APL NWO-2.5T A Review of a Classic CD Player

APL NWO-2.5T A Review of a Classic CD Player

I have now lived in musical nirvana for 7 months and I'm very confident that APL's NWO-2.5T CD player is destined to become a digital classic. It has broken new fertile ground in the digital landscape and brought us much closer to the sound of a live performance. Undoubtedly, improvements will follow. But for me the 2.5T will be known for breaking a major digital barrier that has kept us far from the absolute sound.

Shortly after receiving my NWO, I posted some brief euphoric first impressions and promised a more complete update. It was clear to me from the start that this player deserved a more thoughtful and comprehensive review, a more meaningful review based on long-term listening.

Its awe inspiring performance made it difficult to complete the review sooner because: 1) Experiencing sonic heaven is infinitely more satisfying for me than writing about it. The 2.5T's audio reproduction is extremely involving. It speaks to the heart. It captures your heart. I find it hard to get my mind involved when I'm in a state of awe. 2) The 2.5T uncovers new levels of musical information that is contained in the digital data. It took time to wrestle with metaphors and language that conveyed the spirit of this information while doing justice to the uniqueness of the NWO-2.5T. 3) The 2.5T's musical presentation evokes the feeling of rightness, balance, naturalness, effortlessness, and coherence. No aspect calls attention to itself. No obvious imperfections detract from my absorption in musical bliss. The usual digital culprits were not there to engage my analytic mind. 4) The 2.5T is outstanding in so many areas that a long review was unavoidable.

Of course I could have written a short, quick review based on some hyperbole and audiophile jargon: Amazing. State of the art. Absolutely incredible. Jaw dropping. Digital killer. Stunning. Involving. Exciting. Delicate or powerful as required. Such descriptions, while accurately reflecting my impressions, do not do justice to the 2.5T and do not provide much information that is useful for understanding its salient qualities and for making buying decisions.

Comments similar to the ones made in the previous two paragraphs have also been made in reviews of other excellent high-end CD players. However, what I hear and experience with the NWO-2.5T requires this personal account to go beyond those usual descriptions in order to capture the spirit, the magic, and the subtle nuances that the 2.5T unearths.

First, the listening set up: The Jadis JA80 tube mono blocks drive the modified Watt/Puppies, while the Conrad-Johnson Premier 350 drives the Wilson WHOW sub woofer. The NWO-2.5T feeds the amps directly (no preamp). All interconnects and speaker cables are Kubala-Sosna Emotion series and all power cords are Elrod Statements. Three Sound Application RLS AC conditioners condition the AC juice on three dedicated 20-amp AC lines. The main vibration damping/isolation devices are the latest Critical Mass' (Black Label) Grand Master platforms. The fairly-isolated dedicated listening room (approximately 23.5'x21'x9') has a thick carpet/pad on concrete floor. I'm now in the process of implementing Rives' room treatment design. The electronic equipment is in a separate adjoining room. The speaker cables run through holes in the baseboard between the two rooms. Three small cabinet-style doors between the two rooms provide easy access to three equipment racks. Therefore, CDs could be changed and equipment turned on and off without leaving the listening room.

My musical tastes include mostly classical, traditional and some jazz. The CDs used in this review are too numerous to list. Their variety includes Redbook, SACD, DVD-A, several genres, vocal (solo and groups), solo and small ensembles, chamber and orchestral. As always, the quality of sonic recreation is influenced by the quality of the recording, its mastering and encoding.

Having attended more than 600 live concerts, I have a good idea how various unamplified instruments sound. I am extremely impressed how much closer the 2.5T has come to capturing the soul of so many instruments, including the piano. Accurate rendition of the frequency spectrum, of the harmonic texture, macro- and micro-dynamics, and of the macro- and micro-transients is very important for me. All of these elements are important for creating the illusion of realism. And all benefit from the new levels of information utilized by the NWO.

Lets start with something that heretofore has not been important for me. I am not a typical audiophile. In fact, I don't like the term. I prefer 'musicphile'. Anyway, I normally don't pay much attention to the sound stage and imaging. (That sounds like audiophile blasphemy.) Instead, my attention is more on the musical elements mentioned in the previous paragraph. Having lived with the Wilson speakers for so long, I took for granted excellent sound staging and imaging. I didn't pay much attention to them. But the NWO shook this up for me.

With the NWO-2.5T, the sound stage became explosive; it grabs your attention. On excellent recordings of large orchestras or choral groups (e.g., The Sound of Glory, Telarc, SACD), the side walls disappear creating a perceived stage width greater than 21 feet (the width of the front wall). The front wall disappears revealing a perceived stage depth that can extend at least 30 feet from the listening position; with the instruments at the rear of the stage clearly lit like they have never been before. This is spectacular! The huge sound stage is enhanced by the spot-on focused images of instruments and voices, with clean space between them. The pristine images appear and disappear in choreographed fashion on the stage. These visual images are like the ghosts of Muses dancing in perfect synchrony with the music. It's a startling experience. A wonderful illusion of a visual landscape.

The 2.5T is equally adept at creating a small setting for a soloist or a jazz group and drawing you into an intimate presentation. The real magic for the musicphile in me is not in the visual landscape, but in the sonic one; painted with a palate of rich harmonic textures, dynamic shadings, and nuanced transients. Unlike a mechanically produced sound, an artist imparts his or her humanity into the performance. That makes each performance unique. The subtle variations in the phrasings and articulation, the subtle shadings, nuanced changes, a quiver in the breath at whisper level, etc provide a window into the heart and soul of the performer. That helps us connect with the emotional state of the artist. With the 2.5T, the humanity of the performer comes through, loud and clear. The unique artistic expression of the artist comes through. This is realism at its fundamental level.

Of course such realism requires greater resolution. Lots of details. Information that is intrinsic to the music, to the art and the artist's interpretation. For me, this is important. I'm turned off by detailed reproductions that are analytic sounding. Such presentations are at the expense of music. Worst are the artificial and etchy "enhancements". They take us further from musical realism.

The NWO 2.5T delivers a treasure trove of new musical details. Not just some new detail here and there. I'm talking about continuous unfoldment of information never before heard in my system, which previously included the APL 3910 and the NWO-2.5 (without the T).

With the 2.5T, notes come alive in the room. They have presence and authority. Its easy to hear the note hang and linger in the air, and interact with other notes and the room. Its like when you drop a stone onto the silent surface of a small pond. The whole pond comes alive. There's the impact and the splash; the spreading waves and their interaction with the shore; the interaction of reflected waves with the original ones creates intricate dynamic patterns. That's a visual analogy of the sonic landscape created by the 2.5T. A landscape that is not homogeneous and static. But a kaleidoscope of changing, dancing sonic colors created by the interweavings between the different notes and their interaction with the room and its contents. The mirrored reflection of this sonic landscape creates a rich emotional tapestry in my heart. Flames of feeling flicker and flutter in synchrony with the sonic dance. The music and the listener are one.

In addition to the cymbal's shimmer, on the 2.5T you also hear the complex texture in the expanding shimmering plane that spreads across the room, and the subtle waves undulating within that shimmer. Cymbals, up close and personal.

If the recording faithfully captured the soul of the piano, the 2.5T will set it free in your listening room. In addition to the stricken tones on the piano, you can even hear the subtle sympathetic resonance of other strings. Thus enhancing the harmonic richness. It's as if the 2.5T placed you on the piano bench. ( e.g., The Chopin Ballades, DVD-A, AIX)

The startling transients of the plucked guitar strings make you sit up and take notice (e.g., Flamenco Passion, XRCD, FIM). The explosive bass notes on the drum reveal the shape and size of its body as well as the tautness and complex texture of its membrane (e.g., Super Sound, XRCD, FIM).

In addition to the warm tone of the cello, you also hear its throbbing. That excites a resonance in your heart strings. The special sonic qualities of Yo-Yo Ma's cello, as I remember them from his live performances, are sufficiently preserved by the 2.5T. Likewise the delicacy of Kathleen Battle's silvery, silky-smooth soprano voice, Renee Fleming's sensitivity and enchantment, as well as the artistry of many performers I heard in person in live concerts. Sweet sonic seductions.

The realism is greatly enhanced by the 2.5T's ability to retrieve new ambient information. On well recorded CDs, the ambiance is amazing. On one cut on Proprius' Cantate Domino SACD disc, I am sitting in a huge, tall cathedral with reverberations echoing from its caverns, creating continuousness of ambiance. The reflected words and sounds within the cathedral are clearly intelligible and are seamlessly integrated with the direct sounds of the singer, with stunning clarity. Natural. Realistic. You-are-there realism. You sense the real space of the cavernous cathedral, its rising dome, its nooks and crannies.

You not only hear the ambiance of the room, but of the instrument as well. On the above recording, you hear the architecture of the singer's mouth and throat, and the shifts between different parts of the vocal apparatus as the successive syllables are formed. I feel the muscles in my mouth and throat spontaneously move in synchrony with the singer's. This is palpable realism.

Hearing the singer take in breaths doesn't do anything for me. But listen to Jacintha (e.g., Five Songbirds, SACD or Redbook, FIM). Hearing the micro nuances and the minute fluctuations in the expiration of her breath as it traces out her words gives clues to the emotional impulses of the performer. It strengthens my emotional connection. With enhanced empathy, my heart floats like a feather on the breath of the performer. Magic. Instant musical nirvana.

Equally impressive is 2.5T's sonic resolution in the temporal domain and dynamics. It reasonably reproduces the power and dynamism of an orchestra as well as a quiver in a whisper. Transients are clean, crisp and quick. Sharp like in live presentations, without being piercing. All achieved with silky smoothness.

I'm cautious when a reviewer describes the sonics as being smooth because that usually means the micro-life of the music was smoothed out to produce a more homogeneous sound; the fine details in both the frequency and temporal domains was leveled to produce unnatural smoothness. The result is smoothness and hardness of chrome metal instead of the smoothness and delicate feel of silk velvet fabric.

To attain visual smoothness in a digital photo, you increase pixel density to get rid of the pixelated effect. And, to obtain smoothness of visual motion in a video, you increase the frame rate. Similarly, to achieve natural smoothness in the flow of the musical reproduction, you need more information. The PRAT and fluidic flow of music that so captivated me by the Jadis JA80's presentation is significantly enhanced by the NWO. The smoothness of that mellifluous flow is not accomplished by leveling off the details, but by reproducing them. Even minute shadings of dynamics and transients are not only discernible, but palpable. A life-like presentation of sonic refinement. Soothing to the Soul.

Given that the NWO-2.5T is outstanding in so many areas, it is difficult to summarize its accomplishments. The major ones would include the level of realism it achieved in its presentation of rich harmonic texture, wide ranges of dynamics and transients, and the phenomenal sound staging and imaging illusions. Equally important is its realism in recreating the venue, the art and the expression of the artist's creative act. That is the Holy Grail of musical reproduction.

No review is complete without addressing the shortcomings of the component and suggestions for improvements. With the 2.5T, that has proved to be a challenging task. Initially, I had two major criticisms. Out of the box, it was "shock and awe" experience. "Awe" because it's outrageously excellent elements were overwhelming. And "shock" because it had an aggressive, in your face, presentation. However, after 60 hours of burn-in for the Redbook DACs, its aggressive nature began to improve noticeably in stages, until about 250 hours. By then, there was an excellent and natural balance between a laid-back presentation and a forward one. Perfect for my tastes!

The second major initial criticism was the limited bloom in the harmonic envelope. It was like looking at an exquisite virgin rose bud with its petals tightly bound, hiding its inner essence and depriving me the experience of its alluring aroma. It took about 160 long hours of burn-in before the treble began to open up. It was a tough wait. Around 190 hours, the sweetness and delicacy began to evoke my memories of live performances. By 250 hours, I was enjoying a whole bouquet of sonic sensations. A similar long burn-in process for SACD produced an even sweeter bouquet. Finally, I repeated the process for DVD-A. Ahhh...yes. That is special!

After burn-in, two minor imperfections came to mind: I thought the bass region needed a bit more clarity and the treble was a touch too analytic for my taste. On a whim, I decided to change the 12AX7 tubes in the Jadis JA80. BINGO. Instant improvement in the clarity and cleanliness of bass textures. And, the clarity and palpability of the recording room improved. Being on a roll, I opted to also change the 12AU7 tubes on the Jadis. POOF. The touch of analytic sound vanished. Oh my...the venerable JA80 is capable of much more than I thought. I then proceeded to scour all major tube vendors and auctions, and stocked up on better tubes to ensure the magic will last my life time. My humble advice based on my personal experience: If you notice a problem with your 2.5T, first make sure its fully burnt-in and then try upgrading the rest of your system.

Then came the nit picking phase. Once I noticed the massed string section in an orchestral selection was a bit steely. I tried another CD with massed strings. No problem there: silky-smooth seductive strings with a bloom I would like to pollinate other recordings with. On another orchestral selection, I noticed some congestion. Again it was the recording/mastering/encoding problem, not the NWO. After a few months, I threw up my hands and thought: "I've done my due diligence for this review, now let's get back to just enjoying the music."

Does the 2.5T have meaningful imperfections? Possibly, but I haven't found any yet that offend my tastes. Can its sound be improved? Yes. Go to a real live concert. I suppose if it's possible to get more of the same without compromising the superb balance of the NWO-2.5T, then yes. (See the last paragraph below.) But please don't ask me for possible improvements while I'm in a trance of this (ahem.......or any other) great euphoric experience. I only want it to last!

OK, but is it worth the price of admission? (That's like asking is Nirvana worth it?)
For me, this was a serious decision. Being a university mathematics professor, my financial pockets are not deep. I didn't have discretionary 25K burning a hole in my pocket. At the time, my cash-flow could not cover the full amount. However, based on my satisfying experience with the APL 3910, NWO's excellent specs, and the many exuberant reports about the NWO, I was inspired with some help from a home equity loan to get the NWO. Was that foolish? Yes. Would I do it again? Absolutely!!!

Just as I'm putting the finishing touches on this review, the news came that Alex Peychev, the genius behind the NWO, has a prototype of an upgrade to the 2.5T. The NWO-3.0GO. Like the 2.5T, the 3.0 uses the chassis and the superb VRDS-NEO transport of the Esoteric UX-1 or X-01. Everything else has been replaced by Alex's original design including the master clock, boards, tube output stage and AKM DACs--20 per channel!! See aplhifi.com for further details. The 3.0 is based on the new 32-bit AKM DACs. Several lucky people who have heard both versions, report that the 3.0 is a major improvement on the 2.5T!! How? I can't imagine! But this I know. Mr. Peychev is on a relentless journey toward digital perfection. Each succeeding iteration I had in my system was a significant improvement over the previous (the original APL 3910, APL 3910 with AKM DACs, NWO-2.5, and the NWO-2.5T). It appears that THE MAN did it again. My 2.5T is in line for an upgrade.
Interesting view on room treatment, and one shared by both Gordon Rankin and Charles Hanson. Both of these guys, after I asked, don't use treatment at all. They both prefer lively, minimally damped if at all rooms. I am very interested in trying out he DAC portion of Alex's player

Hey David, good to hear from you. I recall you were a fellow Temptations owner before you switched to the MBL's....hope you are enjoying them.

I got close to switching out the Temptations as well, but took a pause as I knew I'd be moving shortly (and shortly is now...I move out of my Boston house on the 27th and head to the southeast).

I think Gordon and Charles have it dead on...I've now done two dedicated listening rooms...the first with heavy use of tube traps and my current one with ARS treatment which uses less absorption than the tube traps, but still a reasonable amount. My next room will be very live, no carpet on the floor, maximum use of diffusion espcially at the first reflection points and helmholtz resonators to take out the axial room modes.

Good luck with your DAC trial.
David, Congrat's on the 3.0, glad to hear your thoughts.

my 3.0 unfortunately, will not be ready for a few more months, Alex is backlogged, and I am waiting impatiently for Brent to tell me it is time to ship back, for nthe upgrade.

David Shapiro, Let's get together when I get it back.
Earflappin, my 3.0 also sounded great out of the box but continued to improve a very little at a time. At about 230-240 hours (redbook) it seemed to bloom a little more noticably and then seems pretty set at 260 hours. I then switched to sacd after 260 hours pcm and only have 60 hours so far.
I really, really love this player.

My 3.0 (upgrade) is arriving in one week... I cannot wait!
Frank, are the time you mentioned with the use of the Isotek CD or without?