Getting the most out of thousands or tens of thousands of digital music files in a typical audiophile collection is a challenging job for both hardware and software. The hardware has to recognize and play an increasingly dizzying variety of file formats, likely sourced from multiple devices. The software not only has to organize and display the choices, it needs to make the playback experience enjoyable — or, failing that, at least manageable.
To date, there have been two predominant solutions to this not-going-away-anytime-soon problem. One is to simply use the computer itself as the playback device, connected directly to a larger audio system or to desktop speakers. The other is the media server — essentially a standalone computer-like component with its own operating system, user interface, digital-to-analog converter, and storage, which sits in your audio rack with the rest of your gear.
Bryston has taken a third approach with the BDP-1USB and the BDP-2; both are dedicated digital audio “players” that accept and interpret PCM and DSD files (among many others), and send them on to an external DAC for final output. There is no built-in conversion; their only hardware-facing task is to receive, optimize, and send digital files to your DAC. In the case of the BDP-1USB, which I tested, the output connection to the DAC is via USB only. The BDP-2 has multiple output connections beyond USB, plus more system memory and an optional internal hard drive. Since testing this component, Bryston informs HRAC that the BDP-1USB ($1,795) has been discontinued from the line in favor of the BDP-2 ($3,295). The former is now being cleared out by your local dealer, and with sound quality being identical to the BDP-2, could represent a substantial savings.
What are the advantages to this new-ish type of component? For one, you get choices, particularly of your DAC, which now becomes a separate piece of gear and can be changed/upgraded at will (as long as it accepts USB). For another, you get easy, unlimited storage for your music. Rather than depend on factory or installer upgrades of the hard drive inside the box — as is the case with a typical media server — you can now add as many external NAS drives as you want to your computer setup, with no modification hassles and at significantly lesser expense. Lastly, you get the advantage of a device that’s been purpose-designed to hand over a perfect digital file to the DAC.
In practical terms, that’s a pretty cool job description. Because the BDP-1USB employs its own operating system designed specifically for music applications, there are no questions anymore about whether your computer can (or will) recognize and play a particular a file format. Further, there’s the promise of no more jitter from the optical drive when playing your CD collection — once you rip your discs, the BDP pre-empts this often audible artifact.
Finally, for those who aren’t tech-y but still want to connect their computer to a high-end playback system, there’s no longer the sonic compromise of the typical analog output from a Mac or PC that doesn’t feature a digital connection for audio.
A slim component that in a studio would be called single rack space, the BDP-1USB is a genuinely chic piece of kit. My review sample came in Bryston’s familiar brushed silver, but it’s also available in black. The piece is quite heavy for what it does, with extremely sturdy build quality, heavy gauge all around, and gorgeous precision machining.
On the front panel from left to right, there are two ports to accept USB 2.0 drives directly, followed by a center fluorescent display panel and two sets of navigational buttons; an NSEW group to move among menus; and a set of familiar transport buttons (play, next, previous etc.). In practice, you’ll rarely touch the front-panel buttons, because the BDP’s are generally operated by a web-based interface. Bryston has developed its own, which can work on desktop, tablet, or mobile device. I used the system with Apple gear (desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone), and had no problems to report.
The rear of the BDP-1USB is even more spartan than the front panel, consisting of just two more USB ports, a 10/100 compatible Ethernet port for network connectivity, an RS-232 for hard-wired custom control systems, and in and out 3.5mm jacks for on-off triggers in the same type of environment. The BDP-2 adds SPDIF and AES/EBU outputs, plus a second Ethernet port and 2 more USB connections. While the outside is spare, the heft of the unit gives you some idea of the work that Bryston put into the all-important innards. In particular, the company is proud of its power supply, which it describes as “a linear power supply with a toroidal transformer that supplies the unit with exceptionally well regulated power and extremely low radiated noise.” In the listening, I can vouch for the noise floor, or rather the perceived absence of one — the BDP-1USB was totally dead silent.
What’s the best way to organize a music collection? And what’s the best way to browse it? Has anyone ever come up with a definitive answer? Despite its popularity, iTunes (with its text-driven defaults) probably has as many detractors as fans. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be so many alternative player applications available freely or for sale. Should a music interface lean toward the graphical, like JRiver or Pure Music? Toward genre taste-associations like Roon or Pandora? One that speaks YouTube and other services fluently, like TunesGo?
The utlimate UX/UI for music playback has yet to be invented, and may never be, because people organize their music — at least the music they own — by their own lights. Thus, a vinyl or CD collection might be organized by ABC order, genre, date (of music or purchase), label, collectability, or any number of categorizations that make sense to them personally. Bryston’s included web-based software doesn’t deviate too much from conventional playlist grammar. You choose songs or entire albums from either a flash drive inserted into the front of the unit, or to music from a networked storage drive that appears at the right of the screen. You make playlists at the left of the screen, and with standard transport-type controls, you play your music. The software works identically on computer, tablet, or phone.
Bryston has obviously put a good deal of work into this software, which has to do many more tasks than simply browse and play music. It’s also interface for the setup process, which for the non-techy customer might seem more like an IT experience than A/V. For a user who’s comfortable with computer setup — selecting drives and directories, choosing numerical values from drop-down menus, etc. — this UI, while not especially pretty, won’t be abnormally challenging. However, for those audiophiles more accustomed to Mac-like drag-and-drop, annotated step-by-step installation, or even automatic discovery through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, the BDP setup process might be a bit intimidating. Of course, many Bryston dealers are also custom installers, who will find no problem getting this onto the network and finding your music. Further, Bryston offers a highly accessible customer service department, which is happy to assist with setup or any troubleshooting.
When the BDP finishes booting up, the front display lights up in sexy blue-green fluorescence, signaling that it’s ready to play. The two-line display works as visual feedback during menu operations and as music information during play modes. The software takes you through initial setup for NAS drive connections, as well as the necessary selections as to where your music is located (computer name, drive name, directory name, etc.) and which “audio device” (read: DAC) you’ll be using with the BDP-1USB. For this review, Bryston sent a companion BDA-2 DAC ($2,695), which is a perfect match for the BDP-1USB, operationally, cosmetically, and sonically.
User Experience and Sound
From the standpoint of user interaction, I felt the setup process to be logical, but not particularly elegant. A touch of latency in the experience didn’t help, which might have been mitigated by a newer host computer, as my iMac has graying temples. In some instances, the combination of minuscule time lag and too-subtle graphics led to confusion; one example being the progress bars, which are literally discrete, dash-like bars, rather than the more familiar “waiting” or “loading” UI metaphors of a circular clock countdown or a solid thermometer bar. Minor UI tics like this would ordinarily be small beer, because initial setup doesn’t get performed so many times, but be forewarned that the BDP configuration does not get saved to your host computer, at least so far as I could tell. If its power gets interrupted for any reason — such as when some idiot accidentally flies a drone into your neighborhood power pole, as happened here one day — the unit will have to be configured again.
As previously stated, the BDP-1USB produces no sound on its own; you must use an external USB DAC with it. The BDA-2 that Bryston sent along was absolutely stunning to listen to, and if you’re in the market for a high-end DAC, it really needs to be on your short list for an audition. You can read deservedly enthusiastic reviews of that excellent component here, here, here, and here. Bryston has since released an even newer DAC in the BDA-3 ($3,495), which adds HDMI and DSD capability.
More germane to this review was the experience of selecting and delivering digital music files through the BDP, and whether a dedicated file player might be the best possible answer to joining a computer to a high-end audio system.
I certainly had enough challenges to offer in terms of file handling. In addition to a broad variety of hi-res FLAC files on my NAS drives — 24-bit files sampled at 48, 96, and 192 kHz — I also had conventional 16-bit Red Book files that had been generated from direct CD file transfers and also from iTunes-driven CD rips (not the same thing!). There were also AIF and WAV files from two different pro- and desktop-recording environments, many AAC files at varying bitrates, and MP3 files that had been created through a variety of codecs, some as old as 15 years. The BDP-1USB will also handle DSD files via DoP, up to DSD 128.
Bryston’s graphical interface for playing back these files via my Mac and iOS devices was competent and worked smoothly enough; not really so much of a change of experience over iTunes — which I only keep mentioning because 7 out of 10 music downloads still come from there. There are no distracting “suggestions” as you’ll find in other front ends, and no intrusive linkage to other related music or artists. The right-hand column is where you look for your music; as you add them to your playlist(s), they show up in the left column. The music that’s currently playing is illustrated by the album cover art, artist name, bitrate (useful and interesting), and rudimentary user classification. As you build your collection, you can browse by categories and other descriptors.
While I did not use alternative front-end software with the BDP-1USB, if I owned this unit, I’d look into some of the current (and future) offerings as an option. Other users, with more laid-back listening habits, will find the BDP playback experience no more or less intimidating than picking out and playing a record or a CD. Happily, that’s likely the very goal that Bryston set out for in the course of developing this product. Of course, software changes quickly and easily, and even in the short time since sending back my review sample, Bryston has made new features available.
In summary, I really liked the idea of a dedicated digital-file player like the Bryston BDP-USB1 to bridge my PC and A/V systems. The unit certainly seemed to me to be a superior option over a standalone music server. I felt I had more control over the storage (and storage cost), and wasn’t locked into a single front-end interface. Compared to using the tiny and ultimately unreliable min-TOSLINK port in the back of my iMac, and running an optical digital audio signal more than 25 feet (which I’ve done) to my audio system and a DAC, I felt that I had more stable results, and through the BDA-2, spectacular sound. In fact, I’ll go so far to say as the BDP-1/USB-BDA-2 combo produced the very best digital sound I’ve ever heard in my home system — and that’s from a personal digital-audio history going back to the mid 1980s.
Naturally, much of this was due to the remarkable sonics of the BDA-2 DAC, but I can’t — nor will I — discount the role that the BDP player assumed in feeding the DAC with perfect-as-possible source material. I felt my CDs sounded better as files from the BDP than they did from optical disc player(s) going into my system. Not just perceptibly better — noticeably better. Besides perfect background silence, there was a very natural, analogy-feel of timing ease, with vivid etching around all the instruments (especially percussives) and really fast dynamics, macro and micro. I used the BDP to listen to many tracks that I had recorded myself; some at home, some in the field, some with Grammy-level talent at a legendary pro studio. I knew these tracks like the back of my hand, and hearing them sound as vivid at home as they did through the initial mixing console was genuinely exciting stuff. Let’s put it this way: The BPB made me want to rip my entire CD collection, and no other gear has inspired me to take on that gargantuan task that so far.
Anyone can get away with using a computer directly to play their digital music files into their audio system. Similarly, anyone can take a standalone music server and add it to a high-end system, or kluge together a Mac Mini and some extra parts to do the same thing. At $1,795, the BDP-1USB, if you can still find one, is a significant investment by desktop audio standards, but in the context of a high-end audio system, it may actually be a bit of a steal.
Achieving unimpeachable audio results in a high-end setup is a matter of minimizing or eliminating weak points in the playback chain. The BDP players from Bryston eliminate of one of the most crucial weak points — the integrity of the delivered source material — and lets the rest of your audio system work with data that’s as perfectly intact as possible. Since digital files are an increasingly important part of the music collection experience, a component like the Bryston digital audio player is a product of its time for both today and tomorrow. For both what it does now and what it represents, the Bryston BDP players are enthusiastically HRAC Approved.