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Musings on Building a Digital Music Server: The
Magnum Dynalab MD 807T Internet Tuner and 24/192 Upsampling Tube Analog DAC
Now Andy did you hear about this one
The Magnum Dynalab MD 807T is a very interesting device. Essentially, it's a very high quality computer running some custom software to lock in about any station that broadcasts on the World Wide Web. It's the way it does it that make it unique along with some of the options you have for its use. Very warm and analog sounding, the 807T has a S/PDIF input that also allows you to use as a standalone 24/192 upsampling DAC with a flick of the switch on the back. Unlike most of the high resolutions DACs I've encountered, it uses tubes in the analog output section. I think this alone counts for a lot of its signature sound, which—as I mentioned—is very warm and quite reminiscent of a good vinyl record even though (in my case) it's accessing the Web through my home Wi-Fi supplied courtesy of Comcast and an Apple Airport Extreme; but fear not! If you don't have Wi-Fi, or choose not to use, it also has an Ethernet port for hardwiring the tuner to your modem or router. In case you're just not happy with the upsampling DAC and tube analog output stage (with both balanced and single ended connections), it has a COAX and TOSLINK output on the back. Plus, it has an antenna input so—if you live in a good area—you can capture terrestrial FM. It can also lock onto your home network and play files directly from that if you have the right kind of setup, i.e., Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), which is—unfortunately—not supported natively by Mac OS X. It even has a USB port on the front, not for streaming, but for playing thumb drives and such. It does so many things that I really couldn't extensively test them all.
It's about 7:30PM PDT and I'm listening to the BBC's Radio 3 late night broadcast of classical music; but I've also spent quite a bit of time listening to Linn's Internet-only jazz and classical stations, quite happily I might add. I had forgotten how much fun it is to have a radio in the system, and a very good one at that. I can easily say that this sounds as good as any FM tuner I have heard, and without all that fuss over a good antenna and the limitations of the signals available in your area, both physical properties of the signal (such as multipath distortion) and just the number of types of music you have available. Of course, because you get the signal off of the Web, there's no subscription cost, just a well designed touchscreen user interface for finding and saving your favorite radio stations, including information about the station you're on and—if available—the particular performer and music you're hearing. Now what's the difference between the MD 807T and just bringing up your favorite station in a browser? Well, it's really all in the execution. While the 807T can certainly play talk radio, it's clearly been voiced for music; and because of the ability to use it as a standalone DAC, if you don't have a digital music server, you can build one quite easily around the 807T. Just as a test, I used it on the first day that I got it to play the 24/88.2 download of The Goat Rodeo Sessions from HDtracks.com and was quite taken with the sound, again very warm and analog like and not nearly so lean as my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha Series 2. While the Alpha might have more resolution, and doesn't upsample everything to 24/192, in some ways it's not as engaging. My favorite stations include BBC Radio 3, Linn's Internet only jazz, and classical stations, WFMT, KCSM and KQED; and those are only a few of thousands. I have a friend who lives in Tucson and loves the local classical station. So I searched for "Tucson classical radio" in Firefox on my MacBook Air and got the station call letters "KUAT". Going to the 807T's touchscreen, I browsed to the station search option and simply typed in "KUAT". A few seconds later I had the station and was playing Tucson classical radio in what sounded to me like high fidelity, all from the comfort of my San Francisco Bay Area living room.
Now let's talk about using the MD 807T as a DAC. I have an Apple Airport Express in my bedroom system so I can stream music from my iPhone to my old, original iDecco via a glass TOSLINK cable (the WireWorld Supernova 6). It sounds pretty good, for what it is; and I was happily listening to Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins' Rabbit Fur Coat, ripped from CD using Apple Lossless Compression (or ALAC) when it occurred to me that I had the same CD ripped onto my digital music server. So I flicked that switch on the back of the 807T and queued up Rabbit Fur Coat using iTunes and Pure Music. Now, as I mentioned, everything going into the 807T's DAC gets upsampled to 24/192, a decision that not every manufacturer would make; but—in this case—it really works. The sound was clear and clean, without being overly forward, and had analog warmth to it, not unlike the Rega DAC, but better; and, at $4,500.00 MSRP, you would expect it to be! It still requires a USB-to-S/PDIF converter (mine is the Sonicweld Diverter HR, again, the original one) and a S/PDIF cable (mine is the Audio Note Pallas) but you could probably get by with an Audiophilleo 2, which doesn't necessarily require a cable, bringing the total price of the kit to around $5K. Not bad for an Internet tuner and high-resolution USB-capable DAC. It's a little inconvenient to have to reach around and flick a toggle switch to engage the DAC; but it's also inconvenient to flip records. That doesn't mean we avoid it when looking for the best sound possible, which brings me to another point. There are a lot of services out there (Pandora, Spotify, and TuneIn Radio just to name a few) that let you access many streams and learn about new music. That's great; but none of them sound like the 807T and—if you really want to use them—you can always bring them up in a browser on your computer and run them through the 24/192 upsampling, tube analog DAC built into the 807T. Neat!
Next up was the 24/88.2 download of Like Minds by Gary Burton et al from HDtracks.com. Although the 807T upsamples everything, Like Minds still sounded better than Rabbit Fur Coat. It could have been the recording, mastering, or any number of things, even possibly the upsample algorithm having to do less guessing about what to fill in; but there was certain sweetness to the treble that, by comparison, made Jenny Lewis' guitar seem a little harsh. I'm not saying Rabbit Fur Coat sounded bad; it was great. I'm just saying that Like Minds sounded a little more natural. Because it's a hard switch, the 807T continues to display whatever you had on the touchscreen when you bypass the front end and just use the DAC/tube analog output stage. That didn't really bother me; but I thought it noteworthy. It's an intelligent design decision and keeps the cost down if being less than optimal ergonomically. A minor nit, I assure you. I should mention that, thanks to the kind folks at Magnum Dynalab, I was able to use the 807T as a network music player by installing iSedora on my 11" MacBook Air. It ran beautifully and the 807T easily found my music collection over Wi-Fi, so I played the first song that happened to show up in my music list, which was "Never My Love" from the Whip It soundtrack by Adam Green and Har Mar Superstar. Encoded in iTunes Plus, the sound was still very good, and I found myself more enjoying the music rather than analyzing the sound. You can create custom playlists; so even without an USB-to-S/PDIF converter, the 807T can work as the heart of a digital music server. I do think the hardwired connection to my Mac mini sounds better; but that can involve several thousand dollars of hardware and software, so the 807T presents a tremendous value and a great convenience.
Although the 807T doesn't currently have a web-based interface, Magnum Dynalab is working on Apps for both the Android and iPhone/iPad markets as well as a touchscreen remote control. To quote Larry Zurowski, "Our initial efforts were to get a very good sounding unit, then work on the creature comforts." As an audiophile, I can certainly appreciate that perspective. I actually was able to test the USB port in the front by plugging in my Beatle's thumb drive that I bought several years ago, coming in the form a sculpted, metallic, green apple with the stalk being the holder for the thumb drive itself. The 807T immediately recognized that I had loaded a USB drive and presented me with a series of options based on the directory structure of the drive, including FLAC or MP3. I, of course, choose FLAC and queued up Abbey Road. I have to say, it really sounded excellent, the best I've ever heard this particular collection; and I found myself greatly enjoying the music. Stepping back to Internet radio for the moment—which is really what the 807T does best—I was playing a local classic rock station the other day and the sound was very compressed; but I'm not talking about compression of the bitstream, I'm talking about compression of the dynamic range of the voices and music and, since the 807T is not made by dbx and makes no claim to expand dynamic range, it's kind of a garbage in/garbage out situation. Still, it was fun to listen to some rock and I found myself enjoying "Bittersweet Symphony" despite the dynamic range compression. At least I could actually get the signal! This afternoon, I had BBC Radio 3 queued up again and heard a wonderful performance of Shakespeare's Richard III, not a musical performance, just good old-fashioned spoken voice. My girlfriend thought I was playing a CD.
As much as I had enjoyed using the MD 807T, the time had come to put my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha Series 2 DAC back in the system and queue up Internet radio in iTunes (at least initially). I navigated to "BBC Radio 3 High" meaning that it had more resolution than its "Low" counterpart (and I have a ton of bandwidth thanks to Comcast, an average of over 30Mbps). The sound was good and fine for casual listening, but it lacked the magic of the 807T. By comparison, the Berkeley DAC (which is great as part of a digital music server) sounded a little flat and lifeless. It lacked that classic FM sound of the 807T, which—as I have mentioned—is really optimized for Internet radio. I think that the 807T sounded good enough that if the DAC could be switched to the native resolution of the recording (e.g., 176.4kHz), I would consider letting it replace the Berkeley DAC and use it both as an Internet tuner and as an integral component of my digital music server; but given that the 807T upsamples everything to 24/192—and this is really more about philosophy than it is about music—I would have to think of it as an add on component to the rest of the system. There's nothing wrong with that; it just costs more money and adds another box to the rack. Now that the Berkeley DAC has warmed up and stabilized a bit, BBC Radio 3 sounds a bit more open but still has glossiness to it that the 807T doesn't share. The 807T sounds warmer and less digital, more like terrestrial FM (as I think I mentioned before); however, as a DAC, the Berkeley Alpha Series 2 has more resolution if a certain leanness and does operate at the native resolution of the music which, as I said, is really more a matter of philosophy than it is about sound or music; but it somehow makes me more comfortable as if I'm getting more what the mastering engineer intended. That is not meant to deride the sound quality of the 807T at all; it's a lovely sounding unit and I think, even as a standalone DAC, it competes favorably with the best that I've heard. It's just that I'm used to the Alpha.
Going back to Rabbit Fur Coat, I can more clearly hear the harshness in the original recording, and I miss the pleasing effect of the upsampling and filtering of the tubes in the output stage that added certain warmth to the sound of the 807T. The Alpha is very solid state and—in that sense—the 807T, even as a standalone DAC, is a better match for my system. It's just the Alpha has a certain WYSIWYG sound, and you're really relying on quality of the original recording and the mastering to get good music. Since I'm not a music reviewer, I suppose it doesn't matter; but, like I said, I'm used to the Alpha. Returning to the 24/88.2 download of Like Minds, the soundstage seemed quite a bit wider and the there was more dynamic range. With the Alpha, the difference between Rabbit Fur Coat and Like Minds sounded greater; and I'm not sure that's a good thing, but it is what it is. The purist in me likes it, the pragmatist and romantic in me misses the warmth and slight euphony of the 807T. Returning to Internet radio and listening to Linn jazz radio at linnjazz.rad.io, the sound is good, but it's also forward and a bit harsh; clearly, here, the MD 807T had a distinctive edge over just bringing up Internet radio in a browser and streaming it through the digital music server with the Alpha in place. So I suppose I'm coming to the conclusion that if your primary purpose is to listen to Internet radio, and/or you want to setup a UPnP server, the 807T is the way to go, on top of which you can use the 807T as a very fine tube analog standalone DAC if you don't mind upsampling everything. Since I already have a digital music server optimized for reproducing high-resolution music downloads that can technically play Internet radio, albeit not as well as the 807T, it doesn't really make sense for me to try and keep the MD 807T; but I kind of want to and will miss it, which speaks volumes for the fine work that Magnum Dynalab has done.