dCS Verdi SACD transport, Purcell D/D converter, Elgar Plus D/A converter Page 4
You'd expect that a system that delivers CDs as well as the dCS did might do likewise with SACDs. You'd be right. Good as the best CD sound was from the system, it couldn't touch the effortlessness, delicacy, and transparency of SACD. On CD, Beck's moody Sea Changes (DGC 33932-A; SACD, DGC 35372SACD), recorded in analog at Ocean Way Studios, sounded like a great recording waiting to break through. I was disappointed to discover that Sea Changes is Beck's first album not issued on vinyl. (The SACD, mastered by Bob Ludwig, was issued with a second, multichannel mix by Elliot Scheiner that I still haven't heard.)
The two-channel SACD breaks out big time, removing the harmonic and, especially, the dynamic constraints while laying out all of Nigel Godrich's subtle background electronic tricks and the subtlest of electronic reverberant cues. Depth, transient attack, bass solidity, and overall transparency take an enormous leap forward on SACD, and the dCS system delivered it all with an effortlessness that tempted me to crank up the volume to ridiculous levels. And I did, but without suffering the usual digital tooth- and headaches.
Neil Young once complained that digital sound was an assault—like millions of tiny, same-sized ice pellets hitting your face at high speed. With SACD, and especially through this system, digital was more like a very fine, refreshing liquid spray. The millions of droplets were all of different sizes and hit my face with varying intensity: never so weakly that I didn't feel them, never with such force that they hurt. That made me turn up the volume for more; instead of hitting a sonic wall, the sound just built in intensity and my pleasure just increased. It's what good (and cheap) analog does.
The new Eighty-Eight's Jazz series, recorded in DSD for SACD and ½" analog tape at 30ips for LP, proved a good test of the new format and the dCS gear. I haven't yet heard all of them, but one I recommend highly is Clark Terry and Max Roach's Friendship (SACD, VRGL 8805; LP, VRJL 7005). It's a closely miked affair with a sound that's almost old-fashioned mono: strong in the center, just a bit of spread to the sides. When you hear Roach's cymbal strokes and decay, the snap of the snare, you'll know you're not listening to 16/44.1 digital—especially if you get to hear it through the dCS trio.
The LP sound was slightly fatter, harmonically richer, weightier, and somewhat more live, and while not as "fast" or nearly as dynamic overall, the sensation of sticks hitting stretched skin—of Roach's kick drum being real—was somewhat more pronounced. I could hear where partisans of both formats would score points and claim victory. Both formats successfully layered instruments from front to back, and offered fine-focus resolution of inner detail and "fine-spray" transparency. The SACD sounded more like what you'd hear in the control booth, the LP more like what you'd hear in the studio itself.
Speaking of Max Roach, kudos to Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab for issuing Sonny Rollins' Plus 4 on SACD (UDSACD-2006), which Roach recorded with Clifford Brown a few months before Brown's death in an auto accident in 1956. This monophonic recording, taped on my ninth birthday by Rudy Van Gelder and erroneously labeled "Stereo," is not an "audiophile spectacular" by any means, but it is a "high-fidelity" recording that benefits greatly from MoFi's new mastering chain and the DSD transfer. Again, the dCS trio delivered it with exemplary focus and impressive resolution of low-level details—especially Roach's snare and toms, which are buried way below the cymbals and are almost lost when the horns blare. Instrumental focus, separation, three-dimensionality, and resolution of low-level detail set the Verdi-Elgar Plus apart from other SACD players I've auditioned.
If there's any criticism to be leveled at this highly accomplished system, it would be for its truthful, analytical delivery and lack of tacked-on warmth. Judging by the syrupy sound too many CES 2003 attendees were fawning over, this won't be the digital front-end to win them over. But when the music's aggressive and the brass bites and the cymbals snap, I want to hear it. You can always soften things with different cables, or by running the Elgar Plus's output into a tube preamplifier, which—after respecting and enjoying the purity and clarity of the DAC's direct output—was how I preferred listening.
After auditioning the SACDs of Patricia Barber's Modern Cool (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD-2002) and The Zombies' Greatest Hits (Audio Fidelity AFZ001), I thought, "If CDs had sounded like this in 1982, I'm not sure there would ever have been an 'Analog Corner'." But that was in a weak moment. This stuff can do that to you.
Another piece of expensive hi-fi that costs as much as a pretty nice car—it's an outrage and a disgrace, and if someone else can build it for $399 or $3999 or even $10,000, I'm all ears. I'm sorry that something that sounds this good and is built to such a high standard, that's so flexible and pleasant to operate, has to cost so much, because I can't afford it. But I'll neither resent nor envy those who can. (Well, maybe I'll envy them a little.)
As far as what sets the dCS system apart sonically, I guess it starts with the proprietary Ring DAC, continues with the math encoded on the DSP chips, and ends with the structural rigidity and quality of the parts. Whatever dCS has done here, their computational, electronic, and mechanical brilliance add up to what must be the state of the art of getting the most from digitally encoded music. But as good as the system's SACD playback was—and it was the finest, most immediate, most musically pure that I've heard—it was the dCS gear's ability to extract the maximum musicality and dimensionality from CDs that most impressed me. Yes, badly recorded and/or mastered and/or manufactured CDs—of which there are way too many—will still sound unbearable. But the good ones can now hold the attention of even those listeners most committed to analog.
Spend some time with the dCS Verdi-Purcell-Elgar Plus. You'll understand how someone with $34,000 to drop might gladly do so for the pleasure of their company.