CD’S STINK. AT LEAST, THAT’S what many audiophiles say: A laser reading ones and zeros off a reflective aluminum-and-plastic disc can’t convey as much information as a diamond stylus wiggling in vinyl grooves. The CD’s initial promise –– “perfect sound forever” –– was a big lie.
For a while, that was gospel. The abrasive spew of first-generation CD players could not be contained, because in those early days the nature of the distortion was not fully understood. But after a decade the format has matured, and the latest generation of digital components approaches –– in some ways exceeds –– the standard set by the still-venerated LP.
The key to this transformation is a new division of labor. Just as a high-end audio system would replace a receiver with a separate power amp and preamp, digital components break down the CD player into two parts: the disc-reading transport and the number-crunching digital-to-analog converter, which uses advanced computing power to shape digital code into the analog waves that feed your stereo and stir your heart.
The first digital converter to infiltrate my system was the PS Audio Superlink, $1200. I was intrigued by the immovable HUM switches on its front panel, which react to minute electrical currents in the human body. “Don’t feel strange,” the manual read. “Everyone has a certain amount of hum in them.” More intriguing was the effect the Superlink had on my system when I patched it into my old Sony CD player with Monster Cable’s fiber-optic Light Speed 100, $40. Voices and guitars sounded the same, but never had my receiver and Snell speakers produced such richly satisfying bass. The number of Bob Marley CDs I owned swiftly multiplied.
If a midpriced converter did that for my system, what would a cheaper or costlier one do? Not much, in the case of the Audio Alchemy Digital Decoding Engine, $400. It sounded like a good CD player but not a great one; I could still sense a scrim hanging between the music and me. It was time to bring in the big guns, Theta Digital’s Data transport, $2400, and DS Pre Basic II converter, $2400.
Both are unusual. The Theta Data is a combi transport –– it plays both CDs and videodiscs. The Theta DS Pre converter is also a preamp, with volume and balance controls. More significant is the DS Pre’s computing might, equivalent to a stack of IBM PCs. Add a power amp and speakers and you have a complete system.
Euphoria mounted with each hour I spent with the Thetas. High-frequency sounds punched through with an architectural clarity I had never heard from CDs or, for that matter, LPs. It was as though I were listening to a whole new format, one that brought me physically closer to the music. The sound was not always gentle, though it did sweeten markedly after a day, three days, a week.
A good converter like the Theta is so sensitive that even the cable connecting it to the transport has an effect. Theta’s president, Neil Sinclair, is adamant that optical cables degrade sound quality and refuses to include fiber-optic jacks on his company’s products. So I tried a handful of copper electrical snakes, including the Monster Cable Datalink 100, $45, and the Audio Alchemy Clearstream, $80, which contains active circuitry. Both got a less edgy, more sensuous sound out of the Thetas than did conventional wire.
“You’re becoming an audio tweak,” a colleague warned me. “Don’t, Mark.” Too late: I was ready to assemble a new system simply to audition still more converters, transports and CD players, which can serve as transports. Into the hog trough of digital overkill I dived, raucously snorting and oinking.
And into my listening room came Michael Hobson of New York’s Hobson Ultimate Sound, bearing the Jeff Rowland Design Group’s smooth-as-silk Model 1 amp, $3100, and Consonance preamp, $3300. The speakers were Westlake Audio BBSM-8F studio monitors, $2700 a pair, with dual parallel-ported 8-inch woofers, 3.5-inch midranges and 1-inch dome tweeters. For uniformity, all interconnect cables were heavily insulated specimens by Cardas, $45 each. And everything was plugged into Audio Power Industries’ Power Wedge II, $500, to prevent urban electrical pollution from corrupting the test.
The main contenders among converters were Theta’s DS Pro Basic II, $2000 (the preampless version of Theta’s Pre II, since joined by the Generation III, $4000); Enlightened Audio Design’s gleaming gold DSP-7000, $1500; and Meridian’s compact, elegant 606, $2250.
At first, trying to distinguish among converters was a daunting task. It was like lying on a grassy hill, watching the clouds shift. Days of listening passed before fleeting perceptions started giving way to solid insights. What accounted for the delay is something the pros call burn-in. High-caste audio components need to have electricity coursing through them for a while before they reveal their splendors. They like to stay up late, for days and days, like the Keith Richards of old.
With prolonged burn-in, diversified disc selection and upped volumes, the differences started coming into focus: Theta was the most detailed, Enlightened the most relaxed, with Meridian falling somewhere in between. The Theta DS-Pro was fearlessly analytical –– the nose-pressed-against-the-glass school of digital introspection –– while the relative gentleness of the Enlightened DSP-7000 encouraged me to cut loose, pump up the volume and enjoy the space.
New prospects leave me aching with curiosity. Will the Meridian 203, $1000, equal its costly cousin? (Not so far.) Will the new PS Audio Ultralink, $2000, challenge Theta and Enlightened? Will the Carver MD/V-500 combi player, $700, make a good transport? What about Sony’s CDP-777ES, $1500, the only Sony CD player with both electrical and optical digital outputs? Or should I just check into Bellevue? But am I any crazier than the people who say the LP –– a Forties technology complete with surface noise, dubious durability, squashed dynamic range and limited playing time –– is the only way to listen to music?