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Positive Feedback ISSUE 51
Building a Digital Music
Server Part 3, The "Gamma" Article: My Oracle Lives
You might wonder where the strange tile, My Oracle Lives at Home, comes from. Well, it's actually a play on the title of William Orbit's album My Oracle Lives Uptown; and it's because it was that album, particularly the studio master 24/44.1 files I downloaded from Linn Records that finally gave me a point of reference to use in comparing both of the DAC's I use in the digital music server (one via the magical Sonicweld Diverter) against both my Transrotor Fat Bob Reference (with just one motor and belt) and DaVinci Grandezza Grand Reference tonearm and cartridge (the latter in the latest edition) as well as my CEC TL-0, Audio Note Pallas [digital] interconnect and heavily NOS-tubed Audio Note DAC 4.1 "CD Player" plus my Rega P3-24 with the "silver satin" TT-PSU and an Audio Note IQ3 MM cartridge and the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 that I'm testing, very happily, both of which reside in my office system.
So, apart from being available on vinyl, CD and a high-resolution "Studio Master" download, why would I particularly pick out Orbit's My Oracle Lives Uptown? It's because it's electronica that doesn't sound like electronica, it sounds like music; and the 24/44.1 files come from Linn—the original label, not a third party—is JUST the studio master, no monkeying around to make it sound, "HIGH resolution", no drums exaggerated or vocals pushed out to sound like the three front channels in a 5.1 channel home theater system.
It was through that record (although there have certainly been many others, such as the HDtracks download of Herbie Hancock's River at 24/96 and many 16/44.1 imports using Apple Lossless Compression WITH error correction such as Shady Grove by Jerry Garcia & David Grisman, Tobias Hume: Musicall Humors performed by Jordi Savall on the Alia Vox Spain, usually available as an import and "Kill to Get Crimson" by Mark Knopfler, plus the Dunedin Consort performing J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor—Breitkopf & Härtel Edition, edited by J. Rifkin (2006), another Linn download available at 24/88.2 among other formats and many, many more) that helped me to discern the difference between the direct USB input of the dCS Debussy and the Sonicweld Diverter converting the USB output of my 13" MacBook Pro into a S/PDIF signal travelling via the superlative Core S/PDIF cable to the ever lovely sounding Audio Note DAC 3.1X, unmodified and not retubed.
Often, I compared the digital sources to vinyl.
With the dCS Debussy I used the Locus Design Vision interconnects in a 6.5 foot run and with the DAC 3.1X I used the 2.0 meter Kondo Sound Labs interconnects each suited by sound and design to its DAC, and a pattern began to emerge. The dCS is crisp, clean, transparent, accurate without sounding analytical and more than capable of getting your toe tapping or your heart swelling with the chorus of Bach's Mass in B Minor; at the same time, the Sonicweld Diverter/Core/DAC 3.1X has a beautiful, SLIGHTLY euphonic sound quality that brings extraordinary presence to the opening piano notes and Norah Jones' voice in "Court and Spark", the first track from River, giving you that Margo Timmins quality you get on any good analog front end playing the original Latent pressing of The Trinity Session by Cowboy Junkies (or when you see them in person). So I can't really say one sounds better than another. It has to do with your preferences in sound and music and how much money you want to put into it; although, even at $11,000, the Debussy isn't necessarily more expensive than the DAC 3.1X by the time you add in the KSL (Kondo Sound Labs) interconnects that go with the latter. I will say—and I mentioned this in another article—that the Locus Design Keynote AC cable is a BEAUTIFUL match for the dCS , dCS clearly expecting you to get a third-party cable given the paltry stock AC cable supplied with it.
I should mention that I definitely recommend you use Amarra 2.0 with the iLok dongle with the dCS Debussy to elucidate the sound a bit as well as automatically set the file resolution in the computer, whereas I recommend against using any sound processing software with the Diverter and the DAC 3.1X combination. The DAC 3.1X is optimized to work under a "minimalist" philosophy and really supports only 16/44.1 files, meaning that you just set that manually in the Audio MIDI Setup application under the Utilities folder under Applications and don't go high resolution. Really, make sure it's set to 44.1 and "2ch-16bit" words. The sound will be more natural and open; and just don't play high-resolution files, really.
When I originally set up my digital music server, I thought that having a RAID 1 drive (from LaCie) would protect me from data loss and errors; I was wrong. All that happens in a RAID 1 drive is that you have—as an example—two 1TB drives in sliding drawers that can be "hot swapped" so that if one drive fails, the other, which has been mirroring everything on the master drive, will take over; however, if data corruption occurs (as it did to me), then that corruption gets mirrored and suddenly you have a master and a slave drive BOTH of which have corrupted data, or corrupted music.
So, thanks to Jessica Deen at ClickAway in Sunnyvale, CA, I now have an additional 2TB LaCie external drive, daisy chained via a FireWire 800 connection, to my RAID 1 drive, and every night at 3:00AM a complete copy of my RAID 1 drive is made to one of 5 directories on the ordinary LaCie 2TB drive each of which is progressively older so IF I catch the data corruption early enough—which may have nothing to do with the functionality of the drives in the RAID 1 drive—I can stop the copies and restore the data from an older backup, like #4, without having to pay Jessica to restore it for me, although it is always a pleasure to work with someone as competent and intelligent as she is. The software she chose and I use is called SilverKeeper and the instructions and download links can be found at:
To the best of my knowledge it's free. Just be sure to tell it to make multiple copies (the exact number five was a wild guess on my part about how much space I had on the 2TB backup drive compared to how much music I have stored on the 1TB RAID 1 drive) and be sure to tell it NOT to delete files, because otherwise it will delete the files you do and you wind up with more differential backup, which is essentially mirroring, as opposed to an incremental backup where you can retrieve that 24/96 copy of Kind of Blue you found and accidentally deleted.
Also, if you can afford it—or you're willing to store a much smaller amount of music—ditch the RAID 1 drive and get an external SSD (Solid State Drive). G-Technology makes a very nice 128GB one that is bus powered and daisy chained to my 2TB drive for "special" music, because the SSD sounds so much better than any magnetic drive I've tried and it's more reliable. They also make a 256GB model but it's a little pricey, around $1200 at last count. I "only" paid $500 for the 128GB model from B&H Photo; but you can get them from all over the place, including from G-Technology's own website exactly as you can get the LaCie drives from LaCie and some very cool looking ribbon cables as well, all about 1.2 meters, for every connection from FireWire 800 to eSATA to mini-B USB:
http://www.lacie.com/us/products/range.htm?id=10045 (LaCie ribbon cables)
So what is there left to say? Apart from buying a Mac Pro with a 512GB boot drive and 1-2 1-2TB drives in the first 3 bays then installing the Lynx 16 or one of the RME AES/EBU cards and running two digital cables with XLR connectors (meaning you'll need a "breakout cable" for the Lynx 16 or, apparently, a rack-mount "breakout box" for the RME) to the dual-wire AES/EBU inputs on the dCS Debussy plus governing both the soundcard and the Debussy with a dCS U-Clock so you can get 24/176.4 or 24/192 with ultra-low jitter now. dCS is working on an inexpensive upgrade to the Debussy that will allow both the S/PDIF and USB inputs to go above 24/96, to 24/176.4 or 24/192, but the ETA or "Estimated Time of Arrival" if you didn't follow the Apollo project in the 60's, has yet to be announced. The good thing is, being dCS, when they release it, it will be done correctly. And one thing I can say about the dCS—to the extent that this matters—is that it belongs on the same shelf in the Museum of Modern Art as the B&O 4002 and the original GRiD Compass 1101 laptop computer that in it's day (1982) cost $8150 (the equal today of $17,494, approximately), making it a nice aesthetic match for the 13" MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM and 128GB internal SSD as well as the silver colored JANSJÖ work lamp you can get from Ikea for $9.99 (in present day USD); but that's not a reason for buying the Debussy, is it… ? (A small grin creeps across my face.)
I will confess that I have been listening to My Oracle Lives Uptown on vinyl while I have been writing most of this, the vinyl on my Transrotor Fat Bob Reference, DaVinci Grandezza Grand Reference tonearm (the 12" one) and the brand new latest, best version of the DaVinci Grandezza Grand Reference cartridge—assuming that's even what it's called now—which retails alone for $8250; and it is so superlative, so capable of capturing every nuance in the recording and laying it out musically that it puts the Studio Master FLAC files to shame. So my final recommendation may be to set aside some money in a "download DAC" fund for the future and repurchase that turntable, tonearm and cartridge that you just sold yesterday (where yesterday is a relative term, but get today's technology even in vinyl playback, it's only gotten better); on the other hand, time marches on and I do believe that digital downloads are the future of music distribution and that vinyl will remain a niche market—hopefully a large niche market, particularly when it comes to classical recordings that really need to stop coming out on hybrid, multichannel SACD's, because nobody cares anymore—so what DAC do you get and how much do you spend?
Well, I have reviews coming out discussing less expensive methods of putting together digital download systems (digital music servers) and I use an Apogee Duet in my office with a 27" Quad Core iMac, at least for now; but between the dCS Debussy—just plugged into the USB port on a computer—or the DAC 3.1X fed via the Locus Design Core S/PDIF cable fed by the Sonicweld Diverter, I can't tell you which one to get. As I said before, the dCS is clean and crisp sounding with a real quality of acutance (a photographic term meaning, "edge contrast" or sharpness of an image) and between its size and design, it certainly meets the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor). On the other hand, the Audio Note DAC 3.1X, in conjunction with the Sonicweld Diverter, has such a sweet, such a pure midrange that it's almost channeling the Quad 57's only there is most definitely ample bass and treble in a somewhat analog-like presentation. So it's really up to you to decide. You're the jury; I can only present the evidence.
I will say that used in conjunction with the Sonicweld Diverter and the Locus Design Core S/PDIF cable, both the PS Audio PerfectWave DAC—which I owned briefly and the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 which I am reviewing—seemed to offer a great deal of music for the money; but I haven't had enough experience to "sign off" on either one of them (sorry, watching too much "Grey's Anatomy"); however, those are two examples of DAC's in the sub $3000 range that work well via the Diverter and the Core utilizing their S/PDIF or "COAX" inputs, just FYI. I'm sure there are more out there.
The last thing I can think to do is to list—in NO particular order—the people who have helped me build a digital musical server (two digital musical servers if you're being technical or pedantic <grin>) and name the role that they played so if you don't want to wing it and you don't want to write to me—which you can—you at least know whom to contact:
Lee Weiland at Locus Design, the original architect of my system and the only oracle I have that doesn't live at home. I use Lee's digital, analog and power cables (Cynosure USB, Core S/PDIF, Vision analog interconnects, Keynote power cable for the dCS) throughout the digital music server and without them it just would not sound the same. He also sold me the Sonicweld Diverter, designed and built by Josh "Veneficus" Heiner, "Veneficus" being Latin for wizard or caster of spells, among other not so complimentary things. Latin's a tough language. If someone has a "politer" term to use, please send it to me.
Toan Pham (pronounced "Twaahn Fam") at Music Lover's Audio in Berkeley, CA, the very polite young man who sold me at my dCS Debussy after some discussion of the substantially more expensive Puccini CD/SACD player with the U-Clock, allowing another method of direct USB connection to a dCS device.
"R", an extraordinarily kind and intelligent person at dCS, who helped further explain to me how to equip a Mac Pro with an RME HDSP AES-32 soundcard (although I think the Mac Pro might require the HDSPe AES-32 card which is a PCI Express card, but I will confess that even *I'm* getting lost at this point with all the options) which has a wordclock input so that you can govern the soundcard AND the Debussy with a master clock like the Puccini U-Clock. This apparently gives you a substantial leap in performance over not using the U-Clock, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the eventual 24/192 implementation of the S/PDIF and USB inputs on the Debussy will require an external clock for maximum performance. It may, I don't know; but I don't imagine that plugging your MacBook Pro into the dCS via the Cynosure USB cable will require a U-Clock underneath the Debussy, although dCS does like those "stacked boxes" (I jest).
Peter Qvortrup at Audio Note for explaining the Audio Note way to me—which I documented in my DAC 4.1X article—and Martin G. for initially helping me to find and use the Audio MIDI Setup to be sure my computer was at 16/44.1 since I wasn't using Amarra with my DAC 3.1X.
J*** at Apple, who helped me realize that I had been shipped the wrong machine—through no fault of Apple's—and that I had put 8GB of RAM into a machine that had a 250GB magnetic drive rather than a 128GB SSD. I feel rather embarrassed for not noticing that myself but (a) it gave me the opportunity to know for sure that the SSD makes a wide improvement in sound quality EVEN THOUGH YOU'RE NOT STORING ANY MUSIC ON IT AT ALL and (b) all the results you are reading were realized with a properly configured machine. Fortunately, J*** was able to arrange a complete swap at no cost to me while I had an Apple certified technician (Jessica Deen) swap the memory so my 13" MacBook Pro with the SSD had it's 8GB of RAM.
(With respect to SSD, food for thought from a prominent and in-the-know manufacturer... "my take on SSDs versus traditional electromechanical drives. I don't care for a minute whether the bits that represent my music are sourced from one or the other, provided they are identical (excluding secondary effects, such as the acoustic noise from an electromechanical drive). What I do care about is how they might modulate the power supply of the computer, which could then qualitatively or quantitatively influence the noise that winds up on my USB cable. SSDs, having much lower and more benign power requirements, would be the device of choice, but not because there's something inherent about flash memory versus other types of storage that transforms the bits into shiny, happy bits. I'd be just as happy to have my data sourced from punch cards fed into a reader by trained cephalopods, as long as the correct data is presented to the DAC at the correct time. The audiophile consensus is already in favor of SSDs, but I often get the feeling that it is for reasons other than the ones that are really responsible for good sonic performance. That is, I suspect the reasons SSDs are usually lauded (faster, more reliable, newer tech) are assumed to somehow confer a kind of general sonic blessing on the whole system. The other qualities of SSDs are all well and good, but I look at it as two things: a data storage and retrieval mechanism, and a power supply modulator / electrical noise source. I would have a big problem with an SSD, considered in isolation, with having a “sound” of its own. It certainly may influence the sound, but it can't be considered on its own; it is only part of a large, complex system. For that reason, I think it is silly and misguided to say anything like “OCZ SSDs sound better than Samsung SSDs” or the like. A statement like that may be true in a few cases, but it isn't because of the brand per se." - Dave Clark, Editor)
Jessica "il miglior fabbro" (the better craftsperson or "maker") Deen at ClickAway in Sunnyvale, CA who helped me setup and configure several hard drives, replace the 500GB magnetic drive in my 17" MacBook Pro with a 256GB SSD for performance reasons, solve the problem with my LaCie RAID 1 data corruption and restore all of my music, find SilverKeeper and setup my backup plan, Etc., Etc., Etc. Jessica is the human incarnation of a Vice Grip and Makita cordless drill all rolled into one. If it has to do with fixing or optimizing computers, she can do it.
Nick Gowan and Lee "Non-Weiland" for selling me the following five things and consulting on analog, all-tube-DAC and power-related matters:
(1) My Audio Note DAC 3.1X and the DAC 4.1X—AC cables included—that replaced it in my CEC TL-0-based "CD player".
(2) My heavy gauge black Equi=Tech balanced transformer setup with the heavy gauge JPS Labs Power AC+ power cable (that one product—the power cable—from the ever helpful Cable Company) with 20 Amp connectors on both ends and the wall socket to support it.
(3) My black, 5 shelf Quadraspire Q4 EVO component stand that performs wonderfully and disappears in so much as such a thing can at surprisingly reasonable costs, particularly for a completely modular system.
(4) My 2 meter KSL (Kondo Sound Labs) analog interconnects for the DAC 3.1X. When Superman tells you he has a really good pair of interconnects, hold up your KSL's or you Locus Design Visions and quote The Spin Doctors, "I got a pocket full of Kryptonite."
(5) My Transrotor/DaVinci analog front end as well as most of the equipment in my main system APART from the digital music server.
Finally, Ikea, for making the JANSJÖ work lamp.
If you want to know about digital music servers, contact me or Lee Weiland (politely) or Toan Pham. If you want to know about the 5 specific things I have in Nick's list or other non-DMS (non-Digital Music Server) things in general, drop Nick an email at True Sound in Campbell, CA.
That's about it. I leave you again with a quote from T. S. Eliot, specifically the beginning of his Nobel Prize winning poem "Four Quartets":
I would like to say that most of my testing was done with Amarra 1.2; with the advent of Amarra 2.0, I do find that I prefer using Amarra—even with the Sonicweld Diverter and Audio Note DAC 3.1X— although it's important NOT to play material over 16/44.1 with that combination because the Audio Note DAC is simply not optimized for it.
Last night, I listened to a two CD playlist of Purcell featuring the King's College Coir and there was no doubt that—even using the DAC 3.1X—Amarra 2.0 brought out a desirable quality in the sound of the voices that I did not have without it; without Amarra 2.0, there was a slight roughness to the vocals and instruments that I found disturbing compared to using Amarra 2.0, where the sound was effusive(*) and expansive.