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- Written by Hans Wetzel Hans Wetzel
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 15 September 2016 15 September 2016
With the maturation of computer-based and streaming audio over the past half-decade, it’s been almost as interesting to watch the philosophical choices made by manufacturers as it has the rapid gains in sound quality and connectivity. At first, many opted for pure digital-to-analog converters, the only luxuries being an asynchronous USB input and balanced analog outputs. From there, however, the decision tree became a far murkier affair.
Some companies opted to release DAC-preamplifiers that were equipped with analog inputs, clearly aimed at traditional audiophiles armed with a power amp or two and a mild sense of adventure. Other firms aimed for a younger, more tech-friendly audience, with DACs that include a built-in volume control and effectively served as digital DAC-preamps. There’s also my own favorite, the DAC-integrated amplifier, in which DAC, preamp, and power amp are all conveniently stuffed into a single compact case.
Each of these iterations of the original, straight-up USB DAC has been designed with a specific type of customer in mind. T+A Elektroakustik adopted a slightly different approach when they designed their MP 2000 R ($8500 USD) -- the German company’s engineers focused not on the end customer, but on maximizing absolute performance.
Discrete PCM and DSD DACs, streamer, tuner, Internet Radio, CD player, Bluetooth
The MP 2000 R’s svelte and understatedly pretty appearance is largely identical to that of its sibling, the PA 2000 R integrated amplifier, which I recently reviewed. It’s the same size (18.1”W x 3.2”H x 15.8”D), and its 17.6 pounds are about right for a well-built piece of electronics. The fit’n’finish is excellent -- the entire case comprises panels of brushed aluminum held together by small, polished bolts. The front panel’s pushbuttons, aluminum navigation/control dial/button, display, the rear-panel connections, and the glass window in the top panel all seem to be of the same build quality as the PA 2000 R’s; please see my review of the integrated amp for more about those details.
The “MP” in MP 2000 R stands for “multi-source player,” which is T+Aspeak for “streamer.” The feature list is long if not comprehensive. First and foremost, the MP 2000 R is a D/A converter. Its application is unique, too. In a sea of competition littered with ESS Sabre Reference DAC chips and other off-the-shelf chips from Texas Instruments (TI) and Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AKM), T+A has gone in a couple different directions.
T+A could simply have built a PCM DAC that also juggles DSD decoding capabilities, as have many other manufacturers. But they weren’t satisfied with the results, in terms of accuracy or musicality. So they decided to design their own 1-bit converter specifically for DSD compatibility, with its own dedicated, galvanically isolated, dual-mono output stage. It supports DSD64/128/256/512 signals, and T+A believes the MP 2000 R will even support DSD1024, should recordings in that resolution become available.
On the PCM front, T+A has partnered with Burr-Brown, using a 32-bit converter chip, two of which it uses per channel -- four in all -- to increase the MP 2000 R’s linearity and reduce its noise by 6dB, compared to using a single DAC chipset. This custom PCM DAC is fed by a 56-bit digital signal processor that offers four switchable oversampling algorithms. Each of the four filters upsamples the incoming signal to 352.8kHz, but does so in a way different from the other three. The first two are finite impulse response (FIR) filters, common filters that offer highly linear frequency response and damping at the costs of small amounts of pre- and post-signal ringing. The FIR Long filter is the classic example of this, while the FIR Short filter reduces timing errors, at the cost of slight losses in frequency range and stop-band attenuation.
The third and fourth filters make use of T+A’s proprietary Bezier mathematical process, which offers perfect phase and time response. The third filter, Bezier/IIR, which includes an infinite impulse response (IIR) filter, eliminates the pre-ringing that plagues traditional FIR brickwall filters while adding a slight, very-high-frequency boost to offset the Bezier’s natural rolloff of the highs. The fourth filter is plain Bezier, with no pre- or post-ringing, and a slight high-frequency rolloff. The differences wrought by the filters were subtle. Very subtle. I preferred the Bezier filters to their FIR counterparts, due to the formers’ slightly smoother, more organic sound. I ultimately settled on plain Bezier; of the four filters, it just sounded the most “right” to me. The MP 2000 R’s specs are impressive: a THD of less than 0.001%, a signal/noise ratio of 110dB, and a PCM DAC able to accommodate signals up to 32-bit/384kHz.
Not even the MP 2000 R’s word clock escaped T+A’s penetrating attention. The model uses a two-stage process to eliminate jitter, as explained by T+A on their website:
In the first stage the received data are processed and decoded. In this stage a basic clock is extracted from the received data stream, which undergoes an initial cleaning process in a PLL circuit aimed at removing coarse jitter generated by the source device and the transfer. This clock is now analysed extremely intensively by the micro-processor. If it fulfills certain minimum criteria in respect of frequency and stability, the D/A converters are switched to an internally generated, extremely precise Master Clock with extremely low phase noise. This clock is completely isolated from the source device, and therefore carries no trace of the jitter interference from the source and the transfer link. The local Master Clock is generated by two separate quartz oscillators which are adjusted to precise tolerances: one for the clock family 44.1/88.2/176.4kHz, and one for 48/96/192kHz. This extreme sophistication ensures that the clock is absolutely precise for all frequencies from 44.1kHz upwards.
See what I mean? Don’t be fooled by the MP 2000 R’s modest appearance and the lack of hyperbole in T+A’s ad copy. This seriously hardcore engineering firm puts maximum performance above all else. If you need another example, look no further than the fact that the MP 2000 R has no volume control: T+A’s engineers feel that it’s always better to keep the analog and digital circuits as far away from one another as possible, for “more serious assaults on the state of the art performance.”
T+A acknowledges that the MP 2000 R’s integral CD player has been largely superseded by computer-based and streamed content, but that hasn’t stopped them from catering to those who still like to spin their way to digital nirvana. The sealed disc transport is supported by a floating suspension with plenty of damping. The drawer slides in and out on two stainless-steel pushrods, while the disc cradle itself is made of aluminum and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). The mechanism of my review sample ran as smoothly as Irish butter. Everything on the MP 2000 R looks and feels expensive.
The MP 2000 R now appears on T+A’s website as the Mk.II. Since I received the original, “Mk.I” model for review, T+A has completed a new streaming client architecture that includes a new processor with the computational ability to stream high-resolution content -- even DSD, should streamed DSD signals ever become available. The Mk.II supports the Tidal streaming service (the “Mk.I” didn’t), with Deezer and Qobuz support following “very shortly.” While the Mk.II revision was released too late to be included in this review, T+A has assured me that “Mk.I” owners will be able to have their units upgraded through their T+A dealer.
The MP 2000 R’s rear panel is a lineup of most of the usual suspects: balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) analog outputs; Remote (for optional radio remote-control handset), WLAN, and FM Antenna connectors; a coaxial digital output; five digital inputs (two coaxial, two optical, one asynchronous USB, marked DAC In); a LAN connection (Ethernet); a media-only, Type-A USB input; an IEC power inlet; and two R2Link connections -- proprietary, Ethernet-style ports that allow the MP 2000 R to communicate with other T+A gear, such as the matching PA 2000 R.
If you do also have a PA 2000 R, the R2Link umbilical makes a snap of controlling the two components via the Control iOS app -- a plain but useful and reliable, nearly fully featured way to control a T+A system. It also serves as a trigger, so that multiple T+A units will respond in unison to a single remote handset. The included FM2000 handset, identical to the one shipped with the PA 2000 R, is a long, aluminum-plated design with plenty of buttons for controlling every feature of the MP 2000 R. Also included are a short set of XLR interconnects, an R2Link interconnect, multiple antennas, and a power cord.
Other features include a UPnP and DLNA streaming client that supports up to 32/192 with all major formats (other than ALAC, which it limits to 24/96), an FM and FM-HD tuner (no AM tuner), DAB and DAB+, and aptX Bluetooth. I’m omitting a good amount of fine detail; consult the MP 2000 R’s spec sheet and thorough owner’s manual, both available free on T+A’s website, for a fuller account of its capabilities.
The MP 2000 R saw use in a variety of system setups. While it spent most of its time here tied to its sibling PA 2000 R via the included XLR and R2Link interconnects, I also wired it up to my local network, which let me control the MP 2000 R with my iPhone 6, using the Control app. I also used the T+A as a DAC wired directly to my Hegel Music Systems H360 or Gryphon Audio Designs Diablo 300 DAC-integrated amplifier. In addition to the MP 2000 R’s included XLR wires, I used a variety of interconnects from DH Labs, Dynamique Audio, and Nordost (see “Associated Equipment,” below), and drove the T+A with an Emotiva CMX-2 power conditioner. Loudspeakers included my reference Monitor Audio Silver 10 floorstanding and KEF LS50 bookshelf models, as well as Magico’s S1 Mk.II and Sonus Faber’s Venere S floorstanders.
The difficulty of reviewing a product as flexible as the MP 2000 R is that it’s often impossible to thoroughly test all of its features. I was unable to try the MP 2000 R’s streaming abilities, as I don’t have a network music server. Nor did I spend much time testing the built-in CD player -- I hadn’t listened to a CD in my system since 2009. That said, I did spin several CDs, and followed each by listening, via the T+A’s USB input, to its losslessly ripped counterpart via iTunes. I heard no differences. Good show. I also verified that DSD files played nicely with the T+A’s dedicated 1-bit DAC through 2L Records’ convenient samples, but because I don’t regularly listen to DSD content, or have any DSD recordings that I know well enough to compare with their PCM equivalents, I moved on.
Things didn’t go so rosily via the MP 2000 R’s Bluetooth connection -- I consistently ran into almost imperceptibly small skips in my music, whether playing music from iTunes or Tidal, or video from Netflix or HBO Go. I’ve been assured that the current MP 2000 R will ship with an external Bluetooth antenna, which should greatly improve the range and stability of the Bluetooth connection. I also briefly tried several Internet Radio stations -- Celtic music! -- as well as the built-in FM tuner, both to good effect. The quality of Internet Radio took me by surprise. There’s probably an awful lot of high-quality content available. Finally, I made only sparing use of the Connect app on my iPhone, mostly due to the fact that, most of the time, my laptop-based, USB-wired music server kept me firmly seated in front of my stereo. But whenever I did connect with Connect, it worked well.
I did the bulk of my listening through the USB input of the Burr-Brown PCM DAC, and it was ear-opening. Straight away, it was easy to hear the T+A’s calling card: a wide-open, crystal-clear sound with an airy, extended quality. Some DACs, such as Arcam’s FMJ D33 and the module built into Gryphon’s Diablo 300 (heavily based on Gryphon’s standalone Kalliope DAC), naturally draw attention to the midrange. The Arcam’s sound is nearly perfectly neutral, the Gryphon’s less so, but the tonal balance of each still leans ever so slightly toward full-blooded, velvety mids. The T+A’s aural personality made it sound more enthusiastic; with voices, its emphasis was more on sibilants at the tip of the tongue, than from deep in the diaphragm. The MP 2000 R also exhibited an ever-so-slightly-prominent treble. Everything I played had a vibrance and a zest that were irrepressible.
Take Nini Fabi’s voice in “Hemiplegia,” the standout track of Haerts’s Haerts (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, Columbia). The Munich-born, Brooklyn-based singer comes across incisively, due in large part to a recording for which the sharpness and saturation knobs were ratcheted up. Nonetheless, I was still surprised when Fabi’s delicate singing practically slapped me across the face. The T+A sounded so clean, so absent of noise and grain, that, like the PA 2000 R, it presented dynamic contrasts in all their magnificent glory. Fabi really “popped” from this track’s quiet, synthesized opening bars, and I felt confident that I was hearing almost every detail of her hotly recorded voice, her sibilants demonstrating the MP 2000 R’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn of pace. This is not a DAC that will paper over the cracks of less accomplished recordings -- the phrase ruthlessly revealing certainly comes to mind.
On Sigur Rós’s ( ), a lovely if somewhat indulgent-sounding album (16/44.1 FLAC, MCA), the T+A’s personality shone through once more. The Icelandic group’s atmospheric, postmodern creations are somewhat gentler on the eardrums than those of Haerts, yet I was struck by the clarity and power of the piano in the untitled track 3, the album’s anthem. Arranged smack in the middle of the recording, the piano serves as the song’s foundation, slowly but purposefully propelling the melody from a soft, glacial pace into a far more expressive and boisterous apogee. Not only did I hear greater edge definition in the sound of the piano’s aural image against the space it occupied in the recording, but it sounded more forward and distinct in the soundstage. This was at odds with the song’s softer profile that I’ve heard in the past. While some of this was due to partnering the T+A with my Hegel H360 integrated amplifier, which has a slightly forward sound, the bell-like upper midrange and treble clarity audible through this pairing could most definitely be attributed to the German DAC.
The MP 2000 R sounded immaculate when challenged with “Chained,” from The xx’s monster album Coexist (16/44.1 ALAC, XL/Young Turks). The MP 2000 R’s sailing treble response highlighted the immense sense of space in this track, which opens with a healthy dollop of reverb on lightly strummed guitar chords. Kudos to the T+A’s linear power supply -- the noise floor was undetectable. Oliver Sim’s voice then emerges from the left of the soundstage, before being balanced out by Romy Madley Croft’s voice in the right. Each sounded laser-guided in his or her expressiveness, with nothing in the way of added bloom or warmth -- this DAC didn’t editorialize. Every intake of breath, inflection, and string decay was captured and relayed to my ears. In short, the MP 2000 R’s resolving ability and image specificity were exceptional. From the first night I inserted the MP 2000 R in my system to the playing of “Chained” as I write this, I never once found myself wanting or expecting more. Admittedly, this is the most expensive digital front end I’ve ever reviewed, but I’m at a loss as to how much more -- if any -- low-level detail can be unearthed from a recording.
Dynamics? By the bushelful. “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm,” from Howard Shore’s original score for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (16/44.1 ALAC, Reprise/Warner Bros.), is an explosive track that features monstrous drum thwacks, brash brass passages, swinging string interludes, and sizzling percussion. It begs to be played loudly. The MP 2000 R ticked all the boxes: Bass delivery was superb, with no lag or blurring, just the intoxicating tandem of power and extension. So, too, with the various sections of Shore’s vast orchestra, the highly articulated trumpets displaying a total absence of overhang or smear, and percussion so sharply defined that I half expected a window to crack. Even the ending of the track, when the orchestra largely falls away and New Zealander Mabel Faletolu sings a soaring, haunting solo: The T+A’s reproduction of Faletolu’s performance was top-flight, with effortless upper-register extension, zero edge, and a beautiful detachment from my loudspeakers, her voice seeming to hang naked in space toward the rear of the orchestra. Impressive.
The MP 2000 R’s feature set made finding a comparison component a challenge. Cambridge Audio’s Azur 851N network music player, DAC, and digital preamplifier came closest, and in many ways offers functionality similar to the T+A’s, for a lot less money: $1799. The Azur supports PCM and DSD playback, streaming support via UPnP and DLNA, aptX Bluetooth (via an optional adapter), and Internet Radio. The two models’ analog and digital outputs are comparable, while Cambridge’s five digital inputs (USB, two coaxial, two optical) mirror that of the T+A. There’s even a dedicated Cambridge Connect iOS application, like T+A’s Connect equivalent. At a glance, it might seem that the Cambridge is a bargain, or the T+A overpriced at more than four times as much -- or both.
But despite the Cambridge’s overachieving feature set and strong build quality for the price, the T+A is a step up. The 851N looks merely utilitarian, without the MP 2000 R’s clean lines and classy feel. Further, the tactility of the T+A’s remote, buttons, and dial is much better. And the T+A has more impressive specs: four 32-bit DACs per channel to the 851N’s single 24-bit DAC per channel, and a discrete 1-bit converter dedicated to DSD playback; the 851N, like many such devices, does DSD via PCM, and only up to DSD64.
But it was in the sound that the T+A revealed its hand. While the Cambridge is excellent for the money, with a linear frequency response and transparent sound, the MP 2000 R was more accomplished. The T+A’s DAC sounded squeaky clean and light on its feet compared to the Cambridge’s, with the latter’s denser, heavier midrange and slightly less emphatic highs. Indeed, the 851N’s midrange is more hearty -- male voices, especially, sound more robust -- while the T+A’s emphasis tilted ever so slightly toward the upper midrange. I would attribute this to the T+A’s utter lack of noise and distortion. Because of this, I felt I could hear farther and deeper into recordings through the T+A, in terms of both soundstaging and of unearthing the finest, most granular low-level detail.
The margins were tighter when I compared the T+A MP 2000 R with Benchmark’s DAC2 DX, a DAC-headphone amplifier ($1795) that I’m very familiar with. Benchmark loaned me a DAC2 DX for this review. Like the MP 2000 R, the DAC2 DX uses four 32-bit DAC chips per channel, said chips being ESS Technologies’ Sabre Reference 9018s. Now several years old, the Benchmark has some limitations: it can accept PCM signals up to only 24/192, and only DSD64. It’s no contest feature-wise: the T+A is supposed to be the ultimate digital front end, while the Benchmark is a DAC largely intended for use in recording studios by professional sound engineers.
But in terms of sound quality, these two DACs are cut from the same sonic cloth. On swapping the DAC2 DX into my system, I quickly heard differences. Hot on the heels of the MP 2000 R’s rendition of the song, the xx’s “Chained” now sounded slightly flatter, the dueling voices not popping with quite the same verve and alacrity. There was also a slight reduction in treble energy that made it sound darker, more brooding, and slightly less spacious. In “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm,” Mabel Faletolu’s solo wasn’t quite as well focused or firmly planted in space. This change, in particular, was less subtle than I thought it might be. Finally, in terms of overall transparency, I thought the T+A was consistently more revealing, albeit by a fine margin.
T+A Elektroakustik’s MP 2000 R is a fine example of what a top-flight, modern digital front end should look, feel, and sound like. Its build quality is excellent, with copious use of brushed aluminum, and its extensive feature set will keep it relevant for a long time to come. Its dedicated 1-bit DAC, designed especially for DSD playback, is a particularly thoughtful inclusion. Most important, however, the MP 2000 R sounded excellent: exceptionally quiet and revealing while remaining largely linear in its reproduction of tonality, my long listening sessions revealing only slight emphases of the upper-midrange and high frequencies. If you want to hear what’s been hiding unheard in your favorite recordings all these years, the MP 2000 R would make a fine listening partner for the long term.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF LS50, Magico S1 Mk.II, Monitor Audio Silver 10, Sonus Faber Venere S
- Earphones and headphones -- NAD Viso HP50, Pryma 01, PSB M4U 4
- Integrated amplifiers -- Gryphon Audio Designs Diablo 300, Hegel Music Systems H360, T+A Elektroakustik PA 2000 R
- Headphone amplifier-DAC -- Oppo Digital HA-2
- Digital-to-analog converters -- Arcam irDAC, Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 DX
- Source -- Apple MacBook Pro running iTunes and Audirvana Plus
- Speaker cables -- DH Labs Q-10 Signature, Dynamique Audio Caparo
- Analog interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Shadow RCA, Nordost Blue Heaven LS XLR
- USB interconnect -- DH Labs Silver Sonic
- Power conditioner -- Emotiva CMX-2
T+A Elektroakustik MP 2000 R Multi-Source Digital Player
Price: $8500 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
T+A Elektroakustik GmbH & Co. KG
Phone: +49 (0)52-21 / 76-76-0
Fax: +49 (0)52-21 / 76-76-76
North American distributors:
Rutherford Audio Inc.
11420 Blacksmith Place
Richmond, British Columbia V7A 4X1
Rutherford Audio Inc.
12649 E. Caley Avenue #116
Centennial, CO 80111
Phone: (303) 872-6285