dCS Verona Master Clock Page 2
It was time to introduce the Verona. Three 75 ohm BNC–BNC cables connected the Verona's word-clock outputs to the three other components, and I set all three to recognize an incoming word-clock signal. (My hat's off to dCS for the best user manuals I have experienced, along with plastic-laminated "cheat sheets" for the most common setup configurations.) I switched on the Verona's dither, put on an SACD—Claire Martin's Too Darn Hot! (Linn AKD 243)—selected a familiar cut, "Black Coffee," and held my breath while the Verdi read the disc's Table of Contents and the Elgar selected the Verdi's FireWire signal.
What the . . . !
On the face of things, nothing had changed. But there was an authority to the sound that I didn't remember from the system pre-Verona. I went back to how I had had it all set up without the Verona, using the Elgar as the master clock. The sound was the same, but there was less "there" there. Without the Verona, the soundstage was slightly less developed, and the sense of images of musicians and a vocalist hanging there in the space between and behind the loudspeakers was slightly diminished.
I pushed all the correct buttons so the dithered Verona regained control. Back came that essential bit more authority. Tierney Sutton's creamy soprano on "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face" was that little more differentiated from the piano trio that supports her. The double bass and the piano had a solidity to their low registers that was addictive. The low strings of the bass guitar on Claire Martin's "Black Coffee" had a magnificence to their sound. The recorded acoustic of London's Henry Wood Hall on K622 was that bit more believably and realistically sized.
I dug out SACDs that I had gotten but forgotten. I played discs into the night that night and the next. Even such classical potboilers as the Polka and Fugue from Weinberger's Schwanda the Bagpiper (Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops, SACD, Telarc SACD-60595) had me sitting to attention. And when the half-speed repeat of the fugue's subject appears at the end, pinned down under the scurrying string and woodwinds by powerful organ pedals, I wondered why I had not taken this music more seriously.
Was it the Verona or was it the dither? It took me a very long time to settle on an answer to this question. Switching the dither on or off with the music playing made no noticeable difference. But whenever I decided that such instantaneous comparisons proved I was fooling myself, long-term listening with the dither active proved consistently more satisfying. On balance, I thought that the dithered Verona added what, for want of a better word, I can describe only as "magnificence."
So far, I had played only SACDs, but that sense of authority continued when I listened to CDs upsampled by the Purcell under the control of the Verona. Van Morrison's Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast from 1984 (CD, Mercury 422-818-336-2) is never going to be on anyone's list of "Best-Sounding CDs of All Time." But I love this disc for the warm bath of the familiar music, for Van the Man in his finest form, and for a great band that includes Mark Isham on trumpet and the underrated Peter Van Hooke on drums. The songs on this album tend to creep in. "It's All in the Game," for example, starts with a sly little riff on tenor sax and trumpet that works its way up the chord inversions, inverting the line as it does so, over a nice'n'crunchy-sounding Fender Rhodes piano. "Yeah, this is hip," smiles Van; as he takes up the verse, you smile, too.
I know this disc inward and outward, backward and forward, but until I played it on the dCS Verona–Verdi–Purcell–Elgar Plus through the extraordinary NHT Evolution 6 speakers (to be reviewed in April and May), I had never fully appreciated how well the individual sounds had been captured. The snare and kick drum, in particular, had a nice solidity to their sounds, and the cymbals didn't blur together in that usual "digital white noise" way. And when I followed up Van with the Blue Nile's 1983 A Walk Across the Rooftops (1988 CD, Linn 7502-15087-2), the dCS CD player opened up an enormous space at the end of my room, with a tight but tuneful, deep but controlled bass line corkscrewing down into the depths. Yeah, this is hip.
Sound: the Verona in Indiana
Soon after I had received the Verona for review, I headed off to Goshen College in deepest Indiana to record Minnesotan male-voice choir Cantus in a program of Christmas music. As I was using a variety of A/D converters, I thought it might be interesting to use the Verona as the master clock instead of daisy-chaining the converters from one of them. (When recording multiple channels of digital audio, it is fundamentally important that they all be synchronized to the same word clock.) I was intending to record at 88.2kHz, so the fact that the Verona could be set only to 44.1kHz or 48kHz seemed an obstacle.
The Verona will lock to high sample rates when these are fed to its word-clock input, and will redistribute the clock signal on its word-clock outputs. However, after displaying the "Locking" message, the front-panel display reverts to showing the lower sample rate it is set to, with the Ext indicator lit. I first tried using one of my two dCS 904 24-bit A/D converters to generate an 88.2kHz master clock, then using the Verona to distribute that clock to my other three converters. (As well as a second 904, I was using an MIO2882 and a ULN2 from Metric Halo.) I tried both 96kHz and 88.2kHz sample rates, and while the Verona would successfully lock to the 904's double-speed word-clock output, the Metric Halo converters wouldn't lock reliably to the Verona's clock signal, as they had done before I left Brooklyn. Yes, they would do so for a while, but then they would lose lock. I had no idea what the problem was, but with the session clock ticking and the singers waiting for me to press Record, I didn't have time to investigate what was wrong.
I therefore went a different route. As the dCS 904 can both operate from and output a multiplied version of the reference word clock fed to its input, I set the two 904s to run at 88.2kHz, but to derive their clock reference from the Verona set to 44.1kHz. I then ran an AES/EBU link from the two 904s' 88.2kHz clock-reference outputs to each of the Metric Halo boxes. This way, each 904 would be both slaved to the Verona and have a Metric Halo converter slaved in turn to it. All eight channels I was recording would thus be locked to the same word clock, with never more than two clock-links back to the Verona.
I experimented with the Verona set to both dither and not dither its word-clock output, but couldn't hear any difference with the 24-bit files I was recording, played back over a Benchmark D/A driving Sennheiser HD600 headphones. So even though I was suspicious of using a dithered clock to record rather than play back—even more than playing back digital audio data, when transferring analog to digital you need the most stable clock possible—I stayed with dither for the subsequent five days of recording. Whether it was my use of the Verona or the use of a dithered word clock—I said I was suspicious of this idea—the sound quality of the final CD (Comfort and Joy: Volume One, Cantus CTS-1204) has gotten a universally positive reaction from listeners. Phew! There is a fine line between taking a brave gamble that pays off and being plain stupid. With Comfort, I got lucky. Either that, or the Verona works as advertised.
As a limited-production component manufactured in a country with a strong currency, the $6995 Verona is inevitably expensive in the US. Value for money? Fuggedaboudit! The Verona's applicability for use in non–dCS-based systems is almost zero, given that the Verdi is one of only two SACD/CD transports of which I am aware that has a word-clock input (the other is the new Esoteric X-01). But if you have a dCS Verdi-Elgar SACD player—and I know that, at $33,985, that's not going to be too many people—the Verona will take it a small but nonetheless important step forward in sound quality to achieve the best sound quality I have yet heard, not only from SACD but from CD as well.
Yes, the complete dCS system is hip. But $45k's worth of hip? That's a question I can't answer, I'm afraid, what with school fees and mortgages and taxes. But if you do have that kind of spare change, you owe it to yourself to give a Verona-powered dCS stack a listen.