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.
Such is the pace of development in digital technology these days that it is hard not to become convinced that digital playback is a solved problem. The measured performance aberrations are so low in absolute level—and, more important, so low compared with the typical threshold of human hearing—that it is difficult to see why digital components should sound different from one another.
I was setting up for some musical demonstrations I was to present for a Music Matters evening at the ListenUp! store in Boulder, Colorado, in May 2011. For these events, an audio store invites manufacturers (and the occasional journalist) to demonstrate to local audiophiles the musical benefits of high-end audio playback. In Boulder, I was to share the store's big listening room with Dave Nauber, president of Classé Audio, who had set up a system with B&W Diamond 802 speakers, a Classé stereo amplifier, and a preproduction sample of Classé's new CP-800 preamplifier ($5000), all hooked up with AudioQuest cable. I unpacked my MacBook, with which I was going to play the high-resolution master files of some of my Stereophile recordings, and looked around for a DAC. There wasn't one.
Don't have $80,000 to drop on dCS's four-component Scarlatti SACD stack that I reviewed in August 2009, or $17,999 for their Puccini SACD/CD player that John Atkinson raved about in December 2009? Even if you do, the new Debussy D/A processor ($10,999) might be a better fit for your 21st-century audio system. Sure, you don't get an SACD transportor any kind of disc play, for that matterbut the odds today are that you already have a player you like that's got an S/PDIF output that can feed the Debussy.
Things are changing rapidly in the world of professional digital audio. After a decade of stability, with slow but steady improvement in the quality of 16-bit, 44.1kHz audio, the cry among audio engineers is now "24/96!"—meaning 24-bit data sampled at 96kHz. Not coincidentally, DVD offers audiophiles a medium with the potential for playing back music encoded at this new mastering standard.
It's now 10 years since the launch of the two high-resolution audio disc formats, SACD and DVD-Audio. Yet, perhaps partly because both were hobbled in various ways to please the record industry, perhaps partly because too many supposed hi-rez releases sounded no better than CD, and perhaps partly because record retailers weren't sure how to display the formats to their best advantage, neither took off in any substantive way. DVD-A disappeared, and SACD survived only as a niche format for high-quality classical releases in both two- and multichannel forms. As we got deeper into the same decade, digital technology, despite various sparks and flashes, went into the doldrums. Mainstream digital technology was increasingly concerned with squashing the music into fewer and more portable bits, not with increased sound quality. Even the concept of "CD sound quality" began to seem an unattainable goal, as MP3 files became the dominant music carrier.
The dCS Purcell is named after Henry Purcell, the English composer, organist, bass, countertenor who was born in 1659 and died in, alas, 1695. It's a digital/digital converter intended for consumer use, as opposed to the less elegantly packaged pro-audio version, the dCS 972, that I reviewed in February 1999. Both devices increase the sample rate and/or word length of the output from linear PCM digital audio sources like CD or DVD up to a maximum sample rate of 192kHz and a word length of 24 bits. According to the extensive documentation, this is achieved by "using extremely powerful and accurate digital interpolation filters, which yield an output signal having negligible levels of distortion."
Is anyone in this economy shopping for a four-box, rack-swallowing, two-channel SACD/CD player contending for the state of the art and costing $79,996? dCS is betting that its Scarlatti will attract a small crowd of those wealthy music enthusiasts who, in any economy, reliably pony up for the best. For the rest of us, the Scarlatti will be a spectator sport.
Giuseppe Verdi gave the world more than two dozen operas, some good sacred music, and one string quartet. He also provided the young Arturo Toscanini with one of his first big breaks—conducting the singing of "Va pensiero" at his burial procession—and gave the flagship consumer product from England's dCS Ltd. its name. That the latter two gestures were posthumous and unwitting does nothing to diminish their poetry.
Well into dCS managing director Mike Story's attempted explanation of upsampling, there came an epic moment when the ever-expanding universe of his thoughts—which we had been following to new heights of digital enlightenment—broke free of our collective grip, snapped back on itself, and caused a conceptual implosion of nearly cataclysmic proportions. The blank, spent expressions on the faces of the journalists gathered in the small attic-like meeting room at dCS's Great Chesterford (UK) facility all seemed to say, "What the hell was that? Was it just me, or did you feel that too?"
Most reviews are straightforward. One preamplifier or power amplifier replaces another. DACs are swapped out. A new pair of speakers takes up residence in the listening room.
But some products demand a complete revision of a system's architecture. Such was the case with Devialet's D-Premier ($15,995). Not only is this French product an integrated amplifier, with phono and line analog inputs; it has digital inputs and an internal D/A section.