The CD players we have on demonstration at present are all integrated, one box players. We are not against separates but these tend to be very expensive. We still believe CD players to be the more musical way to listen to digital recordings for a more natural, less ‘hifi’ sound, compared to other media. Some smaller independent labels are producing very high quality digital recordings on this format which can rival the best of the golden age of analogue recordings.
We have now heard many of the new download music files systems, streamers and servers that are being offered to the audiophile consumer and, to date, we are not convinced by any of them. None comes close to the sound quality achieved by a high quality recorded CD played on a quality CD player. Even Lossless and so called higher resolution WAV files still sound compressed when compared to the same music played from a CD through even a modestly priced CD player.
The higher resolution music file, the size of a movie, such as those supplied by HD Tracks or similar, should easily beat a standard CD – but it does not. In careful listening tests, this is very easily demonstrated with a close A vs B demonstration using exactly the same music. Clearly something is lost even if they tell us it is ‘lossless’.
The major difference in sound quality is one of resolving the details that give the aural clues to the sense of 3-dimensional depth of soundstage. The air and space around instruments and vocalists. These are very important aspects of 2-channel stereo and one that make it a more convincing recreation of the concert experience, not just merely a “hi-fi” sound. Computer music files, so far, fail to deliver these finest details despite the claims made for them. The tonal balance is also shifted towards the brighter end of the spectrum that sound far removed from the natural timbre of instrument heard live.
Convenient these computer files may be but we have never chosen convenience over sound quality. We are constantly evaluating DACs capable of supporting high resolution files, DSD and DXD recordings. Some have not lived up to expectations despite glowing reviews. One has started to make sense in that it is made by the same people who make the high resolution digital recording systems for the best studios around the world. They are called Merging and the product is called NADAC. More on this later. We are also evaluating the Melco with Exogal Comet and T+A DAC and will report soon on outr findings.
Whilst the view above has been published here for some time, it has been only been echoed in off-the-record conversations by many voices within the audio industry. Up until now. Roy Gregory of The Audio Beat has come out publicly to lay much of the blame for the poor sound demonstrated by many high-end brands at the last Munich High End Show in May 2015 as a fault of using computer audio as the principal source. We thought many, if not most, of the sounds presented at this show very poor too – see our Munich High End Show 2015 blog post… We applaud Mr Gregory for taking this courageous stance and please read his full account here on The Usual Suspects.
Audio Analogue has recently redesigned their products and these include two of their established CD players which offer a pretty refined sound at affordable prices. As the name suggests, these have a less aggressive sound than many other brands at this price point, being more natural in tone and more holographic layered rearwards than a forward presentation. The Fortissimo CD player also includes a digital input module offering USB/optical/SPDIF inputs so that computer sourced files can be player through the internal DAC. This is similar in specification to the Norma Audio DS-1 player (see below) but at less than half the cost. Whilst the sound is not quite as dynamic, or as elegant as the DS-1, the Fortissimo offers exceptional value for 40% of the cost.
Crescendo CD player £799.00
Fortissimo CD player/DAC with USB/optical/RCA inputs £1499.00
After listening to, and being disappointed by, many DACs designed principally for playing music files from a computer, we have finally found one that presents music in a way that is more like that offered by the best CD players. It is from the Swiss company Merging Technologies and is called MERGING NADAC – Network Attached Digital to Analogue Converter.
Merging Technologies is the world’s foremost manufacturer of high-resolution digital audio recording systems. Their list of customers reads like a who’s who in the recording industry and recordings made with Merging Technologies’ systems regularly receive the recording industry’s prestigious Grammy® Award. So many in fact, that they have lost count. The NADAC is essentially a consumer version of their analogue to digital converters in the Pyramix Digital Audio pro recording stations used in the major studios around the world, the gold standard for DSD recordings.
Merging Technologies founded in 1990 quickly established a reputation for their expertise in digital signal processing and associated hardware, and with their Pyramix Virtual Studio, was one of the first companies to produce a DSD recording system. The DXD format, (Digital eXtreme Definition) which works at 352.8kHz/24bit, was then developed by Merging Technologies in collaboration with Philips, to overcome the challenges in editing and mastering DSD for SACD.
The benefits they gained from years of developing cutting-edge products for the professional recording community are now made available to the discerning audiophile. By introducing RAVENNA networking to the home, it not only removes traditional limitations in DACs working with computer files, it totally transformed the performance that can be delivered from true high resolution file systems such as DSD and DXD.
What appeals to us about this NADAC, apart from it being one of the best sounding DACs we have heard in recent years, is what it does NOT do. It does not up-sample, it does not over-sample, nor does it convert PCM recordings to DSD. If used as a DAC attached to a CD player or transport, it will play the music in its native format – 44.1kHx/16bit. Simply as it is intended to be listened to, not making up information that is not there. We have always found that quality CD recordings sound better when they are not subject to unnecessary additional processing – and MERGING agree with this totally. No one in the professional recording industry would dream of doing otherwise.
Another aspect that appeals to us about the NADAC is the lack of a USB port. We have never been convinced by this connection for audiophile use, even though it has become virtually ubiquitous in most DACs on the market today. MERGING found that IT based point-to-point connections such as USB or Firewire were either not optimum, or even obsolete, for audio even though other manufacturers have pressed them into service. There was only one choice that made sense: RAVENNA. This uses Ethernet output only. Ethernet is not length limited like a USB cable (probably to a maximum of 2.0 m), it can transfer data accurately, and fast, up to 100 m – and it does not carry any power. RAVENNA Precision Time Protocol was developed by MERGING to enable clock resolution to be accurate to 1 Nanosecond. This level of accuracy is only feasible using the Ethernet interface. It is the only logical choice for the professional and is now available to the serious audiophile via the MERGING NADAC.
The first DSD256 (11.2 MHz sampling) recordings were made in 2013 with Merging Technologies equipment and have been acclaimed by many top engineers and producers as another revolution in audio recording and reproduction. DSD256 works at 4 times the rate of the original DSD64 and provides a major improvement in sound quality, as well as a significant improvement in the noise characteristic. This is backed up by enthusiastic feedback received from professional users. Despite its many advantages from the audio perspective, DSD is difficult to process. The solution was another Merging Technologies development. DXD, Digital eXtreme Definition, was created by Merging Technologies to seamlessly move a DSD file into a PCM environment so that editing and processing can take place more easily.
True high resolution files in DSD or DXD format, in native format, taken from the master recording, before further processing, cannot be preserved on to a physical format such as a CD or DVD without compression of some sort. These very large files can only be transferred to, and played from, a suitable hard drive.
These true high resolution files, such as DXD and DSD sound exceptional through the NADAC. The NADAC is the only DAC on the market today to support the highest DSD files, and to do with the ultra-precise communication clocking asynchronously. Hence the true performance potential of the master quality recordings can be realised at the same level of resolution excellence as it was recorded and mastered.
The precision of the NADAC will expose poor recordings, even if they are DSD or DXD files. The fact they are high resolution files does mean they all sound good. The music can only as good as the engineer who made the recording. But when the recording is good, the sound is exceptional through the NADAC.
The honesty of the Merging device simply makes it seem like it is playing music totally unconstrained by the electronicsAlan Sircom, HiFi Plus
Network Hi End DA Converter.
Network Player network streamer Hi End DA Converter.
NADAC ST2 2 channel £10200
NADAC MC8 8 channel £11220
NADAC PLAYER ST2 including Roon £13250
NADAC PLAYER MC8 including Roon: £14270
NADAC PLAYER prices includes VIP Service Fee and optional Roon Lifetime Licence.
Cordial RAVENNA RJ45/Ethercon Network Cable - 2.5 m £100
Cordial RAVENNA RJ45/Ethercon Network Cable - 5.0 m £125
Cordial RAVENNA RJ45/Ethercon Network Cable - 10.0 m £200
DELL 8 Port managed network switch RAVENNA QOS pre-configured £306
The Eight channel versions can be configured in one of two ways:
The 8 channels of the ESS Sabre ES9008S Reference D/A converters can be merged into 2 for improved linearity, greater dynamic range and a lower noise floor. An appropriate choice for the serious audiophile.
The 8 channel version can be set at any time to operate in 8 discrete channel modes, or 4 stereo modes.
Both versions have separate headphone outputs using the same method of combining the channels for uncompromised DSD/DXD listening on your favorite headphones.
The Merging NADAC is about the most accurate and precise digital listening tool I can think of. Very highly recommended.Alan Sircom, HiFi Plus
These digital sources are manufactured by a high quality electronics manufacturer in Italy. Little know in the UK at the moment but well established throughout Europe as a worthy partner with Avalon and Elac loudspeakers. Extending their philosophy of their superlative range of amplifiers, Norma Audio CD players have a natural tonal balance, very fast rise time dynamics and speed and generate large and deep soundstages. Elegant Italian designed casework and high quality components used throughout. They offer a sound quality that can easily rival some CD players costing several times the asking prices.
REVO DS-1 integrated CD player. Includes 5 digital inputs; 4 x SPDIF, 1 x USB(pictured) £3695
REVO CDP-1BR reference CD player (pictured)£3145. (same CD player as DS-1 but without digital inputs)
REVO DAC-1. 5 digital inputs; 4 x SPDIF, USB.£2950
REVO HS-DA1 DAC. Half size chassis. Includes 5 digital inputs: 4 x SPDIF, 1 x USB. £1845.
REVO HS-DA1 VAR. Half Size chassis. Same as HS-DA1 but includes Variable and fixed output. Remote control included. £2295
REVO HS-DA1 PRE. Half size chassis. Same as HS-DA1 VAR but includes dual mono Pre-amplifier and 2 x Class A headphone output. Remote control included. £3245.
It is easy to obtain a significantly better sound quality for your CDs by some simple and cost effective treatments. One tip is even for free! The improvements are far from subtle and make sound more natural, less ‘digital’, with more clarity and depth. It raises the bar and separates the sound obtainable from these silver discs further from the other computer orientated digital sources.
The outer plastic that encapsulates the aluminium foil of a CD is made from optical grade polycarbonate. This is the same material that spectacle, and some camera, lenses are made from. It is important that this surface is absolutely clean for the laser to extract the information from the pits in the foil without corruption. Even if the surface looks clean it probably isn’t. The manufacturing process will inevitably leave a film of release agent from the stamping process and, with time, atmospheric pollution with coat the surface. The simplest and safest way to clean this surface is with a proprietary cleaner.
The best one we have evaluated is that made by Furutech called PC-Alpha Disc Pure Cleaner. It comes in a little puffer bottle complete with a microfibre cloth. It treats around 100 CDs. For maximum cleanliness, we would recommend using a soft tissue (such as Kleenex) and disposing of it after use. This avoids the build up of dirt on the microfibre cloth unless this is washed very frequently. Remember to clean across the disc surface, never in a circular motion.
Furutech PC-Alpha Disc Pure Cleaner £21
Plastic materials build up static charge very easily. This is especially a problem in a dry centrally heated environment. CDs are particularly prone to this and this influenced the sound from them adding a brightness and harshness to the upper frequencies. Furutech have come up with a novel little static charge remover that is simple to use and treats a CD within 20 seconds. It is called a Destat III. Play a non treated disc for 30 seconds or so. Put it in the Destat machine and play it again. The results are dramatic. A whole new life comes to the sound. It sounds less ‘digital’ with upper frequencies sweet and rounded. Sibilance is virtually eliminated. In our view an essential component for the best sound from CDs.
Furutech Destat III £299 (new photo in due course)
Battery driven, mains adaptor.
Despite looking like they are, CDs are not always cut to a perfect circle during their manufacturing process. This means they are not rotating symmetrically or evenly in the disc player. This influences the laser beam error correction and puts strain on the rotational bearings. The clever people at AudioDeskSysteme, responsible for the renown ultrasonic vinyl cleaner, have come up with a CD disc cutter that not only delivers the perfect circle but bevels the edge to 36 degrees.
The more important effect of this cutter is the bevelling of the edge. This reduces refraction of the laser beam that occurs laterally through the plastic encapsulation producing reflections that distort the sound.
The effect on sound is not subtle. The sound is cleaner, more transparent and images are better focused and easier to perceive. More space around the instruments within the sound stage.
Due to the poor value of the GBP, we have been forced to increase the price of these items.
AudioDeskSysteme CD Sound Improver £890.00
New cutting blade £49.00
New drive belt £5.00
When listening to your audio system, try turning off your wireless router and all mobile phones. The sound improves by quite a big margin. Tonal balance becomes more natural with more authority and, most importantly, the sound stage becomes much more holographic. And it’s free!
Go on, you can live without being connected for the sake of an evening’s listening pleasure.