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.)
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.
We are now well past the era in which every review of digital playback equipment had to begin with an apology for the medium. CD replay performance may, in fact, now be bumping up against a glass ceiling. But that doesn't discourage high-end audio manufacturers from trying to advance the art, and tempt audiophiles (at least those among us who are not hopeless digiphobes) out of our minds.
Let's say you play a CD on a poor-quality CD transport and store the digital audio data in a massive computer memory. You then repeat the process, but this time play the CD into the memory from the finest CD transport extant (say, the Mark Levinson No.31). A week later you feed the two sets of data from the massive memory into a digital processor and listen to the music. Would the CD transports' sonic signatures be removed from the signal? Could you hear a difference between the transports a week later?
With the introduction of Audio Alchemy's Digital Transmission Interface (DTI) more than three years ago, the company created an entirely new category of hi-fi product: the jitter filter. The original DTI was a good start, but didn't always improve the sound of the better-quality digital front-ends.
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.]
John Stronczer, Bel Canto Design's technical spark plug, meets my definition of an electronics renaissance man, ranging as he does from designing single-ended amps that glow in the dark (the Orfeo) to digital processors (the Aida). Actually, digital circuitry is one of John's specialties, dating back to his days at Honeywell.
The arrival of the Mark Levinson No.30 digital processor more than 2½ years ago marked a turning point in digital-audio reproduction. Although the No.30's $13,950 price tag put it out of reach of all but a few audiophiles, its stunning performance suggested that much more musical information was encoded on our CDs, waiting to be recovered by better digital processors. Further, it was inevitable that this level of performance would become less expensive over time. I was more excited by the No.30 than I've been over any other audio product. In fact, its musical performance was so spectacular that it alone occupied the Class A category in Stereophile's "Recommended Components."
I feel privileged to have followed the remarkable evolution of digital processors over the past four-and-a-half years. Since my first digital review—a survey of three modified CD players back in August 1989—I've been fascinated by the developments that have inexorably improved the quality of digitally reproduced music.
When a manufacturer sets out to design and build a product, be it in high-end audio or any other field, the final retail price is usually a prime consideration. Parts and assembly are only part of the equation; there also must be enough buyers to amortize the design and development costs. If the product is to be a flagship modelsomething a company hopes will give a lift to its entire lineengineers will sometimes throw caution to the winds, designing a product without thought to its ultimate price, which is only set after the design is complete. When Madrigal Audio Laboratories set out to design their No.30 Reference Digital Processor, they appear to have chosen exactly this approach.
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.
Since the first digital processor on the market using UltraAnalog DACs appeared (the $12,000 Stax DAC-X1t, reviewed in August 1990, Vol.13 No.8), there has been a proliferation of good-sounding processors using this extraordinaryand expensivepart. Among these are the Audio Research DAC1, Audio Research DAC1-20, VTL Reference D/A, and the groundbreaking Mark Levinson No.30 reviewed last month.
Over the past two and a half years, I've auditioned and reviewed a number of digital audio products. It has been a fascinating experience both to watch digital playback technology evolve and to listen to the results of various design philosophies. The road to more musical digital audio has been a slow and steady climb, with occasional jumps forward made possible by new techniques and technologies. Making this odyssey even more interesting (and confounding), digital processors seem to offer varying interpretations of the music rather than striving toward a common ideal of presenting what's on the disc without editorial interjection.