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Musings on Building a Digital Music Server: Revisiting the Rega DAC

10-09-2014 | By Andy Schaub | Issue 75

"The muses dance and sing|
They make the children really ring
I spend the day your way
Call it morning driving thru the sound and
In and out the valley"

- "Roundabout" by Yes


As you may remember from an earlier article, I recently moved to San Francisco and had to scale down my reference system because the best apartment for me turned out to be a studio near my girlfriend's place. I still have my Audio Note system; it's just all in storage while I wait to see what happens over the course of the next year. I did manage to pull a few things out of the Über System, including my Magnum Dynalab Internet Tuner and the front end of my digital music server (except that now I'm using a multipurpose 27" iMac with a 3TB Fusion drive rather than a dedicated Mac mini with an external RAID drive as my source computer). However, I am still using my 3-meter AudioQuest Diamond USB cable going into my original Sonicweld Diverter HR and then, via my 1-meter Stealth Varidig Sextet S/PDIF cable, into my Rega DAC. I'm using an Audio Note silver interconnect (hypothetically an AN-Vx) with Eichmann Silver Bullet Plugs to run the analog output of the Rega DAC into my Manley Skipjack, also taking the output of my Magnum Dynalab Internet Tuner as an input, so I can switch between the tuner and the Rega DAC going into the front, "Line 3", input of my Tri KT-88-based integrated amplifier.

Rega DAC

For lack of thinking of anything better, I was using a 15-foot Audio Note copper Lexus cable to run from the Skipjack to the, "Line 3", input of the amplifier and, quite honestly, it sounded better than my previous home-office arrangement, where I had used a 6-foot Locus Design Axis USB cable from the iMac into an Audiophilleo 1 then into the Rega DAC via a 1-meter Locus Design Core S/PDIF cable; and yet I knew there was something missing… Fast forward a bit and I realize that I have a 6-foot Audio Note AN-Vz (about the equivalent of today's AN-Vx) in storage; so I pay a nominal fee to help get my stuff unpacked just long enough to get the AN-Vz, hooked it up between the Skipjack and the, "Line 3", input, then played the 24/192 download of Moment to Moment by Cava Menzies and Nick Phillips from HDtracks.com. Well, I have to confess I was stunned. The sound quality was just remarkable and it improved in every way, not just treble extension, but bass extension and greater dynamic range as well. Although the Rega DAC was wedged between some profoundly expensive pieces of equipment and cables, it held its own and really improved exponentially as the quality of the peripherals increased.

At this point, there is really nothing to do but listen to music and report on how well the Rega DAC performs. For preparation, I played the new Coup Perdu LP, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning. It's an all-analog jazz recording based on a film, recorded, cut, and pressed at very prestigious facilities, all of which comes out in the playback. Even using a Rega P3-24 with a TT-PSU, an Audio Note IQ3 MM cartridge, and an Audiomat 1.5 phonostage, it sounds remarkable and the music is extraordinarily enjoyable. It's by far one of the best albums I have in my collection. So that's kind of hard to beat. On the other hand, I played the news/talk station KQED via my Magnum Dynalab MD807 Internet tuner, which sounds so good (although many people don't believe me) that the announcer seemed to jump out of my speakers (Micropure minimonitors with a 12" Essex subwoofer) as if he, in this case, was sitting in my room. So now it was time to load up some high-resolution files and play them through the Rega DAC. I used iTunes and Audirvana Plus. I think Pure Music sounds a bit better, but it really works best on a dedicated music computer. Audirvana Plus is a more Mac-like application that sounds a little rolled off at the top but still plays extremely well with other applications on my multipurpose 27" iMac, which I'm currently using as a music source. I decided to start out with the 24/192 Linn download, The Proud Bassoon, a really excellent recording. I have to say that the sound seemed a little "boxed in" compared to the other sources, but Linn recordings, though excellent musically, can sound a little restrained and I'm far from giving up on the Rega DAC until I listen to several other recordings, at various resolutions from various sources.

I decided to go to the 24/176.4 Reference Recordings download There's a Time by Doug MacLeod, which can be purchased at HDtracks.com. That sounded much better, with far better treble extension, more dynamic range, the ability to get my subwoofer to kick in substantially, and just more of a sense of presence. I would guess, based on the review I did a few months ago, that the Ayre QB-9 DSD would sounds a little more "fun", and that's an important factor, for quite a bit less money than I have invested in the Rega DAC with all it's high-end peripherals; however, the "über" form of the Rega DAC that I have setup is no doubt a hair more accurate. I might be inclined to listen to downloads more with the QB-9 DSD because of the fun factor; however, sometimes those attractions can get tiresome (I honestly don't know in this case) and the truth is that I barely have time to listen to more than 1-2 LP's or CD's a week, so getting to downloads isn't at the top of my priority list, though I like being able to listen to, e.g., Mozart's Requiem without needing to flip records or change CD's; and the same thing is true of Bach's Mass in B Minor, both of which are available as high-resolution downloads from Linn, in both cases performed by the Dunedin Consort (& Players) with quite a bit more dynamic range than The Proud Bassoon. I would listen to Keith Jarrett's The Köln Concert, which is one my favorite all-time recordings, at 24/96 from HDtracks.com; however, I don't have the repaired version on my 27" iMac. As I have mentioned, the version that I have has a high-frequency test tone in it that ruins the sound; but once I've removed that using iZotope's RX 3 (I haven't upgraded to RX 4), The Köln Concert sounds quite remarkable.

I should mention that at the moment I am listening to Mozart's Requiem by the Dunedin Consort & Players, the 24/192 download from Linn that I alluded to above, and once you let it breath a little (which basically means allowing my equipment, including a Tri KT88-based integrated amplifier, the TRV-88SE, to warm up), it really does sound very engaging with strings that swoon and voices that emerge from the ether in quite a remarkable way. So I take back part, but not all, of what I said about the QB-9/"über" Rega DAC comparison. This is really fun! An LP that I play fairly often is the 45RPM reissue of Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield from Analogue Productions (i.e., Acoustic Sounds). It sounds really remarkable but the LP has started to play with a bit of noise; so I purchased the 24/96 download of it from HDtracks.com (don't think I get everything for free). The LP sounds richer but the download sounds very open with good string definition and remarkable clarity on the backup vocals. I think it could just use a bit more warmth because it sounds a little "hollow"; however, I'm sure that's in the recording (or the transfer to a download), not in the DAC chain. I decided to listen to one last download, so I choose the 24/96 version of Diana Krall's The Look of Love from HDtracks.com, which did sound really lush and up front, with a just a bit of treble attenuation, which I think is a side-effect of Audirvana Plus (not meaning to disparage the program) and really sounded pretty much equal to the CD played through my one-tube Tri TRV-CD4SE. So I think, although my goto recommendation in the affordable range of DAC's is the Ayre QB-9 DSD, for around $1K, the Rega DAC really offers an ordinarily musical but neutral sound and could be paired with an Audiophilleo2, with no need for a S/PDIF cable, for just an additional $579 (excluding the PurePower option), giving you the same direct USB input that you get with QB-9 DSD but also providing other options such as a second S/PDIF input and a TOSLINK input, not to mention the Rega's own USB input, which sounds extremely good up to its limit of 24/48.

I guess that wraps things up. We'll have to see how things pan out over the next year and a half as to whether I get a place with room for my Audio Note system and whether I get to keep the Audio Note DAC 4.1x Balanced Signature or not. I'm not in a hurry to sell it; but whether I get to keep it or not is dependent on many factors over which I only have some control. Wish me luck!

Kindest regards,


P. S. For what's worth, I actually listened to Diana Krall while processing the photograph for this column, using Photoshop CC 2014 with the Google Nik plugins. My 27" iMac is about as fully-loaded as you could get about this time a year ago, so that helps, but the fact that I could actually play music flawlessly while running a very resource-intensive application says tons about OS X, iTunes, and Audirvana Plus.