Musings on Building a
Digital Music Server: The Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC
Blackbird singing in the
dead of night
Initial impressions by Andy Schaub...
Perhaps I should have titled this issue of, "Musings on Building a Digital Music Server" something like, "The Long and Winding Road". I started reading David Robinson's lists of DSD capable DACs and became quite interested in this new (old) format. After all, it is the basis for SACDs and while I like SACDs, I think that red book CDs in my Audio Note CD 3.1x/II sound better than either my no longer owned Ayre C-5xeMP or my recently upgraded Theta Compli Blu. In any case, I had heard DSD based music converted on the fly to PCM when I accidentally downloaded some Rachel Podger violin music from Channel Classics and it sounded pretty good in my office system, going through an Audiophilleo 1 and Rega DAC with Locus Design digital cables. Although Channel Classics graciously gave me credit for the accident, and I got two 24/96 downloads out of it, I never got around to deleting the DSD based files. It was not my intent to defraud anyone. It was truly sloppiness on my part; however, I did wind up having a convenient source of material when the Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC arrived. I'll just say up front that I don't think the Stereo192-DSD DAC sounds better than my Sonicweld Diverter HR/Berkeley Audio Design Alpha Series 2 DAC combination; however, for $1595.00, it represents tremendous value and gives one a peek into this new world of DSD downloads.
The Stereo192-DSD DAC is the first DAC (besides the Apogee Duet 2) that has required I install drivers and/or a control program to operate it on a Mac; so I choose to put everything on my otherwise unused 17" MacBook Pro, modified with a 256GB SSD (Solid State Drive). Also, because of the price point of the Mytek DAC, I choose to use my Locus Design Polestar USB cable. It required quite a bit of fiddling to get things working correctly, all of which I did using a pair of Moon Audio Black Dragon Denon AH-D5000's and the headphone amp inside the Mytek DAC. I also used Pure Music 1.89b and iTunes 11.0.2 (although in this case Pure Music is really managing all of the playback, just putting a "bookmark" in iTunes for my Rachel Podger files). Once I got the drivers installed and got the MacBook Pro to recognize the USB 2.0 input of the Mytek DAC as well as setting up Pure Music to play native DSD files through the Mytek DAC, I played selections from the 24/192 download of Waltz for Debby and the 24/88.2 download of The Goat Rodeo Sessions, both from HDtracks.com, as well as that DSD download of Rachel Podger's Mozart Violin Concerti, Sinfonia Concertante from Channel Classics. I have to confess, I was impressed at how smooth the sound was, particularly with the DSD download; but it lacked the air and ambience of the Woo WA7 which is 2/3 the price.
Still, I owed the Stereo192-DSD a fair chance, so I connected everything to the main system through 20 feet of Whiplash Audio Sapphire Pro interconnects with Eichmann copper bullet plugs. Playing The Goat Rodeo Sessions was a true joy but, again, it lacked the air and ambience of my reference setup, and while it had deep bass, Yo-yo Ma's cello did not sound as real as it did with the Diverter HR/Alpha Series 2 DAC combination. Playing Mozart Violin Concerti, Sinfonia Concertante upped the game a bit and I found myself thinking less about the DAC and more about the music. The sound was smoother and the bass more defined; but I couldn't get away from a slightly synthetic sound and a lack of openness on the top end. Again, I'm being awfully critical given the relative cost of the pieces involved in the comparison. The Mytek Stereo192-DSD had a slight smudging of the sound, much like my old Ayre C-5xeMP. I'm not trying to be a Luddite; and, again, for the $1595, the Stereo192-DSD represents a tremendous value and absolutely deserves its Brutus Award. It's just that I recently had an email conversation with a recording engineer who had heard both high resolution PCM and DSD of his/her recordings and said that high-resolution PCM sounded more like the microphone feed than did DSD. So is DSD the flavor of the month or is it the new standard? I guess only time will tell.
This where my review originally ended, but Michal Jurewicz from Mytek, and Jared Sacks at Channel Classics gave me the encouragement I needed to press the review a bit further; so I set everything back up. I wasn't comfortable just dropping the Mytek into my digital music server because of the need to reconfigure my Mac mini; so the Mytek was working at a bit of a disadvantage. Having said that, I felt that the comparison was fair particularly when I plugged the Mytek and my 17" MacBook Pro into the Equi=Tech that serves my Theta Compli Blu. I also upped the game a bit by using my former reference USB cable, the Locus Design Cynosure v2. Listening to Mozart Violin Concerti, Sinfonia Concertante, I now heard substantially more air and ambience around the instruments and more three-dimensionality overall; but to make the evaluation fair, I had to do side by side comparisons in so much as I could. So I was still using the 20 feet of Whiplash Audio Sapphire Pro interconnects with Eichmann copper bullet plugs. They're really very neutral cables and I had no choice if I wanted to play my digital music server and the Stereo192-DSD at the same time, both going into my Audio Note Oto integrated amp through two meters of Kondo Sound Labs KSL-LP interconnects via the Manley Skipjack audio switcher. I will say that with this setup there was a bit of over pronunciation of detail in Rachel Podger's violin; but I could live with that, particularly since the whole system was running cold.
Playing The Goat Rodeo Sessions, first through the Mytek DAC then through my digital music server, the music server had a silkiness that the Mytek didn't share, and there was more of an analog sense of the interplay of instruments; although, the Mytek was mighty impressive given the cost difference between the two "systems". It's just that, while the Mytek sounded good, the music server allowed me to more imagine the musicians in my own living room. The Mytek sounded a little hollow; but the time has come to do some side-by-side comparisons. I choose Bach Trio Sonatas by Florilegium from Channel Classics, both in 24/192 and DSD formats. I already owned the 24/192 version of this and just copied it using a thumb drive from my 27" Quad Core iMac to my 17" MacBook Pro, then directly downloaded the DSD version onto the MacBook Pro. It took quite a long time to get the download and then for some reason I had to number the files and manually insert the album cover art in Pure Music 1.89b; however, I've had to do that sort of thing before and I'm on the bleeding edge here. Just beware that setting up DSD downloads is not like visiting the iTunes store. It requires some sophistication and computer savvy. I'm not slamming anyone here. The fact that this all works at all is really quite amazing; and I thank everyone involved (Channel D, the makers of Pure Music, Mytek, and Channel Classics) for making it all possible; but do beware that setting up the DAC and downloading and inserting the music is not for the feint of heart. You really need to read the manuals. That said, the effort is worth it if you want to be able to stay on the bleeding edge of music downloads and do a comparison for yourself.
First, I listened to the 24/192 download of Bach Trio Sonatas on my digital music server; it sounded lovely with great deep bass definition and authority and, again, a strong sense of the interplay of instruments. Next, I listened to the same download through the Mytek DAC. The sound quality was shockingly close; but subtlety is the name of the game here and it seemed a little thin and, again, synthetic. Lastly, I listened to the DSD download of Bach Trio Sonatas. I have to say that, in this context, I couldn't hear that much of difference, the nod going again to my digital music server. There was a bit more of a sense of air or ambience around the instruments, the deep bass definition improved some, and I got more of a sense of the interplay of the instruments; yet, again, it had that slightly synthetic sound. Let me close by talking about the suspension of disbelief. That basically means that you, the audience, can set aside any notions of artifice and believe that music is actually coming from players in your own listening room (wherever that may be). With my digital music server, the suspension of disbelief was substantially higher than with the Mytek Stereo192-DSD, using ether high-resolution PCM files (24/192) or using DSD-based files. I'm not saying the Stereo192-DSD is bad; for its price, it's great. Does it sound better than my Sonicweld Diverter HR/Audio Note Pallas/Berkeley Audio Design Alpha Series 2 combination? No, I honestly don't think so.
Here's when I enter the disclaimer, though, and explain a few things. First, I've put the Stereo192-DSD up against a much more expensive system. All of the parts are highly optimized to work together; and the truth is that, even though I own a fair number of them, I'm not really that fond of the sound of SACDs. I'm in the minority of people who prefer DVD-A and am looking forward to Blu-ray audio. Put those two things together and you have a recipe for disaster in terms of what the Mytek could do going into my Oto; and that means that I own a single-ended triode system with highly efficient speakers and lots of silver cable and you have a mismatch for sure. In all truth, my music server should probably have tubes and there are times when I've carefully considered replacing everything with a Wavelength Crimson or Cosecant. So the fact that the Mytek could come anywhere close to making me happy is really quite remarkable. I want to emphasize that there's nothing wrong the Stereo192-DSD. I think it comes down to a matter of personal preference and system matching. If I still owned a Spectral preamplifier and amplifier with all MIT cabling and heavily modified Quad ESL-63 USA monitors, I'd probably be in hog heaven. Times change; my tastes have changed and DSD downloads are in their infancy. So maybe I will approach Gordon Rankin about borrowing one of his DAC's; or perhaps I will simply sit back and enjoy the music. Either way, the Mytek is mighty impressive… for the money and for the right person/correctly matched system.
Follow up by Andre Marc...
My colleague Andy Schaub, and our esteemed editor Dave Clark, thought it would be a cool idea to do a collaborative write up on the Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC. It is a product that has garnered a lot of attention recently, and the demand has in some cases outpaced the supply! I think Andy did a fabulous overview of the Mytek above, and here I offer my own user experience, and various opinions on the digital landscape.
My system currently consists of an Audio Research VS55 power amp and SP16L preamp, Bob Carver Black Beauty power amp (on loan), a Bryston BDA-1 DAC, a Musical Fidelity M1 CDT transport, a Marantz SA-11S3 SACD player/DAC (on loan), a Squeezebox Touch with a CIA VDC-SB, and a pair of Thiel CS2.4 speakers. Cabling is a mix of Transparent, Acoustic Zen, Kimber, Element, DH Labs, Darwin, and Stager. Everything is plugged into an Audience aDeptResponse aR6, which is in turn plugged into an Oyaide receptacle on a dedicated line.
My digital music system is set up with all CD rips and download purchases in FLAC, on a 2TB FireWire drive, connected to generation two Mac mini, which serves two Squeezeboxes (one is in my bedroom system) via Logitech Media Server, on Ethernet CAT7 cable. In my main system, described above, I normally connect my Squeezebox Touch to the BDA-1 DAC via optical. I also connect my Musical Fidelity transport via AES/EBU to the BDA-1.
First, let me say the Mytek is the most feature rich DAC that has come through my domain. Just in the last year I have had quite a few nice, reasonably priced units from Musical Fidelity, Rein Audio, PS Audio, Wyred4Sound, and Lindemann. None have even come close to offering the amount of user options that appear on the Mytek. To me it is pretty obvious that Mytek's history in pro audio is a big influence here.
Aside from a full suite of digital inputs, including AES/EBU, TosLink, Coaxial, USB 2.0, USB 1.0, and FireWire, there are both balanced and unbalanced outputs, a headphone jack with independent volume control, and LED level meters. But that is just the beginning. Among the most interesting features are the ability to choose between a digital and analog volume control, bypassing the volume control, two digital filters, output level (trim control), internal or external clock, display control, and optional upsampling to 192kHz. Wait, there is more!
You can also mate it to a generic universal remote control, or the very cool Apple remote, which allows you access the menu, mute, control volume and input, etc. The final cherry on top is it does native DSD via USB or FireWire. So here we have one of the most customizable audio components on the market fro $1595.
My setup process was simple yet not so simple. I ran a DH Labs TosLink cable into the Mytek from my Squeezebox Touch, and I also connected an HP Laptop running Windows 7 and Jriver Media Center 18. I first intended to connect the Mytek to my ARC preamp, bypassing its volume control, but that was not to be. Even at its lowest trim setting, the Mytek was putting out over 3V. Many preamps on the market, including my ARC, can handle a max input of between 2 and 2.5V. I experienced severe clipping and distortion. This was actually not a problem because my initial interest in the Mytek was because of its ability to drive power amps directly, using its built in volume control.
Yes, I have recently wanted to experiment with doing away with a linestage altogether, since all my sources in the main system are digital. This is aside from the borrowed Marantz SACD player/DAC, which must be connected to a preamp, or to a power amp with volume control, like the Carver. I just figured that a preamp with another gain stage, more cables, etc., would degrade transparency, no matter how well engineered. Not to mention most line sources will drive a power amp, no problem. So, with all of this in mind I ran the Mytek directly into the ARC power amp, and briefly into the Carver amp. All of my listening notes are culled from using the Mytek as a preamp/DAC.
My first impressions were that the Mytek offered absolutely amazing bass performance. Better than any DAC I have heard in recent memory, even ones costing significantly more. I also noticed a very high degree of resolution. As a matter, of fact, I can honestly say I have never heard this much recorded detail in my system. I can see how mastering engineers would want to get their hands on this DAC. There is no place for a bad recording to hide.
On the flip side, after extended listening, I noticed a rather dry quality to the treble and mid bass. There seemed to be a bit of flatness to the presentation. So while there was amazing detail retrieval, I did not find it among the most dimensional. Mind you, there was no spotlighting of any sort; i want to make that clear. This was not a "bright" sounding DAC at all [Note from Andy: I agree].
I really put the Mytek through its paces. I listened to virtually every genre of music, from Ray Lamontagne's gothic folk, to Danillo Perez's brilliant world influenced jazz. I also made sure to give the Mytek every PCM sample rate I had on hand, including 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192kHz. And yes, I did download the appropriate drivers from my Windows 7 laptop running Jriver to listen to DSD files. The Mytek did indeed display DSD when these filed played back, and they sounded excellent, although the free DSD files I was able to find were not music I was familiar with or was particularly fond of.
I also thought the Mytek sounded its best through the USB input. I used a DH Labs USB cable and I felt there was more a of natural ease with PCM files played back via Jriver 18 as compared to the S/PDIF inputs. I also ended up preferring the upsampling turned on for most of my listening. It was a toss up between the two digital filters for me. The two volume controls were both essentially transparent and totally noise free. I marginally preferred the analog volume control, but it was oh so close.
A couple of final ergonomic notes are warranted. First I purchased, for $19, the current model Apple remote, which allowed me to control virtually every function of the Mytek. Very cool! I also found that good quality power cords from Transparent and Shunyata made a difference. Finally, I felt that a Shakti Stone placed on top of the Mytek improved the sound distinctly. I have been using a Shakti Stone on my digital sources for several years now with benefits.
The Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC is a very fine product. It is a virtual Swiss Army Knife of the DAC world. I have never seen such a feature loaded and customizable DAC. It will provide you with every bit of recorded detail that resides in those bits and samples. Mind you, look elsewhere if you want a little sugar with your coffee.
While I don't really feel the excitement of being able to play DSD files from my computer, the capability is there via USB and FireWire. This is especially cool if you are a classical music lover, since that is where most of the (limited) downloadable material seems to come from. All in all, the Mytek is a finely engineered product.
Andy and Andre