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No. 89 October 2011
THE FIRST

In the history of each country we can find audio devices which became iconic. Let us think the BBC LS3/5A and Quad ESL57 loudspeakers in Britain, or the Krell KSA50 amplifier and the Ed Vilchur’s Acoustic Research AR-1 turntable in the USA. Every one of them was in its time innovative and their legend is still alive today, repeated and processed by the manufacturers and users alike. Also in the minds of Polish music lovers – audiophiles there are some special places for products such as the iconic Tonsil Altus series of loudspeakers, stereo receivers Radmor (for example the model 5102), the WS-503 Unitra amplifier, or the Daniel G-1100fs turntable.
It seems, however, that our Polish experiences are not fully comparable with those from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Without offending anybody, let me express the central idea of this editorial: none of our Polish products was original enough to inspire others and none was good enough to amaze us today. Unlike all products mentioned in the first paragraph. We can surely argue that locked in our communist working camp, we did not have the opportunity to travel deep waters, and who knows what would have happened if our products had been freely sold in the shops of London or Paris. But I do not see that as a really valid argument on account of two important criteria: innovativeness and longevity. The former might possibly be defended in case of one or two devices, which does not make it a rule. The latter is beyond discussion – none of the products mentioned above fares now as well as when it was first introduced. Sorry, I know, nostalgia, pride, and such like, but these are the facts.

There is, however, one product that surely and easily, albeit in a smaller scale, meets the two above criteria – a small box housing DAC The First from Kustagon Laboratories.
I read about it for the first time in the “Magazyn Hi-Fi” (6/1997), a then black-and-white magazine issued in Tri-City. It was a review of a special version of the DAC – The First SE. The device was prepared by the two owners of Kustagon – Adam Kubec and Dariusz Starzyk. It was a small black box with an external PSU that was supposed to improve the sound of the CD players. A quickly released SE version was followed by the MkII, which was popularized by DIY enthusiasts, because Kustagon published full product documentation, including PCBs (something unthinkable today) so that everyone could make his own DAC The First.
I have known Darek for years, since the time I worked for the “Sound and Vision” magazine, as he lives in the city of Mikołów, not far from the editorial house. We used to meet often when I tested the new series of Kustagon products from the Enigma line and their loudspeakers sold under the brand name Amparo. It was back then when I received DAC The First SE as a gift. Nowadays the company is divided in three brands – Kustagon, Amparo and Lowther Club.

As I said, DAC The First defends itself with its longevity and influence on the Polish audio scene. In order to make it a ‘legend’ we need another equally important factor, namely high sound quality. To verify this, I pitted the Kustagon DAC against the best digital sources I had –Ancient Audio Lektor Air V-edition and Soulution 745 CD players. Both were also used as transports: the Air sports the CD-Pro2 LH from Philips, and the 745 the UMK-5 from Esoteric.
But before listening, I contemplated the Kustagon looks for a while. If we can talk about some kind of “clairvoyance”, Kustagon foresaw and anticipated the current trend – The First has the proportions and looks of most Chinese or Taiwanese DACs present everywhere today (compare it for example with the Trends Audio). Just like them, it also comes with an external PSU that, however, belongs to the previous era – the Kustagon has a very solid, sizeable linear power supply (not stabilized – that was done in the main unit itself, directly at the powered circuits), while today everybody uses small, cheap, matchbox-sized switching PSUs. As I said, the Kustagon PSU is very heavy. Maybe not very nice looking, but such were the times. The mains power cable is a bit shoddy, with a flat plug (this is done differently today), but its output voltage is provided to the main unit with a nice, coaxial cable with a bolted plug, very similar to what we can see today in contemporary, high quality units.
The DAC itself is small but has a very solid, anodized aluminum front panel with two LEDs. The blue, matte LED (one of the first blue LEDs available) indicates power on state, the green one signals synchronization with the transport. On the back we have gold plated stereo outputs and RCA and optical digital inputs. And a four pin power socket.
Inside, we find a view you cannot see today anymore – large digital receiver and converter chips soldered into (and not on) the double sided PCB. The receiver is a Crystal chip CS8412-CP, accepting signals up to 24 bits and sampling frequencies between 25 and 55 kHz. The DAC chip also comes from Crystal, it is the CS4390-KP, placed in a socket – the chips were often upgraded as soon as new models were introduced, usually compatible with the older ones. It is very difficult today, as the chips are tiny and surface mounted, usually not backward compatible. Anyway, the CS4390 is a 24 bit sigma-delta chip, with 105dB dynamics and resolution about 17 bits. This is an interesting IC, because it is integrated with an analog output filter optimized for linear phase (Linear Phase Filtering). And it has a 128x interpolative filter on the output. Behind the DAC there is the I/V filter using high quality capacitors and Burr-Brown chips. All components have their markings removed –another sign of the times, when everybody copied everyone else’s solutions and sold as proprietary. We can read a serial number on the PCB– it is V.1.0 ser 001 MCMXCVII. And a few more figures: sampling frequency – 32/44.1/48 kHz, output impedance - 27Ω, output voltage – 2.37V.

Listening to the Kustagon shows how careful were its designers, how well they heard. And they had no access to such good digital components they could have today. Much of what we can hear from their device must come from their anticipation, or their certainty of how a digital player should sound.
The most important aspect of the listening session was The First’s brilliant tonal balance. There was no trace of sharpness in the treble, or any harshness. A large part of the contemporary CD players sounds brighter and more “to the front”. This destroys the delicate balance between the “immediate” and the “subcutaneous”. And music lives on both.
The bass is equally brilliant. It is cut on the very lowest end, but really low, below about 40Hz. The midrange is full and nice, although its upper part is slightly damped. But most important is the communicativeness of this unit, which in the context of its price, and most of all its age, makes it a killing. It is not something you often encounter. The timbre is slightly warm, somewhat resembling the HIFIDIY Mini USB DAC SE, which I really liked. But it reaches further, showing the shading of dynamics and timbre even better than the rDAC from Arcam. The latter is brighter and more direct – the Kustagon is more withdrawn. Comparing The First with modern sources we can hear the ageing of this particular DAC chip. The sound is not as resolved as with newer chips, especially the midrange. The micro scale dynamics is also somewhat averaged. But these are the only things we can point at. CDs sound really great with the Kustagon. A surprise, a real surprise!

It is a real pity that currently Darek manufactures only single custom built units and he has been elusive for years in terms of testing. He is a man who brought much to the Polish audio scene, but whose influence was not well “consumed” by himself. I still hope that something changes and we will see his products in the best audio salons, not only in Poland. Because he is worth it – without Darek and his partners the audio world would be poorer.

Further reading: test in the “Magazyn Hi-Fi” 6/97, available HERE in Polish.



CONVERSATIONS IV

There is so much I would like to share with you that it is difficult for me to make a choice. So I will try to convey the news as short as I can.

New reference loudspeakers in “High Fidelity”

First of all, let me tell you about my new reference loudspeakers. I have searched for new loudspeakers for almost two years. For a long time I used the Harpia Acoustics Dobermann (New), but I was always bothered by a slight saturation of their midrange. They were very successful loudspeakers, incredibly precise and resolving, with better bass that most loudspeakers in the world (in terms of precision and depth), but their midrange was not as good as the sound spectrum extremes. The longer I had them, the more it bothered me. But my new loudspeakers are not Harpia. Knowing my objections, the Krakow company aimed to improve the midrange while keeping all the other assets of the Dobermann. They designed a new loudspeaker, which I should have received for review last year in August. It did not happen for objective issues. I contacted them again a few months ago and once again I could not receive the speakers. And I could not wait any longer. Fortunately, I did parallel searches for the whole last year. I reviewed so many speakers that I started to confuse them.
Choosing the right speakers posed a real problem for me. They needed to satisfy so many, often contradicting, demands that I thought, they could never be satisfied. And that was true – I had to choose, to decide which aspects are most important to me. In my head I had the sound of speakers like Hansen Audio Prince v2, Magnepan MG20.1, Dynaudio Evidence Master, Sonus faber Stradivari and Avantgarde Acoustic Duo Omega and a few more, less expensive ones. Each one of them equally brilliant, but either too big for my room, or too small, or not universal enough to be a “tool” or something else. There was always something wrong. Eventually, I found what I had been looking for. The loudspeakers that I bought seem to be a contradiction of everything that is important in the loudspeakers construction. They laugh in my face with their solutions. And yet they are so brilliant that I could not resist them. And they are by far the cheapest from all I took into account, which does not bother me at all…
My choice are Harbeth M40.1 Domestic. Maybe a surprising choice, but only until I listened to them. They meet all my requirements and assumptions. They are not the best loudspeakers in the world, let’s make that clear. But they have that “something” that compensates easily for things other top constructions do better. I will probably buy something else later, but not now. And not tomorrow. This experience teaches humbleness.



Plans for October

The October issue is almost closed. We are waiting for a few last minute items and hoping they will arrive. If not, we have some backup tests. The plans are as follows:

  • The Pro-Ject Special Limited Edition 1-Anniversary turntable, a model prepared for the 20th anniversary of the company. Only 2000 pieces will be manufactured. I would like to test it together with another limited product of the company, the Phono Box Limited Edition from the limited series in gold, which I have owned for a few years now.
  • Spendor A3 loudspeakers, the newest addition to the A series from that British company.
  • Something from Abbingdon Music Research (AMR).
  • Monitor Audio Gold GX50 stand mount speakers – surprising bookshelves with a ribbon tweeter.
  • Perraux Audiant 80i integrated amplifier – a novelty from the New Zealand manufacturer.
  • Harbeth M40.1 Domestic – you already know what it is all about …
  • ART Loudspeakers speakers.
  • Audiopax Model 88 A3 amplifier, a unique tube amplifier from Brazil in its newest version. It has no distributor in Poland, but Srajan Ebaen warmly recommends it. We’ll see.

    For November we plan a special issue dedicated to sound sources – SACD, CD players, DACs and turntables. We’ll see what can be tested, but we already know that the cover will feature the Soulution 745 SACD player costing 190000zl. The review will probably be published in the special printed edition we prepare every year for the Audio Show. BTW, this year seminars will be led by Michael Fremer, the editor of “Stereophile” and an analog guru (his private web page “MusicAngle” HERE). Concerts will be made by Antonio Forcione from the Naim Label. This year the Audio Show will take place between 12-13 November 2011 in Warsaw.

    In mid September we will have a visit in Krakow (directly from Srajan – “6moons.com” – from Switzerland) by Mr. Ningsheng Liu, the representative of the Synergy Hi-Fi/Create Audio company. We wrote about their 300B tubes HERE, and about the 6F3 amplifier HERE. We prepare a meeting of the Krakow Sonic Society, for which we want to invite Mr. Liu. Srajan is also coming with a visit, but probably another time. We’ll see.

    We also received lots of new stuff for testing, among other things a new RHB-20 Hickory Board Acoustic Revive anti-vibration platform. An intriguing thing. It is not yet mentioned on the company web page, so all I know is that it is made from Hickory wood. We also have a new USB DAC (384/32) Young from M2Tech, about which I wrote during the reportage from the High End 2011 in Munich (HERE) and the HiFace EVO (192/24) USB-SPDIF converter with a battery power supply EVO Supply from the same company. And a few more products to which we will return on ongoing basis.

    DSD Files

    In the last month editorial I wrote that the only salvation for the DSD format may be “freeing” it in the form of files. And although Sony does not talk about that officially, there are some signs of a breakthrough in Japanese literature, which is usually very reliable when it comes to the news. In the latest issue of the “NetAudio” (2011 Summer, vol. 02) magazine they showed many devices that can work with such files. It turns out that DSD discs (not SACD) can be played by the PlayStation 3 console, the SCD-XE800 Sony SACD player and Korg MR-2000S and MR-2 professional HDD recorders. Attached to the magazine is a disc with audio files, and among them the DSD files are most important – with 2.8MHz and 5.6MHz sampling frequencies. We have to look at this very carefully, because who knows, maybe this will end up with a renaissance of the format.

    Editor in chief
    Wojciech Pacuła



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    Our reviewers regularly contribute to  “Enjoy the Music.com”, “Positive-Feedback.com”“HiFiStatement.net”  and “Hi-Fi Choice & Home Cinema. Edycja Polska” .

    "High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

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