The dual subwoofers were bumping and our pant legs were flapping. Only moments before, we'd been treated to a polite viola da gamba. Not now. Resolution Audio's designer, Jeff Kalt, had brought only two discs with him to ensure that his company's Cantata Music Center was functioning properly in my system: Jordi Savall and Hespérion XXI's Altre Follie, 15001750 (CD, Alia Vox 9844), and Tool's 10,000 Days (CD, Tool Dissectional/Volcano 81991). After changing a few things around with the chamber music, we'd advanced to the hard rock of Tool.
Oh boy, another new DAC review. Some folks think DACs, once you get past the features, all sound pretty much the same. I mean, it's just digital. Well, they're right. Pretty much. Just as two new cars of a particular make, model, color, and options package both look the same, sitting there on the lot.
But if you discover a ding in the door of one of them, where most folks still see only a new car, you now see the ding. It might have been there all along, undetected the first few times you walked around the carmaybe your buddy even had to point it out to you. It's insignificant in the scheme of all that a new car is, but once you've seen it, you always see it. Now you can easily tell the two cars apart, and we both know which one you'll drive home.
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.
As metaphors go, the silver bullet is somewhat ambiguous, given that it's used to represent both the reliably destructive and the reliably beneficial. (Who would have guessed that an idea from a Lon Cheney Jr. film would prove too subtle and complex for people in the 21st century?) Nevertheless, at Montreal's Salon Son et Image on April 2, those of us who comprised Stereophile's reliably responsive "Ask the Editors" panelJohn Atkinson, Robert Deutsch, and Ivolleyed it with the sort of sprightly, vernal abandon that is the sole province of men with gray hair. To wit: We agreed that no materials, technologies, or design decisions can either guarantee or prevent good sound. Not vinyl. Not star grounding. Not class-A circuits. Neither tubes nor transistors. Neither belt nor idler nor electrostats nor multiway nor single-driver nor copper nor silver nor silk nor beryllium. Not even harmonic distortion. Each of those ideas may mean something to someone, in the short term, in the narrow view, but that's all. There are no silver bullets.
"We like to make things," Roy Gandy, Rega's founder and owner, once told me. "It's what we do." Or maybe it was Rega's chairman and chief engineering honcho, Terry Bateman. Rega products are designed and manufactured in the south of England. So far as I know, no one at the Rega facility, on the Temple Farm Industrial Estate, has committed suicide; the same cannot be said of workers at the factory in China where iPods are made. Al Gore is on the board of Apple. Al, what do you think?
A computer is not optimized for the uninterrupted streaming of audio data. It has rapidly become established wisdom, therefore, that the optimal means of extracting audio data from a computer's USB port is to operate that port in what is called "asynchronous isochronous" mode. This lets the receiving device, such as a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), control the flow of data from the PC. In theory, asynchronous USB operation (not to be confused with the asynchronous sample-rate conversion used in some DACs) reduces jitter to unmeasurable levels, depending on the accuracy of the receiver's fixed-frequency oscillator, which is used to clock the data to the DAC. By contrast, in the alternative and almost ubiquitous USB operating mode, called "adaptive isochronous," while the sample rate of the output data, averaged over a longish period, will indeed be the specified 44.1 or 48kHz, there will be short-term fluctuations, or jitter, due to the oscillator having to change its frequency every millisecond to match the uncertain rate of data flow from the PC.
The M1 DAC is by Musical Fidelity. At $699, it's a stunning bargain. Comparing it to $995 for the Digilog in 1989. Meanwhile, the M1 is far more versatile, way better built, and, if memory serves me right, sounds vastly better.
It appears that the way to sell a DAC in 2011 is to almost give it away, in real-dollar terms. Some people pay far more than this for a set of speaker cables, a pair of interconnects, even a power cord. The M1 DAC is a piece of kit that can transform your system. I kid you not.
Art Dudley and others have covered the first products released by HRT, and now the company has added to its product line a Pro version of its Music Streamer, which sports balanced circuit design from tip to tail.
Housed in the same simple, functional, six-sided case of extruded aluminum as HRT's other products, the Pro is painted a bright blue to distinguish it from the Music Streamer II (red) and Music Streamer II+ (gray). At 5.6" it is also a tad longer than the others, and includes a single B-type USB 1.1 jack centered on one end, and two small, fully balanced TiniQ output jacks on the other. More about these special mini sockets later.
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.
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.
The weekly Vote! Page is one of the most popular features of the Stereophile website, and the August 22 question, "Should Stereophile review more or fewer computer-audio products?", generated a record number of responses. No less than 88% of those responding asked for more coverage of products that allow a computer to be a legitimate source of music in a high-end context. Just 7% of readers wanted less coverage.
As with so many other things, from cell phones to soy milk, the idea of a portable MP3 player was something I at first disdained, only to later embrace with the fervor of any reformed sinner. But not so the idea of a high-fidelity iPod dock: Given that I now carry around several hundred high-resolution AIFF files on my own Apple iPod Touch, the usefulness of a compatible transport seemed obvious from the start. Look at it this way: In 1970, whenever I bought a music recording, I could enjoy it on any player, in any room in the house. In 2010, why shouldn't I enjoy at least that degree of convenience and flexibilitywithout resorting to a pair of tinny, uncomfortable earbuds?
Even Mikey Fremer is surprised at vinyl's current popularity. Some pundits postulate that eventually CDs will die out, and we'll be faced with the choice of LPs or downloads. (I hope not. I'm just getting used to CDs.) With abundant sources of new pop releases and a wide range of reissues on vinyl, and a variety of used LPs, every audiophile should own a turntable. And with the availability of affordable turntables such as the Pro-Ject Debut III, which I reviewed in the February 2010 Stereophile, the cost of entry to VinylLand is not very dear. The problem is that so few entry-level integrated amplifiers and receivers available today include phono stages. (The Marantz PM5003, which I reviewed in the January 2010 issue, is a notable exception.)
When it comes to ripping CDs and downloading music, I've been sitting on the sidelines feeling more than a bit of envy. Stereophile's reviews of various media servers have whetted my appetite, but not so much as to overcome my timidity about getting into a new realm of technology in which I would be a beginner all over again. Still, I've sneaked a few peeks.
As long as you're spinning an LP for your listening pleasure, and if digitizing it at a resolution of 24-bit/192kHz is transparent to the analog source, why not record and store the LP on your computer at that high sampling rate for future convenient playback via iTunes or for iPod use, or for burning to CD-R? And, while you're at it, why not record the LP unequalized and apply the RIAA curve in the digital domain, where you're not dependent on capacitors and resistors that are imprecise to begin with, and can drift over time? With no drift of phase or value, the virtual filter's results should be better than with any analog filter. And in the digital domain, you can program in any curve known, and select it at the click of a mouse. Aside from the sweat equity invested in programming it in the first place, it wouldn't add a penny to the program's cost.