As many know, I really do not care for the sound of digital. Not all digital–DSD (via SACD) is fairly nice, and higher resolution files tend to reduce the characteristics of digital sound which I do not care for. With standard CD-grad digital, however, I can hear the low resolution. At higher frequencies, a raw digital signal looks like a sawtooth in comparison to the analog original…and I have heard this, especially when in close proximity to a speaker. The highs have a “buzzy” sort of sound to them that no amount of digital filtering or dithering can cover up.
I was relying on the DAC (digital to analog converter) built into my Pioneer Elite DV-45A for all these years. As it is a “premium” player, I had expected somewhat better sound out of it. SACDs do sound nice, as do some of my DVD-Audio titles. Yet I found that as I was listening to CD digital, I was unconsciously grinding my teeth. Not only that, digital seemed to always have a constant “glare” in the upper mids that seemed to make the sound cold and lifeless on many titles. And the older the CD, the worse the sound–many of those early reissue titles sound absolutely horrid, many unlistenable.
The Musical Fidelity X10-D tube buffer stage did help the digital output greatly, but that was one of two steps I was contemplating. The other step was to get a mid-range DAC to try in the system. And now that I have a Cambridge Audio DacMagic on hand, I have heard what a DAC can do for a system.
The DacMagic is not without its quirks. And, I am having issues with sources of my own that are preventing me from hearing all of my PCM digital through the DAC. (For example, the DV-45A does not output 88.2kHz digital through the digital outputs!) The WDTV Live Streaming Media Player I purchased also turned out to output signals only at 44.1kHz or 48kHz, so I still have no way to listen to my high-res FLAC files. Shameful. I can go as high as 96kHz/24-bit using an outboard USB sound device on the laptop, but that defeats the purpose of having a media player that handles these issues simply.
Anyway, that debacle will be solved in a future installment. For now, back to the DacMagic. My main question in all this: would I be able to hear a difference?
Turns out, I do hear a difference. Comparing the output of the DV-45A to the DacMagic, the DV-45A has a thinner and less musical sound. The DacMagic is fuller and has more body, especially on primitive CD-level sampling rates. It does a credible job of getting inside the music and making CDs (and 44.1kHz/16-bit FLAC files) sound better than they have any right to sound.
Is the combination of the X10-D tube buffer and DacMagic DAC too much? No! If anything, the two are complementing each other. The DacMagic smooths out and makes the digital more musical, where the X10-D adds a certain fullness, warmth and imaging quality that makes the music bloom beyond the speakers. The two sound very nice together, and it is understandable that some companies offer a DAC with a tube output buffer stage–I find it to be a very pleasant and musical case of synergy.
Music through the DAC/buffer combination often create moments where you are distracted by the music, stopping to listen to something you may not have noticed in a familiar piece of music. Some vocals over the combination are almost goosebump-inducing now, and acoustic music really shines. Something like the Bill Evans album Waltz For Debby (which I actually play from an audio DVD at 24-bit/96kHz) really gives you the experience of being at the Village Vanguard when it was being taped. Michael Franks’ voice is also in top form; on The Art Of Tea, you get the fullness of his voice without the “chestiness” that muddies the sound. Recordings that could lean toward sibilance are tamed down into listenability. Even older recordings, such as Cal Tjader’s Several Shades of Jade, bring out the detail and space between all of the percussion instruments.
While the DacMagic is good, I am looking to upgrade to a DAC that will take a full 192kHz/24-bit and 176.4kHz/24-bit source. Cambridge has newer products that can handle it, and the Schiit Bifrost is also a nice unit in a similar price range that can tackle all those sampling rates.
After that, I need to tackle finding a media player than can play back the pure FLAC files as is, without any downsampling or digital processing (including a volume adjustment in a media player). Short of playing music from a laptop, I do not even know if I can find what I need at a price I can afford. In other words, for simple processing of FLAC files into a direct S/PDIF signal, there should be minimal expense involved (not something in the four figure range, in other words).
It’s been awhile since I’ve pulled out stacks of CDs to sample, and this tube buffer/DAC combination has had me doing it. The whole experience so far shows that I really could stand to do major upgrades to all of my components, but the budget is not there as of yet. If a player like the Oppo BDP-105 had a suitable analog output, I might be tempted to bypass using an external DAC. And rather than a tube buffer stage, I might be inclined to find an Audio Research SP-10 or SP-11, both of which are tube-driven. But for now, I have a sound that is more listenable than back when I started on this mini-quest. Mission (somewhat) accomplished!
The epilogue: if I had to recommend a component to improve digital sound noticeably, what would I recommend from the components I’ve tried? It’s true that the DAC made noticeable improvement, but the tube buffer is actually what gave me the biggest boost in listening pleasure, along with having the advantage of being able to try different sets of tubes to affect the sound. The buffer just gave the whole presentation a lift: imaging, body, fullness, properties I felt were somewhat lost with digital playback.