Parts Connection Assemblage DAC-1 D/A converter kit Page 2

While I definitely consider the DAC-1 to be a fine D/A, it's not going to siphon off a lot of sales from its $1000-and-up competitors. Truthfully, it emphasizes midband warmth and has a few tonal irregularities: it "whitens" high-amplitude pitches, causing the coloration to wander. I wasn't particularly bothered by this, since so much of the information that I value passed through comprehensibly and coherently. In its strengths, it offers competition to all comers; but I must also say that such units as the McCormack, MicroMega, and Arcam DACs all added unwavering focus, more uniform tonal response, and image stability to the equation. Which they really ought, dontcha think?

I was fascinated by comparisons between the DAC-1 and a host of other components—this review has given me a lot to consider, as my experiences didn't always mirror my expectations. Take, as an example, the issue of improving a stand-alone CD player by the addition of an outboard DAC. While I was able to hear improvements in many aspects of performance, I also heard added distortions when going outboard—distortions which were similar no matter which DAC I used. This leads me to suspect that the extra connections and cabling add jitter that's not present when the signal stays inboard. So while I still think that adding an outboard D/A can be a cost-effective upgrade to an inexpensive (or outmoded) CD rig, anyone desirous of doing so would be well advised to listen to the tradeoffs carefully—or else consider anti-jitter or reclocking devices a necessity.

Good sentences & well-pronounced
At this year's WCES in Las Vegas, I heard PopeMusic's Unlikely Silhouettes CD (PM 2002-2)—a pairing of Shchedren's Carmen Ballet and Shostakovich's Bolt. I was impressed by the disc's transparency and dynamic differential. Playing through an all-Cello system, it gave me the fan-tods—I'd never heard anything like it. Naturally, I brought it home. The DAC-1 preserved the transparent nature of the recording nicely; I was especially impressed with the sheer depth of the soundstage. The midbass was rich and lustrous—oh, those cellos!—possibly a touch too warm. In the tuttis, though, the unit began to sound a mite confused—both less articulate and more shallow. Rather than feeling limitless in possibility, as in real life (or even through the Krell), the music got smaller and more tangibly canned. On the other hand, the pace, the progression of note to note in the music, was magnificent.

This is an area where our understanding of what's going on in music reproduction collides directly with the limitations of our current measurement system. Music moves—there's no way to get around it; if you just have one note, you don't have music. "Music moves only in time," Eliot wrote in "Burnt Norton"; but he got it only half right. Music moves in pitch as well—one note repeated over time does not meet our idea of music, either (footnote 6). So here we have one of the most organic components of music, and we lack any means of measuring or quantifying it. "The technology of rhythm is not in the textbook," wrote Martin Colloms in these pages in November 1992 (Vol.15 No.11). He's still right.

Rhythm and articulation are inextricably linked in ways that directly affect the manner in which we comprehend information—whether we're dealing with music or speech. Last night, immediately after writing the preceding paragraph, I attended The Merchant of Venice at the Public Theatre. Despite fine portrayals of Shylock, Portia, and the buffoonish Lancelot Gobbo, it was an unsatisfying production—not least because most of the actors were uncomfortable with Shakespeare's language. They delivered the lines, but the rhythms were off, and I wound up having to work awfully hard just trying to comprehend what they were saying—frequently sussing out their meanings a sentence or two later, and then having to struggle on ahead. This from a play that I know pretty well.

The more convincing performers communicated meaning better, but it wasn't because they spoke more clearly. If that information wasn't conveyed through the clarity of the delivery, then where did it originate? In the rhythm, that's where! As they spoke, or ranted, or clowned, there was a rise and fall that pulled our comprehension along. Harold Brodkey's lovely description of logic as "the movement in language toward a coherent argument—the melody line of meaning..." recognizes this. It's in that sense of meaning that the DAC-1 excels.

The quality of music...
Dick Hyman's From the Age of Swing CD (Reference RR-59) is a cruel test for any processor. The soul of this disc lives in the relationship between bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Butch Miles. They create a groove far too complex to be reduced to a written part, comprising a perfect blend of relaxation and precision—it's absolutely propulsive, but never forced. The DAC-1 captured this in a way that many of the other units I compared it to didn't. It also revealed the extremely low-level details that are so wonderfully present on this disc: the inner voicings of the woodwind choirs; the different overtones of the ride and hi-hat cymbals; and the distinctive hall-acoustic of the recording venue, Concert Hall A at SUNY Purchase (not a recording studio).

Il Giardino Armonico's Four Seasons CD (Teldec 4509-97671-2) is a performance which depends on the ensemble's precision dynamic and metric changes; ultimately, the charm of this performance relies upon the éclat with which these changes are rendered. Score another victory for the li'l guy. Here again, I was conscious of a slight warm emphasis in the lower mids—the cellos had a bloom that was very appealing, but overdone perhaps. Despite this, I felt that the DAC-1 did a remarkable job of giving "body" to the notes, letting them grow out of the resonance of the instruments—a separate phenomenon from the bow's excitation of the string itself.

Then there was my "cognitive-dissonance test," during which I listened to Junior Brown's "Guit Steel Blues," from his Guit With It CD (Curb D2 77622). Now there's a test of nuance and intelligibility—the song is no less than Hendrix's "Red House Blues" rendered as deep-country wail. It remains true to the original, even as it radiates a cow-pie-kickin' country sensibility—a trick as complex as successfully translating poetry into a different language.

The Assemblage got the details right: the ringing of the strings, the articulation of the cascading runs of notes, the bite of pick against heavy-gauge string. All of that was expected and present. What was far more important was the DAC-1's ability to portray all of the truly subtle signifiers—the microtonal inflections and phrasings that designate "country," "blues," and "rock." The Assemblage rendered each of them distinctly, neither confusing the issue nor further blurring the boundaries. Yet, at the same time, it refused to make them more distinct than they are.

This is what ultimately impressed me most about the Assemblage DAC-1: that when confronted with extremely subtle distinctions, it conveyed them in ways that had real meaning for me. I would value it even if it cost substantially more.

The DAC-1 isn't without flaws—no unit is; but when you add up its virtues, you end up with a long list. I found its biggest drawback to be its inability to sort out complex, dynamic passages, and its associated sensitivity to high-level signals in general. But now that Assemblage has turned me into a component-building son-of-a-gun, I'm even pretty sure that the problem with high-amplitude congestion lies in the power regulation. Hey, I'm allowed to have an opinion—I built the sucker!

Now, where's that parts catalog?

Footnote 6: Actually, I think that if you repeat that one note long enough it stops being boring and becomes rather interesting; but I've lost enough roommates to realize that my fascination with repetition is hardly universal.—Wes Phillips
The Parts Connection
Paradigm Electronics Inc. (2009)
(905) 632-0180