Digital Processor Reviews

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Rogier van Bakel  |  Jun 28, 2024  |  62 comments
A few summers ago, I briefly got it in my head that I could become a wine connoisseur. This was due to a very generous and unexpected gift. A local acquaintance had passed away, and his wife wanted to rid her basement of his small wine collection.

I don't know why I was chosen as the lucky recipient, but after stammering half a dozen thank-yous, I suddenly owned about 150 fine wines. A few carried four-figure price tags.

Reliably telling a Pinot Grigio from a Chardonnay isn't part of my skill set. Grape varieties, terroir, vintages? You might as well ask a toddler to become conversant in quantum mechanics. Still, I was intrigued by the bottles and amused by the ridiculousness of the situation. Me, an oenophile? I supposed I could pretend, and I did.

After opening and drinking, with my wife, a 1988 Château Léoville Barton, I wrote an over-the-top review and emailed it to a wine-loving friend for his amusement. "I beheld Hawthorn berries and beef stock along with a suggestion of blonde tobacco. Other than the obvious green walnut, there was a top note of wet Baja beach at dawn, mixing subtly with minke-whale flatulence and a hint of two-day-old scallop innards. Finally, with subsequent sips, I detected the aroma of the well-worn merkin of a Honduran sex worker. All in all, not a bad wine."

Eat your heart out, Robert Parker!

Tom Fine  |  Apr 25, 2024  |  1 comments
For music listening circa 2024, streaming is both the present and the future. Physical formats are still around, and they are still the best choice in some cases, as with deluxe reissues of beloved albums, which may add value with extra live performances, full-resolution surround sound, and other perks. The niche vinyl market continues to thrive, and that business model obviously works for releases of a few thousand copies. (It also works, apparently, for releases of hundreds of thousands of T-Swift platters to be displayed on shelves and hung on walls.)

But facts is facts: Streaming is now the only mass medium for listening to recorded music—the primary carrier for music—and has been for a few years now. According to RIAA statistics, the crossover year was 2016. That's when, in revenue terms, streaming outpaced physical formats. By 2022, the latest full year tabulated, streaming accounted for 84% of US recorded-music revenue.

So what's a long-time audiophile, born into the analog world, with strong roots in physical media, supposed to do?

Herb Reichert  |  Apr 23, 2024  |  4 comments
I was at least 40' away when I spied my first dCS Lina stack at CanJam. It was black, sitting conspicuously on a table emitting a strong Space Odyssey Monolith vibe. I can't remember which headphones I used, but I do remember how good it felt to face the stack and experience its startling clarity, showing off the bass end of a piano keyboard with a force I could feel in my shoulders. That impactful piano bass plus the stack's matte-finish, neo-Brutalist façade, and feels-like-cashmere volume control, made a strong first impression.

We all know everything sounds like what it looks like—right? It also sounds like what it's made of, who made it, and how much it costs. Well, the $13,500 Lina D/A converter could hardly look more different or feel or cost more different than the $46,500 dCS Vivaldi. The Lina is dCS's lowest priced streaming DAC, so it has to sound less good than my long-term reference Bartók, or the Bartók Apex I reviewed in Gramophone Dreams #75. That's just logical, right?

Kalman Rubinson  |  Mar 14, 2024  |  5 comments
One thing that interested me about the StormAudio ISP Evo is that, despite its obvious hi-fi function, it's more like a computer than a typical "prepro." While it does offer a few "legacy" analog inputs, it is for the most part all-digital, input to output, including network connections on both ends. Consequently, it is less likely to leave sonic fingerprints on the music than devices that convert digital to/from analog or modulate their signals with active amplification or attenuation. It is notable that, despite its audio function, the Storm completely lacks traditional audio specifications—distortion, dynamic range, and so on.

Yes, that aspect of the product was appealing, but the real trigger for me was that when I began this review, the StormAudio ISP Evo was the only consumer device to fully incorporate the latest version of Dirac Live Active Room Treatment (ART).

John Atkinson  |  Feb 23, 2024  |  34 comments
When standalone digital/analog processors made an appearance a quarter-century ago, they were limited to the CD medium's 16 bits of resolution—at best. These days, almost every DAC can process at least 24 bits, and many models offer between 20 and 21 bits of real-world resolution. Modern models from Benchmark, dCS, Merging, Mola Mola, Okto, and Weiss illustrate not just the skill of the circuit designer but also that of the engineer who laid out the printed circuit board.

One of the first digital processors I encountered that offered 21 bits of resolution was the Weiss DAC202, which Erick Lichte reviewed in January 2012. Subsequent processors from this Swiss company have consistently performed well, not just on the test bench but also in the listening room.

Herb Reichert  |  Jan 26, 2024  |  32 comments
I can roll out of bed and install a $10,000 phono cartridge while finishing my coffee, but I postpone DAC installations until I am in the exact right mood to handle the potential stress—especially DACs with a touch screen and a complex menu. To my delight, Ferrum Audio's new Wandla digital converter was completely stress-free to install. It took only minutes to connect the USB-C cable, the Cardas Audio Clear Beyond interconnects, and 24V DC power adapter.

Connecting the power adapter caused a power-switch symbol to appear on the front panel touch screen. The moment I touched it, I smiled like the Cheshire Cat, because I saw a USB-C symbol, a loudspeaker symbol, three dots in a box, and a volume control bargraph. That told me the Wandla recognized my chosen input and was waiting for a signal. All that remained was for my Roon Nucleus+ server to recognize and enable the new DAC, which it did without prodding or reprimand. For me, that was a wow moment, a good start to what promised to be an interesting review.

John Atkinson  |  Jan 10, 2024  |  13 comments
Three products were recently subjected to second opinions: I reviewed the revised RS250A version of HiFi Rose's RS250 streaming D/A preamplifier and the optional DC1 DAC module for Audio Research's I/50 integrated amplifier; Ken Micallef wrote about his time with the Volti Razz loudspeaker.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Dec 20, 2023  |  45 comments
I've been running a 5.1 system for years. Recently, I expanded it to 5.3 with the addition of two more subwoofers. This system is manageable with one of my eight-channel DACs.

Even more recently, I dipped my toe into Dolby Atmos, which made it necessary to lash up at least four more channels. That was a big problem, since neither JRiver nor Roon can support and sync more than one output device at a time, and the multichannel DACs I already owned tap out at eight channels.

I turned to the Arvus H2-4D Renderer, which offers 16 channels of digital output over AES3 and 16 channels of balanced-analog output. This worked, but piping everything through the Arvus meant forswearing DSP, including DiracLive. I really needed a DAC with at least 12 channels.

The Merging+Hapi has been around for years...

Martin Colloms  |  Dec 14, 2023  |  1 comments
Naim has comprehensively reimagined its Classic Series, which has been around for some 20 years with improvements along the way. Included in the new range of products is the 200 series, comprised of two products: the NAP 250 power amplifier, which I reviewed in the November 2023 issue of Stereophile, and the NSC 222 streaming preamplifier ($8999), which is reviewed here. A third component in the New Classic series, the NPX 300 power supply (also $8999), which is intended to be paired with the NSC 222 and other Naim components, is also considered in this review.
Alex Halberstadt  |  Nov 27, 2023  |  19 comments
To misquote Morrissey, some knobs are better than others. The Manley Neo-Classic 300B amplifiers that I've been listening to, for example, have a knob marked "feedback" that goes from 0 to 10. I've learned so much from using it that I've come to believe that if your amp doesn't have such a knob, it should. You see, the higher you set this control, the better the amp will measure. Applying more global negative feedback to these amps lowers their nonlinear distortion and noisefloor, increases their bandwidth, renders them less sensitive to the speaker's impedance variations and otherwise makes them more stable and efficient. In fact, by applying lots of feedback to an amplifier, it's possible to reduce distortion to barely measurable levels.

So what's the problem? Well, a few turns of the knob suggest that negative feedback isn't as useful as it appears on paper.

Tom Fine  |  Sep 01, 2023  |  9 comments
The concept of streaming digital music files over distances great (as with internet-streaming services like Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal, etc.) and small (from a home-PC hard drive, NAS, or networked music server) became mainstream only recently. But it was already brewing during the late 20th century, with people illegally downloading low-bitrate MP3 files made from CD rips and coming close to killing the recorded-music industry.

That wasn't streaming exactly, or not in the current sense, because the files needed to be downloaded, stored locally, then either played out of a computer or loaded onto a portable player, but from that point forward it was a steady march to the streaming-dominated present.

Never mind Napster—the first subscription audio "streaming" service was one you probably wouldn't think of: Audible, the audio book service now owned by Amazon, which started up in 1995. I did beta testing and editing work for early-days Audible, and around that time, I started loading up home-ripped MP3 files on a pocket-sized Rio MP3 player (which by then had replaced Audible's proprietary player), using it in place of a portable CD player. This led to experiments with a PC music library/player running Linux, controlled by a Handspring PalmOS device connected to the stereo system via a Sound Blaster 16 card.

Sasha Matson  |  Aug 08, 2023  |  8 comments
Stereophile writers and website commentors often speak to the topic of the ongoing rise in retail pricing at the upper levels of the hi-fi market. Companies producing cost-no-object designs make regular appearances in the hardware reviews published here. However, a countervailing vector is also at play in the consumer hi-fi sector: a trend toward bringing to market products that are smaller and more economical than the competition while offering an ever-increasing variety of features and continually improved performance, notably in terms of measurable specifications.

This dialectic can sometimes play out within the same company. Abbingdon Music Research (AMR), which is based in Southport, UK, was founded in 2000. At first, under the AMR brand, the company focused on high-end audio component separates with price points toward the upper end of the spectrum. The world has a way of intervening, though, even with the best-laid business plans. AMR Director Vince Luke describes in a video how his company made a deliberate choice to "pivot from high end to low end" following the financial crash of 2008. AMR's iFi Audio division debuted at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in 2012, offering a handful of portable products. They were a hit. The iFi line has since expanded to include more than 50 designs, and new products are introduced with impressive frequency.

Herb Reichert  |  Aug 03, 2023  |  7 comments
I view poetry as more than a literary genre. It's a worldview and a state of being that frames my daily experience in the supernal. I've consumed a lifetime keeping my senses peeled for authentic, manmade mysteries, especially in art and music. Music is my favorite hunting ground, and nowhere have I found mysteries as DNA-deep as the 59 takes of 29 songs recorded in only five days by Delta blues legend Robert Johnson (1911–1938). I've played the Columbia Records 1961 anthology King of the Delta Blues Singers (Columbia LP CL 1654) 100 times since my days in Chicago as a teenager, and I still haven't grasped more than a portion of its juke-joint poetics.
Sasha Matson  |  Jun 09, 2023  |  4 comments
In the 1960s, my dad gave me a Panasonic receiver with two cube speakers, just in time for the advent of FM stereo radio in the San Francisco Bay Area. Out of the blue one night, he just walked in with it. The receiver allowed me to plug in a record player, though I only had a few LPs. Later, when I went off to college, my mom took me shopping for a new stereo. I chose a Kenwood integrated amplifier—without a tuner but with the capability to plug in a tape deck, which I did. During my undergrad years, it served me well. Later, I switched to an NAD receiver, which allowed me to listen to the radio again.
John Atkinson  |  Jun 02, 2023  |  6 comments
When Art Dudley reviewed the original PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream D/A processor in Stereophile's September 2014 issue, he very much liked what he heard. "For those who've waited for a computer-friendly DAC that offers, with every type of music file, the best musicality of which DSD is capable, the PerfectWave DirectStream may be in a class by itself," he concluded. It was computer-friendly because, with an add-in card, you could connect it with USB or to an Ethernet cable and use it with, for example, Roon or JRiver.

PS Audio discontinued the original DirectStream DAC in 2022, introducing its replacement, the DirectStream MK2, priced at $7999, in January 2023. At 17" × 4" × 14", the MK2 is the same size as its predecessor, and with its gloss-black MDF top panel, it looks very similar.

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