North Star Design Model 192 Transport And DAC
The Agony or the Ecstasy?
Review By Todd Warnke
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Ferrari. Pininfarina. Prada. Gucci. Michelangelo. Bernini. When it comes to style, finesse and sheer design perfection the Italians have no peer. On the other hand they also have Fiat. Sure, Fiat have come a long way since the last time they were in the States, but back in the '70s they filled the niche that Yugo took over in the 1980s
— poorly made and unreliable but cheap enough you could buy two so you'd always have a spare. So, when I opened the two boxes containing the North Star Design Model 192 twins (the Top Loading CD Transport and the 192kHz/24-bit D/A Converter) the question uppermost in my mind was "Ferrari or Fiat"? But before we reveal the answer to that question (and no fair skipping down to see the answer, like Dante, you too must suffer through purgatory before reaching your destination) let's take a tour and deep listen of the twins.
Like any good Italian product, the visuals of the North Star Designs are unique, sleek, useful and engaging. The transport uses a top-loading design with a magnetized puck to hold the CD. The tray slides open to the left and the tray cover is finished in the same brushed aluminum as the front panels of the transport and DAC. On the front and in the center of the transport is the blue LED display which reveals the standard track and time data. On the right side of the fascia are the controls:
Play, Stop, Pause, Skip Forward and Skip Backward. Just to the left of the display lies the
Standby button, which moves the transport to and from sleep mode. Round back the transport continues the clean design though with a couple of surprises. The right side of the rear fascia has the standard IEC power jack and master power switch, while the left side has three output connectors. The coax is expected, and the AES/EBU is a nice addition, but the
I2S (I squared S) is a shocker, as is the upsampling switch, both of which we will have more to discuss about later on. A remote is also supplied to work the standard transport functions.
The DAC likewise has a clean front fascia, with only two buttons and ten blue LEDs to reveal its working modes. The left button controls which of the four available input channels are being used, and each input has its own LED just to the right of the button. After those four indicators is an LED for signal lock. Next are four LEDs that display the input frequency of the selected source (44.1, 48, 96 and
192 kHz). The last LED is placed next to the upsampling button and shines whenever you are using that mode. The back plate, as you would expect, is cleanly laid out, with an IEC jack and power switch on the right, a pair of RCA output jacks in the center, and five inputs on the left
(Coax 1, Optical, Coax 2, AES/EBU and I2S - the Optical and Coax 2 share the second input selector). In all, I was very impressed by the clean, organized look of the North Star Design products, and positively elated at the options they offer
— multiple inputs, their own version of the I2S bus, and upsampling. Not the mention that the fit and finish of each of them is absolutely first rate. In all, a fantastic package that promised good sound to follow.
But before we describe that sound, let's get the obligatory gear recitation out of the way. Over the course of the review period the North Star Designs gear was paired with just about everything I have at my disposal. It saw a considerable amount of duty supplying signal to the Conrad-Johnson CA200 integrated amplifier and about the same about of time upstream of my reference First Sound Presence Statement
preamplifier and Blue Circle BC6 power amplifier. It also played well with the Art Audio Carissa. Loudspeakers on display were my reference Merlin VSM-Ms, Devore Fidelity Gibbon Super 8s, and JMR Cantabile Signatures. Digital components used as counterweights for the review were a Cary CD-303/200, a CEC CD-3300, a Blue Circle BC501 DAC and my own extremely customized Assemblage DAC1. Cabling was from Cardas (primarily), Acoustic Zen, Audio Magic, Stereovox and Shunyata Research. Power conditioning was courtesy of Shunyata Research as well as Blue Circle. That out of the way, let's get back to the sound of the Italians.
There are some things, that despite being obvious, I cannot resist. So after unpacking the North Star Designs 192s and hooking up both the coax and
I2S connections, I went to the CD rack and agonized over which version of Respighi's
The Pines of Rome to play the wonderfully captured Reference Recordings version with Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra or the more moving performance of the EMI recording of Ricardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Being (hopefully) more music lover than audiogeek, I placed the
Muti [EMI 134443] into the transport, hit play and sat back to listen via the coax connection, with no upsampling. The opening "Pines of the Villa Borghese" with its antic depiction of children at play positively leapt out of the speakers, in a good way. Full of sparkle, the brass and percussion that power this section were clean and detailed, vivid but without stepping over into the over-done crispness that all too often passes for detail.
The transition from the boisterousness of the first movement into the solemn low drone of the "Pines near a Catacomb" was handled with ease. The reverb was delicate even as the bass gently throbbed, showing superb detail at both ends of the spectrum. And, as the movement slowly adds instrumentation and volume, the North Star Designs components receded into background and let the music flow to its peak and then into its quiet ebb. Likewise, the gentle clarinet that opens the third movement, "Pines of the Janiculum" was presented in a clean, dance-like manner and without any intrusion from the gear at all. As you can guess by now, the remainder of the piece, from the soft segue into the "Pines of the Apian Way" and the following procession down that road, ending in a great glory of brass, drums and tympani, is captured with full-blooded clarity.
And Now for Something Completely...
But of course the North Star works with the likes of Respighi since that amounts to a home court advantage, so what of good old American Rock and Roll I hear you say. Fortunately for you, Miles and Erik (aged 7 and 4) asked the same question. Ok, what they really said was, "Turn that stuff off and play some good music Daddy!". So in went one of their and my favorite disks, Chris Whitley's
Living With The Law [Columbia 46966]. Recorded in New Orleans (not by Daniel Lanois, but at his house), the sound offers up the very best of early '90s atmospheric production technique - clear vocals and biting instrumentals with a touch of added reverb and artificial depth, but with nonetheless true audiogeek qualities. Which is a good thing as the album is perfect in every musical sense and the production only adds to it. From the snare taps that open the title track to the fading toms that conclude Bordertown, the North Star twins delivered a visceral, dynamic, richly detailed and completely believable sonic document. Take, for example, the spooky
"Phone Call From Leavenworth". The spare musical accompaniment mirrors the dark despair of lyrics that tell the story of man in for life ("I'm down in Leavenworth prison now and I do not count no days"). National Steel guitar, footboard and haunted vocals almost literally leapt from the speakers, and I swear my blood ran cold listening to it. The subtle micro-harmonics and micro-dynamics of Whitley's voice, in particular, were so spot on, so detailed and so accurate that the amount of belief required to make the jump from recording to live in my room was nearly non-existent. But as good as that was, it is only when you contrast this with the reverb laden electric guitar freakout of Long Way Around, that the full range of the North Star duo starts to become apparent. Why, because this track is in many ways the yang to the Leavenworth's yin. To make this song work the CD player must revel in dense, fuzz-tone mystical voodoo harmonics while also keeping clear rhythm and drive. And this the North Star gear did as beautifully as it had laid out the clear-eyed precisions of Leavenworth.
Out Of Chaos
But enough of my own mystical voodoo. I'm sure you are wondering what this thing sounds like. So here it is. It depends. Obviously it depends on the quality of recording, but less obviously it also depends on the recording and which input and sampling rate you choose as well. What I mean is this, with standard pop/rock recordings using the coax input and standard sampling results in a clean, detailed sound. The highs are nicely extended, with little hash or sharpness (unless it is on the recording itself), while the mids are ever so slightly lean. The bass is tight and tuneful, with a very slight softening as you descend the scale. Rhythms are tightly controlled and well delineated. The overall sound quality is very much on par with the Cary CD-303/200 and a step beyond that of the CEC CD-3300.
But, take that same recording and kick on the oversampling and the results were hard to predict. If the source had a lot of phase manipulation, or more likely if the final mixes were assembled with the typical studio nonchalance, the frequency response took on a W shaped curve, with a dip in the upper bass and another one in the upper midrange. Added to that, the entire bass region could become mushy and bloated. But the real puzzler here was two-fold. First, when the oversampling worked, it generated a noticeable and across the board improvement in sound quality, with greater detail in the highs, tighter bass and slightly greater air overall. If I had to put a number to it, I'd peg the improvement at about
5 to 10 percent. But the second part of the oversampling conundrum is that, as I said, the bad effect was hard to predict. For example, on Al Stewart recordings from the 1970s, a time he was working the likes of Alan Parsons and was hailed as delivering some of the first true audiophile pop recordings, the bad oversampling seemed to show up more often than the good effects did. In a way I do not want to place too much emphasis on this as the solution to the W effect was always simple - turn off the oversampling and good sound returned. But as I said, when it worked, the highs took on an added purity, with massed strings becoming more distinct while the bass was both tighter and more tuneful. And it worked well enough that I was constantly tempted to try it. Or I was until I tried something else.
Like most of you, I first tried the I2S topology back in the days of Audio Alchemy. They were the first "affordable" digital company and besides offering audiophile gear at real world prices, they also pushed the technical envelope by adding
I2S to their transport and DAC combos. At the time many of us heard a pronounced improvement using this architecture and expected others to take it up in their products. It never happened and the technology had largely disappeared. Which is why I was surprised to see it on an Italian made digital combo. But I'm glad it's there.
The North Star implementation of the I2S bus runs at 192 kHz from transport to DAC and so makes the best use of the chipset in the DAC without requiring oversampling to do so. The result is
100 percent good, 95percent of the time. When using the I2S connection the bog-stock average recording gives up finer and more nuanced detail across the frequency range. Highs have a touch more texture and are slightly more open as well. Mids, vocals in particular, gain in harmonic detail and so become more natural and believable. And the bass takes on a more forceful quality, with added punch, detail and harmonic decay. The
soundscape, when it exists in the recording, also expands and thereby gains in all dimensions. Overall, I'd place these gains in the area of
5 to 10 percent, enough that they are obvious and valuable, though not enough to make turn a sow's ear recording into a silk purse.
But the real joy comes when you feed the North Star system a great disk, and by great disk I mean a well recorded disk of great music. So (and I know you can see this one coming) I loaded up the recording of I Fiamminghi doing variations of the Arvo Part composition Fratres [Telarc 80387]. The result was staggering. The new detail in the strings, for example, made it both easier to pick out individual players and their locations, as well as to feel their joined mass as they carved out their joint musical line. And the air they floated on! Boy, there was not a bit of harshness, nor artificial bite, but instead my entire listening room was filled with great and glorious harmonic overtones. And that's before taking the percussion into account!
Ok, I better cool off before I lose all credibility... but I can't. Above I mentioned that with an average recording, the difference between using the coax with oversampling and using
I2S was about 5 to 10 percent, or enough to be noticed easily and enough to truly matter. With a great recording the
I2S difference was about an additional 10 percent, or a total gain large enough to be heard from the next room. And to test that I had the ever-patient Robin (my wife) switch back and forth between inputs while also varying the volume to test me. In at least 25 trials I got it right every time. So, something must really be going on, well that or I need to go play the lottery.
So, what is going on? Well, the most significant thing that I hear is that it sounds to me as if the noise floor drops a bunch, which allows harmonics across the spectrum to emerge with greater structure and purity. This leads to things like the bass having both more delicacy and greater impact at the same time. Likewise, the stage opens in size while also gaining in three dimensional solidarity. In all, a wonderful, and highly musical treat - though I noted above that this there is a small group of recording that the
I2S bus did seem to have issues with. Again, I struggled to find a common thread among those rare albums that seemed to develop a bit of phase bloat in bass and vocal range, but the once again the solution with those odd duck recordings was to switch to a different input.
Ok, this is where the rubber hits the road. After all this gushing, how does the North Star gear stack up against the other guys? First, and as noted above, in standard mode the Model 192 twins are every bit as good and perhaps even slightly better than the Cary CD-303/200 and a full step past the CEC CD-3300. Using either the oversampling mode or more especially the
I2S bus, there was no contest. On the other hand, in standard mode and even in coax plus oversampling mode I preferred the Model 192 transport powering the Blue Circle BC501 over the North Star DAC. Why? The Canadian DAC has that innate musicality that great gear has - it lets music flow flows regardless of recording quality. It also has a more see-though treble and a more nuanced mid-range than the Italian DAC. But again, that's in standard modes. Flip the switch to
I2S and the tables turn. In the mids the 192 DAC pulls equal to the Blue Circle, while in both the treble and bass regions it pulls slightly ahead with the overall sound taking on a more robust, fleshed out sound than the 501. So, on most standard recordings I prefer the Blue Circle, but when using the
I2S bus the North Star twins are quite simply the best digital I've had in my house.
Alright, no one has to read between the lines to know that the North Star Design Model 192 twins are Ferraris and not Fiats. But the good news is the that unlike your typical Ferrari they do not require their own mechanic to drive, as you can simply use the standard input, with standard recordings and you can tool around town enjoying excellent sound. However, exactly like their Italian brothers of the Prancing Horse, if you give them the gas and shift into oversampling, you can get either a real increase in performance or a quick slide off the track and into the
Armco. But unlike any Ferrari, they have a secret safe, high performance mode
— I2S. During my audition of the North Star gear and while in I2S, they never failed to raise my pulse to Formula 1 levels. You should try them to see if you have what it takes to handle that level of performance too.
Updated Model Now Available
The manufacturer sent us an e-mail letting us know a new DAC unit has become available during the review process. The new DAC M192MKII has a completely balanced analog stage with balanced outputs. New DACs are also featured, with one Texas PCM1796 in mono configuration per channel. The upsampling is performed by Analog Devices AD1895 and the input receiver is the new Cirrus CS8416 that allows the input of 192kHz signals. All the S/PDIF, OPTICAL, AES/EBU digital signal are coupled with a transformer; also the I2S input is magnetically coupled with the Analog Devices ADuM1400 so North Star Audio can connect the CD Transport with the DAC M192MKII avoiding ground loop. This unit also provides improvements in functionality and audio performances of the M192 DAC as reviewed here and it is strictly derived from their flagship DAC Extremo, yet at half the price.
NM192 CD Transport
Model 192 D/A Converter
North Star Design
Adres: North Star Design Srl
Via Lenin, 132
56010 S.Martino Ulmiano (PI)
United States Distributor
211 Greenwood Ave 2-2
Bethel, CT 06801
Voice: (877) 289-2014
Fax (877) 289-2014