In his bimonthly column, "The Fifth Element," John Marks has tried to identify pro-audio components that would be of interest to audiophiles. In his June 2005 episode, John wrote about Grace Design's m902 D/A headphone amplifier ($1695), the Colorado company's replacement for the 901, which had long been a favorite of his. Changes include: the handling of single-wire sample rates of up to 192kHz; unbalanced analog outputs, controlled by the front volume control, to allow the unit to be used as a preamplifier; a cross-feed processing circuit licensed from www.meier-audio.de; power-supply revisions; and the provision of a USB digital input, in addition to S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and TosLink.
Looking at all of the high-end headphones and headphone accessories available today, it's difficult to even remember how barren the head-fi landscape was in the early 1990s. Back then, headphones got no respect, except for exotic, expensive electrostatic models, yet most of the world listened to music through headphones all the time, mostly through crappy cans connected to portable players. (Well, maybe it wasn't that different a landscape.)
I'm beginning to understand why some people enjoy writing about crazy tweaks like electron counseling and magic listening trousers: When an idea is that new, it brings with it the chance for some gifted but heretofore unappreciated journalist to rise through the ranks and describe it to an anxious world. By contrast, when a defeated and baggy old establishment writer sets out to describe a CD player or amplifier, the product is surely the millionth such thing to come down the pike, and before long the readers complain: We used to like you, but you don't try very hard to excite us anymore.
The X-DAC v3 replaces Musical Fidelity's Tri-Vista 21 DAC, which is no longer in production, although you might find some on dealer's shelves. The Tri-Vista 21 used two pairs of subminiature 5703 WB military tubes in the analog output stage. MF's Antony Michaelson called this Cold War tube, which is no longer made, a trivistor. The Tri-Vista 21 was last seen selling for $2395.
Usually, a Stereophile "Follow-Up" follows up (duh!) a full review of the component in question. This review, however, is intended to flesh out a cryptic comment made by Wes Phillips in April's "As We See It": "When Apple introduced its AirPort Express wireless multimedia link," Wes wrote, "it even included a digital port so that an audiophile—such as Stereophile's editor—could network his system, using the AE to feed his Mark Levinson No.30.6 outboard D/A converter. 'Sounds okay,' deadpans JA."
I feel privileged to have followed the remarkable evolution of digital processors over the past four-and-a-half years. Since my first digital review—a survey of three modified CD players back in August 1989—I've been fascinated by the developments that have inexorably improved the quality of digitally reproduced music.
Giuseppe Verdi gave the world more than two dozen operas, some good sacred music, and one string quartet. He also provided the young Arturo Toscanini with one of his first big breaks—conducting the singing of "Va pensiero" at his burial procession—and gave the flagship consumer product from England's dCS Ltd. its name. That the latter two gestures were posthumous and unwitting does nothing to diminish their poetry.
It's hard to know what the best strategy is for digital upgrades. Maybe you bought your first CD player when you became convinced that the format was going to succeed, and it seemed that players were about as good as they were going to get. Some time later, you tried one of the new outboard digital processors, and the sonic improvement was such that you just had to have it. Then you replaced the player itself with a CD transport, so you could benefit from improvements in servo control and digital output circuitry. At this point you were generally happy with your digital front-end—until you read about how 16-bit DACs (which is what your processor had) were old hat now that 20-bit DACs were available. But alas, your processor couldn't be upgraded, and was worth maybe 30% of what you'd paid for it. So you took a loss and bought a new-generation digital processor, and things were fine and dandy...for a while.
California Audio Labs is a child of the digital age. Originally, they made a noise by offering modified CD players with tube output stages, a practice for which I found no intellectual justification. On the other hand, the results were successful, even if (probably) due to the CAL units' softening of the harshness of early digital sound.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised when I first spied the prototypes for Sonic Frontiers' luscious new digital combo, the Transport 3 CD transport and Processor 3 D/A processor, at HI-FI '97 in San Francisco. After all, this is the company whose meteoric rise from an electronic parts-supply outfit run out of president Chris Johnson's basement, to a large factory pumping out an impressive array of entry-level to crème de la crème tube electronic components, has elevated Sonic Frontiers to front-line status among high-end manufacturers.
Sony Classical's head of engineering, David Smith, is a man whose opinions on sound quality I have come to respect. So when David e-mailed me a year or so back, enthusing over a new DAC he'd heard, I paid attention. When Lavry Engineering contacted me about reviewing their DA2002, I didn't need much persuading.
Without having intended to, I seem to have collected several "statement" products. I've already reported on the Weiss Medea and Theta Digital Generation VIII digital-to-analog converters. I saw and expressed interest in the Nagra DAC at the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show, when prototypes of it were shown along with a forthcoming multichannel version, the Nagra Digital Audio Processor (DAP). The two units are based on the same chassis and interface, the DAP including additional modules and processing.
We audiophiles are ever hopeful that, however satisfying our present equipment and setup, we can achieve even greater enjoyment with a tweak or an upgrade. And we never stop: It was only 16 years (and three turntables) ago that I bought what I declared would be my last turntable, and there's no doubt that this "dead" format has improved substantially since then. Now, even as we make another (but less paradigm-shifting) format transition, from CD to SACD and DVD-Audio, new two-channel DACs continue to appear that show us how far we still are from wresting all the music from the original "Red Book" 16-bit CD format. I reviewed the wonderful Weiss Medea DAC in February 2003, and there are still on my auditioning rack are two more Swiss DACs that might redefine the category: the Orpheus 1 and the Nagra DAP.