In a a previous post, I mused about the new age of digital sound reproduction and how amazingly good — no, scratch that: great — DSD and Blu-ray Audio sounds. In this listener’s opinion, digital sound has finally come of age and gone to places none of us could have imagined back in the early 80s when Compact Discs were first introduced with the then empty promise of “perfect sound forever.” I also lamented on how LPs were no longer going to be a part of my listening. I haven’t changed my mind on the former; about the latter, read on.
Since that post was published in February 2014, I’ve made several changes to my system that have improved the sound. I’ve switched all my interconnects and speaker cables to Transparent Cable. I no longer have the slight edginess I had before with the Nordost Blue Heavens. I’m not knocking them at all; they were an improvement in my system when I added them. What I’m saying is that my particular mix of equipment sounds better with Transparent, real. They are a definite improvement in the bass, which is as solid as a rock now.
I don’t use the McIntosh MC30 tube amps every day for obvious reasons — after all, these are 62 year old amplifiers who have been refurbed once already. But when I do use them they’re heavenly. Best amplifiers I’ve ever heard in my system. My Bryston 3B-ST — what I called my “everyday” amp — was nearing the twenty-year old mark when it would no longer be under warranty. I had purchased it used with seven years left on the (amazing) Bryston warranty. I sold it and bought a used Harmon/Kardon Citation 12 amp. A musical amp, very satisfying to my ears. Alas, it lasted all of six months before it failed. I replaced it with a brand new Parasound 275v2. Nice, overall, but not as musical as the HK. The Parasound is my “everyday” amp now. It’s not the best, it’s a little bright, but it’ll do. I also sold my old Classé preamp and replaced it with a near mint condition McCormack Micro Line Drive preamp (also bought used) that can be used either in passive or active mode. This is as “straight wire with gain” as I can currently get.
The biggest equipment purchase I’ve made since 2014 was also the most ear-opening. It has irrevocably altered my view on how the ‘Redbook’ CD — and its PCM derivations — sound. I enjoy listening to CDs ‘straight-up’ through my Oppo BDP-105 with its excellent DAC. Listening to the same CDs through the PS Audio DirectStream digital-to-analog converter, however, has shifted the paradigm. The DS DAC takes the PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) encoded into every CD and converts it to DSD (Direct Stream Digital) before outputting it to the preamp. The results of this magic are nothing short of amazing. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat there listening to music and marveling at how good PCM really is. The difference between the Oppo’s internal DAC and the DirectStream is not subtle. And the Oppo is no slouch.
Later this year, PS Audio plans to release the DirectStream Memory Player, a new transport, based on the Oppo transport mechanism, that will play CDs, SACDs, and Blu-ray Audio discs, among others. This transport is unique in that the DSD layer in SACDs will now be sent as a bitstream via I2S to the DirectStream DAC for playback. All disc output, not just SACDs, will be now be heard in glorious DSD. I plan to move heaven and earth to get one of these babies.
Which brings me to my analog system. In late 2005 I purchased a 20-year old single-speed Linn Sondek LP12 turntable that came with an old Grace G707 tonearm, Mitch Cotter cabling, and no cartridge. I purchased a Sumiko Blackbird EVO-III cartridge and had it professionally installed. A couple of years later I added a Clearaudio Basic phono preamplifier to the system. Over the almost nine years I used this analog system I would have to rate it as “just okay” to “pretty good.”
The sound wasn’t what I had expected out of a Linn. The sound pulled out of my LPs was less than stellar. I did some minor tweaks, including repairs to the Linn’s unique suspension, by a local Linn dealer. But the results were still not as good as I had hoped for. I knew the only way to improve this table, and that was to throw a lot of money at it. I definitely needed to upgrade the tonearm, the interconnects, possibly revisit the Linn’s suspension mechanism again, and maybe upgrade my phono preamp. Expensive tweaks that would result in a large upgrade bill: at least $2,000 and probably more. And, to add insult to injury, I would still only have one speed and wouldn’t be able to play high-resolution 45rpm LPs. The law of diminishing returns kicked in with my dissatisfaction and I threw in the towel: in May 2014 I sold it. Separately, of course, to make up as much as I could of my total investment: turntable, tonearm, interconnects, cartridge.
Quo vadis, analog? Out the door, sadly. I went all-in with digital, using the Oppo as the main source for all my listening and, starting in 2015, with the DirectStream DAC as my digital processor. I’ve been extremely happy with the sound of my system.
Then a funny thing happened. Earlier this summer I purchased a “millennial” high-end audio rig for my then almost 21-year old son: a Pro-Ject Essential II turntable, and a PS Audio Sprout integrated amplifier, driving my almost twenty year old B&W DM302 loudspeakers — plus his iPhone, of course. After setting up the Pro-Ject, I taught him the basics of using a turntable and how to use LPs. We spun his first LP on his first real sound system: Combat Rock by The Clash. (Number two was Frampton Comes Alive.) Not only was I thoroughly impressed with the sound coming out of the Sprout for Bluetooth and digital, but the Pro-Ject sounded quite fine. The phono section of the Sprout was damn good and I thought that, maybe, an integrated solution was the best choice for me to reenter the world of vinyl. After all, I still have over a thousand LPs in storage that I haven’t sold.
I decided on the VPI Player, the second generation of VPI’s Nomad turntable. The Nomad was very well reviewed and the rumors in the spring was that the second generation version of that turntable was forthcoming in the summer. I decided to wait. It finally arrived October 1.
It was the easiest turntable setup I’ve ever had. Literally, it was unpack it, plug it in, plop an LP on it, drop the tonearm and play! I’ve had it for only two days but can confidently report that it is a winner. I finally have an analog rig that gets the juice out of my records, much better than my Linn ever did and, as a bonus, it cost a hell of a lot less than the Linn upgrades I was contemplating. First LP played? A 45rpm direct-to-disc Charlie Byrd jazz album that is one of my reference discs. I hadn’t heard in a very long time and can honestly say that I’d never heard it the way I heard it Saturday. Wonderful.
A full review will follow soon.