When Constantine Soo asked me to review the Music Hall Maverick SACD Player, I accepted with just a bit of apprehension. Paradoxically, this apprehension originated out of two very different and somewhat contradictory concerns.
First, I own an expensive high-end redbook transport/DAC combo, and I have periodically wondered whether SACD technology will make my expensive front-end obsolete. I don’t know about you, but I would certainly feel stupid if my $20,000 rig (counting digital interconnects, aftermarket cords and resonance control) was outperformed by a $1,500 machine, even if only in SACD mode. Second, I was worried that I have gotten so used to high-end digital performance that I could not be objective about a less-than-stellar player. After all, the Maverick plays both redbook and SACD discs, and no redbook player that has come through my door has beaten my existing front-end. Even the exceptional $9,380 Oracle CD 2500 did not accomplish this feat, so how am I going to say anything nice about the redbook playback of a $1500 player?
I couldn’t resist that subtitle. It’s tough to be around audio and not know about Roy Hall and Music Hall Audio.
The company distributes a number of well-known and respected brands in addition to “Music Hall”: Creek, Epos, Shanling, Goldring and Whest. Music Hall’s products have always been known for great performance/value ratios, which is a godsend to music lovers who need to buy on a budget. The Music Hall Maverick follows in this tradition.
The Maverick has several very nice features, but I want to highlight three right off the bat. First, the Maverick is not only an SACD player, but it is also an upsampling redbook player. Every upsampling player I have ever heard sounds better playing redbook discs in upsampled mode, and the Maverick is no exception.
Second, the Maverick incorporates a built-in output control. This not only gives you the option of running the Maverick without a preamp, but it also makes it much easier to determine its musical character separate from your preamp.
Third, it has a coaxial digital output that allows you the option to output redbook CD digital data to a separate redbook DAC. This provides a reasonable way for someone with a high-end outboard DAC to get a taste of SACD sound while still keeping their current high-end DAC (although you may very well find that you prefer the Maverick’s DACs anyway).
The Maverick employs the Sony CXD2752 SACD decoder chip, and standard CD playback is run by a Burr-Brown PCM1738 24bit/196kHz DAC. For standard CD, upsampling is 24bit/96kHz, performed by a Crystal CS8420 sample rate converter. To round things out, the Maverick uses a Sony KHM 234AAA laser head and servo system, which is what the old Sony SCD-1 used, and provides two separate transformers for the digital and analog sections of the player. I would also like to note that it weighs in at a respectable 22lbs. I’m a big believer in maximizing the weight and rigidity of components, and I was glad to see that the Maverick was not some 12lb. lightweight.
Finally, I must say that the remote is one of the better ones I’ve encountered. It’s extremely functional: It includes the output control for the Maverick and feels very solid and substantial.
For review purposes I used a few players for comparison. For direct comparison in my reference system, I used a Pioneer Elite DV-38A and my current reference digital front-end, the Esoteric P-70/D-70 transport/DAC combo, connected via Transparent Reference digital interconnects. I also tried the Maverick in two secondary audio systems, comparing it directly to a highly-modified Pioneer Elite DV-37 and Denon RDU 995. My comments will be based primarily on these comparisons.
However, I will also compare the Maverick to two highly regarded upper echelon (and much more expensive) players that I previously had in my reference system for extended periods. The first will be the Cary 306/200 upsampling player, which was once my primary CDP. The second will be the excellent Oracle CD 2500, which I had on review in my reference system this last summer.
Test Systems & Review Discs
My reference system has changed a bit in the last 3 months, so I’ll give you a quick snapshot.
Silent Source Reference power cords feed power from a dedicated outlet to a Walker Velocitor S. Additional Silent Source cords send the power from the Velocitor to my front-end and preamp. The front-end is the Esoteric P-70/D-70 transport/DAC combo referred to above, and the D-70’s output travels via Silent Source Copper XLR interconnects to a MBL 5011 preamp (more on this in another review to come). As you will see below, I also used the Maverick with a BAT VK-42SE preamp in the system.
The MBL 5011 is connected to a pair of the Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblock power amplifiers via Silent Source Silver Signature XLR interconnects. The amps sit on Walker Reference Prologue Amp Stands and are tricked out with Walker cones and discs. In addition to the Nemos, I also used the very excellent, $25,000 XLH M-2000 monoblocks in the system briefly while auditioning the Maverick.
Finally, two sets of Silent Source Silver Signature speaker cables (one set for low frequency signals and one set for the midrange and treble signals) feed B&W Nautilus 800Ds, which are tweaked with 2 pairs of Walker Reference High Definition links. Power to the monoblocks comes from 2 dedicated, 20-amp outlets via Zcable Cyclone power cords or Silent Source High Current Reference power cords (I’ve been switching them for comparison purposes). The system incorporates a dozen Z-sleeves at key points and uses Walker cones and discs throughout. The room itself is extensively treated with ASC Tube Traps, Cube Traps and Sound Panels, and is a “component” in its own right.
I used the Maverick in several configurations.
First, I inserted it into one of my 2 “midfi” system and compared it to my modded DV-37. Second, I used the Maverick in my second midfi system against the Denon RDV 995. Third, I added the Maverick to my main reference system and compared it to both the DV-38 and the Esoteric P-70/D-70 through the MBL 5011. Finally, I listened to the Maverick connected directly to my amps, using the built-in volume control.
Though I played many CDs on the Maverick to make sure it was broken in, the following constituted my principal review discs: David Bowie, Let’s Dance, Hybrid SACD; Flim and the BB’s, Tricycle, Hybrid SACD; Marvin Gaye, The Marvin Gaye Collection, Hybrid SACD; Roxy Music, Avalon, Hybrid SACD; Jim Hall, Concierto, Hybrid SACD; Holst, The Planets – Zubin Mehta, XRCD; and Vivaldi, Four Seasons – Salvatore Accardo, XRCD. I won’t refer to individual tracks on individual discs, but the reader can listen to these discs to get an idea of the range of recordings used to evaluate the Maverick.
A Few Tweaks To Consider
One thing that I should tell you right up front is that the Maverick definitely benefits from vibration isolation and upgraded power cords. I don’t mean to make this sound unusual; but virtually every component that I’ve played with benefits from such tweaking (and it’s probably not accurate to call aftermarket power cords “tweaks”). The question is: how much can the component benefit?
In the Maverick’s case, (a) running the Maverick through the Walker Velocitor was significantly better than running it directly from the wall; (b) aftermarket power cords, especially those that smooth out the sound, clearly improved performance; and (c) isolating/damping the Maverick with Walker cones and discs improved coherence and definition (although I concluded that the Maverick “as is” was pretty good in dealing with vibrations). All of this suggested to me that the Maverick is a fundamentally sound design. In my experience, this is consistent with high-value components, which can’t employ cost-no-object parts and materials, but which do much better than poorly-designed competitors. Such high-value products tend to have a higher upside potential for improvements associated with tweaking.
I should also tell you that the Maverick accepts, reads and plays CDs and SACD’s treated with Optrix’s CD Upgrade. This is a tweak that I experimented with extensively and with good results; but not all players will accept or read CDs treated with CD Upgrade, Marigo stabilizing/damping mats or similar devices. The Maverick’s acceptance of this tweak means that you have an inexpensive way to push its performance envelope.
On an overall basis, without distinguishing between CD and SACD, the Maverick is a very good player that provides high resolution, good dimensionality, very respectable bass and a nice touch of air. These characteristics apply in both SACD and CD modes. It is in all respects clearly a significant step up from your typical $1,000-1,500 “midfi” player. Let’s lay this out in some detail.
Let me start with SACD mode and discuss something that you might think should be a given.
The Maverick very obviously sounds better on SACD than it does on redbook CDs. I want to make this clear because I have auditioned a small number of players in which the SACD sound was only marginally better than the redbook CD sound. You had to really listen analytically to notice the difference. This is not the case with the Maverick. The virtues of SACD could be clearly heard on every disc. Every hybrid SACD I listed above sounded better in SACD mode than in either regular or upsampled redbook mode. (For you hybrid disc conspiracy theorists: all of the hybrids’ CD layers sound much better than their redbook-only counterparts – I have redbook-only copies of several of the same discs.) The presentation was smoother, the bass deeper and more natural and soundstage depth was more evident, with “air” between the instruments.
Moreover, when playing SACDs, the Maverick easily surpassed the sound of the Denon RDV 995, the modded Pioneer Elite DV-37 and DV-38A playing the regular CD layer of each of the hybrid discs listed above. (Of course, I am not comparing the Maverick to the DV-38A playing DVD-Audio discs.) In fact, the presentation was always smoother and more natural, the bass was always deeper, cleaner and fuller, and the soundstage was always deeper. More specifically, compared to my highly-modded Pioneer Elite DV-37 and my Pioneer Elite DV-38A, the Maverick’s bass sounded fuller, yet as detailed as that of both Pioneer units. There was not a lot of difference in the width of the soundstages, but the depth and dimensionality of the Maverick were better. Finally, there was significantly more resolution coming from the Maverick. Compared to the Denon, the Maverick improved on the bass and depth of the soundstage, but also added resolution and that elusive quality of “air”.
In short, in SACD mode, the Maverick beat the pants off my “midfi” players playing the same music in redbook mode.
OK – so the Maverick’s SACD playback sounds better than the normal CD playback of other “midfi” players. But what about other SACD players? Unfortunately, I did not have an SACD player handy to make a direct comparison to another SACD player. However, I can say with complete confidence that the Maverick sounds better than the old Sony SCD-1, which was Sony’s top-of-the-line player just a few short years ago. Sonic memory is a very dangerous thing to rely on, but I lived with the Sony for several weeks after I received my highly-modded Pioneer Elite DV-37 back from the mod shop, and I took detailed notes. SACD on
the SCD-1 was smoother and had better bass than the modded DV-37, but not by a huge margin. On the other hand, the Maverick’s SACD performance compared to the modded DV-37 was clearly much better. This is completely consistent with the significant improvements that have elevated digital sound in the last three years, and the Maverick apparently incorporates much of the sonic know-how gleaned from that period.
Now let’s talk redbook playback. The first thing that I want to say is that redbook CDs on the Maverick sound best when the upsampling feature is engaged, although the improved sound quality from this setting is not as great and not as universal as in playing SACDs. Some CDs had significant improvements, while others had small improvements. My impression was that this related in part to the quality of the recordings. That said, I expect that a Maverick owner will want to play all redbook CDs with the upsampling feature engaged. You will get better resolution and a smoother sound on every disc. I performed most of my redbook comparisons in upsampled mode.
I’ll relate the Maverick’s redbook playback to two highly-regarded players, one of older vintage and one of current vintage.
Starting with the older vintage player, I owned the Cary 306/200 upsampling player, and I’d say that the upsampling makes a bigger difference on the Maverick than it did on the Cary. In fact, I’d compare the Maverick’s redbook playback favorably to the 306/200, which was generally regarded as a very good CD player in 2002. The Maverick’s bass is slightly better, and its soundstage is wider and deeper than the 306/200. The only thing the Cary had over the Maverick was HDCD playback, which could be a consideration for those who have a large collection of HDCD discs. (One of the weirdest things I’ve encountered in auditioning CD players was that the Cary’s upsampling sounded best when used on HDCD discs, even though upsampling bypassed the HDCD decoding – go figure.)
The current player I’ll compare the Maverick to is the very, very good Oracle 2500. Let me state it clearly: the Maverick in SACD mode approaches, but does not equal, the $9800.00 Oracle 2500, which does not upsample or read SACDs.
First, though it is quite good, the Maverick’s resolution does not equal that of the Oracle 2500. Second, while the soundstage width of the Maverick and the Oracle are about equal, the Oracle has better depth (although pretty close when the Maverick is playing in SACD mode). Third, the Oracle is smoother at the top-end, rendering high-volume presentations with less fatigue. Still, unless you are listening to a high-end player like the Oracle, you will not feel that the Maverick lacks in any department. It’s not as though the Maverick reproduces anything poorly – quite the contrary. It’s not until you hear the $9800.00 player do you realize what you’re missing in the $1500.00 player, especially in redbook playback. This is high-value performance. If you have a substantial collection of SACDs, you will be happy listening to them on the Maverick. Pretty good for a “midfi” player.
I finally got to my acid test. I’d love to tell you that I’ve found a value component that plays with the big boys. Sorry – the Maverick is definitely not better than (or the equal of) the $15,000.00 P-70/D-70. This is especially evident if the Maverick and the P-70/D-70 are run directly into the amps and the Maverick’s internal volume control is used. The soundstage is narrower and shallower, the bass is thinner, less deep and less defined, the midrange has less body and the treble is not as smooth. This is true in both SACD and regular upsampled CD mode. The difference is smaller when each unit is run through the fabulous MBL 5011, but still substantial. (The MBL has made most things I’ve run through it sound very good). Of course, the Maverick is 1/10th the cost of the Esoteric P-70/D-70, and that’s without the necessary three digital cables and extra power cord (add another $4,000.00).
So there you have it – another high value component from Roy Hall. Very good redbook CD playback for a “midfi” unit, and SACD playback that takes things to another level. If you already have a substantial SACD collection, you will not regret your purchase. If you don’t have SACDs, you will still get a value-laden player which enables you to upsample and even run the player directly into your amp if you are considering a simple single-source two-channel system.
I understand that Underwood HiFi has some pretty cool mods that it does on the Maverick that leave the Maverick warranty intact. It would be very interesting to hear what the Maverick sounds like with those mods. I suspect that a well-designed product like the Music Hall Maverick could sound very, very good with the right mods.
One last comment: While writing this review, I recalled some scuttlebutt that early production units of the Maverick had problems, so I did some checking on the web. Some customers have reported issues with their Mavericks. However, I had no difficulties at all. The mechanical aspects of the unit and the laser reader worked as advertised without a single glitch, and there was no hum or high-pitched noise during playback. I had no personal problem with the load time (which is primarily a function of reading the disc to determine whether it’s SACD or regular CD) or with the sound of the tray opening or closing, but I know that there are some who want fast and silent loading. (The Sony SCD-1 I referred to above had ridiculous loading/reading time, and the Maverick’s loading time is less than half of the SCD-1’s.)
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