Musings on Building a
Digital Music Server: Three "Spare Parts" Systems
That Deliver Really Surprisingly Good Sound and
the Moon Audio Blue Dragon and Silver Dragon USB
Cables in the Main System
"I can't get no
(1) I'm currently listening to Thimar by Anouar Brahem, Dave Holland and John Surman and it sounds really amazing; and part of what's so amazing is that I'm playing it on my home office or "backup system" which now consists of a 27" Quad Core iMac modified to boot off of a 256GB SSD with 16GB of RAM, an internal 2TB magnetic drive—where the music sits—and Lion, iTunes and Pure Music all running into a mini digital music server, a Tri TRV-88SE integrated amplifier and a pair of Micropure mini-monitors with a 12" Essex subwoofer, plus the usual Equi=Tech balanced transformer, another PS Audio Power Plant 10 and a loom of Stealth Swift power cables. The interconnects are Audio Note AN-V's with Eichmann Silver Bullet Plugs and I'm using Audio Note Lexus speaker cable. What's extra amazing is that Thimar is an album that I downloaded from the iTunes store so it's in lossy AAC/iTunes Plus compression; however, I've got a neat trick going. I've created a bit of a Frankenstein digital music server by wiring up spare parts as follows:
Locus Design Axis USB cable
Bel Canto 24/96 USB-to-S/PDIF converter
Audio Note Pallas S/PDIF cable (Yeah, we're talking some major bucks here.)
Audio Note DAC One 1x "one tube" non-oversampling DAC
Now, a lot of this has to with the Pallas; but I've managed to find a synergy among these "spare parts" that sounds really lovely and musical and on full CD-resolution files, like Jamm by Cheikh Lo, watch out! I got thunderous bass from this mini digital server such as I've never heard from this system before with ANY source, not even CD or vinyl. Its main limitation is that it won't go above 16/44.1 but with sound like this, who cares? I dare say that the combination is better than my standard home office setup (Locus Design Axis, Audiophilleo 1, Locus Design Core, Rega DAC) but in many ways, it is. Going back to the 24/88.2 download of Like Minds by Gary Burton et al, I hear a lighter, more delicate balance with more air and space around the instruments; but I do miss that lush midrange and that gut-thumping bass. I'll keep the Rega setup as my reference—mostly because it can play up to 24/192 files—but what am amazing revelation to find what this particular Rube Goldberg-like collection of spare parts can do.
(2) Just as a point of comparison, I listened to part of Ben Webster's "King of Tenors" sampled from the CD using Apple Lossless Compression on a recent-generation 64GB iPod Touch sitting in an Apple universal dock with a Cardas "iPod cable" going into an analog input of the Tri, and the sound from that was also surprisingly good; although not in the same league as any of my digital music servers, even playing the iPod Touch through a pair of Moon Audio Silver Dragon V3 Sennheiser HD800's driven by a Tri TRV-84HD headphone/integrated amp—using all the same cables as described before and plugged into the line out of the TRV-88SE—the sound could in no way be faulted or, to put it more accurately (and to paraphrase Stereophile), the sins were those of omission, not commission, and I greatly enjoyed the tenor sax.
(3) Another amazing system is the music system that I use at work. I have a 17" MacBook Pro with a 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM. Out of that comes a Locus Design Polestar USB cable feeding an HRT Music Streamer Pro. Then we have some special cables by Cardas that go from the mini-XLR's in the Music Streamer Pro to full-sized 3-pin-XLR's driving a Blossom Blo-0299 fully balanced headphone amplifier (with power supplied by Welborne Labs). That in turn drives a pair of Ultrasone Edition 8's using a fully balanced run of Moon Audio Silver Dragon V2 cables (not the current V3 run). This setup is not as open nor euphonic as what I have at home; however, with upsampling turned on in Pure Music or a real CD-resolution file that I've imported (with upsampling off), I get some very sweet sound. The treble is quite delicate and balanced with a nice, neutral midrange and more than ample bass. I'd say, overall, I'm quite spoiled to be able to download any song in the iTunes Store and get thoroughly respectable sound. I also took the 24/96 download of the Chieftains' "Voice of Ages" into the office and loaded it onto my MacBook Pro. I have to say, the sound was a substantial improvement over CD-resolution files going through the HRT Streamer Pro. The treble was smoother, the midrange more detailed and the bass had more "thwack". It was probably the biggest improvement I've ever heard between 24/96 and CD-only-resolution. It gives me something to think about.
So those are two simple system made mostly of "spare parts" that I'm very lucky to have; the next time you're feeling like buying a new turntable, look around and see what you might have that's spare. Perhaps you can't put together a whole system, but with minimal creativity you may find a new source of enjoying sound.
Now what about those Moon Audio USB cables? Well, I had some initial trouble with the Blue Dragon. It wouldn't make a clean connection and the best I could get was a display of "48kHz" on my Sonicweld Diverter HR; however, the Silver Dragon worked fabulously from the beginning and in many ways I like it better than my Locus Design Cynosure v2. It's simpler and more elegant looking with a sound that's very lush. It can be a bit harsh—at least in the first few hours—and lacks the overall openness of the Cynosure v2; but for $180 for 3 feet, it represents a vastly better value and I'm thinking about making it my new standard because I find that I just look more forward to listening to music with it. I may change my mind. I'm just at the beginning of the listening process and it's easy to be infatuated with new sound. But last night, I was listening to the 24/96 download of Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow and was really taken at how much the DMS (Digital Music Server) sounded like a regular CD player, something that I've striven for since I built my first DMS based on the PS Audio PerfectWave DAC. Nothing else has changed from the current configuration. This is a USB cable swap out only; but I'm really very impressed. Listening to the 24/48 download of Karrin Allyson's 'Round Midnight I hear a "groove" and a "jive" that I don't recall hearing with the Cynosure v2; and it makes me happy.
Returning to the Cynosure v2 and replaying Karrin Allyson's 'Round Midnight, I hear more breadth and depth to the sound with a wider soundstage and a deeper overall presence; however, there's also a roughness to the sound—and this is very well burned in—that makes me miss the Silver Dragon's lushness; and speaking of Frankenstein's lab, the Cynosure v2 does look more like something off a test bench and less like the kind of cable you want in a low-profile system. Still, there is a haunting, melodic quality to Allyson's voice that I hear with the Cynosure v2 that I don't hear with the Silver Dragon USB cable. So, right now, it's a bit of a toss up. I just hate that treble "splash" that I seem to get with the Cynosure v2. That is off putting to me and gets in the way of the music; but some people like that. I will say that the piano notes with the Cynosure v2 have a strikingly percussive sound; and that's a good thing. So in terms of bringing me the most music, it's still hard to say. Now that the Cynosure v2 has been playing for a while (it seems sensitive to movement), I hear its own lushness returning and the treble cleaning up and THIS is the cable that the late Lee Weiland built. Putting on the 24/192 download of Louise Roger's Black Coffee, I get all the lushness, deep bass definition and sweetness of treble that one could want. So maybe the Cynosure v2 just plays the bits more accurately; still, for $180 for a 3 foot run, the Moon Audio Silver Dragon USB cable comes awfully close to my multi-thousand dollar reference standard Locus Design USB cable, which you can't even buy anymore!
Now returning to that Blue Dragon USB cable, Drew Baird sent me a replacement that I immediately installed into the system and it worked just fine; and the truth of the matter is, I really like it a lot. It gives the DMS (Digital Music Server) a very warm and analog-like sound, much more so than either the Silver Dragon or the Cynosure v2. I had purchased the 24/192 download of Lonely Woman by The Modern Jazz Quartet. In a technical sense, the Cynosure v2 probably had more going for it: a wider, deeper soundstage, more extended treble, somewhat deeper bass; but the Blue Dragon USB made the vibraphones ring like magic and there was not the slightest trace of harshness to the sound at all. I found it musically very involving and often found myself surprised by the strike of the mallet on the vibes as if they were sitting in my living room itself. There was a faint sense of distortion—as if something was being overloaded—but I attributed that to the source because I remember hearing it with the Cynosure v2 as well. I wanted to switch over to Gary Burton et al's 24/88.2 download of Like Minds but simply found myself too engaged by the music to change; and this cable costs $75 for a 3 foot run. The more it played, the more it opened up and the piano took on a lovely sense of treble extension. I eventually did switch over to the 24/48 download of Karrin Allyson's Round Midnight and was taken by the same analog-like smoothness without any loss of detail in the treble. It did not sound as bright as my Audio Note IQ3 phono cartridge; but in the final analysis, we're talking about music, not data. And I was very, very impressed. For the first time in a very long time, I wanted to listen to the 24/96 download of The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett. At first, I thought something was wrong; then I realized that I simply wasn't hearing any digital artifacts and it reminded me greatly of the first time I heard a Koetsu Rosewood Signature, circa 1980. Jarrett's pounding on the piano caught me by surprise the same way that the vibes had in "Lonely Woman" and I was totally blissing out.
So I just had to know, could it really be this good? Plugging the Cynosure v2 back into my Mac mini and Sonicweld Diverter HR resulted in a form of congestion that gave the piano a kind of nasal-like quality, and I was just not as engaged by the music; however, it had been a while since I had listened to The Köln Concert and I really needed to know. So the following night I put on the 24/88.2 download of "Like Minds" and played that through my Woo WA22 headphone amp with a pair of Sennheiser HD800's in balanced configuration. Now I could tell. The Cynosure v2 was the better cable, but by such a close margin that I hesitate to call it better, more just different. Am I glad I have the Cynosure? You bet. With the Blue Dragon USB, could I be happy? You bet. So I guess I still feel very lucky to own the Cynosure v2 but to know that the Blue Dragon—and Silver Dragon—USB cables exist. For their respective prices, if not a whole lot more, it's hard to do much better.