The Vinyl Press Goes Digital!
Not for all purposes, all the time, but I resisted the pull of digital media in my main system until now. Why? I didn’t have a very good impression of the sound of CD when it was first introduced. Although I was aware of the improvements wrought by better players, DACs and hi-res, I succeeded in ignoring the audiophile digital side, until now.
Why the change? Many of the reissues of rare old albums are taken from digital copies of the master tapes; though I like “all analog,” it simply isn’t realistic if you want to have access to a broader array of music. Some of these vinyl rarities are now in four figure territory which puts them out of reach for most; some have never been reissued on vinyl, digitally sourced or otherwise. But, in some instances, CDs were made early on during the initial growth of the medium and offer a good, sometimes surprisingly good, way to hear the music.
Then there are recordings that were only released on CD, or newer music that was natively recorded in digital. Plus, with the current Death of CD™, I find it appealing to go through the bins—used records are in many cases overpriced and improperly if carelessly graded. CDs are, for the most part, cheap!
I’m still caught looking for the better sounding copy of the CD where I can, so the quality of the original recording as well as the mastering still matters. But, I’ve crossed a barrier that I’ve maintained far too long and am having quite a bit of fun.
As to the merits of digital v. LP, or Redbook v. hi-res, or other issues that consume the audiophile fora, I have nothing to add, and no position at this point; that’s not a “no comment” but more of “I’m still exploring.”
Despite the good advice of a few friends who have gone down the road before me, I opted to buy a quality Redbook transport, since much of what I’m hunting was released on CD, if at all—and from what I’ve been able to discern, a lot of the more obscure hard rock and between the cracks music I like simply isn’t available on the audiophile download sites.
I chose the C.E.C. TL 5, which has a reputation for a relaxed, analog-like delivery, owing in part to its belt drive transport and quality construction.
Though I have not fully broken it in (the US distributor recommends 600 hours), it sounded far different than the Oppo universal player I was using as a temporary transport—nothing wrong with the Oppo—to the contrary, it is huge bang for the buck and I’m sad to see that company leaving the (universal player) market. But the C.E.C. gets me into a big league CD transport for reasonable, not crazy money. No, it won’t play SACDs, but that’s not a big concern given my needs- I can get higher res material through downloads, but to play Redbook, a dedicated Redbook player of high quality is all I need and the C.E.C. fits the bill perfectly. It’s easy to operate and built to a high standard. It’s a top loader, no drawer, and comes with a pretty substantial disc weight, so it vibes “CD turntable,” rather than consumer electronics. I don’t think I’ll ever need to buy another (optical)transport for CDs.
Of course, I couldn’t go out and buy the latest DAC technology. Remember, I’m not only a die-hard vinyl guy, but I’m attracted to antediluvian technologies- SET amps, horns and the like- stuff that may not “spec” well, but sounds good. The whole NOS ladder DAC thing fascinated me—people using old chips and eliminating digital filtering claimed that they were getting better tonality and less artificiality using these devices. There’s no shortage of high end DACs, among them some that use discrete resistor ladders, but I wasn’t going to write the big check without a little experimentation.
After talking with Gary Dews, of Border Patrol, whose small, relatively inexpensive NOS DAC was based on an old chip, a substantial power supply and the ability to use a tube rectifier in the power supply stage, I bought the Border Patrol SE (which has the beefier power supply) without the USB input, just coax. It’s a cheap point of entry for those who swear by such old school designs, including the Audio Note DACs, which are highly regarded for their musicality. With a good quality coax cable from Cerious Technologies—a Graphene Matrix and a decent power cord from Analysis Plus—I was in business.
I was also curious about computer audio and the learning curve was steep. Renderers, servers, network bridges, fancy USB cable, Ethernet-based networking, external storage and various DIY approaches to modified computers forced me to learn an entirely new language and set of conventions that I’m still investigating. I decided to start small, by loading a trial copy of Audirvana Plus software onto my Macbook Air, installing the remote “app” on an unused iPad, and using an inexpensive USB to coax converter from Schitt called the Eitr. When I asked Schitt about USB cables, they recommended Amazon Basics. I bought a pair for less than the cost of a latte, but couldn’t resist the lure of a better cable—the Analysis Plus folks seem to deliver quality stuff starting at less than crazy prices and don’t engage in any “voodoo” marketing.
I also had a discount coupon from Apple — an older iMac desktop (which I had originally intended to use to run the Audirvana playback and library management software) died for the second time— and I wanted my laptop back –I couldn’t use it when it was acting as my music playing computer– so I bought a Mac Mini. It was a popular choice a few years ago as the core of a computer-based audio system but things have moved on (Apple hasn’t, the Mini hasn’t really changed since 2014).
I haven’t done the usual upgrade of modifying it to accept a linear power supply and probably won’t—by the time I invest the money in getting this general purpose computer up to audiophile grade standards, I’d probably have $2,000 in it and it would still fall short of some of the better all in one server/renderers now on the market. However, there is something about computer audio I like– the ability to select discrete components for each stage, rather than an all in one box. At some point, I’ll likely complement the CD/NOS DAC with a higher end networked system using a DAC capable of processing higher bit rates and a NAS. (If some of the terminology is befuddling, don’t worry—there are plenty of web resources for information and I’m still sorting this out myself as the equipment market advances). All the digital equipment is run from a separate dedicated line or AC receptacle that is not part of the main audio system power network.
For now, I’m pretty blown away by the sonic quality that even this bargain basement computer audio system can deliver, even with the modest Border Patrol DAC. (That Schitt Eitr seems like a real bargain for what it does, too).
The CD/DAC combination could actually be an endpoint in some ways—if I’m playing Redbook I don’t need to oversample, filter or do anything more (except perhaps buy a fancier NOS DAC, but the very premise of the thing is its simplicity, so I’m in no rush there- famous last words).
I have tons of CDs that accumulated over the years—promotional copies provided by the labels, stuff my wife and I bought for the cars or background music on modest systems, many of which were issued before the advent of the “loudness wars.” I’ve also been buying some early CDs- made in Japan for US, some that may have been mastered from tape back in the day and the tariff has been modest. I won one E-Bay auction with my opening bid of $1.91 U.S. for one such disc.
I’m not sure I’m going to “review” CDs or digital files. But, as I travel down this road, one I long ignored, I may have more to say about my journey.
In some ways, I’m still a Luddite, and have no pretensions about my approach. I will say that the combo of the C.E.C. transport and NOS DAC is pretty impressive to these ears with the right CD, despite the conventional wisdom that a traditional CD spinner is no longer necessary and that hi-res is the way to go. As for computer-based audio, I have a lot of room to grow. And that market keeps evolving.
C.E.C. is distributed in the States by http://audio-union.com/products.php, the same folks who handle the DÖHMANN turntable–the one that incorporates the Minus K passive anti-vibration technology (the Minus K is something I opted to buy as an ‘add-on’ for my Kuzma XL).