Two-box players are now ¬de riguer¬ in the high-end sector, but it's not simply a case of 'more is more'. Just as we learned many years ago about splitting integrated amps into pre/power separates, so do CD players benefit from having separate chassis for transport and electronics. To dismiss in this first paragraph those of an anti-tweak mien who want to argue about it, please note that merely dedicating separate power supplies to each stage will have an immediately apparent sonic benefit. Add to that the isolation of stages which might otherwise interact and you have the sort of upgrade which you don't equate with magic sprays and multi-coloured cables.
It would have been enough, then, for Madrigal to split the Proceed PCD into two halves and leave it at that. After all, the one-box version has been a big hit in audiophile circles, and you
don't have to go far at a CES to see it in use in other manufacturers' rooms; a two-box version with only marginal improvements would be a player to behold. But the resultant components, the PDP Digital Processor and the PDT Digital Transport, are more than a two-chassis PCD with an extra power supply.
PROCEED DIGITAL TRANSPORT (PDT)
The PDT looks exactly like the PCD one-box player, not surprising as it employs the same fascia, chassis and transport; you'd have to look at the back to find any external differences. Some parts are more highly specified to improve the digital signal quality, and the changes address requirements which are a part of all CD player design but are of even greater importance for stand-alone transports. It's an issue I'll address further on, but suffice to say that it's far more difficult to know how a transport will perform when the designer has to accommodate a number of unknown outboard D/A converters rather than a known, on-chassis D/A section.
In essence, the tailoring of the PDT includes active circuits used in conjunction with a pulse grade matching transformer to ensure clean and stable output with precisely defined digital
transitions. Aside from the general improvements related to noise, this also helps to produce a better interface with the PDP Digital Processor; Madrigal points out that the design is – naturally – closely related to the receiving stage of the PDP.
It will also mean that the PDT transport will probably work better with other brands of D/A converters than would the less-accommodating transport sections of one-box players with
The PDT, like the PCD, is a minimalist player with an uncluttered front panel; keypad entry controls are found only the hand-held remote. But operationally it's like no other player I've used, Madrigal having dismissed entirely the Japanese (or Swiss) approach to ergonomics and user/hardware interaction. Instead of 'high tech' precision, the PDT has a soft feel and you sometimes wonder if you actually pressed the buttons.
They're lozenge-shaped and of the 'dead flesh' variety, with the feel of the controls like that of a hand-held remote rather than fascia-mounted switches; look elsewhere if you want movements which connect with a distinct click. You'll soon get used to it, but the two-step sluggishness of the disc tray – its heavily-damped movement causing the deliberate hiccup – will shock those used to trays which move like a VATman reaching for a cheque.
The choice of functions is fairly complete, though the fast scan (in both directions) is muted, making it useless if you want to cue by ear rather than read-out. I'd also have preferred various options of elapsed time readings instead of only the elapsed time of the track being played – an essential for those lawbreakers who copy CDs on to tape and don't want the music to overrun the tape's length.
The only control which needs any explanation – also on the PDP Processor – is the standby. Both pieces require unbelievably long warm-up times, so long that I won't even tell you for fear
of yet another diatribe from Baxandall, but let's just say that it involves your calendar rather than your watch. Madrigal wisely suggests that you leave the mains switched on at all times, via the primary switches at the rear of each unit, using standby to put it into a 'semi-off' position. With standby engaged, only the main circuits remain at operation-ready level. Coming out of standby with the units fully warmed, I detected no time lag for the player or the D/A to reach an optimum state.
At the back, the PDT sports just what you'd expect – a mains cable, the aforementioned on/off switch, and a fuse-holder – but the coaxial digital output socket isn't the only way to access
signals. No, Madrigal – like most American high end CD builders – did not include optical output; that's still regarded as only a cut above doggie-do in the USA. Instead, the Proceed sports an XLR-styled ¬balanced¬ digital output, wherein lies yet another tale.
The unusual shape of the PDT – a squarish frontal aspect and a deep chassis – is a love/hate feature. I find it a refreshing change from yer basic 430mm stuff, and it struck me as a perfect
choice to mate (aesthetically) with the similarly shaped Primare electronics. Well, it would be a perfect match if it were black instead of the fetching Nextel-ish grey. As it and the PDP each
measure 214mm wide, side by side they'll still fit into the shelf space allocated for one 430mm component. (And we should all thank Naim and Mission for showing us that a couple of 'half-width' components can be mixed with exiting full-width units.) The PDT stands 227mm tall while the the PDP (and yes, I am getting fed up with these unimaginative and confusing acronyms) stands 87mm tall, so they do look a bit odd as neighbours.
But the physical structures of both the PDT and the PDP are not afterthoughts. Heavy gauge steel is used throughout, attention was paid to the thermal behaviour of the materials, and the
company spent much time and money researching the effects of circuit board location. All are positioned as much for sonic reasons as for constructional or practical purposes, among the
benefits being minimal use of wire and ultra-short paths. But it did result in a lot of empty spaces, hence the large chassis.
With this unique topology, a question (from the houseproud) is begged: How long before Madrigal produces pre-amps or power amps to stack with the PDP?
PROCEED DIGITAL PROCESSOR (PDP)
So good is the isolation between the two pieces that you can place the transport on top of the PDP without any deleterious effects. The PDP, too, has a clean fascia – what D/A converter
hasn't? – bearing only a window with a read-out displaying sampling frequency, four LEDs to indicate which input is in use, an LED to indicate whether or not your disc was recorded with
pre-emphasis, an input selector button and the standby switch.
The only complaint I can offer about the ergonomics is that the input selector works sequentially, in a 1-2-3-4 pattern. This makes A/B auditioning a pain in the tush, especially since there's a mute/delay as well when you go from input to input. To A/B unbalanced v balanced connection – balanced operation is only on 'Source 4' – you must use either 'Source 3' or 'Source 1' to minimize the lag. Everything else is automatic, though (not having a DAT recorder nor access to digital broadcasts) I couldn't test the selection of the sampling frequencies.
Read more about the Proceed PCD on Page 2.
The rear features unbalanced phono inputs for Sources 1-3 and XLR connection for input No 4. Outputs include unbalanced phono or balanced XLR, and there's a digital output facility for feeding into a DAT recorder's input. The less said about the latter, the better, especially as Sony's just been made a scapegoat in the USA for daring to sell DAT recorders. As mentioned before, optical output is not available, and even playing devil's advocate with Madrigal's designers couldn't elicit a response which would appeal at least to the marketing men. Just because some people may want to use fibre optics wasn't enough to force Madrigal into fitting a TOSlink socket, and they must be admired for resisting what may or may not be a mere buzzword facility.
The PDP uses two precision 18-bit DACs with x8 oversampling, which tells you straightaway that Madrigal, again in tune with other American high end companies, thinks that it's too early to embrace bitstream. The PDP, like all modern and/or upmarket D/A converters, can be updated for new technology, so Madrigal owners will be able to go bitstream if and when the company feels that the time is right for it.
At the outset, Madrigal makes it clear that the circuit is the same as that in the PCD, but the power supply no longer has to drive a transport, decoder, etc, so the performance is higher
than it would be in shared mode. As with the PDT, extra attention was paid to isolation from microphony, circuit board interaction, magnetic radiation and other ills, the goal yet again to achieve untrammeled digital signal transfer. High quality relays take care of source switching, all chosen for both reliability (10,000,000 operations) and lack of sonic coloration. The selected signal is routed to a computer grade pulse transformer, then to a specially designed receiving circuit which improves the incoming signal by filtering noise and resquaring the DAS signal. This in turn ensures the deliver of a cleaner signal to the D/A stage.
PROCEEDING WITH CAUTION
Here's where I stick my neck out, and not just because I'm going to state quite categorically that I don't give a toss about the 16 v 18 v 1-bit numbers game, oversampling rates into the high three figures or choice of DAC. I don't even care to play around with optical v coaxial. Rather, I've learned a few invaluable lessons because of the Madrigal, the first being the importance of balanced connections with digital signals.
Because the PDT has both phono and balanced XLR outputs, the two can be connected to the PDP for easy comparisons. Switching from one to the other with a variety of discs, I found without any reservations that the differences between balance and unbalanced were far greater than I've heard between optical and coaxial or bitstream and multi-bit. I was staggered to find that balanced operation does for digital signals what it does for analogue, mainly by protecting the desired signal from the noise caused by RFI, mains, etc. But while many will argue that balanced operation in the analogue mode is only readily apparent when dealing with long cable runs, it was apparent in digital with only 1m cable lengths.
Madrigal supplied identical cables differing only in their terminations, so the testing was as fair as can be. Let me assure you that the gains in bass control, ambience, inner detail retrieval and 'better silences' ought to cause a stampede among other manufacturers to bring their balancing acts into the digital domain.
The next lesson I learned involved transport and D/A matching. I tried the two Proceeds together and with other devices, including D/A converters from Marantz (the D/A 12) and Meridian (the ultra-hot 203) and transports from Marantz (CD-12) and Arcam (the transport section of the Delta 70.2). What the experiences illustrated for me were the points first addressed in print by MC in his recent Krell D/A converter review: transport/converter marriages are as system-dependent as cartridge/pre-amp or pre-amp power amp matings.
Example: The PDT sounded better with the PDP and the D/A 12 than it did with the Meridian. The Marantz transport worked better with the PDP and its own D/A than it did with the Meridian. The Arcam sounded best with the Meridian, followed by the Marantz than it did with the PSP or its own on-board D/A section. In other words, trying to review a D/A converter or standalone transport is a useless exercise until you've established absolute compatibility. To clarify the above, the Madrigals were most effectively assessed when tried as Proceed-plus-Proceed, Proceed transport-plus-Marantz D/A 12, or Proceed processor-plus-CD 12
As a package, the two Proceed devices merited high-end status on a number of counts. Imaging was superb, especially in terms of precise instrument/voice location, while the three-dimensional character bordered on the analogue. With the near-a cappella of Poco's 'Keep On Tryin'', it was possible to hear each distinct voice in the multi-part harmony but still as part of a
wall-to-wall chorus. Despite a rather crisp top end, the Proceed package handled the track's sibilance with utter grace.
Presentation was on the forward side, with the Proceed placing the main instruments and voice either on the same line as the speakers or slightly in front of them. With the 203, regardless of the transport selected, the music appeared to emanate from a point just behind the line of the speakers. This, of course, is not so much a value judgement as a tip for systems matching. If you like things up front, go Madrigal. If you need a better sensation of stage depth (especially if you have a small room and must listen in the near-field), the Meridian is to be preferred. The Marantz D/A 12 seemed more like the Meridian in this respect when used with its own transport. With the Proceed PDT into the Marantz converter, the images fell exactly in between.
Trying to form some opinion of the PDT is harder, which gets back to the way we've been spending more time worrying about the converters than the transports which may be used with them. It also explains why Madrigal fine-tuned the transport section of the PCD when turning it into a standalone device. There was simply no way I could get better performance out of either half of the Proceed pairing when I used them with other devices; all I could do was change the sound by producing fairly predictable compromises, eg deliberately recessing the image by moving to the 203.
But this leads me to Lesson 3: while I preferred the PDP overall to any of the converters to hand, I have to make special mention of the sheer brilliance of the Meridian 203, especially in terms of value for money. Even though I couldn't try either of the Proceed units with optical signal transmission (the Meridian's preferred mode of operation if Bob Stuart wasn't jerking our
chains in Chicago), I have to say that even when used in coaxial mode the 203 came so close to the Proceed that guest listeners had a hard time distinguishing between the two.
Everyone agreed that the Proceed had better bass control, the Meridian deeper extension. The Proceed had a more detailed top end, the Meridian a sweeter top. Yet in almost every case the Proceed was preferred. But this is no indictment of the Meridian. It simply took the excellent PDP to show to me and others how remarkable is the #499 Meridian. Why? Because the PDP costs #1395.
As for the PDT, well, I can only repeat that it depends on your choice of D/A converter as to which transport to consider. In the best chicken-and-egg manner, you can reverse it by saying that the choice of converter depends on the choice of transport. In all honesty, I must say that the much older Marantz CD 12 more than held its own against the #1695 PCD, and I much preferred its ergonomics. But – for the umpteenth time – none of the combinations I could create bettered the Proceeds used in tandem.
But it ain't analogue. Sorry if the Luddite in me must bubble back to the surface, but I'm not in the habit of lying to my readers. After all of the CD listening was finished, I played for various guests an analogue front-end costing #425. The response? 'Who needs CD?' This, of course, is not the way to close a review of a CD player, apples'n'oranges and all that. So let me really
upset the apple/orange cart with the following. However delicious the #3090 Madrigal system – and delicious it truly is – I must confess the following: After I finished with the Madrigal, I
switched on – from ice-cold – the CAL Tempest SE II. The ugly, funky old CAL, with a Philips transport you'd swear was made by Trabant and D/A converters old enough to be written about in 'The Anachrophile'. And guess what happened?
'Blew away' would be understatement. 'Massacred' would be too gruesome a description. Suffice to say that even parties with a vested interest in the other players had to respond with a 'Yes!!!'. The only reason they didn't leave in tears is because the CAL costs near to five very big ones.
So that makes the Madrigal a solid bargain in high end terms. It may not be 'the world's best at any price', but I can't think of any digital front-end pairing at the price which will embarrass it.