I was truly unsure that in 2015 any of us would be needing a two box, multi-function digital source for portable transportable media. I took a CD around with me at T.H.E. Show Newport and found few rooms that could play it or, at least, without first ripping it. That said, the course of true hi-rez downloading never did run smooth, at least for me.
Even if I get a perfect download from a top provider, the USB cable between the computer and DAC intrudes dramatically in the soundfield. I have described it as the rule of thirds. One third of the sound is the computer source, one third is the connecting cable, and one third is the DAC.
I have carefully collected top CDs, hybrids, and single layer SACDs just in case a great engineer came along with the taste levels to make real music from them.
I will admit that the tip top $100,000 dCS stack has left me musically unsatisfied when I should be wowed at that stratospheric cost. Other ultra-expensive assaults on the state-of-the-art seem to fall short. Not just short of LP sound, but short of top CD sound from one box solutions with a couple of tubes on board. Case in point, listen to the Modwright Sony, Modwright Oppo, and E.A.R. Acute 2 and 3 models. I have been left cold by the crappy umbilical cables usually provided by high-end companies for multiple boxes, too.
The CD player came out in 1983. That was 32 years ago, and now we have the 4th version of a digital player from E.A.R. which is multi-box, with tubes, with umbilical, very flexible with drawer, including SACD and every input I have ever heard of for direct connection to a computer. Is E.A.R. feeling lucky? Is four tries at building digital boxes what it takes in this changing digital landscape to hit the bullseye? We do know designer Tim de Paravicini is a genius of the first order.
Well, my friends, and I say this without reservation:
The E.A.R. Acute 4/DAC 4 CD/SACD player is solidly, musically, state-of-the-art, and the best player/DAC combo I have auditioned in the world!
The Review System
1. Source: E.A.R. Acute 4/DAC 4 CD/SACD Player
2. Sources: ModWright Sony 9100; E.A.R. Acute 3; Alesis; Pioneer LD
3. Preamp: E.A.R. 912
4. Amps: E.A.R. 890 Mono-blocks
5. Marten Birds / REL Stadium III Sub
6. Cables: Merrill Audio ANAP Balanced Interconnects, Jorma Origo Balanced Interconnects, Jorma Origo Speaker Cables
7. Power: Kubala-Sosna Emotion and Elation AC Cables
Specifications for Acute 4 Transport (works only with DAC 4)
Specifications for DAC 4 (works with any computer or transport)
The review sample DAC was supplied with 6 volt tubes, (4) ECC88s, not the 7 volt tubes listed in the manual. I like the 6 volt tubes best. I stacked the units on a Townshend Seismic Sink with the transport on the bottom, but either way is fine. They can be placed side by side with no sonic gain. The supplied manuals are complete and helpful. E.A.R. supplies a sharp looking aluminum remote that is line-of-sight and works well.
Fit and finish is a cut above standard E.A.R. with advanced styling and a most lovely architecture. (Not to say that the standard E.A.R. gear isn't great looking!) It provides a very elegant light show and solid fast performance. The all metal drawer is quick and quiet. Everything about these pieces says: we mean business.
The umbilical is thick and unique with 5 pins. The connectors are beautiful and well made. I ran in the units for 125 hours playing CDs and SACDs before reviewing.
My final hookup for the DAC and Player for ultimate performance was as follows:
1. Player on bottom, DAC on top.
2. Kubala-Sosna Emotion AC on DAC; Elation AC on Player.
3. Merrill Audio ANAP Balanced Interconnect from DAC to Preamp.
The Merrill Audio ANAP Interconnect for $1150 for up to 3 meters is a shockingly great cable. It is the best wire in its price range and outperforms wires in my inventory up to $2700 per meter. With massive bloom, low grain, and gorgeous definition, it is the deal of deals. Please see my review in PF (HERE).
Whether playing CDs or SACDS, the E.A.R. Acute 4/DAC 4 CD/SACD Player is the most realistic, full range, grain free, and superbly detailed playback yet achieved at any price, in my experience. It produces optimum imaging, wall-to-wall soundstaging, perfect timbres, intense and correct tonal colors, and extraordinary depth perspective. The lifelike reproduction of great Telarc disks will stun your senses. The delicacy of vocals floating in space is sexy as hell. Dynamic range has no limits save amplifier power. Digital finally challenges analog in key ways that will not disappoint the most snobby audiophile.
Many times I thought that if I had the master tape running at 15ips on an Ampex 351-2 in the other room, the reproduction would not sound any different than the E.A.R.. The sense of intense reality in the room and even down the hall is amazing and thrilling. I cannot stand dryness and crispness in the leading edge of the music, and there is absolutely none. There is just pure, lovely music.
The E.A.R. Acute 4/DAC 4 CD/SACD Player is a true, unabashed breakthrough in digital music reproduction!
Source: Astell&Kern AK 240 DAP with AQ 1.5 Toslink
Shifting gear to the inputs of the E.A.R. DAC 4, E.A.R. is quite proud of the Toslink input on the DAC 4, and they should be. The A&K played all music albums up to 24/192 without a hitch, and they sounded superb and sophisticated. Maybe the Toslink is just a notch below the best sources from the E.A.R. Player and a computer, but better and smoother than any Toslink I have ever heard before. When playing DSD on the A&K, the DAC downsampled to 24/176. I can recommend Toslink as a connector without reservation unless you want to play DSD native.
Source: Alesis Masterlink with Kubala-Sosna Emotion AES Interconnect
The Alesis is limited to 24/96, but it is terrific! Open, dynamic, and realistic, disks recorded at 24/96 are winners. I have buddies who still use this antique for recording and send me copies of their efforts. E.A.R. Acute 4/DAC 4 CD/SACD Player makes the Alesis sound brand new! The upsampling of the 24/88 or 24/96 disks to 24/192 rock my world. Big, open, grandly alive sound.. .AES is a killer way to hookup your gear to the E.A.R. DAC. The Kubala-Sosna Emotion is the best AES I have heard to date.
Source: Pioneer 660 LD Player with Kubala-Sosna Elation SPDIF Interconnect
I have a very large concert collection of laser disks that I enjoy playing and watching on a 20 inch monitor. The player never ever sounded better with any DAC than with the E.A.R. DAC! Though only 24/44.1, the excellent upsampling enriches and expands the quality of these LDs, particularly piano performances. Bypassing the awful DAC in the Pioneer is a blessing. I found no negatives to using this connector and would recommend it without reservation.
Source: Mac Computer with AQ Diamond and Furutech USB Interconnect
These two premium USB cables sound quite different and one is less expensive. The AQ Diamond is well-detailed, smooth, moderately colored, and a bit etched. It's also about $500 per meter. The Furutech is more dynamic, more detailed, more musical, smoother, and less expensive! About $250 per meter! I tried both, but settled on the superior Furutech. Playing Blue Note Jazz Albums at 24/192, the performances were absolutely superb and alive. But since these recordings were not mastered with tubes when re-released, they do not have the depth and elegance of the tube sourced recordings I have on SACDs. They are close however!
Playing DSD download recordings from Acoustic Sounds, I could not really hear any differences between these and their SACD counterparts. I might be able to imagine some, but they were closer than close. Maybe the downloads had a little less grain and the SACDs were a touch more dynamic. When the next generation of USB cables hit the market (Furutech has a more expensive Pro model!) the performance of playing from the computer will certainly improve and may consistently eclipse disks. The DAC is available separately from the transport and may be what you need if you do not have any software.
The E.A.R. Acute 4/DAC 4 CD/SACD Player is the unabashed leader for digital playback for any sources I can think of. It is plainly and simply state-of-the-art. You may spend much, much more on a transport and DAC and receive much less performance. You may consider it expensive, but in the scheme of high-end choices, it is not! The E.A.R. Acute 4/DAC 4 CD/SACD Player offers an unmatched sense of reality and timbral perfection, only exceeded by top analog. Build quality and flexibility is awesome. With world-class looks and cost-is-no-object performance, you must audition the E.A.R. Acute 4/DAC 4 CD/SACD Player for yourself.
I bought the review samples. My strongest and highest recommendation!
E.A.R. Acute 4/DAC 4 CD/SACD Player
Available separately, but Player only works with DAC.
(Photographs courtesy of EAR Yoshino)