Timbre Technology TT-1 D/A processor Page 2

Another killer CD which we love was sent to us by my sister-in-law Martine, who lives in Paris: Michel Jonasz's La Fabuleuse Histoire de Mister Swing (MJM 2292-42338-2). Golden String Imports can get you this CD, but this German-pressed but oh-so-French double-disc isn't too difficult to find—they had 'em at Tower. We seem to always come back to "Le Temps Passé" and "Si Si Si Le Ciel," on "Disque" 2.

Slapping on a set of Harmonix RF-11s once again cleaned up a touch of sssssibilance on this recording, oddly more apparent on Disque 2 zhan on zuh Disque 1. But what a great CD! You don't have to be French to love it. The songs are lovely and romantic, and Michel is set far back between the speakers and a bit to the right, his voice sweeping, bloomy, masculine, and real. The stage is wide and natural, and it's easy to feel that special you-are-there quality that most audiophiles live for. The bass is incredible, resonant, deep, and forms a unique counterpoint to Michel's voice and the other instruments. The drum kit's percussive qualities—both the snap of the initial transient and the resonant power of the "afterboom"—were handled beautifully by the Timbre.

A chunky, powerful bass line opens "Si Si Si Le Ciel," followed soon afterward by the drums, and a neat melody is formed that I find myself humming all the time. The Timbre rendered the syncopated rhythm perfectly.

Just another unbalanced audiophile
Toward the end of the review period I received the Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 from Stereophile World Headquarters in Santa Fe. This $4650 DAC (no options available, balanced standard), recently reviewed by Robert Harley, made for a fascinating comparison with the Timbre TT-1. Caveats first.

Like many audiophiles, my system is single-ended; even though I had three preamps on hand, not one of them included balanced circuitry! I began the comparison in unbalanced mode, in spite of RH's warning that only balanced will do ya with this unit.

The Sonic Frontiers sounded just okay single-ended. In brief, I'd say that the bass with the SFD-2 was chunkier and rounder than with the Timbre, but less well-defined and not as extended or controlled. The midrange had a certain appealing smoothness that I've heard before with UltraAnalog processors, and its upper midrange was more "spotlit" and forward than the Timbre's. When the SFD-2 was hooked up, it was as if the stage director had decided to turn up the wick on the lighting in the presence region.

As a result, one could characterize the unit as being more open and airy on top than the Timbre, but it was also noticeably and objectionably more grainy. This forward upper midrange was coupled with a soft, shelved-back treble which not only muted whatever sibilance was on a disc, but also killed the shimmery quality of the cymbals on Trio Jeepy, which came across sounding muted and rather pedestrian.

The Timbre presented a more natural and seamless top end than the Sonic Frontiers, calling no special attention to this region either by bringing it more forward or by recessing it; rather, the Timbre integrated the upper midrange and the treble smoothly into the overall frequency response. It's a little tricky: Was the Timbre's more smooth and integrated top end, somewhat darker and more closed-in, correct (ie, revealing of what's on the disc or upstream electronics)? Or was the SFD-2 "right," with its spotlit and open (but somewhat grainy) upper registers? A question of taste and system matching, perhaps. But more anon.

Another curious event further highlighted this "spotlighting" effect in the Timbre's treble range. At first, the SFD-2 sounded somewhat more focused than the already supremely focused Timbre, images appearing rock-steady and center-stage. I noticed this immediately with the Holly Cole disc, for example. With careful listening, however, the seemingly less steady imaging of the Timbre turned out to be revealing of Cole's movements around the microphone during the recording. Chalk up another one for the Timbre! The other salient comparison would be in the soundstage, where the Timbre consistently threw a wider, more spacious image, with better separation and differentiation between performers than the SFD-2.

On first listening to his own recording of Kenny Rankin's Because of You (Chesky JD63), Chesky recording engineer Bob Katz criticized my system, going on about image wander with frequency shift. (Typical engineer—just call him Mr. Charm.) I got rather shirty and popped on a mono recording to illustrate for him image stability, and when he finally left at the end of the evening, audio-humbled and weak-kneed (if I do say so), he admitted that he had heard elements of his own recording he hadn't been aware of before; eg, Kenny moving his head around while making the recording! Well, shiver me timbres. (Sorry.)

I realized that the Sonic Frontiers, single-ended, was doing me no service for comparison purposes, and I trust RH's ears and wanted to thoroughly pummel and rip apart the Timbre, leaving it panting for mercy before I presented my conclusions here. So I arranged to borrow an up-spec Mark Levinson No.26S with balanced inputs from New York dealer Zoran Chanin at Audio Arts, who also handles the Timbre.

Balanced cables were once again every Jewish American Princess's dream (footnote 1): AudioQuest Diamond Times Three between processors and preamp and from transport to processor in most cases, with occasional forays back to Forsell's own coax and the AudioQuest OptiLink Pro 2.

The 26S is a killer preamp and makes a terrific balanced line-stage front-end through which to listen to CD. Supported on a trio of Shun Mook Super Passive Diamond Resonators resting on an Arcici IP, and using the supplied power cord, the 26S sounded clean and extended, with that "filigreed" top-end that RH has very appropriately ascribed to the Levinson No.30, a full, extended bass, and a midrange that belies its solid-state nature. Its imaging was also superb, very layered, and certainly wide enough for the most discriminating of punters. Its relatively lightweight build and thin case were not as massive and tank-like as the build of the No.30 and No.31 (which we once had the pleasure of having in our system for a week), but the front panel and controls exuded that quality Levinson feel. Perhaps this is why a trio of Shun Mook Mpingo Discs atop the case in conjunction with their Resonators had such a positive effect. Camac adapters were used at the main outs to power the Jadis JA 200s via the XLO Signature, and another pair of Camacs enabled a little single-ended comparison.

Listening through this setup both balanced and single-ended, and finally switching back to the single-ended CAT preamplifier, we arrived at the following conclusions and caveats: First, the Timbre is only slightly improved by the use of its balanced outputs, while the SFD-2 is completely transformed. RH had it nailed right down: balanced, the Sonic Frontiers is fabulous. It exhibited more separation and air than the Timbre (tubes?), a chunkier, meatier, and deeper bass, and Kathleen remarked how Michel Jonasz's voice seemed "closer and sexier" than through the balanced Timbre TT-1. On the other hand, she also remarked that Michel sounded more masculine and real with the Timbre single-ended through the CAT. "If a bit less open and involving, cherie," I hastily added. Hey, if I don't watch out, Kathleen will start taking the credit for these reviews. She's got all the buzzwords down pat.

The SFD-2 also lost its "generic UltraAnalog sound" when balanced, becoming scads more musical. The Timbre sounded darker than the SFD-2 through the Levinson, perhaps better revealing the nature of the 26S, which the SFD-2 compensated for with its forward and brighter upper midrange in conjunction with its shelved-back upper treble. The SFD-2 seemed more emotionally involving in balanced mode, but you don't sacrifice much if you use the Timbre single-ended through a topflight preamp like the CAT. Single-ended through the Levinson, both units were rather mediocre. I'd say if your system is already balanced, go for Sonic The Canadian Hedgehog, but if you're unbalanced [insert unbalanced audiophile joke here], stick with the cheaper Timbre and get your audio jollies. In single-ended mode, the significantly less-costly Timbre gets my enthusiastic nod. In fact, it absolutely killed the single-ended SFD-2. Just feed the TT-1 through the best-quality linestage you can manage, and enjoy the music.

The Timbre was a joy to have in our system. It allowed us to hear musical micronuances without forward, in-our-laps highs, etching, or hardness. This was not some incredibly small microlevel thing that we had to strain our Golden Ears to hear; the changes in musical presentation were obvious and clearly defined, both when manipulating peripheral equipment and when listening to a variety of CDs. In spite of being able to change its effects via its many inputs, I'll generalize by saying that the Timbre TT-1 sounded layered, clear, grainless, enormously wide, tremendously and impressively deep, able to root out and light up any elements of the soundstage present on the disc, all the way back to its deepest corners. Musical timbres (you knew that was coming, right?) were excellent, tonal colors as varied, rich, and complete as live music itself. Frequency response seemed seamless, with no part of the frequency spectrum jumping out at the listener or recessing in an artificial manner.

The quality of the TT-1's deep, powerful, punchy bass and certain elements of the soundstage depended more on the transport driving the unit than on any inherent limitation of the DAC. Its presentation offered no flim-flam, no artificial smoothness, no artifice, just Music with a capital "M." The TT-1 was able to convey, with ;aelan, the emotional intent of the music—I can think of no higher praise for a device than that.

Is the Timbre TT-1 perfect? Of course not. Unlike the soft-top Sonic Frontiers SFD-2, the TT-1 may emphasize CD sibilance on certain discs. On the other hand, it's got the high-frequency extension to do it, prompting that age-old adage, "Is the reviewer's head half-full or half-empty?" In other words, is it the processor or the disc? This same extension is also responsible for knockout high-frequency reproduction of cymbals and snare. One could ask for slightly deeper, tighter bass à la the balanced Sonic Frontiers, or a frisson more openness, life, and transparency in the midrange on up, or perhaps a soupcon more dynamic slam.

But we have to leave the processors costing two and three times as much some room to justify their high prices. Anyway, these nits get picked out of the sonic fabric only in head-to-head comparisons with more expensive state-of-the-art contenders.

But I never felt shortchanged by the Sonic Wish List while listening to the TT-1 on its own. Highly recommended for the single-ended crowd.—Jonathan Scull

Footnote 1: Hey, I'm Jewish—I can make these kinda jokes.
Timbre Technology
Company no longer in existence (2019)

mmole's picture

I read it while sitting in my ribbon chair.