dCS Verdi SACD transport, Purcell D/D converter, Elgar Plus D/A converter Page 3

I became a dCS believer when I played the JVC XRCD2 of Beethoven's Symphony 3, with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (JMCXR-0019), recorded and produced in December 1957 by the legendary team of Layton and Mohr. I've played my original-pressing RCA Living Stereo "shaded dog" LP (LSC-2233) dozens of times over the past few years, enjoying one of the most dramatic symphonic spreads ever recorded at Boston's Symphony Hall. The miking on this three-track recording is unusually close for a Living Stereo, yielding superb imaging and instrumental delineation and focus. Lateral spread and front-to-back depth are brilliantly encoded in the LP's grooves. I can close my eyes and see the orchestra spread out before me. I can watch it. It may be hyperdramatic compared to what you'd hear live, but it's a great way to appreciate the work.

The XRCD has always sounded rich, full, and somewhat rounded, but not as transparent or as physically gripping, with soft images and a lack of distinction between the direct sound of the instruments and the hall sound as the reflections reached the microphones. I'd always thought this was digital's fault, not JVC's.

But through the dCS combo there were a clarity, a focus, and a delineation of individual instruments that I'd never heard before from this CD, but was quite familiar with from the LP. The ease with which I was able to distinguish between the direct sound of the instruments and the reflections of those sounds reminded me of when I first heard a top-shelf phono cartridge. The orchestra was there, its individual instruments effortlessly placed, the hall walls and the spaces between the orchestra and the walls as easy to observe as if I were actually sitting in the hall.

More impressive were the physical delicacy and harmonic coherence of individual instruments. The French horn had an analog-like subtlety and harmonic believability I wasn't used to hearing from a digital source. Its physical presentation was clearly focused and correctly sized, cushioned by a distinct breath of air. I wasn't used to a physically believable presentation like this from CD—I sat through the entire symphony, listening to the music and shedding most of my 44.1kHz misgivings. I'll still spin LPs when given the choice, mostly because vinyl, despite the occasional pops and clicks, still sounds more "believable" to me. But this was the first CD presentation that played on the same musical field as the best analog, even if, most of the time, it still headed for the locker room a loser.

What impressed me most was the absolute transparency of the dCS combo's presentation. Digital playback has made me so used to hearing orchestras under Saran Wrap, or on ice, or suspended in honey, that to hear just an orchestra—as one easily hears through even modest analog setups—was a revelation. I don't use that last word lightly or often in these pages.

One night I stayed up late and played through most of the four CDs of John Coltrane's The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse! IMPD4-232). While the dCS trio's ability to deliver convincing images and the nightclub space was impressive, what kept me listening so long into the night was the musical flow, the suppleness and textural complexity of the instrumental line—something I'm far more used to getting from Coltrane's and Dolphy's saxes only with original orange-and-black-label Impulse! vinyl. Yes, the vinyl still delivered more raw grit when I spun Live at the Village Vanguard (A-10 pressing) very early the next morning. But when I read the CD booklet, I learned that that edition had been sourced from a second-generation LP master—it hadn't even been a fair fight. That I stayed with those CDs through the night told me a lot about the dCS combo's convincing ability to deliver music.

I haven't spent the last 10 years listening to every single digital upgrade, or to many of the best digital playback devices, but I've heard my share. I've been through laserdisc transports, glass-fiber optics, oversampling, and upsampling, and I've heard enough digital playback systems at audio shows to feel comfortable saying that these components from dCS comprised the best digital playback system I've ever heard for decoding standard CDs.

My reference Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 3D is a really nice CD player, and it upsamples to 24/96, but compared to the eight-times-the-price dCS stack, it sounds somewhat smeared and soft. Its transient performance can't compare, nor can its spatial presentation. And it doesn't grip the musical line with the same precision. Given the difference in price, why should it?

When you're listening to CDs, you can bypass the Purcell DDC and send the Verdi's 16-bit/44.1kHz output directly to the Elgar Plus DAC, or you can visit the Purcell and choose your upsampling rate. Without getting hyper-specific about what I heard, the Verdi-Elgar Plus's rendering of 16/44.1 was as good as I've heard the format, with close to the same level of transparency, focus, and spatiality as I heard upsampling through the Purcell. What the Purcell seemed to improve—especially in 176.4kHz or DSD mode—was image delicacy, dimensionality, and subtlety.

Among the many CDs I compared, I played through half of Monk's Thelonious Himself, another XRCD2 (JVC-VICJ-60170), straight through at 16/44.1, then upsampled to 24/88.2, 24/176.4, and DSD. While the differences weren't overwhelming, they were good enough to make the upsampling worthwhile, especially in terms of making the solo piano sound more woody and less tinkly, more graceful—especially in how the notes decayed—and less aggressive at the upper end of the keyboard.

US distributor: Audiophile Systems
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