"The danger from computers is not that they will eventually get as smart
as men, but that we will meanwhile agree to meet them halfway."
It was a cold and rainy night in October and I lay awake in bed next to my snoring wife, who had passed out after the Yom Kippur break fast. She had gone to bed hours earlier, rather than sit with me as I listened to our stereo for the first time in many days in the living room. The holidays are a very restrictive period for those of us who are observant, and for an audiophile such as myself, they translate to days on end without music.
Prior to the start of the holidays, I had been putting the finishing touches on our home network, which utilizes a wireless router and Apple's Airport Express modules in four separate systems. While we were enjoying the convenience of having close to 1,800 CDs at our disposal at the click of a mouse, the neurotic audiophile that I am began to lose sleep over the quality of the DACs in each of the four rooms and how I could take that next giant step towards bankruptcy.
Having sold and installed multi-room systems for the better part of 16 months, I have had the opportunity to really observe just how out of touch audiophiles really are with the remaining 99 percent of the population who could care less about high fidelity — even if I do think they are missing out and have been brainwashed into believing that the iPod actually sounds good. The real problem for those who sell such expensive objects is that even those with the financial means have refused to join the cult.
What audiophiles certainly know is that high fidelity sound reproduction in the home does not involve convenience, entertaining the entire family, nor making things simple for all to use and understand. We have turned the art of musical reproduction into a solitary experience for basically ourselves, a collection of chat-board posting nerds who need to get out more, and damn those ignorant bastards who can't hear the difference between solid state and tubes.
How many of you will admit to owning an iPod or using iTunes?
If there is one constant theme that has run through every system that I have installed to date, it is that each customer considered their home computer to be an essential part of their home. The home computer is replacing the CD player and the DVD player at an alarming rate and the more computer-based systems I have been asked to integrate the more I realized just how crazy the consortiums fighting over SACD/DVD-Audio/HD-DVD/Blu-ray really are.
The CD is dead. The CD is dead. The CD is dead.
I've been told that if one repeats three times and clicks their heels, a giant version of Uma Thurman swinging a katana and bearing a six-pack of sliders and a bottle of Armor All will magically appear in your listening room. While it is still going to be a few years before CDs completely disappear and retailers have to find something else to sell (if they are still around), the reality is that the entertainment industry has made the decision that people would rather buy an inferior version of what is currently available in stores via the internet, securing their profits for all eternity.
Did everyone get their invite to the Apple iTunes 1,000,000,000 downloads party?
As much as I dislike the current inability to download songs from the iTunes store in lossless format, I know that it is only a matter of time before that becomes a reality…just as soon as the various networks can handle transferring all of that information at incredible speeds.
That being said, I still have some lingering questions about this transition. Who is going to control the distribution/sale of the product? If the answer is the "government" on any level — count me out right now. Is there going to be one massive retailer such as "Amazon" with exclusivity over certain labels and artists, or a large number of retailers making the field more competitive and keeping prices low? Is Apple, as iTunes becomes even more popular, going to demand exclusivity over certain labels and then jack up their prices because the consumer will have no other place to go to buy it? Will bandwidth become so expensive that online retailers will decide not to release lossless versions of recordings in order to save money, also counting on the fact that most consumers are seemingly happy with what they can play on their iPod via either a pair of headphones or through their home stereo?
Yes, I thought of all of this while beating my chest during the Kol Nidre service. Mind you, I was in hour twenty-four of my fast and feeling rather woozy. It was during this period of inner thought and atonement, that a good friend hit me over the head with a brick... two actually. The first involved some live music in lower Manhattan...
People still go out and listen to live music right?
Greenwich Village-based band Murder Mystery turned a wet and soon-to-be flu ridden crowd upside down with their set at Pianos on Manhattan's lower east side. The Indie trio's 15th live performance this year was a confident and electric display of their mod pop, which had the packed crowd bouncing from wall to wall. Lead guitar and vocalist, Jeremy Coleman, bears a striking resemblance to a young Peter Townshend, both with his unshaven look and lanky build, as well as his very wild, yet solid playing. Coleman does his own lyrics justice with a mature and confident voice, which gives the band a slight nudge in the direction of the Violent Femmes. The set was short and to the point and it is clear that the band likes it that way.
Bassist Adam Fels played with a swaggering confidence that equally matched Coleman's performance, but the real surprise of the evening was drummer Laura Coleman, whose superb pounding and energetic performance had "Keith Moon" written all over it. Coleman's background as a professional tap dancer clearly helps with her timing, but she had a raw energy about her that made the entire performance come together. While only together as a group for 8 months, Murder Mystery had the tight knit sound of groups far more experienced. Most certainly worth the price of admission and a entertaining set from a band with a lot of promise. The band plays again in the New York-area on November 9th at Rothko's.
As we made our way out of the club (think of the dorks you made fun of in math class, but dressed like Cobain and Love and drinking mighty big), my wife turned to me and mentioned how much more fun that was than sitting on the sofa listening to the stereo and how she couldn't wait to download their music onto her iPod.
I'm working on her folks. She did let me build a cabinet for my entire LP collection and actually put it where human being might see it (well, they can't because there are doors on it) in the living room so how bad can she be.
Did anyone get the number of that locomotive?
The second Brick to hit me during the holiday season was the controversial Brick USB DAC from Wavelength Audio, which retails for the lofty sum of $1,750. Wavelength Head Honcho and Chief Scientist, Gordon Rankin (I've always found that funny seeing as Gordon is the Wavelength's only scientist) came up with the idea for a USB DAC at CES a number of years back and while it is not his only USB DAC, it is certainly the one with the most universal appeal, due to its size and, ah, affordable price.
Mac-users will immediately identify with the Brick's shape and size as it looks suspiciously like Apple's rather nifty Mac Mini. At 6" x 6" x 4.25", the Brick is unlikely to stand out on any equipment stand or desk, which is exactly the point. If not for the USB digital input, RCA analog outputs, and receptacle for the supplied custom wall-wart on the Brick's rear, one would think that you were looking at a heavy cast aluminum brick. A blue LED illuminates when you plug a USB 2.0 cable into both the Brick and a USB port on your computer.
Wavelength Audio's Brick follows the companies 16-bit Philip Zero DAC (non-over/upsampling, no filtering) design as also found in the more expensive Cosecant and Ultimate. The DAC has a single digital USB input and computer geeks know that unlike S/PDIF, the USB interface is bidirectional with built-in error correction and buffering. An asynchronous interface means that clock anomalies and jitter found in S/PDIF are virtually eliminated! Power supply for the Brick consist of a custom 'wall wart.' The Brick employs a single 12AU7A dual triode tube in a reactor output while various 1 percent film resistors handle passive current-to-voltage conversion. Virtually all computers with USB 1.1 or faster USB 2.0 can take advantage of the Brick with supported operating systems include Linux 2.4.22 and above, Windows 98se/ME/2000/XP, and Mac OS9, OS X, etc.
So how does this puppy work and why should you be very, very afraid?
The premise behind this product is that by using a computer (via its USB 2.0 connection) as one's transport (after having burned a copy of the CD onto one's hard drive), a number of the problems associated with the SPDIF connection on CD players and transports such as clock synchronization and jitter are either eliminated or significantly diminished. The net result of that should be a rather sweet sounding digital playback system with a lot more storage capacity than what consumers have been using since the introduction of "perfect sound forever." That slogan still makes me laugh.
But does it work?
No wonder Steve Jobs is smiling all the time now...
Without any concrete measurements to back up the claim of reduced jitter (unless Gordon Rankin would like to share them with the peanut gallery) or jitter-free reproduction, it is impossible for me state that to be the case with the Brick. Having installed and listened to the Brick (same unit) USB DAC in more than 10 different systems, I can comment on its ease of installation, compatibility, and sound performance with a certain degree of confidence.
From an installation perspective, it works like a charm with Mac OSX-based systems. In my own home, I tried it with a Mac Mini (OSX 10.0 – 10.4), G4 Power Mac (OSX), G4 iMac (OSX), and an iBook G4 (OSX 10.4). On each Mac, iTunes 5 or higher was utilized. I also connected the Brick to Mac Mini-based systems that I have installed in various homes in Bergen County and ran the RCA outputs into a Russound CAV6.6 amplifier/controller, NAD T763 surround receiver, and Denon AVR-3806. I used regularly scheduled visits to try the Brick, rather than break into their homes when they were away on vacation. I borrowed two Dell laptops from family members while they were visiting and tried the combinations in my own living room and office systems using PCs. Why do people still use these things? Windows is a nightmare.
That does sound like a lot of switching, but the reality is that the Brick never took more than a few minutes to set-up in any of the systems mentioned. Not being a PC-user, it took me a little longer to find all of the folders that I needed to check before each set-up was exact. One of the key things to remember when burning any CD to your hard drive to is to make sure that the error-correction is always on. It does slow down the process, but it does ensure error-free rips.
The one thing that I do hate about the Mac Mini is that its CD/DVD drive is unbelievably loud and annoying. Did anyone at Apple actually try this before it went out? Rather than detail how the Brick sounded with every system that I tried, I would prefer to focus on its overall sonic signature and how it compared to the same server-based system connected to my Audio Note DAC Kit 1.2 via my M-Audio Audiophile USB.
The folks making CD players are certainly not coming to my Chanukah Party...
Before Lou and I even thought about trying the Brick DAC, we spent almost three months (when we had free time in-between working, painting, kids, eating, sleeping) ripping our entire CD library (using Apple Lossless) to a collection of LaCie 250GB FireWire hard drives. A number of CDs gave us problems and we had to use different computers to get them to burn properly. After we finished, we made a back-up copy. If you have a very large CD collection, my best advice would be to only burn the CDs that you listen to fairly regularly and make a back up. Only a total mental patient such as myself would burn that many CDs. I can't imagine that it was good for the life of the drive, which started making odd noises once we passed the 1,000 mark.
The first thing that I noticed about the Brick DAC was it lack of neutrality. If you are looking for a razor sharp, neutral, lifeless sounding DAC, this DAC isn't for you. While not quite as "warm" sounding as the Audio Note DAC, the Brick certainly adds a little color to the presentation, which is exactly why I like it so much... for the rest of the world.
Take me out of the equation for a second. I've hated the sterile sound of CDs since I was a teenager. I knew early on that they sucked compared to LPs. My wife, who hails from the mean streets (okay, but she was educated on the kosher streets of Flatbush in Brooklyn) of Staten Island, had never heard a decent system in her life before she met me. When I saw the ghetto blaster in her bedroom, I knew she was the one for me. She spends between 7 and 8 hours each day on the computer working as an industrial designer. Aside from that annoying sound she makes with her tongue clicking the inside of her mouth, all she does is listen to music through the computer's horrendous internal speakers. When the Brick arrived, I connected it to my office system, which is on the opposite side of the room from her and began to play her own library that I had opened via the network and iTunes.
Her initial reaction was rather funny.
"Please turn off that record."
"Ah... it's one of your CDs on your computer."
"How is that possible?"
After explaining to her how it worked, she asked me to play one of my "fluffy" audiophile recordings so she could hear some realistic sounding wood chimes struck by some blind Tibetan monk.
"Gave that one away during the divorce dear."
"Put on something like that classical piece that you played in the living room."
The classical piece was the wonderful performance of Mendelssohn's Octour op.20 by Ensemble Explorations [Harmonia Mundi HMC 901868] and it took me around 3 seconds to locate it on the server via iTunes. Truth be told I am not sure what amazed me more. Was it the wonderful richness and tone of the violins, violas, and cellos, or that a 16 year-old composed that piece of music. You can tell when a piece of equipment is really good because it is really difficult to concentrate on what you are supposed to be doing — working to pay the bills.
I have no doubt that the Brick, if used in many of your systems, would be equally as distracting. Compared to the Audio Note DAC, the Brick does not sound quite as fleshed out on certain passages, but it also presents a great deal more detail and I rather liked that. The bass performance was equally as taut, but it lacked a little gravitas with some music in comparison. I suspect that many audiophiles, unhappy with the prospect of having to sell their kilobuck digital playback systems in order to have such a high-end sounding library of their CD collection at their fingertips, will raise their noses and move on.
99 percent of the rest of the world just took one giant step closer.
Type: Digital to audio converter with USB interface
Tube: 12AU7 dual triode
Dimensions: 6 x 6 x 4.25 (WxHxD in inches)
Warranty: 1 year parts and labor
Phone/Fax: (513) 271-4186