Wavelength Cosecant v3 USB digital/analog converter Page 3
A very few albums sounded slightly better through the Sony. All were recordings of classical music, and the quality that held back every one of them was that it sounded a little too smooth through the computer system, and seemed to have more convincing sonic texture when played back as a CD. One of those was the very nice recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto by Hilary Hahn, with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra (SACD/CD, Deutsche Grammophon 00289 474 8732), itself a recent recording. (I based my comparison on that release's PCM layer; in any event, whenever I put a single-layer SACD into the optical drive, my iMac spit it back out.)
That raised a question: What, if any, performance distinctions were there between a DSD recording played through the Sony SACD player and its PCM doppelgänger played through the iMac-Cosecant combo? For me, the comparison was surprisingly ambiguous: I preferred elements of the computer-based soundagain, it seemed more open, in particularbut at the end of the day, the DSD playback was more compelling, more involving, more emotionally fulfilling.
Other comparisons were similarly inviting. During the review period, Wavelength's Gordon Rankin made available a zero-oversampling Transcendental D/A module for my sample of the Cosecant. Installation was unsurprisingly simple: I timed myself at just under eight minutes, from playback to playback. Performance, however, really was a bit of a surprise: I'd expected I would consistently prefer the zero-oversampling unitand I didn't.
Yes: On some recordings, such as Tony Rice's classic Plays and Sings Bluegrass (CD, Rounder 0253), the zero-oversampling DAC was indeed more convincing, and the textures of singing voices themselves sounded more naturalespecially in softer phrases, where the singing was notably "breathier" through the Transcendental. On the other hand, listening to a true 24-bit file sampled at 88.2kHz of Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque, from Cantus's While You Are Alive (CD, Cantus CTS-1208), supplied to me by recording engineer JA, the Numerator was clearly superior: not just smoother in a good way, but more human and substantial, too. Subtle detail retrieval was also markedly superior through the 24-bit Numerator: What sounded through the Transcendental like an artificial beating in the sound of the tenor's voice resolved itself, through the Numerator, into a mild vibrato.
In any event, I switched between the two modules a few times during the review period. Overall, with the majority of recordings, I preferred the Numerator: It was seldom weaker than the Transcendental in its core musical performance, yet it virtually always sounded better: prettier, smoother, more listenable over the long term.
Against the Brick
More interesting still were the differences between the Cosecant v3 and a recent sample of the less expensive Wavelength Brick. (I couldn't base the comparison on the exact same design that I reviewed for the September 2005 Stereophile; the Brick, too, has been upgraded with Gordon Rankin's asynchronous-mode USB controller.) The best word to describe how the Cosecant improved on the Brick's performanceand it did, clearly if not quite whompilyis refinement. Both products were musically satisfying, but the Cosecant played music with a little more bass depth, considerably more treble air and openness, and a great deal more color. In "Have You Ever Been to England," from David Grier's Hootenanny (CD, Dreadnought 9801), Dirk Powell's banjo sounded much more musical and, again, colorful through the Cosecant, especially in the opening barswhereas it sounded merely percussive and actually a bit raspy through the Brick. The same sorts of improvements followed the Cosecant through to the next number, "High Dad in the Morning," where Powell's accordion and Tim O'Brien's fiddle were timbrally richer than through the Brick. On that number, the Wavelength Cosecant also gave a much clearer rendition of the occasional moments in the song when one of the players stomps his foot for a few measures.
With all of the selections I tried, the Wavelength Brick was reliably tuneful and rhythmically engaging; the Cosecant v3 was always at least as good in those same respectsbut it sounded consistently better as well. And one more small difference: For whatever reason, the Brick didn't require a ground lead for hum-free performance.
For me, there's only one: With plans in store to buy a Wavelength Cosecant v3 (and, eventually, an extra computer hard drive), I've gone to work ripping the rest of my CD collection. What a wonderful way to put those unused minutes to work, especially while I'm on the phone; and what a wonderful way to finally, once and for all, weed out the crappy CDs I'll never listen toincluding but not limited to Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular, Robin and the 7 Hoods, and The Jethro Tull Christmas Album.
In recent years, a number of high-end writers, myself included, have remarked on the apparent contradiction between Wavelength Audio's two major product lines: single-ended tube amplifiers on the one hand, USB DACs on the other. I've come to where I see more consistency than conflict: Both are eminently musical, both could claim to be among the best examples of their genresand both simply must be heard by anyone who wants the best. Buying a high-quality USB DAC such as the Cosecant v3 is no longer to be seen as a gamble: It's a sure thing.