MSB Link DAC III D/A converter Sam Tellig's Followup

A FollowUp by Sam Tellig appeared in February 2001 (Vol.24 No.2):

I have heard upsampling now in three different systems: with the Dodson DA-217 MK2-D digital processor in the listening lair of my friend, Lars; with the dCS Elgar at Dick Sequerra's place; and in my own listening room, with the MSB Link DAC III, equipped with optional upsampling board. Especially good news is the fact that upsampling is available so cheaply—as a $299 option for the already-cheap MSB Link DAC III, for instance.

Now I want to make it clear that I have heard no one claim that upsampling makes a regular CD sound as good as an SACD. I am not denying that SACD is superior to regular CD—but not so much that I have to have it, especially now, with the "Magic Bullet" of upsampling. (Sorry, JA. Heh-Heh.) And especially when both new digital audio formats, SACD and DVD-Audio, may be stalking horses for multichannel.

Just when JA and others were donning their grave-digging duds to inter the CD, up pops this upsampling thing. Let's hope CD is like Count Dracula and lives forever—Sony and Philips' Frankenstein monster, now ready to wreak revenge on its creators. (Uncle Stan gave me my love of horror movies, too.)

As JA observed in his December 2000 "As We See It,", upsampling does not and cannot add any new information to the 16 bits already encoded on a CD. Yet, to my ears, upsampling a CD sounds as if it does just that. And with hi-fi, it's the illusion that counts.

The second I switch to upsampling on my MSB Link DAC III, I hear more air, more ambience, more space—even while standing at my equipment cabinet, between and behind the loudspeakers. The whole room opens up. The difference, to my ears, is almost as dramatic as switching from mono to stereo. And no, I'm not exaggerating.

Hey, I'll take it. Adopting oversampling beats adopting a whole new disc format.

So is the upsampling technology new and revolutionary?

Well, no and yes. Here's a reprise of the basics:

On a regular CD, the musical signal is recorded by being sampled 44,100 times per second, or 44.1kHz. The bits are bagged together into 16-bit words for decoding by the digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, in your player or processor.

Upsampling converts the 44.1kHz signal to 96kHz using algorithms. So now the bags o' bits are sampled 96,000 times per second instead of 44,100 times per second. As JA points out, this does not differ conceptually from oversampling.

Or does it?

Oversampling—2x, 4x, 8x, or whatever—resamples the same bag o' bits two, four, eight times, etc. Upsampling, on the other hand, mathematically reconstructs the additional samples. It guesses, in effect, what might have been on the disc had it been recorded at 96kHz.

There's more to upsampling. As part of the process, the upsampling chip (the Crystal Semiconductor CS8420) or the upsampling software increases the bit depth of each bag o' bits from 16 to 24 bits by adding 8 bits of randomized dither below the 16 bits actually recorded.

As with oversampling, one of the aims of upsampling is to push digital noise up to an area of higher frequency, where it can be rolled off by less drastic filters. (I wonder what might happen if designers dispensed with the filters entirely and just let the distortion products hang out.)

The Dodson processor combines upsampling with oversampling. The 16-bit/44.1kHz signal is turned into a 24-bit/96kHz signal, then 8x-oversampled to a rate of 768kHz, and then sent to the decoder. The result? Breathtaking! Here's my pal Lars, writing in the fall 2000 issue of Ultimate Audio. Bear in mind The Swede is not easily swayed by the latest and greatest, but listen here:

"[W]hatever interpolation Dodson's algorithms perform on the basic samples sure as well sounds realistic to these ears. To coin a famous phrase from my buddy ST: There is definitely more 'there' there....

"There is more harmonic richness, better dynamics, better-developed frequency extremes and a much better sense of the recording venue than I've heard from the same CDs during hundreds of previous listening sessions. What's happened to some of these CDs is almost miraculous."

Lars says he won't be replacing his old CDs with the same material on SACD.

The Dodson unit goes for $4995—and it's worth every penny, as I heard for myself. I would have bought it, but you know my penny-pinching tendencies, especially where digital is concerned. Instead of buying a Dodson, I opted to have my MSB Link DAC upgraded.

MSB Link DAC III with Upsampling
I had purchased an MSB Link DAC II after reading Dr. Kal Rubinson's glowing comments about the original Link DAC in Vol.22 Nos.1 and 12. Yeah, I'm swayed by reviews, too. The Link DAC II was a great buy for $399, but I wasn't so overwhelmed that I kept it in my system at all times. I had other stuff to review.

I figured, what the hell—I'll have this thing upgraded and get some use out of it. I whipped out my credit card and called MSB. (Upgrades are available for all MSB Link DAC owners, so don't go selling your old Link DAC. Trade it in!)

The basic price of the Link DAC III is $399, same as the Link DAC II before it was discontinued. Another $199 gets you the user-installable (Link DAC III only) upsampling board, which incorporates the popular Crystal CS8420 sample-rate converter chip. The great thing about this chip is that it's available to manufacturers for just a few dollars. (No, MSB isn't ripping you off. There's more to the upsampling board than the Crystal chip.)

Now you're up to $598. For an additional $300 ($899 total), you can get the Full Nelson Link DAC III, which includes the upsampling board, the MSB Network, and the Full Nelson upgrade.

The MSB Network provides for eight 32-bit/192kHz audio channels. With the MSB Network, the master clock, bit clock, and word clock are transmitted and recovered separately from the data themselves. The network is said to provide a better digital interface for 96kHz material than conventional formats.

The MSB Network comes with an AES/EBU input, and the network kicks in automatically only when this input is used—not if you use the Link DAC's coaxial or TosLink input. To get the most from your Full Nelson Link DAC III, you'll need to use a balanced XLR digital interconnect. You say your CD player doesn't have a balanced digital output? Monarchy Audio to the rescue! Read on.

The Nelson upgrade provides improvements to the power supply and every section of the signal path, including the analog output section, according to MSB's poop sheet.

Ever the Cheapskate, I opted for upsampling but not the Full Nelson treatment—an act of penny-pinching for which I now kick myself. As it was, MSB, suspecting that I might review this thing, installed the MSB Network in my unit but didn't perform the rest of the Full Nelson upgrade.

I installed the Link DAC III in our living-room seestem while Marina was at work—the time when I do most of my dark deeds. As transports, I used the Musical Fidelity A3 and Denon DCD-1650 CD players. I fed the signal from the MSB Link DAC III into the Musical Fidelity A3CR preamp and power-amp separates. Speakers were the JMlab Micro Utopias. All in all, this is perhaps the most revealing seestem we've had in the house—a system from which nothing can hide!

Even without oversampling switched on, even with the unit cold, it was obvious that the Link DAC III was a step up from the Link DAC II—with superior low-level resolution and a smoother, more sweetly extended harmonic presentation.

I let the components cook for several hours, then flipped the switch on the Link DAC III's rear to engage oversampling. The sound went from very good to flabbergastingly fabulous.

As I said a moment ago, the whole room opened up—more space, more air, more ambient information. It sounded like more bits, John—almost, but not quite, as if I'd gone from Perfect Sound Forever to SACD.

But it wasn't only a matter of more air and space. The harmonic presentation, already very smooth without upsampling engaged, improved. Strings were exquisite—Andrew Manze's solo violin on Phantasticus: 17th-Century Italian Violin Music (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907211) sounded...well, fantastic. (Yeah, I know—that's glib. What do you want me to say? The sound was "unimpeachable"?)

With upsampling, the overall tonality was richer, riper, fuller. Turning to other chamber recordings, I heard cellos take on more body, more bloom. The sound had more weight—like me. This added richness was accompanied by more apparent low-level detail.

And when I switched off oversampling?

Good-bye air, sayonara space, so long some of the harmonic richness. Dasvidanya some of the definition and focus, too. Recordings were less focused, less immediate, performers were less "there." Upsampling brought them closer, made them more alive. This was true with disc after disc—even with popular music recordings from the 1930s sourced from old mono 78s.

By the way, there are some who believe that the 78rpm record is the ultimate analog-disc storage medium. Have you ever heard a British Decca ffrr 78? I have, and right now I'm laughing my most evil laugh. Shit, I can't worry about the CD being a sonic compromise—the LP was a sonic compromise! Maybe the best we ever had was a Decca ffrr mono 78! (Decca thought so—they were so enthralled by the ffrr 78 that they were late coming out with LPs.) Who needed stereo? Just a plot to get people to buy more amplifiers and speakers. Which is what the push for multichannel might really be about.

"If they want it on lettuce leaves, I'll give it to them on lettuce leaves." After inventing the LP, Dr. Goldmark invented the Highway HiFi Record Player and CBS sold it to Chrysler, who made it available in cars from 1956 to 1959. Yup, LPs in the car. I bet Mikey would die to have one.

I heard no disadvantage to upsampling whatsoever—only advantages. There was nothing artificial about the effects of upsampling. Just the opposite: upsampling made every recording seem more natural, often spectacularly so.

I decided to go for an instant upgrade.

I whipped out my credit card once more, phoned MSB, and ordered their P1000 Power Base ($299). This power supply is housed in a separate chassis, same size as the Link DAC itself. You simply unplug the original power supply and plug in the Power Base, using the cable supplied. Takes about two minutes.

The P1000 Power Base improved the Link DAC III's dynamic performance, adding more weight and definition to the bass. Recordings had more get up and go, as they do when you add a good line stage to a system. It was certainly a worthwhile, cost-effective improvement; I wouldn't want to do without it.

The upsampling board?

You've gotta have it—it's the "Magic Bullet," after all. (JA is gonna kill me.) And as the Full Nelson treatment, complete with MSB Network, costs just $200 more, you might start with the Full Nelson Link DAC III at $899. Add the P1000 Power Base later if you're strapped for cash and hanker for a gutsier, more dynamic sound.

As for the various digital inputs, coaxial was superior to TosLink (from the Denon DCD-1650), and AES/EBU balanced was superior to coaxial—more detailed, more dynamic, more open—but I thought the difference was subtle rather than dramatic.

Buy an MSB Link DAC III with Full Nelson upgrade. Your days of digital dissatisfaction could be over.—Sam Tellig

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