Musical Fidelity X-24K D/A processor Page 3
The Musical Fidelity appeared to have a mite more top-octave energy than the Arcam—useful with this dark-toned cut. But the CD player made a little more sense of the dense scoring, allowing me to hear just that little bit further into the mix. I gleaned the same impression from Duke Ellington's "The Mooche" on the Jerome Harris CD. While the midrange presentations were very similar, there was a little more space between the instruments via the Arcam Alpha 9, and the bass was slightly better defined, the kick drum sounding a little thickened in the upper bass via the X-24K. The Arcam, too, did a slightly better job of conveying this recording's dynamics.
But it is important that I am talking about small differences here. I could live with either sound.
The 24/96 future
And what about the Musical Fidelity's performance with 24/96 material? I used my 96kHz Nagra master tapes of Hyperion Knight performing Gershwin (converted from the Nagra-D's dual-48kHz AES/EBU datastreams to a single 96kHz S/PDIF datastream with the dCS 972 digital-to-digital converter reviewed elsewhere in this issue), as well as commercial recordings from Classic and Chesky. The latter were played first on a California Audio Labs CL-20. When I found out that that player outputs only 20-bit words, I switched to a Denon DVD-5000, which outputs all 24 bits on the discs. But if there was a difference in sound quality between the two DVD transports when used with the Musical Fidelity, it was beyond my ability to detect.
DVD-Video's chapter-style track format is definitely less friendly to music than is CD, which can stream continuous audio—the interruption in the sound as a DVD player switches between tracks gets tiresome. But ignoring such rudeness on the part of the medium, the presentation of well-recorded 24/96 material, such as Classic's Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances (DAD 1004) or David Chesky's Three Psalms for String Orchestra (Chesky CCRD 181), came close to CD played back on such top 16/44.1 gear as the Mark Levinson No.31.5/30.5 combination that I bought a few years back.
Don't get me wrong—the multikilobuck Levinson gear, used with a Meridian 518 as a jitter eliminator and digital volume control, extracted every last bit of quality from CDs, giving it the ultimate edge on commercial recordings. But the doubling of sample rate and greater bit depth of the 24/96 material gave the budget-priced Musical Fidelity a healthy leg up, particularly when it came to openness and palpability in the high frequencies. (Can't wait to get my '30.5 upgraded to a 96k-capable '30.6.) "Master Tape Sound," says Classic's DAD booklet-cover blurb. I believe it!
As I have found in previous auditions of 96kHz-sampled material, there is an improvement in the presentation of low-frequency program, not just (as you would expect) the highs. When I recorded the Gershwin performances released in 1997 as Rhapsody (STPH010-2), I also recorded Stereophile's associate editor Steve Stoner playing drums, both in surround sound at 44.1kHz and in stereo at 96kHz. The distant miking I used for both gives a well-defined picture of Steve's Remo kit but makes the kick drum sound a little boomy. At 96kHz sampling the kick drum sounded tightened up and acquired a better-defined pitch center, as did Steve's tom-toms when he worked his way around the kit. My criticisms of the X-24K's bass quality were softened when it processed 96kHz material. And the 24/96 cymbal sound was a thing to marvel at, even though the DPA 4011 cardioid mikes I used are well down in response by 40kHz!
If one of the big questions facing audiophiles today is whether to buy a new CD player, or instead to proof themselves against the future by buying a DVD-Video player, a product like Musical Fidelity's X-24K makes the answer easier: Buy a DVD player with a 96kHz-enabled digital output and feed the signal to an X-24K. The sound quality from CDs will not disappoint, and the X-24K will be capable of getting sound to die for from the two-channel 24/96 DADs available from Classic Records and Chesky.