Wavelength Audio Proton USB D/A converter Page 2
I set the review sample on a light, sturdy pinewood table of my own construction, never more than 1.5m from my computer, never with interconnects shorter than 5m. Although its front panel looked nice enough, I tended to orient the Proton in such a way that its rear paneland the LEDs thereonwere in easy view. Playback software was Stephen Booth's Decibel (v1.0.2) on an Apple iMac G5 (OS 10.6.7), playing a selection of AIFF and WAV files of resolutions up to 24-bit/176.4kHz.
During use, the Proton's sample-rate indicators were consistent in correctly signaling the sample-rate families represented by various music files. The majority of the files on my hard drive are 44.1kHz AIFF, ripped from bog-standard CDs, so the 44.1kHz LED was on most of the time. High-resolution 192kHz files lit the Proton's 96kHz light (and sounded fine), while 176.4kHz downloads from HDtracks.com (their Rolling Stones catalog is very recommendable) and Fidelio Records activated the Proton's 88.2kHz light. The 48kHz LED didn't see a whole lot of action.
Nuances of timing. Momentum and flow. That's what it all comes down to.
I've heard CD players, CD transports, and DACs that can compete with analog sources in almost every other respect: scale, texture, spatial presentation, drama. But digital audio products that allow recorded sound to really flow like music, to convey the manner in which a performer can lean into the beat, to reproduce the organic randomness that spells the difference between human music-making and the mechanical, are rare.
I'm not talking about hearing something new in your records, something you've never heard before: A lot of the time that's just bullshit. I'm talking about the manner in which good hi-fi gives you more of what you already like. More of Heifetz's precision, or Kreisler's portamento. More of Sinatra's swaggery timing. More of what made Clarence Clarence and Jimi Jimi. Months ago, Wavelength's Cosecant USB D/A converter ($3500, reviewed in June 2009) brought a surprising number of those musical qualities to my system; this summer, the $900 Proton came crazily close.
Well-recorded music sounded consistently fine through the Proton. Phillips, Grier & Flinner's recording of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," ripped from their Looking Back (CD, Compass 7-4342-2), had a roomful of real-sounding string texture and tone, with fine scale and physical presence. Todd Phillips's string bass was as sinewy as it was deep and colorful, and the treble strings of David Grier's acoustic guitar had just the right amount of biteand no more. Nikolai Lugansky's beautiful performance of Chopin's Prelude 15 in D-flat (ripped from CD, Erato 0927-42836-2) was musically charming, the young Lugansky's very Romantic approach reproduced with all its fat, colorful curves intact. And the sound of Daniel Myssyk and the Ensemble Instrumental Appassionata playing the Rondeau of Mozart's Serenata Notturna, K.239 (24/176.4 flash card, Fidelio) ranked among the finest digital playback experiences I've had at home: a perfect spatial balance between soloist and ensemble, and a very convincing reproduction of instrumental sounds, from the slight to the thunderous.
The Proton also succeeded in pulling good sound out of average recordings. Drummer Michael Clarke's ride cymbal throughout the Byrds' Mr. Tambourine Man (ripped from CD, Columbia CK 64845) sounded appreciably less hashy and artificial through the Wavelength Proton than through Furutech's ADL GT40. More important, the Proton did a better job of putting across the sheer propulsiveness of the music, especially of numbers such as "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" and "The Bells of Rhymney." (I admit, I love those old video clips from Shindig! and The Hollywood Bowl, where teenage girls dance in their seats to a song about dead Welsh coal miners.) Even on a wobbly-ass old recording like Clarence Ashley's "House Carpenter" (ripped from CD, Anthology of American Folk Music, Smithsonian Folkways FP 251), the Wavelength Proton got the sound and the music right: the momentum in Ashley's relentless banjo frailing, the irony in his weirdly detached singing style, the full tragic weight of this ballad.
Compared to the more expensive machines with which I've spent timethe Ayre Acoustics QB-9 and the above-mentioned Wavelength Cosecantthe Proton was a bit less dynamic and dramatic. With loud vocal music in particular, such as the choruses in Hot Rize's "Won't You Come and Sing for Me" (ripped from CD, So Long of a Journey, Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3943), I could hear a trace of strain through the Proton. And in a more general sense, although the Proton was consistently involving, those more expensive players offered even greater levels of excitement, from the obvious down to the subtle. On the other hand, I have yet to hear a USB DAC at any price that embarrasses the less-expensive Wavelength in its ability to suggest tonal complexity. The Proton allowed recorded music to sound more naturally colorful and textured than any DAC I've heard costing less than $2500.
Given that Wavelength Audio has always been associated with handmade tube electronics, and given my fondness for all things tube, the thoroughly solid-state Proton was the one Wavelength product in which I had the least interest. That changed soon after Gordon Rankin sent me a Protonand while what I'm about to say has become a tatty cliché in some hands, the fact remains: I bought my review sample.
The USB DAC market is wide open: fast and fun. You can do well for less, and surprisingly well for morebut in my experience, you can't do better for $900. And coming as it does from a company with such an excellent reputation for staying ahead of the technology curve, the wonderful-sounding and very high-value Wavelength Proton is an easy recommendation.