The Fifth Element #67

I think any newish company launching yet another expensive (ie, anything over $2000) digital-to-analog converter on the roiling waters of the audiophile marketplace needs at least two things: a truly great product, and a good story to tell. I think Bricasti Design Ltd., of Medford, Massachusetts, has both.

Although Bricasti came into corporate existence only in 2004, it is not a pure startup. The principals of Bricasti were longtime Lexicon employees who had to seek other options when Harman International closed down Harman's New England operations. Bricasti cofounder (with DSP-software engineer Casey Dowdell) Brian Zolner's 20 years at Lexicon were spent in international sales. But Zolner was completely immersed in the development of the new DAC, especially from the standpoint of critical listening.

Bricasti writes all its own signal-processing software, but contracts out certain aspects of hardware engineering to AeVee Labs, a company in New Haven. Similar to Bricasti, AeVee is made up of former employees of Madrigal Labs (another Harman International company) who worked on many of the classic Madrigal products during their time there.

So, between Lexicon (which branched out from professional audio to home-theater audio and video processing) and Madrigal (stewards of the Mark Levinson brand and the erstwhile Proceed brand), Bricasti has access to considerable knowledge bases of audio engineering and the professional and audiophile markets. As far as I'm concerned, they have a pretty good story to tell.

Bricasti's first product, released in 2007, was their M7 stereo reverberation processor for the professional recording and mastering markets—not surprising, considering the widespread use of Lexicon reverberation units in pro audio. Bricasti's clean-sheet-of-paper M7, which uses reverberation synthesis rather than convoluting from recorded impulse samples, has gained an enviable reputation as the "gold standard" of reverb generators. Its users include legendary recording engineers Al Schmitt (Capitol Recording Studio A) and Chris Lord-Alge, Robert Friedrich (Telarc), pianist Alicia Keys, and the archival-recording operations of the Chicago and Boston symphonies (footnote 1).

Bricasti's new product is the M1 DAC, which derives from the M7 stereo reverb processor in that the M7 processes in the analog and digital domains. Analog throughput requires A/D conversion going in and D/A conversion coming out. Zolner recalls, "We already had a good DAC in our reverb processor. We wanted to find out how much better we could make it."

From its beginning, Bricasti's M1 DAC was conceptualized and designed not for the professional but for the audiophile market. Zolner told me that they started out with the notion that Bricasti would offer audiophiles a DAC conceptually similar to Benchmark's DAC-1 (a product he respects for the performance it offers at its price). But what Bricasti had in mind was something more expensive, and therefore with fewer of the cost compromises a near-$1000 retail price mandates. One thing led to another, and the no-engineering-compromises DAC Bricasti ended up building is not only more than twice the size of a Benchmark DAC-1; at $7995, it is a lot more expensive.

Zolner hand-delivered to me a well-traveled demo unit of the M1, and we then had a wide-ranging conversation about all things digital (and many things analog). Zolner also brought with him some circuit boards they use for display at trade shows, so that he could point out to me the M1's inner workings without having to open up the review sample.

Zolner is very opinionated, although not offensively so. What makes his opinions refreshing is that, for a professional-audio-gear guy, he almost never talks about measurements (except with a diffident shrug). Instead, he talks about listening. Zolner's primary musical frame of reference is large-scale orchestral works heard live at Boston's Symphony Hall. The fact that Bricasti gear is in the BSO's recording shack gives him entrée there as well. And apart from John Atkinson and Dick Shahinian, Zolner is the only person in audioland I have ever met who was already familiar with Elgar's obscure, sprawling masterwork of an oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius. Zolner even has his own "private" recording of it. Talk about big sounds!

Zolner claims that all the major engineering decisions for the M1 were arrived at only after exhaustive listening. For example, he claims that by changing the value of only one capacitor in each of the M1's dual-mono analog-section power supplies, he can bring the soundstage closer in or farther back. He said that he spent a long time with "a bagful of capacitors" while developing the M1. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Meet the Contender
The Bricasti M1 dual-mono D/A converter has pretty much a "one rack space" shape (though no rack-mount ears): it's 17" wide by just over 2" high by 12" deep, and weighs 12 lbs. The front, rear, and side panels are recessed in the middle third or so by about 3/8". In the front, the recess holds the display window and all the controls except the Standby/On button, which is to the far right. The other controls consist of a rotary knob to scroll through the various options shown in the display window, and six flat, oval buttons to select Input, Filter, Status, Aux(iliary), Display, and Enter.

There are four digital inputs: S/PDIF (RCA jack), AES/EBU (XLR jack), Aux (BNC jack) and Optical. The M1 accepts sampling rates up to 192kHz. There are seven selectable digital filters, labeled 0 through 6.

Footnote 1: An engineer recording a symphony orchestra would want a reverb processor because, as a practical matter, focus and bloom can be mutually exclusive goals. For example, the feed from the close mikes on the vocal soloists in Mahler's Symphony 8 might sound too close and dry compared to the rest of the mix. That's when a reverb processor may come in handy.