Authorized Timbre Dealer
Digital: I shudder to think where the home-audio industry would be without it (and, yes, I realize that some of you shudder to think about it). All debate over sound quality aside, how much direct discussion, innuendo and energy have gone into digital's current state? How many non-audiophiles now listen to some kind of music because there are no more records--which you can't lay on your coffee table for a week, under three magazines and your cat, and expect to still sound good? How many high-end companies have flourished because they offer either antidotes (tubes) or alternatives (analog) to the CD? And finally, what about the rise of the CD itself?
I offer all of these questions to ease you into this review of the Timbre TT-1 DAC, whose performance makes me wax metaphysical. I don't know if it's the best DAC currently available (for the most obvious reason), but I can say with confidence that it is the finest DAC I've heard and the cornerstone of my audio system.
Timbre, the company, is run by two different but complimentary men: David Goldstein and John Kukulka. David is the marketer, the mouthpiece, and as conscientious about the qualities of his product as any audiophile is about an entire system. John, on the other hand, is more aloof--less forward--the typical designer, with a stint at working for the space program on his resume.
The real beauty of both David and John is their accessibility. They never seem to tire of your questions and often elicit opinions regarding music and equipment. They care about their product, and to me this is important when you're about to spend relatively big bucks on a piece of gear. It's good to know who you'll talk to when you have a question or problem--or just want to offer praise.
The TT-1 is rounded--distinctively so--and elegant, especially in basic black. Its curves are not merely ornamental however, as The TT-1's shape, in conjunction with the rigidity of its case and the ample use of internal damping compound, helps control resonances. The standard TT-1 ($3295 retail) comes with four inputs (two coax on RCA jacks, one AT&T, and one TosLink), buttons for choosing input and phase, and normal and buffered outputs. The latter of these outputs are for those who want to use the TT-1 with a passive line controller. The balanced TT-1 ($3895 retail, $850 added later to a standard TT-1) also includes balanced outputs and swaps one of the coax inputs for an AES/EBU.
The head waters of the digital stream consisted of a Wadia 20 transport, which was connected to the Timbre DAC with a Wadia AT&T cable or the Purest Audio AES/EBU digital link. The Timbre was connected via Tara Labs RSC Master generation 2 cables to a CAT Signature linestage--whose transparency and dynamics I find addictive. For comparison, I had access to Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 Mk II, Encore Pyramid 1, Wadia 25 and Audio Logic 34 DACs. Power amps were a Threshold TA-300 (discontinued), a Symphonic-Line RG1 Mk III and, for most of the listening, a Conrad-Johnson Premier 11A or a pair of Quicksilver M135 monoblocks. Speakers for the bulk of the review period were either Mirage M3-SIs or Thiel CS3.6es, with the wonderful ProAc Response 3.5s and Aerial Acoustics 10Ts in use for a short time. Linestage to power amp cables were also RSC generation 2. I used Tara Labs Affinity power cords on the CAT and DACs, and an Audioquest AC-12 on the transport; the C-J's cord is captive.
Because the TT-1's power is internally filtered, Timbre recommends that the DAC not be plugged into any line-conditioning device--although I would recommend experimentation. Consequently, the transport, DACs and amps in my system were plugged into an updated Chang Lightspeed 9600 ISO line conditioner. The CAT goes straight into the wall (don't tell CATman Ken Stevens you do it any other way, especially if it's your nickel).
The TT-1 is a perfect contrast to the sound of many DACs and integrated CD players, which often emphasize detail. I know this may seem like a fine nit to pick, but the TT-1 resolves. It lets you hear what's on each disc in a musically natural way instead of calling attention to itself by exaggerating information and thus mucking up the music. How else to describe a component that allows you to hear everything--sometimes nuance that other DACs smear or miss--without aggression?
The TT-1 has the most amazing ability to retrieve spatial cues and ambient information. With the Timbre, you can get a palpable sense of the recording venue--hall or studio. This is not sonic trickery but, once again, a clue to the Timbre's resolving power. Shawn Colvin's rendition of Tom Waits' "Heart of Saturday Night" (from Cover Girl) illustrates this dramatically, with Colvin's voice awash in natural reflections and an occasional touch of sibilance (which isn't always a dirty word) that help define the walls around her. Other DACs I've had in my system diminish the ambience, flattening Colvin's voice and reducing its dimensionality. The TT-1 embodies the idea that you can't put back what's been removed. I simply hear more information through the Timbre.
The TT-1's soundstage is world-class--unfolding in a completely natural manner behind and around the speakers, which now more readily disappear. The depth that the TT-1 reveals in familiar CDs is especially satisfying and imparts a tremendous sense of ease to the music. Other DACs sounded more forward and insistent (some might argue vivid) than the TT-1, which is wonderfully refined. The TT-1's charm may be due to rhythm or timing or timbral accuracy--or all of these--but it has IT. I find that a construct of familiarity is what draws me into the music, that very subjective sense that what I'm hearing is right. I've spent a lot of time just sitting in the dark and listening to music since the TT-1 hit my system.
The TT-1's bass is potent. Keith Richards' wonderfully spacious Main Offender has a driving bottom end that includes at its deepest the sound of the drum kit being played on a springy (wooden?) floor. This is a characteristic whomp like I've never heard on other recordings and it comes through with force and clarity with the TT-1. Other DACs tended to either overemphasize the bass or lack weight. Neither of these applies to the TT-1, whose bass is deep and expressive but never calls attention to itself.
Nor does the treble, which is grain-free and vivid. It's a rare feat to pick up the amount of information the Timbre does without sounding analytical or adding irritation. I like to use Chris Whitley's Din of Ecstasy to evaluate equipment; it's a wall of sound with ample inner detail and nuance--a real workout. The Timbre dilutes nothing but is the antithesis of being ruthlessly revealing. Although I don't need to strain to hear the slightest detail on this disc or any other, I also don't have to monitor the volume control to ease problems with the treble. When mated with equipment that possesses its ability to track the signal faithfully, the Timbre TT-1 really shines.
We at Soundstage! have a general policy of not commenting on other publications or their coverage of products. In the case of the Timbre TT-1, however, I think it's fair to address a couple of small points that Robert Harley mentioned in the original Sterophile review of the TT-1 (published in Vol. 17, No. 4).
Harley noted two problems: what he called an "idling tone" that manifested itself as a high-pitched whine audible when no music was playing, and trouble with the buttons for input and phase inadvertently bouncing from selection to selection when pressed. I've never heard any idling tone with either the review sample of the TT-1 or my personal unit (which I originally purchased well before the publication of the Stereophile review), so I assume that this problem was attributable to the sample RH was using. I did, however, have some problems with the buttons for phase and input sticking on the TT-1 that I own. This was due to some substandard metal work on the earliest DACs Timbre produced and has long since been corrected.
The Timbre TT-1 is about truth, not pyrotechnics. If you want a DAC that emphasizes (bass, detail, transient speed) look elsewhere--I can make a few suggestions. We're often led to believe that accuracy is a function of a component's measured performance. Although I can't comment on the TT-1's technical prowess, I can say that my ears dont lie and are tougher than any battery of tests. The TT-1 is a fabulous DAC, perfect for those who want to hear the recording the way it was meant to be heard, with all of its subtlety and passion intact. If you value extended treble, you'll love the way the TT-1 helps define the recording site without aggression in other areas. If you like bass, you'll hear it without exaggeration (if it's there to begin with). If you prize sheer musicality, you'll be a big winner because won't have to sacrifice at the frequency extremes. You'll hear the music dancin' around in its bones, and you'll dance too.
This may be an unorthodox comparison, but as an individual link in the audio chain, the TT-1 reminds me of the CAT Signature preamp (which is certainly deserving of state-of-the-art status) in that both suspend disbelief--make me forget about the circumstances behind the sound. Ultimately, the Timbre TT-1 appeals to none of my audio sensibilities; it just makes beautiful music.
|Timbre TT-1 DAC
Price: $3,295 USD (Standard Version)
Timbre Technology Responds:
We want, first of all, to thank SoundStage! for doing a fine review of our TT-1 DAC. Its wonderful to read that our thoughts and efforts are enthusiastically appreciated. We agree wholeheartedly that our DAC is "fabulous" and "deserving of state-of-the-art status"--as do many music-lovers who have purchased our DAC or heard it at either a CES or Stereophile show, where we are often mentioned as having one of the best-sounding rooms.
About the only thing wed like to add is that Timbre is a small, customer-orientated company. The TT-1 has been available for 3 years. During this time we have continued to make small refinements to the circuitry, and we have made one full-board revision. In most cases, these changes were offered as upgrades to our customers at little or no cost. Even when we swapped the entire circuit board, we did so at our cost in order to support those who have bought our DAC. We will continue this policy of exceptional customer support--and we challenge other manufacturers, especially those of fast-changing digital products, to do the same.
Timbre owners are often zealous about their music. We urge any of your readers who also feel this way to contact us. Well tell them about our product and supply them with the names of consumers--as well as other manufacturers--who swear by our DAC and its ability to make "beautiful music."
David Goldstein & John Kukulka