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February 2000
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Audio Note Kit 1.1 Meets MSB's Highly Raved Gold Link DAC...
...and kicks it's butt! The Tale of Two DACs
Review By Steven R. Rochlin
Click here to e-mail reviewer

MSB Gold Link DAC

  I began reviewing the MSB a while back. After reading all the hype and praise i was truly hoping to find another one of those diamonds in the rough. Sadly, all i found was seemingly a simple lump of coal. While at the Boston Audio Bash '99 show someone brought with them the basic $399 Link DAC and it did indeed improve the music quality over the stock Denon CD player's DACs. Ok, so since i was looking for something really awesome i figured that their upper line $1,295 Gold Link DAC would turn the trick. Since i am not one to mince words, and frankly do not want to waste too much of my time here, here's the deal.

i tried various interconnects from basic copper to $1,600 silver... Digital cables from my own DIY fave Max Rochlin Memorial to those from Kimber and Illuminati. No matter what i tried, it seems that in my system the MSB was a no go. The highs were not smooth, the bass was not only over blown, it lacked definition. Was the unit broken? A few brief measurements in a friend's lab seemed to indicate the unit was working properly. What could explain the not so appealing sound of this unit? Beats me except to say that i have spoken to a few other friends who also feel as i do that the MSB is just ok, yet even the older Assemblage DAC 2.0 ($499 kit, $549 assembled) as offered by The Parts Connection was much better. Amazing since the MSB uses a 24-bit/96 kHz DAC chipset. Ahhh, but maybe that is the problem...

Audio Note Kit DAC 1.1You see, we are talking about odd integer processing and i have also been receiving letters about the lousy sound from decoding 16-bit/44.1 kHz CDs on 24-Bit/96 kHz chipsets. Maybe this is the problem? All i can say in that no matter how much i tried, in my system the MSB was not only uninvolving, it was a revelation to eradicate the unit from my system! Out with you, you nasty DAC you! Even if the MSB was only $600 as opposed to $1,295 i would still feel it is not worth the money. Best bet would be to get a used, and excellent value in my humble opinion, Assemblage DAC 2.0. That is until i heard... Enter the new kit on the block.

i first heard the new Audio Note DAC Kit 1.1 in prototype form in Italy at the Milan Top Audio & Video Show. Upon first listen my jaw dropped. Seemed like another Audio Note magic product (at the usual "magic five-figure price"). Hey, i have been the way of the Ongaku, the Audio Note Silver interconnect cable and totally mind blowing hand-wired all silver cartridge step-up transformer. So i figured this was another $3,000 killer DAC. Boy was i wrong... and luckily so i might add. Read on!

Ok, let me get you hot and wet first with some foreplay. We'll get to some testing and finally to the pleasing. How about making a DAC with zero times "oversampling". Ah, an oxymoron! Then add a nice 12AU7 tube in the output stage. Sprinkle in some of those Audio Note magic parts and there you have it. Oh, the designer of this kit just so happen to be an ex-employee of Sonic Frontiers (the Big Boys of the same company that owns The Parts Connection). YEP, the same company that makes my fave el cheapo Assemblage DAC 2.0! Coming from the design talents of none other than Michael Kerster comes the all new Audio Note DAC Kit 1.1. The DAC Kit 1.1 comes standard with both a 75 Ohm BNC unbalanced and 110 Ohm AES/EBU balanced (XLR) digital inputs. Output is via standard right and left channel unbalancd RCA jacks. Standard detachable power cord is also included for you power cord DIY junkies.

You want more details? Well, to quote their Web site "The DAC Kit 1.1 is a stereo digital to analogue converter using Audio Note 1 X over sampling techniques. This configuration in our opinion has proven to be musically superior to other over sampling methods. The kit uses the well proven Crystal CS8412CP input receiver, and the DAC chip is the Analog Devices 18 bit AD1865N. The tube output stage uses a single 12AU7A / ECC82 as a common cathode amplifier which provides voltage gain to allow the Dac Kit 1.1 to be used with any active preamplifier, and some passive preamplifiers." The chassis is extremely solid and you get a very impressive 3/16" brushed aluminum front face plate. Most people would take one look at think you spent thousands.. but you didn't. What if i told you this kit was only 550.00 inc. VAT. (or $699 for those of us on this side of the pond and dealing in US dollars). Enough with the teasing, here comes the pleasing...

How does the final version sound? Captivating, entrancing, holistically involving... In the February issue of Hi-Fi News & Record Review none other than Martin Colloms reviewed the new Audio Note 1x oversampling mega-thousand dollar Audio Note DAC 5 and raved all about it. Now imagine that same basic idea of using 1x (or zero times) oversampling to decode 16-bit/44.1 CD. This is what the DAC Kit 1.1 is all about!

Instruments have such a natural sound that it makes me rethink that "CD Sucks" mantra (like people did in the 70's when referring to disco). This is not subtle folk!!! This is smack you upside your head stuff here. Tonal textures are much more natural. In fact for the very first time CDs seem to sound as rhymically natural as vinyl. i am not kidding here folks. Look, i was the first reviewer outside the confines of Germany to rave about the Lehmann Audio Black Cube phono stage and lemme tell you here and now, the new Audio Note Kit DAC 1.1 makes the Black Cube seem paled by comparison. What i mean is that the 1.1 is so much better than anything near it's price range that you may just forget about wasting all your hard earned cash on that new Sony proprietary SACD format (and the 50 or so measly discs now available) and instead rediscover all the hidden music within your monstrous collection of CDs. i do not need to remind you how i was the first to fully rave about the now hugely popular 47 Labs Gaincard amplifier do i? Well add the 1.1 to this small and exclusive list!

What? You want to hear more? Ok. Imagine your CDs reproducing music as smooth as your prized vinyl rig. Well, maybe not as smooth as my $20,000 VOYD spinning, Clearaudio (Insider) Reference Wood cartridge, hand would silver step-up transformer wielding... Oh heck, you get the idea! It might not equal the ultimate no-hold-barred rig like i have here, but it should make mince meat of those puny $1,000 Blue Point Special-type rigs i keep hearing in various systems all around the world. Maybe i am being a bit overly hyped here... maybe. Though please keep in mind i have the basic version. No one ever said it could not be upgraded (heh heh heh  :-{)  ).

That's right! Soon Audio Note will also be offering various upgrade kits. For now i can only imagine how removing that copper wire for all silver will sound, let alone giving her a full Black Gate (or at least Elna) recapping job. The basic $699 US box i have here is so good i decided to not begin the simple task of swapping stock 12AU7 tube for some cool el tweako NOS goodies i have here. i wanted to fully exploit the standard stock unit to make sure i was not going ga-ga over something non-stock. So is the DAC Kit 1.1 perfect? Nope!

The highs are a bit rolled off using my fave DIY Max Rochlin Memorial digital cable... but then again that is how that cables sounds to some degree. Changing to the Kimber or Illuminati did help to open up the highs but at the expense of the lovely harmonic textures the DAC Kit 1.1 was reproducing. At times i have a hard time deciding is the resolution being lowered OR is there more there there in such a natural way that things seem to be more naturally relaxed. Speaking of naturalness, each instrument seems to have such a natural envelope of hall acoustics it might scare the pants off you! The imaging, on the other hand, is possibly a bit bloated yet still well defined. i have not come to a full conclusion yet about the imaging as it is also very 3D and maybe i am simply not accustom to hearing my CDs sound so, well, as if the instruments are in a read 3D acoustic space. Whatever it is, is makes CDs more enjoyable than they ever have been before. i have been the way of ultra-tweaky transports and DACs. While the super expensive stuff is very good, the Kit 1.1 is the first to truly make me fully rethink 16-bit/44.1 kHz sound quality. Maybe it is not so bad after all?

While this review is after about one month of abusing, er, um, using the unit, the music reproduction quality is so good, well... did i mention it smacked me upside my head?! Look folks, we are not talking about some $5,000 "bargain" DAC-of-the-month-club like you read in other rags. We are talking about an only 550.00 inc. VAT. ($699 US) DAC that can play tens of thousands of the CDs that are available right now. Those of you incapable of soldering need not fear, for another $200 you can get the Kit 1.1 pre-built and tested for those of you without the always ready to go Weller WCC-100 temperature controlled soldering station. For you hardcore DIY types (and you know who you are), i can see no reason why to not snatch up one of these ASAP, build it and listen. Then break out your secret supply of power caps, silver wire, NOS tube... and have at it! In fact i want to start a DAC Kit 1.1 club where we all exchange what parts have worked for us. Together we can turn the 1.1 into the ultimate DAC for under $1,000! Are you with me here?

In the end i also ask you to read Martin Colloms' review in the February issue of Hi-Fi News & Record Review as the 1x oversampling multi-thousand dollar DAC 5 received his highest of ratings for any DAC he has ever reviewed! i have a feeling the Kit 1.1 is not that far behind the DAC 5 once we all work together and find parts upgrades that make it the most eargasmic DAC on the planet.

So there you have it folks. MSB is a no go while for about half the price you can get a unit that beats out units i have heard that go for over $3,000! Stop playing the DAC waiting game while the alphabet soup of SACD/DVD-A and other formats are undecided and start having fun again with your music! Life is too damn short to do otherwise. After all, in the end what really matters is that you... Enjoy the Music.

 

Below rating are for the Audio Note DAC Kit 1.1 as rating the MSB would simply not be appropriate given my obvious results.

Tonality 95
Sub-bass (10 Hz - 60 Hz) 85
Mid-bass (60 Hz - 200 Hz) 90
Midrange (200 Hz - 3,000 Hz) 90
High-frequencies (3,000 Hz on up) 80
Attack 90
Decay 95
Inner Resolution 90
Soundscape width front 90
Soundscape width rear 90
Soundscape depth behind speakers 95
Soundscape extension into the room 95
Imaging 85
Fit and Finish 90
Self Noise 95
Value for the Money 100

 

Manufacturer

Audio Note UK
25 - 127 Davigdor Road
Hove
East Sussex
BN3 1SG
England

Voice: +44 (0) 1273 770 778
Fax: +44 (0) 1273 773 476
Website: www.audionote.co.uk

 

 

(Kits & Components North America) 

Audio Note North America
2395 Cawthra Rd, Unit 15
Mississauga, Ontario, L5A 2W8

Voice: (905) 306-1677
Fax: (905) 306-9689
E-mail: audionote@idirect.com
Website: www.audionote.on.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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