Alan Taffel on Digital at T.H.E. Show Newport

Posted by: Alan Taffel at 11:11 am, June 11th, 2012

Ah, Newport Beach. Where the weather is impossibly glorious, women impossibly blonde, and cars impossibly expensive. But we, your faithful audio reporters, were having none of that. We dwelled in dank hotels, drove rental buggies, and socialized only with fellow industry types. And you know what? It was a blast! For 2012, the country’s biggest and best consumer audio show got bigger and better, with more space, more people, more exhibitors, and more new product introductions. Not to mention better food.

In my category, the show was bursting with new and interesting gear, from Chord’s $25,000 CD player/DAC to Audioquest’s $250 Dragonfly DAC-on-a-stick. Let’s start with the former, a stunning piece of audio art called the Red Reference Mk III. It combines a state-of-the-art CD mechanism with a high-tech DAC that now supports USB at rates up to 192kHz. There are also optical, AES/EBU, and coax inputs. The Red Ref III won’t play SACDs, but it will play streamed DSD files. The technology and charisma this unit packs could make it a game-changer.

The player/DAC combo component epitomized by the Chord was actually pioneered by Esoteric, and at Newport Beach the company was doubling down on the strategy. The flagship K-01 and Golden Ear-winning K-03 are now joined by two less expensive stable mates. The K-05, which is essentially a K-03 with fewer DAC modules per channel, runs $8300, while the $5900 K-07 makes due with one DAC per channel and a scaled-down transport. Of equal import was Esoteric’s announcement that it was lowering prices on the two top K-series models. How often do you hear that in our industry? The K-03, which I judged a good value at $13,000 is now down to $10,900. The flagship K-01, formerly $23,500, can now be had for $19,500. Kudos to Esoteric for a move I fervently hope catches fire with other manufacturers.

While we’re on big buck products, let’s have a look at the brand new Audio Research Reference DAC ($16,000). Without a doubt, this is the most technically advanced DAC on the market; yet, paradoxically, it employs a tubed output stage. That module is virtually the same as is found in the formidable Reference 5 linestage. Combined with its variable output, the Reference DAC holds the promise of also serving as a reference-caliber linestage. On the digital side, in addition to all the usual folderol, the Reference sports a digital iPod input and a thumb-drive slot right on the front panel.

But the big difference between the Reference and most DACs is its networkability. The ARC can be connected to networked music servers via either wired or wireless connectivity. That means you don’t have to bring your laptop to the DAC in order to play music files. This technique has been tried by Linn, among others, with dubious sonic results, but hopefully Audio Research has cracked the code. As if all this wasn’t enough, the Reference also boasts an Internet tuner, switchable filters, support for the DSD-over-PCM standard, and kernel-streaming. I predict this DAC will force many another maker to re-evaluate its feature set.

Networked DACs are not yet a certified trend, but there were other examples in Newport Beach. One such was the Plinius Tiki ($4775), an Ethernet-only DAC. Not on display but also fresh from the factory is the company’s Toko, a Tiki with an optical drive. Plinius has also created an iPad app for these models that features a clean and highly intuitive interface.

Casting an eye to the other end of the network, AVM debuted its networked music serer, the Music Library ML8 (August). For roughly $15,000 you can have 2TB of music at your fingertips. Personally, though, I was even more intrigued by the $20,000 ML8S, which throws in the AVM Ultra DAC and swaps out the ML8’s 2TB HDD for a 600GB solid-state drive (SSD). Having compared these two storage media in a controlled environment, I am bound to report that SSD clearly sounds better, which makes this a groundbreaking offering. AVM also introduced the CD5.2 (approx. $5500, July), with a tubed output stage, and the no-holds-barred Ovation CD8 ($10,000, July). Both units, despite their model designations, are also full-fledged DACs with seven digital inputs. Hmm. Looks like player/DAC combos are a certified trend—and a good one at that.


QuiffMcBain -- Tue, 06/12/2012 - 19:00

Thank you for your report.
On a separate, but related topic, Digital Downloads...
I honestly cannot fathom how you could recommend the HDTracks downloads
of Nirvana NEVERMIND and the Rolling Stones SOME GIRLS.
The overwhelming consensus is that these are apalling sounding remasters.
I also have direct quotes from the engineer who prepares the files for download for HDTracks and specifically said both were unlistenable in his opinion.
Can you defend your recommendation? A response would be appreciated.

Alan Taffel -- Thu, 06/21/2012 - 19:27

I actually agree with the engineer who said much of this album is unlistenable. I said as much in my review. My reason for recommending the download is that I found it to have fewer artifacts (dynamic compression, grain) than the CD. Given a choice between two bad options, I'd opt for the download.

Alan Taffel
TAS Senior Writer

QuiffMcBain -- Thu, 06/21/2012 - 22:13

Thank you for your response Mr. Taffel. Much appreciated.

However, I beg to differ on your assertion about what you wrote:

"..the download which, I'm delighted to say, sounds awesome."

"Dynamics are greatly improved"

"Highly, highly recommended."

So what gives? Have you forgotten what you wrote?

The Some Girls is even worse....

Again, thanks for the response.

Alan Taffel -- Fri, 06/22/2012 - 15:38

In retrospect, I should have been clearer that my comments were to be taken relative to the CD. I believe I got that across at other points in the review, but you are right that some of my remarks sounded more "absolute" than relative". Thanks for the feedback.

Alan Taffel
TAS Senior Writer

QuiffMcBain -- Fri, 06/22/2012 - 16:26

Thank you for your clarification, I will take you at your word.

I will say, however, after referring the review to several fellow TAS readers they
saw it as an out and out endorsement of the HD download. As a matter of taste,
the MFSL is far more pleasant listen.

Bob Ludwig really butchered this remaster, and it is a shame.

Nicholas.Bedworth -- Sat, 06/30/2012 - 20:11

Let me jump in here as well...

HD Tracks 176 kHz, 24 bit remastering of the Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed is a veritable education in substandard recordings, unearthed and resuscitated as much as possible by the heroic efforts of the talented Bob Ludwig. The opening cut, Gimme Shelter, has all the dynamics and frequency response of, say, a garage band playing somewhere down the street, or, possibly, underwater. There’s very little difference between monophonic and stereo settings on my DAC. It’s really awful, but the given the condition of the tapes and the limitations of the original recording, it’s probably as good as can be expected. Were these remastered from cassettes? No soundstage, no air, no nothing. Most of the other tracks aren't much better.

At least in the title song, Let it Bleed, the frequency extension is improved, the instruments are reasonably clear with plenty of punch, although the sense of any real soundstaging is modest. In this case, the limitations of the sound don’t detract from the entertainment value of the track’s raunchy lyrics and gross-out humor. Even a relatively recent (2011) National Public Radio music blog on Let it Bleed couldn’t quite bring itself to actually quote the words. What more could a teenager want?

Yes, you too can experience a $200K reference system reduced to the level of a kazoo with HD Tracks premium-priced audiophile downloads. Do they give refunds?

Nicholas Bedworth  
DigitalDirect Media Services, LLC    Text/voice 1.808.372.2883 (GMT -10)   nicholas [dot] bedworth [at] digitaldirect [dot] com (nicholas.bedworth@digitaldi)

QuiffMcBain -- Tue, 07/03/2012 - 16:08

Mr. Bedworth:

First, it is obvious by your description of Let It Bleed that you ain't no rocker, but probably some teetotaler. This album is rock and roll. Period. It is sinister sounding, it is raunchy, and it is very much a mirror of its time. Sorry, but Keith and Mick were not worried about you and your friends with 200k reference systems and your fancy DACs. They were getting it done. They were laying down history.

You prove that a 200K system may not always be for enjoying music.

Secondly, with reference to the remaster These files, like ALL the Stones files on HDTracks, are ripped from the SACDs. Bob Ludwig did NOT do the DSD transfers, but he did master the albums from the DSD files he received. He had NOTHING to do with the 176.4 and 88.2 files HDtracks sells. BTW consumers should know, not that HDTracks would tell you, that is has been discovered that the 176.4 files have no more information that 96 Khz files due to a quirk in the Weiss Saracon software they used to convert the DSD files to PCM.

Lastly, HDTracks need to wake up and provide downloadable samples. Until then I will always assume they have something to hide. Unfortunately they have members of the press acting as their shills. To recommend the recent Some Girls remaster is an abomination and an insult to readers.

tasreader -- Thu, 06/14/2012 - 18:25

plinius seems to have missed the boat with their ethernet only tiki/toko ?

QuiffMcBain -- Fri, 06/15/2012 - 21:09

Looks like we are a couple of lonely souls here. Mr. Taffel does not
mingle with riff raff like us.

Alan Taffel -- Thu, 06/21/2012 - 19:32

Not necessarily. This arrangement might be adequate for pure computer audio setups. My concern, though, has to do with the sound of this arrangement. I have heard other DACs whose inputs are ethernet streams and they have not sounded good at all. (I'm being kind.) It remains to be seen whether Plinius has found a better way.

Alan Taffel
TAS Senior Writer

yellowsubmarine -- Sat, 06/23/2012 - 00:00

I do love to jump on the off-topic bandwagon! I just read a bunch of your reviews of HD Tracks downloads in the Digital Source Components Guide. Are you aware that many of your reviews deriding CDs for having "less information in the bitstream" than HD downloads are based on comparison to CDs made from original stereo master tapes from the '70's? Could it be that the superior sound of the HD downloads of "Hotel California,"  "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and Talking Heads' "Remain in Light" is mostly due to these recordings being remixed from the 2" multi-track masters? I have all of those in SACD or DVD-A and they are indeed remixed as well as remastered. It's likely that the availability of remixed, high resolution masters drew HDtracks to those particular titles.

Alan Taffel -- Sat, 06/23/2012 - 12:36

No argument there. Periodically I run a CD and its corresponding download through a digital editor and often find that there is no information above 20kHz or so, meaning that the download does not, in fact, have any additional information. Sometimes the download sounds the same as the CD, for that very reason, and other times it can sound better or worse, depending on other factors such as those you mention.

Alan Taffel
TAS Senior Writer

raykkho@patholo... -- Mon, 06/25/2012 - 04:17

Hi Alan, thanks for the report on the Lynx Hilo which seems very interesting.  
You mentioned it could do DSD but no where on Lynx's website mentioned that, could you eleborate?

Alan Taffel -- Mon, 06/25/2012 - 07:51

 All I can tell you is that the company representatives at the show assured me the product would support this feature. Many DACs are now coming to market "DSD-ready", in that the manufacturer has built the product with DSD capability but is still putting the finishing touches on the software. This is understandable as the streaming DSD standard was only recently finalized. All such DACs will support DSD as soon as the coding is complete; they'll be upgraded via a download. I'm sure the Lynx falls into this category. 

Alan Taffel
TAS Senior Writer

raykkho@patholo... -- Mon, 06/25/2012 - 09:55

Thanks, do you see any future of transferring DSD on SACD via HDMI, like what an Oppo / Onkyo combo can already do a few years back? I think this would be a much more practical development for many of those including me who has a good SACD collection and could use a nice DAC without ripping from PS3. 

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