Timbre Technology TT-1 D/A processor Robert Harley and Steven Stone Listen

Robert Harley takes a listen

I auditioned the Timbre through the same playback system described in my review of the Exposure XVII preamplifier elsewhere in this issue. I listened to the Timbre on its own and in direct comparisons with the Sonic Frontiers SFD-2, in both balanced and single-ended modes. The following observations were made by listening to both processors' balanced outputs.

From the outset, I was impressed by the Timbre. Although the TT-1 sounded very different from the SFD-2, it had some appealing qualities. The most salient of the Timbre's strengths was its absolutely stunning image focus. Instrumental and vocal images were pinpoint spots within the soundstage, with razor-sharp outlines. The Timbre's soundstage was the antithesis of diffuse, vague, bloated, or confused. Consequently, I could easily hear exactly where each instrument was in the soundstage.

Moreover, the Timbre superbly resolved individual instruments and voices from the whole. Background vocals were a collection of separate voices, not an undifferentiated continuum. By comparison, the SFD-2 was more diffuse and had a less analytical spatial presentation.

In its ability to resolve depth, however, the SFD-2 was clearly a notch or two better. The Timbre's soundstage was less holographic, and reverberation didn't decay as deeply into the hall as it did with the SFD-2. In addition, the SFD-2 revealed more air and bloom around instrumental outlines. This was true despite the Timbre's more distant perspective. Where the SFD-2 was up-front and incisive, the Timbre was more ethereal and gentle. Similarly, the Timbre's mids sounded more muted and dark in contrast to the SFD-2's greater "sheen" and sparkle.

The lower treble had a trace of grain, but it wasn't musically objectionable; the treble's laid-back character mitigated the slight lack of tidiness.

On a tonal basis, the Timbre was a little closed-in through the top octave and lacked ultimate bass extension. The bottom end tended to be woolly rather than taut and precise. Kickdrum didn't have the center-of-the-earth solidity exemplified by the SFD-2, and bass guitar lacked clear pitch articulation by comparison. Further, the SFD-2 had a much wider dynamic expression, particularly in the low end. The Timbre's bass was, however, excellent for a processor using the Crystal CS4328 DAC, a device not noted for its tight or extended bass reproduction.

A consequence of the Timbre's softish bass (compared to the extraordinary SFD-2's) was a lessening of the music's rhythmic expression. I felt a slowing of the rhythm and a less upbeat quality by comparison. The music had less pace and rhythmic coherence through the Timbre. Full-scale orchestral music lacked the weight, authority, and power heard from the SFD-2.

Overall, I thought the Timbre sounded excellent—it's a worthy contender in the price range. Further, the Timbre is beautifully built and visually appealing. The Timbre is not, however, in the same league musically as the Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 in balanced mode.—Robert Harley

Steven Stone wrote about the TT-1 in May 1994 (Vol.18 No.5):

How did the Enlightened Audio Design DSP-7000 Series 3 stack up against other D/A processors? Unlike Robert Harley, I don't have a dozen DACs on hand at any given time, so I gathered up the Timbre Technology TT-1 and Audio Research DAC3. Both are quite respectable and a bit more expensive than the $2450 ($2845 with balanced option) DSP-7000 Series 3. The TT-1 is $3895 with balanced outputs; the DAC3 is $3995, with balanced outputs standard. Since neither of these units has an HDCD chip, I'll confine my comparisons to non-HDCD discs.

First up was the TT-1, which was reviewed by Jonathan Scull and Robert Harley in April '94 (Vol.17 No.4). RH was impressed by the TT-1's "stunning image focus" and superior ability to resolve individual instruments and voices from the whole. He did find that, compared to the Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 Mk.I (without the HDCD chip), the TT-1 had "a trace of grain" in the lower treble, was more muted and dark in the midrange, and was a little closed-in on the top octave.

I was surprised from the beginning by how harmonically similar the EAD and Timbre units were. Both units had a very neutral harmonic balance. The TT-1 did have a slightly larger soundstage—not that the images were any bigger, but the spaces around the instruments seemed slightly larger. This was especially noticeable on the Calamus Splendor of al-Andalus: Arab-Andalusian Music of the 12th to 15th Centuries. Depth was also slightly better on the TT-1, with more of a feeling of three-dimensionality and more air between instruments.

In terms of dynamic contrast and low-level detail, both the TT-1 and the Series 3 sounded identical. The main differences between the two units were in soundstage and image palpability, and these differences were subtle enough that only after several hours of critical listening was I able to begin consistently recognizing them. Ultimately, I preferred the TT-1, but not by much. With a less spatially precise system, these small differences would almost certainly be ameliorated.

As for the trace of grain in the lower treble and the closed-in top end that RH noticed with the TT-1, I didn't hear them. That doesn't mean they don't exist. One very often notices a characteristic such as grain or lack of top-end air only in comparison to a sonically superior unit. I offer you the analogy of the world-class rower, who thinks his shell is really moving along the ol' river: a motorboat whipping past him makes him realize he's really not going very fast at all.

Certain high-end gurus claim that you can tell if a component is true to the "absolute sound" of live music by regularly attending concerts (as JGH and I most certainly do) and by locking on to the "proper" sound of a violin, bass fiddle, or orchestra. Hogwash. Whose violin, which bass fiddle, what concert hall? Every instrument—even electric ones—has a unique sonic signature. JA's Fender Precision Bass sounds different from other P-Basses I've heard (and played). Even DAT recorders, which I have used to record concerts I've attended, don't reveal the ultimate fidelity of a D/A when there's nothing to compare it to. Listening to more than one D/A in extended tandem listening sessions allows the true fidelity of each component to emerge from the darkness. Comparison is the scalpel of discernment—you can quote me on that.—Steven Stone

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mmole's picture

I read it while sitting in my ribbon chair.

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