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Burwen Bobcat Software Suite/Daniel Hertz Model 1 USB DAC
as reviewed by John Mazur
Setting Sail on a Whole New Ship
A fantastic cup of coffee is a rarity in my life. That joy has happened only once and when it did, I was making the coffee even after I came home from work. It was that enjoyable. When the coffee maker broke and needed to be replaced, I found the original was no longer available. I kept searching but had to settle on a different maker. Coffee just wasn't the same with it. Later, the brand of coffee I loved was discontinued so it just didn't matter anymore.
Every so often a similar experience occurs in audio; an experience that raises the bar of what can be achieved with new expectations established. In my audio odyssey I have recently undergone a sensation similar to that exceptional cup of coffee. At one time it was unthinkable that I would be using the equipment combination I describe below. But something happened to shake up my experience in digital sound reproduction.
When I first heard digital in the late 1970s, it was in the form of a direct-to-digital disc called "California Smoker". That record was a collection of instrumental versions of hit songs on white virgin vinyl that was as thick as nickels. I remember the excellent clarity and the dynamic range but there was also something different about it. I just couldn't quite put my finger on. This was the same experience listening to CD's over the years. Some CD players even made it feel like hot needles in my eardrums. At every new advance in the digital medium I was there investigating the possibility of adopting it. It was when California Audio Labs came on the scene with their CD players in the late 1980s that I was finally able to embrace the format. From there, I created a monster that needed to be fed. I was getting new gear every time there was an advance in technology. Equipment from Theta Digital, Esoteric, Cal Audio, Wadia, Meridian, etc., were flying in and out of my system like cards being dealt. I was also foolish enough to be satisfied with the sound, and confident that technology would keep advancing, that I sold my turntable and my primo record collection. After all, I now had kids and did not have time for fussing with a turntable. Years later when SACD was introduced, I was first in line. It has been the format I have used for the past five years and I had been satisfied with it. But still, for some reason the beast needed to be fed. I was still looking.
Most every equipment maker seems to claim their equipment is "World Class", "Reference", and "Sounds Like Analog". When Mark Levinson, The Man, made a similar claim about the Burwen Bobcat/Daniel Hertz Model 1 USB DAC/software combination, it sure got my attention. Mark Levinson embraces analog and SACD playback and there he was sticking his neck out. Even more bizarre was his claim that MP3s sounded like analog through the Burwen Bobcat/Daniel Hertz gear. Just how crazy was this? His partner in this, Dick Burwen, is an engineer and has numerous inventions in widely varying fields of electronics to his claim. (Check it out: http://www.burwenaudio.com/Biography.html) When Mark Levinson heard an MP3 played through a computer-based mastering system that Burwen was working on, he was amazed that it sounded so much like analog or pure DSD. From there the concept was born.
After I exchanged a few e-mails with Mark Levinson, I had less skepticism and my purchase of a Burwen Bobcat was made. When I received the Burwen Bobcat, I was using a Marantz SA11 SACD player as my source and was pretty happy with both CD and SACD playback. To run the Burwen Bobcat software, I used a Dell laptop running Windows Media Player 10. From the laptop I used a Monster Cable 12 foot USB cable to the Bobcat DAC. The laptop was located next to my listening chair. The Bobcat software is a plug-in for Windows Media players and was a cinch to install. System requirements for running the Burwen Bobcat means having a PC with at least a Pentium 3 or 4 with Windows XP or 2000 as the operating system. It also requires having 2MB of disc space and 128MB of RAM. (At this time the Burwen Bobcat will not run on Apple computers. I might venture a guess however, that the Apple Mac Mini running the Intel Dual Core processor and Windows operating system could run the Burwen Bobcat.)
To make comparisons, I chose SACDs that also included a CD layer. I then ripped the CD layers to the hard drive on the laptop. In that way I could synchronize the laptop as the Marantz played the SACD layer of the same song selected. The SACD of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was the first disc to be scrutinized. Using the remote control on the Eastern Electric M520 integrated amp, I was able to switch between the two sources seamlessly. Volume levels were matched and marked on the preamp but the levels weren't that far off to begin with. At first, I was not able to hear much difference in detail retrieval between the two, which was a good thing. However, it seemed a tad easier to relax and listen to the signal processed through the Burwen Bobcat. Things started getting interesting not long after first listen. Comparing other discs I was able to hear obvious differences between the Burwen Bobcat and Marantz.
Bass through the Bobcat was the best I have heard from any digital source in my system and made the Decware RL3 speakers become more alive with tight, articulate bass. Previously, CD players with the RL3s resulted in bass that was loose with some boom and overhang. After listening to the Burwen Bobcat I realized that I had wrongly laid the blame for that loose bass performance on the speakers. The Burwen Bobcat virtually made the Decware RL3s new speakers. Midrange was also a good thing although not as surprising as the bass. Female vocals had the right amount of sex appeal and wasn't too breathy or shrill. The top end had plenty of shimmer and extension while sounding natural. The Bobcat also possessed good speed and timing. Drum whacks and string plucks had good transient speed and dynamics. Ambience retrieval was first rate also. Imaging is a quality at the top of my sonic checklist and it was all there as I expect it. There was good image density and color with the Bobcat while it provided a wide, deep soundstage. Best of all, it pulls all of these aspects together in a grand way where the artists are all jamming in unison. I was able to feed off the energy and connection between the performers in front of me. I had no objections whatsoever to the sound that the Burwen Bobcat was providing. In fact, it was the best I have experienced in my rig. I listened and compared many discs and consistently arrived at the same conclusions. Evaluating CDs was even more revealing. I could feel the tension and edginess while listening to CDs. Switching on the Bobcat removed all of that tension and edginess while providing a little more image dimension for good measure. Even though the Marantz is a gorgeous looking player and did a good job, there was something inescapable about the quality of sound from the Burwen Bobcat system. It made selling the Marantz an easy thing to do.
With the money from the Marantz, I bought a Sony VAIO laptop to use with the Burwen Bobcat system and had cash left over to stuff back into my pocket. I downloaded a version of Exact Audio Copy to ensure that what I was putting on the hard drive was as error free as possible. As I settled in with my Bobcat, I found the settings very easy to hear. I thought having that many choices would drive me nuts. It wasn't the case at all. (Check out the settings here: www.burwenaudio.com/BURWEN_BOBCAT.html.) For the most part, I used the Basic Bobcat Settings of 1 and 3. Basic Setting 2 tames harsh recordings but adds sibilance and an unnatural decay on cymbals. However, having that many choices made listening to all types of recordings more enjoyable because they could be tailored to my taste. Older recordings benefited greatly from the Bobcat. It won't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but those oldies were certainly more enjoyable with it. Additionally, the system was now based on a laptop PC and it provided me with a flexibility I hadn't expected and have come to enjoy. This has led me into using other applications like adapting a software program for doing real-time room analysis with room correction via the laptop. In the meantime, I am using the equalization settings in the Windows Media Player for the different music genres and it added much more enjoyment. In using the Bobcat software I did not encounter any problems or glitches, with the exception of a few instances of operator error. Just be sure that you don't use enhancements other than EQ in Windows Media Player or you might end up with signal distortion.
I am not going to describe the differences between each disc that I compared between the Marantz SA11 and the Burwen Bobcat system. I will however, explain psychological differences, changes in my listening habits, and my overall approach to high-end audio. Three years ago when I bought my Magnum Dynalabs MD90T FM tuner, it was like having an oasis to retreat to. After I was done listening to CDs and SACDs, I would turn the tuner on and a wave of relaxation would wash over me. I found myself listening to the SACD player less and less. I would go for weeks at a time without powering up any digital. After first using the Burwen Bobcat gear, it sure didn't take long for me to realize that I didn't need to keep the SACD flame going. Besides, with the scarcity of titles in this format, SACD could be called a farce. In the eight months that I have been experiencing the Burwen Bobcat, I found myself not listening to the tuner much anymore. I was so much more relaxed that I could listen to digital purely for the enjoyment of music. It became so much more of an emotional experience. In my previous experience with digital, I would force myself to listen trying to find something that proved so elusive. I would listen to my system night after night turning the volume up trying to find whatever it was. I would also try different digital tweaks in hopes of obtaining what I was missing. Afterward, I would just listen to the tuner, relax, and get that elixir I was craving. It was also after I first used the Burwen Bobcat that I ordered in a highly regarded tube-output CD player. I prized that player for the sound quality of the headphone section in it. When I listened to the player using my favorite headphones, I could not remove them fast enough. The sound was now painful. Not believing the result, I tried it again. It was obvious to me that the Burwen Bobcat was showing how artificial the sound of digital was. The headphone section of the Bobcat DAC was quite enjoyable and I found myself listening for extended sessions. On occasion my 16-year old son uses my system when I am not home. He doesn't use the Bobcat software during his sessions. When I come home and listen, it doesn't take long for me to realize something isn't right. As an example, I prize Mapleshade CDs for the great sound and music they provide. When I played a Mapleshade CD of New York Classics Big Band, New York Dances, I didn't realize the Bobcat was turned off at first. The sound was so unfamiliar and twisted I stopped playback and said out loud, "What the hell was that?" It doesn't take a lot of experience to realize when the Bobcat software is not running. To hear that difference there is a bypass setting in the software that allows A/B comparisons to be made on the fly.
Anyone who is on the endless treadmill of digital upgrades needs to listen to the Burwen Bobcat. Even if you are presently satisfied with your current CD player take a listen. It will change how you think of digital. Before I bought my Burwen Bobcat I was looking at buying a gorgeous $6000 universal player. Now with the Burwen Bobcat, I have been able to change my listening habits from an endless obsession to something completely enjoyable-like sipping fine bourbon, or throwing my leg over the Harley for an afternoon ride. This is now about feel and feeling, passion and soul. The stereo is now there for my pleasure. Before it was there for my "hobby". I also have let my subscriptions to the print magazines lapse. I don't feel badly about it. And I don't pine at the thought of not having the newest digital "thing" or format they might feature. I also don't look for digital tweaks to make the sound better or trick me into thinking it sounds better.
Living with the Burwen Bobcat Suite/Daniel Hertz Model 1 USB DAC has been beyond enjoyable. It has been a transformation. Dick Burwen and Mark Levinson have brought such a tremendous change in my life that the Burwen Bobcat Suite/Daniel Hertz system gets my vote for Product of the Year. John Mazur
Bobcat DAC serial # 0206-110
Daniel Hertz Inc
Exact Audio Copy
Burwen Bobcat is owned by Burwen Technology, founded by Dick Burwen. Dick was my original electronics mentor. Dick created a new computer-based mastering system called Audio Splendor, to give top mastering engineers new tools to make better sounding recordings. Burwen Bobcat consists of presets made by Dick with Audio Splendor, the "daddy" of Burwen Bobcat.
Dick says that Burwen Bobcat is half art and half science. One thing is for sure: Dick has used his ears, and drawn on 60+ years of recording and reproducing live music.
Without Burwen Bobcat, I think I would have gotten out of audio. I just couldnít be truthful and tell someone that theyíll enjoy music with CDs. There really arenít any other options. The selection on LP is very limited, not compatible with the way the world is going (MP3 portables, etc.) and is not a viable option for most people. Sony has essentially abandoned SACD. Some SACD disks are manufactured by other companies. Furthermore, many SACDs are made with PCM processing, so they are in effect just a CD in a different box. Listening to a normal CD is, for me, torture. It is hard to believe how well Burwen Bobcat works until you have it. I now feel inspired again.
I consider it a privilege to be associated with Burwen Bobcat, and think Dick should get the Nobel Prize for creating it. Dick and I are grateful for John Mazurís words of praise.