Proof That the Age of Chivalry is Not Dead and That
Alchemy Works: The Rega DAC
Near the End of Annie Hall, Woody Allen says, "[…] this-this-this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, uh, my brother's crazy. He thinks he's a chicken.' And, uh, the doctor says, 'Well, why don't you turn him in?' And the guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.'" That's pretty much what I was thinking about Nick Gowan when he told me that Rega had come out with a $995 DAC and prognosticated that it would sound better than my $11,000 dCS Debussy, or at least strongly implied that it might in that oh so clever Michael Caine-like way that Nick has. Not that I'm comparing myself to Christian Bale, but imagine Alfred and Batman in the airplane in the first of the latest Batman franchise films (personally I preferred Michael Keaton as Batman because of his vulnerabilities, but I digress) conversing about Bruce Wayne's return to society in his private plane. It was that kind of a conversation.
That was before CES. Fast forward a few weeks when Nick has the Rega DAC at his shop and has been running it continuously (i. e., "burning it in") for several days then wants to come by and drop it off. I say sure. Why not? What do I have to lose? So he does, and I plug it in to my 17" MacBook Pro equipped with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD (Solid State Drive) with all my music on a LaCie RAID 1 drive backed up via SilverKeeper to a regular LaCie external hard drive, all through FireWire daisy-chaining. I am, of course, still using the truly exceptional Locus Design Cynosure USB cable and would like to use my Locus Design Keynote power cable, but the Rega uses an unusual type of IEC connector so I have to wait for my IEC 60320 C14 plug to IEC 60320 C5 connector/adapter to arrive from Amazon to use the Keynote. Damn. It apparently has to do with the limited amount of territory on this smaller DAC (Digital to Audio Converter, the thing that makes bits into music), nothing to do with Rega thinking that one type of IEC connector sounds better than another.
My initial impression was very positive. The Rega sounded quite musical and much warmer and more tube-like than either my Ayre QB-9, which goes all the way to 24/192 via USB alone, or my dCS Debussy, which only goes to 24/96 through the USB and S/PDIF inputs (although it is nice that the dCS gives you the option of using a BNC connector, whereas the Rega uses an ordinary RCA connector for the S/PDIF or "COAX" input). I was initially a little miffed that Rega's direct USB input only supports up to 16/48, because they use some really nice chips similar to the ones in the iBasso D4 Mamba portable DAC/headphone amp; however, I called the Sound Organisation—the US importer for Rega—and they assured me it was not that USB was an afterthought so much as it was a matter of keeping things simple and not tackling the awful task of processing a USB data stream up to 24/192 (which the S/PDIF and TOSLINK inputs can handle) but leaving that to the genius's of the world like Josh Heiner at Sonicweld (his Diverter being my personal favorite USB to S/PDIF converter, not specifically their suggestion). So I immediately called Nick and asked for my old Diverter back while I wait for the new one to come; and he obliged me.
I connected the Diverter to my Cynosure USB cable and then to my Locus Design Core S/PDIF cable which I in turn attached to the S/PDIF input on the Rega using a BNC-to-RCA adapter that, again, I bought from Amazon, all of which seemed to work quite well. I could then send high-resolution files (up to 24/96 with the old Diverter that I have) into the Rega DAC via the Sonicweld Diverter and the Core S/PDIF cable, which happens to have BNC connectors soldered onto both ends thus the need for the RCA adapter; and it was when I started playing the 24/96 recording of Andras Schiff's interpretations of The Goldberg Variations from ECM, purchased from HDtracks—that I knew I had something special. Call it synergy, call it fate (quick, someone call me a cab), I knew at that point the combination of the Sonicweld Diverter and the Rega DAC was really something because for the first time the music coming from my computer and from that damned pretty LaCie RAID drive sounded like music, it actually sounded like a piano; I tried plugging the dCS Debussy back in—both with and without the Sonicweld Diverter—but like the time traveling car from the kindergarten story they read to us, the magic was gone; and I just could not go back. The Rega DAC—with the Sonicweld Diverter—consistently sounded more like music.
Even now I am listening to the combination playing ripped multi-channel hybrid SACD's of The Forgotten Kingdom by Jordi Savall on ALIA VOX, a really lovely 3 SACD set that I have heard via my Ayre C-5xeMP universal disc player using the same Kondo KSL-LP interconnects as my Rega DAC and you know what? In some ways, the ripped CD layer playing through the Rega DAC sounds better and is vastly more convenient to operate. I am getting so spoiled by the convenience of using iTunes with Amarra that I haven't played a record in weeks; and I have to admit, that kind of scares me. The Rega DAC comes with 10 filters but only five selections because the exact filter that gets engaged depends on whether you are listening to low or high-resolution material. So, as an example, I preferred filter #1 with low to standard-resolution material (32/44.1/48KHz) but filter #3 with higher-resolution material (88.2/96 & 176.4/192KHz) meaning that I am getting a "Linear phase half-band filter" then a "Linear phase brickwall filter" respectively. If I were using filter #1 with higher-resolution material, then I would be getting a, "Linear phase soft-knee filter". I don't know why I prefer filter #1 and filter #3 for low to standard then high-resolution material, I just do. It probably has something to do with my wacky SET (Singled Ended Triode) amplifier or some incantation that Nick has uttered over my system.
Now I'm going to stay away from technical details, but for those of you who want to use the direct USB input on the Rega—and there's nothing wrong with that as long as your file resolution is <= 16/48—here's a little piece of trivia from the Sound Organisation:
"The USB input is not asynchronous per se, but there are similar attributes, which make the USB input a high-quality input, The Rega DAC incorporates a PLL based clock for low jitter audio signal recovery. This recovered audio data is then passed through the WM8805 PLL based receiver, so it can be said the USB audio data has been re-clocked and cleaned up by the Wolfson 8805 receiver. Phase is preserved, helping with bass, imaging and perfect timing."
So once again we come across a non-asynchronous algorithm (protocol, way of doing things) that sounds warmer and more tube-like than its asynchronous counterparts; I don't think that makes asynchronous protocols bad. I think it mostly has to with implementation or how well any one thing is done; but, again, at least in the less expensive USB-to-S/PDIF converters, there seems to be this trend away from asynchronicity. Jung would be proud.
I am now listening to the 24/96 files of Jane Monheit's Home as acquired from HDtracks. The main difference is that I am now using the Locus Design Keynote power cable—pretty much my favorite current production run power cable for digital electronics—via the IEC 60320 C14 plug to IEC 60320 C5 that I purchased from Amazon; and you know what? I now have no problems saying that the combination of the Sonicweld Diverter and Rega DAC with the Locus Design Core S/PDIF cable equals or exceeds the performance the of dCS Debussy. It just sounds more like music. Even the S/PDIF input of the Debussy doesn't really match up to the Rega in this context; and we're talking about $995 versus $11,000. Monheit's voice just flows, sounding natural, musical and analog-like, not unlike my Rega P3-24 with the matching tonearm and Audio Note IQ3 moving magnet phono cartridge. In many ways, the 24/96 files—or even the 16/44.1 files—sound better than a good CD player. In a side by comparison, does the DMS (Digital Musical Server) match my CEC TL-0, Audio Note Pallas digital interconnect and Audio Note DAC 4.1X Balanced? Well, that's a tough one; in some ways, it does. At least I don't feel like I'm missing any music; but comparing a 24/96 files to a 16/44.1 Redbook CD isn't exactly fair, is it?
In my best A/B comparison mode, I took the CD of Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters and played it in my CEC TL-0, Audio Note Pallas digital interconnect and Audio Note DAC 4.1X Balanced combination against the same album processed at 24/96 in this new digital music server. In all truth, it's very difficult to tell the difference; in fact, I don't that I could in a true double blind test or that I could tell which was which. They're that close. In fact, in some ways I prefer the slightly warmer presentation of the Rega DAC driven from via the Sonicweld Diverter from my 17" MacBook Pro over the CEC TL-0/Audio Note DAC 4.1X Balanced combination, which is slightly more open. There's something about it that's just musically more engaging; and it's more convenient. Now for the acid test, we pull out the vinyl LP, the record album. Briefly, I will say that with the Keynote power cable in the system, I do prefer filter #1—Rega's recommended filter—at all resolutions. Filter #3, the brickwall filter, does take away from the delicacy of the upper registers with higher-resolution material now. Again, bear in mind that in all cases I am using the Kondo Sound Labs KSL-LP analog interconnects now, which alone are worth substantially more than the Rega DAC on a per-pair basis (or individually for that matter).
Getting back to vinyl, it is the case that the piano on River: The Joni Letters does sound more like a piano when played via my turntable; the sound is more open and natural. There's a gentler quality of tone and timbre to the notes and the super tweeters, which are dealing primarily with upper harmonics, appear to have more to do; and by comparison the treble sounds more filtered with the DAC and there appears to be a thin—or not so thin—veil through which the sound is trying to emerge, sort of like listening to a stock pair of Quad ESL-63 USA Monitors which gently roll off the treble; however, (a) I am being awfully critical and (b) my phono cartridge alone costs about as much as the whole digital music server with the Rega DAC in it, or at the very least the tonearm and cartridge combined do. And it is in this area where both the Ayre QB-9 and the dCS Debussy—whether used directly via USB or via the Sonicweld Diverter (an option only in the case of the dCS)—does come closer to the vinyl, in that oh so critical high-frequency extension.
So I decided that should probably do something wild and crazy, like go to http://www.monoprice.com, buy a "6ft Toslink to Mini M/M 5.0mm OD Molded Cable" (an optical cable), and use that to connect the digital line out of my 17" MacBook Pro directly to the TOSLINK input of the Rega DAC, the only way I know to create a direct connection between this computer and DAC above 16/48 without using a device like the Sonicweld Diverter. As I had expected, the opening piano notes from "River" sounded like they came from all over the place with various forms of phase distortion that would make The Six Million Dollar Man a little dizzy even with his bionic eye and ear; however, when the vocals started, there was a nice sense of bloom and blossom and I could see how someone who wasn't very critical could groove to that while they saved their pennies for a Diverter and the associated cables, particularly if they listened to hard rock or a lot of bop. My own choice in that situation, however, would be to pick up a nice audiophile-quality USB cable like the Locus Design Polestar or, better yet, the Axis (the best overall value for the dollar) and accept the 16/48 limitation or go ahead and get the Cynosure and Core and simply use a less expensive USB-to-S/PDIF converter, like the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96, Audiophilleo audiophilleo1 or KingRex UC192 that I discussed in a previous article.
I have tried the Rega DAC with my old standby, the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96, and it sounds just fine. I think it sounds much better using the Sonicweld Diverter and that is when the true magic happens; but if the most you can afford is a less expensive USB-to-S/PDIF converter and you want to play high-resolution files, don't overlook the many fine, less expensive USB-to-S/PDIF converters out there. It's just that – given the cost of the Rega DAC—the Diverter seems like a natural choice; in addition, and this is an aside, I am now listening to the 24/44.1 copy of A Retrospective by The Unthanks that I downloaded from the B&W Society of Music on my office system using all Locus Design Vision analog interconnects and my Ayre QB-9 with the Blossom Blo-0299 Balanced Headphone Amp and the Welborne Labs Upgraded Power Supply using my "old reliable" Nordost El Dorado power cable, all driving a pair of Sennheiser HD-800's with the Moon Audio Silver Dragon balanced headphone cable, all of which sound sounds so good, it led me to one last experiment (not to mention a plug for the QB-9 if you want a really good single-box, USB-only solution that goes up to 24/192 natively as a less expensive alternative to the Debussy—and I'm really not trying to slam the Debussy, it's just that its level of excellence makes everything else into a contender).
As that last experiment, I went back to trying the original Locus Design Vision analog interconnects I had used when I first built my digital music server, about a year ago, only now with the Rega DAC; the truth of the matter is that they sounded great. I do think that—particularly in the upper registers—the Kondo Sound Labs KSL-LP's are a little truer to the music and a little more accurate. To use a Dave Clark-like analogy, the Visions are like an early Autumn sunset, all warm and cozy, whereas the KSL-LP's are like a bright morning sunrise in Yosemite, all glorious and clear and, in all truth, are my preference; but it's really hard to go wrong either way. It's a matter of degrees. As mentioned, I use the Visions in my office system with Ayre QB-9 going into the front input of my Tri TRV-88SE KT88 push-pull integrated / power amplifier and they sound lovely.
Now comes the hard part. After sending my dCS Debussy to Music Lovers Audio in Berkeley, CA for a cursory examination, my favorite salesperson (or perhaps more correctly audio consultant) Toan Pham suggested that I try something to improve its performance; specifically, switch the output voltage from 6 to 2 volts and turn the digital volume all the way up to avoid clipping going into my Meishu. Nick agreed; and when the Debussy arrived a few minutes ago the first thing I did was reconnect it, only switch the output voltage to 2 volts and turn the digital volume control all the way up, bypassing the Sonicweld Diverter and going directly into the USB input of the Debussy to be fair to dCS; and you know what? It sounds really amazing. There's a tonal richness that it did not have before and the piano notes that sounded compressed and distorted in the opening passages of 24/96 copy of The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett, which I downloaded from HDtracks, now sound open and harmonic; everything is just lovely, rich and clean. There's a natural quality of harmonic resonance to the voices of The Unthanks and a depth and sense of air that I had not heard before. So I was clipping. Therefore, in all fairness to dCS, I have to say that the Debussy does sound better than the Sonicweld Diverter/Rega DAC combination and remains my reference; but the latter sounds so good and is so much less expensive, I can confidently recommend it as the most music for the money, all of which leads me to the conclusion that one should never assume that one's setup is optimal.
It's my tradition to wrap up this part of the article with a quote, usually from a Pink Floyd song or T. S. Eliot poem; however, I think I'll return to the quote from Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" that began with this article and extend it, with one substitution, in brackets: "[…] you know, this this-this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, uh, my brother's crazy. He thinks he's a chicken.' And, uh, the doctor says, 'Well, why don't you turn him in?' And the guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.' Well, I guess that's pretty much how how I feet about [the Rega DAC]. You know, they're totally irrational and crazy and absurd and... but, uh, I guess we keep goin' through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs."