I will not start reminding that we live in a digital world and the digitalization of all kinds of signals will only progress. This is a truism. I will start with saying that although the digital revolution lasts for over 30 years, and those should be counted “dog wise”, I mean that each year is worth a few in different areas, the brotherhood of high fidelity sound, known as audiophiles or (less common, unfortunately) music lovers, seems not to notice that. Yes, the Compact Disc, and later SACD and DVD-Audio, found their way to our homes, found their place (or a small niche) and that was it. Digital amplifiers, loudspeakers with digital cross-over, etc, are treated like Satan in the church. On one hand the case is clear – vinyl is still providing best possible sound. But on the other hand, when we use digital sources (like me), for example the CD, then in that aspect the conservatism of this society, including me, is incredible. A format with limitations of bit depth and sampling frequency, which today are at least laughable, needing a physical carrier, where the signal is written in a different format than used later, seems to be a curiosity. But still… (I will repeat this, because this is no hard science, but only observation and organoleptic assessment.) Well designed CD players can do phenomenal things. Like I wrote many times, describing sources from companies like: Jadis (HERE) Ancient Audio (HERE, HERE and HERE) the small silver disc carries information I had no idea about. And refined devices can retrieve that information. But next to them a power grew that all branches of electronics slowly subside to – computers.
PC or MAC in the role of an entertainment center is nothing new, and AV servers are known from some time. But this is still a taboo topic for the audio branch, albeit slightly tackled in western audio magazines. And you have to consider, that those are the future of digital audio. Vinyl, CD and SACD will stay with us for a long time probably (especially the analog), but they seem to slowly disappear from the market, giving way to a new “format”, the Internet and HDD or flash players. No, I did not mess things up – a computer and such players are going in the same direction, it is the same path. There is one difference, but a basic one: a computer is not only a player, not only an interface between memory and converter, but a device with a broader spectrum of capabilities. Because we can assume that “network” players (there is still no fixed terminology for such products) are just specialized computers, with limited functionality. We can play music from a CD/DVD drive (Blu-ray), or from a USB key, or from the network. The files can be sorted in many ways, assign titles and covers to them (many times this happens automatically) and a file can be chosen for playback. Many players also allow listening to Internet radio. A PC computer, I am talking about a laptop, can do the same. But it can also be used for many other things. And this is the difference I was talking about. Simple, isn’t it? But when we consider, that in a CD player it took only to load the disc and press “Play”, then it becomes much more complicated. And this is probably the main cause of audiophiles being afraid of such sound sources. But not the only one. Because it must be said, that the sound of the PCs and most of the network players was at most acceptable. The complication of those devices, faulty – from the sound quality point of view – software, etc, caused the need of serious knowledge, before a computer could be setup to produce something more than noise.
And I do not have that knowledge. I mean, I use a computer while writing and editing text and photos, but I never regarded it as a sound source. I never downloaded anything from the net, because the quality of MP3 files is downright embarrassing. Interestingly, I never ripped a disc, although it can be saved in WAV or FLAC files. I was terrified by the complicated (from my experience) procedure, and the meager quality of that, what I could hear with the headphones or speakers. But from some time, I think from the moment network players/DACs from Linn were introduced (like the Klimax DS – described as Digital Stream Players), something changed. Many companies, like Naim, followed and the situation began to change. In the Internet many, many discs are available in high resolution (mostly 24/96), being sometimes bit-to-bit copies of master tapes, and this is a complete new quality. This has not yet reached critical mass, but it goes that way. And it is contagious. After a month with the Wavelength DAC, which is the topic of this test, I noticed new habits and directions of searching for music. Because the music is most important. And the leader of introducing hi-res files with true music, is the Scottish company LINN Records, a daughter company from Linn.
Some of the discs offer a 5.1 version in addition. To make it short – the hi-res files are phenomenal. Those are used for testing by John Atkinson, the Editor in Chief of the American “Stereophile” and now I know why. Downloading the files, with a reasonably quick link, is fast. I have one remark though: the discs are split in parts, so we can download them in separate batches. But when in a downloaded album JS Bach Matthew Passion (Final performing version, c. 1742) (Dunedin Consort) we have more than one hundred (100!) separate fragments, then the process of downloading is quite painful. Because each has to be saved separately. I think, that there should be a way to get the whole album in one click, even when still fragmented, but in a way, that the user should not be involved too much. But fortunately the music and the quality of sound are compensating for this inconvenience fully.
And a few words about the setup. The American converter is user friendly. It has only one input (USB) and one output (2xRCA). After plugging it to the computer the driver is downloaded automatically and its name is displayed properly. More time is needed to setup the software to be used as the player and disc ripper. But the Wavelength company is very helpful – they have created a separate page (HERE) especially for those DACs, where they have step by step instruction on how to do it. Because my laptop has Vista, for once I had less problems than with XP. The company recommends the player Media Center from the company J River. I entered its pages (HERE) and downloaded a 30 day trial version. And after a week I bought the full one – it is worth it! And that’s it.
First listening tests were made with my headphones and a headphone amplifier. I did not expect anything – I mean that not knowing how USB DACs sound, I was open for anything the test could bring. And it turned out, that this technology is at a very high level. A well configured computer, a good player software and a high class USB DAC can bring a sound, that is comparable with expensive and very expensive CD players. In the case of The Brick it is a sound equivalent to 10000-15000zl players, and in terms of resolution of midrange and treble, even in 20000zl range. This is incredible, even for me, when I write those words. The Accuphase DP-500 is still better, but the difference is not overwhelming, not big even. Because at the same time I tested five players for “Audio”, from the 9000-10000zl range, I could compare the PC with them. And not one had such definition of the brass and the midrange like the Brick. No one had such good dynamics or resolution. Even at a headphone comparison we could hear, that we deal with something extraordinary here, but only a head-to-head comparison in a 100000zl worth system showed all the assets of this DAC clean and clear.
Like I mentioned, I was impressed most by the quality of the treble. The computers make unreadable noise from it, in 100% of cases, this is why I was reluctant to use this technology in audio. From my standpoint, the Brick makes something magical with them. The device has an incredibly clean top end. Their timbre is slightly honey-flavored, it is vivid and clear, distinctive sound. There is not a trace of overdoing, sharpness or brightening. The upper treble is a little recessed compared to my Lektor Prime, but also compared to DP-700 Accuphase. This can be heard as a slight darkening of the sound. But only, when we separate this range for description. Because when we listen to the whole thing, not analyzing the components, then maybe the upper part of the sound, some aliquots, is darker and less audible, the whole sound, whole music, is open and vivid. And this will be the first characteristic we will verbalize after powering on the Brick. Partially, this is due to the fact, that the lower midrange is not as saturated or fleshy as with for example the PrimaLuna Eight or even the Luxman D-N100, but also due to shortening of the lower bass.
But in this way I outrun my own description. Because I would like to look at the midrange. The American DAC has a very refined one, regardless the price (yes, it is the level of top high-end). The accent is laid on the range around 800Hz, what makes the voices, female, like Sara K. from the disc Don’t I Know You From Somewhere?, and male, like Christian Willisohn from Hold On a bit nasal, and coming rather from the diaphragm than the throat. Another thing is, that those were strong and full, not by much lesser – if at all – to what was shown by the PrimaLuna, the master of the 10000zl price range in that aspect. At the same time the sound was incredibly intensive and had fluency. This was helped with splendid definition of virtual sources on the sides of the stage, improving the “spaciousness”. This is the reason, the disc of Oscar Peterson Trio We Get Request sounded so well, because it is mostly based on a three-way split of the instruments – left-middle-right. All the details, tasty things, etc, were shown without any blurring or “digital” veil. The middle of the stage was worse differentiated than its sides. Sara’s voice had not a complete body and was not drawn in 3D. Also Peterson’s piano was not as massive or intensive as from reference players. I think that this is an immanent characteristic related to the HDD as a sound source. I remember that during the High End show in Munich the sound was better from a flash card. But the differences are not big, and I do not think, that they would matter with amplifiers from the 10000zl range. But in more expensive environment you can hear it.
But this is all nothing, when we look at the cost of such a source. I am writing about comparisons with top CD players from the 10000 and 20000zl price range, and those aren’t comparisons of good and bad. Those comparisons show, how phenomenal is the sound definition, and how open, and well drawn, is the sound in the high registers. Changing the tube to a NOS Siemens und Halshke improved the saturation of the lower tones, but I think, it diminished the dynamics of the system. And this is simply a master, at least when we talk about digital sources up to 20000zl. We will find some aspects that are not as good, but the Brick is the cheapest DAC the company proposes! And it already guarantees a fantastic, incredibly satisfying sound. Please do also keep in mind, that this is not only a player, but also a recorder (I think about the PC), archive and an interface allowing us to listen to Internet radio and downloading music files. Thanks to the kindness of Caroline Dooley from Linn Records I transferred some recordings from her company to my laptop. Most interesting were the master tape quality files naturally, like 24/88,2 ( Dunedin Consort - Handel Acis and Galatea, WMA), but two other positions were also very interesting. One is the two recordings from Pink Floyd London 1966/1967 EP, in CD quality (16/44,1) and the disc Luna from a band completely unknown to me, The Aliens (PETROCK002, WMA 24/48). Music from Pink Floyd sounded very nice, without brightening, sharpening, and still with bite and beat. I downloaded The Aliens before the arrival of the Brick, and after listening to three tracks, with headphones plugged directly in the laptop, I forgot about it. The sound was brightened, unpleasant and we could not hear at all, that this was a high resolution file. The Wavelength converter showed, that this is really nice music, it sounds very good and interesting. The laptop changed the 24 bit word length to 16 bits, and that was audible as loss of quality (I had a CD quality version for comparison), but this was nothing to brag about. I just listened.
And just like with this text, which I wanted to end a paragraph earlier, new details surfaced related to the Brick and the laptop as the source, that amended the whole picture, but this is just listening to music from a computer. I am aware, that I just touched the surface of the problem, but I hope, that this will be the beginning of your own searches. Because even a test with exchanging the USB cable for a normal one showed, that here the possibilities are huge – the cable supplied with the Brick, made by Belkin, was much better! Those among you, who use a computer as the source should listen to this DAC, which, whilst not being very cheap, will turn your computer into a hi-end sound source. I know, I know, I enrage the hard-minded audiophiles, but this is the future of audio. I did not expect even the half of what I heard. And for such relative low amount of money. This is a bright future, with many opportunities. It will not be as easy as with CDs, but nobody promised that…
Wavelength Brick is a D/A converter with one input – USB, optimized for working with a PC as a source. The enclosure is a solid, cast piece, made from two parts – a “cup” and a cover. All sockets were placed on one wall – we have a USB input, stereo RCA output and a socket for the power supply. There is also a bright, white LED, which is turned on when a signal reaches it from the computer. The device goes into stand-by when there is no signal, or when the USB cable is unplugged. The outboard power supply is in a nice enclosure, but the cable is rather lousy. A good cable will improve the sound, as the USB cable did. Wavelength thought about the latter, and we get a Belkin cable packaged, much better than a standard USB cable. But we can search for something better.
Inside we have a small PCB and two chokes – because there is a vacuum tube used as a buffer in the output stage, a double triode 12AU7/ECC82 from JJ. It does not need to be immediately replaced, because the sound is really of high quality, but you can experiment with NOS tubes. Its power supply is provided from the low voltage supplying the rest of the unit by a voltage multiplier. This is not the best possible way, because the impedance of the power supply rises, but we’ll rest with that. The signal reaches it directly from a passive I/V conversion, and earlier, from a not manufactured any longer, multibit TDA1543N2, 16/44.1 converter from Philips (Wavelength writes, that they select only the best 5% of the tested chips). But the heart of the unit is a small DSP chip, being also a USB receiver and decoder. This is the main thing. It turns out, that most receivers in DACs work in a synchronous mode, “Adaptive Mode USB Audio”. This means, that the computer controls the signal transfer, and the receiver must follow, optimizing the clock every millisecond. The USB works with a 12MHz clock, which is not related to audio in any way (with the CD at 44.1kHz we have a MCLK value of 11.2896MHz). This is the reason, that the receiver must create the appropriate value of the clock in a complex process called Frequency Synthesizer. This is added to computer multitasking. In effect we get a clock with a very high jitter. Wavelength created their own way of transmission. Using the same chip 1020B they programmed it to work in asynchronous mode, where the transfer is controlled by the receiver clock. This allowed for a hundredfold reduction of jitter! And this while keeping compatibility with Windows and Mac. One thing that needs attention, is that the DAC output is much lower than the standard 2V. But in most cases this will allow the amplifier potentiometer to be set at the “12 hour”, so in a place where the noise is lowest and linearity best.
CDs FROM JAPAN
|© Copyright HIGH Fidelity 2009, Created by B|