2012 Recommended Components Digital Processors

Digital Processors

Editor’s Note: The sound of any particular CD transport/digital processor combination will be dependent on the datalink used—see “Bits is Bits?” by Christopher Dunn and Malcolm Omar Hawksford, Stereophile, March 1996, Vol. 19 No.3 (Read Review Online). Unless mentioned, processors are limited to 32/44.1/48kHz sample rates. To be included in Class A+, a digital processor must be capable of handling DSD or 24/96 LPCM data.

A+

Ayre Acoustics QB-9: $2750
The QB-9 is an asynchronous transfer mode, USB-input DAC with Ayre’s minimum-phase digital reconstruction filter implemented in Field-Programmable Gate Array. It uses a Texas Instruments TAS1020B chip, supporting sample rates up to 96kHz and word lengths up to 24 bits. High-resolution digital files “popped with life” and were marked by a natural flow and physical impact that allowed WP to form a deeper emotional connection with the music. JA: “Ayre’s QB-9 is well engineered, offering excellent performance in both the analog and digital domains, and is not compromised by its having just a USB data input.” JI felt the QB-9 exceeded the YBA WD202 and Benchmark DAC1 USB in terms of spatial detail, depth, and width, while adding a touch of seductive clarity. “Wow!” The latest version of the QB-9 uses an XMOS XS-1 microprocessor chip and supports sampling rates via USB2.0 up to 192kHz. Earlier QB-9s can be upgraded for $250. Compared with the Resolution Audio Cantata, the Ayre tended to exaggerate sibilants on some recordings but provided a warmer, fleshier midrange, felt JI. Stereophile’s “Joint Digital Source” and “Overall Component” of 2009. (Vol.32 No.10, Vol.33 No.6, Vol.34 Nos.7 & 11 Read Review Online)

Bricasti Design M1 DAC: $7995
With first-class fit’n’finish and uncluttered exterior design, the dual-mono M1 DAC measures a rack-friendly 17" W by 2" H by 12" D and weighs 12 lbs. It offers four digital inputs (S/PDIF, AES/EBU, BNC, optical) and accepts sampling rates up to 192kHz, but forgoes a USB input, volume control, headphone jack, and remote control. The Bricasti’s fast, detailed, powerful sound made the much less expensive Musical Fidelity M1DAC seem veiled, muffled, and slow, said JM. “The best digital playback I have heard,” he concluded. Compared with the Weiss DAC202, the Bricasti was less forgiving of poorly recorded material, but had bigger, deeper, better-defined low frequencies; compared with the dCS Debussy, the Bricasti sounded very slightly warmer and was very slightly more transparent, said JA, who also praised the M1’s state-of-the-art measured behavior. Bricasti has revised the M1’s original filter set to include eight different options and has made the upgrade available free for all registered owners. (Vol.34 No.8; Vol.35 Nos.2 & 3 Read Review Online)

dCS Debussy: $11,499
The slim, sleek Debussy D/A processor has a digital volume control, offers a full range of digital inputs including a true asynchronous USB port, and uses the latest version of dCS’s Ring DAC. While its USB, single AES, and S/PDIF inputs accept resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz, the Debussy’s dual-AES input can handle 24-bit data at 176.4 and 192kHz sample rates. Though it lacked the sophistication of dCS’s more expensive Scarlatti system, the Debussy had a fast and delicate sound, with powerful bass, dramatically solid, three-dimensional images, sensational rhythmic drive, and outstanding dynamics, said MF: “A very easy and enthusiastic recommendation.” JA agreed: “It was a pleasure to test such a superbly engineered product.” Compared with the Weiss DAC202, the Debussy offered greater resolution, transient snap, and low-bass weight, but lacked midrange warmth and overall body, said EL. Compared with the Bricasti M1, the Debussy was slightly less transparent, said JA. (Vol.34 Nos.1 & 12; Vol.35 No.2 Read Review Online)

Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 4: $799
Designed by Steve Nugent and made in the US, the Off-Ramp 4 USB format converter is housed in a small (4.25" W by 2.5" H by 7.25" D), black-anodized aluminum extrusion with black endcaps. The rear panel has a USB 2.0 port, an XLR jack for the AES/EBU output, an RCA jack for the S/PDIF output, an RJ-45 jack for the I2S output, and a DC input jack. A driver program (supplied) is required for each operating system used by the host computer. Adding the Off-Ramp 4 to his system resulted in increased soundstage size and image focus, said JA, but these results were largely dependent on the source processor’s rejection of jitter. Base price is $799; review sample included the Dual Turboclock option ($700) and Monolith lithium-ion battery supply ($1199). Options: Canare 75 ohm BNC output jack, $20; 5V I2S output capability, $50; Dual Turboclock, $700; Hynes regulator, $300; Monolith LI battery, $1199. About to be replaced by the Off-Ramp 5 with an HDMI output and sample-rate LEDs. A Follow-Up is underway. (Vol.34 No.12 Read Review Online)

Grace m903: $1995
Made in the US, the m903 looks like earlier Grace models, but has a USB 2.0 input and an asynchronous-mode USB converter. It provides balanced and single-ended analog inputs, two sets of line-level analog outputs, and two front-panel headphone jacks. Though it couldn’t match the Antelope Audio Zodiac’s punchy dynamics and speed, the Grace offered exceptional clarity and truth of timbre. Compared to Grace’s m902, the newer version had a similarly warm, rich, full-bodied sound, but added greater resolution and delicacy. “The Grace Design m903 offers remarkable clarity, continuity, and roundness of tone, and is better in almost every way than the m902,” praised JM. (Vol.34 No.12 Read Review Online)

Weiss DAC202: $6966
Made in Switzerland, the DAC202 is a digital-to-analog converter with an onboard volume control, a headphone amp, and a FireWire input. It offers AES/EBU, S/PDIF, and TosLink connections; uses an ESS9018 DAC chip; and can accept data resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz. The Weiss had a smooth, delicate overall sound with a forgiving top octave, but lacked bass extension, jump factor, and involvement, said EL. Nevertheless, he concluded: “I think the Weiss DAC202 can easily offer Class A performance, especially for the audiophile who prizes its graceful, organic musicmaking.” Compared with the Bricasti M1, the Weiss had a smoother overall sound but lacked bass definition, said JA. On the test bench, the Weiss proved the best-measuring D/A processor in JA’s experience: “It just doesn’t get any better than this!” (Vol.35 Nos.1 & 2 Read Review Online)

A

Abbingdon Music Research DP-777: $4995 $$$
Built into a large (17.7" W by 4.7" H by 14.6" D), well-braced, beautifully finished aluminum chassis, the tubed DP-777 is a versatile digital-to-analog processor that incorporates separate chips for handling high-resolution files and “Red Book” CDs. It offers the user choices of: five digital filters (two “Red Book,” three hi-rez), six sampling rates, two jitter-reduction settings, sampling rates up to 192kHz, and word lengths up to 32 bits. There are five types of digital input jacks; two types of analog output jacks; and an optional volume control and analog inputs, to allow the DP-777 to be used as a conventional preamplifier. A Russian 6H11P dual-triode is used as an S/PDIF input amplifier on two of the DP-777’s digital inputs. AD: “The DP-777’s characteristic sound was one of openness, a generous sense of scale, detail without artifice, and a barely perceptible but undeniably consistent timbral warmth.” JA was disappointed by the DP-777’s measured performance in HD mode. (Vol.35 No.3 Read Review Online)

Antelope Zodiac Gold Bundle: $4495
The Gold version of Antelope’s Zodiac D/A headphone amp is housed in a gold-toned, shoebox-sized chassis and can accept PCM digital data sampling rates up to 384kHz. It offers multiple digital and analog input and output options, has a front-panel Mono button, two front-panel headphone jacks, and comes with a stylish, all-metal remote control. Compared to the more expensive Bricasti M1, the Zodiac Gold lacked precision, control, and treble extension, but nevertheless offered a full-bodied, musically satisfying, emotionally engaging sound with a warm midrange and a delicate treble, said JM. Price includes Voltikus power supply ($1000). (Vol.34 No.10 Read Review Online)

Bel Canto e.One DAC3.5VB: $3495
Like other Bel Canto products, the e.One DAC3.5BV is roughly half the width of a typical audio component and boasts a black-painted steel chassis with a beautifully milled faceplate of naturally finished aluminum. It accepts resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz and offers a wealth of inputs: RCA and BNC digital, balanced AES/EBU digital, TosLink, ST fiber-optic, and a single pair of analog RCA jacks. While its D/A section is similar to that found in Bel Canto’s e.One DAC3, the DAC3.5VB has revised jitter-rejection circuitry for improved performance with high-jitter sources. Meanwhile, the optional VBS1 power supply ($1495) provides 12V DC and adds heroic LC filtering and energy storage. EL was most impressed by the Bel Canto’s ability to produce big soundstages with exceptionally quiet backgrounds. Adding the VB-REF power cable ($495) opened up those stages even more, reduced treble grain, and lowered the perceived noise floor. On the test bench, the Bel Canto exhibited high resolution and low jitter. The Bel Canto traded the sweet tone of Weiss’s DAC202 for greater overall clarity and cleaner highs; compared with the dCS Debussy, the Bel Canto lacked some bass, but offered a warmer, more musical sound, with blacker backgrounds and fleshier images, said EL. (Vol.34 No.6, Vol.35 No.1 Read Review Online)

Benchmark Media Systems DAC1: $995 $$$ ✩
Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 USB: $1295 ✩
Benchmark DAC1 PRE: $1595
Benchmark DAC1 HDR: $1895
Features two front-panel headphone jacks, RCA single-ended and XLR balanced analog line outputs that are switchable between line level, trim-pot set, calibrated level, and variable level. Compared to the three-times-more-expensive Marantz SA-14, JM found the DAC1 to be “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.” A terrific value, feels JA, thinking the DAC1 is a great way of getting modern sound from a DVD player or an older CD player. JA discovered superb measured performance in both the DAC1’s digital and analog domains, and decided, “Whether considered as a standalone D/A converter or a versatile headphone amp, Benchmark’s DAC1 is an audiophile bargain.” The USB version adds a USB 1.1 port to take audio data directly from a computer at sample rates up to 96kHz and bit depths up to 24. Additional improvements over the standard DAC1 include: two gain settings for the headphone amp, a defeatable muting of the line outputs, and high-current output drivers for the XLR and RCA outputs. Used as the primary digital source in JA’s system, the DAC1 USB offered a “very appealing” sound, with smoother highs and less grain than the original DAC1. Problems arose with the original sample, however, when using the Benchmark to play back 16-bit files from either a PC or a Mac via the USB connection. Subsequent modification of the DAC1 USB’s firmware has eliminated dropouts of 16-bit audio data below –70dBFS while preserving the Benchmark’s “superbly transparent soundstaging, clean high frequencies, and powerful lows,” said JA. Compared to the YBA WD202, the Benchmark via USB had a slightly more forward, natural, precise sound, said JI. DAC1 PRE adds a pair of unbalanced analog RCA inputs. It offered a sound that was “slightly toward the lean side of neutral,” said ST. In terms of dynamic shadings, tonal color, and control flexibility, the Benchmark’s performance was “remarkably close” to that of the best dedicated line-stage preamps. JA agreed: “As an analog preamplifier, the DAC1 PRE is about as good as it gets, measurement-wise.” The DAC1 HDR offers slightly better build quality than earlier models and adds a motorized Alps volume potentiometer. National Semiconductor LM4562 op-amps are used throughout its analog stage, as well as Teflon RCA connectors. Though it maintained the tonal balance of earlier DAC1s, the HDR proved more musical and engaging, with a bigger soundstage, better solidity and separation of instruments in the stereo image, and better treble resolution, said EL. The Benchmark was tonally similar to the Bel Canto e.One DAC3.5VB, but lacked the more expensive DAC’s high-frequency clarity, bass depth, and soundstage size, felt EL. Compared to the NuForce CDP-8, the DAC1 produced a slightly richer sound with more air and less bite, said WP. Compared with the Peachtree iDac, the Benchmark offered greater clarity and control but was less forgiving of poor recordings, said JI; compared with the Musical Fidelity M1CLiC, the Benchmark offered greater resolution and accuracy. (DAC1, Vol.26 No.7, Vol.27 No.5, Vol.29 No.4, Vol.33 No.11 Read Review Online; DAC1 USB, Vol.31 Nos.1, 7, & 10, Vol.32 No.3, Vol.33 Nos.6, 9, &11 Read Review Online; Vol.34 Nos.6 & 10, Vol.35 No.3 Read Review Online)

Bryston BDA-1: $2195
Bryston’s first standalone DAC is a slim, rugged component with a simple, brushed-aluminum faceplate and eight digital inputs: two S/PDIF optical, four S/PDIF electrical, one AES/EBU XLR, and one USB 1.1 accepting signals with sample rates at or below 48kHz. It uses a Burr-Brown SRC4392 sample-rate–converter chip and a pair of 128x-oversampling, 24-bit delta-sigma Crystal CS4398 DAC chips. With its open highs, detailed imaging, deep soundstaging, and well-defined bass, the BDA-1 offered “the best-sounding digital playback” LG had ever heard in his listening room. Though the BDA-1 measured well overall, JA was puzzled by some very low-level noise modulation in the low treble. Partnered with Bryston’s BDP-1 digital audio player, the BDA-1 produced enormous dynamic range, black backgrounds, and deep soundstages, said LG. Add $375 for BR-2 remote control. (Vol.33 No.2, Vol.34 No.6 Read Review Online)

CEntrance DACmini CX: $795 $$$
With a footprint to match Apple’s original Mac mini, the CEntrance DACmini CX is a solid-state D/A processor, line preamplifier, and headphone amp with an external power supply. Its slim front panel holds an input selector, volume control, and 1⁄4" headphone jack. The DACmini’s AKM 4396 DAC chip accepts signals with word lengths up to 24 bits and sample rates up to 192kHz via its coaxial input, and up to 96kHz via USB. Though it lacked the resolution and bass impact of the much more expensive dCS Debussy, the DACmini offered a big, bold sound that was forgiving of poorly recorded material. Compared to CEntrance’s own DACport, the DACmini offered better low-bass control and greater treble extension, said EL. Available Mods for $99.95 each: black-anodized finish; Headphone Linearity; Rock and Roll; Variable Output. (Vol. 34 No.12 Read Review Online)

Esoteric D-07: $4900
Encased in 5mm-thick panels of sandblasted aluminum, the D-07 is an attractive, solidly built single-box processor with digital-domain volume control, two switch-selectable digital reconstruction filters, and switchable upsampling of PCM data to 2x or 4x PCM or DSD. It offers AES/EBU, S/PDIF, and USB inputs, as well as balanced and single-ended analog outputs and TTL-compatible word-clock input and output. Inside, the AES/EBU and S/PDIF inputs are routed to a high-quality AKM 4114 transceiver chip, while the USB input feeds the popular Tenor chip, which handles only 32, 44.1, 48, and 96kHz data. The D-07’s overall sound was forward, robust, and dry, with a clean midrange, natural instrumental timbres, and superb soundstage definition, said JA. Though the D-07 exhibited mostly excellent measured performance, JA was bothered by its relatively poor rejection of jitter. (Vol.34 No.1 Read Review Online)

Halide Design USB-S/PDIF Bridge: $395
In this utilitarian-looking USB-S/PDIF converter, a 6' USB cable terminates in a 3"-long black aluminum tube with, on its other end, either a 75 ohm BNC plug or an Eichmann Silver Bullet RCA plug. The Bridge gets its 5V power from the USB bus and feeds the USB datastream to a Texas Instruments TAS1020B receiver chip, enabling the Bridge to operate in asynchronous mode without the host computer having to install a driver program. It operated properly at sample rates of up to 96kHz, and produced a very clean datastream free from timing uncertainty; and with its relaxed, grain-free sound, the Bridge excelled at conveying recorded ambience and low-level detail, said JA. (Vol.33 No.12 Read Review Online)

Logitech Transporter SE: $1499 $$$ ✩
Well built, easy to use, and capable of accommodating just about any kind of connection an audiophile might require, the Logitech Transporter Network Music Player (originally called the Slim Devices Transporter) does an excellent job of defusing an audiophile’s resistance to the world of audio servers. It uses AKM AK4396 multibit Sigma-Delta DACs; a word-clock input allowing users to sync it to an external clock source; and decodes WAV, AIF, MP3, WMA, and FLAC files with 24-bit resolution at sampling rates of 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, or 96kHz. Its slick two-part display is almost infinitely configurable and has faux-analog VU meters to monitor the output. Though it lacked some shimmer, physical presence, and dynamic contrast in comparison to WP’s reference Ayre C-5xe, the Transporter provided effortless musicality marked by taut bass, an unforced midrange, and a smooth top end. Compared to Slim’s SB3, the Transporter set music against a darker background, providing more contrast and detail. JA was impressed: Even when receiving audio data over a Wi-Fi network, the Transporter “offers state-of-the-art D/A converter performance,” he summed up, emphasizing the point by buying a sample. Though close in overall sound quality to the T+A Music Player, the Transporter couldn’t quite match the MP’s natural, open top end and tight bass, said JI. One of JA’s long-term references. (Vol.30 No.2, Vol.32 No.8 Read Review Online)

Meridian HD621 HDMI Audio Processor: $2995
Meridian’s HD621 HDMI Audio Processor smoothly integrates six HDMI inputs, HD audio processing, and SD upsampling with any Meridian processor that can handle a Smartlink/MHR, including the G61R, G68, C61R, and the 861. It extracts the PCM audio data from the HDMI input, FIFO-buffers the PCM, and up/downsamples it for output to the main processor. Upsampling is accomplished by “apodizing” filters identical to those used in the Meridian 808i.2 player-preamp. HDMI from the HD621 sounded “more detailed and open” than PCM data via the Oppo DV-980H’s three S/PDIF connections, while “Red Book” CD sounded “superb” through the Meridian. “So rejoice—the HD621 brings HD audio to Meridian systems, and it sounds superb with non-HD sources as well,” said KR. (Vol.32 No.9 Read Review Online)

Peachtree iDac: $999 $$$
Sharing the sleek, retro-modern styling of other Peachtree products, the iDac is a single-box DAC with an iPod dock and remote control. It uses an ESS 9016 Sabre DAC chip, supports all PCM-output audio codecs, and is compatible with resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz (but not 88.2kHz) via USB and up to 24/192 via its optical or coaxial inputs. A rear-panel switch allows the user to choose between non-oversampling and conventional filters. Compared with JI’s reference Benchmark DAC1 USB, the Peachtree had a rounder, more forgiving sound, with an easier, more laid-back sense of space, but lacked soundstage clarity and control. “Peachtree Audio’s iDac is a solid audiophile value,” JI decided. (Vol.34 No.10 Read Review Online)

Wavelength Cosecant v3 USB: $3500
The Cosecant is a single-box digital-to-analog converter with USB data input for use with Macs or PCs. It includes a TAS1020 USB controller chip operated in the much-preferred asynchronous mode, a series of hand-selected tantalum resistors, and a single 6GM8/ECC86 dual-triode vacuum tube. Installation was quick and simple. AIFF files played through the Cosecant sounded “notably clearer and more open” than CDs played through AD’s Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player. Compared to the Wavelength Brick, the Cosecant had “a little more bass depth, considerably more treble air and openness, and a great deal more color,” said Art. “A all the way.” JA found impressive measured performance overall, but was slightly disappointed by the Cosecant’s high-frequency intermodulation performance. “The Wavelength Cosecant is an odd mix of state-of-the-art digital engineering and retro analog audio engineering,” he said. (Vol.32 No.6 Read Review Online)

B

Alpha Design Labs by Furutech GT-40: $525 $$$
The versatile GT40 USB DAC is housed in a handsome aluminum-alloy extrusion and offers a volume control, headphone amplifier, switch-selectable MM/MC phono preamplifier, and convenient analog-to-digital converter as well as digital-to-analog converter. Through its USB input, the GT40 matched the clarity of the HRT Music Streamers, but sounded bigger, more physical, and more open overall, with better definition of individual notes and more natural decays. Its phono stage was similarly big and open, but leaned toward the bright side, said AD. “The Alpha Design Labs–Furutech GT40 is one of those things no one saw coming from any direction: a hell of a good thing,” he concluded. (Vol.34 No.9 Read Review Online)

Arcam rDAC: $479 $$$
The elegant Arcam rDAC is housed in a small aluminum case and uses asynchronous USB technology licensed from dCS. It offers S/PDIF, optical, and USB inputs, and uses a Wolfson 8741 DAC. While its USB input is limited to 24-bit/96kHz sampling, the rDAC’s S/PDIF input can handle resolutions up to 24/192. Compared with Musical Fidelity’s M1DAC, the rDAC sounded a bit livelier and offered more air and detail, said JM. rDAC-kw wireless version available for $599. rWave (USB dongle for computers), rWand (iPod dongle for use with iPhone/iPod), both cost $99. (Vol.34 No.12 Read Review Online)

Bel Canto USB Link 24/96: $249
Made in the US, the USB Link 24/96 USB-S/PDIF converter is housed in a small aluminum extrusion with black plastic endcaps. It has a USB Type B jack at one end, a 75 ohm BNC jack at the other, and includes a 9" length of Stereovox XV2 S/PDIF datalink. Compatible with both PCs and Macs, the USB Link uses the native drivers provided with either operating system; no third-party driver programs are required. The heart of the USB Link is a Texas Instruments TAS1020 chip that converts audio data to i2C format. Partnered with the Bel Canto e.One DAC3, the USB Link produced a natural, engaging sound, but was not as extended, detailed, or forceful as the Ayre QB-9, said WP. When used with a D/A processor offering effective jitter rejection, the USB Link works as promised, but faces strong competition from less expensive alternatives, said JA. Compared to the more expensive Lindemann USB-DDC 24/96 and Stello U2, the Bel Canto’s soundstage was a little flattened, and its sound had reduced LF extension and a slightly less-defined upper bass, said JA. Unlike the Lindemann and Stello, however, the Bel Canto did correctly handle 88.2kHz data. LG uses a Bel Canto to send files from his laptop to a Bryston BDA-1 DAC and feels the overall sound is better than CD. The new significantly lower price is very welcome, though this now doesn’t include the Stereovox cable. The USB Light Link 24/96 ($349; price includes a 2m ST cable) converts USB data to S/PDIF fiber-optic ST format and raises performance to the Class A level. With the Light Link feeding Bel Canto’s e.One DAC3.5VB, EL was easily able to play hi-rez files from his computer with sound quality that matched that of his Bel Canto CD2 CD player. (Vol.32 Nos.5 & 10, Vol.33 No.5, Vol.34 No.6 Read Review Online)

HRT Music Streamer Pro: $499.95
Housed in the same simple, functional, six-sided case of extruded aluminum as HRT’s other Music Streamers, the Pro is painted bright blue and includes a single B-type USB 1.1 jack centered on one end, and two small, fully balanced TiniQ output jacks on the other. It supports all PCM-output audio codecs, and its asynchronous USB input handles resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz. Though its high frequencies were slightly soft and it lacked some soundstage depth and detail, the Pro produced a wonderfully rich midrange with no obvious glare or electronic colorations, said JI. Other than the relatively poor high-level linearity of its output stage, the Pro offered “well-balanced measured performance at an affordable price,” said JA. (Vol.34 No.2 Read Review Online)

Musical Fidelity M1DAC: $699 $$$
The M1DAC digital-to-analog converter uses two dual-differential Burr-Brown D/A chips, has a choke-regulated power supply, and offers coax, TosLink optical, AES balanced, and USB inputs, as well as standard RCA and balanced XLR outputs. While its USB input is limited to 16-bit/48kHz data, the M1 can handle any S/PDIF signal at sample rates up to 192kHz. With its astonishingly low noise floor, the M1 produced outstanding low-level resolution, crisply articulated transients, rhythmic certainty, and tonal purity. “A stunning bargain,” ST decided, adding that this DAC “goes for a song but has a very, very low noise floor. The sound quality is highly resolving and, at the same time, non-fatiguing.” Compared to the Rega DAC, the M1DAC lacked tonal richness but sounded lighter and quicker, with an airier top end and more space between the notes, said ST. The M1DAC demonstrated superb rejection of jitter on all its inputs and offered overall measured performance that was close to the state of the art, found JA. Borderline Class A but “You will need a very, very good system to realize how great this DAC is!” warns ST. Current version has asynchronous 24/96-capable USB input; rating provisional pending Follow-Up. (Vol.34 Nos.3, 5 & 6 Read Review Online)

Musical Fidelity V-DAC Mk.II: $349 $$$
The V-DAC Mk.II is the same size and shape as the original and uses the same Burr-Brown DSD1792 chip and SRC4392 upsampler, but now incorporates the asynchronous USB-to-S/PDIF converter found in Musical Fidelity’s V-Link. The machined aluminum of the Mk.II’s front and rear panels replaces the V-DAC’s drab black and garish lettering, giving the new model a much more mature, no-nonsense look. Incoming data are reclocked and upsampled to 24-bit/192kHz. Compared with the original, the Mk.II had a quicker, smoother, more agile overall sound, with greater resolution and a sweeter treble, said ST. “Need you spend more on technology that moves so fast and obsoletes so quickly?” asks ST, adding that the Pangea power supply from Audio Advisor is a worthwhile upgrade. (Vol.35 No.1)

Rega DAC: $995 $$$
Rega’s DAC measures just 8.4" W by 3.1" H by 10.5" D and sports an attractive aluminum-and-steel case with a reflective front panel. It offers two coaxial, two optical, and one USB input, as well as 10 digital filters: five for data rates of 48kHz and under, five for rates up to 192kHz. While it operates in the adaptive USB mode and its Burr-Brown PCM2707 USB receiver chip is limited to resolutions/sample rates of 16-bit/48kHz, the Rega DAC “had a richness, a fullness of tone, an analog sense of ease, that I had not hitherto heard from digital, save for SACD,” said ST. Compared to the Musical Fidelity M1DAC, however, the Rega DAC lacked some air and openness in the top end. JI was puzzled by its warm balance but ST is adamant that the Rega DAC is a reference product: “Probably the most analog-like sound Sam has heard from a DAC. The filter settings allow the user to change the sound—significantly, says Sam, slightly according to Rega. Sony was right: CD forever!” Compared with the Peachtree iDac, the Rega had a warmer, fuller sound, but lacked clarity and accuracy, said JI. JA’s measurements confirmed that the Rega DAC operates in isochronous adaptive mode. The Rega’s respectable measured performance was marred by supply-related jitter sidebands that may have contributed to the DAC’s weighty low frequencies. (Vol.34 Nos.5 & 10, Vol.35 No.2 Read Review Online)

Wavelength Proton: $900 $$$
Designed by Gordon Rankin, the Proton is a solid-state DAC built into a small (4" W by 2.5" H by 5.75" D), attractive aluminum extrusion. It has a single USB type B input, operates in isochronous asynchronous mode, handles resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz, and uses a Wolfson XWM8721 DAC chip that also incorporates an analog volume control and headphone amplifier. Though it was a bit less dynamic and dramatic than Wavelength’s more expensive Cosecant, the Proton had a naturally colorful and textured sound, said AD, who bought the review sample. “An easy recommendation,” he said. The Proton’s limited dynamic range is due to the use of a battery supply with limited voltage capacity, JA noted. (Vol.34 No.10 Read Review Online)

C

Behringer DEQ2496: $653.99 $$$
See “The Fifth Element” in the April 2012 issue.

CEntrance DACport: $399.95
USB bus-powered D/A headphone amplifier. See “Headphones & Headphone Accessories,” where it is rated Class B. Used as a single-input preamp between a laptop source and a pair of Rogue M180 monoblocks in EL’s main system, the DACport produced a large soundstage, a slightly rolled-off but grain-free treble, and a tube-like midrange. Compared to the Benchmark DAC1 HDR, the DACport lacked resolution and bass weight, but always sounded musical and tonally balanced. (Vol.33 Nos.6 & 10 Read Review Online)

HRT Music Streamer II+: $349.95
HRT Music Streamer II: $159.95 $$$
Though nearly identical to the original HRT Music Streamer USB DACs, housed in 4"-long (Streamer II) and 5"-long (Streamer II+) extruded-alloy sleeves, the II and II+ versions include upgraded power supplies, USB transceivers, and D/A chips, handling sample rates up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution. Compared to the original models, the new HRTs sounded bigger and richer, with more saturated tonal colors, especially in woodwinds, brasses, and voices, for a “realer, incontrovertibly more involving sound,” said AD. Compared to more expensive DACs, however, the HRTs lacked openness and body. Nevertheless, AD concluded: “Just buy the thing and get on with your (musical) life.” (Vol.33 No.12 Read Review Online)

Sonos Connect: $349 ✩
Sonos Connect:Amp: $499 ✩
“More sophisticated than the Squeezebox,” said JA. The user-friendly Sonos system sets up its own proprietary, encrypted audio network and can even dispense with the partnering computer if necessary, working with a network-attached storage hard drive that can operate as a standalone source of media files. In addition, Sonos’ original CR100 controller ($399) has a full-color 3.5" LCD screen, allows quick and simple navigation of music files on up to 16 network devices, and provides all the metadata associated with each track. Installation “couldn’t have been easier,” said JA. While he found the ZP80’s analog outputs to be adequate for use in noncritical applications, JA felt the Sonos performed best with its digital output feeding an external DAC. Rating refers to the performance of the ZP80’s analog outputs. Testing of the new ZP90 and ZP120 versions continues the recommendation. The ZP90 is now called the Sonos Connect. Review was of the very similar ZP80 and ZP100, respectively. While the ZP120 (now called the Connect:Amp) resembles Sonos’s original ZP100 in using a class-D output stage, it offers slightly more power (55 vs 50Wpc), replaces the linear power supply with a switching supply, and provides more robust wireless networking capabilities. Though limited to sample rates of 44.1 and 48kHz, the ZP120 exhibited a well-managed gain architecture and performed admirably on the demanding high-frequency modulation test, found JA. Remote control app for the iPhone and iPod Touch dramatically improves user interface. (Vol.29 No.10, Vol.33 No.4 Read Review Online)

D

Apple AirPort Express: $99 ✩ $$$
While the Airport Express works only with iTunes v4.6 or later (running on both PCs and Macs), is limited to 16-bit data, and functions only at a 44.1kHz sample rate, the combination of iTunes and the Airport Express offered an easy way to pipe CD-quality music around the entire home. “The beauty of this unassuming component,” said JA, “is its S/PDIF data output, which allows the Airport Express to assume a respectable role in a true high-end audio system.” However, its lack of an internal clock can lead to the first couple of seconds of songs being missed with DACs that are slow to lift their mutes. (Vol.28 No.5 Read Review Online)

ASUS Xonar Essence ST & STX: $179.95
Soundcards compatible with PCI (ST) and PCI Express (STX) personal computers running the Windows XP, Vista, and 7 operating systems (Macs not supported). The Xonar Essence boasts a specified signal/noise ratio of 124dB, and its analog output circuitry is shielded by a grounded metal cover, preventing RF interference from contaminating the audio signal. In addition, the Essence draws its power from a 4-pin socket separately connected to the PC’s power supply, thus isolating the analog circuitry from the PC’s motherboard. The soundcard offers a headphone output, a line/microphone input, and standard and optical S/PDIF digital outputs, but there is no digital input. D/A conversion is handled by a high-quality 24-bit Burr-Brown PCM 1792. Though the Essence could not support 88.2 or 176.4kHz files through its analog inputs, JA was impressed by the card’s weighty lows, clear midrange, and airy highs: “I can unreservedly recommend the Xonar Essence as the least expensive means of extracting true high-end sound from a PC.” A driver update guarantees bit-perfect playback from the digital output at all sample rates up to 192kHz, and, unlike with the earlier driver, ASIO-compatible applications take exclusive control of the audio device. (Vol.33 Nos.1 & 9 Read Review Online)

Logitech Squeezebox Touch: $299 $$$
The 24-bit/96kHz-capable Squeezebox Touch is a small (6" W by 1.6" H by 3.25" D) network music player with WiFi and Ethernet inputs and a 4.3" color touchscreen. In addition to its stereo analog, digital coaxial, and TosLink outputs, the Touch offers a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, and USB and SC card ports for music and video files. The Touch supports a wide array of music files, including MP3, FLAC, WMA standard and lossless, WAV, and AIFF, and provides Internet radio support for MP3, Ogg Vorbis, AAC, and WMA. Setup and use were simple and intuitive. Hi-rez files were reproduced with good low-level detail, a wide and balanced frequency response, and unbridled dynamics. “Get a Squeezebox Touch right now,” said KR; “You’ll never look back.” JA: “Logitech’s Squeezebox Touch offers excellent audio engineering with no sign that it has been compromised to reach its low price point.” Rating is for its analog outputs. Used to feed a standalone, high-performance DAC, the Touch is a first-rate source of audio data. (Vol.33 No.10 Read Review Online)

Music Hall dac25.3: $599
“Designed and developed in the USA,” the dac25.2 is a combination digital-to-analog processor and head­phone amp with volume control. It uses a single 6922 output tube and offers S/PDIF coaxial, XLR, TosLink optical, and USB inputs. A 24-bit/192kHz D/A chip provides the dac25.2’s 8x-oversampling digital filter. Though it couldn’t match the open, airy top end and transient speed of Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic, the Music Hall dac25.2 offered “sweet, full-bodied, nonfatiguing Internet-radio sound,” said ST. Though the dac25.2 offered “generally excellent measured performance,” JA was slightly disappointed by the high output impedance from its headphone jack. Current version has a USB input that now accepts 24-bit/96kHz data but has not yet been tested. (Vol.32 No.8, Vol.33 No.2 Read Review Online)

K

Peachtree DAC•iT, Devilsound Snowflake 2.1, Lynx AES16e soundcard.

Deletions

Cambridge Audio DacMagic, Musical Fidelity V-Link USB-S/PDIF converter both replaced by new versions not yet reviewed; Musical Fidelity V-DAC discontinued; Linn Klimax DS not auditioned in too long a time.

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COMMENTS
Martin Osborne's picture

I understand that this is part of 'what you do', but thanks for bringing this altogther in one place - a lot of work has gone into it and I for one appreciate it. 

 

 

JItterjaber's picture

Making your product recommendations available to the digital generation will certainly help more people see your publication.  Thanks for trying to keep current!

www.hifiqc.com

Ajani's picture

This is a really good move! I know a lot of online users have been hoping and waiting for the recommended components to be released on the website. 

smittyman's picture

I've always appreciated how much content Stereophile makes available on this site.  I also always figured that Recommended Components was something that was held off the website to give us some incentive to purchase the magazine in either paper or on line form so I was really pleased to see this added.

soulful.terrain's picture

 

 This is great!  Thanks to all the staff for putting this valuable info together for us neophytes like myself. ;-)

Timbo in Oz's picture

One of the problems of the 'buy it yourself' approach to audio a Magazine is stuck with is that the path of modifying upgrading used gear gets short shrift, let alone doing it yourself. Those parts of the high-end are off the radar here.

This partciularly applies to FM antennas. The best results from FM stereo can only result from pointing a directional antenna with gain at the desired station. One sure way to get such results is an external directional antenna up high. This ensures that the FM front end will be in (i) full limiting and (ii) that there is minimal multi-path on the signal.

Few indoor antennas are really good at either (i) or (ii), unless your lucky and close to a desired staion or two. Just one type is capable of doing both, but you can't buy one. This best indoor FM antenna is the wire rhombic with sides approaching 3 metres long (or exceeding). The gain is high because each element equals the desired wavelength and becasue it is also a highly directional antenna. The cost in money is very low, 14 to 20 meters of twin ribbon, some resistors and a balun to feed coax to your radio.

When made from 300 ohm twin ribbon (the same stuff used for T folded dipole antennas) it will have twice the already high gain. Don't worry you are most unlikely to overalaod your FM front-end.

You can hide it on a suitable room's ceiling or under a large rug. A suitable room is the largest one which has a long diagonal pointing in the right direction - ie at most of your desired stations. Note also that the acceptance angle of a rhombic can be adjusted in and out a couple of ways, see the article referenced below.

The article about them and how to make one was published in the now defunct magazine 'Audio' and is available at the Audio Asylum's FAQ section, near the bottom of the listings.

If you can drive a good tuner into full limiting with a strong low multipath signal and have even one station that broadcasts live acoustic simply miked concerts, you have a true high-end source.

Tim Bailey

 

 

 

JohnnyR's picture

Cable reccomendations without a single measurement, just "oh it sounds just dandy" approach. How lame.This is useless.

Glotz's picture

This subjective review resource has around for decades, in print form.  You are the 4,895,235th 'listener' that thinks he knows more than these guys...

Bwahahahahahhaahhaahahhah!  Yeah, really.

Tim Lim's picture

Dear Stereophile,

This report is indeed welcome but may I ask how are the different classes differentiated? What are the criteria for any model to be included in their respective class? I don't see this guide anywhere.

Regards,

Tim

earlnightshade's picture

Total new guy here, but a quick question about the rating of the Peachtree Dac it.  To confirm I'm understanding correctly, is it considered so poor quality it gets a letter grade of "K"?  As in not even worthy of an "F"?

 

Thanks

smittyman's picture

They haven't reviewed it yet.  It is not several grades below an F

nleksan's picture

Okay, so sound quality is as subjective as the music itself, I get that.

But seriously, you include the ATH-M50's and ATH-AD700's (good headphones, don't get me wrong), but not the SR225/SR325 from Grado?  What about the absolutely SUBLIME RS1i or its little-brother the RS2i?  The PS1000's?

I own all of the above, and for studio work I favor the RS1i's above anything else, especially Sennheiser, as monitors don't have to be PAINFULLY Flat to listen to, they just have to be accurate to the source while able to replicate other sources, which the RS1i's/RS2i's/PS1000's do with aplomb!  The dynamic design and solid-mahogany cups make the music sound much more "alive", and the editing/mixing sessions sound identical to the recording sessions; this is in contrast to many others that neuter the sound to the point that it just goes flat.

I realize I am here spouting off my opinion, but as I am pretty sure that's like 87% at least of the job description for being an "audiophile", so I'm okay with it ;)

I just hate to see TRULY deserving headphones get passed over because they don't have the same "prestige" as Bowers&Wilkins or the like, nor the brand recognition of Sennheiser (who are, by the way, on track to becoming the BOSE of the headphone world.... I'll give them 5 years).  I challenge anyone to spend ~20hrs with a pair of Grado SR325's (NOT the SR325i's, but the original Mahogany ones), the RS1i's/RS2i's, the PS1000's, or even the SR225's (again, NOT the SR225i's), a strong headphone amp (everyone has their favorites, but I find that these do best with a good amount of overhead), and the best source material you can get, ideally a very high-end system with DVD-Audio quality sound or better (don't even think about any kind of lossy compression, because you WILL hear every "off" sound).  Heck, I get fantastic results with simply plugging any of the aforementioned 'cans directly into the headphone port on my HT|Omega Claro Halo XT sound card in my very high end workstation/overclocking rig (who says you can't mix business and pleasure??)...
I will admit that every pair of Grado's that I've owned has needed some break-in time, with as little as 40 hours for some SR80i's to ~120hrs for the SR225/SR325 cans to really shine (RS1i's = 75-80hrs, RS2i's = 70-75hrs, PS1000's = 90hrs), but I do my "break-in" a bit differently than most: I set up everything through my computer, including DAC/amp/etc running off an M-Audio card, and I have a specific playlist I use for breaking them in that consists of 125-175x ~3:30 to ~11:15 long Audio Tracks (full, uncompressed recordings and masters; the 125 songs take up about 3.7GB of space! yes, about 30MB per track, at 192Khz/48bit "RAW") of varying types/genres set in "loop" for the first playthrough and then "looping random" after that, and the volume automatically adjusts based on elapsed time.  For those who wonder, I use: Sigur Ros, Pink Floyd, OK GO, Led Zeppelin, Bowie, Florence & the Machine, Grateful Dead, Incubus, Jay-Z, Jose Gonzalez, Pete Yorn, (recently added) Trent Reznor & Karen O's "Immigrant Song" cover from Girl w Dragon Tattoo, K'Naan, Manfred Mann, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Metallica ("One"), Norman Greenbaum, Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Scala ("Blower's Daughter"), Shwayze, Sufjan Stevens, RUSH, Tegan&Sara, Tom Petty, The Roots, Them Crooked Vultures, and a bunch more; as you can see, it's a mix of male and female vocalists, every instrument under the sun, all types of music, and so forth (quite eclectic).  BUT IT WORKS!
I PROMISE YOU that if you properly break-in any pair of Grado's, they will become one of your favorite listening headphones, if not your number one.  Having tried everything from the bird-poop-looking iPod iEarbuds (kill me please) to most of the consumer-level stuff (Sony MDR's are Amazing for the price, Beats by Dre are absolute junk and I've left stuff in the porcelain chamber with more musicality than that overpriced BS), to headphones that cost more than many peoples' cars and proclaim to be "hand-assembled by a team of naked supermodels over the course of 123 days with all work done only under a half-crescent moon while Mars and Jupiter align, emparting magical sonic characteristics into the hand-carved African rare wood covers and plated with Rhinocerous poop, well known for its excellent bass enhancement"... Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but not THAT much.  YET I KEEP COMING BACK TO THE GRADO'S!!!

JadenKrosis's picture

This product recieved rave reviews in Stereophile. It scored well in comparisons and has even become JA`s go to device for USB audio playback.

Without going into too much detail of Micheal Lavorgnas` review I`m quite sure I`m safe to say he liked it very much also. 

Is it possible this product was overlooked amid all the shock and awe created by the Dragonfly?  (not that there`d be anything wrong with that, I want one too!!!)

John Atkinson's picture

Quote:
Is it possible this product was overlooked amid all the shock and awe created by the Dragonfly?

The Halide was reviewed in August 2012, after this "Recommended Components" was prepared. It will be included in the next update, due in April.

The Halide was also included in the Collector's Edition of Recommended Components, available from newsstands and form the shop on this site: http://ssl.blueearth.net/primedia/home.php

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

JadenKrosis's picture

Thank you John and I look forwards to reading that April issue.

bmilwee's picture

In your October 2011 issue, the VPI classic 3 gets an A rating, but here it seems to have been demoted to a B.   Tthe Rega RP3 is class B here, but in the anniversary edition it gets a C rating.  Which is correct?

John Atkinson's picture

Yes, sometimes as the result of further experience of the product or of competitive products, sometimes because the initial rating is provisional, for a product that is reviewed in the same issue as the updated list. But whenever a rating has changed, it is the most recent rating that reflects our current opinion of the product.

In the case of the VPI Classic 3, it has been reinstated in Class A in the listing that will appear in the April 2013 issue.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

shp's picture

I have been a binge reader of stereophile ever since high school when my first job was in a high end stereo shop (Threshold amps, KEF 104.2's).  

My brother is an architect and my colleague an electrical engineer.  They both deride the idea that giant audiophile cables make a difference noting that the wire that delivers electricity to the house and through the walls is only this big.

Not having the budget to try an assortment of (sometimes very expensive) cables I've kept mine pretty modest.  But I will concede they can sound different.  

But I am a little confused that Stereophile has ratings for digital data connects without any measurements. 

Digital cables either deliver bit-perfect data streams or they don't. And their accuracy should be reported even if Stereophile also wants to report the sonic affect of any digital distortion.

If I spent a lot of money on a music server, DAC, amplification and speakers, the last thing I want is the cable altering the bits. 

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