There are as many ways of designing a digital-to-analog converter as there are engineers. One approach is to select parts from manufacturers' data books and build the product according to the "application notes" provided by the parts manufacturers. This is the electronic equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit.
A more creative engineer may add a few tricks of his own to the standard brew. Bigger and better regulated power supplies, careful circuit-board layout, tweaky passive components, and attention to detail will likely make this designer's product sound better than the same basic building blocks implemented without this care. Indeed, the vast range of sonic flavors from digital processors containing very nearly the same parts attests to the designer's influence over a digital processor's sound.
The High End is a tidily ordered world. There are CD players, transports, and processors used to play stereo recordings and drive stereo preamplifiers. There are stereo or mono amplifiers used to drive a pair of speakers. And then there is the British high-end company Meridian, run by one J. Robert Stuart, one of audio's deeper thinkers and a Fellow of the Audio Engineering Society. Meridian does it their way. They put their amplifiers inside their speakers. Heck, Meridian even puts their D/A processors inside their speakers when they can. And two speakers to play back stereo recordings? Meridian believes in re-creating the original soundfield no matter how many speakers and channels it takes to do it right. And they do it sufficiently successfully that their Digital Theatre system, which does all of the above, was one of Stereophile's joint Home Theater products of 1995. [See also the 2000 review of their Series 800 Digital Theatre.—Ed.]
It's been a while since I auditioned a Meridian CD player in my system. I had enthusiastically reviewed the English company's groundbreaking Pro-MCD player in early 1986, and over the years had kept up with the progress they were making in digital playback, either through my own reviews or by performing the measurements to accompany reviews by other Stereophile writers. The 508-24 player, reviewed by Wes Phillips in May 1998, was one of the finest digital products of the 1990s, I thought. But when Meridian began promoting surround sound and DVD-Audio at the turn of the century, their goals became somewhat incompatible with my own. Yes, I can appreciate what surround playback can do, but my own musical life is still solidly rooted in Two-Channel Land.
Those of us who groan at the appearance of every new five-figure digital source component in a massively oversized chassisand who groan in greater torment when the offending manufacturer says his customer base insists on products that are styled and built and priced that waycan take heart: The appearance of such sanely sized and affordable products as the Halide Design DAC HD ($495) and the AudioQuest DragonFly ($249) would suggest that the market has a mind of its own.
Blind though I am to the allure of blind testing, I can appreciate some degree of review-sample anonymity: Distinctive products elicit distinctive responses, but a plain black box encourages us to leave our prejudices at the door. It asks of us a certain . . . objectivity.
So it was with the Micromega AS-400 digital source/integrated amplifier ($4495), the anonymity of which was compounded, in my case, by a generous helping of forgetfulness: I suppose I was told, ahead of time, that this was a class-D amplifier, but at some point in time before my first at-home audition I apparently killed the brain cells responsible for remembering that fact. So I was innocent of conscious prejudice when I listened to this elegant cipher of a box and wrote, in my notes: "Dynamic, dramatic, and almost relentlessly exciting with some recordings. Imbued pianos with almost too much dynamism for the roomtoo much being very good!but lacked some 'purr' in the die-away. Basically fine and fun. Wish it had a little more color and spatial depth."
Prelude I fell in love with the original Link DAC, as was obvious from my review in the January 1999 Stereophile. I said that "the Link redefines entry into high-quality digital sound," as it provided excellent sound and 24-bit/96kHz conversion for the remarkably low price of $349. It is as firmly ensconced in Class C of "Recommended Components" as it is in my weekend system, where it tames the digital signals from my DMX receiver and my trusty old Pioneer PD-7100 CD player.
I have a warm spot in my heart for MSB's approach to product development. They come from a tweaker heritage and still practice the art: MSB will happily install a 24-bit/192kHz upsampler in your CD player, a 5.1-channel input in your DPL amp or receiver, and true 24/96 outputs in your DVD player. Their standalone products, starting with the original Link DAC, are designed from the start to include space for later additions and enhancements.
Recently, we've seen the digital "horsepower" race accelerate with the arrival of digital sources and devices with 24-bit and 96kHz sampling capability. Much of this has been spurred by the 24/96 labels emblazoned on the newer DVD players—and, within the purer confines of the audio community, by high-end DACs with this same ability. Indeed, it's possible that the dCS Elgar DAC, near and dear to John Atkinson's heart and a perennial Class A selection in Stereophile's "Recommended Components," performs so well with standard 16-bit/44.1kHz sources because its wider digital bandwidth permits greater linearity within the more restricted range of regular CDs.
The audiophile does not pursue music reproduction because it is useful; he pursues it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If music were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and if music were not worth knowing life would not be worth living.
My apologies for corrupting the well-known statement by French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré (18541912), in which he described his relationship with science and nature. But substituting audiophile for scientist and music for nature, I feel the sentiment expresses what drives many audiophiles to the extremes for which mere mortals often chide us.
Roy Hall has been Creek Audio's US importer for more than 20 years. Did you know that all Creek gear is now made in China? Just like Cambridge Audio, Quad, and many B&W models. Just like some US speaker brands, for which virtually all parts are made in China but are assembled, it's claimed, in the US. Three cheers for brands like LFD, Rega, Sugden, and Harbethall still made in the UK. For French marques made in France. For Italian products produced in Italy. Etc.
The rapidly evolving world of the late 20th century is the source of much stress. Changes in the status quo, whether wrought by social, political, or technological forces, are often accompanied by anxiety brought on by the struggle to assimilate new patterns of thought. New ideas necessitate abandoning or modifying one's old ideas, thus creating conflict (footnote 1). However, these periods of rapid change can also be exciting, allowing one to chart a course of discovery and growth.