I think any newish company launching yet another expensive (ie, anything over $2000) digital-to-analog converter on the roiling waters of the audiophile marketplace needs at least two things: a truly great product, and a good story to tell. I think Bricasti Design Ltd., of Medford, Massachusetts, has both.
I've been reading a fascinating book, Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (New York: Viking, 1998). Shlain's thesis is that the invention of the alphabet was the cause of immense changes in primitive society, upsetting previously widespread norms of gender equality and horizontal (rather than hierarchical) social relations in general.
As an equipment reviewer, I find it helpful to talk to audiophiles and music lovers about their systems and upgrade plans. Fortunately, Stereophile's computer supplier and troubleshooter, Michael Mandel, also happens to be an avid audiophile. I say "fortunately" because I rarely get a chance to talk to people who put down their hard-earned money for hi-fi components. Instead, I usually converse with equipment designers, technicians, and marketing types, hardly people who reflect the buying public. It is thus a valuable education to get feedback from real-world consumers to find out what kind of products they want, their priorities, and how much they're willing to spend for certain levels of performance. They have a view distinctly different from that of the often jaded reviewer who is used to enjoying the best (albeit temporarily) without agonizing over its cost.
We audiophiles are ever hopeful that, however satisfying our present equipment and setup, we can achieve even greater enjoyment with a tweak or an upgrade. And we never stop: It was only 16 years (and three turntables) ago that I bought what I declared would be my last turntable, and there's no doubt that this "dead" format has improved substantially since then. Now, even as we make another (but less paradigm-shifting) format transition, from CD to SACD and DVD-Audio, new two-channel DACs continue to appear that show us how far we still are from wresting all the music from the original "Red Book" 16-bit CD format. I reviewed the wonderful Weiss Medea DAC in February 2003, and there are still on my auditioning rack are two more Swiss DACs that might redefine the category: the Orpheus 1 and the Nagra DAP.
I find it more than a little ironic that in 1990 the only two digital-to-analog converters to employ a new state-of-the-art DAC also use vacuum tubes. Many in the audio community consider tubes an anachronism, and find it surprising and humorous that they are still used in newly designed audio products. The fact remains, however, that these two tubed digital processors achieve the best digital playback currently availableand by a wide margin. Moreover, their respective designers' technical savvy and passion for building leading-edge products is reflected in their choice of these superlative and very expensive new DACs. Is it mere coincidence that both designers also chose vacuum tubes to realize their vision of no-compromise digital playback?
For the audiophile modernist, a DAC with volume control is the straightest path between the music server or network stream and your amp and speakers. If you've fully embraced networked audio, there's no need for fussy preamps with their analog inputs, analog volume controls, and [gasp!] phono stages. Find a digital source, a DAC with volume, and go.
Ain't technology grand! That's what I was thinking while driving to work this morning. Sure, the rain was coming down in buckets, but there I was sitting comfortably in a warm car, listening to music while making tracks at 50mph. A long way from horse-and-buggy days.
History teaches us that the full flowering of any social phenomenon takes place after the seeds of its destruction have been sown. That tourist magnet, London's Buckingham Palace, for example, was built decades after the English Revolution and the Restoration had redefined the role of the British monarchy as being merely titular, and made the elected Parliament the real seat of power.
During an Audio Engineering Society meeting where a former colleague of mine was giving an arcane technical discussion of the optical considerations of data retrieval from a Compact Disc, a longtime AES member whispered to me: "What happened to the good old days of AES meetings when we talked about things like tape bias and saturation?"
Rather a mouthful, the name of this digital decoder is derived from that of the designer, Robert Wadia Moses. The "computer" part of the title relates to the custom digital filter function generated by a set of 32-bit microprocessors: for simplicity's sake, I shall abbreviate the name to "WD1000." A more expensive version, called the '2000, sells for $6995, and carries some additional features and details. The resampling rate is increased to 64x in the '2000, with the additional optical and digital input switching and the main power supplies each contained in separate additional enclosures.
Last December, when Wadia Digital announced that it was releasing an iPod docking cradle that could access the digital signal before it had passed through the player's own D/A converter, many audiopundits were surprised. I was disbelieving, and nearly told Wadia's John Schaffer that he was shining me on. After all, Apple has tiptoed around the whole issue of consumers being able to digitally copy their iTunes files, going so far as to wrap its iTunes Music Store files in digital rights management (DRM) code.
I don't remember where I was when the Berlin Wall came down, and I already don't remember what I was doing when Liz Taylor died. (I suppose I was busy not thinking about Liz Taylor.) But I do remember when USB-based computer audio became a serious medium: That was when Gordon Rankin, of Wavelength Audio, introduced asynchronous data streaming, with his proprietary Streamlength software. After that, things picked up speed.
While my enthusiasm for the long-discontinued Sony PlayStation 1 remains high (see the July 2008 Stereophile), I freely acknowledge that not every high-end audio enthusiast wants a CD player with an injection-molded chassis, a Robot Commando handset, and a remarkable lack of long-term reliability: Yes, the Sony sounds wonderful, but sound isn't everything.
One of the better digital front-ends I've ever heard was demonstrated for me a number of years ago at the house of an audiophile friend: a Weiss Engineering combo of Jason CD transport and Medea digital-to-analog converter. That front-end remains in my mind as one of the only digital systems I've heard that could compete with the very best that vinyl has to offer while still doing what digital does best. In other words, there were warmth and musicality, staggering dynamics, and real silent backgrounds. When, recently, I saw that the Swiss company had come out with a DAC featuring onboard volume control, a headphone amp, and a FireWire input, I knew I had to give it a listen.
Some people believe that high-end audio is mostly fluff whose cost, compared to standard professional studio electronics, is not justifiable. Moreover, they argue, if the music has been piped through any number of studio devices before it gets to your home, you can't expect to get more out of it than the studio devices will pass. Just as the argument is made about the final 6' of power cord, how can one Over-The-Top device make up for the foibles of those that precede it?