dCS 972 D/D converter Another dCS 972 Followup, February 2001

A further followup appeared in the February 2001 Stereophile (Vol.24 No.2).

The dCS 972 and DSD

As mentioned in my January 2001 review of the dCS Purcell, the upgraded dCS 972 D/D converter (but not the Purcell) can suck in the S/PDIF output of a 16-bit/44.1kHz CD player and convert that signal to DSD, as well as upsample it to 24-bit/192kHz. After conversion, the 972 squirts the DSD datastream to the dCS Elgar Plus through a trio of BNC-terminated S-DIF 2 digital datalinks (left, right, clock). This arrangement is apparently a hot setup in Japan so this review seemed an ideal time to check it out.

Nothing's simple. It took me half an hour of futzing with the 972, setting various parameters and dealing with the DSD-specific submenus, to get the unit to output a DSD datastream, then another 15 minutes of peering intently at the Elgar Plus manual and poking its buttons before I got a lock. But before you could say, "Awww, fawgedaboudit," the DSD LED finally lit up on the Elgar. Ah, the sweet smell of success.

One trick to remember: Deselect the dual AES inputs of the Elgar Plus and leave it on an unused input before messing around with the 972. I don't know why, but the Elgar got a little neurotic and needed a hard reset unless I followed this routine. A word to the wise...

Playing familiar material I had on both SACD and CD, I found the sound a touch thinner via the 972/Elgar Plus in DSD mode than via the rounded, more full-bodied Accuphase DP-100/DC-101 playing SACD. I found this generally to be the case, whether with material that I had dupes of on SACD or 16/44.1 recordings that I know quite well but didn't have in SACD. While the dCS gear wasn't as rich- and voluptuous-sounding as the Accuphase, it did have something of that wonderful transparency of the Marantz SA-1 that so took my breath away.

But no question, the Accuphase delivered a much sexier sound—more round and bloomy, more feminine and refined in some essential ways that I've always found to be part of the Japanese aesthetic. Any conclusions drawn from this comparison will be somewhat problematic. When comparing SACD on the Accuphase to 16/44.1 discs converted to DSD by the 972, we may be listening to apples and oranges. There's the question of the original mastering and how that was done. There's also a lot of math involved; churning 16/44.1 into DSD can't be easy, and the complex conversion alone could be responsible for the slight degradation in sound quality I noted. After all, when playing SACDs on the Accuphase, you're running in "native" format. Furthermore, it can be said that dCS is a proponent of upsampling, and thus their machines could be optimized for 24/192 playback even if they can do the parlor trick of converting 16/44.1 to DSD.

Be all that as it may, and even given all the caveats, I can appreciate why some audiophiles might like the 972/Elgar Plus DSD approach. The dynamic sweep of the sound, the bass weight, the clarity, extension, size, focus, and layering of the soundstage—all were very enjoyable to experience. Even as massed strings sounded a touch less sweet, and even as female vocals lost a bit of their roundness and palpability. I'd say CDs played via the dCS running in DSD offered a glimpse of DSD's best. But overall, in my view, the Accuphase did it better.

The other edge of the audiophile sword is that 16/44.1 CDs sounded best when upsampled to 24/192 LPCM by the 972/Elgar Plus, and at their absolute finest in conjunction with the Purcell/Elgar combo. Me, I'll stick with 24/192 for "Red Book" CDs. I can enjoy 'em forever like that!—Jonathan Scull