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

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

Moving into mid-price territory, we find two noteworthy entrants to the crowded DAC field. First up is the Lynx Hilo, at $2495. Lynx is best known for its pro gear and sound cards, but the Hilo is meant to straddle both pro and consumer markets. The former will appreciate features like a separate output for monitors, word clock connectivity, balanced outputs, and the ability to run on batteries. Consumers get a built-in analog-to-digital converter, to accommodate the stray non-digital source, and DSD support. Over at T+A, attendees got their first glimpse of the DAC8 ($2800), which incorporates four DACs per channel in a full dual-mono design, complete with individual power supplies. A volume control, selectable filters, and a built-in headphone amp make this yet another in a line of well-conceived T+A products.

New digital transports are rare these days; that job has been largely subsumed by PCs and Macs. But if you already have a good DAC yet don’t feel like ripping your vast collection of CDs, Heed Audio has an answer. In fact, its Obelisk DT ($1900) was the only transport I saw at the show.

Notwithstanding all the upper-priced goodies on display in Newport Beach, the greatest digital activity and excitement was in the affordable product sector. Let’s start with Audioquest’s Dragonfly. What looks like a fancy fob is in fact a portable, asynchronous USB DAC that will support rates up to 96/24. The Dragonfly’s line output will drive a headphone amp, a linestage, even a power amp thanks to a built-in volume control. The concept is brilliant, and in addition this product has two exceedingly cool features. First, the volume control is in the analog domain, where it should be but rarely is. Second, the dragonfly on the Dragonfly is lit and changes color depending on the detected sample rate. The whole thing just screams cool. I begged for one but was told I’d have to wait my turn.

Another piece of gear that stirred my blood was MyTek’s Digital Stereo192-DSD-DAC. As the name implies, the focus of this little guy is DSD. In the most dumbfounding demo of the show, producer Cookie Marenco compared a Blue Coast solo violin recording, downloaded as a DSD file from Channel Classics, to the identical recording pressed into an SACD. Cookie played the file through the $1525 MyTek, then switched to the disc as spun by a $20k EMMlabs SACD player, which is no slouch. Both versions went through Sony SS-AR2 speakers. Folks, this was one of those two-seconds-and-it’s-all-over non-contests. The file obliterated the disc, which by comparison had shaky pace and collapsed space. The difference was so stark that one audience member asked, “Is this the same recording?” The demo crystalized the potential of downloadable DSD and DSD-compatible DACs, even at an eminently affordable price point. Are you listening David Chesky? HDTracks needs to support this format!

Another affordable digital entry was the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 5 ($1299). Designed for those with high-quality but non-USB DACs, the Off-Ramp 5 will convert USB to HDMI, I2S, or S/PDIF. Parasound, that paragon of affordable gear, displayed a pair of Z-series issues. The Zdac (approx. $475, summer) supports USB, TosLink and S/PDIF inputs and has both single-ended and balanced outs, while the Zcd ($400) has a digital output and will handle mp3 files via a front-panel USB port.
All in all, the Newport Beach show had much to entice digital audio enthusiasts of every persuasion and bank account. I can’t wait to get my hands on some of this gear, even if it means once again temporarily foregoing weather, women, and cars.


Best Sound—Cost-No-Object

The Audio Salon room featuring the new Magico S5 speakers driven by Constellation’s Performance Series electronics and the Widea Lab Aurender music server, all connected by MIT cable, produced the most balanced, least forced and overall most realistic sound of the show. The Scaena and Rockport rooms were close runners up but both were compromised by room acoustics that lopped off low bass.

Best Sound—Highest Value: The now-you-see-em-now-you-don’t Magnepan MMC2 wall speakers, with associated woofers, center channel, and Bryston gear was making typically natural, transparent Maggie sound at an eminently affordable price.


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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