Digital Processor Reviews

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John Atkinson Posted: Feb 06, 2013 4 comments
As I wrote in my review of the Bricasti M1 D/A processor in February 2012, it seemed a good idea in the late 1980s: upgrade the performance of your CD player by feeding its digital output to an outboard digital/analog processor. British manufacturer Arcam, one of the first companies to see the opportunities in this strategy, introduced their Black Box in 1988. When I reviewed the Black Box in February 1989, I found that its low-level linearity was among the best I had measured at that time for a product featuring the 16-bit Philips TDA1541 DAC chip set. However, that linearity still wasn't very good in absolute terms. Back then, it required heroic and expensive engineering to obtain D/A performance that did justice to the 16-bit CD. These days, however, the semiconductor foundries produce a plethora of relatively inexpensive D/A processor chips that both handle 16-bit data with ease and wrest full resolution from 24-bit data.
John Atkinson Posted: Dec 28, 2012 7 comments
Most reviews are straightforward. One preamplifier or power amplifier replaces another. DACs are swapped out. A new pair of speakers takes up residence in the listening room.

But some products demand a complete revision of a system's architecture. Such was the case with Devialet's D-Premier ($15,995). Not only is this French product an integrated amplifier, with phono and line analog inputs; it has digital inputs and an internal D/A section.

John Atkinson Posted: Nov 05, 2012 4 comments
Since its founding in 1993, Colorado-based Ayre Acoustics has made its name with amplifiers and preamplifiers based on truly balanced, solid-state circuitry that didn't use the ubiquitous panacea of loop negative feedback to produce linear behavior. Their first digital product was the D-1x DVD player, reviewed for Stereophile by Paul Bolin in February 2003, which offered unusually good video performance. The D-1x was followed by the C-5xe and DX-5 universal players, respectively reviewed by Wes Phillips (July 2005) and Michael Fremer (December 2010). But the most intriguing digital product to come from Ayre was the QB-9 digital processor. Reviewed by WP in October 2009, the QB-9 has just one input, USB, and uses Gordon Rankin's proprietary Streamlength code to give asynchronous operation, which in theory offers the best jitter suppression. "The QB-9 isn't a computer peripheral," said Ayre's marketing manager at that time, Steve Silberman. "It makes computers real high-end music sources"—a statement with which WP agreed.
Jon Iverson Posted: Oct 07, 2012 6 comments
The audiophile does not pursue music reproduction because it is useful; he pursues it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If music were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and if music were not worth knowing life would not be worth living.

My apologies for corrupting the well-known statement by French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré (1854–1912), in which he described his relationship with science and nature. But substituting audiophile for scientist and music for nature, I feel the sentiment expresses what drives many audiophiles to the extremes for which mere mortals often chide us.

Art Dudley Posted: Sep 26, 2012 Published: Oct 01, 2012 6 comments
"This product is an industry disrupter."

Thus spoke AudioQuest's Steve Silberman, VP of development, of their brand-new USB D/A converter, the DragonFly. "There are a lot of very good DACs out there," he continued. "There are even a lot of very good affordable DACs. But the problem is, people outside of audio don't want them: They don't want old-style components like that.

John Atkinson Posted: Aug 31, 2012 Published: Sep 01, 2012 5 comments
I was setting up for some musical demonstrations I was to present for a Music Matters evening at the ListenUp! store in Boulder, Colorado, in May 2011. For these events, an audio store invites manufacturers (and the occasional journalist) to demonstrate to local audiophiles the musical benefits of high-end audio playback. In Boulder, I was to share the store's big listening room with Dave Nauber, president of Classé Audio, who had set up a system with B&W Diamond 802 speakers, a Classé stereo amplifier, and a preproduction sample of Classé's new CP-800 preamplifier ($5000), all hooked up with AudioQuest cable. I unpacked my MacBook, with which I was going to play the high-resolution master files of some of my Stereophile recordings, and looked around for a DAC. There wasn't one.
Robert Harley Posted: Aug 17, 2012 Published: Mar 01, 1996 0 comments
With the introduction of Audio Alchemy's Digital Transmission Interface (DTI) more than three years ago, the company created an entirely new category of hi-fi product: the jitter filter. The original DTI was a good start, but didn't always improve the sound of the better-quality digital front-ends.
Sam Tellig Posted: Aug 13, 2012 Published: Jan 01, 2012 13 comments
There's so much uncertainty and confusion surrounding computer audio and high-resolution downloads. Which hi-rez formats will win out? How do you store the downloads you've bought? (Easy. Don't buy them.) How do you access them? Will digital rights management (DRM) cramp your style, or data-storage fees for cloud computing crumple your wallet?
John Atkinson Posted: Jul 27, 2012 Published: Aug 01, 2012 16 comments
When it comes to getting audio from a PC via its USB port, the buzzword du jour is asynchronous. This cryptic term refers to which device has control over the timing of the audio data being streamed from the computer: the computer itself, or the device receiving the data. It might seem logical to have the computer control the timing, but this is not so. When digital audio data are converted to analog by a D/A converter, control over exactly when each dataword is converted is critical for the best quality of sound. Any uncertainty in that timing manifests itself as analog distortion, aka jitter.
Jon Iverson Posted: Jul 06, 2012 6 comments
Who wants only a digital-to-analog converter when you can have a DAC with benefits? How about if those benefits also come with some high-resolution attitude?

That's what I pondered while setting up the NAD M51 ($2000). Sure, it's a basic DAC, but it also has extras—like HDMI inputs, remote-controlled volume, a polarity switch, and one of my favorite features on any DAC: a display that tells you which sampling rate the thing is locked to.

Jon Iverson Posted: May 10, 2012 4 comments
It's common knowledge that manufacturers tune the sound of each DAC model. There are the facts of product design and marketing: inputs, outputs, case materials, price points. After that, what's left are the trade-offs of different circuit designs and filter options, which are chosen with care—each has a subtle yet telling effect on a DAC's sound. Most designers try to go from bits to analog with minimal deviation from perfect. But when you look at the measurements and listen closely, you realize that perfect is elusive. One has to make choices.
Robert Harley Posted: Apr 27, 2012 Published: Mar 01, 1993 5 comments
There are as many ways of designing a digital-to-analog converter as there are engineers. One approach is to select parts from manufacturers' data books and build the product according to the "application notes" provided by the parts manufacturers. This is the electronic equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit.

A more creative engineer may add a few tricks of his own to the standard brew. Bigger and better regulated power supplies, careful circuit-board layout, tweaky passive components, and attention to detail will likely make this designer's product sound better than the same basic building blocks implemented without this care. Indeed, the vast range of sonic flavors from digital processors containing very nearly the same parts attests to the designer's influence over a digital processor's sound.

Bob Katz Posted: Mar 29, 2012 Published: Mar 01, 1988 0 comments
Many years ago I bought the first model of the Audio/Pulse ambience synthesizer. Like many audiophiles, I was convinced (and still am) that the standard two-speaker stereo experience provides an unsatisfying concert-hall impression. But the Audio/Pulse didn't remain long in my stereo system. You see, at best the unit provided a fair reproduction of the sound of my upstairs bathroom, topped off with a nasty flutter echo. I already get that sound every morning in the shower.
Thomas J. Norton Posted: Mar 29, 2012 Published: Nov 01, 1993 0 comments
When a manufacturer sets out to design and build a product, be it in high-end audio or any other field, the final retail price is usually a prime consideration. Parts and assembly are only part of the equation; there also must be enough buyers to amortize the design and development costs. If the product is to be a flagship model—something a company hopes will give a lift to its entire line—engineers will sometimes throw caution to the winds, designing a product without thought to its ultimate price, which is only set after the design is complete. When Madrigal Audio Laboratories set out to design their No.30 Reference Digital Processor, they appear to have chosen exactly this approach.
Art Dudley Posted: Mar 19, 2012 5 comments
Computer audio is more than just a pleasant distraction. For the jaded reviewer, USB digital converters and the like are an escape from that humdrum, if only because they bring with them so many variables: myriad combinations of different platforms, storage devices, operating systems, device drivers, media players, codecs, word lengths, sampling rates, connection protocols, and more. Challenging though they may be, computer-audio products are a tonic for reviewers inclined toward apathy.

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