In the June issue of Enjoy the Music.com's Review Magazine I reviewed the Benchmark ADC1USB, the first outboard two-channel analog-to-digital converter (ADC) that I had ever auditioned in my system. I was very, very impressed with this ADC, not only because of its excellent sound quality. What was really nice about this unit was that even though it was initially designed for the professional recording studio market, unlike most pro gear it is "only" a two-channel unit, which makes it perfect for the audiophile with the desire to archive LPs to digital. Its most likeable feature by far is that it has a USB output that is capable of creating a 96kHz/24-bit file. My experience with ADCs of the past were within multipurpose PCI sound cards, and I've only read about the outboard professional multi-channel dedicated ADCs. The sound cards usually are bundled with a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), speaker outputs, headphone amps, and the like. Unlike most other pro models which most likely connect to a studio owner's computer via either S/PDIF (coax), AES/XLR, or FireWire, the Benchmark has its convenient USB output. So, if one reads my review of the Benchmark ADC1USB one will realize that archiving LPs is both fun and relatively easy, mostly because using a converter with a USB is so simple.
Not only that, the sound quality of the Benchmark was better than excellent, and it blows away the ADC that was contained within my multipurpose sound card. Upon receiving the more expensive, higher resolution M2Tech Joplin under review, I was excited to again archive some records, anticipating even better sound quality. Not so fast. Yes, the M2Tech Joplin can be used as I did with the Benchmark, but the Joplin can be used as a phono preamp (although one with only one default loading option, 47kOhm), with a multitude of phono equalization curves all performed within the digital domain. This feature alone would be good enough for some, yet one of the design goals of the Joplin is that since any analog signal applied to its analog inputs is digitally converted to this extremely high resolution, connecting one of Joplin’s digital outputs to a digital inputs of a DAC, or better yet, a digital preamplifier, allows for listening to the analog signal through the Joplin and the DAC in one's digital system with no perceptible loss in headroom or dynamics.
Herein lies the benefit to those foolish enough
to abandon analog for a totally digital system, and now either regretting that
they abandoned vinyl, or those just wanting to add vinyl playback back into
their system without having to give up their digital preamps. Conversely, those
who use an analog front-end along with their digital front ends can take
advantage of the newest breed of digital preamps being offered. So, along with
describing the performance of the M2Tech Joplin when used to make digital copies
of vinyl, I'll also discuss its performance when used as a gateway between my
analog front-end and a digital preamp.
Along with a host of standard digital outputs (S/PDIF, AES/EBU, TosLink), the M2Tech Joplin has a high-speed asynchronous USB connection. On its rear panel is also a connection for its power supply, a small "desktop" (rather than wall wart) type box that has an IEC if one wishes to connect an after-market power cord, which I did. The two RCA inputs with a ground post are evidence that one is expected to connect one's turntable outputs to this unit.
1) as an analog input for digital systems, such as connecting one's turntable to a DAC/digital preamp.
2) as a phono stage when performing digital archiving of analog sources.
3) as a bridge between an analog system and a multi-room digital distribution system through a preamplifier or integrated amp's tape output.
4) as a bridge between a digital source and a
computer lacking digital audio input.
In my system, I mostly used the Joplin to archive vinyl, using the Joplin both as a phono preamp and connected through the tape-out of my preamplifier. I also spent time using the Joplin as per their first suggestion, to connect the turntable to a digital preamplifier. As far as their third suggestion, using it as a bridge for multi-room distributions, I would feel uneasy putting on a record on the turntable and then leaving the room to enjoy it in another part of the house. I can foresee become distracted and leaving the stylus to remain in the LP's run-out groove thus wearing out my phono cartridge. Plus, I save LP for serious listening, not for background listening. I guess I could have connected my FM tuner, but as far as multi-room listening, the only other room where I would need it, there is internet radio.
The procedure in using this ADC to archive vinyl was very similar to the Benchmark. Plus, the front-end remains the same: a LyraKleos moving coil (MC) phono cartridge mounted on a Tri-Planar 6 tonearm, which is hardwired with Discovery cable terminated in Cardas RCAs. Included in my Benchmark review is a sort of mini-primer on archiving vinyl, so I'll skip those details, and go right to describing my time with the M2Tech Joplin. Setting up the Joplin was a bit more complicated, as a driver must be installed in one's computer.
M2Tech suggests one use Kernel streaming, so one must download and install that
files, and install it in the server software. Those
familiar was Direct Streaming and ASIO will know what I'm talking about when I
say that installing and then changing the setting for these options might not
progress as smoothly as one expects (although I should mention that there are
those that are more computer literate than I am, and they would most likely
think that this statement is ridiculous). I also thought that parts of the
Joplin's manual are a bit difficult to follow. Although it has been translated
to English, the screenshots are of a computer that has its default language set
to Italian. Still, after loading the driver, getting my computer and recording
software to recognize the Joplin's driver, and setting the computer and the
software to accept the far superior and highly recommended Kernel Streaming (as
opposed to the Direct Streaming that I've used in the past) there weren't any
So, it first it was on to making a digital file
of a record. I decide to start simple, by burning a 45rpm seven inch single, The
Sweet's "Action", with its fantastic hard-rock/glam/Brit-pop B-Side "Medusa"
that I swear must have heavily influenced the rockumentary-parody band Spinal
Tap's song "Stonehenge". I connected my turntable directly to the Joplin,
ignoring the fact that the LyraKleos phono cartridge mounted on my Tri-Planar 6
tonearm usually sounds its best at loaded at 100 Ohms. When set at the Joplin's
47k Ohms default setting, so it wouldn't be what a perfectionist would have
chosen, yet when changing the loading setting other than the optional setting on
my phono preamp it isn't bad by any means, just not perfect. During a short
trial run where all I had to do was choose the Joplin's input for USB and set
the gain just short of clipping, I moved to the recording software, Sony
Creative Software's Sound Forge, to change in its preferences for the incoming
signal to be recorded at its maximum resolution of 192kHz and 24 bit. And the
results? In a word: Extraordinary. The most positive aspect of the Joplin's
sound when used as an ADC is transparency, and really, what more could anyone
really ask for
My experience with burning vinyl has led me to the realization that if the record that is being burned is in good condition there are very, very few cases where the officially issued Red Book CD will sound superior to a burn of an LP. Even when burning (or simply down-converting the high-resolution file) to CD's 44.1kHz/16-bit resolution, a file made from vinyl will sound better. This is even true when using my humble M-Audio sound card with a street price of under one hundred dollars. We could spend the rest of our lives how or why this could possibly be so, given the steps involved between the original master tape and the resulting computer file made by an "amateur". Yet the results speak for themselves. Comparing the music files made by the M-Audio and the M2Tech Joplin is hardly sportsmanlike, but as I expected the Joplin trounced the M-Audio. Comparing it to files burned by the Benchmark ADC1 USB was more of a matter of nuance, but the fact that the Joplin could create a file from its USB port with a higher resolution made that comparison valid only when comparing material burned at a similar sample rates at or lower than 96kHz. Disregarding the fact that the Joplin has more features (and a more stylish exterior), with those files the sound quality of the two was practically indistinguishable.
When I just used the tape-out of the preamplifier
the sound quality of the resulting files were even better than using the Joplin
as a phono stage. I suppose that because I was able to use the Lyra
cartridge’s more accepted loading options might have been partially
responsible for that, but the fact that the phono cartridge's signal was fed to
a Pass Labs XP-15 phono stage before it entered the Joplin's conversion stage is
a more feasible explanation. But wowie, what a sound! All the audiophile clichés
could easily be employed to describe the sound of the files made via the M2Tech
Joplin analog-to-digital converter: it has excellent transparency, a huge
soundstage and precise imaging. Acoustic instruments have a realistic timbre,
the highs are extended and delicate, it has thunderous but a pitch specific
low-end, and the mids are clear and lifelike. Most importantly it has a
musicality that bears repeated listenings. These traits were discovered in
further detail after burning Led Zeppelin’s Houses
Of The Holy LP pressed by Classic Records where all the traits listed
above were in full sonic view. Comparing these 92kHz/24 bit to the original Red
Book CD were a waste of time, as during the first few seconds of "The Song
Remains The Same" anyone with ears could tell that now we were hearing a
slamming digital copy as close to this 200 gram slab of monster-rock vinyl one
was ever going to hear, limited only by the quality of the playback equipment,
which in this case was M2Tech's Vaughan DAC.
As to the other aside, I think Red Book CD's poor reputation in light of these higher resolution files is somewhat undeserved, as one will quickly discover when one starts to carefully burn their LPs or other analog sources, and then convert the hi-rez files to burn a CD. I realize that one's results will be dependent on the quality of the analog front-end. I have never attended a mastering session of any CD that is mass produced and widely distributed. But if I were loaned a master tape of my favorite artist, borrowed a pro reel-to-reel tape machine, ran its signal through the M2Tech Joplin, and then burned a CD from the files I created on my PC I would bet the farm it would sound better than the majority of crappy sounding CDs that the major record labels have hoisted upon the public. And it makes sense why the re-masterings made by the smaller audiophile record labels sound so much better. I'm not trying to defend the Red Book standard, as I'm sure almost all audiophiles (including yours truly) would agree that in retrospect the 44.1kHz/16-bit standard is insufficient, but the M2Tech Joplin proves that one can overcome many of its limitations.
The LP converted to digital through the Joplin also sounded excellent, but let's put things into perspective here. When I would archive an album at a decent sampling rate, say 96kHz/24-bit, then play the resulting signal through my system with an analog (tube, no less) preamplifier the signal sounded marvelous, highlighting the excellent way the Joplin had with converting the signal to digital with far less "damage" then I, or anyone else I suspect, would anticipate. When playing LPs directly through the Joplin, then through the digital preamp, the LP sounded good, but very good digital. There is not enough space here to get into the argument that good digital does not sound good because it sounds like analog, or vice versa. These are two different animals, and suffice to say, the Joplin did its part particularly well at converting the signal to digital. And with an analog-to-digital converter as good as the Joplin, one isn't going to be punished, for lack of another term, for converting that signal. When I switched out the Vaughan DAC/preamp for my tube preamplifier when playing LPs, yes, it did sound much better. To me. I feel I should also add that digitizing the analog-front end leveled the playing field, of sorts, for when I played back a file I'd burn from an LP at a high enough sample rate, say 96kHz/24-bit, and played the file back through the same digital preamplifier I would use to monitor the recording, the resulting sound was for all practical purposes indistinguishable from this signal played "directly" from the LP.