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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; concrete floor and ceiling, concrete/brick walls

Review Component Retail: $5,000

Badabeep, badaboop - bring the gun, leave the cannoli
Google for the Bada DC-222 amplifier. You'll instantly come across,, and All of them sell this machine for between $599 and €548. Looking at their various photos, one discovers a shockingly hi-end made Chinese 4 x 12AU7, twin transformer'd hybrid integrated amplifier. It packs Toshiba transistors, Wima and Solen caps and 90/190wpc into 8/4 ohms while offering five inputs with record out, soft start and remote control. Despite the stout and quality construction, it sells for a surprisingly low price. Now our story takes an unexpected turn from suburbia to superbia.

After enjoying his early modified Denon which annihilated every digital he owned except for the famous Zanden, a friend of mine commissioned Alex Peychev of APL Hifi years ago to apply his expertise to a cost-no-object universal digital platform. The Bulgarian-born modifier already famous for his fix of the Meitner-adopted Philips SACD transport which left everyone else stumped had his eye on the crown jewel in Esoteric's line. The eventual outcome of this ongoing sponsorship -- between a patron to the audio arts and a crafty modifier given carte blanche -- became the New World Order series. Its present top incarnation is the NWO 3.0GO where Mr. Peychev guts an Esoteric UX-1. Post op, its digital engine bristles with 20 paralleled 32-bit AKM converters per channel; runs a custom ECC99 triode output stage; and adds precision analog-domain remote volume for direct drive to cover the most obvious bits. Esoteric's top brass has heard the Peychev makeover. Their collective response might be intuited in
the fact that their newest D-05 converter has adopted the very same 32-bit AKM chip.

Alex isn't the only one to have benefited from my friend's sponsorship. I have recently been gifted with a surprise audio care package. It includes one NWO-3.0GO and one UA-S1. While I don't own dCS or Meitner like my friend to assess the player's standing in the current state of the digital art against those quantities, I do own the Zanden quartet, the AMR AM-77 and the Ancient Audio Lektor Prime. My friend's past tense Zanden ownership might make my own comparisons foregone conclusions. Other owners of the turbo-charged Esoteric are on record in APL's forum - on what they've owned before the NWO-3.0 dethroned it. Collective evidence thus far suggests that Mr. Peychev by now plays in a league of one. Certain owners feel that his best digital trounces even highly advanced vinyl.

Naturally, it's not in the world order of small boutique makers who sell everything they can make, waiting lists no issue, to accommodate casually curious reviewer requests. You might thus appreciate my excitement over being able to report on Peychev's very best effort. I already heard it in my friend's Swiss residence where we compared it to his laser turntable. Those vinyl-related rumblings do have serious and solid substance. And Peychev's latest version is apparently better still (the GO in the nomenclature of the NWO-3.0 is for "game over"). For today, we shall segue into the APL Hifi way of doing things with the UA-S1 integrated. As you will have guessed by now, it is based on the above Bada platform. Also offered are single-ended or balanced UA-M1 monoblock versions but our modifier alerts would-be owners that 6-8 ohm speakers are preferred then to avoid higher bridging distortion into 4 ohms.

The modified Bada is a very interesting and unusually pure platform. Post op, it combines a single tube voltage gain stage around two ECC99 triodes with a zero-gain, no-feedback bipolar power buffer (this machine shuns even local feedback). Stock, it's a more complex and conventional capacitor-coupled dual gain stage circuit with four 12AU7s. About what his modifications consist of in detail and toto, "the list is long but I rather keep it a secret" became the guarded answer. For history in a nutshell, Peychev summarized his ascendancy thus: "APL Hi-Fi was founded in 2003 after I decided to end my career with Sony Electronics Inc. where I worked for 8 years as a Sr. Electronics Engineer in the Broadcast and Professional division. I am used to millions of dollars in High-Def and Jumbotron installations so any consumer audio equipment (even the most complicated one) is like a 'baby toy' for me. This is probably the reason why I was the only one who managed to troubleshoot the Philips SACD1000 failures.

"After the Philips nightmare, I introduced a Denon 3910 fitted with my own R-Core power supplies, master clocks, upsampler, DACs (first Crystal, then AKM), H-Attenuator and single-ended transformer-coupled tube stage. One sunny day, your friend ordered a Denon. 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. Today, the NWO-3.0GO is believed by many to be the best-sounding cost-no-object digital.

My friend's rig during the NWO 2.0 days

"I've had my big monster one-of-a-kind hybrid amplifier built a long time ago. My own speakers were finished 2 - 3 years ago. I also have prototypes for a hybrid preamp, hybrid phonostage and hybrid microphone amplifier. The phonostage was evaluated by a few local high-end people who never heard anything better. The microphone preamp was evaluated by Fantasy Studios in Berkeley who are shocked by its quality. Both the mic preamp and phonostage have a digital output option. The preamp has a built-in DAC option. Now I am working on a hybrid A/D converter which will be evaluated by some famous recording engineers including David Chesky. The most recent digital addition to the APL line is the Transporter, a Wi-Fi network device. I fit it with my proprietary upgrades that include 32-bit converters. I will soon be flying to Bulgaria to make sure my new DAC is being finalized and released. It will be $5000 box with USB, AES/EBU, coax and optical digital inputs. It will also have a special digital interface to allow high-rez data transmission from an APL transport (probably an upgraded Esoteric SA-10). The converters will be the new 32-bit AKMs. The H-Attenuator and cheaper ECC99 tube stage version will also remain intact. I further intend to release my own hybrid amplifier version over using the current Bada. Speakers too are coming very soon. I have big plans for this year!

"The reason I've concentrated on the digital players thus far is because, unlike all other audio equipment, it gives me a constant challenge that keeps me going. I was looking for a cheap Chinese CD player platform to upgrade when I saw the Bada DC-222. Pacific Valve had detailed pictures of the open amplifier [see above - Ed] so I knew what could be done. I've sold this amplifier to some of my customers who were willing to evaluate it. So far, it has significantly outperformed darTZeel's latest amplifier revision; top-line VAC monoblocks with VAC preamp; a top-line VTL preamp (the latest version with 12AU7 tubes) and Edge monoblocks; Lamm 1.2 MKII Signature monoblocks; and Spectron's Musician III Signature class-D amplifier in two setups - all according to owner feedback of course."

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Grappling with the obvious -- the extravagant modification surcharge for the $5,000 UA-S1 -- Alex put it this way: "The manual labor work inside is quite extensive and time-consuming. It also includes 25 years of knowledge and experience not only designing audio equipment but what it takes to make it sound good. Those who have evaluated this amp so far all feel that it's a steal at $5000, especially considering that it significantly outperforms combos costing 5 times as much. Isn't the sound quality what it's all about? The stock Bada DC-222 is nothing but a knock-off grey-market Musical Fidelity integrated whose real equivalent sold for $3000."

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Mr. Peychev's pricing concept seems purely based on performance. Others might argue in favor of a lower multiplication ratio of actual build cost, irrespective of what one competes with. It's a point Alex appreciates but also contends: "I've sold many $1000 Denon players for $5000-6000. There was/is a cult behind that player. The Esoteric UX-1 player can be purchased for around $7-8K. My redesign to NWO-3.0GO status including digital and analog inputs is $20,000. I am swamped with orders. The upgrade from any prior NWO version to NWO-3.0GO is $5000. Every NWO owner wants it without exception." It's the extensive hand labor one pays for. The next photo shows partial assembly of the 40-DAC module for the NWO-3.0GO and a penny for scale of some of the soldered parts. Granted, the modified Bada doesn't use parts quite as microscopic.

You'd assume robotic assembly for the digital sub assemblies would be significantly cheaper than having a chief designer spend a full week on hand-populating these modification boards with a steady hand and loup. "I have access to at least three new PCB factories in Bulgaria (now used by big European electronics manufacturers) equipped with the latest German robotic machines for SMT component placing and soldering. I managed to have 10 PCBs made in one of these factories (I know some people so I can have any quantity manufactured as I wish). Then we compared those to my hand-made boards. Although the machine-made module looks stunning, it is far behind sonically compared to the ugly hand-made one. So, I will stick to the manual component population and final assembly for the NWO players or any other APL statement product."

Speculating on why the machine-made boards would perform noticeably inferior -- the parts and board layouts are identical -- I suggested undue heat. Peychev agreed. Perhaps. "I think the thermal stress has something to do with it. All SMT components are designed to withstand the thermal stress for 10-15 seconds but you can imagine that the components are being heated to the solder melting point. The electrolytic in the capacitors is boiling already. Some experts I talked to said the temperature should not be an issue so I don't know. The hand-made board is clearly superior sonically, that I know (same components, same bare PCB, same everything). It is one of those things similar to how with indirectly heated triodes, the power supply for the heater makes a huge difference in the sound. It's just a heater that has nothing to do with the triode or signal path. Go figure."

In short, the market bears it, the performance justifies it doesn't completely capture APL's pricing structure. To get the performance entails protracted hand labor and more cost-effective robotic substitution would sacrifice it.
More on the performance of the UA-S1 in Cyprus in due time, to be followed by an assessment of the heavy-weight Esoteric UX-1 in APL HiFi's top modification...