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DAP-777 DAC and CDT-777 transport
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
Some days I find myself perched in the sweet spot actively engaged in yawns. You too? Do you find yourself sitting before the altar, thinking "Okay, what next? Isn't there something more involving, something more meaningful to this hobby?"
Perhaps we both need to open the windows and wash away the stale truisms, to gain a fresh perspective on the direction our hobby has taken. Pose the basic question "What do you look for when listening to music?" to "normal" folk and I imagine they'd respond with two requirements. First, it has to sound like instruments playing. More than anything, this is a function of recognition of tone and timbre. Second, there must be communication. This one is more difficult to pin down as it has to do with subtle cues based on how the notes are articulated and strung together over time to create the melody.
Now inquire the same from a mainstream audiophile and chances are you'd get back an entirely different set of requirements along the lines of it has to have blinding Speed! extreme Resolution! earth-shaking Dynamics! (the Three Tenets of Audiophilia). Now that's a rather grand canyon, eh?
Why the disjuncture? Outside of mainstream 'phile circles, do you think anyone cares about the Three Tenets? Aren't they kind of secondary? If that's primarily what you're focusing on, sooner or later you will grow weary. That's when you find yourself staring from the sweet spot, yawning.
Maybe it's time for an excursion to the far side, where you'll find a fringe group of audiophiles who embrace the more pedestrian requirements of musical reproduction. These guys seek tonal color and musical communication above all for those hours spent sitting before the altar.
Who are these outlaws, where do they hang out, and what gear are they buying?
That's easy. They generally do their listening in the proximity of tubes—glowing filaments are common to most. Their gear ranges from the extreme of low-wattage SET amps paired with high-efficiency, single-driver speakers, to push-pull amps with more powerful tubes like the 811 and 845, to some of the new Class D solid-state gear. (A lot of Class D is voiced to emulate the hallmarks of SET devices, but success here is variable and mostly superficial.)
If you're still with me at this point, you're either a member of the fringe or still yawning. In either case, read on, 'cause I've got a front-end you should know about. But first, let me tell you how I spent my summer vacation.
How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Lynn and I were looking for a new destination, someplace easily accessible, but foreign enough to be interesting. An ad for Ottawa, Canada promoted those criteria—a Western European culture on a sweet package deal. However, it also seemed a bit risky from the point of view of what's a tourist to do there. Only one person in my acquaintance had spent time in Ottawa for other than business reasons, and he was kind of cool on it and wouldn't give it a recommendation. Then we discovered that the city hosts a summer chamber music festival. In fact, the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival bills itself as the largest of its kind in the world. Now my curiosity was really piqued. Still… most of the listed performers were unknown quantities. We went ahead and booked, even with our mixed expectations.
After a short flight, we dropped our bags at our business-class hotel, freshened up and were able to make the second half of a 2 o'clock performance at a nearby church. At once my reservations were dashed, for two reasons: the level of performance was seriously good, at least as good as what I hear in the second-tier venues around Manhattan, and the sound. The sound would prove exceptional in every venue we visited during the course of the week. Because Ottawa doesn't have a suitable hall for chamber music and there were often multiple events booked for the same timeframe, churches and college lecture halls were lined up. The great thing was the majority of them were within walking distance and admission to nearly all was included in the general ticket price.
We sat in four historic churches and one college lecture hall. Three had plaster interiors; one was stone; and one which we attended at 11 PM on a stormy night to hear Olivier Messian's Quartet for the End of Time was dark wood, dimly lit, and sweltering, with at least a 105% humidity level (sic). But the sense of community present at that late-night, over-subscribed event was spooky. The close physical conditions, the religious iconography, the transcendent music—all melded into a mystical conveyance of just the sort I imagine Messian would have wished for. I've never experienced this degree of sublime, ecstatic transport before or since.
We spent an idyllic week shuttling between successions of acoustic concerts in the various venues. All offered glorious, unamplified sound that was more beautiful and warmer than I'm used to.
So I came home and reevaluated my own sound. The biggest areas of slippage were in beauty of tone, timbre and something I call musical flow (a phrase I use to describe the succession of notes and how they are joined). Not resolution or detail, or soundstaging, or even speed and dynamics, but in the principle things that truly define music. (This report card was a lot better than I had anticipated.)
A little tweaking was in order to bring things in line. The next day, when my first audiophile visitor came by, what's the very first thing he said? "Hey, it sounds lovely. Kind of warm, though, isn't it?" Yes…
The DAP-777 and the CDT-777
The Reimyo DAP-777 DAC arrived a few weeks later. The DAP-777 has been around for a while and is in its Mk II version. The one I was sent had seen service at the HE 2007 show last spring.
It was there that I saw the CDT-777 transport at its world premier. It looked intriguing and I made inquiries. I was sent a factory fresh unit, one of the first to reach our shores.
In a Mellow Tone
There ensued typical late summer evenings at Nack Labs. I'd come home from work, make myself comfortable on the couch with that weeks' New Yorker magazine, and let the Reimyo front-end play in the background, burning-in. (The CDT-777 needs at least a week of 24/7 play to give an inkling of its potential, and eleven days to fully mature.) But keeping it in the background proved harder than you might think: whatever I was engaged in became difficult to concentrate on. The Reimyo kept intruding, extending its invitation and soliciting my acknowledgement of its music-making.
The Reimyo spell was intact. Good tone is a given with the brand. You can depend on it for a warm and inviting tone that won't be remotely associated with transistors, even though both the DAP-777 DAC and CDT-777 transport are solid-state.
The frequency blend has a nearly ideal allotment of bass, mid and treble, to my ear at any rate. Instruments have gorgeous tone: warm, dark, luxuriously rich and full-bodied, with a definite acoustic patina. What this does to classical strings is just this side of beautiful, quite unlike the majority of quality front-ends, which tend to locate their voice closer to the accurate—often analytical or mechanical—side of things.
The top-end is sweet and liberally limber, not thin and not brittle, and always manages to hold together without glare or breakup, even at top volumes. The mid to high treble is a little under-represented.
I can tell you the midrange is warm, fleshy, and very satisfying, and that's about it: there's not much else to comment upon here.
As mentioned above, the bottom end is over-represented, especially the upper bass. It's part of the Reimyo voicing and serves to heighten dynamic impact.
The whole is impeccably integrated and arrives coherently on a stage with a grainless and smooth surface. Dimensionality is excellent in the width and good front to back. Images have proper shape and size and are round and massive. The Reimyo front-end always stays composed and collected across the range of dynamics, never altering its character, displaying the same tonal qualities from top to bottom. But, and this is key, there's not an aggressive bone—or for that matter, even an unpleasant one—in its body. This extends to the transients, which are soft.
The tone is so good—approximating an idealized version of an instrument, like what you might hear given the best instrument played in the best sounding hall—that, it must be said, it's even better than what you're likely to encounter in everyday experience. Let's make that clear: The Reimyo front-end is voiced to realize the designer's vision. Its goal is an idealized aesthetic take on reality, not to replicate daily experience.
What comes in is one thing. What comes out is adjusted to correct perceived flaws in the source to make it conform to that vision. This is achieved through application of the renowned Harmonix tuning (another trademark from the same parent company).
Harmonix tuning is powerful medicine. I remember my first encounter with their extensive line of footers and tweaks. It "repaired" problems nothing else seemed able to address. It was a revelation, resulting in a system that became truly enjoyable for the first time, even if it wasn't neutral.
Most of us are grappling with the BIG issues on the level of "Is the thing even listenable given the sizzling top end, the lack of bass… (fill in your specific dragons)?" The Reimyo gear will win you this battle, with its ability to "correct" and enhance.
In addition to the tone, you get stellar macro-dynamics. They are delivered in spades, bigger than any digital front-end I've come across. The Reimyo duo brings to bear fearsome tidal wave crescendos that may even shock you when it roars. The sense of power is always there, lurking even in soft passages or those with only treble material. Perhaps there is more energy allocated to the bottom-end than there should be, strictly speaking, but then I've yet to encounter an audio geek who's gonna complain about that—as long as the bottom is tight. This aspect reminds me of the overachieving Reimyo PAT-777, an 8-watt 300B SET amp that was able to generate convincing dynamics with the 89dB efficient Kharma CRM 3.2s I had at the time. That combos' low-end force shouldn't have been: it left visitors wide-eyed witness to the miracle of Reimyo's 8-watts.
You also expect the Reimyo front-end to image well and segregate instrumental lines. The highly isolated images keep confusion to a minimum; you very clearly hear who's playing what. Now, this is something I don't really find in the concert-going experience, but I know most audiophiles are gonna spill saliva over. At a live event, I localize instruments by their tone and especially their timbre; I've yet to hear imaging of the sort audiophiles talk about.
In Terms of PRAT
The Reimyo was at its best with small to medium sized jazz combos, source material that requires good, weighty dynamics with few instrumental lines. Resolution is high up there (if not supplanting the gold medal holder, the mbl Noble Line of digital separates).
You know how some components are able to push the beat to get your toe-a-taping? Well, here the Reimyo was a bit languid. This may be due to the ever-present burden of lugging that low-end weight around, which for all its abundance was pretty tight—actually, it's pretty tight across the frequency spectrum and doesn't evidence a lack of control anywhere—but still, it's a load to carry around. Now that I think of it, more likely it is due to the pervasive smoothness and soft, non-aggressive transients. The Reimyo front-end definitely generates excitement, but it is due to things other than pacing.
This observation came to light while listening to Bill Charlap Plays George Gershwin (Blue Note 860669). Some consider Mr. Charlap and his long-standing rhythm section, the brothers Peter and Kenny Washington, among the foremost, most engaging jazz trios on the scene. (I'm in that camp.) These guys are always in a lock-step groove. I was enjoying the piano trio so much I put it on for demonstration purposes, but a visiting drummer filed a complaint. Through the Reimyo, he said, the attacks are soft and there's not enough SNAP.
If you're into warm, acoustical sound—say you like classical winds and strings, like me—you're gonna love the Reimyo's rendering of these instruments. If PRAT is foremost on your list, you may take issue with the transients.
Degrees of Digititus
The doctor says the symptoms are completely eradicated. And so they are. The Reimyo front-end completely abolishes the ailments we commonly refer to as digititus, i.e. the sizzling treble transients that nearly take your ears off; the thin tone; the grainy texture; the hyped soundstage. All of these symptoms are vanquished—no digititus, lads.
Yet, for all the big, marvelous tone and image separation, sometimes I would have to ask, was that an organ's pedal note or a roll on the kettledrum? Was that a trumpet or a soprano sax? Is that an upright or an electric bass? Occasionally, I was left guessing about the ID of instruments. How can that be? While the Reimyo duo doesn't sound at all digital, something else is afoot. A conundrum.
I've taken to calling this puzzle the second-degree burn of digititus. It is present to some degree in all digital front-ends. In fact, this is one of the major differences between digital and analog: compared to analog, timbral portrayal is not as complete. The Reimyo is actually pretty good in this respect, a lot better than most digital front-ends.
Wires and such
Inside the CDT-777 shipping box is another cardboard box with the included 1.5 m X-DC2 power cord and this assortment of goodies: the Disc Stabilizer, the remote and the tuning feet. The latter requires assembly. You screw the rigid aluminum arms in to the bottom four corners. Next, attach what look like gunmetal aluminum spikes. (A set of washers can be used between the aluminum arms and the spikes for leveling purposes.) You can purchase the CDT-777 without the X-DC2 power cord for a commensurate reduction in price; or you can move up to the X-DC Studio Master for a premium. (Likewise for the 1.5 m X-DC2 power cord that comes with the DAP-777.)
I used Studio Master PCs straight into the wall to get the classic Harmonix sound. As the CDT only provides single-ended outputs, I used the new, and wonderful, TARA Labs CCI digital cable with RCA connectors. The DAP-777 has a full complement of Coaxial, Optical, BNC and XLR inputs, and both RCA and XLR outputs. For the DAP-777 outputs to the preamp, I used TARA The 0.8 balanced ICs.
The DAP-777 is a slim-line design. It doesn't weigh much (5.3kg), or have a large footprint (430W x 65.2H x 363D mm). Build quality is high for a $5K component. The brushed aluminum face and end plate are finished with curved corners. Black aluminum covers the chassis.
The top loading CDT-777 is also on the small side. Overall size including the footers is 466W x 361D x 131H. Weight is 14.0kg. Like the DAP-777, build quality is high for its $8.5K price.
The Disc Stabilizer, spikes and the tuning spike bases are the usual Harmonix object d'art, black and beautifully finished. The Disc Stabilizer is magnetized and attracted to the CD spindle, thus furnishing a relatively firm grip on the silver disc—even though it uses a Philips CD Pro drive mechanism it could be firmer. The access drawer cover over the CD drive mechanism could have silkier action. It feels like an old FM tuning dial without fly-wheel assist. CDs load and stop spinning in an average amount of time. The plastic remote works fine.
One thing to note: be sure to turn off both Reimyo components when listening to other sources. These are the first products of my acquaintance that negatively impacted other sources if left on. When I listened to my mbl digital, both Reimyo pieces had to be turned off.
It was shortly after my summer vacation that I auditioned the Reimyo DAP-777 and CDT-777 front-end. What I heard that week away at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival was deliciously warm and inviting, more so than I'm used to. This proved propitious: it prepared me well to receive the Reimyo's dialect.
You might find, as I did, the Reimyo spell fairly irresistible. It's easy to succumb and can suck you in against your will. Even during burn-in, it was difficult to keep its music-making in the background.
There's the major-league macro dynamics. Take note: the Reimyo's low-end has more wallop and thrust than any digital rig I've met to date. This alone is going to make a lot of audiophiles take notice. It might be a bit oversize, lending it a slightly dark tonal balance, but then, who's complaining, as long as it's tight. Music escalates smoothly and crescendos in a natural, very weighty, swell. Those crescendos are mighty satisfying. You will like how the taut and fleshy images are well segregated and stable in their locations, lending the soundstage an admirable solidity and keeping confusion to a minimum.
Likewise, the symptoms we collectively label digititus are completely dismissed. In this regard, the Reimyo is head and shoulders above the competition. You will not hear anything aggressive or grating out of this front-end.
But mostly, the Reimyo is about tone. Tone is so good, it approaches an abstract ideal.
The Reimyo front-end will make everything you play a bit more full-bodied, rich and warm—and beautiful. Its voice goes beyond what you commonly hear live; it is more like what you would hear under ideal conditions.
The beautiful tone and the vanquishing of digititus are accompanied by an overall smoothness and softness, which unfortunately impacts the transients. The fallout here is PRAT. The Reimyo DAP-777 & CDT-777 score seriously good grades excepting PRAT, which is about average.
The Reimyo will find its most satisfied customers among the subset of 'philes seeking beauty above all. If you dream of coming home from work, unwinding and moseying over to the sweet spot and pressing PLAY with the hope of luxuriating in warm, caressing sound, this front-end is right up your alley. Marshall Nack
Both come with a 1.5 m Harmonix XDC-2 power cord. (Also available without the PC.)