dCS 972 D/D converter Page 4

Other bits
Up to now I've described the sound of 16/44.1-bit commercial media upsampled to the Full Monty at 24/192. But it was also interesting to play a few Chesky DVD Super Audio Discs and Classic 24/96 Digital Audio Discs upsampled from 96kHz to 192kHz. With the dCS gear set to Auto, the 972 successfully detected changes in media from CD to DVD. That's as should be; at $19k, the equipment must work intuitively, flawlessly, and as transparently as possible.

And mostly it did. But I learned to lower the volume when changing from CD to DVD or back again. Sometimes the Elgar would unmute after locking to the incoming datastream from the 972, and a spitchy blast of digital noise would erupt from the Utopias. As occurred, of course, during Stereophile Guide to Home Theater editor Thomas J. Norton's recent visit to our loft. It was worse with the Classic DADs than with the Chesky SADs, but it's hard to complain about Formula 1 performance with (mostly) plug'n'play convenience. And I'm bound to say it didn't happen when I linked the Theta Gen.V Pro 24/96 converter to the DaViD.

In the event, I played TJN a few selections from the same recordings in both the 16/44.1 and 24/192 formats. A few Cheskys I really enjoyed were Sex Without Bodies by Dave's True Story (JD164 and CHDVD174), Sara K.'s Hobo (JD155 and CHDVD177), and The Desmond Project by the John Basile Quartet (JD156 and CHDVD178). From the Classic catalog, I rode with Red Rodney's 1957 (CD PR5 and DAD 1003) and Art Davis' A Time Remembered (JPCD 4001 and DAD 1001).

Afterward, Tom remarked that the 24/96 source material for sure sounded better than 16/44.1. Yup. (Major Tom's a man of few words, even if I most decidedly am not!) I'd characterize the DVD source material as more focused, coherent, and transparent, with slightly better-controlled bass and sweeter, more delineated highs. The midrange was just that much more developed in the DAD/SAD source material; so was image specificity.

Slowing things down from 192 to 96kHz via the dCS was interesting. I was struck immediately by the deterioration in the bass—it sounded more reticent and less fully developed. Then, too, the soundstage shrank about 10% or so, and there was a bit more grain. Most troubling, there was a definite loss of air, and of that special ease so endemic to 24/192.

Then I bypassed the 972 and went directly from the DaViD into the Elgar in "native mode," 24/96. The Elgar locked to all DVD discs with no difficulty. The sound had a touch more body and color than when I'd listened to the same 24/96 signal routed through the 972 without benefit of upsampling. Of course, it's somewhat academic: you'd hardly run a 972 at only half its potential speed. More to the point, in comparison to upsampled 24/192, 24/96 direct sounded a tad slower, thicker, and less transparent, the air heavier and more humid, with a bit more interstitial hash and slightly less focus. Also, the bass in 24/96 direct was a touch less in control when compared to upsampled 192kHz. While the 24/96 midrange was beautifully developed, especially in comparison to 16/44.1, it was still slightly more grainy than 24/192. Of course, both formats comprehensively destroyed 16/44.1, may it rest in pieces...er, bits.

Another diversion involved keeping the sampling rate at 192kHz and dropping the bit depth from 24 to 20, then 16 bits. (Intermediate steps are available, but even I have a life!) Dropping bits was much less destructive to good sound than lowering the sampling rate. I still heard some of that wonderful delicacy in the midrange and the highs, and the bass sounded better controlled than it had when dropping the sampling rate. But there was definitely less ease and grace to the presentation; everything sounded a bit more forced. As I dropped the bit rate down to 16 the highs were slightly more closed-in, the soundstage more homogenized. Heading back up again, I felt better at 20 bits, a good deal better at 22 bits, and 24 big ones were just fantabulous! For me, that's where it's at: 24/192...forever!

Running the 972/Elgar into a preamplifier was interesting. I found a frisson more energy, drive, and stomp with an active linestage in the loop, but, as you might guess, there's no free ride. There was a slight diminution of resolution and clarity with another set of interconnects and an active device in the signal path. While the 972 and Elgar are capable of truly over-the-top performance no matter how you set them up, I'd recommend balanced output and no preamp for the utmost utmost.

A little bit of awright!
I suspect a few of you still harbor the notion that reviewers regularly exaggerate the differences between components. (No one at Stereophile is guilty of such a thing, naturally!) But I have to say the dCS 972/Elgar absolutely re-platformed digital playback chez-10. The bar has been raised, and it's now at a considerable height indeed. Imagine—your entire collection of CDs rendered with stunning clarity and utmost musicality. Perhaps not every recording will prove an instant winner; some few CDs, revealed for the sorry messes they are, will still sound pretty bad. In my book, that's all to the good. For $19k, you deserve the truth, not obscuring euphonics. And you don't really need a preamp, so that's all to the good.

If truly great sound is in some part defined by listening sessions that regularly extend far into the night, then this digital front-end succeeds wildly. The 972/Elgar combination, working at its full computing potential of 192kHz and 24 bits of resolution, exists entirely on a higher plane of audio reproduction—one as wide and encompassing as your current (and future) CD/DVD collection. If you have the discretionary income and your loved ones won't go hungry, and if you truly love music, then I say go for it. You just can't lose, and your music-loving self will be rewarded each and every time you listen with the very best sound there is. The 972/Elgar combination always gave me the inestimable but quiet thrill of knowing that I was close, very close, to the music. It doesn't get any better than this.

Footnote 1: At the time, Canorus, Mr. Lee's firm, imported and distributed Nagra and dCS audiophile products. In these Starr-struck times, let me add that he remains a minority shareholder of dCS.