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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S; Ancient Audio Lektor Prime; AMR CD-77
Preamp/Integrated: Supratek Cabernet Dual; ModWright LS-36.5 with PS 36.5; Melody I2A3; Trafomatic Experience One [on loan]

Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; 2 x First Watt F4; Yamamoto A-08s; Fi 2A3 monos
Speakers: Zu Audio Definition Pro; DeVore Fidelity Nines; WLM Grand Viola Monitor with Duo 12; Rethm Saadhana; Zu Presence [on review]; Mark & Daniel Maximus & Ruby Monitors w. OmniHarmonizer

Cables: Ocellia Silver Signature loom; Crystal Cable Ultra loom; Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; double cryo'd Acrolink with Furutech UK plug between wall and transformer; Stealth Audio Indra and Meta Carbon
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular 4-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S fed from custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option; Furutech RTP-6 on 240V line feed
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Walker Audio Reference HDLs; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; Nanotech Nespa Pro; Acoustic System Resonators and front wall sugar cube matrix
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room

Review Component Retail: $19,000 for NWO 3.0-GO modification of supplied Esoteric UX-1 ($30,000 pre-modified)

The best?
Unequivocally, unquestionably the best. The gold medalist by a half lap's lead. To build that is the wet dream of every engineer worth his shoe laces, every designer worth her pumps. Alas, HiFi 101's propensity to mix and match undermines any unequivocationalism to use an impossible word for an impossible scenario. With the unknown variable of the room, no speaker in particular could ever be called the best. What makes a speaker suitable for a small room -- limited bass response -- is what makes it unsuited for a large room. By extension, drive requirements for speakers fluctuate wildly. That affects amplifier demands and makes an unequivocally best amplifier another mythical beast. However, retracing our steps to the very beginning of the hifi chain, it should theoretically be possible to identify a best digital source - if it categorically and by a demonstrable margin obliterated all comers. Regardless of what hardware follows a CD player in whatever room, true source superiority should assert itself undeniably.

Inference or interference?
Naturally, to win any meaningful race relies on the participants. Only if all known top runners compete does winning a race mean being the best. That concept remains elusive for hifi reviews. How many CD players exist right now which should rightfully enter such a race? Touché. The best we can hope for is inference. If enough owners and reviewers accoladed the same component against known top contender in many parallel entries ... then eventually, sufficient evidence might compile to suspect that a given component would indeed win a race in which all these combatants actually duked it out side by side. Naturally, to assemble such a sportin' cast (instead of compositing it) is well beyond the purview of any one reviewer. Inference then is the best we can manage.

In audio, a reasonable prerequisite for winning must be a serious lead. A mere hair's width ascertained only by comparing five atomic cameras won't do. With today's digital source components, a clearly best CD player would have to beat AMR, Audio Aero, Burmester, dCS, EMM Labs, Esoteric, Orpheus Labs, Spectral and Zanden. Predictably, nine out of ten readers would view this list as incomplete. They'd insist that only by entering their favorite machine -- and a number of others they suspect are contenders -- would the race become relevant and representative of the true cream of the crop.

Naturally, you don't expect to be left completely hanging after this iffy but racy intro. The least your writer owes you now is something highly suspicious. Enter the Alex Peychev New World Order 3.0 Game Over. That's both a fuzzy mouthful and a load of tall cockiness. Never mind that. Available evidence suggests that this ultra-ambitious, nearly arrogant naming convention at the tail end of incarnations 1, 2, 2.5 and 2.5T could be factual. Let's start with the hardware. It is Esoteric's best universal platform, the UX-1. Of all the disc spinning mechanisms on the market, Esoteric's are by far the most advanced. The NWO 3.0-GO guts everything else in the UX-1 to retain only the massive VRDS-NEO assembly and the player's vault-like main enclosure. This will appeal to those who'll readily admit to the VRDS superiority but claim it let down by Esoteric's stock conversion circuity and analog output stages.

One benefit of Esoteric's VRDS-NEO sleds are the unusually high rotational speeds run for all digital formats. The extracted data are buffered in SDRAM memory and reclocked to eliminate transport jitter. Read errors provoke multiple read-ins for RUR read until right error correction while the listener enjoys uninterrupted music. Another benefit is the constant perpendicularity of the laser beam to the rotating disc which the auto-corrective sled assembly guarantees. For a full appreciation of the engineering triumph that is the VRDS-NEO, see our Sidebar I with photos.

The NWO 3.0 handles digital conversion via twenty DSD/DVD-A compliant AKM AK4397 32-bit converters per channel (10 physical stereo DACs, each containing two differential DACs for a total of 20 per side). This massively paralleled array lowers the noise floor and output impedance, then runs at a proprietary 211kHz/32-bit upsampling scheme. SACD playback meanwhile runs at 176.4kHz/24bit PCM to address the out-of-band noise and treble phase shift of pure DSD processing. All signals extracted from the VRDS-Neo sled -- or received via the digital input -- then oversample from 211kHz by 8 times in the PCM domain, convert to 5-bit multi bitstream (not DSD 1-bit) and upsample four more times to 6.752MHz. This is the sampling rate for all playback regardless of format, said to be at "a constant 32-bit word length with linear phase and extremely low out-of-band noise".

Alex also rebuilds the power supply for the digital converter stage and drive mechanism. The gutted stock output is replaced by a custom Lundahl transformer-coupled "classic" class A triode stage built fully differential and without feedback around a pair of JJ ECC 99s mounted horizontally to the back panel. Tube gain and transformer winding ratio determine the circuit gain of 2.5. Another addition is the remote-controlled hybrid digital/analog attenuator which operates in 0.5dB steps over a range of 74dB for a max output voltage of 2.1V. This allows amp-direct operation while accommodating level
trim for preamps that lack remote control. Another addition is the conversion of Esoteric's Word Clock socket to a 24/192 digital input and, as a $1,000 option, an AKM AK5394a 24/192 A/D converter to process phono input signals through the on-board module below. While robotic board population of that module would be cheaper, experiments have Peychev convinced. His hand-crafted boards consuming one full week of complicated labor sound much superior. Should you acquire a NWO player, you'll acquire not only Peychev's design skills but also his personal soldering chops.

"The DSP board (the following two photos) is the very heart of the VRDS transport. Without it, the VRDS is jus a piece of precision metal. As you can see, the 'Heart of the VRDS' has been extensively upgraded as well. This plays a significant role in the overall performance of the NWO player."

"All of the 70 surface mount capacitors you see here are being replaced with something at least 10 times better (and there are no Black Gates in my designs as I find them highly colored, mostly due to the 'rollercoaster' ESR and linearity vs. temperature behavior they exhibit). Just replacing those caps without damaging the PCB takes an enormous amount of time, effort and very special skills."

"Here you can see the proprietary Master Clock (on the right) for the VRDS transport and the data/clock re-routing board (on the left) which eliminates certain DSP from the digital signal path resulting in much better clarity. The original 88.2/24-bit DSD-to-PCM conversion is changed to 176.4/24 but it's hard to show. You can also see the pink material on most of the integrated circuits. This material has amazing vibration absorption characteristics, resulting in more 'relaxed' and 'live' sonics while keeping the high octaves extension intact (something that is very important to me; I hate masking 'digititis' with rolled-off sound)."

From the 'what's in it' angle of tech hardware, the one-box NWO 3.0-GO certainly has what it takes - the best universal transport sled; the most advanced 32-bit DACs in a unique paralleled array; a class A transformer-coupled valve output stage; and compatibility with CD, SACD, DVD and DVD-A. From the 'what others say about it' angle, we have the first owner feedback on APL Hifi's forum. Naturally, that won't list anything less than superlative. However, many of the top brands in digital excellence already show up as what owners enjoyed before they upgraded to the NWO 3.0-GO.

Highly suspicious, dear Watson!
Now enter a generous benefactor. He gifted me with this NWO 3.0-GO to "have the best" - a true boon for any reviewer and most assuredly this one.* Like myself, my friend has owned Zanden's top quartet. Unlike myself, he's also owned the dCS triple stack, Meitner gear and continues to spin vinyl. His digital source of choice is the NWO. For archival purposes, he uses recordable DVD. I've heard his laser turntable as compared to his earlier Peychev digital. Gestaltically, there was no difference except that digital lacked the annoying clicks to have me prefer it to vinyl - and my machine supposedly is better still. Should you be suspicious that I entered this assignment myself suspicious that this machine deserved suspicion for being the best... you'd be suspiciously correct. Which already predicts the outcome as being, at best, a suspicion. If this machine bested what I had or had heard by the same margin that convinced my friend to acquire it for himself and me; and if one added to that the other reports... there was then finally a chance to suspect that something in audio, at least for the time being, might indeed inhabit that lone 'n' lofty spot on Mount Olympos: Best of the best.

In seven years of reviewing, it's a first that I should even acknowledge such a possibility. Very little separates most expensive digital these days. Proclamations of best would have to be contingent on a substantial lead. If the NWO 3.0-GO was substantially better than my Zanden, AMR or Ancient Audio machines? At my friend's, I already had opportunities for telling extrapolations. Going into a formal review, I was quite confident that I had to merely ascertain the width of the performance delta over my personal stuff; assess whether the APL Hifi/Esoteric was just a bit or a lot better. If a lot -- the kind of lot I've not heard before between top-level digital -- I'd be a believer in best. Whether you would be is a different matter. All I'd expect of you is to enter my findings into your personal evidence folder. Then assemble your own composite race. Triangulate from there to intuit or suspect how this heavy hitter might compare...

* The extent of this particular gesture goes farther. As already covered in Part 1 of the APL HiFi chronicles: "One sunny day, your friend ordered one of my modified Denon 3910s. After receipt, he emailed me saying that he has quite a collection of SOTA digital and that to his ears, my Denon outperformed it all except for his favorite Zanden combo. Based on what he heard with the Denon, he was sure I could do better. What would be required? Esoteric's VRDS-NEO was my answer. That's how the NWO series came to be so indeed, your friend is the father of the NWO." In short, don't discount the role silent investors and patrons to the hifi arts have played and continue to play whenever they commission special products behind the scenes. Another such example birthed Ancient Audio's massive Wing Speaker system last year. It was a custom commission from a hifi enthusiast who likewise said "hit me with your very best shot".

In use
From the e-mail Peychev file of my investigation, we learn that the player ships with both the stock Esoteric and a new Sony remote, two tubes and two tube dampers which are to be installed 1/3rd down from the tube tops. The Sony remote adds volume up/down and extra functionality. The APL modification uses the blue Esoteric front panel LED as user interface. It blinks with each command input, then extinguishes to indicate that the control processor has shut down to not interfere with the audio data and clocks. The LED blinks slower when the volume control has reached max output during a continuous 'up' press (or full attenuation during a continuous 'down' press).

Because the player lacks a muting circuit, the NWO must be powered up before the amplifier to avoid turn-on transients in amp-direct use. Wait 30 seconds, then turn on the amp. Reverse the sequence for power off. The NWO memorizes the last volume setting even when powered off so if you're reverting from a preamp connection where the NWO was set to max, make sure to ramp down the volume with your first amp-direct session before you hit 'play'.

The digital input option takes the place of the stock Word sync BNC. To access the additional functionality, the Sony remote (which can be swapped for a fancier learning remote by transferring the features) must be set to 'amp' (press once). This establishes communication with the NWO. Button 1 means internal where the player processes data off its own transport. Button 2 means external and processes data through the digital input. Button 4 activates a slow digital filter roll-off, button 5 the normal roll-off. "The difference between the two is very subtle." The mute command below the Sony volume buttons also works. If the Esoteric display reads "no word", you have accidentally pushed the "word" button so push it again. The Peychev mod disables word sync because it has already replaced the internal clocks with "two precision low-jitter low-phase noise clocks and the circuit topology can no longer benefit from external reclocking".

Alex recommends the IsoTek burn-in CD for RedBook playback but SACD and DVD-A will require separate break-in as each format uses different processors. APL recommends against leaving the NWO powered up when not in use. "The NWO likes non-twisted, non-shielded power and interconnect cables preferably made of solid-core conductors. It is especially important that the IC cables have the lowest possible capacitance or they will form a low-pass filter with the secondary winding of the output transformers, resulting in a smeared and rolled-off sound. While the NWO has an amazing transport and overall mechanical construction, it still greatly benefits from vibration isolation devices. I have not heard many isolation platforms but was literally stunned by the performance achieved with the Critical Mass Grand Master platform. The NWO also benefits from mass loading of the top cover as something to experiment with."

My friend's NWO two years ago, in then present iteration