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JoshM

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Everything posted by JoshM

  1. I’d be curious to know if someone in the US could buy a 220v version and send it in for the upgrade as 120v? Seems like there are lots more QB-9s on the European used market.
  2. I’ve noticed that some people simply hate “subjective” DAC reviews and will downvote them no matter what (and usually without reading). Too bad, they missed a masterpiece of a review here!
  3. That’s a great set of questions @phusis and thoughtful answers @The Computer Audiophile. I’ve actually been snatching up some good deals on older, usually professional, reference DACs recently (hence the use of the BDA-1 comparison in my Airist review). One motivation for my purchases is that it seems almost every DS DAC today uses either Sabre or AKM chips (the Berkeley obviously being an outlier), while a lot of not-too-vintage (5-10 years old) DACs (that can handle 24/192 or better!) used a wider variety of chips. Maybe I’ll have to write up something on my semi-vintage DAC adventures.
  4. As a coffee snob, I can’t cotton to this tea stuff, but my wife would approve. A few other things I’d like to know are: 1) What was your first “good” DAC and which one is your all-time favorite? 2) What kind of hearing protection do you use at concerts? 3) What do you think is the all-time best audiophile system “test” album?
  5. Good catch! You are correct. I need to update the article and try the synchronous mode. Are you behind Sonore? I *love* your two free SACD programs! I’ve used them for my TBVO columns. I’m also looking for a good new USB to SPDIF converter. If you’d like a review of the ultraDigital and @The Computer Audiophile gives the thumbs up (am I missing a previous review, Chris?), I’d be interested in reviewing it.
  6. The BBC kindly agreed to promote this TBVO by releasing a Classic Albums documentary on SFTBC! 😜 https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000f8xc
  7. I'd aim for a used Holo Spring or a new Schiit "Yggdrasil GS" in that range. Finding a Spring in that range might take some patience, but the Yggy can be had now. The "GS" is essentially the Yggy V1 with upgraded USB and firmware at a steep discount. You won't be disappointed with either option, IMO.
  8. I agree. I picked one up used at a good price just to see what it was like, fully prepared to flip it. But I was very impressed and hung onto it.
  9. One of the more controversial concepts in DACademia™ is “multibit magic.” There’s a school of thought that maintains that multibit DACs provide superior sound to Delta-Sigma DACs. It’s a claim that I’m somewhat sympathetic to. Schiit's Yggdrasil and Holo Audio’s Spring are two multibit DACs that belong near the top of any list of the best DACs on the market today. However, some recent Delta-Sigma DACs — like the Crane Song Solaris, Matrix X-SABRE Pro, and Dangerous Convert 2 — are giving the great multibit DACs a run for their money. The ultimate truth is that each DAC type has its pros and cons, just as each individual DAC does. But for those audiophiles intrigued by the potential of multibit DACs, the Massdrop x Airist Audio R-2R DAC has been getting good buzz. Like the Spring, the Airist is a multibit DAC that employs discrete resistor ladder technology. The relative complexity of this design usually carries a high price tag. But the Airist comes in significantly below expectations with a U.S. MSRP of $350. Like many audio offerings from Drop (Massdrop’s new name), the 8.1-inch square, 1.5-inch high Airist feels solidly built thanks to its hefty, CNC-milled aluminum case. The Airist’s matte-black appearance is pleasantly utilitarian, as are its controls. The front of the Airist sports only a power button and an input-select button. The rear features USB (XMOS XU208), coaxial RCA, and TOSLINK optical digital inputs, all of which are galvanically isolated, along with analog RCA outputs and the input for the Airist’s external power supply. The Airist uses a linear phase FIR filter. It supports a maximum 24-bit/384 kHz signal over USB and a maximum 24/192 signal over coaxial/optical. Regardless of input, the Airist upsamples incoming lower-sample rate data to 192kHz. The Airist has been measured at several other sites. The summary is that the Airist has significantly worse distortion measurements than similarly priced Deta-Sigma DACs. However, even these comparably bad measurements are probably just on the edge of audibility in realistic use, and both the Airist’s linearity and frequency response are good. With that in mind, I decided to first place the Airist up against the Bryston BDA-1. The BDA-1 is an out-of-production professional DAC built around the hybrid multibit/delta-sigma CS4398 chip. It was well-reviewed when it debuted in 2010. I still think it sounds wonderful (with a nice mix of multibit tonality and delta-sigma technicalities), and it can be had on the used market for a small fraction of its initial $1,995 MSRP. In order to provide a current-production comparison, I also mixed in the Schiit Modi 3. The Modi uses the AK4490 delta-sigma chip, is priced at a mere $99, measures extremely well, and sounds good. All listening was level-matched within .2 dB*. Each DAC was fed from my Mac Mini using Audirvana. The Airist and Modi 3’s USB inputs were used, while a Schiit Eitr USB to SPDIF converter was utilized between the Mac Mini and the Bryston, due to the latter’s 16/48 limitation over USB. * To answer the next question, no, my listening was not blindfolded. Or double blind. Or sextuple blind. And I’m okay with that. For the Airist’s first head-to-head DAC matchup, I pulled up the original CD edition of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and cued up the album’s sparse-yet-impactful second track “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Through the Airist, the low electric guitar part in the left channel was clear and visceral. There was, dare I say it, a bit of “multibit magic” in how the Airist rendered the tonality of the instruments. However, flipping over to the BDA-1, it became clear what was missing through the Airist. The nuances of Steve Ferrone’s tight hi-hat/kick/snare groove were obscured through the Airist but clear through the BDA-1. Likewise, the Airist wasn’t able to pull the fine details out of the acoustic guitar in the center of the sound stage, the electric piano in right channel, or Petty’s vocals. The BDA-1 could retrieve those details, and it gave up little to the Airist in tonality. I next turned to what Audiophile Style readers may recognize by now is one of my favorite audition albums, Van Morrison’s collection of unreleased songs, The Philosopher’s Stone. The album’s glorious 1975 rendition of “The Street Only Knew Your Name” features a shaker in the center channel that propels the songs forward. Through superb DACs, you can hear each individual pebble in the shaker and get a sense of the container. However, on less revealing DACs, the pebbles become a nearly indistinguishable mass and only a general “shh-shh-shhh-shhh” is left. The BDA-1 fell firmly in the first category, while the Airist landed much closer to the latter. At this point, I inserted the Modi 3 into the DAC mix and put on “Feelin’ Alright” from the Mobile Fidelity CD mastering of Traffic’s 1968 self-titled album. The Airist does a nice job rendering front-to-back depth on the track. Jim Capaldi’s the drums in the right channel and Steve Winwood’s piano in the left channel both sound smooth and realistic. However, switching to the BDA-1, it’s once again clear that the Airist is shrouding some of the detail in the recording. With the BDA-1, I can hear every nuance of Capaldi’s hi-hat work, Dave Mason’s jangly acoustic guitar, and Winwood’s piano strings, all while sacrificing only a smidge of depth. The same details are clear through the Modi 3, but overall the Modi offers a less natural tonality, some grain, and less depth than the BDA-1. Turning to a somewhat more recent recording, I put on the original CD pressing of Tori Amos’s Under the Pink and selected “Cornflake Girl.” The Airist reproduced the lower registers of Amos’s voice beautifully. However, the reverberant, defiant thwack of the snare drum that propels the song forward and the sense of space around Amos’s voice are missing through Airist but clear through BDA-1. Once again, the Modi 3 renders a flatter soundstage front-to-back than the BDA-1 and falls behind both DACs in tonality, but still manages to wring more detail from recording than the Airist does. Finally, I put on “Brothers Gotta Work It Out” from the deluxe edition of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. Given the Airist’s strength in low end reproduction, I expected the Bomb Squad’s thumping soundscape to be an alley oop to the Airist. Instead, it revealed its biggest weakness. The Airist’s lack of upper-register detail made the track’s sample of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” solo harder to hear. Even more significantly, the Airist’s missing treble detail also created disconnect between low- and high-end clarity, which made special cues, particularly left-to-right, harder to discern. Both the BDA-1 and the Modi 3 corrected this problem, with the BDA-1, in particular, providing a smooth, cohesive sonic picture. Ultimately, I came away from my extended audition of the Airist underwhelmed. It’s a fine, affordable introduction to “multibit magic” for multibit-curious audiophile. However, because it sacrifices so much detail in the pursuit of the multibit tonality, I’d have a hard time living with the Airist as my only DAC. Product Information: Airist Audio R-2R DAC ($359) Airist Audio R-2R DAC Product Page About the Author Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.
  10. The Yggy has been measured now by Schiit themselves, Marv, AtomicBob, Jude, and a few others. On things like the unbalanced "droop," Amir is the outlier. (I've also measured that on mine, and it doesn't exist, FWIW.) But I just think there's a fundamental ideological disconnect between ASR loyalists and others. As I've advised people before, if they think the ASR suite of measurements tell the whole story, they should buy a Schiit Modi 3 or Khadas Tone Board for $99 and be done with looking at DACs.
  11. From the No Good Deeds... category, the folks at ASR are mad that, in the context of my rave review of the Matrix, I suggested that the hated (by them) Yggrasil may be better in some areas than the Matrix.
  12. He produced some of my favorites, including Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers.
  13. I'm interested in the Unison based on what I've read. But I'm also happy with the Gen 5 and have various USB->SPDIF converter options. So I might wait until my Yggy's warranty lapses and then upgrade to the Unison to get the warranty refresh.
  14. Level-matched and sighted. (I don't feel like going through the effort to conduct blind tests for every review is worth the effort, since, as I outlined in the RME review, it doesn't seem to convince anyone.)
  15. Early in my audiophiledom, I inadvertently stumbled upon the fact that DAC chips can have different sonic signatures when I bought a Yulong SABRE DA8. The DA8 was based around the then-state of the art ESS9018 SABRE chip. I’d read nothing but good things about SABRE chips prior to my purchase. But upon inserting the DA8 into my modest system, I immediately was disappointed. When rendered by the DA8, everything seemed to have an artificial sheen. Electric bass guitar, in particular, often sounded far too close to a synth bass through the DA8. Digging into some threads about the DA8, I realized that I was hearing what some have dubbed the (in)famous “SABRE glare.” Since then, I’ve heard other SABRE-based DACs with even worse glare, but also a few that have avoided it. Overall, though, I’ve been cautious about SABRE-based DACs. You know what they say about first impressions. It’s with this caution that I approached the Matrix X-SABRE Pro (MQA) DAC (U.S MSRP $1,999). The first thing that struck me about the Matrix was its build. Machined from a solid piece of aluminum, the Matrix is solid and beautiful. It feels like a luxury product and has a distinct Apple-esque flare to its design. The rear of the X-SABRE Pro (XSP) is clearly laid out, with XLR and RCA analog outputs and AES, RCA coaxial, TOSLINK optical, I2S, and USB digital inputs. The bottom of the XSP features a simple voltage switch, eliminating region confusion with used purchases. After setting up the X-SABRE Pro (XSP), the average user will have little need to fiddle with back or underside of the unit, since all of the DAC’s controls are located along the front in a recessed, oblong touch LCD panel. From left to right, the XSP features power, input auto scan, USB, I2S, volume up, volume down, optical, coax and AES buttons. These functions also can be accessed from the XSP’s remote. Like the unit itself, it’s sleek and sturdy. Easy access to the XSP’s volume control on both the unit itself and the remote makes it an excellent candidate for those looking for a DAC/preamp for use with a power amp. In the center of the oblong touch panel is a small, round screen that displays which input is currently in use, the current file’s format and sample rate, and the unit’s volume. More advanced controls can be accessed by pressing the XSP’s power button for two seconds. This puts the XSP into setup mode, which allows the user to set the unit to preamp mode (volume control) or DAC mode (fixed output), turn dither on or off, select from seven PCM filters, select the DSD cutoff frequency, turn the jitter reducer on or off, and select from synchronous or asynchronous input modes, among other features. While I don’t have much use for MQA as a format, I opted for the MQA-equipped version of the SABRE Pro because it uses the XMOS XU216 chip for its USB input, while the non-MQA version of the SABRE Pro uses the U6 XMOS. While I’ve played with all of the XSP’s inputs and settings over the months I’ve had it, the USB input (in asynchronous mode) was used for most of the listening in this review, along with the fast roll-off linear filter, dither on, and jitter reducer off. Most of my use has featured the XSP in DAC (fixed output) mode, feeding an either the Schiit Ragnarok integrated amplifier or the Monoprice Monolith THX 887 headphone amplifier 1. However, I also tried the XSP into a power amp and had no qualms with its preamp volume control. My first thought after firing up the X-SABRE Pro and running through some of my go-to audition tracks was “Wow, this isn’t yesterday’s SABRE DAC!” The XSP presents itself as simultaneously clean and tonally rich. The sound of an acoustic guitar, for example, comes across just a bit like a multibit DAC on the XSP without the resolution sacrifice and high-end roll-off that comes with many multibit implementations. Overall, I’d call the XSP a neutral, shading to warm, sounding DAC. There’s nary a hit of glare or shrillness in the XSP’s presentation. In other words, it’s a delta-sigma DAC that multibit fans should try out. (Didn’t I say it doesn’t sound like yesterday’s SABRE?) I decided to pit the XSP against the previously reviewed RME ADI-2 DAC FS (U.S. MSRP $1,099). While the Matrix is significantly pricier than the RME, both are “perfect” measuring DACs. I level-matched the RME and the Matrix as close as possible, giving the former the .2 dB volume edge and, therefore, perhaps a slight advantage. The first album up was the 2012 hi-res remaster of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. On the album’s emotional, apocalyptic opener, “Five Years,” the skin of Mick “Woody” Woodmansey’s kick drum comes across as more three-dimensional through the Matrix, suggesting that it has the edge in microdetail over the RME. Mick Ronson’s ominously sluggish autoharp chords seem to emerge further left and right on the XSP, in line with what seems to be a slightly wider stage from the SABRE. Turning to one of my favorite system audition albums, Van Morrison’s unreleased songs collection, The Philosopher’s Stone, I put on “I Have Finally Come to Realise,” a wonderful tune cut live-in-studio at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California, in 1975. With John Blakey’s opening guitar strums, the strings are easier to distinguish individually on the SABRE, whereas they blend together more on RME. Through the XSP, it’s easier to pick out the string articulation on David Hayes’s electric bass, and there’s more front-to-back depth on Bernie Krause’s Moog. Finally, much less room sound is evident on Van’s voice through the RME. As a result, the SABRE creates a better sense of space than the RME. Moving on to the hi-res edition of Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, it was much easier to hear bleed from instrumental parts removed from the final mix — early staccato distorted guitar strums on “Hell Is Chrome” and a blistering guitar solo at the beginning of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” — through the SABRE than through the RME, a fact that reinforced my sense that the XSP simply bests the RME in detail retrieval. Through a range of material, amplifiers, and speakers/headphones, my overall takeaway was that XSP provides a soundstage that was both wider and deeper than the ADI-2’s. The XSP may trade a slight bit of bass slam to the ADI-2 for better bass texture. But the biggest difference is the XSP’s greater clarity, exhibited by its superior macro- and, especially, micro-detail compared to the ADI-2. I often had the urge to reach over and turn up the ADI, despite the fact that I gave it the slight volume edge against the SABRE. The XSP simply resolved the recordings better. To make things even more interesting, I pitted the X-SABRE PRO against the Schiit Yggdrasil (U.S. MSRP $2,399) and ran through much of the same music. With the Yggdrasil, the XSP was up against a DAC that’s both pricier and features a multibit architecture. In this comparison, some differences were apparent, but it was more difficult to declare an overall winner. The Yggdrasil presents a significantly deeper soundstage than the XSP and an altogether more realistic timbre, though the Yggdrasil’s edge in the latter is much smaller than in the former. The XSP, in contrast, seems to pull ever-so-slightly more detail out of some recordings than the Yggdrasil. I’d hazard to stay that there are other differences between the Matrix and the Schiit when it comes to bass slam (advantage Schiit), left-to-right staging (advantage Matrix), macro-dynamics (advantage Schiit), and other characteristics, but no hands-down winner emerges. Overall, they’re both superb, balanced DACs. Whereas the XSP emerged as the clear winner against the RME, the choice of XSP or Yggdrasil is more one of tradeoffs and individual taste. In short, the Matrix X-SABRE Pro (MQA) is a remarkable DAC that should be considered by anyone in the market for a serious, resolving (and seriously resolving) audiophile DAC. 1. Most speaker listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer. Headphone listening included Focal Utopia, Sennheiser HD800S, MrSpeakers Ether 2, and ZMF Verité open and closed. Product Information: Matrix Audio X-SABRE Pro (MQA) ($1,999) Matrix Audio X-SABRE Pro (MQA) Product Page Matrix Audio X-SABRE Pro (MQA) User Manual (4MB PDF) Matrix Audio X-SABRE Pro (MQA) USB Drivers (2.4MB ZIP) About the Author Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.
  16. That's absolutely on my list. The varying track lengths are a big question mark with it, too.
  17. You're right that I may have slightly underplayed the difference between Whittaker and the '85 CD. I think the mix of gear will determine how large it is. Putting raw detail retrieval aside, I felt that DACs and amps with more front-to-back depth emphasized the Whittaker transfer's advantages more than ones with a flatter soundstage. But I also didn't want to exaggerate the differences, because I think Webb did a really commendable job with the '85 CD, especially given how far A/D conversion has come since then, and you can pick up one of the Webb CDs for a few bucks. For people who really love the album and want to absolute best resolution, the Whittaker is the clear choice, though.
  18. One other minor odd and an end worth mentioning is that there’s at least one original ‘85 CD that splits “Head Over Heels” and “Broken (live)” into two tracks. This is the same mastering as the other ‘85 CDs, though.
  19. A member over at SHF posted something interesting. HDTracks, which has the Walter version of Big Chair, includes this note: “Songs From The Big Chair was originally recorded on 1/2" analog tape in 1983 using a digital compressor that cut frequencies higher than 20kHz before being written to tape. This 2014 remaster was done by Andy Walter, at Abbey Road Studios from these same analog tapes which were transferred to digital at 96kHz/24-bit.” I noticed that there wasn’t much content above 20kHz on the various hi-res versions, but didn’t know the reason. It really underscores how they were mixing analog and digital technology at that moment in history.
  20. I’m probably going to pitch 33 1/3 at some point, maybe for Plastic Ono Band. But I won’t object to a letter-writing campaign. Haha.
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