Entech Number Cruncher 203.2 & 205.2 D/A converters Page 3
I wasn't surprised that the 205.2 sounded a lot like the 203.2, nor was I surprised that it sounded better than its little brother. I was surprised, however, that it sounded so much better than the 203.2. As I listened to the 205.2, I mentally ran down a checklist of the areas where—compared to the best I've heard—I criticized the smaller unit's performance:
"Sounds thick and slow"—The 205.2's images were still a little too large, and its tonal balance was still a ways to the warm and dark side of neutral, but neither to as great a degree as with the 203.2. On Brian Wilson's wonderful new Imagination (Giant 24703-2)—the title cut and "South American" in particular—the 205.2 sounded much more quick and bouncy, and the soundstage was more open and airy. Images were well defined and had a great sense of body, the spaces between them far better delineated. The soundstage itself was both wider and deeper, as well. Both Number Crunchers create an expansive soundstage, but the 205.2's was as large as I've heard from 16/44.1 digital in my system.
"Rockin' All Over the World" and "Travelin' Band," from John Fogerty's live Premonition CD (Reprise 46908-2), showed that the 205.2 sounded anything but slow. Dynamic transients were cleaner than they were with the smaller unit, with obvious leading edges. The Fogerty tracks had great pace and drive, which addresses my second criticism of the 203.2—that details were "temporally and spatially vague." The 205.2's focus was much, much sharper, and the leading edges of transients were much more precise.
I noted the 205.2's additional detail on every disc I tried, and how musically engaging its performance was. For a really good example, however, try Doug MacLeod's Come to Find (JVC JVCXR-0023-2). The arrangements are simple, but every note is filled with detail and subtlety. The miking and production are superb, and, as a result, the disc is super-sharp and explosively fast. Although the 205.2 wasn't quite as finely focused as the Ultech or CAL players, it acquitted itself very well. The leading edges of dynamic transients were sharp, and low-level details within the images were resolved—albeit with a slightly broader brush than the other players. The guitar strings snapped and popped crisply, and the drum thwacks, in particular, had sharp initial impacts.
MacLeod's voice was wonderfully complex with the 205.2, its separate components—head, throat, chest—reproduced distinctly. The detail and precision extended to both ends of the frequency spectrum as well. The 205.2 matched its little brother's bottom-end weight, and added sharp leading edges and well-defined pitch and harmonic structures. On top, the biggest difference was a greater sense of air. With the 203.2, MacLeod's voice could never seem to breathe, as if a thin sheet had been draped over the soundstage. With the bigger unit, when Doug reached down for power, he got it. The sheet was gone.
The Leonard Slatkin/St. Louis reading of Pachelbel's Kanon (Telarc CD-80080) offered another great demonstration of the 205.2's detail resolution. Instrumental sections were very clearly composed of individual instruments, and the sections themselves were distinctly and clearly placed within the overall soundstage. Underlying countermelodies were much more distinct, both spatially and dynamically, in the way the notes would start, build, diminish, and decay.
The 205.2's performance with respect to my third criticism, "images less dimensional than they should be," is a little more complex. On the Telarc Pachelbel disc, I noted that the sections and individual instruments were quite dimensional but that their edges, and the space around them, weren't nearly as well defined as I've heard with other players. Part of the reason was the 205.2's slightly too-large images and coarser detail, part the diminished-but-still-there texture. The overall soundstage was very large, but not quite scaled up to the size of the images. Combined with the texture—more like a fine sand or liquid vs the 203.2's pebbles—I just didn't get a clear picture of spaces separating and surrounding the instruments. The images had body and depth and were clearly placed in space, but the soundstage specificity just wasn't as apparent as with some of the best players I've heard.
Finally, my comments about the 203.2's "slightly overblown and bloomy" bass and a top that was "a little rolled-off" did apply to the 205.2, but to a far lesser degree. The tonal balance was still a bit warm, with the mid- and upper bass sounding slightly boosted, but bottom-end pitch definition and control were much, much better with the 205.2. Impacts were sharp and clean, and bottom-end dynamic transients were large—disarmingly so at times—seeming to project out in front of the soundstage. There wasn't quite the sense of air and precision there is with players like the Ultech and CAL, but that's a very high standard. I don't think anyone will be disappointed with the 205.2's bottom end.
On top, the 205.2 fell short of the best I've heard only in that it lacked the nth degree of air around images—this actually more a feeling than a conscious perception. Cymbals had a nice mix of attack, ring, and shimmering decay, for example, and triangles cut through cleanly above the orchestra. I suspect that the perceived lack of air was associated more with the slight texture than an actual rolloff. As with the bass, I can't imagine that any Entech customers are going to be unhappy with their Number Crunchers' treble performance. I'm a reviewer, so I've got to dissect its performance; but in reality, I don't think anyone will be unhappy with their 205.2 for any reason.
So where does that leave the 205.2 Number Cruncher? Its performance, cosmetics, and features are big steps up from those of the 203.2, and, at $450, make a very attractive package. The 205.2 isn't quite up to the performance of the new super-sounding players from companies like Ultech, CAL, and Arcam, but the differences aren't huge, and the 205.2 blazes a much less expensive upgrade path. And its multiple inputs and switching capability make it far more versatile than a stand-alone player.
I can unhesitatingly recommend both of Entech's Number Crunchers. Which one is for you—or for Bonnie's and my cabin system, for that matter—is a tougher question. The 203.2 is a dynamite, inexpensive upgrade that will make a big difference in its intended applications. The improvements aren't subtle in magnitude, and will give a modest system a solid injection of high-end magic.
On the other hand, the 205.2 is slicker, more versatile, and offers a noticeably higher standard of performance—all for not too much more money. If you want the features, choosing the 205.2 is simple. Conversely, if you just want to get the biggest bang out of a modest system for the fewest bucks, the choice is the 203.2. In between, it's a tough choice.
The Number Crunchers are headed to Santa Fe for measurements, but for at least one of them, it's a temporary stop. One—I don't know which yet—is heading back up to the cabin, and that's where it's going to stay.