World Premiere Review!
Audiophiles exploring the boundaries of Red Book CD playback from the early to late nineteen-nineties will no doubt recall California based Audio Alchemy gear with great fondness; I know I do! Founded on the inspired design and engineering of one Peter Madnick, Audio Alchemy almost single-handedly set the stage for the acceptance and ascent of multi-box Compact Disc playback systems. Initially offering their lineup of very affordable yet remarkably high-performance outboard DACs, called Digital Decoding Engines, including the DAC-in-the-BOX ($199), the DDEv1.0, ($399), and the fabulous DDE v3.0 ($899), which I owned, the line soon fleshed out to include a full lineup of re-clocking and DSP units, most notably the DTI-PRO32 de-jitter and DSP resolution enhancement processor, as well as CD players/transports and external power supplies.
For reasons that are still a little murky to me, Audio Alchemy was purchased by Audiosphere in the mid-1990s and folded shortly thereafter. Many of the engineers and technologists went on to form other companies, including Dusty Vawter, who founded Channel Islands Audio, and Peter, who next developed the Perpetual Technologies products, announced at CES in January of 1999.
Though the PT products weren't completely realized until early 2001 (design revisions to implement the latest generation of DSP chips and to afford more computing power were responsible), they also turned out to be stunning overachievers, and included the P-3A DAC and the product that garnered tremendous attention, the P-1A. It was a digital-to-digital processor that would do resolution enhancement, loudspeaker correction (with both amplitude and phase-called SOCS), and room correction! Yes, I owned both, and even had them upgraded by Dan Wright, who had coincidentally just founded ModWright as an upgrade and modification house.
Just a bit later, still in the early 2000's, Alchemy2 arrived on the scene. But I really had no hands-on experience with those products, as they were designed and built for the CEDIA-Home Theater space and as such, were a bit out of my purview. Peter has since informed me that their roughly short two-year life span was precipitated by the fact that their features were ultimately included in upgraded surround sound processors.
But, fast forward to early 2015, and we see the most significant iteration of technology yet to bear the original moniker, as Peter re-emerged from his time with Constellation Audio to re-launch with a line of even higher-quality and full-featured audio products.
Folks, that 2015 lineup of gear ROCKED! I got to hear the full complement—the DMP-1 digital media player ($1795 with ROON option), the DDP-1 DAC/preamp ($1995), the PS-5 power supply ($595), and the DPA-1-Mono power amplifiers ($1995 each) — all demonstrated by Peter at AXPONA 2016, driving a pair of Von Schweikert Audio/Endeavor Audio Engineering E-3Mk II loudspeakers ($8000 per pair). The system synergy was so staggering that I awarded it Best Sound (for the money) at that show, and added that it was, hands down, the best affordable sounding system I'd ever heard to that point in time!
The first matter of business by this newly formed ELAC joint team, which included other members like Richard Liddell who has worked with Peter since the early days of the original AA, was to define the new product line. This required addressing features like streaming (which companies like Linn have so effectively capitalized upon), accommodating new technologies like MQA, using a custom digital volume control (to allow specific settings between 0dB and 100dB in 0.5dB steps to assuring perfect tracking), all while maintaining their signature refined sound and renowned overall value.
They also decided that they would want to continue to capitalize on the I2S data transmission format. I2S is shorthand for the term Inter-IC Sound, coined by Philips in the mid 1980s to describe their serial communication protocol for transferring digital audio signals between chips inside a product. As a transport method, it vastly reduces audio jitter natively. It's superiority (and simplicity) are realized by keeping the clock and data signals separate, rather than combining them onto a single line, requiring the clocks be extracted to re-expose the data later, like S/PDIF or USB do.
Also, a given would be the use of their digital filtering and resolution enhancement algorithms, an expertise that they'd been honing and refining since the mid 1990s. These are purely mathematical functions which run in a Digital Signal Processor, and are, in my opinion, one of the most important Alchemy technological strengths, more than just a little responsible for the remarkable overall sound of the DDP-2.
While the DDP-2 is clearly the focal point of the new ELAC Alchemy line that also includes the PPA-2 phono stage ($999.98) and DPA-2 Stereo/Mono amplifier ($1499.98), the design teams finalized goals were lofty. Now with the technological goals defined, they decided to have it perform as a full functioning linestage, DAC, and streamer, supporting custom integration and control, accepting balanced and unbalanced analog sources, as well as all "flavors" of digital audio inputs, including wired and wireless Ethernet, and Bluetooth.
The result is that the diminutive DDP-2 is, as are all the new ELAC models, just one rack unit in form-factor (1U), 1.75" tall, 17.5" wide, and 15" deep, barely three-tenths of one cubic foot in volume, including jacks. Weighing in at just 14 pounds, it is fully balanced in the digital domain, uses an all discreet FET analog stage, and includes ten digital inputs, three analog inputs, and three analog outputs, four if you count the headphone jack on the front panel!
The front panel offers from left to right, the Power switch, a 1/4" headphone jack, the mute and headphone LEDs, which light white when engaged, the Headphone Output Selector (engaging it mutes the variable outputs), the Left, Select, Right navigation buttons, the minimal yet very user friendly OLED display, followed by the round Volume Control/Selector knob. The display shows the output, selected input, filter and resolution selection, as well as output bitrate, and will let you navigate through all the options and settings available. It really is both straightforward and a joy to use.
The digital inputs include one USB, two Coaxial, two Optical, one AES/EBU, two I2S (one traditional Alchemy mini-DIN and one HDMI), as well as three streaming inputs, a standard RJ45 wired Ethernet jack, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Once connected to your wired network via the RJ45 jack on the back panel, you can recover the DHCP address from the display, and connect to the DDP-2's web page to do firmware updates as they arrive, set up wireless connectivity, give it a network friendly name, or even set it up with a static IP address.
Besides being a ROON READY endpoint, it also supports Spotify Connect, Airplay, and Bluetooth, with MQA coming to the party soon. Featuring one set of stereo Balanced (XLR) inputs and two single-ended (RCA) inputs, outputs include one set of Balanced (XLR) outputs, one variable and one fixed single-ended (RCA) output, and a 1/4" headphone jack. And, once you see all the connectivity options available on the back panel, you'll marvel at how they were able to fit them all in that limited area, while still allowing comfortable space to accommodate even the most serious of cables in my stable.
I simply don't have the space to go into the astonishing architecture and topological layout, but when it comes to isolation and noise reduction, the DDP-2 is a powerhouse, with no circuit or consideration left unaddressed. Suffice it to say that the full layout and topology is staggeringly effective and, again to my way of thinking, elegantly brilliant. Honestly, I could write an entire article on the innovations, technology, and intricacies employed here. In short, most every IC sits on its own regulated, independent, isolated, and filtered power supply. All S/PDIF inputs are transformer isolated from the chassis to eliminate ground loops, and are all fed to the AKM receiver, which is responsible for converting them to I2S. They are all then feed to a custom Xilnx Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), where it or one of the other I2S sources from USB, the dedicated I2S inputs, or the reclocked streamer, are selected.
One last design point I have to touch on is the DDP-2's use of two separate and different internal power supplies. Anything in the digital domain draws its power from a switch-mode power supply that is both highly efficient and allows for an unwavering and rapid response to changes in power demand. This responsiveness is crucial as the digital board has over a dozen voltage regulators creating precise low noise voltages that each of the ICs require. The analog board is powered from a linear power supply, driven by a custom-wound toroidal power transformer. This is more suited to driving analog stages, with its lower high frequency noise and consistent current draw. The use of a half dozen ultra-low-noise regulators, all using special filter capacitors, assures the cleanest voltage, with no high-frequency components or other distortion causing signals, to power the sensitive FETs.
I've spent a lot of space describing just how versatile and well-designed the DDP-2 is; honestly, the effort, engineering, and innovation devoted to its creation deserve even more of the story be told. Yet as simply stellar as it is from the design and execution standpoint, I still wasn't prepared for how refined and engaging it sounds! Spoiler alert! Someone forgot to tell Peter and his team that this device was going to sell for $2500, not $10,000 to 12,000!
Keep in mind, I dropped this little upstart into a system that when all in, with isolation, conditioning, and cabling, carries a retail some one-hundred forty times the DDP-2's $2,500 asking price! In my audition, it directly replaced the Hegel HD30 DAC ($4,800, as reviewed here, and my Dynamic Sounds Associates (DSA) Pre I linestage ($16,500, as reviewed here). My analog front-end includes my Kronos Sparta turntable ($21,500) fitted with their Helena Tonearm ($6,500), and the new, world-class Etsuro Gold MC Cartridge ($20,999), feeding the DSA Phono II ($13,500). Once and zeros came from either my Dell branded Windows based server ($1,100), or severely modified McCormack UDP-1 Ultra Deluxe ($4,999). Amplification was by either the Constellation Inspiration series Stereo Amplifiers ($11,000 each, two used in vertical bi-amp configuration), also designed by Peter, or the DSA AMP I pure Class A monoblocks ($24,000 per pair).
Interconnects and speaker cables were the Stealth Śakra V12 ($19,600 per pair) and the Dream V14 ($18,600 per pair) respectively, as well as the Helios phono cable ($10,800), and the Audience frontRow USB cable ($1,450). AC cords were all Audience frontRow series ($6000 to $9000, based on power rating and length), and power conditioning was handled by the Audience adeptResponse 12 ($14,000 with frontRow power cable). All gear rested on Grand Prix Audio Monaco series stands ($16,500), with Critical Mass Systems CenterStage2 footers ($13,800 total) under all components, save for the DSA Monoblocks.
What is most engaging about the DDP-2 is not how incredibly strong it is in any one category or area, but how it leverages and blends so many strengths into a voice that is so musically compelling, so engagingly natural, and so remarkably balanced. Overall, it is superbly dynamic, sparklingly clean, strikingly quiet, and astonishingly transparent and resolute, and I don't just mean, for the money! This is a stirringly accomplished linestage / streamer / DAC, by any measure.
Listening to my über vinyl rig through the first of the single-ended inputs on the DDP-2 was, well, remarkably good. And frankly, it delivered much better performance here than I had expected. When compared to the sonic performance when using my reference linestage (which sells for nearly six times as much as the DDP-2), transients were softened ever so slightly, images were a bit less focused, with slightly less exactness to their specificity, and there was slightly more diffuse layering. But overall, this little upstart managed to convey the power and essence of my LP rig's resolution, clarity, tonal purity, and energy. In fact, the degree to which it was able to accomplish its faithfulness to this world-class analog front-end is nothing short of spectacular.
And honestly, criticizing this device for its slightly diminished rendering of the nuances of an analog front end that sells for over thirty time's what the DDP-2 costs hardly seems fair or relevant. How likely would it be to see such a disparate paring in the real world? Nonetheless, I would have loved to have had the chance to hitch up a more appropriately priced analog front end, like two items I recently reviewed for other publications; the superb Music Hall mff-9.3 Walnut ($2500/with Goldring MC cart!) and the Channel Islands Audio PEQ-1 MKII Phonostage ($995). Or, the afore mentioned new $999.98 ELAC Alchemy PPA-2 phono preamp. My suspicion is that with more commensurately priced gear, the performance to price ratio may have been much closer to the exceptional performance it affords with digital playback.
Switching to a digital source (my personally built Windows 10 Music Server – I'm an IT Engineer / Analyst by day) and listening to it as a streamer and/or DAC (It supports high bit-rate audio up to 768 kHz and DSD rates up to 4x), using either a USB cable or as a ROON endpoint, the result was outrageous!
All the previously noted virtues were obvious, yet now the music really soared, becoming more immediate, with inescapably honest timbre and a vitality. The DDP-2 rendered my digital files with a degree of illumination, naturalness, and resolution that knocked me out! Within a matter of minutes of listening after my protracted run in period, it was clear that this DAC was a more than merely competent. It is remarkably lively and dynamic, with a highly resolved, virtually transparent, vividly detailed, and open presentation. I was shocked at how capable it was of revealing transient detail and scale, from complex micro shadings to explosive macro events.
In general, low frequencies are deep, tight, and extremely well pitch defined. Performance in this area is nothing short of stunning. Mids are every bit as articulate and defined, rich in detail, full of body, bloom, blustering with life, and with a textural and tonal faithfulness I'd have no reason to expect from a DAC in this class, let alone a device that was also a full linestage, streamer, and headphone amplifier! Finally, the uppermost frequencies afford a remarkable sense of air, shimmer, and ease, are well focused and detailed, yet smoothly rendered, without hint of any etched sterility.
Piano is the real test for me with digital. With the DDP-2, piano recordings were laid bare, with the essence of hammered strings obviously recreated in my room. Listen to The Piano Music of Federico Mompou [Hyperion CDA66963] with Steven Hough at the piano for a taste of the vividness I am describing. Over time, this attribute became only more enchanting. No matter what I listened to, the authentic sense of timbre and rightness of tone was inescapable.
You'll recall I mentioned that filtering and resolution enhancement were available and uniquely programmable for each of the digital inputs. There are four DSP filters available; the first offers a linear phase with a fast roll off, the second presents linear phase with a slow roll off, number three tenders minimum phase with a fast roll off, and the fourth, the one I settled on, the most "analog" or "smooth" sounding to me, presents minimum phase with a slow roll off.
The resolution enhancement process allows the DDP-2 to use its interpolation process to determine extra bits that would have been, and it affords shaped dithering to further optimize performance. With it engaged, 16-bit input data is output as 24-bit, and 24-bit data is output at 32-bit rate. This feature seemed a little more hit or miss in my listening and seemed to vary in effectiveness with different file types and densities.
While some recordings saw the benefit of more clearly resolved air and space of and around instruments and a more naturally layered and expansive soundstage, some seemed to forfeit some dynamic expressiveness and heft. Some recordings seemed engagingly more continuous across the audio spectrum, or more whole, from top to bottom, while others seemed to shed some of their natural sense of form and body. All I can say is, since both the filters and resolution enhancement can be engaged and changed using the small and convenient 13 button remote, you may as well experiment as I did to really dial in your individual results.
Another welcomed surprise here was the included front panel headphone output, also driven from the variable output. It will produce about 600mW into 32 Ohms at better than -100dB distortion plus noise, so it should power all but the most inefficient headphones to sufficient level, and with a noise floor so low you will hear everything your 'phones are capable of delivering. While I'm clearly not a headgear guy, I have to say that I fell for, used, and loved this option. Performance with my range of over, on, and in ear transducers was so remarkable that it precludes the need to add a separate headphone amplifier, saving you even more dough! Damn, Peter and his team really got this one right!
Finally, the sophisticated sound this little device generates is real. I have done similar substitutions previously, and most times, all the sonic flaws of such an affordable device are revealed. When thrown into such a refined, balanced, reference-level system, there is nowhere for any hint of digital artifact, edge, glare, roughness, or hardness to hide. Damn if this little guy didn't step up to the challenge. This is one fine device, period!
I would suggest that without the experience and understanding that comes from the successful design and execution of cost-no-object, benchmark setting products like those Peter developed for the Constellation Electronics Reference line, and the further knowledge gained by successfully scaling that level of sonic achievement to fit the Constellation Performance, Revelation, and even the Inspiration lines price points, creating such a complex, sophisticated, technologically elegant, yet stupendously affordable device such as the DDP-2 would be an utter impossibility. In short, what Peter and the Alchemy team have achieved with this product series is nothing short of a benchmark accomplishment. And honestly, even knowing how exceptional Peter is at his craft, I've still got no idea how he has fit all this versatility and performance in to such s a small, affordable package.