparing it to much more expensive competition.
I've had the Linn Akurate DSM in my system for several months, reviewing it back in June 2013. I'm very familiar with its sound and capabilities. Compared to the T+A Music Player Balanced the Akurate DSM is a bit dark leaning toward sterile. Listening to Doug MacLeod's There's A Time at 24/176.4 the recording space was a bit larger and Doug's voice was a bit more full through the T+A MPB than through the Linn Akurate DSM. I have no clue what this performance sounded like live. Either one of these components could be "right" in terms of accuracy. Then again neither could be right. It comes down to a matter of taste.
I compared the T+A MPB to the original Lumin network streamer I reviewed back in August 2013. I called the Lumin's sound very analog in that review. I stand by my opinion and still think it's a very analog sounding component. The question readers should ask is, do they like the sound of analog? Analog doesn't equal accuracy although it could under the right circumstances. The T+A MPB is closer to the sound of the Lumin than the Linn, but still a good distance from the much more analog sound of the Lumin. On the huge sonic signature continuum, the Lumin leans to the side of analog where the MPB leans to the side of neutrality. Both sound great. Both sound very different. Again, it comes down to a matter of taste.
The T+A Music Player Balanced is certainly CASH List worthy. Sleek German styling, build quality and sound quality come together at a price thousands of dollars below the competition. Comparing the $4,500 Music Player Balanced to the $8,500 Linn Akurate DSM and the $7,200 original Lumin was a sonic treat. The neutral leaning T+A MPB sounds every bit as good as the aforementioned components, given one has a taste for T+A. The Akurate DSM and original Lumin aren't thousands of dollars better, they are thousands of dollars different. It's all about taste and what the listener likes in his system. Paired with a DLNA server and the right iPad application the T+A Music Player Balanced is highly recommended and in the price to performance sweet spot.
- Product - T+A Elektroakustik Music Player Balanced
- Price - $4,500 ($310 for optional preamp module)
- Product Page - Link
- Source: C.A.P.S. v3 Zuma Server
- DAC: Auralic Vega, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB, EMM Labs DAC2X
- Amplifier: Pass Labs INT-30A Integrated
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote,
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 5, iPad (3rd Generation)
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+
- Cables: AudioQuest Niagara Balanced XLR Analog Interconnects, ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, AudioQuest Diamond, Vodka, Cinnamon Ethernet Cables, Apple AirPort Extreme, PFSense Router / Firewall, Cisco DPC3000 Docsis 3.0 cable modem, Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service