While my enthusiasm for the long-discontinued Sony PlayStation 1 remains high (see the July 2008 Stereophile), I freely acknowledge that not every high-end audio enthusiast wants a CD player with an injection-molded chassis, a Robot Commando handset, and a remarkable lack of long-term reliability: Yes, the Sony sounds wonderful, but sound isn't everything.
In 1989, Cambridge Audio, then run by Stan Curtiswho is still active in hi-fi introduced their DAC 1. At about the same time, within a few weeks of each other, Arcam introduced their Delta Black Box and Musical Fidelity their Digilog. I forget who was first among the three. Arcam, I think. But the DAC race was on, led by the British. (There was even a DAC called the Dacula.) US companies got into the DAC race, tooat higher prices, of course.
The speed with which audiophiles have adopted a computer of some sort as their primary source of recorded music might be thought breathtaking. But with the ubiquitous Apple iPod painlessly persuading people to get used to the idea of storing their music libraries on computer hard drives, the next logical step was to access those libraries in listening rooms as well as on the move. A few months back, I wrote a basic guide to the various strategies for getting the best sound from a computer: "Music Served: Extracting Music from your PC." Since then, Minnesota manufacturer Bel Canto Design has released a product that aims to simplify matters even further.
It's been a while since I auditioned a Meridian CD player in my system. I had enthusiastically reviewed the English company's groundbreaking Pro-MCD player in early 1986, and over the years had kept up with the progress they were making in digital playback, either through my own reviews or by performing the measurements to accompany reviews by other Stereophile writers. The 508-24 player, reviewed by Wes Phillips in May 1998, was one of the finest digital products of the 1990s, I thought. But when Meridian began promoting surround sound and DVD-Audio at the turn of the century, their goals became somewhat incompatible with my own. Yes, I can appreciate what surround playback can do, but my own musical life is still solidly rooted in Two-Channel Land.
Most of this column is dedicated to two hi-fi products for the massesnot from Lvov, via Vladimir Lamm, of Lamm Industries; or from Leningrad, via Victor Khomenko, of Balanced Audio Technologies; nor from any other Soviet-born audio hero. (Neither Vladimir nor Victor is on the list of "Name of Russia" contenders for greatest Russian of all time.) Nor from any consumer audio company, but from the world of professional audio. An Iron Curtain almost separates the two.
Last December, when Wadia Digital announced that it was releasing an iPod docking cradle that could access the digital signal before it had passed through the player's own D/A converter, many audiopundits were surprised. I was disbelieving, and nearly told Wadia's John Schaffer that he was shining me on. After all, Apple has tiptoed around the whole issue of consumers being able to digitally copy their iTunes files, going so far as to wrap its iTunes Music Store files in digital rights management (DRM) code.
Even the most savvy Stereophile reader might wonder what a "network music player" is. Linn rightly considers a music server to be a combination of 1) stored digital files, 2) music-management software, and 3) a device that uses #2 to transfer #1 to your hi-fi. What Linn's Klimax DS is is a high-quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that receives digital data through an Ethernet connection rather than optical or electrical S/PDIF or AES/EBU inputs.
How do I get myself into these things? Knowing that I use a Musical Fidelity X-DACV3 D/A processor in my office system and had just auditioned the Bel Canto e.One DAC3 that he'd reviewed in November, John Atkinson asked me to give Musical Fidelity's X-DACV8 a try. I say "asked," but the man does authorize my paychecks, so I acceded, knowing I was painting a giant bull's-eye on my back.
In his July 2003 "The Fifth Element" column, John Marks enthusiastically wrote about the Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 D/A processor and headphone amplifier. Comparing its sound playing CDs with that of a three-times-more-expensive Marantz SA-14 SACD player, he concluded that the DAC 1's "Red Book" performance was at least as good as that of the Marantz, being "slightly more articulate in the musical line, and slightly more detailed in spatial nuances, particularly the localization of individual images in space, and in soundstage depth."
I was stumbling through the Denver Convention Center at CEDIA 2006 when I spotted John Franks, of Chord Electronics, and Jay Rein, of Chord's US importer, Bluebird Music, stranded in the basement purgatory for "niche" products. I couldn't resist asking, "What sin relegated you guys to this little hell?"
"They're cuuuute!" Not a very professional reaction, but what can I say? When the Monster Cable folks pulled out their new Entech Number Crunchers during a recent visit to Santa Fe, I couldn't help myself. I was edging John Atkinson and Wes Phillips out of the way, using my long arms to reach over...gotta get one! There would be time later for the critical evaluation and cool, detached objectivity—first, I had to get one. The Entechs are the Beanie Babies of the audio world
Over the years, I have used and enjoyed in my audio system large, single-purpose components. Each of these chassis has had but one role: preamplifier, amplifier, digital-to-audio converter (DAC), etc. I guess I've been just a little suspicious of products with multiple functions crammed into a single small chassis; I've figured that the designer may have cut a corner that could affect the sound.