dCS Scarlatti SACD/CD playback system Page 4

I also have the LP, CD, and HRx DVD-R versions of Reference Recordings' collection of overtures by Malcolm Arnold, performed by the composer and the London Philharmonic (RR-48, RR-48 CD, and RR-48 HRx). The LP was sourced from an analog tape, the DDD CD from a Sony PCM 701ES D/A converter (16/44.1) modified by Keith Johnson, and the 24/176 HRx DVD-R from the analog tape. The CD sounded hard, bright, and glassy, even on the Scarlatti. Turn it up and your ears bleed. Even downconverted to 24/96, the HRx DVD played on a computer via the Scarlatti's USB input sounded full, rich, delicate, spacious, and totally pleasurable at whatever volume I chose. The LP sounded even better, but again, a case could be made for either hi-rez format, analog or digital.

A comparison of the SACD and HDCD versions of Reference's Tutti! An Orchestral Sampler (RR-906) produced equally definitive results. The second part of the NYP concert I attended the night before was a spectacular performance of Sibelius's Symphony 5, in which French horns figure prominently. On the SACD of Tutti!, in Vivaldi's Concerto in F, they sounded like French horns: warm but brassy, with plenty of bite—and the strings had a luxurious sheen. On the HDCD, the horns turned into a soft blur and the strings shrieked. This is not the fault of the Scarlatti transport or DAC.

A comparison made between 96kHz files, CD, and vinyl cut from 24/96 files of Será Una Noche (M•A Recordings M052AV), one of producer Todd Garfinkle's pristine, single-point 24/96 recordings, produced the same results as did a comparison between the CD and 24/96 versions of John Mellencamp's regrettably overlooked Life Death Love and Freedom (Hear Music HRM 30822), produced by T Bone Burnett.

I'm sitting here with piles of DVD-A and Classic Records DAD discs on the floor, having more fun with digital than I ever thought it possible to have. I've always wanted to hear on my big rig the DVD-As of Curtis Mayfield's Live at Ronnie Scott's (Silverline 288115), The Band's The Last Waltz (Rhino R9 78269), and Neil Young's Harvest (Reprise 48100-9). Harvest sounds great, but my advance test pressing of the AAA 180gm vinyl reissue is even better. All of the companies that produced these DVD-As—AIX, Hi-Res, Silverline, and, I bet, Warner Bros./Rhino—will soon offer them as 24/96 downloads, if they're not already. That's the digital future, and it sounds great!

The dCS Scarlatti is the best-sounding, most satisfying digital playback system I've heard. The company's Verdi-Purcell-Elgar stack got my respect but didn't generate the Scarlatti's level of excitement, enthusiasm, and listening pleasure. With hundreds of my CDs ripped to the Sooloos Music Server, I found myself listening to more CDs than ever before. Having instant touchscreen access to so much music profoundly changes how you listen and what you listen to.

For me, the Scarlatti profoundly narrows the gap between analog and high-resolution digital, and for many it will surely close that gap altogether. Those with big SACD collections—and big bank balances—need to hear its effortlessly transparent, tonally neutral, airy performance as it decodes their favorite SACDs.

The Scarlatti is also an exceptional CD player that makes my two-box Musical Fidelity kW DM-25 ($6500)—also a very fine DAC and transport—sound cloudy, anemic, and boring. Played on the Scarlatti, the best CDs sounded more vibrant, dimensional, transparent, and effortless than I'd ever heard them.

But as we move into the digital future, do you really want to continue playing CDs optically by investing in an ultra-expensive transport, when you can rip them to a hard drive and have instant access to your music while clearing the clutter from your listening room—all without losing sound quality? Will you really miss those jewel cases and tiny pamphlets? Once you hear hi-rez versions of your favorite CDs, which will make the CDs sound bland, canned, and/or amusical, will you really conclude that CD sounds "good enough"—or will you hear a profound difference? Upsampling isn't the answer; genuinely higher resolution is.

Are you big into SACDs? No question: the entire Scarlatti stack will lift your collection to new sonic heights. However, if you're not into SACD, I can't imagine why, in 2009, given where digital is headed, you'd invest in the Scarlatti transport when you can get a server-based system and probably hire someone to rip your discs for you, all for a lot less than $32,999. And sooner rather than later, you're going to want high-resolution digital versions of both new releases and reissues of what you already have on CD, to play back on a computer-based system—and you'll be getting it, via the Internet, DVD, and, eventually, Blu-ray Disc.

But the Scarlatti Master Clock, DAC, and Upsampler are something else entirely: a system that provides sound of exceptional quality, multiple digital inputs, upsampling to DSD or PCM (or not), and built-in volume and balance controls, to create the hub for a wholly digital system that doesn't need a separate preamplifier. Assuming dCS will sell the Scarlatti components separately, sans transport, they're definitely worth looking into, especially if you don't collect SACDs.

On the other hand if you're a traditionalist who plans to continue playing CDs the old-fashioned way, and you own a lot of SACDs, and you want to download hi-rez files from the Internet, and you have $80,000 to spend, well then: dCS has built a jewel of a four-box system that will make you very happy for a very long time, no matter what the audio future brings. The price is steep, but it's the best digital I've heard.

dCS (Data Conversion Systems), Ltd.
US distributor: dCS America
P.O. Box 544, 3057 Nutley Street
Fairfax, VA 22031
(617) 314-9296