The Fifth Element #18
In addition to being the genius of satire in the English language, Jonathan Swift was also one of the pre-eminent Protestant churchmen of his day. So it is likely safe to assume that when he spoke of "extremes of high and low," he had in mind manners and morals.
But Swift's observation is equally applicable to those who manufacture audio equipment. Extracting the most performance from the least expensive design remains as evergreen an engineering challenge as is pushing the limit of diminishing returns when cost is no object.
As you might have already fathomed, this column will examine two bits of kit from the polar ends of the price spectrum: Benchmark Media System's DAC 1 ($850), and TEAC's massive two-box Esoteric P-70/D-70 CD playback system ($14,000) (footnote 1).
But first, a little marketplace context for the whole ongoing digital-front-end imbroglio. If you were surprised when I cited $850 as a polar extreme in digital playback, to the neglect of $69 portable CD players and everything in between, here's my thinking behind that. At $850, the Benchmark DAC 1 is, in my experience, the lowest-priced piece of digital gear that can give sonic performance that is not just improved mid-fi, but genuinely high-end (footnote 2). There are less-expensive CD-playing solutions, but I think that the Benchmark (and anything else with similar performance) is at the watershed point—unquestionably among the hills that lead to the highest peaks.
Digital front-ends are funny. They're the most computer-like part of any audio component, and it might appear that, because the cost of technology usually trends downward, a case can be made that one is always better off buying the latest digital products, on the theory that their overall performance will be better, and at lower cost, because the cost of computer chips keeps falling. That's a good theory, and you can choose individual cases to make it seem valid—more valid, perhaps, than it is in the real world.
This is because a digital front-end is made up of more than computer-like chips. You also must take into account casework and power supplies and transport mechanisms and lasers and analog stages. All of these things cost money, and an easy way to save money is to scrimp on these parts.
So there is no magic formula that can determine—especially at long distance—whether the owner of any given piece of digital gear should upgrade or stand pat; or, whether someone in the market for digital gear should buy a new unit, or instead take advantage of opportunities in the used market to buy older, more expensive gear that has already had the depreciation knocked out of it.
Despite the lack of a magic formula, here are some tried-and-true recommendations for digital front-ends under $1000, if the $850 (plus a transport) for the Benchmark DAC 1 (which is now my solution for most people) is out of your reach:
• Sony DVD players have historically had very good Red Book CD audio performance, and except for the absolutely cheapest model, there doesn't seem to be much difference in audio quality among the lower denizens of that price list. The DVPNS325 (list price $120), is good. Comparable Panasonic and Pioneer DVD units are also good digital sound sources. You should not be surprised if any of them sounds better than a 10- or 15-year old CD player, perhaps owing to DVD players' 24-bit/96kHz data-handling capability.
• Marantz's CC4300 is a CD changer with surprisingly good sound and a very reasonable list price of $299 (often discounted). A headphone jack with volume control is a nice feature. Marantz has always represented good, solid, entry-level audiophile value for money in CD players. With their top tier now consisting of combined SACD/CD players, Marantz's bottom tier is sounding better than ever, and is competitively priced.
• Sony's NS-755V CD/DVD-V/SACD combo player, at a list price of $399 (often discounted), is quite good. But it's your call whether taking the SACD plunge is justified by the number of SACD titles out there that are not just warmed-over PCM but real improvements over their CD incarnations.
• In my estimation, the best CD playback for the least money is to be had by buying (on the used market) an older Enlightened Audio Designs home-theater processor and using it in Stereo mode as a DAC/line stage. My old friend Scot Markwell (of The Abso!ute Sound) has for quite some time used an EAD processor and a Forsell transport as his digital front-end, and that combination is not to be sneezed at. There is usually a selection of EAD HT processors and DACs available on Audiogon for reasonable money ($500-$1000). Less frequently, EAD's excellent transports appear at slightly lower prices. EAD's one-box CD-playing solution, the Ultradisc 2000, usually has a higher asking price than the processors. (I bet this is because most audiophiles are so persnickety that the idea of all those unused channels in an HT processor keeps them up at night.)
Footnote 1: Benchmark sells mostly through professional audio dealers, but if you buy directly from them at (800) 262-4675 or their website, they offer a 30-day, no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee. TEAC's website is www.teac.co.jp/av.
Footnote 2: The Benchmark DAC 1 requires a separate transport, but a usable transport with an S/PDIF or optical out can be had on the used market for comparative peanuts, and DVD players with digital outs and truly excellent tracking and jitter performance can be had for well under $200.