Digital Processor Reviews

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Herb Reichert  |  Jan 26, 2024  |  26 comments
I can roll out of bed and install a $10,000 phono cartridge while finishing my coffee, but I postpone DAC installations until I am in the exact right mood to handle the potential stress—especially DACs with a touch screen and a complex menu. To my delight, Ferrum Audio's new Wandla digital converter was completely stress-free to install. It took only minutes to connect the USB-C cable, the Cardas Audio Clear Beyond interconnects, and 24V DC power adapter.

Connecting the power adapter caused a power-switch symbol to appear on the front panel touch screen. The moment I touched it, I smiled like the Cheshire Cat, because I saw a USB-C symbol, a loudspeaker symbol, three dots in a box, and a volume control bargraph. That told me the Wandla recognized my chosen input and was waiting for a signal. All that remained was for my Roon Nucleus+ server to recognize and enable the new DAC, which it did without prodding or reprimand. For me, that was a wow moment, a good start to what promised to be an interesting review.

John Atkinson  |  Jan 10, 2024  |  13 comments
Three products were recently subjected to second opinions: I reviewed the revised RS250A version of HiFi Rose's RS250 streaming D/A preamplifier and the optional DC1 DAC module for Audio Research's I/50 integrated amplifier; Ken Micallef wrote about his time with the Volti Razz loudspeaker.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Dec 20, 2023  |  45 comments
I've been running a 5.1 system for years. Recently, I expanded it to 5.3 with the addition of two more subwoofers. This system is manageable with one of my eight-channel DACs.

Even more recently, I dipped my toe into Dolby Atmos, which made it necessary to lash up at least four more channels. That was a big problem, since neither JRiver nor Roon can support and sync more than one output device at a time, and the multichannel DACs I already owned tap out at eight channels.

I turned to the Arvus H2-4D Renderer, which offers 16 channels of digital output over AES3 and 16 channels of balanced-analog output. This worked, but piping everything through the Arvus meant forswearing DSP, including DiracLive. I really needed a DAC with at least 12 channels.

The Merging+Hapi has been around for years...

Martin Colloms  |  Dec 14, 2023  |  1 comments
Naim has comprehensively reimagined its Classic Series, which has been around for some 20 years with improvements along the way. Included in the new range of products is the 200 series, comprised of two products: the NAP 250 power amplifier, which I reviewed in the November 2023 issue of Stereophile, and the NSC 222 streaming preamplifier ($8999), which is reviewed here. A third component in the New Classic series, the NPX 300 power supply (also $8999), which is intended to be paired with the NSC 222 and other Naim components, is also considered in this review.
Alex Halberstadt  |  Nov 27, 2023  |  18 comments
To misquote Morrissey, some knobs are better than others. The Manley Neo-Classic 300B amplifiers that I've been listening to, for example, have a knob marked "feedback" that goes from 0 to 10. I've learned so much from using it that I've come to believe that if your amp doesn't have such a knob, it should. You see, the higher you set this control, the better the amp will measure. Applying more global negative feedback to these amps lowers their nonlinear distortion and noisefloor, increases their bandwidth, renders them less sensitive to the speaker's impedance variations and otherwise makes them more stable and efficient. In fact, by applying lots of feedback to an amplifier, it's possible to reduce distortion to barely measurable levels.

So what's the problem? Well, a few turns of the knob suggest that negative feedback isn't as useful as it appears on paper.

Tom Fine  |  Sep 01, 2023  |  9 comments
The concept of streaming digital music files over distances great (as with internet-streaming services like Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal, etc.) and small (from a home-PC hard drive, NAS, or networked music server) became mainstream only recently. But it was already brewing during the late 20th century, with people illegally downloading low-bitrate MP3 files made from CD rips and coming close to killing the recorded-music industry.

That wasn't streaming exactly, or not in the current sense, because the files needed to be downloaded, stored locally, then either played out of a computer or loaded onto a portable player, but from that point forward it was a steady march to the streaming-dominated present.

Never mind Napster—the first subscription audio "streaming" service was one you probably wouldn't think of: Audible, the audio book service now owned by Amazon, which started up in 1995. I did beta testing and editing work for early-days Audible, and around that time, I started loading up home-ripped MP3 files on a pocket-sized Rio MP3 player (which by then had replaced Audible's proprietary player), using it in place of a portable CD player. This led to experiments with a PC music library/player running Linux, controlled by a Handspring PalmOS device connected to the stereo system via a Sound Blaster 16 card.

Sasha Matson  |  Aug 08, 2023  |  8 comments
Stereophile writers and website commentors often speak to the topic of the ongoing rise in retail pricing at the upper levels of the hi-fi market. Companies producing cost-no-object designs make regular appearances in the hardware reviews published here. However, a countervailing vector is also at play in the consumer hi-fi sector: a trend toward bringing to market products that are smaller and more economical than the competition while offering an ever-increasing variety of features and continually improved performance, notably in terms of measurable specifications.

This dialectic can sometimes play out within the same company. Abbingdon Music Research (AMR), which is based in Southport, UK, was founded in 2000. At first, under the AMR brand, the company focused on high-end audio component separates with price points toward the upper end of the spectrum. The world has a way of intervening, though, even with the best-laid business plans. AMR Director Vince Luke describes in a video how his company made a deliberate choice to "pivot from high end to low end" following the financial crash of 2008. AMR's iFi Audio division debuted at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in 2012, offering a handful of portable products. They were a hit. The iFi line has since expanded to include more than 50 designs, and new products are introduced with impressive frequency.

Herb Reichert  |  Aug 03, 2023  |  7 comments
I view poetry as more than a literary genre. It's a worldview and a state of being that frames my daily experience in the supernal. I've consumed a lifetime keeping my senses peeled for authentic, manmade mysteries, especially in art and music. Music is my favorite hunting ground, and nowhere have I found mysteries as DNA-deep as the 59 takes of 29 songs recorded in only five days by Delta blues legend Robert Johnson (1911–1938). I've played the Columbia Records 1961 anthology King of the Delta Blues Singers (Columbia LP CL 1654) 100 times since my days in Chicago as a teenager, and I still haven't grasped more than a portion of its juke-joint poetics.
Sasha Matson  |  Jun 09, 2023  |  4 comments
In the 1960s, my dad gave me a Panasonic receiver with two cube speakers, just in time for the advent of FM stereo radio in the San Francisco Bay Area. Out of the blue one night, he just walked in with it. The receiver allowed me to plug in a record player, though I only had a few LPs. Later, when I went off to college, my mom took me shopping for a new stereo. I chose a Kenwood integrated amplifier—without a tuner but with the capability to plug in a tape deck, which I did. During my undergrad years, it served me well. Later, I switched to an NAD receiver, which allowed me to listen to the radio again.
John Atkinson  |  Jun 02, 2023  |  6 comments
When Art Dudley reviewed the original PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream D/A processor in Stereophile's September 2014 issue, he very much liked what he heard. "For those who've waited for a computer-friendly DAC that offers, with every type of music file, the best musicality of which DSD is capable, the PerfectWave DirectStream may be in a class by itself," he concluded. It was computer-friendly because, with an add-in card, you could connect it with USB or to an Ethernet cable and use it with, for example, Roon or JRiver.

PS Audio discontinued the original DirectStream DAC in 2022, introducing its replacement, the DirectStream MK2, priced at $7999, in January 2023. At 17" × 4" × 14", the MK2 is the same size as its predecessor, and with its gloss-black MDF top panel, it looks very similar.

Kalman Rubinson  |  May 09, 2023  |  22 comments
It has taken almost three years, but Dolby Atmos is now permeating the music-streaming sites; note that most of the recent Grammy winners are available in Atmos.

Up to now, access to Atmos has been largely restricted to HT hardware; its success for music will depend on wide availability and non-HT options for audiophile music lovers to stream and to play discs or files in Atmos, especially in lossless versions. Enter the Arvus H2-4D.

John Atkinson  |  Apr 07, 2023  |  15 comments
Stereophile has favorably reviewed many NAD amplifiers over the decades. One of the most recent was the Master Series M10 class-D streaming integrated amplifier, which I purchased to use as my daily driver after I reviewed it in January 2020. The M10's price included a free license for Dirac Live low-frequency room equalization, which I found invaluable with my long-term reference standmounts, the KEF LS50s. So when I learned that NAD was introducing a 50th Anniversary integrated amplifier, the C 3050 LE, which also included Dirac Live, I asked for a review sample.
Herb Reichert  |  Apr 05, 2023  |  59 comments
When I survey the realms of fancy-pants audio, the first thing I notice are cohorts of luxury-brand manufacturers selling pride of ownership with emblematic faceplates. After that, I spot another type of manufacturer, one that mocks the first type and aims its products at a younger, more working-class demographic, seducing potential customers with how much "truth" they are offering for only $15. But sometimes, when I look beyond the full-page ads and big rooms at audio shows, I discover a rogue manufacturer that is peddling a very specific type of listening experience, which they believe is the best. A listening experience only they could have created. I am grateful for manufacturers like this. They make my job more interesting, and I admire them for their courage in betting on their own taste in music reproduction.

I am relating these observations because this month I'm reviewing a digital converter from an off-the-paved-road audio manufacturer named Benjamin Zwickel. He operates a company called Mojo Audio, which is located in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Sasha Matson  |  Mar 31, 2023  |  1 comments
Hygge might not be the first word that comes to mind when contemplating the Primare PRE35 Prisma preamplifier, but in Limhamn, Sweden, that is how Primare likes to describe their products. It means "cozy," and it's a very important concept in the Nordic countries, almost a way of life. Another term that appears in Primare's product descriptions is lagom, which loosely translates as "not too little, not too much—just right."
Alex Halberstadt  |  Mar 02, 2023  |  13 comments
The Amtrak Empire service snakes north along the Hudson River before reaching Albany, where it pitches sharply to the west, eventually winding up in Niagara Falls. In November I rode it—the Amtrak Empire service, not Niagara Falls—from New York City to the town of Hudson, New York. On my left, the sun beat down on the river's expanse while an occasional sailboat flashed by. Above the water, the undulating domes of the Catskills, with their fading yellow and red streaks, looked like the work of an unsuccessful colorist at a busy hair salon.

I was traveling upstate to visit Rob Kalin, a founder and former CEO of the online craft marketplace Etsy and proprietor of a newish speaker company called A for Ara.

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