VIRTUE AUDIO PIANO M1
Reference CD Player
I received the Piano M1 thanks to “THE” publisher, James Darby, by way of his acquaintance with owner Seth Krinsky and experience in using one of Virtue Audio's amplifiers as a reference and soon to be released review by StereoMojo. We did the world's first review of the tiny Virtue entry level model Audiophile One. We also used it in a shootout with two of it's competitors from NuForce and XXXX as reported by a panel of reviewers. The Virtue, to their surprise, came out on top ~ publisher.
Virtue Audio was founded in 2005 (selling directly to the public since October, 2008) and draws upon the talents of several engineers and partners, including Roger Sheker of Audience, LLC fame.
The Piano M1 arrived in a compact double box with foam inserts, well protected. The unit I received came in black, hairline brushed anodized aluminum, matching black buttons and rosewood veneer top panel cartridge. The remote is a not so special looking plastic unit which can be upgraded to one cut from a billet of solid aluminum, for an extra $99. With the standard remote you have numeric keypad for track access, repeat, a-b, open/close, along with the standard play,pause, stop, skip, ff/rw bottons. With upgraded unit you lose the keypad and a/b option but pick up a random play option.
The M1 is solid with thick one inch side and half inch front panels. Because of its compact size: H 3.8” x W 10.6” (no columns) 11.2” (with columns) x D 9.2” weight is 15 lbs., it feels heavier than it actually is and does not look like your average, rack-mount size CD player (17” wide). Because it is so compact, the M1 can easily fit on a desk or bed-side table.
The front of the unit includes controls for power, play, open/close, stop, and pause wit a blue led to show when power is on.
The rear of the unit includes coaxial and optical outputs, IEC socket in the event you want to upgrade the power cable (you should) and two RCA outputs that can used to compare interconnects or tube vs. solid state setups among other things.
Under the hood, the M1 features a Samsung transport and an early 1990's, 16-bit TDA1542 DAC with 176.4 Khz up-sampling. Signal-to-noise ratio is a respectable but not digerati-flooring 95 dB, dynamic range is 96 dB, and THD is around 0.06%. I asked Seth why he chose such an old technology for his only and flagship CD-player? Like the “vintage” TC2001/TC2001 Tripath controller chips that Virtue uses on their amps, Seth says that the TDA1542 is “a sound-shaping dynamo.” It might not measure like a world-beater, but “simply sounds great... to the ear.” That is why this gear is made after all, so I suspended my disbelief and proceeded with the evaluation.
The Chameleon: Built to Order
There may be other units, but this is the first one that I am aware of that can be customized to your hearts fancy. This enclosure platform is code-named “Melissa”(named after Seth's patient girlfriend) and is patent pending. It is shared with the Sensation integrated amp and Iceblock power amps that can be customized to match the looks of the Piano M1.
Every order starts by choosing a face color: black anodized or natural aluminum (which they call “Aviator”).
Thereafter, you can pick between various colored side and front panels as well as different veneered wood top panels. If you change your mind later, or want panels for different “moods” at home, you can order them separately for $40 each and also have Virtue make you custom panels (at extra charge) from exotic woods of your choice to match your speakers or furniture. Granite and marble tops were originally planned but because of manufacturing problems were dropped temporarily as standard options. Also, creating your own top “cartridge” is possible; Virtue will be offering bare “rails” upon which custom tops can be made and mounted.
Side panels and buttons can also be ordered from the site. Colored sides (white, blue, yellow, red) with columns are a $50 upgrade at check-out. New ones can be purchased later for $109; straight sides (black, natural, red) are just $69 for the pair.
All this would be for naught if the sound quality of the unit is not up to par. So lets sit back and get those ears ready for some music.
Source: Vanguard CDM-12Pro Transport/ Ack Dack 1.2e
Preamp: Belles 21a
Amp: Consonance Cyber 800
Speakers: Usher 6381
Interconnects: 6sons Audio Windigo, Grover SX., KCI entry digital coaxial
Power Cords: 6sonsaudio Windigo, 6sonsaudio Thunderbird, Virtual Dynamics Testament
Speaker Cables: PNF Audio Symphony Bi-wire
The Woods Brothers – Ways Not To Lose
1. The Truth Is The Light
2. Luckiest Man
Diana Krall – Only Trust Your Heart
1. Only Trust Your Heart
Shota Osabe Piano Trio – Happy Coat
1. Can't Leave Her Again
2. Anema E Core
Rubinstein – Beethoven Sonatas
1. Sonata #14 in C-sharp minor
2. Sonata #8 in C-minor
I put in a CD and hit the power button... and waited. The M1 is downright slow to boot-up and it took around twelve seconds for the CD info to appear. Only after the CD was loaded, could I hit “play.” This annoyance reminded me of some tube gear and set the bar higher for the initial listening session.
My initial impression was great bass, smooth non fatiguing highs with a mid-range that was a little forward and brash but in a good way. I also thought at the time the bass and lower mid-range outclassed the rest of the sound spectrum. A few days of playing random music, everything smoothed out and the sound was balanced and detailed without being harsh.
The first thing I did was email Seth and ask him where he hid the tubes. His answer was, while he would have preferred to use tubes it would have required a larger case,higher costs, and of course a cutout to show off the tubes! Also, he had concern about the reliability of tubes over time and thought that the TDA1542 gave a very tube-like sound anyway. I'll agree with that! This mid-range just shouts TUBES.
Now I wanted to delve deeper into the sound of the M1, so I grabbed a new set of disks that I hadn't listened to in a while.
Overplayed she might be but I got out Diana Krall's “Only Trust Your Heart”. Using the title cut as Diana is close miked and in some systems that are overly detailed the lip smacking and extraneous sounds can be distracting. With the M1 there is detail but it is of a more natural sort. Diana's voice is up front and clear with a nice warm tonality. You just know she is singing only to you. I played “Broadway” next. The Bass playing laid a solid foundation for the music but in no way was it bass heavy. The cymbal work is very pleasant sounding without assaulting your ears. Imaging is good with none of the instruments intruding on the others space. Listen to the drum work, great attack, crisp clear brush work and then there's Diana right there in the room...... good stuff.
Next I put in the much simpler sounding Woods Brothers, on “The Truth Is The Light”, what hits you first is the rock solid bass. The drum sounds like a big concert bass drum. Male vocals are quite good with clear articulation. On “Luckiest Man”, the tone of the guitar is true to life with very distinct string sounds.
The Shota Osabe Piano Trio by Winston Ma and FIM Recordings features Ray Brown on upright acoustic bass. Listening to “Can't Leave Her Again”, the piano is... well a piano. As with Krall's playing it's like you are so close to the piano that you can hear the hammers striking the strings. The tempo is very good, of the toe tappin' variety. It all comes together on “Anema E Core”, attack, pace, tonality, and seamless integration of the instruments.
As a change of pace from my regular jazz titles I went for Rubinstein playing Beethoven's Moonlight and Pathetique Sonatas. You can feel the full weight of the piano, fingers flying up and down the keyboard. More fun stuff, each note is clear and precise with a touch of warmth and the romantic style, emotion and feeling for which Rubinstein was noted.
Compared to my reference source combo (Vanguard + Ack! costing around $1,500 new today) the sound stage is not as deep and three dimensional, yet still the M1 is not a stiff in this area. The bass of my source is nowhere near as deep, detailed, and solid as the M1. The M1's midrange is so sweet and big and well here's that word again, TUBES. Tubes hwever, can sometimes give you a rolled off top end and bottom end as well. That is not the case with the Piano. The Piano's greatest stregth in plain English is that is does not sound like a digital player with the attendant gray, rather cool, steely presentation particularly in the midrange and and upper end. We call it "digititus". Often, when a digital source is also 100% solid state, the combination can be pretty unmusical. What I am trying to say without using a bunch of "audiophile speak" is that though the Virtue machine is both a solid state digital source, it does not suffer those maladies. It sounds much more analog with a midrange sweetness and fullness as well as a very robust bass that one might hear with an analog source; possibly a combination of a good tube preamp driving a high quality solid state power amplifier. In short, unusually musical at this or any price.
I also had on hand a new Onix CD10 CDP for review that retails for $650 and the M1 had deeper more detailed bass and a much fuller mid-range. The highs of the Piano M1 were smoother and less metallic sounding. Add to that the ability to customize the looks of the M1 and it's a “no-brainer".
Seth sent me an Oppo Dv-981hd universal dvd player to compare to the Piano as a lot of his customers were using this unit as a cost saving, good sounding player. Well I found the sound stage to be a little two dimensional sounding and lacking in midrange detail. Just plain hifi sounding, SACD did sound better than red book on the Oppo. So save a little longer or get a second job for a couple of weeks, you'll be glad you did.
Seth tells me that the M1 was originally conceived as a complementary input source for the Tripath-based, 85wpc capable Sensation integrated amplifier (with which it shares a remote control). JD has the new Virtue Sensation in house now for the world's first review. He hints that the name "sensation" is well deserved for the unit. That may be the case, but this unit is clearly good enough to be sold (and bought) stand-alone.
I stretched out my review time with the Virtue Audio Piano M1 since I had a local get together coming up and I wanted to take the M1 with me to get other opinions. After everyone had listened to the M1, I started by asking if they thought it was tube or solid state. Everyone said tubes and to their surprise solid state it was. There also was a fellow there that is a vinyl person who was looking to buy a CD player and after hearing the M1 said he was going to start saving his pennies and order one. It's always nice when other ears hear the same qualities as I.
I even said what's another $600 bucks, this thing is not leaving my house.
If you are looking for a CD player at or anywhere near the $600 price range, do yourself a favor and give the Virtue Audio Piano M1 a try as there is a 30 day money back guarantee. Every Piano is assembled to order and since each unit is “built for you” there is a $50 restock fee. But if you are like me, you won't be sending it back.
Seth, check, money order or paypal??????? This one is mine, James please add it to my Reference System list from now on. When Virtue calls this a "Reference CD Player", they aren't just flappin' their gums.
P.S. There are no tubes......SEE !!!
Just be aware that as good as the Piano is, it does one thing: play CD's extremely well. No MP3's, no DVD's or SACD's. If you read other audio publications (why?!), it's all too common for them to proclaim that a certain product "punches above its weight" or sounds better than much more expensive gear. But they never mention that "much more expensive gear" which makes the statement pretty empty. We do mention the other gear. It only makes sense.
Because of the outstanding value and high level of performance and additional customization available for the Virtue Audio Piano M1 CD Player, we bestow upon it our rare Maximum Mojo Award.
Marvin, we're honored that you're buying your Piano and thrilled that you noticed the features that took many years to engineer into the product: soft, tube-like sound, small form-factor, and unique aesthetic customization options. As you know, our niche is moving quickly and furiously to digital media and as a "red-book" CD-player, Piano is perhaps a relic of a bygone era. Well, Virtue would like to stand with the millions of dinosaurs who still play “old-fashioned” CDs and want to pipe gorgeous music through “old-school” wooden boxes full of energetically flapping cone contraptions. We hope that there's still a market for that! ~ Seth Krinsky
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