MSB Link DAC III D/A converter Page 2
As with any device offering so many options, it was difficult to determine how each of those possibilities contributed to the end result. How much of the Link III's performance was due to the improvements to its design, how much to the Nelson mods? I haven't auditioned a No Nelson Link III or a plain-vanilla Link II, so I can only say that, even with the stock power supply and upsampling defeated, the Full Nelson Link III was an advance on the original Link DAC.
The charms of the original's transparency and immediacy were retained, joined by a newfound smoothness and sense of ease in the upper frequencies. The midrange seemed unchanged, but, allied now with an improved top end, was better appreciated. For example, while I preferred the California Audio Lab Sigma II DAC's rendition of female singers to that of the original Link (see my review in the July 2000 Stereophile), I would now give the nod to the Link III.
There's been some discussion in the general press, including the New York Times, about the sound and balance on Dave's True Story's second album, Unauthorized, in its Chesky release (JD189). Played on either of my systems via the Link III, I found a richness and immediacy in Kelly Flint's voice that was significantly better than on their first album, while the balance of voice and instruments was near ideal. (I can't vouch for how it might sound on a $100 boombox.) The CAL Sigma II's midbass made the album's rendition a bit fuller than the Full Nelson Link III's. Consequently I preferred the Link III as barely more natural and balanced on my main system, and the Sigma II for my slightly leaner weekend system. The differences were that system-dependent; they weren't much. On the other hand, the added fillip of upsampling did put a little more daylight between these two.
So I pushed the hot button and invoked the Upsampling Option. The upsampling daughterboard comes with a 25MHz oscillator and will upsample input signals to 96kHz. The Option LED is illuminated at half-brightness when the switch is flipped, but the "96kHz" LED lights up only with an active source. (An alternative 33MHz oscillator, also provided, allows for upsampling to 132.3kHz. With this oscillator, there is no appropriate LED indicator: Only the Option LED and the lack of a frequency LED to accompany the music signals the oscillator's operation.)
Because switching is graceful and quiet, one can A/B between normal and upsampled operation on the fly. I usually left the switch up, as there was no downside to the upsampling. All the felicities of the original Link, the Nelson tweaks, and the P1000 Power Base were conserved, and augmented by the now-familiar enhancements of upsampling: a greater sense of the unity and discreteness of individual instruments and voices. Unfortunately, I must grope into the inner reaches of my equipment rack to do this: the switch is on the back of the chassis. Not only is such placement annoying to us obsessive assessors, it is inconvenient for anyone who wants to decode HDCD discs—the Upsampling Option is not simultaneously compatible with the HDCD option! Either/or is what you get, and the switch in the back doesn't make it easy.
Whether the source was my ancient Pioneer CD-7100 or the Meridian Reference 800 CD player, the upsampling Link III was a delight. With the Pioneer, I re-experienced the feeling, with greater delight, that the Link is the obvious upgrade route for all the aged but functional CD players still doing yeoman's duty. This young/old combo made a respectable and enjoyable source. With the support of the Meridian 800, the Link III was even better. (Anyone surprised?)
But better than the DACs in the megabucks 800? Wishful thinking. There was a consistent advantage to the 800 in terms of the perceived delicacy of details, the richness of the voices in the rear of the soundstage, and the closeness of the sound as the volume was raised. At low levels, both the Link III and the 800 were similar in perspective. But, as I turned up the wick, the Link III output seemed to loom forward from the speakers, while that from the 800 stayed where it belonged.
This was particularly noticeable playing an excellent recording of Mahler's Symphony 3 (Glen Cortes, Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra, Titanic Ti-252), a concert recording in the huge Riverside Church. Recording engineer Jerry Bruck has achieved the nearly impossible in balancing the impact and clarity of the direct sound with the hall's monumental ambience. Via the Link III, it was glorious, but the instruments and voices bloomed and the ambience lost some specificity as I approached lease-breaking levels. The Reference 800 handled it with aplomb.
Of course, there's more available to Link users. When I unplugged the hefty but ordinary stock power supply and connected the P1000, the Full Nelson Link III took another step up. I can't fault the noise performance or the tonal balance with the stock power supply, but the P1000 seemed to extend and reinforce the Link's lower reaches. I know, I know—there probably was no actual extension (unless John Atkinson measures it, of course!). But the impression of greater power and weight was considerable.