The Love of ones and zeros.
The Exploration of 20 years of digital.
Since the early 1980's we have been living with the reality of digital recording and playback. And while new implementations of digital technology in both areas have come and gone, the question that needs answering (for me) is, has there been genuine innovations and improvements in the quality of digital playback ? The question of recording quality, a hotly debated topic, falls outside the remit for this review, and outside of my capabilities to offer. The brief is simple, though I suspect getting there may be complex, and that is to compare a number of digital playback products from the last 20 years or so. These will include classic legacy designs, right up to the very latest, and in some ways most controversial. This controversy is not so much about how the technology has been implemented, but at the claimed levels of sound quality obtainable for very modest cost. With this product if the numerous claims are true, that would offer the audio enthusiast a true taste of the High-End for entry level money. Exciting if true.
The items on review are the classic Marantz CD94 mk2, the best of older French design in the shape of the Micromega Classic Data and Dialog-a two box Cd player, comprising a Transport and Dac. The Marantz SA 7 (One of the best current SACD/CD players) and one of the very best high end designs in the form of the Moon Andromeda. Digital to analogue converters in the test include Musical Fidelitiy Tri-Vista 21, Micromega Dialog and the Dac section of the Moon Andromeda. This group of the best digital designs, of their time, will it is hoped help to sort out whether or not digital technology has truly progressed during the last 20 years..
In a follow up review (this one is already to complex) I will assess the fondness for classic Multi Bit technology in the shape of the Phillips TDA 1541 Dac (found in the Marantz CD 94, Marantz CD 7 and the Amr CD 77 players)and see if they are truly worth some peoples adoration. This will make an interesting addition to this review, in that it may show that just because some technology is mature, that it may be reworkable to offer genuine up to date sound and add a vintage( in digital terms) twist to current accepted digital design thinking.
The main protagonists in this first review are fairly well known as is the, controversial new Berseford Tc 7510 Dac. Since coming onto the market this design has caused many to question the worth and value of their existing digital processors both in their existing Compact Disc players and as stand alone add ons to their older CD players and new uses such as with PC's derived sound. I half expect as I write this to hear the sounds of the villagers approaching, with burning torches and pitch forks, each one shouting, “bring him out”. The claims made for this modest product is “that it is a giant killer”:capable of taking on and beating the very best digital has to offer,we shall see. The journey to discover its strengths and weaknesses will be very interesting I am sure.
I will attempt to give each product the very best chance to perform at its best, and any warm up quirks will be catered for. With the Marantz player this means being left on for at least a week, and with the Moon Andromeda being on for a month. Attention will be paid also to isolation and mains cables(in the Beresfords case this can't be done as it has a wall power supply unit), interconnects, and anything else required. The review system will be in my main room. To keep things as simple as possible and you may well think that things are all ready far from simple, I will only be using three pieces of music.
Music to be used during the review. Hugh Masekela Stimela (The Coal Train) Taken from the Dali Cd Demo Disc 2006. Nitin Sawhney Broken Skin and Letting Go. Taken from Beyond Skin Cd 1999. Other music will be used, but in an attempt again, to try and simplify matters, both from a writing and listening point of view I will only refer to these tracks listed above.
Review system is Bat VK 31 se pre-amplifier, Bat VK 75 power amplifier, Anthony Gallo Ref 3.1 speakers. Cabling will be Atlas Marvos and Audience Au 24 both in RCA and XLR types and speaker cable. Isolation tables are Clearlight Audio and String Suspension Concept designs. No mains filters or regenerators will be used during these tests. However both Audience and Analysis Plus power cables will be used.
Review System with Micromega Classic Data Transport and Dialog Dac
Review System with Audiomeca Mephisto mk 2 and Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 21 Dac
Anthony Gallo Ref 3.1 speakers
First up was the legendary Marantz CD 94 mk 2 a highly regarded Cd player from the age of cost no object Flag ship models. This Marantz player was part of a line of transports and integrated players to come from the mind of Ken Ishatwata. The CD 94 mk 2 incorporated all that they had learned from the two box limited edition CD12. It was a generally held opinion, at the time, that the CD 94 mk 2 was as good as the CD12. It features a dual differential Dac lay out with Two TDA 1541 crown modules per channel( but unlike the CD12 no balanced Xlr outputs. This feature being a victim of keeping costs down.). The CD 94 mk2 is a standard unit, except for a structural modification to its underside. A thicker plate of brushed aluminum replaces the thin resonant metal plate that was there. The machine was power up and left playing for a few days before any listening was done(this player will be listened to again at the end of the review period, just to see if one weeks warm up does make a difference to the sound). It was found early on that Audience Au24 rca to rca cables sounded best and a Kimber power cord was hooked up. I heard a distinct improvement in sound with this power cord hooked up. It has been at least four and a half years since I last heard this player and hearing it a fresh was like having an old friend home you have not seen in a few years. However after a short listen it was like discovering all your friends bad points again. The Marantz at first listen has a very solid bass and wide soundstage but after a few minutes it became obvious on the Hugh Masekela track that all was not well. There was a foreshortening of the soundstage depth and a lack of openness in the treble. This was heard on the Sax and Trumpet solos and also in the lack of shimmer and decay on cymbals. In short the sound was very two dimensional and lacking in weight. Not weight in the bass, as this was very good but in the mid and treble. The classic strengths were all in evidence, very good rhythm, pace and timing. Bass was deep and articulate showing good definition, but the sound scape was sounding like a cardboard cut out of what it should and I know it can be. The problems were not quite as glaringly obvious on the Nitin Sawhney tracks but, the lack of spacial dimension and correct tonal qualities on instruments with upper mid and treble emphasis were plain to be herd (when they presented themselves). Not a good start, this was not as I remembered this machine, exactly. I say that in so much that we all would acknowledge that early digital had some issues in the areas I heard, but for it to be quite so obvious was surprising.
I was left so unhappy by this showing that I listened again later on in the week and found that this machine does indeed require a weeks warm up. So for those who don't believe in such things, well you will have to accept that I do. I also played around with the mains leads and found the Analysis Plus power Oval 2 to offer a significant improvement in sound over the Kimber originally used and the Audience AU 24 power lead used with other items during this test. An adapter had to be used to convert the IEC to Fig of 8, this did not appear to harm the sound but I wonder if a straight Fig 8 plug on the power cable would have sounded better ? The answer will have to wait, as I did not have such to hand, to try. The Marantz CD 94 mk2 with a few days more warm up had improved quite a bit. The sound was now more fleshed out and both soundstage depth, hight and width had also opened up. The bass was fuller and in general the overall sound quality had gained weight. However despite these improvements the treble was still found to be lacking. On any instruments with a lot of treble, such as cymbals, guitars, female voice etc there was still a lack of transparency, detail and air. This additional listening session has not changed the final order of quality sound found among the tested group, but did restore my belief in this player somewhat but not totally.
Marantz CD 94 mk 2
The two box Micromega Classic Data and Classic Dialog pairing where next up. This machine was well regarded in its day but in fairness I know little about it from a technological point of view(I bought it as a scrapper and had it fixed. Both bits. It came with no paper work, so a mystery). The Transport was set on the Dac (something Micromega used to recommend with the likes of their Trio player, many years ago), and Audience Au24 fed the Dac and a Analysis Power Oval 2 fed the Dac(it sounded best this way. Connection was via Atlas Marvos Xlr cables (again done as it sounded best this way. Phase was also reversed as USA kit and European Balanced designs have the + and – reversed..trust me it makes a difference). Both units rested on top of a String Suspension Concept isolation platform. After a substantial amount of run in/warm up (days), the listening began. Coming directly after the Marantz I was not really prepared for the shock. This pairing produced a much bigger soundstage, that was populated by more three dimensional instruments and vocalists. The wealth of upper instrument harmonics and tonal richness made the Marantz sound even more two dimensional (in fact one dimensional). The Hugh Masekela track suddenly had weight and scale in every area. Instruments had real body, as did vocals. The singer sounded like a man of colour now and not a white man trying hard but failing. All the vocal work was solid and many(if not all ) the intonations came across. Drums had weight and skin texture and symbols now had air and shimmer with excellent decay. The Sax and Trumpet solos now sounded like real people were behind them blowing and each instrument sounded more real.There is a part in which a cow bell is hit, this now had shape and texture and was not the paper cut out the Marantz had made it sound. Bass had extra depth and control, the individual notes and pitch could now be heard. The sound was now three dimensional. The Nitin Sawhney tracks also gained life and extra depth and texture. Percussion gained air and decay with shimmer that sounded real as did an acoustic guitar which now sounded like what it was and not a Fischer Price toy. Separation of detail and how the soundstage was populated with real musicians was strong on the Hugh Masekela track and despite Nitin Sawhney tacks being studio based they sounded real too. Overall sound was slightly to the warm side of things but not by much.
Micromega Classic Data transport and Dialog Dac.
Rear view of Micromega transport and Dac
The Marantz SA7 was next. This machine represents a very strong nod back to the days of the CD 94 mk2, offering battleship build quality and a high level of luxury in the fit and finish. Marantz had a special lazer mechanism built for this machine. This unit is built on a die cast metal block (as used to be the case with older Marantz designs) and the lazer its self sits inside a sealed unit. The metal drawer slides in and out of a thick walled box. This explains why noise in play back of discs(especially SACD discs)is fairly silent compared to its two cheaper stable mates, the Sa 11 and Sa 15(both have noisy mechanisms). The player was used with an Audience Au24 power cord and Atlas Marvos rca to rca cables (it sounds better in this set up single ended rather than balanced). The player was also sitting on three Amr isolation feet. Sound was very similar to the Micromega just a tad lighter in balance. Not lean at all but just slightly less warm. The quality of sound on all three tracks was also just a touch more open and detailed, but again not by much. I was surprised by this as I had thought the SA 7 would being a newer design sound better than the Micromega, but not so. Many feel that dual function( playing Sacd's) machines are compromised in their playback of Red Book discs and this may be so but the SA 7 sounded excellent just not a lot better than the Micromega.
Marantz SA 7 SACD player
Next into the battle was the heavy guns of the ultra high end Moon Andromeda. This two box player (one of the two boxes is the power supply ala Naim) is a fully dual differential design and was used balanced (as was the Micromega). I will cut to the chase here. I was blown away by the massive jump in sound quality, it was not subtle. As I look at my listening notes words such as, clarity, texture, separation, micro and macro detail, depth all underlined or circled. At every level the sound was better in the noted areas and others. It sounded like real musicians where in the room. The images were stable and solid and very real. As Murray Dick of Ecofan would say the “Thereness" factor was of the scale. All three tracks sounded breathtaking, Hugh Masekela and band was in the room and I was in Nitin Sawhney's studio....Wow !. All instruments be it in the sumptuousness of Stimel's 10 minutes or the Indian/Jazz/Dance of Nitin's tracks on Beyond Skin and Letting Go sounded real. They had body and three dimensional reality. This jump had to be heard to be believed. My Wife had been in and out of the listening room a few times and she called up to me.”That sounds like a real band ” Hugh Masekela was playing at the time, indeed it did...the room was part of the live venue and I was there. I could go through a blow by blow breakdown of what, where, and when but I wont. Suffice to say that I now had real music in the room.
Moon Andromeda CD player
My findings during this part of the review proceedings left me with hard evidence, I feel, that unfortunately the benefits of better digital sound reproduction would seem to require more expensive products to achieve. I know some reading this will disagree, and will site certain products to back this up...we will get to that in a few minutes. I can hear those villagers sharpening their pitch forks and lighting their torches now. However my experiences during this review and in the past back this opinion up. I feel, I have used a fairly broad base of design and technology in the CD players I used during this review on which to base this opinion:as well as hearing numerous other designs over the years, both in my listening room and elsewhere. However the one thing that seemed clear, by this showing was that classic designs of yesteryear while good in their day may not quite cut it in todays design arena, despite the love we may have for them. I was shocked at just how much the other players tested eclipsed the Marantz Cd 94 mk 2 even with more warm up time. I guess you could say that a sacred cow partially died. The shortcoming of this machine can, I am sure be solved in part if not in full by using the machine as a chassis for the mods of say a company like Audio Com. The Micromega and SA 7 being so close in sound quality also came as a surprise, but it was the massive jump in sound of the Moon Andromeda that really put the cat among the pigeons. Cat won, Pigeons dead...lunch.
The degree of difference here was like that between vinyl and Cd, with the former sounding like music and the latter more of a two dimensional cutout. To hear this with red book digital was interesting and confirmed in part what I already knew. However to have it made so clear that the gains in digital( and all music reproduction) falls in the areas of reality, solidity, flesh, texture and effortless reproduction of the musical event, was illuminating. The merely two dimensional on every level gaining reality and becoming a three dimensional presence in the room. This is what audio is about getting closer to the heart and spirit of the music, and having it in your listening space. The gains in weight and scale in every area, and I don't mean just the bass, but the mid and treble too, led to a more solid and believable listening experience. So based on this sample of Compact Disc players I feel that I can say that on the basis of what I heard during this test, that there have been real improvements in 20 years. Are there higher levels of digital replay available among the Moon Andromeda's peers? I would have to say that I feel this would be so but I suspect that the laws of diminishing returns would kick in and any further sound improvement may well be small and at an even higher cost, at least at this time. The Beresford Dac uses some previously High-End technology that is now available at less cost. Can real High-End sound come from this type of product and approach ?
Both parts of this review were inspired by a number of threads both here on AOS and one on ZG . One area I wanted to check out was the increasing claims that a lot can be gained with cheaper digital products and one in particular. I will get to that in a moment. The thought that a high end digital player can't possibly justify its price by not offering a massive leap in sound quality has for me at least been proved with what precedes this part. However I now wanted to see if “Giant killers exist." All Giants be aware, trouble is in town. But is this trouble just a cheap upstart, that has to climb a ladder to say boo ! We shall see....
Beresford TC 7510 Dac on String Suspension Concepts isolation platform
Rear view of Beresford TC 7510 Dac showing XLO digital lead and Audience AU 24 interconnect cables
Enter the Beresford TC 7510. This unit is recent and on loan from the son of a friend(thanks Son of NormanMc). Having not been fully run in I Embarked on this process. Now for those who think run in is a myth...well I will have to strongly disagree. Out of the box this Digital to analogue converter was very poor. It got better...not just a little but a lot. If yours sounds poor persevere with it. The TC 7510 is a very small unit being about the size of two CD jewel cases laid side by side and about the same width as a CD jewel box side on. Fit and finish is good/ workman like but with this sample a slight warp in the case meant it would not sit level on its four stuck on feet. These are placed into four recess in the underside of the case, a nice touch, which beats the just stuck on the underside of many even more dear products. The unit has four digital ins and two sets of rca only analogue outs one fixed and one variable(this allows connection to power amps..more on this latter). The Dac was tried on a number of isolation platforms and sounded different on each tried. I settled on the String Suspension Concepts suspended isolation platform, to my ear this sounded better. The Dac sounded better with Audience Au24 rca to rca cables(substantially dearer than the Dac but I wanted to give it the best.). I wanted my findings to be based on allowing this product every chance. No stone was left unturned in this quest. Another issue raised its head and one that many don't believe in the quality of transport used. Well sorry during this review I once again had it confirmed that transports make a difference.Each time I tried a new machine the sound changed(this was after I could hear no further improvements in sound....unit was run for three days solid). I used an XLO digital cable for hook up, an old favorite. The sound at first was disappointingly thin and lacking in both bass and focus. The sound stage was wide enough with height but no depth. Strangely the sound was not bright just lacking in body. After a lot of run in this had filled out, but still lacked a degree of body. Not the Giant Killer so far....I can hear the villagers on the way up from the village..... So I started swapping transports. The first I had used was the Micromega Data and the sound was not that good, so I tried the digital output of the Marantz SA7....Differences do exist in transports. The sound had now gained body and the bass was both fuller and richer. I listened to my three pieces of music and I must confess was disappointed with what I was hearing compared to the previous listening tests ( In the first part of this review). I swapped transport again and plugged in the digital out on the Moon Andromeda .. WOW.....now we were cooking. This is were it gets tricky as I need to try and draw the salient points out of six pages of notes. A lot of writing was done. Firstly it felt a bit ridiculous to be using massively more expensive items in this part of the review. But this is a Giant Killer...right ? So I wanted to treat it as such. Unfair ? Maybe but such high claims are being made for this product and not just in modest set ups but High-End ones, so I wanted to stretch it. I wanted to make sure of what I was hearing and reading (as stated) by Beresford users, was not just a case of the Emperors new clothes or mass delusion or just very good marketing.
The sound with the Moon Andromeda (as a transport)was very good but quickly switching between inputs (and matching volume levels )showed that the TC 7510 was not up to killing the Giant called Andromeda (when used as a complete player). In comparison it just lacked the same degree of reality, in comparison its sound was also two dimensional...but before you burn my cottage down and slice me with your pitch forks, hold a minute.... the other players the Andromeda beat are substantially dearer than the Beresford, just as the Moon Andromeda is over them. The issues that existed with the other players compared to the Moon were at play here as well, I felt.
Audiomeca Mephisto mk2 transport.
Rear view of Audiomeca Mephisto mk 2 transport
Still not satisfied I replaced the Moon with one of the best transports ever designed. Pierre Lurne, a legendary turntable designer used to make digital products. He called his company Audiomeca and the last quality transport to come out of his clever mind ( before he gave up on digital and went back to analogue) was the Mephisto mk 2. Designed like a turntable, with a custom top loading mechanism suspended on adjustable towers, this machine offers all very best that a digital transport can output. After connecting up I sat back and played Nitin Sawheny's track Broken Skin, it was excellent now ( relative to how it sounded before, using the Andromeda as transport and connected to the Beresford Dac) and offered a marked improvement in quality over the sound got while the Moon was the transport, as did the next track Letting Go. However I was still bothered by a lack of something. Playing the excellent live recording by Hugh Masekella put things into focus. The Tc 7510 was lean compared to the sound of these other one and two box players. It lacked that inner weight and scale I referred to earlier. The sound was obviously digital in comparison to the analogue richness of the Andromeda.....again hold of on the burning torches. However I had to remind myself this was a £130 product. The fact that it was not a disgrace in front of these other products was very interesting. Its sins were all of omission rather than commission. Yes it sounds lean and tonally light in comparison to the other items in this test and lacks the last degree of bass control and depth....but its £130. These sound quality issues might not even be heard in a less revealing system than the one used during this test. The fact is you must (IMHO) treat this Dac with the sort of care you need to apply to any high end product, it will reward you with better sound if you do. But is it worth it, when to do this may mean spending more on ancillary bits to go with it. That is for you to decide. My brief to myself was to test it fully, to establish what it could and could not do. In my system with the Audiomeca used as transport the Beresford performed to its best, I feel (you must bear in mind that these results are what I heard in this system)and produced a very musical sound, but it lacked the ultimate in refinement, detail retrieval,and that degree of being there, that the other dearer players and Dacs had. I must say that I feel having listened extensively that the solution/and blame for this lack is to be found in the poor power supply. Sure this gets you up and running and the Maplins special gets you a bit more, but I suspect that the up coming dedicated power supply from Beresford may narrow the gaps, and address the issues I have (please remember the differences in cost here) It is in many cases the power supply and its quality that will make or break a product. At the end of this part of the review I wired the Marantz CD 94 mk 2 as a transport. This machine uses one of the finest lazer mechanisms, the Phillips Cdm 1 (a mineral loaded unit), it should have been very good but once again I felt let down. It compared well to the Micromega ( which should have done well too, but did not). The Marantz-Beresford combination lacked the quality of the Audiomeca or Moon Andromeda, but its shortcomings came across as a reduction in detail resolution, a softness and lack of focus and overall weight of sound. Amazing once again the myth of ones and zeros sounding the same proved in correct. It may be that jitter levels are higher in some of these designs but that may well not be the whole story. I am afraid I can't take that train of thought any further as I lack both the knowledge and test items needed to assess that possibility. However the difference was obvious, I just don't know why.
Audiomeca Mephisto transport and Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 21 Dac
Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 21 Dac
As a final part of these tests, I hooked the Audiomeca up to other Dacs other than the Beresford. I used the Micromega Dialog, Moon Andromeda's internal Dac and a Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 21. I did this in order to get some perspective on what the Beresford was doing. The results were again quite surprising, the Andromeda-Audiomeca pairing was not very good (the sum of the Moon parts being better used as a whole). The Audiomeca-Micomega pair was better as was the Musical Fidelity combination (more on this a bit latter) The differences and lack in some of these set ups again pointed to how digital can sound real. The elements that where missing could be stated as a lack of focus and solidity. When digital is wrong it sounds stripped and lacking in dimension. These comments are of course to be taken in relation to my earlier findings and the percentages of difference were not quite as great as in some other cases mentioned earlier, but they where there to be heard. My final combination was the Mephisto mk 2 wired up to a Musical Fidelity Tri -Vista 21 valve Dac(this has a choke power supply). I allowed it to warm up and let her rip. It was better than the Beresford and caused me another shock. This pairing of the Audiomeca and the MF Dac sounded amazing. All the aspects that the Beresford lacked it had in spades. Hooked up via its Rca outputs (it only has these), it was knocking on the door of the Andromeda. Not as good but crap it was close. Again the main factors missing was a sense of reality and weight/scale and thereness, but it was close. This finding made me sit back and wonder how many changes of items in systems causes one to miss an amazing match. To many audio enthusiasts wont be patient and to quickly jump on the E-Bay merry-go-round and don't give things a chance. The MF Dac was always good IMO, but all the upgrades in the system and particularly amplification, cabling and speakers made since I had bought it, now allowed me to hear just how good it really is. I now feel many chop and change to soon to know fully what the item they are moving on from can do. I am glad that I hoard gear as I now have heard what a wonder the MF Tri-Vista 21 Dac is. Few get a chance to compare what they have moved on from as I have in the last few days. To hear all the kit I have had has given me a real insight to the kind of journey I have been on. The amazing thing has been comparing them, which has given me insight into how digital has progressed and it has in my opinion, but also how I have been on a similar path. Each component has had a sound signature that I like and the next has unlocked even more of that sound. My path has been fairly straight with none of the deviations that I suspected I had made along the way, at least in regard to digital playback. Only the Marantz CD 94 mk2 disappointed and that I am sure could be sorted. It is also clear that even in an all balanced system a single ended design might still offer a very serious challenge to other balanced kit. Is that another sacred cow I hear falling over.
To offer a conclusion (as much as I can at this stage) to the Beresford TC 7510 Digital Converter. I hooked it up again and spent an additional day with it (a small) further improvement in its sound was heard but still I could hear the slight leanness in the sound, a characteristic perhaps. I feel sure that the addition of a better power supply (soon) will be the key to unlocking more of what this £130 Dac can do and taking away this lean aspect. I suspect and indeed hope that this new power supply will give the sound the extra weight it was missing. The main aspect to bear in mind here is the cost and I want to commend the designer, well done Stan. I look forward to hearing the TC7510 with that dedicated PSU, when its available. A further listen is required to answer all the questions this remarkable unit has raised. So have I answered the question, do Giant Killers exist ? Well maybe. I suppose it depends on the size and quality of the Giant you own. Some Giants are better than others. The TC 7510 may kill your Giant but it didn't kill mine but it did scare them a bit...well quite a lot..perhaps. The sound from this version of the Beresford Dac is not perfect, but at its price it is a bargain £130 and it also makes a quite good (FOC) headphone amp too.
Back to the question of the variable output. I for one would not recommend using it this way, the sound is in my opinion to compromised via the variable out (with the current design). All the results I heard were with the fixed output. The TC 7510's achievements are severely truncated if you use the variable output, in my Opinion.
So this £130 product is a major bargain (no matter how you use it) but you will have to pamper it to hear all it can do. Treat it as a true High-End design and you will get a really strong sense of that type of sound , for very modest money indeed. But does it make sense to use it with the type of kit I have ? Do you need to ? Well I think in a more modest set up(what it was designed for ) the issues I could hear may not be so clear cut. The degree of resolution available in my system made this task fairly easy, just time consuming and again it is worth noting that the Beresford TC 7510 was not (probably) meant for my type of set up, that it could work quite well says a lot. I just feel that more waits to be tapped from this design. Role on the PSU.
Beresford TC 7510 Dac
So have the villagers been persuaded to go home ? Am I now safe in my bed ? Will that knock at the door be a villager with a power supply, rather than a pitch fork....we shall see ?
Regards D S D L----Neil
Edit No part of this review can be reproduced without written permission...content is copyrighted to ...NK