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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 41
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Audio Ramblings - the mhdt Havana DAC and the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96... with a few words on the Xavian Mediterranea loudspeakers
by Dave Clark

 

In previous Ramblings I have documented my journey of sorts as I travel down the road of putting together a 'decent' computer audio based system. I say 'decent' as we all know that to each their own. Where I am using a Mac, many other will use a PC, where I am using iTunes 8 (and it is better than 7 as 8 is now true 32 bit) others will use MAX, VLC, XLD, or AEIOU (all for a Mac) or Foobar, jRiver, Izotope, Amarra, or whatever (for a PC)… and then ripping by whatever and so and so on… well, I use what I use as it works and sounds quite good. Differences? Perhaps, maybe… though not sure if any of these "differences" matter (see http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue41/ca_intro.htm for more on what the industry thinks). After all there can always be some 'perceived' differences due to something or other, but the issue is, "Are the differences worth the trouble or not?" For me it is ease of use, convenience, make it so… so I do what I do. Easy rip, easy save, easy playback.

My current set up is the following …my computer is a Mac Book (2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2GB DDR3 Memory) and files are saved on a Raid 5 NAS (1.5TB) drive on its own AC line (housed in another room). Files are ripped and played back via iTunes 8 (error correction on) as Lossless files (where I hear little if any difference between Lossless and AIFF). The Mac sends the bits out via van den Hul Optocoupler II Toslink cable to an Empirical Audio Pace Car which then sends them out via Purist Audio Contego XLR digital cables or DH Labs D-75 XLR digital cable to the digital inputs on the Cary Professional 306. For USB, I have the Locus Design Nucleus USB cable here to feed whatever USB DAC is in house either directly or through whatever USB convertors/reclockers are in house. I feed AC to all via the Audio-Magic Transcendence AC conditioner. I also use Shakti Stones and On-lines, and Audio-Magic Gen ZX and Noise Disruptors where needed. The Mac Book sits upon a special shelf built to address EMI/RFI by AudiAV. All un-used digital RCA inputs/outputs are capped off with 75-ohm digital-terminators from HighEndElectronics.

But as I travel down the computer-based audio road there are a lot of things to see… err hear in terms of the hardware. Like other DACs and convertors, cables, and whatnot. Is my route via the Cary/Empirical the best route? That is, can the Cary/Empirical be bettered? Naturally one can always find something that is different, but can this difference be better?

How about the mhdt USB Havana DAC? The Havana is a NOS DAC for under $1k ($872 direct from mdht) and offers a lot for little change. The Havana uses the C-Media CM102+ to convert the USB signal to S/PDIF (you can choose between either USB or S/PDIF as an input) where it is then sent to a Cirrus Logic CM8414 96kHz digital receiver chip and on to a pair of 16-bit NOS (non-over-sampling, non-up-sampling, filter-less) Burr Brown PCM56P DAC chips. The analog output stage features a GE5670 tube to make it less …less digital-like. The DAC is well built and shows an attention to detail.

I was told that the DAC would require a lot of break-in to sound its best, so I gave it a good 4-5 weeks of continuous use prior to any serious listening. Using a variety of USB cables (from generic stock ones to those for Locus Designs' Axis or Nucleus) with interconnects and AC cords from Kubala-Sosna (the Emotion series …and yes it is NOT crazy to use cables that cost way more than the product—I did want to hear it at is best after all!) I found the Havana to be quite wonderful (see Victor Chavira's comments in the sidebar below for a second opinion). Wonderful in the sense of that "older" sound that an NOS DAC offers: warm, rich, and tonally rewarding in the sense of harmonic ease. Yes, the mhdt Havana does not offer the resolution or slam (in terms of overall dynamics and bass control—depth, speed, articulation, etc) that the Cary 306 does, but then I would be surprised if it did. After all the Cary's power supply is as big as the Havana all by itself. With that one can expect more and better, of which the Cary offers the listener—more and better in every respect. But at a little under $800 the Havana is a lot of fun to listen to! It gets you really close to the music by offering a very un-fatiguing sound. One that is smooth and rhythmically driven …the Havana is all about pace and well if I may make an obvious analogy, the Havana has many of the qualities that the best music from Cuba possess; rhythm, pace, pulse, timing, etc. It is the Havana DAC that gets that all quite right.

Okay so the Havana will not move the bass with the control or slam of the Cary, nor will it delineate to the same degree what is going on and how… yeah, it is not as refined or as dimensionally involving as the $9k Cary, but that is what more money gets 'ya. In listening to the track "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" from Radiohead's In Rainbows, Thom York's vocals ride upon a distorted guitar as heard from the right speaker. With the Havana his vocals are "mixed" into the guitar to a slight degree; that is his vocal merge a bit with the guitar tending to present his vocals within the guitar's distortion. This masks his words, and yet with say either the Cary 306 and my regular system or even the Bel Canto e.One DAC3 and Red Wine Isabellina DAC, the vocals retain their purity and the guitar is left to do its thing. On the track "Muslims of China" from the Musilmgauze's United States of Islam, the bells, cymbals, and drums also lack that final degree of air and naturalness that one hears from more costly DACs. The drumming also lacks that last whack or dynamics by not coming across as being as big and thunderous as heard from the Cary—less decay and slam. The Bodega release by DJ Olive features the track "Ally Way". This track has a very deep subterranean rumble running throughout the cut; the Havana neither offers quite the control, extension, or overall visceral-ness as heard from the Cary. I have used these tracks prior in the devilsound/Virtue Two review to reveal differences in resolution, refinement, and control between DACs and such as they are quite revealing of any shortcomings. Yes, the Havana is closer to that heard from the Cary than say the devislound, but the differences of omission still do exist. That is a product such as the Cary is still way, WAY better as it does what the Havana strives for, but clearly misses. But of course one has to decide if these differences will impact one's enjoyment of the music or something anyone cares about or even notice unless you had something like the Cary to compare with the Havana. Well, the truth is no they won't and most people don't, so these differences aren't really anything to fret about. The Havana gets the music across, just not perhaps as ultimately well as say something like the Cary will do… and for a lot more cash! The Havana is a great way to get into computer based audio without spending the big dollars… and without needing to take a detour down the road for something better.

More on the mhdt Havana...

Although I have a fine turntable, SACD player, and an excellent FM tuner, the primary source for most of my casual listening involves iTunes playlists from my Apple Mac Mini. My playlists consist mainly of Apple Lossless rips of my CD collection (an ongoing process) and some songs and albums purchased from the iTunes store. The computer is connected directly to my Magnum Dynalab 208 receiver with a 1/8 inch to stereo RCA Monster Cable. For two years, this configuration has proven very satisfying and convenient with casual listening. However, for serious listening, a USB DAC would be a logical and necessary upgrade. PFO editor Dave Clark was in the process of reviewing several USB DACs and suggested that I try out the Havana USB DAC from MHDT Labs in Taiwan. I agreed to give the Havana DAC a tryout.

First of all, the Havana was fairly easy to install. I simply connected a USB cable from the back of my computer to USB input of the DAC. Then I used the Audio MIDI Set Up utility program to set the MHDT as the system output. Next, I routed a pair of Nordost Blue Heaven interconnects from the DAC to the MD208. The Havana DAC is notable in that it does not over sample or process the data through brick wall filters. A 5670 tube buffers the output on the way to your preamp. So, what did the Havana DAC sound like in my system? The result was a revelation.

The difference in sound between the DAC and non DAC was comparable to a major component upgrade from one valued in hundreds of dollars to one valued in thousands of dollars. Music sounded clearer and more defined like turning the fine focus knob on a microscope. I recently purchased from the iTunes store Schubert’s Six German Dances, D820, by Pierre Boulez and the Berliner Philharmonic on DG. Listening to music’s gentle melodies is a great way for me to relax while reading a book in my comfortable chair. With the Havana DAC in line, however, focusing my attention on anything else other than the music was difficult. The orchestra sounded as if a gossamer veil had been removed between the listener and the performers. The tonal colors of the instruments sounded vividly organic and refined as each section within the now expanded sound space spoke with clear voices. If you are not familiar with this music, a melody is played by the orchestra then repeated by only a few instruments like a man leading a woman in a splendid waltz. The transition from massed strings to a lone oboe was exceptional. And when the conductor signaled for the sound to swell up and suddenly stop, the Havana tracked every bow and breath with precision.

Over the next few days I preceded to rediscover musical gems in my iTunes playlists. Voices and instruments simply sounded more faithful to themselves rather than sounding like artificial recordings. The analogue output of the computer tends to blur fine lines and rhythms and confine musicians to the one plane across the front of the speakers. The Havana liberates performers to occupy distinct spaces on the musical sound stage. For example, the steady snare and bass drum beat that introduces the album Kiko by Los Lobos cracked with metallic energy several feet behind the centerline of the speakers while the guitar entered a few bars later from outside the speakers boundary. I never thought outstanding performance like this was possible from my Mac Mini.

Sadly, my time with the unit was limited but my ears have been opened to the wonders of USB DACs and, in particular, the musical and natural sounding MHDT Havana DAC. The Havana certainly set the bar very high as I explore more USB DACs in the approaching months before I decide on the best value and performance for my system. Stay tuned. Victor Chavira

Okay, so the Havana ain't perfect, after all it is what it is… an inexpensive NOS DAC that it is, but if one wants to minimize these issues to varying degrees… well here is the deal. Get the Havana and add into the mix the Bel Canto 24/96 USB Link. This means that you can still use your USB out (and USB cable of choice and oh yes… the Locus Design Nucleus is quite wonderful), but instead of a USB connection, one can go into the DAC's S/PDIF for a cleaner more resolving sound (it should be noted that USB is a very dirty place and in many respects is one of the worst ways to get 'music' either in or out—so I am told by people in the know). The Bel Canto Link will clean up the jitter (and all that noise and crap that USB carries from your computer) to a very great degree. By design the Havana's USB interface is not doing much if anything to address jitter and so jitter will raise its jittery little head and potentially mess things up to some degree. I should point out—and this is way beyond me to explain completely—that NOS DACs are 'supposed' to be less susceptible to jitter than 'newer' up-sampling DACs and hence jitter will have less an impact on its sound, ah …but… the truth is in the listening.

The Bel Canto 24/96 Link ($495) accepts a computer-derived USB input of up to 24 bits and 96 kHz and outputs the signal on a 75 ohm BNC (S/PDIF). The USB Link 24/96 includes a Stereovox XV2 BNC/BNC cable with an RCA adaptor for the S/PDIF connector. The Link is compatible with native drivers on Mac and Windows, features a reference crystal oscillator for low-jitter clock recovery, is self-powered via USB input (which benefits from LC filters and low-noise local regulation and means no added cables and such to get tangled in), and offers galvanic isolation between computer and audio system to prevent high-frequency noise. Easy to use (plug and play) the Link addresses things that some USB connections are unable to …the Bel Canto guys know their stuff and the Link really cleans up the digital signal. The Midi in the Mac shows the Bel Canto 24/96… click and play. And it passes 24/96!

Yeah, the Bel Canto Link is killer. Using it with the Havana closed the gap between it and the pricier stuff to a great degree—not that it was the great equalizer, but it sure did elevate the DAC in question to a much higher level. The Havana DAC now presented the music with a superior sense of resolution and ease… there was more there to hear with-in the music. With the Link in the chain, the music was now more holographic-ly dimensional with less edge and grain. Not that one noticed any grain and such in the Havana prior to the Bel Canto, but certainly now with the Link doing its thing the absence of said grain and such was clearly audible. Nice… smoother and yet, more resolved.

I found that the Link worked equally well with any DAC I tossed its way, including the Cary 306 Professional. In every case the music took on an improved (obviously to varying degrees depending on the quality of the DAC, though in every case it was one of "a positive difference") in warmth and naturalness with a greater delineation of notes and instruments; no hint of fatigue or analytical nasties to ruin the music. Nice indeed. The only issue is that one is limited to a S/PDIF connection, but that should not be an issue as just about any DAC out there has this industry standard. If you want to go the AES/EBU route this is not the unit for you. For that one would need to try the Empirical Off-Ramp 3 which is more of the 'Swiss" army knife of USB convertor/reclockers in terms of the different connection interfaces offered around the back. The Bel Canto is a great way to connect that USB source to a S/DIF DAC… it works and it works quite well. The Bel Canto USB Link is a must have!

Elsewhere in this issue Mike Wechsberg wrote about the Xavian Mediterranea loudspeakers in rather glowing terms, so I will keep this to the point. After spending a few weeks with these statuesque beauties, Carol and I would have to say that he is spot on; these are very nice speakers indeed. Without repeating what Mike said, we can only emphasize that they Mediterraneas present a beautifully rich harmonic truthfulness with our music. These speakers, which as Mike said do like being played loud, will go amazingly deep in the bass and are a killer speaker on rock. No, they will not go as deep or with the same degree of control and slam as our Tetons, but what they do is quite enjoyable. For a sealed box, the woofers will really move and one can expect solid bass down into the low 30s… are you ready to rumble?

Tonally the Mediterraneas tend to be quite like the Tetons in that they have a rich and warm midrange which is honest and engaging. The Mediterraneas are though not as resolving in that, yes, while the highs tend to be soft and airy—analytical the Mediterraneas are definitely not. They do sound a tad rolled-off, though I would suspect that the mid to lower treble to be spot on even. Choosing cables helped by opening the Mediterranea up a bit, but these are not speakers reflective of the 'in your face' crowed. No, the Mediterranea will not drop the music out into the room, but what they will do is to draw you into the music where they offer a warmer richer tonality more reminiscent of tubes; tubes in the classic sense of overall tonality and richness, though without the bloat and dark-ish cliché that this presents to the reader.

Like I said, they like to be played loud and that is where the Mediterranea really come into their own. On more than one occasion I questioned the ability of the speakers to handle not only the decibels, but the bass content… and never once did they whimper or complain. The Mediterranea are easy on the eyes, and quite beguiling to the ears… highly recommended.

Mediterranea loudspeakers
Retail: $10,500 a pair

Half Note Audio
web address: www.halfnoteaudio.com

Bel Canto http://www.belcantodesign.com

mdht http://www.geocities.com/mhdtlab

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