Since its founding in 1993, Colorado-based Ayre Acoustics has made its name with amplifiers and preamplifiers based on truly balanced, solid-state circuitry that didn't use the ubiquitous panacea of loop negative feedback to produce linear behavior. Their first digital product was the D-1x DVD player, reviewed for Stereophile by Paul Bolin in February 2003, which offered unusually good video performance. The D-1x was followed by the C-5xe and DX-5 universal players, respectively reviewed by Wes Phillips (July 2005) and Michael Fremer (December 2010). But the most intriguing digital product to come from Ayre was the QB-9 digital processor. Reviewed by WP in October 2009, the QB-9 has just one input, USB, and uses Gordon Rankin's proprietary Streamlength code to give asynchronous operation, which in theory offers the best jitter suppression. "The QB-9 isn't a computer peripheral," said Ayre's marketing manager at that time, Steve Silberman. "It makes computers real high-end music sources"a statement with which WP agreed.
These days, it seems you can't shake a stick without hitting a USB DAC, but Ayre's QB-9 ($2500) is something a little different. Ayre's marketing manager, Steve Silberman, was adamant: "The QB-9 isn't a computer peripheral. It makes computers real high-end music sources."
John Stronczer, Bel Canto Design's technical spark plug, meets my definition of an electronics renaissance man, ranging as he does from designing single-ended amps that glow in the dark (the Orfeo) to digital processors (the Aida). Actually, digital circuitry is one of John's specialties, dating back to his days at Honeywell.
It's hard to know what the best strategy is for digital upgrades. Maybe you bought your first CD player when you became convinced that the format was going to succeed, and it seemed that players were about as good as they were going to get. Some time later, you tried one of the new outboard digital processors, and the sonic improvement was such that you just had to have it. Then you replaced the player itself with a CD transport, so you could benefit from improvements in servo control and digital output circuitry. At this point you were generally happy with your digital front-end—until you read about how 16-bit DACs (which is what your processor had) were old hat now that 20-bit DACs were available. But alas, your processor couldn't be upgraded, and was worth maybe 30% of what you'd paid for it. So you took a loss and bought a new-generation digital processor, and things were fine and dandy...for a while.
Minnesota pride is a funny thing. As Garrison Keillor points out weekly on A Prairie Home Companion, to be a Minnesotan, the first and crucial step to be taken is that of self-effacement. It is unclear to me whether this is the cause or symptom of Minnesotans ability to endure brutal winters, excel at the creation and consumption of hot dish (which the rest of the God-fearing world knows as casseroles), or their miraculous lineage from generations of Norwegian bachelor farmers. Whatever it is, Minnesotans tend to quietly get their jobs done with little more fanfare than a cup of coffee and a slice of rhubarb pie.
The speed with which audiophiles have adopted a computer of some sort as their primary source of recorded music might be thought breathtaking. But with the ubiquitous Apple iPod painlessly persuading people to get used to the idea of storing their music libraries on computer hard drives, the next logical step was to access those libraries in listening rooms as well as on the move. A few months back, I wrote a basic guide to the various strategies for getting the best sound from a computer: "Music Served: Extracting Music from your PC." Since then, Minnesota manufacturer Bel Canto Design has released a product that aims to simplify matters even further.
Erick Lichte's review of Benchmark's DAC2 HGC D/A converter in this issue gave me an ideal opportunity to spill some ink on the company's ADC1 USB A/D converter. The ADC1 is housed in the same small case as the DAC (one rack unit high, half the rack unit width), and is offered with a black front panel with rack ears, or a silver aluminum panel without ears, either for $1795.
Most of this column is dedicated to two hi-fi products for the massesnot from Lvov, via Vladimir Lamm, of Lamm Industries; or from Leningrad, via Victor Khomenko, of Balanced Audio Technologies; nor from any other Soviet-born audio hero. (Neither Vladimir nor Victor is on the list of "Name of Russia" contenders for greatest Russian of all time.) Nor from any consumer audio company, but from the world of professional audio. An Iron Curtain almost separates the two.
In his July 2003 "The Fifth Element" column, John Marks enthusiastically wrote about the Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 D/A processor and headphone amplifier. Comparing its sound playing CDs with that of a three-times-more-expensive Marantz SA-14 SACD player, he concluded that the DAC 1's "Red Book" performance was at least as good as that of the Marantz, being "slightly more articulate in the musical line, and slightly more detailed in spatial nuances, particularly the localization of individual images in space, and in soundstage depth."
In 2007, I spent time with Bel Canto Design's e.One DAC3 D/A processor. In his review of the DAC3 in the November 2007 issue, John Atkinson quoted my comparison of it with the Benchmark DAC1, which I called "the Swiss army knife of audio" and "one of the only future-proof source components you can buy these days."
The Boulder 1012's is a line-level preamplifier and DAC in one box. Its design and build qualities are icons to elegant engineering know-how. No screws show on the rectangular box of large but not massive proportions, for example, which is all done up in matte aluminum and set off with a few highly polished stainless-steel buttons. The chassis construction uses tongue-and-groove techniques. The sides of the 1012 benefit from styling cues found on Boulder's newer amplifiers. As you can see from the photograph, the look is both elegant and hi-tech in a way very few other manufacturers manage.
Back in the late 1980s, it seemed a good idea: Separate a CD player's transport section from its D/A circuitry so that each could be optimally designed, and, as D/A technology improved, the sound of your CD player could be upgraded by replacing the outboard D/A processor. The catch was that the transport and D/A chassis needed to be connected with a serial data link: S/PDIF in optical or electrical flavors, or balanced AES/EBU. To minimize the number of cables required, the format of that link embedded the clock data within the audio data, which rendered the link sensitive to interface timing uncertainty, or jitter. (See "Bits Is Bits?," by Malcolm Hawksford and Chris Dunn.)
Over the years, I have used and enjoyed in my audio system large, single-purpose components. Each of these chassis has had but one role: preamplifier, amplifier, digital-to-audio converter (DAC), etc. I guess I've been just a little suspicious of products with multiple functions crammed into a single small chassis; I've figured that the designer may have cut a corner that could affect the sound.
In February 2009, I reviewed Bryston Ltd.'s first CD player, the $2695 BCD-1, and was very impressed by what I heard. The BDA-1 ($1995) is the Canadian company's first standalone DAC. It's slim, only 2.75" high, with the engraved company name, model number, and infrared sensor grouped at the extreme left of a front panel of polished aluminum. Farther to the right are two columns of four LEDs each that comprise the sample-rate indicator, which identifies the selected input's signal frequency and whether the BDA-1 has locked to it. Closer to the center is the Upsample control, which governs the conversion of the incoming digital signal synchronously to 192kHz or 176.4kHz. The Upsample LED turns green for 192kHz, red for 176.4kHz. Digital sources are selected by pressing one of eight pushbuttons just right of center: two TosLink, four S/PDIF (coaxial), one AES/EBU XLR, and one USB 1.1, the last accepting only signals with sample rates at or below 48kHz. An LED above each pushbutton lights green for an incoming PCM datastreams and red for other types, including multichannel Dolby Digital streams.