July 2000Audio Note DAC 1.1 Kit
by Ian White
In the early 90s, audio publications began to tout the necessity of external digital-to-analog processors, and all hell broke loose within the high-end industry. Those clever enough to offer the "newest new thing" propped up sagging sales with external DACs, and a sense of balance was restored to the force. Jitter became the buzzword of the day, even though many audiophiles had no idea what jitter was. Some companies, such as YBA, Copland, and Naim, completely ignored the trend and by some miracle of science managed to produce some of the best CD players around. It wasnt that jitter wasnt a real problem, but why did consumers require two separate boxes to deal with the problem? Was the additional expense really necessary?
It was about the same time that I purchased my first high-end digital components, and I ended up buying a separate transport and digital processor. Prior to my purchase, I read almost every review that I could find and convinced myself that I needed separates. When I think back and remember the demonstration, I do recall that the retailer had a number of single-box players from YBA in his store, but at no time did he even suggest a demonstration of them. Ive known this particular retailer for close to seven years, and it would be irresponsible for me to suggest that he was trying to scam me. Was he caught up in the hysteria surrounding digital separates and afraid to sell me a CD player that was not the newest thing? Perhaps. Did he sell me a system that became obsolete by high-end standards after the manufacturer of the digital processor (a Class A-rated component in Stereophile) introduced a Mk II version about three months later? Absolutely.
I held onto the two pieces for close to four years, which as we all know is an eternity for any audiophile. After selling the processor for about 30% of its original price, I moved the transport into my video system to play laserdiscs and proceeded to look for a single-box CD player. There was no way that I was going to buy an external digital processor ever again. It was with great amusement that I flipped through the classified ads of the very same print magazine that had created the DAC revolution, only to discover that other audiophiles were dumping state-of-the-art processors for even less money than I had. P.T. Barnum had it right, folks!
Ignorance is strength
Before Doug Schneider and I ventured off to Milan last September to cover the Top Audio/Video Show, I was perfectly content with the sound of my Copland CD player. Not only did I have no interest in the brewing format war between DVD-Audio and SACD, but I also found myself buying more vinyl than ever before. Lets be honest here -- do you really need another copy of Billy Joels 52nd Street?
On our second-to-last night in Milan, Audio Notes Peter Qvortrup and Mike Kerster invited me downstairs for a late-night listening session that ended up being akin to a good payea -- an orgiastic feast. After describing the characteristics of each component in the system (from the cables to the 300B tubes used in the single-ended monoblocks), Peter asked me to forget everything that I knew about digital audio (for the purposes of the demonstration, anyway) and listen to the system with an open mind. Audio Notes Hungarian distributor handed the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack to our gracious host and we waited for the festivities to begin.
The rather eerie silence was broken by the first few notes of "Musica Ricercata II," and I found myself startled by how real the piano sounded. Ive never been a fan of Audio Notes speakers, but the entire system did a wonderful job of bringing the music to life, and it was truly mesmerizing. The system being demonstrated was anything but inexpensive, but Ive heard many systems that were double the price and couldn't touch the musicality of this stuff. At the heart of this rather intoxicating setup was a chunky box that breaks all the rules of digital audio and at a price that might make you fall off of the 24/96/SACD/DVD-Audio bandwagon.
They have the Internet on computers now?
With all of the jockeying for position in the digital camp at the moment, it was either alcohol-induced stupidity or sheer genius for Audio Note to develop a DAC that doesnt incorporate upsampling of data. But no, Audio Note isnt trying to be different for the sake of being different. Since 1994, the chaps at Audio Note UK have been experimenting with this radical change, and after some extensive listening tests, they decided that what they had was the best way of extracting the most from the existing 16-bit/44.1kHz format. Im sure that there are digital designers out there who will take exception to this methodology, but as the British would say, the proof is in the Yorkshire pudding.
At the top end of the spectrum, Audio Note offers consumers the DAC5 Special Edition, which at $30,000 is out of the reach of almost every audiophile who will admit to associating with the likes of me. The market for such a product is obviously quite small, but what about a DAC that follows the same decoding methodology, but without all of the fancy silver wiring, seven fewer power transformers, lesser-quality components (although quite good for the price) and available in the format of a kit? Tarzan like! At $699 (or $899 for those of you who want Mike Kerster to assemble it for you), Audio Note is clearly trying to go after the MSB/Bel Canto/Assemblage customer with the DAC 1.1 -- and without offering 24/96 decoding.
You mean I have to make this thing by myself?
Sports fans will understand me when I say that I was born with soft hands. Ive been known to be rather productive around the net, but after nearly electrocuting myself in college while attempting to fix a mixing board (while I was on the air!), I decided to leave electricity to the experts. Ive seen what the DAC 1.1 kit looks like unassembled, and Id have to say that a novice will probably require a few evenings of concentrated effort to get it done right. The supplied assembly manual is very thorough, although not overly confusing. If there is any area where I think that a novice would fall into difficulty it would be in the assembly of the two PCBs. There are a fair number of resistors and capacitors that require soldering, and I know that Id require therapy after successful completion of the entire kit. This is not a one night job. The unit that Mike Kerster delivered to me was flawless. I inspected the PCBs and tugged at all of the wiring, and Id have to suggest that Mr. Kerster is rather handy with a soldering iron. If you can spring for the extra $200, Mike will deliver a spotless product that youll be more than pleased with.
The digital PCB uses the proven Crystal CS8412CP input receiver and Analog Devices 18-bit AD1865N DAC chip. For those who might be interested, Audio Note is offering an upgrade to the Crystal receiver, with the Crystal CS8414CP, which allows 24-bit/96kHz data to be received. Before any of you start jumping for joy, remember that the DAC is limited to 18-bit, so any 24-bit data will be down-converted with a resultant loss of resolution.
The remainder of the supplied parts are all of high quality, although Id like to see something better than a Hammond power transformer in the next version of the kit. It does the job, but I bet that Audio Note could really up the ante with a better quality transformer. The supplied Philips ECG 6189 tube (used in the output stage) was of good quality and proved to be problem-free throughout the review. Please feel free to experiment with the 12AU7A/ECC82 NOS tube of your choice in this case. The internal layout of the kit is rather simple, with the power transformer and its PCB occupying the right side of the chassis, the digital and analog PCBs occupying the left side. The final assembled product looks very neat and well built.
The DAC 1.1 is housed in a full-sized steel chassis (weighing close to 17 pounds) that measured 11 3/4" W x 5 1/4" H x 15 3/4" D. The top cover is finished with a black textured powder coat. The 3/16"-thick brushed-aluminum faceplate looks rather elegant with its anodized natural color and satin finish. The rear panel has two digital inputs: one 75-ohm BNC and one 110-ohm AES/EBU XLR input. There is one set of analog outputs and a detachable power cord.
Who said the rocking the boat cant be fun?
For those of you who are convinced that 24/96 or SACD are the only acceptable forms of technological improvement for digital audio, Id have to say that you are unnecessarily limiting your options. Do the four 24-bit/96kHz CDs that I own sound really good when I listen to them through my Panasonic DVD player? Absolutely. Do the remaining 975 discs (including 40 with HDCD encoding) in my collection sound better through my Rega Planet connected to the DAC 1.1? Without a doubt. I have a real problem with the notion that my Panasonic DVD-A320 must sound better than my Rega Planet because it has a 24-bit/96kHz DAC. Huh? Pardon? The Naim CD3.5 CD player that I had in for review last year crucifies all of these components in the areas of dynamics, pace and clarity, and its far from being a 24/96 player. For the purposes of the review, I borrowed a Pioneer DV-525, as the Panasonic does not output 24/96 from its digital output, and I connected it to a modified MSB Link with an external Monolithic Sound HC-2 power supply. The fully tricked out MSB DAC is slightly more expensive than the Audio Note DAC 1.1, but I felt that a comparison was in order. My Rega Planet was used as a transport with both DACs.
Now batting for the Cubs Jerry Garcia?
I was never really a fan of the Grateful Dead, but I do think that Jerry Garcia was a decent guitar player, and over time Ive really come to enjoy his album with David Grisman, Shady Grove [Acoustic Disc ACD-21 HDCD]. As neither the Audio Note nor MSB DAC uses the Pacific Microsonics HDCD filter, I was quite sure that this recording would tell me something about the two DACs' tonal differences. Both DACs are exceptionally clean-sounding in the midrange, but I could hear some extra emphasis on the part of the MSB in the upper mids. On some discs, this extra bit of energy is a good thing, as it fleshes out dull-sounding vocals. On "Shady Grove," it made the vocals a tad hard-sounding as I increased the volume -- not a good thing. The Audio Note DAC 1.1 made vocals sound more natural, which in a system like mine that suffers from perhaps too much transparency is a good thing.
I popped another HDCD recording into both transports, and I found the results somewhat fascinating. Tracey Chapmans latest release, Telling Stories [Elektra CD 62478 HDCD], sounded much harder through the MSB Link connected to the Pioneer DV-525 compared to the Rega/Audio Note combo. Both DACs were pretty much equal in the pace department, but there was a degree of sibilance in the treble that I found rather noticeable. On the song "Unsung Psalm," this extra energy really stood out. Chapmans voice was sweeter through the Audio Note 1.1 and definitely on the cleaner side as well.
Both DACs walk all over the standalone Rega when it comes to imaging and soundstage depth, and I was quite impressed at how well both DACs were able to re-create the space around performers. The Audio Note DAC does a better job of reproducing depth, but the MSB was most certainly its equal when it came to image height. The MartinLogan ReQuests have a tendency to make some instruments sound larger than they really are, but both DACs kept the large panels under control.
My favorite album from last year, The Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication [Warner Brothers CDW 47386], never made it onto any audiophile-approved lists, but this album is a torture device for high-end equipment. Its clean vocals, thundering bass lines and explosiveness drives gear crazy. It was on this recording that the Audio Note began to show some weakness. While it had no difficulty reproducing the rich tone of Fleas Alembic bass, it began to sound congested as the complexity of the music increased. The MSB Link soared this recording without breaking a sweat. Hmmm.
After driving my poor suffering neighbors crazy for a few hours, I took mercy on their ears and went through my entire collection of Béla Fleck and Victor Wooten. Victor Wooten plays a nasty bass and with a precision that makes it easy to understand why so many aspiring bassists look up to him. Through the MSB, bass notes had a "snap" to them that really made Wootens playing sound exciting. The Audio Note was better from a tonal perspective, but it didnt quite have that degree of "snap," which as a result made it sound slower.
After I returned the Pioneer DV-525 to its rightful owner (only dropped twice, I swear) and moved the MSB Link back into my home-theater rig, I reconnected the DAC 1.1 to the Rega Planet and began to really dissect its overall sound. One of the biggest changes that I noticed when I decided to buy separates back in 1994 was that an external DAC seemed to make the top end sound much smoother. The hardness that I was used to hearing from my CD player at the time was gone. The enjoyment factor of my system jumped enormously, but it also came at a rather steep price. If you are looking for a smooth-sounding affordable DAC that gets things right from a tonal perspective, then the DAC 1.1 is a stellar performer. Audio Notes products have often been criticized for rolling off at the frequency extremes, but I dont hear that at all with this product.
The Rega Planet is not the last word in bass performance, although using a pair of Nirvana S-L interconnects improves the resolution a lot, so I looked forward to any improvement with the Planet connected to the DAC 1.1. Two major improvements really stood out. First, bass notes sounded meatier and better defined. If you enjoy listening to music with a lot of acoustic bass, you will really enjoy how well the DAC 1.1 reproduces this instrument. Second, music moves along at a faster clip with the DAC 1.1 in the chain. The MartinLogan ReQuests are at the very top of the pile when it comes to their ability to keep up with the tempo of the music, and Ive often felt that the Rega Planet was holding back in that department. Nobody will ever confuse the Rega/Audio Note combination for a Naim CD3.5 or CDX, but the music pouring out of the ReQuests definitely sounded more alive and punchy. The Rega/Audio Note duo doesnt quite have the immediacy of the best digital designs that Ive heard, but its smooth, detailed presentation will never bore, or rob music of its inherent vitality. For the asking price, the Audio Note does all of the important things (tonality, pace, fun factor) really well.
If you must have a 24/96 DAC that will not only allow you to enjoy the three dozen titles that exist for this format but also upsample 16-bit recordings and make some of them sound dramatically smoother and less fatiguing, then I would have no problem recommending the MSB Link with the upgraded parts and Monolithic HC-2 power supply. For the money, the product is tough to beat and combined with a solid transport, itll serve you well over the long haul.
If you have been following the progress of SACD, you are probably aware that a number of my esteemed colleagues, both print and online, have spilled a lot of ink on the virtues of the wunderkind from Japan. Ive heard the top-of-the-line Sony SCD-1 player, and most recently while in the UK, the new entry-level SACD player that should retail here for under $1000. With SACD recordings, the sound quality is very impressive.
On the other hand, if you are not interested in the brewing format war, dont care about multichannel audio, only want to hear how good 16-bit audio can truly sound and own enough CDs to build a small fort, then the Audio Note DAC 1.1 is most certainly for you. Although an upgrade kit does not exist at this time, a small bird told me that you can improve the sound quality of the unit with some Black Gate capacitors and NOS tubes.
Did it make sense for Audio Note to release a product that is swimming against the tide at this place in time? Probably not. But for $699, they've made a DAC perfect for playing all of the CDs you, and I, have.
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