Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center Page 2
Other than a couple of songs, I never learned to love McCartney II (1980). But McCartney (1970) is a different matter entirely. (Mojo magazine rated these the other way round, which I think will go down in history as one of their biggest screwups.) With much of it recorded direct to multitrack analog tape, McCartney is packed with great tunes and ambience and sports wonderfully honest sound, reminding me of the best of what a "home" recording can be. It has its technical flaws, primarily a sandpapery quality to the voice and some instruments, but it just feels right to crank up and revel in the joy and freedom that such a straightforward recording technique can offer. Perfect demo material, and splendid music.
I picked several tracks from McCartney and ran them a variety of ways through the Cantata: as 24/96 downloads and CD-ripped FLAC files via my Meridian Sooloos music server, as a CD played in the Cantata's drive, as FLAC files played via USB from my Mac, and over the Pont Neuf bridge with Ethernet or WiFi bridge from my MacBook Pro playing FLAC files in the other room. This took several hours of listening; to make things even more interesting, I tossed in a Steve Hoffmanmastered CD version of McCartney from 1992 (DCC Compact Classics GZS-1029).
Listening to the new CD remasterings through all the various inputs yielded sounds similar enough that the Cantata's overall character came through consistently. Comparing the remastered CD and CD-derived files to the 24/96 HDtracks.com or DCC versions was another matter entirely. The 24/96 files are easily more musical and pleasing in the midrange than the remastered CD, while the DCC falls somewhere in between. The remastered CDs have a punched-up midrange that I don't care for. In descending order of preference, it's the 24/96 download, followed closely by the DCC CD, and not so closely by the remastered CD.
I compared HDtracks' 24/96 FLAC files from the computer via USB direct and USBPont NeufEthernet, and via S/PDIF from the Sooloos. From the Sooloos or from the computer, all inputs were properly identified as 96kHz on the Cantata's display. On the computer that was sending the 24-bit stream, however, the Pont Neuf kept forcing the bit depth to 32 in my computer settings. Hmmm.
I e-mailed Jeff Kalt. He responded that it's 32-bit from host computer via USB to the Pont Neuf, then it's back to 24- or 16-bit from the Pont Neuf via Ethernet to the Cantata. "The host computer will pad out the bottom 8 bits with zeros, which are just discarded by the Pont. So the data path is bit-accurate for 16- to 24-bit sources. This is because the Pont Neuf operates at 32-bit instead of 24-bit over the USB interface. It still sends just 24 bits over Ethernet to the Music Center. This is done for technical reasons, as 24 bits is an odd data path for a 32-bit processor and is too much of a burden in the Pont Neuf, which has to move data through both the USB and Ethernet interfaces."
Still, I was surprised at how close all the various inputs sounded, including the wireless WiFi bridge. We'll see what John Atkinson's measurements reveal, but this is one of the most self-consistentsounding DACs I've heardand one of the best-sounding all around. In a direct comparison with my reference Benchmark DAC 1 USB, the Cantata sounded noticeably smoother and more natural, the Benchmark more forward and a bit edgier. When comparing DACs, I generally prefer the Benchmark's honestyit offers clarity and detail that a lot of cheaper DACs obscurebut in this case the clarity was there with the Cantata, without the edge. Wonderful.
Currently, the Cantata's USB and Ethernet inputs support up to 24/96, but Kalt says that a drop-in 24-bit/192kHz upgrade ($250) for the USB input should be ready by the time this review is published. An upgrade for the Ethernet input may follow, though Kalt says it might be difficult to get a 24/192 data rate going reliably over most residential WiFi networks. He says that this upgrade will also increase the speed of the Cantata's processing eightfold, and will support future software updates, including UPnP functionality and FLAC decoding.
Clearly, the Resolution Audio Cantata was the best DAC in the house. (At the time, I also had on hand the Peachtree iDac, which I reviewed in October, as well as the Rega DAC.) But I remembered how wonderful the Ayre Acoustics QB-9 sounded a while back (Wes Phillips reviewed it in the October 2009 issue), and asked JA if he could send me one for a few days to put head to head with the Cantata. Last year, the QB-9 was king of the hill, easily besting my other DACs, but with only a USB input, it wouldn't really work for me, given my use of the Sooloos system with its S/PDIF output. Still, I wanted to know how it would compare, since it was the best digital I'd heard up till then.
Audio pal Bruce Rowley was in town again, so we fired up the Ayre, the Benchmark, and the Cantata with the same cuts we'd used for my review of the Peachtree iDac. The first event was Benchmark vs Cantata, and once again, the Resolution Audio was the favorite for both of us: better control and less edge in the top end, with plenty of clarity and smoothness. No question.
Comparing the Ayre with the Cantata was another matter. Before we started, I had Bruce compare the Cantata's USB and S/PDIF inputs, and he agreed that they sounded too close to reliably call. We cued up identical rips of the same cuts on both the computer and the Sooloos, and went back and forth. A whole afternoon later, we still couldn't declare a winner. Small advantages would flip from QB-9 to Cantata and back again, depending on the track. The Ayre tended to exaggerate sibilants on some recordings, the Cantata sounding more natural. But with other tracks, the midrange filled out a tad better with the Ayre.
Bruce sent me his notes from the listening session: "I could detect more sibilance from the Ayre on Bryan Ferry's vocals on the Roxy cut [the title track from For Your Pleasure], which made me lean toward the Resolution, which I thought sounded a bit more natural. Then I thought the Ayre sounded a slight bit better through the midrange on the Santana tracks [from the remastering of Santana III, Columbia/Legacy CK 65491]. There was no clear winner for this one."
In our minds, the Ayre Acoustics QB-9 had met its matchno small feat. With the Cantata Music Center's added inputs and ability to act as a digital preamplifier and CD player, not to mention its killer looks and truly high-end wireless streaming, it's a relative value, even at more than twice the Ayre's price.
The world of computer audio is rapidly evolving, and keeping your digital options open is a must. Resolution Audio's Cantata Music Center lets you do that in both features and sound. It's a short-list contender for anyone looking for a great-sounding and striking-looking digital hub for their system.