Positive Feedback ISSUE 65
january/february 2013

 

The following submissions are for the 'Readers Who Want to be Writers' Contest. The authors are not Staff members of Positive Feedback. 

 

Digital Calm
by Ken Redmond

Never, in my history of reviewing equipment, did I think I would get to the day that I would be able to write the phrase "Digital Calm" in a review, let alone have it be the title of one. Up to this point, I only envisioned the use of such a phrase in the company of such other oxymoron as Silent Noise, Jumbo Shrimp, and of course, Military Intelligence to name a few.

But now, as Rafiki, the wise old baboon in the Lion King says…

"It is time"…

From the point when I heard my first CD in 1980 on a NEC CD-803, one of 5 in the country that had been flown over from Japan for the CES show in Chicago, I knew we were in for a long dark time in the area of music reproduction. As you can imagine, "Calm" was not my "go to" word to describe the feeling I was left with after listening to music on a CD player for 30 minutes. In the years that followed, we all know the efforts that were made by manufacturers to reduce or mask the effect that CD reproduction had on us. Up sampling, Oversampling, Single bit, Sliding bit, and on and on. Some were more successful than others in reducing the ill effects of CD reproduction, but all in all, they did not serve the music well.

Fast forward to the present.

I have had the opportunity over the last two years to own three different incarnations of John Wright's upgrade work to the Museatex line of outboard DAC products. John currently resides in Canada and does upgrades and repair work on the Museatex line, a line that he and Ed Meitner participated in bringing to market in the 90's and one that holds special favor with many music lovers around the world.

I have been fortunate to own John's upgraded versions of the Museatex BiDat, the Bitstream, and now the battery powered DA 44. I can only tell you that the common thread that runs through all these products is a "calm" that I previously only associated with listening to vinyl.

I can hear you screaming now…"Heresy!" you say…

I think not..

You see, these pieces are somewhat of a revelation. Oh yes, I could use all the audiophile buzz words to try to relate the experience of listening to these devices... sound staging, harmonic structure, analog-like, macro-micro dynamics, timbre accuracy, oneness, pace, rhythm, timing, Blah- Blah- Blah... and, yes, they would be deserving of copious praise on all these accounts and more... but, you have read all of that before. I'm afraid it would just come across as another member of the infamous "DAC of the month club" reviews. That would not be fair… for these pieces represent more that that..

I mentioned earlier that I had the good fortune to own three of the Wright/Museatex DAC's, which inevitably poses the questions.

How did they differ? Which one is the "Best"?

Well, my friends, the good thing is that you can't go wrong with any of them for they all possess the same family of sound highlighted by the "calm" that I referred to earlier.

The differences are, what John so aptly points out on his website, differences of "flavor."

Having been involved photography in an earlier life, I think I could best relate the difference in the DAC's in terms of film choices. If you are too young to know what film is… just bypass this analogy. Let's just leave it at the fact that film will end up being to photography, what tubes have become to our beloved audio hobby. But that's a whole other article I'll have to write in the future.

But for those that remember film, here is how I would lay it out…

The Bitstream is the 35mm Kodachrome 100 of the group. It has its own colorations and puts a bit of vividness that, while not the absolute truth, is certainly truthful to the music. It has excellent PRAT and you will find your foot tapping the ground on many occasions..

The Bidat is the 35mm Kodachrome 25 of the group. Seamless resolution combined with a more truthful take on the music which may or may not appeal to someone depending on where they are on their audio journey. I have found over my many years of selling audio, that some people, for lack of a better way of putting it, can't handle the sonic truth…For myself, there is no question that the Bidat is a more complete unit than the Bitstream taking the music to a level of naturalness that is wonderfully captivating.

The Battery powered DA 44, to my humble ears, represents the 8x10 Agfa of film. The music rises from an astonishingly grain free background that just allows your ears to relax and "join" the music rather than "listen to" the music. Low level detail is exposed that, hither fore, was not apparent, and as such, contributes mightily to the totality of the musical experience. This is one amazing Digital piece…

Is there a "best" ?. I don't think so. Synergy plays such a large role in system voicing that there can be no one "best" piece. But what you have here a selection of equipment that will allow you to find the best product for YOUR system while maintaining the "digital calm" that I referred to earlier. These pieces give you quite an arsenal, in terms of various price points and sonic "flavors" to outfit your system with in a way that best suits your personal interpretation of reproduced music.

Experienced audio aficionados know that as you travel down your chosen path in the pursuit of "the holy grail" you are offered many choices. Some are major "forks in the road" such as your choice to pursue tubes or solid state; some are just further steps toward your goal, such as, the myriad of tweaks that are out there. Every now and then, you come to a door… a door that, if you can open it, will reveal the next level of performance you have been seeking.

But… in order to open this door and move to the next level, … you need a key…

My friends, the John Wright modified Museatex DAC's are the key to that door. They allow you to move past the Digital barrier that has, for so long, kept people from enjoying CD's.

I would like to relate to you what these incredible pieces have taught me.

Lesson number One... It's there.

It's all there... on CD. The seamless soundstage, width and depth, the ambient cues including leading edge dynamics and decay. The retrieval of low-level listening clues. All of the hallmarks of analog listening are on the silver disc to be retrieved. You just need to right device... and the Wright/Museatex DAC's are it... they achieve that magical combination of the best of analog and the best of digital and blends them in a magic potion that is simply intoxicating. Yes, it can be done... and now it has been done. The digital door has been opened.

Lesson number Two... Eyes Wide Shut

Have you ever pondered why the experience of listening to reproduced music is more believable with your eyes closed? I have always subscribed to the theory that if you shut down one of your senses, you increase the sensitivity of the others. By reducing the visual input, you free your brain to concentrate on the sound and increase your ability to "experience" the music with less mental distraction. In essence you "hear better." Much in the same way a blind person elevates their remaining senses to compensate for the lost of vision.

After hearing the Wright/Museatex DAC's I have a new take on the subject.

My new thinking is the reason we close our eyes is not to "hear better" but, in fact, to allow our brains to "fill in the blanks." A sort of "mental error correction" system. Up until now, I have always had to close my eyes to allow myself to believe the instruments and performers were in the room. I had to let my mind "paint in" the missing cues that would have me think I was hearing an actual instrument or performer. I would have to keep my eyes closed lest the "illusion" would be ruined. When I would open my eyes, the musical reproduction was never convincing enough to override my visual input. My eyes would always win the contest and my brain would come to the conclusion that the instrument or performer was not real.

Well, my friends, that is no longer the case. You now have the freedom to turn off your "mental error correction" system. It is now OK to open your eyes. With the Wright/ Museatex Dac's in line, the reproduction is so convincing that you can literally stare at the spot in space the instrument or vocal should be, and the clues are such that you think you can "see" the music. Instead of the visual clues easily overriding the aural clues, I now, at least, have an even battle between the two. .

It is actually quite disconcerting at first... to stare at empty space and have your eyes tell you nothing is there, but to have your ears tell you that you that something IS there and you are hearing something very close to the real thing. Disconcerting yes... but also a musical revelation... one, I dare say, that you will easily adjust to.

Frankly... it is the highest praise I can give any audio component... the believable suspension of reality.

Yes, Rafiki… "It is time"…

 

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