In more than 37 years of working at audio magazines, I have never reviewed an Electrocompaniet product. With this review of the company's ECD 2 digital/analog processor, which costs a dollar short of $3100, that streak of inattention has come to an end.
Century-old technology embedded in a modern digital design?
I realize that Aesthetix's Saturn Romulus is not the first disc player or D/A processor with tubes, nor will it be the lastbut does combining these technologies even make sense? Are audiophiles working at cross purposes to themselves, looking for modern perfection but preferring a little old-school sweetening here and there?
Now entering its fourth decade, the Compact Disc player seems to have reached a stage of maturity where the best models within a given price range will sound pretty much alike. The technology of the Compact Disc itself is set, its possibilities and limitations are well understood; and the designers of CD players who figure out how to stretch the former and finesse the latter wind up at about the same sonic place (again, for the same price), even if they've taken different routes to get there.
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.
Late last year came an epic audiophile moment: I slapped a final length of tape on the box of the awesome-sounding MSB Diamond DAC (Stereophile, October 2012), in final preparation for its trek to John Atkinson's testing lab, in Brooklyn. Next up was the Bifrost DAC from Schiit Audio. I popped it into my system, where, moments before, the MSB had held court.
From $43,325 to $449. Yowseh!!the MSB costs almost 100 times as much as the Schiit! Was this even fair?
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.
For the past few years, one of Stereophile's go-to recommendations for affordable high-performance D/A processors has been the M1DAC from British company Musical Fidelity. The M1DAC was enthusiastically reviewed by Sam Tellig in March 2011, and I wrote about the most recent version in January 2013. "Purity of tone was exceptional," decided Mr. T., which I found to be accompanied by superb measured performance, all at a very reasonable price: $749.
No history of the computer-audio marketplace could be complete without some mention of High Resolution Technologies, the California company whose Music Streamer was, in 2009, the first perfectionist-quality USB digital-to-analog converter to sell for as little as $99. One could argue that HRT's entire business model has contributed to shaping our attitudes toward the hobby: Because digital-audio technology continues to evolve at such a rapid pace, HRT has introduced a succession of newer and ever more effective Music Streamers, occasionally to the obsolescence of their predecessors; yet because those products have all been so affordableremarkably and laudably so, given their thoroughly American provenancewe tend not to mind.
You know what's fascinating? As digital audio technology matures, DAC design is not converging on a single most popular or overall best approach. Multiple design paths continue to thrive, new ones are still appearing, and each variation on the DAC theme has its adherents and side trails: bitstream, non-oversampling, upsampling, various filters, DSD playback options, and on and on.
Bratty, mollycoddled, and altogether spoiled consumers such as you and I have inflicted on computer audio the same injustice that laparoscopic surgery, antilock brakes, mobile telephones, word processors, e-mail, microwave ovens, and over-the-counter proton-pump inhibitors have suffered at our hands in recent years: In less time than it takes to say "ho-hum," we've knocked it from the pedestal to which all such breakthroughs are entitled and begun taking it for granted.
Whether one was surprised, in 2010, by the success of Peachtree Audio's iDecco may have more to do with age than anything else. My peers and I wondered, at first, who would want their high-end integrated amps to come bundled not only with digital-to-analog converters but with iPod docks, of all things; at the same time, younger hobbyists wondered who in the world still wanted their integrated amps to contain phono preamplifiers. (Respect for the elderly, myself especially, prevents me from adding "and mono switches.") Color me chastened.
As I wrote in my review of the Bricasti M1 D/A processor in February 2012, it seemed a good idea in the late 1980s: upgrade the performance of your CD player by feeding its digital output to an outboard digital/analog processor. British manufacturer Arcam, one of the first companies to see the opportunities in this strategy, introduced their Black Box in 1988. When I reviewed the Black Box in February 1989, I found that its low-level linearity was among the best I had measured at that time for a product featuring the 16-bit Philips TDA1541 DAC chip set. However, that linearity still wasn't very good in absolute terms. Back then, it required heroic and expensive engineering to obtain D/A performance that did justice to the 16-bit CD. These days, however, the semiconductor foundries produce a plethora of relatively inexpensive D/A processor chips that both handle 16-bit data with ease and wrest full resolution from 24-bit data.
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.
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.
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.