dCS Verdi SACD transport, Purcell D/D converter, Elgar Plus D/A converter Page 2

The Elgar Plus improves on the Elgar's performance and operation by adding DSD decoding via FireWire or SDIF-2 interfaces and by allowing it to slave to a word clock or act as a master clock. It also adds a digital output and an improved and extended menu system. Because the Plus, like the original Elgar, can decode 24/96 and 24/192 data, you can connect a DVD-V player's 24/96 bitstream (if available—many DVD players downconvert to 24/48) and decode DAD discs. Like all dCS DACs, the Elgar Plus uses the company's proprietary Ring DACs for digital conversion. A dCS spokesperson impressed on me the fact that virtually every other company making DACs and CD players uses off-the-shelf, chip-based DACs made by other companies, and that it was only because of dCS's contracts with the UK military that the company could afford the R&D needed to design and build such precision devices in the first place. The Elgar Plus's software-driven DSP is upgradeable via a CD player or, via a rear port, a PC.

The Elgar has both digital-domain balance and volume controls, so you can plug it directly into your power amplifier. I ran it that way, and through the Hovland HP-100 preamplifier.

What you don't get for your $34k is DVD-Audio or multichannel SACD playback. Those are important for some, but for most of us, getting two good channels is expensive enough. Better to have two great channels of sound than 5.1 channels of crap. That's how I hear it.

Set and forget
Sitting atop an equipment rack, the triple dCS stack casts an impressive visual spell. (The pieces can also be set on separate shelves, of course.) Despite their almost infinite possibilities of connection and playback, as with Ron Popeil's Showtime Rotisserie, "set it and forget it" is a very attractive option. Otherwise, you might never get to listen to an entire piece of music as you experiment with various digital filters and upsampling options.

Be the master of your digital upsampling universe: Find the optimal conversion filter and phase choice for every disc in your collection. On every jewelbox paste a sticker, on which you list the optimal settings. Run dedicated lines from your local utility. Go crazy.

Me? Once I'd sampled all the upsampling and filter options using a stack of reference discs, I ended up where I started. Where that was, I'll get to in a minute.

Though the dCS folks hooked up the system for me, doing so won't be difficult for someone used to the far more complicated job of hooking up and configuring a home-theater system. IEEE1394 connectors go from the Verdi to the Purcell and from the Purcell to the Elgar Plus. Dual AES/EBU (XLR) connectors run from the Purcell to the Elgar (this permits 24-bit/192kHz LPCM upsampling). A single coax digital cable runs from the Verdi to the Elgar Plus to provide regular 16/44.1 CD playback, and a pair of BNC coaxials containing the master clock information runs from the Elgar Plus to the Verdi and back.

In the normal set-and-forget mode, using the system is quite simple. Place a CD in the drawer mechanism and operate as you would any CD player. When you hit Play, the Purcell's display shows "441-DSD" and the Elgar Plus's display shows "Purcell." This lets you know that the transport's signal is feeding the Purcell, which is upsampling to DSD and feeding the Elgar Plus via the IEEE1394 connection.

Play an SACD and the Verdi's display acknowledges it and lets you know if it's a hybrid disc (SACD/CD). The Elgar Plus's display reads "Verdi" to let you know where the signal is coming from, and both displays read "1394," letting you know how the signal's getting from the transport to the DAC. Switch layers on a hybrid disc and the 44.1kHz signal is automatically routed through the Purcell, upconverted to DSD, and sent via FireWire to the Elgar Plus, which now displays "Purcell." To answer your first question: No, the upconverted 44.1kHz bitstreams on hybrid SACDs don't come close to sounding as good as the gen-u-wine DSD bitstreams.

I could spend another few pages explaining the multitude of menu settings possible with the Purcell and Elgar Plus, and how they interact—including the many filter options. The three instruction manuals devote more than 250 pages to just that, and my feeling is, if you're considering spending this kind of money, you're going to investigate that on your own. For the rest of us, who can only ogle such stratospherically priced products, our main interest is in knowing what, if anything, we'll be missing sonically because our mamas ain't rich and our daddies ain't good-lookin'.

Done correctly, are 2.822MS/s and 44.1kHz worth $34k?
Nothing can help awfully recorded and/or digitized productions, so if you're expecting the dCS combo to work miracles on DDD discs ca 1984, you'll be disappointed. (Most of those discs are actually DADs or DADADs or whatever; the dearth of digital mixing facilities in those days required that everything be converted to analog.) One of the first discs I pulled out was the 30th-anniversary edition of the Beatles' The Beatles ("The White Album"), which EMI issued in 1998 in an edition that reproduced the original UK LPs in their gatefold laminated jacket, black inner sleeves, photos, poster, "top loader" openings, and all. The only thing they forgot to re-create was the wonderful sound of the original UK vinyl. They must have used the original digital transfers, which sounded hard, bright, brittle, and spectacularly artificial.

The dCS combo was unable to do anything about any of this in any mode, though it retrieved and separated out low-level details that had always gotten smeared and left behind by other players. I suffered through the two-dimensional "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," then went back to the original vinyl: the harmonic and textural riches were overwhelming, and the intentions of McCartney's bass playing, and the sensation of thick, wirewound strings being tugged, replaced what might as well have been the lower keys of a synthesizer.

US distributor: Audiophile Systems
8709 Castle Park Drive
Indianapolis, IN 46256
(888) 272-2658