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Positive Feedback ISSUE 63
Impressions of the 2012 RMAF
So, I was at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2012 in Denver. What did I think of it?
Warning: this is not your typical "show report"! If that's what you want, go somewhere else.
Overall, the sound was better than the last two shows, and the mood was more upbeat. The worst days of the Crash of 2008 seem to be over, although a few exhibitors who were at the 2010 and 2011 shows weren't at this year's show. There is a competing Los Angeles show—which draws on the far larger Southern California market—and some exhibitors have show fatigue and are hunkering down and saving their money.
(Consumer-oriented trade shows cost the exhibitor between $2500 and $7000 when travel costs are included, while the CES can cost as much as $20,000 to $35,000. Considering that this cost has to be taken out of sales profits, not gross receipts, it takes a lot of sales to offset the cost of a show. True, it is tax deductible, but that deduction only works if you're making a profit in the first place. And a lot of the industry has not made a profit for several years running—which is why there are fewer exhibitors at all of the shows. But sales are up—I saw a lot of people buying new products, and plenty of tire-kicking and customer interest.)
Well, better than the last two years, when the sound was the worst in memory. The greatest blight was an ugly combination of music servers, overpriced transistor amplifiers, and compact loudspeakers. The sound was invariably horrible in rooms like this—much, much worse than the sound of the car stereo in my Toyota, which is hardly an audiophile system. Well below a generic MP3 player, and more like an old transistor radio.
The worst, most repulsive was "audiophile blues"—a harmonica miked at 1/2," playing a tedious, repetitious line, and played at an ear-splitting screech of 100dB or more (yes, I measured it with my handy-dandy iPhone app). Sorry to break it to you audiophiles, but you can hear infinitely better blues on Beale Street in Memphis on any street corner—for free. Better fidelity, too.
Knock it off, guys. Stop playing this crap. Just stop. Please. You're giving a wonderful American style of music a terrible rep, and you're making audiophiles look like a bunch of idiots with way too much money and way too little taste. The last part might be true, but please don't show it in public like this. Keep the dirty laundry out of sight. Porn belongs at home, you know.
I instinctively avoided most rooms with music servers and transistor amps. But there's an exception to every rule—the Sony room, of all places, sounded quite wonderful when they played a recent Joni Mitchell track sourced from a downloadable DSD of the master tape. The sources this year were quite a bit better than last year—both LPs (vinyl for you kids) and downloadable high-rez digital (PCM and DSD) sounded pretty good in a lot of rooms.
The combination of LP and vacuum-tube amps was almost always a good sign. These were the rooms that put a smile on my face and genuine relaxation and pleasure, and forgetting about the usual stupid audiophile concerns. Even speakers that might normally drive me out in seconds were overlooked—and I'm a speaker guy. The sources made a big difference.
Extra credit to the Lyra Atlas, Frank Schroeder tone-arms, and the SoundSmith Hyperion. Really good, guys. Seriously. It's not often that I warm up to products that are far outside my price league, but these sounded just beautiful, played music and made me feel good. They also lit a fire under me to finally get my analog setup going—I have 300 vintage records that have been neglected far too long.
Downloadable high-rez digital is going places, too. I'm still not sure whether 176/192 PCM or 1x DSD is better, but I'll be reviewing some USB DACs that were at the show in the near future. My preliminary experiments with computer audio have not been quite as good as my disk-spinner. (Denon DVD player with SuperClock III mods, Behringer upsampler at 88.2/24 and 24-bit dithering, and Monarchy DAC with Burr-Brown 1704 ladder DAC with resistive I/V conversion. All-triode vacuum-tube analog signal path from DAC flash converter to the loudspeakers; no opamps, no MOSFETs, no silicon, no local or global feedback at any point in the signal chain.)
I am not a fan of the Sigma-Delta DACs I've heard so far; the ones I've had in my system were drab, colorless, and dynamically compressed. Not fun, and not musical. Live acoustical music is sparkly, immediate, vivid, and fun, and that's not what I hear from Sigma-Delta DACs (or transistor amps). I hear sound, but not much music.
Karna's word for their sound is "constipated," which pretty much says it all. And these are $5000-and-up DACs, with glowing reviews in the audiophile press. I've come to the conclusion that reviewers with transistor electronics (linestages and power amps) are coming from a different place, and valuing different things than Karna and I do. Maybe. That's the diplomatic way of putting it.
But—setting diplomacy aside for a moment—I feel that transistor electronics are not "accurate" at all. Not compared to live acoustic music. Live piano, which we heard at the Rocky Mountain show. Singers. Choirs. The sound of a cello. These are things that audiophile-oriented "accurate" systems almost never get right, regardless of the sound quality.
This may be a cultural thing. I suspect it is. Karna and I grew up during the Fifties, when all reproduced sound, from TVs, radios, movies, and hifi systems, came from all-analog sources with vacuum-tube amplification and loudspeakers with Alnico magnets and paper cones. There was also a lot more live, acoustic music back then, and less "background" music seeping out of speakers in the ceiling of commercial establishments.
I'm not romanticizing the Fifties; cities, towns, and the countryside were physically uglier, dirtier and more run-down than now, racial, religious, and anti-female prejudice was openly expressed and often physically violent, and the variety of food in all but the most cosmopolitan cities (New York, Chicago, and San Francisco) was narrow and monotonous. The pretty, romantic view we see in the movies, TV, and political commentary is nothing at all what it was like to live back then.
If you could time-travel with a suitcase full of appropriate-dated currency, you'd be disgusted at LA's reeking smog, coal dust in the Eastern cities, everyone smoking stinky cigarettes everywhere, traffic-jammed roads dating from the Depression era, no freeways between towns and cities, very limited television with almost no color TV, and of course, no digital anything, and nothing like the Internet. If you wanted to do research, you'd drive to the nearest University library and spend time in the stacks (no Xerox machines, either. Take good notes.)
But—the music was good, and got a lot better in the Sixties, with the cultural renaissance that spread across the world. We grew up hearing live, acoustical music, played at friend's parties and get-togethers, and radios, TVs, and movies tuned to sound like what we heard. The departure into sonic unreality began with the transition to high-powered transistor electronics (Crown DC300 and Phase Linear 700) at rock concerts, the gradual creep of background music into elevators and supermarkets, and most sharply, the replacement of analog with digital, in 1982.
Over time, fewer and fewer people experienced what is now derisively called "acoustic" or "unplugged" music, with the sound-world filled with digitally-stored, digitally-altered, and transistor-amplified musical analogs. I enjoy digitally-sampled London and Berlin dance music as much as anyone, but tone, beauty and the deeper emotions go back to what Karna and I heard in our childhoods. You can still hear live, acoustic music today, but you have to seek it out, and it is no longer the cultural norm—anywhere in the world. Walk the streets of Calcutta or Ulan Bator, and you hear digital synth and hip-hop in the local dialect, along with the latest MP3s from the Internet.
So I expect folks who grew up in the all-transistor, and later, all-digital era, expect different things than I do. Not good, not bad, just different perceptions and words to describe them. More important, different values and what you consider important.
Which gets us back to audio reviewers. When I say "tastes differ," I really mean "perceptions differ." The language used to describe those perceptions differs. I mentioned the room with the horrible screech from the close-miked harmonica—well, while I was there I overheard other visitors exclaim how wonderful the sound was. I heard reviewers, whose opinions I respect, describe the same room, with the same music, as the "best of show."
When perceptions are that different, well, you know you're no longer in the mainstream of the industry. This is why I warn readers of Positive Feedback, as well as readers of the long-running "Beyond the Ariel" thread in DiyAudio, that there's a good chance they won't like the same things I do.
Which returns, after a long scenic detour, to the sound of digital. DACs in particular seems to be an area where mainstream opinion, and what I hear on my own system, are not the same. To put it diplomatically. When other reviewers, whose opinions and taste I respect, tell me that XYZ component is the greatest thing since sliced bread, I'll buy into the enthusiasm, until I hear it for myself—and am disappointed. Again.
People from outside the high-end scene sometimes accuse audiophiles of self-delusion, but my experience has been hope dashed against the rocks of experience. That's most of the reason I design my own linestages, power amplifiers, and loudspeakers. I do not like what's on the market, with very few exceptions. So I design my own gear for my own (and Karna's) taste. It's a nice little ego-boost when visitors tell me nice things, but seriously, that's not why I spend years researching archives and designing this stuff. It's for me and Karna.
But I have to draw the line somewhere. I am not going to design my own DAC, or phonograph, or tape deck. No. That way lies madness, or less poetically, a system that is never finished, or never works as it should. If I was as rich as William Z Johnson of Audio Research, or Amar Bose, it would be delightful to have dutiful staffers try out every whim I could dream up. That would be wonderful—it would make me feel like the audiophile version of Edison, every delirious vision brought into the light of day. Audio from A to Z.
But in the real world, I gotta have a signal source. The balanced, transformer-coupled inputs of the Karna amplifier want to see a signal. Something that sounds good. And for now, until the deep dive back into the world of phonographs, that's digital. So far, the DACs based on Sigma-Delta chipsets are not making it. When I attended the ESS presentation at last year's RMAF, and heard the 3+ year's work that ESS put into analyzing what was wrong with the Sigma-Delta technology, that was interesting. Very interesting. Although the Project Manager couldn't hear for himself what was different between the best ladder converters (like the Philips TDA154x, Burr-Brown PCM63, and Burr-Brown PCM1704) and Sigma-Delta converters, they had "golden ears" (his words, not mine) that could. Well, I could hear the difference, too, and was very curious what the resulting ESS Sabre 9018 DAC would sound like.
At this year's show, I heard engineers mention the difficulty of working with the ESS Sabre 9018 DAC. Power supplies need to be extremely quiet, which means the analog designer actually has to know more about supplies than simply referring to the spec sheet of this week's 3-pin regulator, and reference clocks need to have extremely low jitter (phase noise), which implies also careful attention to layout and ground isolation. The engineers at Resonessence and Mytek have put a lot of work into this chipset, with interesting results.
The Resonessence Concero was introduced at this year's show, and combines an asynchronous USB (the highest-quality computer interface) and S/PDIF input DAC that can also act as USB to S/PDIF bridge, using ESS technology to accomplish asynchronous resampling and reclocking without phase-locked loops. It also uses the ESS Sabre 9018 DAC chipset with ESS-optimized analog circuitry. A lot of very advanced technology in a tiny package (big is not necessarily better for high-speed surface-mount circuitry). The price? $599. Not a typo, guys. Not $5999, but $599. Don't let the price fool you; the Resonessence product line was developed in close cooperation with the ESS team.
The Mytek USB, Firewire, or S/PDIF input DAC also uses the same ESS Sabre 9018 chipset, and has the additional bonus of 1x (same rate as SACD discs) and 2x (studio-grade download-only rate) DSD playback that leaves the DSD bitstream intact with no conversion to PCM, which is different than most of the Sigma-Delta competition. I listened at some length to the headphone output, and this a lively, vivid-sounding DAC for a modest price of $1599. A lot of value here; in addition to very flexible digital inputs, it can also serve as a linestage with a separate, switchable analog input, and has selectable attenuation in digital and analog domains, as well as attenuator-bypass modes.
I've heard the Playback Designs DAC at (PFO Editor-in-Chief) David's place and at the RMAF show playing 1x and 2x DSD downloads and was quite impressed. The 1x DSD downloads don't have the glossy, over-processed sound of most one-box SACD players, while 2x DSD is almost indistinguishable from first-generation master tapes (that's what I heard at David's place, anyway). What's surprising is 1x and 2x DSD sound pretty different; 1x sounds like very good DSD (better than one-box players), while 2x doesn't sound like anything at all. If anything, it sounds like ultra-high resolution 352.8/384 PCM, minus PCM artifacts. I suspect the 2x DSD might slew the electronics of many high-end systems; it's pretty much like connecting an Ampex ATR-102 right to your amplifiers, and letting them deal with the transients and dynamics of the mastertape as best they can.
Most of us own hundreds to thousands of conventional Red-Book spec Compact Discs, sometimes ripped to hard disks in WAV, FLAC, or AIFF formats, as well as libraries of the original optical disks. How do these DACs deal with standard-resolution 44.1/16 PCM digital?
The ESS-based Resonessence and Mytek asynchronously resample the 44.1/16 datastream, offering an upsampling option if desired, and uses ESS' Hyperstream PCM system when converting to the analog domain. The Playback Designs DAC upsamples all PCM sources, regardless of input resolution, to 2x DSD rates, and uses a proprietary all-DSD system when converting to the analog domain.
I did not hear standard Red Book sources at David's place when I visited, but he reports it's the best he's heard Red Book sound.
I've yet to hear any of these DACs on my own system, but the Mytek is in line for a review. I've heard all three DACs—Resonessence, Mytek, and Playback Designs—at the RMAF show, and liked what I heard. A lot. I'll go out on a limb and say "best digital so far," which can be interpreted two ways, depending on how you feel about digital. I'll rephrase that; it was very good to excellent, and is quite different than the digital we were listening to only 3 to 5 years ago.
Good show. Looking forward to next year's show, and the products in the PFO pipeline. Audio is starting to innovate again.