Digital Processor Reviews

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Robert Harley  |  May 28, 2019  |  First Published: Nov 01, 1994  |  7 comments
If there's one buzzword in high-end audio for the 1990s, it's undoubtedly jitter. "Jitter" describes timing variations in the clock controlling the ones and zeros that represent the analog audio signal. If that clock isn't stable to an extraordinarily precise degree, the sound quality of the digital processor will be degraded.

A CD transport/digital processor combination introduces jitter in three ways: 1) the transport puts out a jittered signal; 2) the S/PDIF or AES/EBU interface between the transport and processor creates jitter; and 3) the digital processor adds its own jitter to the clock. These additive factors are largely responsible for the great range in sound quality we hear from different transports and interfaces.

Dick Olsher  |  Sep 20, 2013  |  First Published: Nov 01, 1994  |  0 comments
John Stronczer, Bel Canto Design's technical spark plug, meets my definition of an electronics renaissance man, ranging as he does from designing single-ended amps that glow in the dark (the Orfeo) to digital processors (the Aida). Actually, digital circuitry is one of John's specialties, dating back to his days at Honeywell.
Robert Harley  |  Sep 07, 2010  |  First Published: Oct 07, 1994  |  0 comments
The arrival of the Mark Levinson No.30 digital processor more than 2½ years ago marked a turning point in digital-audio reproduction. Although the No.30's $13,950 price tag put it out of reach of all but a few audiophiles, its stunning performance suggested that much more musical information was encoded on our CDs, waiting to be recovered by better digital processors. Further, it was inevitable that this level of performance would become less expensive over time. I was more excited by the No.30 than I've been over any other audio product. In fact, its musical performance was so spectacular that it alone occupied the Class A category in Stereophile's "Recommended Components."
Robert Harley  |  Sep 11, 2019  |  First Published: Apr 01, 1994  |  14 comments
One measure of a high-end product designer's talent is the musical success of his top-of-the-line product. This is his statement to the world of what he can accomplish—a kind of "personal best" that defines the upper limits of his talent. Because he knows of no way to make the product better, the component stands as the ultimate testimonial to his skill.
Robert Harley  |  Nov 08, 2010  |  First Published: Jan 08, 1994  |  0 comments
Remember the early days of CD, when some players were touted as having the revolutionary new "2x-oversampling" digital filters?
Robert Harley  |  May 08, 2005  |  First Published: Dec 08, 1993  |  0 comments
I feel privileged to have followed the remarkable evolution of digital processors over the past four-and-a-half years. Since my first digital review—a survey of three modified CD players back in August 1989—I've been fascinated by the developments that have inexorably improved the quality of digitally reproduced music.
Thomas J. Norton  |  Mar 29, 2012  |  First Published: Nov 01, 1993  |  0 comments
When a manufacturer sets out to design and build a product, be it in high-end audio or any other field, the final retail price is usually a prime consideration. Parts and assembly are only part of the equation; there also must be enough buyers to amortize the design and development costs. If the product is to be a flagship model—something a company hopes will give a lift to its entire line—engineers will sometimes throw caution to the winds, designing a product without thought to its ultimate price, which is only set after the design is complete. When Madrigal Audio Laboratories set out to design their No.30 Reference Digital Processor, they appear to have chosen exactly this approach.
Robert Harley  |  Apr 12, 2018  |  First Published: Jun 01, 1993  |  2 comments
Whoever invented the adage "Good things come in small packages" wasn't into high-end audio. Most high-end products are huge and heavy, with massive power supplies, thick front panels, and battleship build quality. This dreadnought approach is justified if it directly affects the unit's sonic performance (as in the Mark Levinson No.31 transport, for example). In some products, however, the massive build can reflect a shotgun, overkill approach by the designer, or a mere fashion statement.
Robert Harley  |  Apr 27, 2012  |  First Published: Mar 01, 1993  |  5 comments
There are as many ways of designing a digital-to-analog converter as there are engineers. One approach is to select parts from manufacturers' data books and build the product according to the "application notes" provided by the parts manufacturers. This is the electronic equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit.

A more creative engineer may add a few tricks of his own to the standard brew. Bigger and better regulated power supplies, careful circuit-board layout, tweaky passive components, and attention to detail will likely make this designer's product sound better than the same basic building blocks implemented without this care. Indeed, the vast range of sonic flavors from digital processors containing very nearly the same parts attests to the designer's influence over a digital processor's sound.

Robert Harley, Lewis Lipnick, Thomas J. Norton  |  Jun 06, 2019  |  First Published: Oct 01, 1992  |  1 comments
A visiting manufacturer recently expressed the idea that digital processors and transports are the worst value in high-end audio. He contended that, because they all sound bad, their differences and degrees of imperfection are meaningless. In his view, the very best digital differed very little from the worst. His advice? Buy a moderately priced CD player and enjoy your LPs.
Robert Harley  |  Nov 08, 2019  |  First Published: Oct 01, 1992  |  10 comments
Looking at the Digital Link II's build quality and circuitry, it's hard to believe that it can sell for $499 at retail. The Digital Link II shares the same appearance as PS Audio's SuperLink and UltraLink processors, but has a 4"-shorter chassis. The ¼"-thick front panel uses PS Audio's familiar touch-sensitive switches that turn the unit on and select between coaxial and optical inputs. LEDs above these switches indicate when the unit is locked to the digital source. A third LED illuminates when power is applied.
Robert Harley  |  Sep 12, 2019  |  First Published: Oct 01, 1992  |  1 comments
The $799 Theorem was originally shown at the 1992 WCES in a very small chassis that prohibited adding features or upgrades. Sumo has since become more ambitious, putting the Theorem in a full-sized chassis and offering several upgrade options that would have been impossible in the truncated version.
Robert Harley  |  Apr 05, 2016  |  First Published: Jun 01, 1992  |  2 comments
The night before I started to write this review, PBS began a five-part series on computers called "The Machine that Changed the World." The first episode described the development of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Accumulator), the first electronic computer. The ENIAC used 18,000 vacuum tubes, had over 500,000 solder joints, required a room 30' by 50', had to be physically reprogrammed with patch cords to perform different tasks, and packed less computing power than today's $4.99 pocket calculator.
Robert Harley  |  Feb 13, 2014  |  First Published: Mar 01, 1992  |  1 comments
Since the first digital processor on the market using UltraAnalog DACs appeared (the $12,000 Stax DAC-X1t, reviewed in August 1990, Vol.13 No.8), there has been a proliferation of good-sounding processors using this extraordinary—and expensive—part. Among these are the Audio Research DAC1, Audio Research DAC1-20, VTL Reference D/A, and the groundbreaking Mark Levinson No.30 reviewed last month.
Robert Harley, Various  |  Jun 07, 2010  |  First Published: Feb 07, 1992  |  0 comments
Over the past two and a half years, I've auditioned and reviewed a number of digital audio products. It has been a fascinating experience both to watch digital playback technology evolve and to listen to the results of various design philosophies. The road to more musical digital audio has been a slow and steady climb, with occasional jumps forward made possible by new techniques and technologies. Making this odyssey even more interesting (and confounding), digital processors seem to offer varying interpretations of the music rather than striving toward a common ideal of presenting what's on the disc without editorial interjection.

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