dCS Elgar D/A processor Followup by Jonathan Scull, January 2001
The dCS Elgar Plus is derived from the Elgar DAC, long my digital reference when fed a dual-AES output from the original dCS 972 D/D converter. "The Plus offers many improvements over the standard Elgar," explains the documentation, "the most important being the addition of DSD and SDIF-2 interfaces, the ability to slave to an outside word clock, a digital output, and a substantially expanded Function Menu."
All dCS DACs feature dCS's patented Ring DAC technology, which accepts 16-bit/44.1kHz data from a CD transport and oversamples it to 3 megasamples/s. The Plus will also convert 24/96 data from DVD players, "and if you have a DSD, [the] Elgar Plus can convert the DSD data to extra-wideband audio, making good use of the extended bandwidth inherent in the DSD format." Actually, the 972 can convert 16/44.1 to a DSD datastream and squirt that to the Elgar. I have to set up the right cables for that—left, right, and clock on BNCs—but you can be sure I'll explore the possibilities when it's time to review the Accuphase combo of DP-100 CD/SACD transport and DC-101 DAC.
The Elgar Plus has a few more buttons to master than are found on the Purcell, but the interface is intuitive and easily handled with the remote control. The rotary knob is nicely weighted and smooth in operation, and all the buttons make highly scientific and very reassuring relay sounds in operation, like the Purcell. There's a serial-type connector on the back panel for future updates. The slate top and quirky shape all speak bespoke—very Saville Row.
Function Menu-wise, the Elgar Plus has the Purcell covered, and then some. In addition to all the Purcellian tricks, a Word Clock menu choice locks to an external master clock, Swap reverses the channels, there's a Balance mode—even an internal temperature reading: 122 degrees and you're cookin'! Finishing off the enhancements are the Fade (Fast, Slow, Off) and Global (for input-related volume settings) menus, plus a PLL tracking bandwidth option. Phase can be inverted with a button press that provokes a smooth fade-down, change, and fade-up. All very gentlemanly in operation, nothing...untoward. And very courtly to the music it was.
With all these expanded setup functions, the Elgar Plus is ready to run direct into a pair of amps, as well as into a traditional line-level preamplifier. I'd fallen into the habit of using the earlier Elgar with a preamp—which it seemed to need for Big Musical Moments—and it could sound a bit dry and slightly analytical when driven by the earlier generation 972. But now the Linn Klimaxes loved the Elgar's line-level output and knew just what to do with it. And make those connections balanced while you're at it—the Elgar, Plus or minus, never once sounded better single-ended. Don't even bother; go balanced.
Because of the Elgar Plus's perfect match with the Klimax monos, I could run the dCS at close to full output and thus achieve the best digital resolution. The highs could be a bit more piercing than through the Mark Levinson Reference No.32—or especially the Audio Research Reference Two, which also made a nice match, as did the Balanced Audio Technology VK-50SE: all balanced-running preamps. But the depth of soundstage and transparency, of closeness to the music, was nicely augmented running direct with both the 972 and the Purcell. With this extreme clarity, small changes were quick to manifest themselves.
It was interesting, too, listening to the interim step of 16/44.1-to-24/96 upsampling. It was less liquid and a bit more harsh; I always preferred full double-barreled 24/192 operation. The highest sampling rate always delivered that special ease of musicality, that extraordinary step closer to the music that the keen listener so yearns for.
Now, about those "anti-imaging" or anti-aliasing filters, as they're known. There are four of them, and each offers a different "response." The manual: "In each case, Filter 1 offers the sharpest cutoff, least Nyquist imaging but longest energy smear. Filter 4 gives the gentlest rolloff (usually with significant Nyquist imaging) but the shortest transient response with least energy smear. DSD also offers four filters, but these are intended to progressively reduce the out-of-band noise level." In that perfect Gentleman's Gentleman way, the Elgar recalls your last filter selection for every sample rate you choose. Thank yew, Jeeeeeves. [sniff]
It was much like playing with the filters on the Sony SCD-1, but with the Elgar, Filter 1 did it for me 90% of the time. On those rare occasions when I felt the need to sweeten the sound, I could, but always at some price, usually in transparency. And Filter 1's the default, so right out of the box, you get what I consider the best-performing filter: precise sound that's wonderfully liquid and utterly harmonic. In any case—if, in fact, upsampling and oversampling are one and the same, and what really counts is the filter—you're covered. Tailor your response! No one will tell. Enjoy.
I used the filters occasionally to slightly soften the top end of hot recordings, like Miles Davis' Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Fontana 836 305-2). Filter 2 did it nicely, while Filter 3 was somewhat more vivid but too piercing in the horn for my taste. Filter 4 sounded slightly strangled, and so I wound up back with Filter 1 for, as usual, the best overall sound.
In a way, the elegance of the Elgar Plus is all about the highs. That's one reason I was so attracted to running it in direct mode, even though, for a reviewer, an active line stage makes a lot of sense. But the openness and transparency, the sweetness and detail of going direct must be experienced to be appreciated. If the question is all about filters, you can really hear it.
So is the dCS Elgar Plus worth the asking price? Well, for those who appreciate refinement, art, watches, wines, classic cars, and, of course, music, then paying $11,995 for such an admittedly great-sounding digital filter may be just the ticket. The utter enjoyment of hearing music at this level of playback is part of what you put your money down for and, at the top of today's digital heap, part of what actually get. We want it and we want it now! And...here it is!—Jonathan Scull