Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD/CD Player
I was midway through a set of
military presses when my trainer mentioned a documentary film a friend was making.
"It's about the 50th anniversary of the transistor. He told me there are still people
out there who use the old vacuum tubes, though."
I was laughing so hard I dropped my dumbbells in mid-set.
Yes, there are people out there who still use vacuum-tube technology -- me,
for instance. And not with antique audio gear either, but with an SACD player that neatly
combines "obsolete" devices with that trendy, up-to-the-minute format.
That's right, I got my mitts on a Musical Fidelity
Tri-Vista SACD player.
And, yes, it is the umpty-seventh Musical Fidelity product
I have reviewed. And, yes, there are lots of products from companies I've never spilled a
drop of ink on. But once I heard the Tri-Vista at a fellow reviewer's house, I lost all
sense of "fairness" to other unreviewed products and promptly began a relentless
campaign of shameless groveling that culminated in my receiving one of the scant 800
Tri-Vista SACD players slated for production. Those other products will still be there in
two weeks, but an extremely limited number of these babies will ever see the light of day.
Oh yeah -- I did it for you. Hey, that's the kind of
guy I am.
Escaping the limits of the physical thing itself
The "trivistor" tube -- four of 'em are used in
the Tri-Vista's output stage -- is actually a 5703WB subminiature heater-cathode triode
(Musical Fidelity dubbed it the trivistor so that "Tri-Vista" would echo the
nuvistor's "Nu-Vista" designation). It was developed in the late 1950s by
Raytheon as a tube with unusual resistance to mechanical vibration, impact, and
temperature extremes. It was designed to offer long life -- MF estimates at least 100,000
hours, but points out there hasn't ever been a reported tube failure during the design
cycle and product life of any of the Tri-Vista components yet.
Musical Fidelity claims to have cornered the market on
these nifty little devices. The company assures me that it has enough for its run of 800
SACD players, 500 integrated amps, and 300 pairs of pre- and power amps -- as well as
spare sets for them all. Given Michaelson's projections on the 5703's life expectancy, one
set of spares is considered sufficient.
The Tri-Vista SACD player is a substantial beast. It weighs
just over 50 pounds and it is built like a tank. Its Philips-sourced transport rides on
heavy silver columnar reinforcement rods. The SACD and CD signal paths are kept completely
discrete. The unit uses Crystal's 24-bit DAC bolstered by Burr-Brown's 24-bit/192kHz
upsampling chip. The DAC also employs MF's choke power regulation.
Taking a page from MF's delightful CD Pre 24,
the Tri-Vista also features coaxial and TosLink inputs (including a tape-loop) that allow
you to use the unit's superb DAC for other digital sources.
The big news with the Tri-Vista is its class-A output
stage, however, which employs those little "trivistors." Musical Fidelity likens
the Tri-Vista's output stage's performance to that of a discrete 5W amplifier. I have no
way to confirm this claim, but the unit sounds beefy and stable, no matter what cable or
input impedance I have fed it into.
As a final embellishment, the unit stands on four glowing
pod-like feet. Upon powering up, these glow reddish-orange; once the output stage is
stabilized, the feet fade to amber. After about 30 minutes, when the unit is thoroughly
warmed up, the feet switch to a calming blue. This sounds tacky, but it's actually pretty
subdued -- and, much to my surprise, the sonic difference between the Tri-Vista's
performance pre-warm-up and once it has achieved cruising altitude is more noticeable than
the changes in foot color.
The Tri-Vista comes with a slim remote that's a substantial
step up from previous Musical Fidelity designs. It controls the SACD player, as well as
the Tri-Vista integrated and MF's tuners. The buttons are easily distinguished by shape
and size, are easy to locate, and are grouped logically.
Experience is never limited
The Tri-Vista's display is large enough to be read
(reasonably) readily from across the room. In its upper left is a compact grouping of
options that reads "Stereo, CD, SACD." A small red LED telltale illuminates the
appropriate format. This is impossible to make out from across the room, but upon reading
a disc's TOC, the display will flash a large print DSD 2/0 or PCM prior to playback.
You don't really need to pay much attention to any of that,
however. The player automatically determines which layer of dual-layer discs to play. If
there's a DSD layer, that's what you'll get -- and since I haven't run across any
dual-layer discs where the PCM layer sounded better than the DSD layer, I've never even
bothered to see if you can force it to play a different one. (I just went and checked: you
Of course, there are two playback options the Tri-Vista
doesn't give you: you can't play DVD-Audios and you can't play multichannel SACDs (not as
multichannel discs -- you can play the two-channel layer, natch). I don't mind either
sacrifice, to tell you the truth. I was underwhelmed by my exposure to DVD-A of all
stripes and, although I enjoy multichannel home theater, multichannel music has not seemed
as important to me as, say, great two-channel CD and SACD playback. You may well have a
different set of priorities, especially when paying $6500 for a digital disc player -- but
determining what you need (as opposed to what you'll settle for) is part of every
Take it to the limit
It's always possible that some canny musician will create
an aural art form that requires multichannel music playback, but until such a time, I'm
happy with the few hundred thousand Red Book CDs and the 1000 or so stereo SACDs that will
play on the Tri-Vista. Especially when they sound as good as they do through that machine.
I loved the Nu-Vista 3D CD player, but the Tri-Vista is a huge step forward sonically.
The first time I heard it, I fell in love with its warmth
and easy musicality. Well, I say that now, but honesty compels me to say that, as much as
I liked those qualities, I didn't entirely surrender to them. Initially, I felt something
was missing -- a sense of excitement, perhaps, or some small degree of grit, of
Then I played a different disc. I don't remember what the
first few discs I auditioned were, but they were probably promos sitting in my
to-be-played pile. When I cued Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men's Out In California
[Hightone HCD 8144], my perceptions changed completely.
Maybe the Tri-Vista finally warmed up, but I think what I
heard was the difference between an average CD and an exceptional one. The Tri-Vista will
allow most CDs to sound pretty good, but its ability to differentiate between the
average and the way above average is remarkable.
The Alvin disc had real bass, tons of presence, and
a level of energy that was electrifying. Sitting down was not an option. I was
punching the air, playing air-guitar, juking and jiving around the listening room -- I did
everything but hold a lit Bic lighter over my head for the "Free Bird" encore.
This performance was a noticeable improvement over that of
my Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 3D CD player -- it sounded rounder, warmer, and more
specific. At the same time, the Tri-Vista sounded more spacious, but not with generic
spaciousness, rather with a fleshed-out sensation of a specific acoustic space. Even more
startling was the degree to which the Tri-Vista revealed a CD's harmonic rightness -- it
has a beautifully meaty midrange -- that the Nu-Vista alluded to but never completely
delivered. One of these days I'll actually pay off a component purchase before I discover
the unit that will ultimately replace it (at least I hope so). Not this time out, however.
But wait, I haven't even mentioned what the Tri-Vista will
do with an SACD yet.
I like the sound of DSD. I was dragged, kicking and
screaming, into the digital age. In fact, I returned my first CD player as defective, so
convinced was I that the new format couldn't possibly sound that bad. But SACD is
different from the early days of PCM -- it even makes a jaded skeptic like me purr
But SACD through the Tri-Vista is even better. The best
sound I've heard from a DSD source was in Classé's room at the HiFi Show & AVEXPO
2002, where Tony Faulkner was playing his DSD masters through tens of thousands of pounds
worth of dCS processing. The Tri-Vista, sadly, doesn't approximate that -- but an
SACD is several steps further from the master tape than, umm, the master
tape, so what do you expect?
But crikey, SACDs taken from DSD masters sound more like
the master tape than anything we audiophiles have ever been able to buy for under $20.
Telarc's remarkable recording of Handel's Music for the
Royal Fireworks and Water Music [Telarc SACD-60594] with Martin Pearlman and
Boston Baroque demonstrates pure DSD sound with a vengeance. The music, of course, is
tremendous fun and the ensemble attacks it without any of the scholarly reserve that mars
so many period performance discs. It has replaced my long-time favorite LP of the Water
Music featuring Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, principally because the
playing is so assured that no excuses need be made for its use of period instruments, but
(may Michael Fremer forgive me!) also because its recorded sound is even more
"analog" than that of the L'Oiseau Lyre LP.
How can this be?
Well, as much as I still love my LPs and as much as I still
get a kick out of their sound, I think that certain audiophiles have gotten mentally lazy
about the whole "sound" thing. They still speak of "tube" sound and
"solid-state" sound -- even though there can be more difference between two tube
preamps or two solid-state preamps than between the offerings of companies such as
Conrad-Johnson and Ayre. The whole analog versus digital question has taken on some of
that mental laziness, too.
I've been as guilty of it as anyone. In fact, like the
tube/solid-state schism, there was once a great deal of truth to the dichotomy.
But digital has gotten a lot better and the old description
of the "sound" of digital as disconnected, sterile, and flat no longer has the
credence it once had. High-resolution digital, especially DSD, has all of the warmth,
liquidity, and depth that the only the best analog used to offer.
The Handel disc, for example, is spacious and focused, but
even in its two-channel mix (it also features a six-channel version) it shows immense
image specificity -- the sort of soundstaging that digital was never able to deliver even
ten years ago. And the tonal balance of the disc is a masterpiece of subtle timbral
shading -- the bassoons and brass give the disc weight and authority, but even the
subtlest string tonalities (the second viola lines, for instance) are both clearly
distinct and completely integrated into the ensemble. And then there's the decay --
the hall sound -- which informs and anchors the performance.
Another Telarc gem is the new disc of mountain-themed
Hovhaness (Mysterious Mountain; Hymn to Glacier Peak; Mount St. Helens;
Storm on Mount Wildcat [Telarc SACD 60604]) by Gerard Schwartz and the Royal
Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. It's a horse of a completely different color. Where the
Handel disc is frothy, light, and fun (and intimate, recorded in Worcester MA's
150-year-old Mechanics Hall), the Hovhaness is huge, bold, brash, and powerful (and
equally strongly informed by the acoustics of Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall).
This disc makes a strong argument for the depth and power
of Hovhaness' work -- he believed that mountains represented "symbolic meeting points
between the mundane and the spiritual world" and his compositions capture that
combination of spirit and the world made flesh. Mount St. Helens (Symphony No. 50)
is famous as an audiophile showpiece, but Schwartz and the RLPO bring out its deft
treatment of the natural world prior to the volcanic eruption -- a depiction worthy of
comparison with those of Mahler and Beethoven.
The disc's high point for me is embedded in the second
movement (Love song to Hinako -- Andante espressivo) of Hymn to Glacier Peak
(Symphony No. 66). Written as a Mother's Day present for his wife, a coloratura soprano,
it presents solo flute and oboe soaring above pizzicato strings to G above high C (very
much an evocation of a coloratura voice). Even without the movement's name, one would know
it for a declaration of love in a heartbeat.
There is, however, a limit at which forbearance ceases
to be a virtue
Did I forget to praise the sound of the Tri-Vista? Heck yes
-- that's pretty much the story here. As much as I love hardware, I love music more;
listening to the Tri-Vista, I tend to lose focus on the gizmo itself and devote all my
attention to the music. That is, after all, the reason we gearheads say we're in the hobby
in the first place.
And I suspect it's true, it's really true -- only we love
too well sometimes. We hear recording imperfections, performance flaws, the inability of a
mechanical device to match the grace, the luminous beauty of live music and we lose sight
of why we came to audio in the first place: we begin to confuse the postman with the
letters he carries.
The Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD/CD player is one of the
few products I've heard that makes me forget about the delivery system entirely. Whether
listening to Red Book CDs or two-channel SACDs, it delivered music in a way I found
completely satisfying. PCM or DSD, it delivered high-resolution digital in a way that, in
my experience, only a handful of extremely high-priced alternatives have bettered.
It ain't all that cheap itself -- but it's cheaper than
anything I've heard that's better and better by a long shot than anything else I've heard
that's competitively priced. That's cold comfort to those of us who can't afford it, I
suppose, but it should be a call to arms to anyone who can.
Only 800 lucky listeners will get to own one. If you could
be one of them, don't hesitate for a minute -- audition the Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista
SACD/CD player immediately. Heck, if I manage to ditch my trainer and find a few other
austerity measures, I might even manage to join the elect myself.
Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista
Price: $6500 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
Musical Fidelity Ltd.
15/16 Olympic Trading Est, Fulton Road
Phone: (44) 208 900 2866