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.
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."
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.
My first exposure to Burmester electronics was some years back at a New York Hi-Fi Show, where they were powering a pair of B&W 801s and impressed the hell out of me. But Burmester's distribution seemed sporadic and the prices beyond my consideration, so I put them out of my mind.
California Audio Labs is a child of the digital age. Originally, they made a noise by offering modified CD players with tube output stages, a practice for which I found no intellectual justification. On the other hand, the results were successful, even if (probably) due to the CAL units' softening of the harshness of early digital sound.
In 1989, Cambridge Audio, then run by Stan Curtiswho is still active in hi-fi introduced their DAC 1. At about the same time, within a few weeks of each other, Arcam introduced their Delta Black Box and Musical Fidelity their Digilog. I forget who was first among the three. Arcam, I think. But the DAC race was on, led by the British. (There was even a DAC called the Dacula.) US companies got into the DAC race, tooat higher prices, of course.
The Dragon Pro is, I believe, the most eagerly awaited of the Camelot products. Since the disappearance of Audio Alchemy's DTIPro 32, no comparable anti-jitter and resolution-enhancement product has come along to replace it. (Yes, there are simpler anti-jitter boxes, and there is the Genesis Digital Lens, but these are not truly comparable in approach.) Well, the Dragon is everything that the DTIPro 32 was, and more!
The Dragon Pro anti-jitter box offers both jitter reduction and resolution enhancement, along with I2S in/out. Considering the number of Web newsgroup ads from folks wanting to buy AA DTIPro 32s, this baby has a waiting market.
The apparent demise of Audio Alchemy left a niche in the marketplace for a supplier of innovative, high-value digital components to provide the less-than-wealthy audiophile with state-of-the-art technology. Although Camelot Technology existed before Audio Alchemy went away, they have quickly taken over this niche with some interesting components. And I understand that some of the former AA technical personnel consulted for Camelot in the development of these products. (A recent press release indicates that Genesis Technology also played a major role in their design.)
Sure, Stereophile gets letters to the editor. We also get some colorful responses for our "Manufacturers' Comments" section. (Vince Bruzzese and Roy Hall are literary standouts among their component-making peers.) And, as one of the magazine's Contributing Editors (Audio), I get lots of personal mail from readers seeking my advice. I thought I might share some of these letters with you, and my responses.
I was stumbling through the Denver Convention Center at CEDIA 2006 when I spotted John Franks, of Chord Electronics, and Jay Rein, of Chord's US importer, Bluebird Music, stranded in the basement purgatory for "niche" products. I couldn't resist asking, "What sin relegated you guys to this little hell?"
There's home cooking on one side of the hedge and fast food on the other, and the world moves farther from the former and nearer to the latter with each passing day. So it goes in domestic audio, where virtually every new milestone of the past quarter-century has pointed far more toward convenience than toward quality.
Depressed? Don't be. Those of us in the perfectionist community have a history of dealing with such things, howsoever slowly and inefficiently. (footnote 1). We're getting better at it, too, year by year. An example: Chord Electronics, of sunny southern England, has now brought to market their Chordette Gem D/A converter ($799) which they offer as an affordable means of getting perfectionist-quality sound from computer-music files.