Enjoy the Music.com's Special 20/20 Award
Digital Audio Equipment --
Steven R. Rochlin chooses the most notable products during
the past 20 years.
As Chosen By Editor & Creative
Director Steven R. Rochlin
It is widely
known within the high-end audio industry that
Enjoy the Music.com gives out very few awards. With the nearly constant
barrage with 'best of' and 'top picks' featuring hundreds of products elsewhere,
there is little doubt Enjoy the Music.com is perhaps the most
conservative of magazines when it comes to giving out special accolades. With
our annual Blue Note awards possibly being the most sought-after within the
audiophile industry, as only a very small handful of products get special recognition
each year, we
want to highlight our 20th anniversary by using our 20/20 vision as it were and
look back to some of the best gear.
Editor and Creative Director for Enjoy the Music.com, it is my honor to
look back at the many thousands of reviews and choose the top 20 per category.
This month my choices are for the very best digital gear over the past 20 years. Each month i'll follow up with exceptional analog playback gear,
then preamplifiers, amplifiers, loudspeakers, etc. Choosing one of the toughest
categories at first,
there is no doubt in the advancements and steadfast progress when it comes to
digital audio playback gear. From CD units that can only decide 16-bit/44.1kHz with
zero oversampling to upsamplers and today's 32-bit/384kHz and DSD DACs... am
laughing at myself for choosing one of, if not the, the most challenging
of Special 20/20 Award categories within our upcoming series to start.
No one said that picking a mere 20 products would
be easy! i take this task with much reflection and contemplation as have seen
and heard many thousands of digital audio playback devices over the years. Using
my 20/20 hindsight to decide upon 20 pieces of high-end audio equipment is no easy feat! Am literally holding my
head tightly as my brain (proverbially) spins due to allowing myself only 20
products to receive this very special award. Of course many of these products
have been superseded and no longer available as new, yet you may find them used
at very attractive pricing. High-end audio does not need to be high priced and
here is where some bargain hunters could greatly benefit. Of course some new
products will make a good showing as they are today's leading-edge creations.
With that said and in no particular order, as Editor and Creative Director of Enjoy
the Music.com here are the Special 20/20 Awards for the
most notable digital-based high-end audio products during the past 20 years.
The Parts Connection Assemblage DAC-2
Am starting this off with something never reviewed within Enjoy the
Music.com. Why? To make the point that a product does not necessary need to be reviewed within our pages. The Sonic Frontiers' Assemblage DAC-2 digital-to-analog converter ($499 as kit, $549 assembled) was an arm of the company's Parts Connection
division as i recall. This was way back in 1997 and the big DACs were 10x the price, yet this little DAC-that-could
produces a stunning amount of well-balanced sound and
resolution that far and away exceeded its price at the time. Furthermore, a few months or so later they made
available a supplemental parts/kit to further improve the performance of this lil' overachiever. When i say little, i mean it
is only 9.5" x 2" x 7" (WxHxD) and weighs a mere 3.5 lbs. In stock for it came with the Analog Devices AD817 output buffer, dual 20-bit Burr Brown DACs and could decode the latest Pacific Microsonics HDCD titles.
Inputs included TosLink optical and S/PDIF via RCA and BNC. Dare i mention that there is a Assemblage DAC 2 right now within my humble
abode and after many years it still produces some incredibly enjoyable music.
Sure it is not the highest of resolution by today's standards, yet it has never
stopped producing glorious-sounding music. Am using a photo of the earlier version, the DAC 1, as it seems photos of the DAC-2 are rare and too tired right
now to take pics of the DAC 2 (my apologies).
Audio Note Zero Oversampling
Years ago the longstanding and highly-regarded Audio Note offered kits. They still do, yet as a spin-off as a completely separate entity. The Audio Note Kit 1.2 DAC
($1100 as kit, add $200 for assembled version) employed the company's zero oversampling and 6DJ8/6922 dual triode vacuum output stage. This was mated with a Crystal CS8412CP input receiver an Analog Devices 18-bit AD1865N chip. Digital inputs included an RCA S/PDIF and XLR AES/EBU input. One advantage of this DAC is that it has an output of 3V maximum and thus worked well with
a normal preamplifier, yet was strong enough to drive purist stepped attenuators too. As Audio Note's DAC
1.2 was available in 2001, which is also when DVD-Audio and SACD were battling it out for
supremacy, we then have this head-scratching zero oversampling device that was bucking the newfangled high-tech trend... and #winning.
Sound-wide, like all Audio Note products it was a swooner! There was impressive inner resolution, glorious harmonics, and a nice sense of rhythm (PRAT). Internally,
there was an abundance of space to tweak it as desired and of course you could tube swap to your heart's content. You can read
our review of the Audio Note DAC 1.2 at this
Ayre CX-7 CD Player
Ayre's CX-7 ($3000) CD player was said to be a perfect counterpart to their
AX-7 ($3000) integrated amplifier. Multi-stage digital filtering meant that the first filter upsamples to 176.4kHz at 24 bits, with the second filter oversampling to 1.4112MHz at 24 bits. It has user-selectable dual digital filter algorithms and there was zero overall feedback in the amplification stage. As this product came out in 2003, our reviewer Todd Warnke felt that there was
still no multi-format player, even those at twice the price, that makes Redbook CD sound as wonderful as the Ayre CX-7. "If I had a budget of five or even ten thousand dollars for a digital front-end," said Todd, "my choice would be to spend three thousand of it right here and put the rest toward hi-rez. The SACD/DVD-A battle is not going to resolve tomorrow, nor is either format about to breakthrough or establishes a dominant market position. CD lives on, and will live on for many years to come as the primary method of music delivery." Todd goes on and says "The CX-7 is most highly recommended, especially if you have a solid-state system - and most especially if you absolutely love
music." You can read our review of the
Ayre CX-7 at this link.
Benchmark DAC1 HDR Preamplifier USB DAC Headphone Combo
It's a floor wax, it's a dessert topping... Oh, wait, i mean it is a preamp, USB DAC and headphone
amplifier all rolled into one made by Benchmark. Pretty much every reviewer loves their products and, frankly, so do i. The Benchmark DAC1 HDR
($1895, available in silver or black) first became available in 2010 and the positive reviews from virtually every magazine rolled in.
It seemed to offer everything other than an amplifier to drive speakers. There are three coaxial S/PDIF inputs via RCA,
TosLink, USB plus standard RCA preamplifier analog output. Our reviewer Jeff Rabin said, "Detail was neither absent nor did it draw undue attention to itself. Highs were not rolled off, nor were they shrill. Bass was as it should be. While it would be wrong to say it was almost analog in presentation, it was not at all solid state in presentation. The Benchmark really just got out of the way and on with the job. Timbre was natural, dynamics, particularly when employing a heavier duty solid state amp were uncompressed. Indeed, sometimes, on SACD particularly, one might even ask for less dynamic range. As I already declared, I bought the DAC at the reviewer's price.... The future, guys, sorry to have to tell you this, is digital. And I was also loathe to 'invest' in anything with moving parts like a CD player."
You can read our review of the
Benchmark DAC 1 HDR at this link.
Cary Audio DMC-600SE Digital Music Center
Let us say for a moment you're a son-of-a-bitch greedy bastard. You don't want just a DAC, or a stand-alone CD
player... or a streamer... or just solid-state or just tubes. You want to have it all because, well, you're a greedy bastard. Ok, fine then, just be that way! So to all you greedy types out there we have the Cary Audio DMC-600SE Digital Music Center ($8000) that has it all. You got yer CD
playa plus a killer DAC and can stream tunes all within this single box unit. For
for you tech types out there, there's a master clock to reduce a bad case of the jitters, sampling rate
is up to 768kHz, it has 8x oversampling, plus all the digital
inputs you can dream up and both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA analog output. Oh, it also has Bluetooth too (and Toto too! Sorry, Wiz of Oz flashbacks). But wait, there's more! You also get a triode vacuum tube amplification stage featuring two 12AU7 glass jewels. "This is one of those reviews where the end of the review is
Enjoy the Music.com's Brett Rudolph. "Nothing is perfect and the DMC-600SE is no exception. Although these might not be considered flaws, they certainly detracted from an otherwise exceptional example of what synergy between vacuum tubes, transistors and computer chips These included a lack of network connectivity, the lack of ability to connect mobile devices directly and the loud click when it locked on Bluetooth
sources... Of course nothing of this caliber comes without a price and the cost of owning your own Cary Audio DMC-600SE is $8000. It is definitely out of many people's price range, but for those that can afford the price it is well worth the investment. Especially for those audiophiles who are looking to get the most out of their CD collection, want the ability to stream high resolution material from their computer or have mobile devices they want exceptional
performance." You can read our review of the Cary Audio DMC-600SE Digital Music Center at this
Sony SCD-XA9000ES SACD Player
Format wars, i hate them. It seems that if history is our guide, then it tells us that no one wins and everyone loses. But when it comes to digital audio, Sony is the massive mover,
shaker and disrupter. Setting my time circuits back to 2004 we have Sony's SCD-XA9000ES SACD player ($2999) and it gave us a good dose of what is possible with their proprietary format that was still within its infancy at the time. Of course it
didn't play DVD-Audio discs or have a USB DAC or streaming capabilities. This was a purpose-built unit to handle CD and multi-channel SACD discs.
Enjoy the Music.com's reviewer Alvin Gold said "The long and the short is that the Sony SCD-XA9000ES is marginally the best sounding Sony SACD player so far. It doesn't lack presence and architecture, and it certainly doesn't lack detail-resolving ability. The bass is firm, tuneful and extended, and altogether the sound gives a sense of integration and precision that DVD-Audio often seems to do better. The difference of course is that at least SACD has a disc catalogue of sorts. DVD-Audio is simply in a mess, and apparently a more hopeless one with every passing month. A good case can be made for keen audiophiles to hedge their bets by going for a good universal player from Denon or Pioneer for example, but there is an element of compromise with universal players that doesn't affect more limited, but better focused players like the Sony. There is one additional factor here too. Among its other talents, the SCD-XA9000ES is a remarkably fine legacy CD player. There is really very little to distinguish its performance from that of a quality dedicated CD player. The two-channel analogue output with its massively parallel output stage is capable of real blood and thunder from appropriately recorded discs. The bass has tremendous clout, and the mid/top regain is vital and energetic, in some ways better than same player's multi-channel performance. Undoubtedly the fact that the Sony is a dedicated audio player with no video or DVD capabilities is a key factor here, but the same could be said of the well-endowed power supply, the superb build quality and a number of other factors besides. A good high fidelity component is a happy combination of many different ideas working in unison, and it is good to see that Sony still has the will and the ability to design and sell high end high fidelity, of which this is as good an example as any in recent times." As this is our 20/20 Awards, it is also
interesting to look back upon great audio gear, even if they are looked back upon as part of the consumer
electronics industry's format warfare. Remember kids: Nobody's a winner with thermonuclear war;
how about a good game of chess? You can read our review of the Sony SCD-XA9000ES SACD player at this
Oracle Audio Technologies CD 1500 MK III CD Player
There is no doubt that high-end audio is far more than just black boxes and the
genius artisans at Oracle Audio Technologies prove this point. The Oracle Audio CD 1500 MK III CD player ($9950 CAD back in 2010, which is about ten bucks in today's
exchange rate to USD. i kid i kid!) did not seek to be the most oversampling or what-have-you. Instead, the Canadian designers chose to produce a great sounding CD player with S/PDIF input via BNC connection. Ok, it did some oversampling, used the Crystal CS4390 24-bit Delta-Sigma decoding plus has an outstanding analog output (balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA) with a signal-to-noise ratio of 115 dB. Above all else, just look at it! It is as though the future is here today and you could proudly showcase this
curvaceous creation to everyone from the art community types to audiophiles. There's no
doubt about it, the Oracle Audio CD 1500 MK III looks sweet! It sounded sweet too. "The spaceship Oracle is certainly up to the job, it is dead quiet and nimble defining each and every musical note" says Ron Nagle, "I can better hear the frequency of the sound and the rapidity of movement; this seems more attributable to a large
fly... The Oracle CD 1500 MK III has a sampling rate higher than Beta, i.e. which is defined as more than twice as high as the highest frequency. Therefore it is an oversampling 24-bit/128kHz CD player not just an upsampling CD player... The Oracle flat out beat my two reference CD players. The Oracle is able to extract every little minuscule detail from my killer resolution test disc and put it out there with Edge Definition. It will take some time and another leap of technology to surpass it. Bottom line is this system setup makes a big advance toward inner image resolution and reality. If you own a large CD library and you are on a hunt for a more accurate CD player buy the CD 1500 MK3.It is a cutting edge red book reader and the last CD player you will need. Go forth and uncover hidden nuance, listen long and prosper." You can read
our review of the Oracle Audio Technologies CD 1500 MK III CD Player at this
Gryphon Audio Designs Kalliope DAC
As this is my choosing, there is no way to have a Best Of or 20/20 of digital
audio without including the Gryphon Audio Kalliope DAC (€19,800, or approximately $26,600 USD). Have you heard it? Odds are if you live within the USA the answer is no and that is
deeply disheartening as it is the best DAC my ears have ever heard to date (this side of my own creations <wink>). The
Kalliope does basically everything DAC-wise other than low-fi Bluetooth. It seems to come with everything,
technically, too. Easily handles digital audio via two ESS Sabre ES9018 32-bit/384kHz plus has dual differential coupling for optimal performance. Sure you have AES/EBU XLR input and PCM via USB up to 384kHz. There are filters and clocks and low jitter
plus a mondo he-man 12.5 farad SuperCap power supply for the Kalliope USB module
alone that makes using battery power versus wall power a non-issue. You want low jitter? How does having
special temperature-compensated crystal oscillators and better than five parts per million accuracy sound? Well, it sounds incredible to my
ears! But don't take my word for it, as instead, er um, ok, take my word for it. Within my
August 2014 review it says "It is hard for me to imagine a more musically accurate DAC in the marketplace today. Gryphon Audio merges creative art and edge-of-the-art science to produce a product that exceeds expectation. I would buy the Kalliope right now if I wasn't so deeply involved in getting new gear for Enjoy the Music.TV's high-rez audio/video studio. If you think high-end audio gear is pricey, you should check out what professional video gear costs! In fact, I'd buy the Kalliope in a heartbeat if I worked full-time as a recording or mastering engineer. At around $26,600, the Gryphon Audio Kalliope DAC is not an inexpensive investment. Yet when one considers that there are other lesser-equipped DACs selling for twice that price that are unable to play DSD 512 or 384kHz files, you can better understand how Gryphon Audio Designs focuses on delivering a true high-end audio product is capable of handling every high quality digital music file type with ease. Forget the usual "highly recommended" statement! Gryphon Audio Designs' Kalliope is exceedingly recommended for those who want the very best DAC with astonishing build quality and technology that can handle all digital music file types and those of the foreseeable future." Hey, i even
groveled and begged the manufacturer to let me keep it, you know, as a long-tern loaner. Alas, she was shipped back and as such Gryphon Audio broke my
heart. i forgive them of course. You can read my review of the Gryphon Audio Designs Kalliope DAC at this
M2Tech Vaughan Digital-To-Analog Converter
A heavy-hitter within the audiophile DAC sector is M2tech. Many awards and the usual fanfare goes here. The M2Tech Vaughan DAC ($7999) Enjoy the Music.com reviewed during 2013 is no exception. Yes you get all the digital inputs one could desire plus both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA analog output. There is also an external clock input and it handles
32-bit/384kHz with ease. Yet forget about all the tech stuff and what matters is how it sounds. You know the story, all tech and no music makes for bad audio. Fortunately M2Tech does no disappoint with their Vaughan. Oh, and before i forget it can be used as a digital preamplifier and even has a headphone amplifier/output too! "After a while, when playing back the signal of everything I fed it, regardless of its resolution the sound of digital through the Vaughan became the new normal in my listening room," says Tom Lyle. "I jotted down in my listening notes, "I could get used to this". I think it is worth mentioning that the greatest change between the digital sound I was accustomed to before and after the Vaughan showed up at my doorstep was not only the amount of detail of each instrument, but the detail of the surroundings of these instruments. Along with the increase in the detail of the ambient space was the spaciousness of the soundstage that appeared between, slightly in-front of, beyond the sides, and to the rear of the speakers. Regardless of their type of design, compared to other speakers my resident Sound Labs are hardly soundstage champs. But when the right ancillary gear comes along, be that a great power or source component, they can bring out the best in what soundstage abilities are contained within these speakers, especially in regards to the depth of the soundfield." Go check out
our review of the M2Tech Vaughan DAC with headphone amplifier at this
EMM Labs XDS1v2 With MDAT2 CD/SACD Reference Player / Converter
EMM Labs, need i say more when it comes to the very best of digital audio decoding and playback? Look, i'll make no apologies that the EMM Labs XDS1v2 With MDAT2 will set you back 25,000 dead
Washingtons (or 250 Benjamins, yet is far less than a tiny single kilo of gold). Digital inputs are the usual high-end AES/EBU XLR, TosLink optical and USB. There are also digital outs via AES/EBU and of course EMM Labs' Optilink. Forget about the technical
highlight reel and dig into the music! Enjoy the Music.com reviewer Phil
Gold says it all as he wrote, "The bar has been raised, and raised so high we are in a new era of digital. My hope is that all high end manufacturers get hold of an XDS1, or another of Ed Meitner's current series of DACs, and compare their best to his. If they can match it, that's great, and I want to hear it. If not, then knowing what is possible may drive them to new heights. Meanwhile, anyone want to buy my analog setup? In 2010 I felt the XDS1 represented the state-of-the-art which would one day be surpassed, maybe by Ed Meitner. I haven't heard anything better all round in the meantime, although I believe it has been equaled by Meridian for Redbook audio and by Chord Electronics for SACD. But these two EMM Labs upgrades have moved the bar again, and I suspect EMM Labs now have a clear lead." 'nuff said folks, as that's game, set and
match. You can read
Phil Gold's review of the EMM Labs XDS1v2 with MDAT2 at this link.
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Special 20/20 Award for digital audio products.