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August 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Enjoy the Music.com Special 20/20 Award
Enjoy the Music.com's Special 20/20 Award
Digital Audio Equipment --
Page 2
Steven R. Rochlin chooses the most notable products during the past 20 years.

As Chosen By Editor & Creative Director Steven R. Rochlin

 

Audio Networking
A potpourri of computer network audio findings, including updates on the Naim UnitiServe, gigabit switches, CAT 5/6 cable and ripping issues. 1.2


Perhaps one of the most controversial articles in recent times concerning digital audio is from our partner magazine HIFICRITIC. As we're not one to shy away from such subjects, and neither is Martin Colloms, here we have our 20/20 Award for a potpourri of computer network audio findings. From ripper to gigabit switches and CAT 5/6 cables... this article virtually has it all in painful blow-by-blow glory. Ok, while not a product review in the strictest sense, it is an award-earning article as i feel it is well worth reading. Within the beginning of this article, Martin Colloms says, "This issue's project covers a variety of topics which were largely dealt with in a rewarding listening test marathon. While complex and time consuming, these delivered clear and repeatable results. The procedures were inevitably time consuming, because many of the changes and substitutions required the network to be reset. (In the case of the Naim UnitiServe, this involves a full power down and power up of the operating system.) Swapping interconnects is so much easier in the analogue domain! We were intrigued by the results of auditioning several NAS (network-attached storage) drives, reported in Vol5 No3, concerning the differences between internal processors, and the sound quality variations found between different data drives, whether solid state or disc. The effect of the recommended gigabit switch at the (data replay) streamer end of the chain needed verifying, and also the influence of the type of network cable type joining it all up." Again, this may not be an equipment review in the strictest sense, yet imho it is an award-earning article. There are no hard-n-fast rules with Enjoy the Music.com's 20/20 Awards and since this is my 'sandbox' folks, it is i who makes the rules. You should read this review and gain some insight to the trials and tribulations of digital audio at this link.

 

LampizatOr Generation 5 Level 4 DAC
LampizatOr Generation 5 Level 4 DAC
LampizatOr's Generation 5 Level 4 DAC ($5195) has been so raved about by our reviewer Wayne Donnelly in December 2014 that if i left it out of Enjoy the Music.com's 20/20 Awards am sure my phone would ring with some stern comments. Sure i get to choose what appears on this listing, yet trust me here when i say you don't want to piss off Wayne. No way, no how, nuh uh, not me. The LampizatOr's Generation 5 Level 4 DAC has tube output, three separate independent power supplies, three chokes and of course a modern 32-bit architecture with 32-bit/384 kHz decoding capability. Tweak parts include Jensen paper-in-oil output capacitors too. As Wayne tells it, "As much as I love my analog setup, especially after adding the Stein cartridge last year, my physical disabilities make it a lot more work to play an LP. Although I enjoyed my ModWright / Denon player more than any previous digital sources in my system, I still went to LPs when I wanted to hear the best sound my system could produce. Now I can just relax and enjoy CDs, without feeling that I am compromising. The LampizatOr Level 4 Generation 5 DAC essentially frees me from worrying about the sound and lets me relax and enjoy the music. At a retail price of $5195, the Generation 5 is a substantial purchase. But to me it gives great value for the degree of listening pleasure it delivers. I expect that when I have mastered DSD computer audio it will prove to be even more of a bargain. I may also check out whether a newer and better disc transport will get even better results from my CD library. As I'm sure you’ve already figured out, this wonderful DAC, as Dylan would sing, "ain't goin' nowhere"." Last i heard Wayne not only still has it, he's busy tweaking/upgrading it. So yeah, its a keeper. You can read Wayne's review of the LampizatOr Generation 5 Level 4 DAC at this link.

 

Behringer Ultracurve Pro 8024 Digital Equalizer
Behringer Ultracurve Pro 8024 Digital Equalizer
Way back in January 2001 virtually no one within the audiophile world had heard of Behringer. As i recall, Enjoy the Music.com was the first to report on them within our community and here we have the Behringer Ultracurve Pro 8024 digital equalizer ($699, plus $129 for the AES/EBU and $89 for the ECM8000 measurement microphone). Digital equalization was in its infancy when it came to better than CD resolution and this unit handles up to 48kHz/24-bit with all the usual digital inputs and outputs as expected within a professional audio unit. It also had XLR balanced analog output, should you want to go right out of the unit to your amplifier instead of then using an external DAC of your choosing. Of course our reviewer Thorsten Loesch knew that 24-bit/192kHz was around the corner, so that made this unit a bit limited in that regard. Still, it did not stop him from saying "In the end I would rate the impact of the Ultracurve on my system in the same region as that of high quality full range drivers or single-ended triodes. It brings me closer to the music and makes it easier to forget about the mechanics of reproduction. For the money it's a clear bargain if there ever was one. Even better is that due to being a Pro-Audio unit you may find it likely quite easy to hire a unit for a few days to evaluate at home. A number of the Pro-Audio shops I frequent will hire you the demo / rental unit for a modest cost and will credit this money towards a purchase of the unit while still giving decent discounts. Go and haggle, as pro-audio is highly competitive marketplace, you'll be surprised about the deals possible. And quite frankly, at the price I do not care the tiniest bit if the Ultracurve Pro becomes obsolete two years from now as it will not support 96kHz or 192kHz Sample Rate (or SACD). By then we should have a 192kHz/24-bit capable model which I will buy unseen and unheard!" You can read Thorsten's Behringer Ultracurve Pro 8024 digital equalizer review at this link.

 

OPPO HA-2 Battery Powered Portable Amplifier With DAC

Remember the things i said about hindsight being 20/20. Well, it also holds true about using a product long-term and this includes the OPPO HA-2 teeny tiny itty bitty headphone amplifier with DAC. Within my review i praised it quite a bit yet wasn't quite swooned by it. Then again there are some truly righteous products here and so sometimes it might take a bit longer for a product to really shine. Case in point is the OPPO HA-2 ($299) portable DAC / headphone amplifier i reviewed in April 2015. Maybe it was due to OPPO's PM-3 ($399) planar magnetic headphones being so friggen outstanding that it outshined the HA-2? Perhaps, yet now with many months passed since writing the review i keep finding ways to enjoy the HA-2. It works, easily, with everything i seem to throw at it. Some portable DACs and bits can be fickle, other times they can frustrate, yet can't ever recall having a problem with the OPPO HA-2. Furthermore, it really sounds great for the money. No, strike that, due to its small size and low cost this baby blows... my.... mind! Frequency response is 20Hz to 200kHz, you can use it as an external DAC with your home computer, Apple or Android phone, and (or is it or) a straight analog stereo headphone amplifier. When i say small, we're talkin' 2.5" x 6.2" x 0.5" and it weights a mere 6.2 ounces. Solid build, looks like it should cost $600 and is like the Energizer bunny as it keeps going and going. Also, now with 400+ hours on her she is really sounding great. Oh please forgive me everyone, for i have sinned. Even with only 100+ hours the OPPO HA-2 sounded really good during my review, yet at 400+ hours and considering the low price and small size and ease of use and.... and... and.... Please allow me to sum it up this way. You can take the OPPO HA-2 out of my cold dead hands. See my preview of the OPPO HA-2 DAC / amplifier and PM-3 planar magnetic headphones, with link to the full review here.

 

iFi Audio Micro iDSD Battery Powered DAC / Headphone Amplifier

Hasn't there been enough cyberink written about the iFi Audio Micro iDSD ($499) that i can stop right here and just post a link to the review? Do i really need to tell you that it handles all DSD and PCM formats? Why should i even try and type, yet again, about how great a unit this medium-ish sized (for a portable unit) battery powered DAC is? Am sure you know about iFi Audio's X-Bass and 3D Holographic Sound, and the three filter settings and three power output settings. Look, here's what i wrote in September 2014, "As this month is Enjoy the Music.com's annual Blue Note Awards, am sure you can already tell that the iFi Audio Micro iDSD has earned not just my highest of respect, but my personal fave award for best portable DAC/amp combo too! For only $499 the iFi Audio Micro iDSD delivers and incredible value, can handle every conceivable digital music file type today and for the foreseeable future for many years to come. You also get a variety of settings for filtering, XBass, 3D Holography, variable amplification output setting, plenty of amplifier power and it can even charge your USB-powered device too! It can also serve as a headphone amplifier and as an external DAC for your high fidelity audio system. The bottom line here is that it will be very hard for any such unit in the years to come to sound better while also providing so many features at this price. In this word of disposable and cheaply made audio devices, I foresee the iFi Audio Micro iDSD unit being one of those products you will be gladly using 10 years from now. A decade from today it should still handle everything you can throw out it from modern digital music files, an external DAC, plus handle everything from custom IEMs and those hard-to-drive planar magnetic headphones too. Smart audiophiles can stop wasting their hard earned cash with typical DAC-of-the-month products and instead get a device that can keep them happily enjoying the music today and for many years to come." You can read my review of the iFi Audio Micro iDSD at this link.

 

Astell&Kern AK380 Battery Powered Portable Media Player / DAC
Astell&Kern AK380 Battery Powered Portable Media Player / DAC
It pays to come prepared for battle. Sure we're all waiting on the zombie apocalypse, yet while you're waiting how about doing a review as efficiently as possible? And this is exactly how i got the world premiere review in June 2015 of the awesome, ground-breaking, incredible, fantabolous Astell&Kern AK380 ($3499) battery powered portable audio player / DAC done. Judging by the reader responses, you were glad too. The AK380 is a player, external DAC and handles all the latest and greatest digital audio files including native support for DSD, DFF, etc. As part of an ecosystem, you can also attach a disc ripper and external headphone amplifier too. Yet with my CIEMs there is no need for the amplifier. Astell&Kern's AK380 is a true balanced audio design via two AKM AK4490 DACs, which gives you higher sound quality and stereo separation. Sure it support up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and Bluetooth too. There's a 20-band parametric EQ (bravo!) and you can name custom setting of your EQ so that guys like me with 8+ pairs of CIEM/headphones can have a setting for each one. Internal memory is 256GB, and you can add a microSD card to expand it further. "The ultimate portable media player for recording/mastering sound quality is the Astell&Kern AK380 hands down, everything else is settling for a compromise," i said within my review. "When it comes to transparency, accuracy and the ability to drive a wide variety of headphones and IEMs the AK380 is clearly the winner here. Add in the fun extras such as a dock with true balanced XLR output plus a disc ripper and you have a seamlessly integrated ecosystem fit for a King." You can read my review of the Astell&Kern Ak380 at this link.

 

Mark Levinson No 390S CD Processor
Mark Levinson No 390S CD Processor
Saving perhaps the best for last, it is none other than Harmon with their innovations of digital audio processing that made significant leaps forward during the early days of digital audio. As i recall the story, Harmon wisely took charge away from the previous squandering leadership. Teams of engineers worked diligently in finding how to best take advantage of those early digital audio chipsets and internal circuitry. This lead to temperature-controlled towers and balanced analog volume control with a precision unlike that seen previously within the high-end audio industry. Enjoy the Music.com's review of the Mark Levinson No 390S ($6700) CD processor by Alvin Gold back in June 2003 showcases the culmination of new discoveries in producing the very best from the digital compact disc (CD). It had dual differential 24-bit DAC with a conversion rate up to 384kHz. There is an incredible balanced analog audio volume control circuitry with ultra-fine 0.1dB steps across most of its 73dB operating range, with no loss of resolution as the volume is reduced. In some ways, innovations set by Harmon during the early years of digital audio are still making their way into many digital audio products today. "What the Mark Levinson No 390S does remarkably well is to avoid sounding like a CD player," said Alvin Gold. "It simply doesn't have the signature of a digital player. There is no treble grain, no lack of depth information or flattening of stereo perspectives, and no suggestion that prominent foreground events hide what's going on in the background. Indeed it is the 390S's ability to resolve very fine, low level musical data in the presence of prominent foreground material that distinguishes it. If you like, it is the 390S's ability to keep a number of balls in the air at once that helps make it so musically rewarding. Music reproduced by the player 'breathes' like real music, a quality that is impossible to describe any more clearly on paper, but which is obvious when you hear it... Indeed the brilliant volume control is almost worth the price of admission on its own." See our review of the Mark Levinson No 390S CD processor at this link.

 

 

And so there you have it, Enjoy the Music.com's Special 20/20 Award. If you missed part one for digital audio gear, click here to see our first 10 choices. Oh, hold on a second. At the beginning i said there would be 20 products chosen and yet only 17 appear. This simply illustrates how rare awards are here at Enjoy the Music.com. We're not here to pander or make some longwinded listing just because we can or to pander to advertisers. Awards and certificates just because someone does something are worth ziltch when everyone gets an award. Perhaps it is more an American mentality thing where everyone is a winner, even the losers (LOL). Each month i'll be choosing up to 20 products to receive Enjoy the Music.com's Special 20/20 Award within different categories such as preamplification, amplification, loudspeakers, etc. Choosing the digital audio category first has not been easy and hope you found something that benefited you within the first of this series. As always, in the end what really matters is that you...

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

 

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