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  • The Digital Domain
  • Garrard
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The Digital Domain

 
Photo on the left: A world class system

Over the past few weeks I have been auditioning three digital sources through a revealing "back-end" system (an all-Kondo combination: Kondo DAC, M77 Pre-amp, with an OnGaKu power amp, with a limited edition pair of Kondo speakers). I found the results consistent and intriguing.

In order of technology, the three sources were,

- 47 Lab's PiTracer CD transport

- a Red Wine modified Olive hard drive music system

- Wadia's 170i processor for the iPod (a Classic in my case)

My assessment took the form of, first some quick A/B's, second extended listening with one source at a time over a couple of days, and finally reversion to longer A/Bs of some half an hour or so for each contender. The results were quite consistent, with the differences becoming more evident as the ear become accustomed to them.

What were these differences?

Those of you familiar with the PiTracer will know the relaxed clarity that it provides. No CD "haze" in the sound but a delicate, clear, open sound. Its airiness is perhaps slightly light on some programme but one often puts this down to a lack of distortion.

Turning to the Olive, the presentation is subtly different. At first hearing it seems slightly less clear, less "etched" than the PiTracer. The bass seems better balanced however and the sound is open but not as "light" as the PiTracer. The key impression overall is that it simply sounds more "analogue", despite being a pure data stream source from a hard disk! By "analogue", I mean smooth and balanced harmonics; voices "sing" and the presentation has the wonderful sense of rhythm. The old 1970's test of good systems was did it make your feet tap? The Olive is a real foot-tapper. Put differently, the music "flows" in a very natural way. By comparison, the PiTracer sound, while more attention grabbing is less relaxed and rhythmic.

Finally, the Wadi/iPod front end is an interesting option and easily the cheapest, assuming you already own a DAC and an iPod. The sound is somewhat more immediate than either of the other sources; more "impressive" in a hi-fi showroom sense. On careful listening, this seems to be because the highs are starker while the bass is fuller than either other source. But there are significant costs to this. The pace drags in relative terms, compared to the Olive in particular. The bass is too full and a little leaden. And the starkness of the top end can leave it sounding a little "washed-out" despite the full bottom end. The best analogy I can think of is the difference between Plasma and LCD TV screens. At first site - and that's why showrooms love them - LCD is impressive, very etched with super clarity. On closer inspection, Plasma is more natural, with the transition at the edge of a foreground subject into the background properly rendered. On LCD, and this is much more noticeable on the large screens, the subject almost appears like a cut-out, pasted onto the background, with a hard black line termination, almost as if the image has been "Photoshopped". On Plasma this "edge" does not exist.

The Wadia/iPod comparison with the Olive or indeed the PiTracer is similar; at first the sound is impressive but it is too etched and stark to be completely natural.

Now I should emphasise here that these difference are very subtle. Many listeners, particularly those with no deep interest in good sound and no extended experience of listening to such subtleties, would hear no difference and consider all three excellent. When one takes account of price and convenience too, the Wadia is a brilliant device and has received deservedly good reviews. But on the most demanding standards it is not quite there (yet).

The above notes will have made clear my order of preference of the three; Wadia in third place, PiTracer second and the Olive a clear winner. Of course why this should be so, technologically is not at all clear. All three feed a bit stream to the same DAC. All three do so from a rotating disc. The PiTracer has, in one sense, the hardest job in trying to read a plastic disc that is far from flat, but I guess challenges arise in the other two as well. In any event I now use the Olive as my digital source of choice virtually all the time.

What about vinyl as a reference point for this? This is perhaps the most interesting result of all. Listening to my Nordic Concept/Triplaner/Kondo IOJ front end, in place of the digital source, the first point to make is that vinyl remains the superior front end by a long distance. It is the difference that is intriguing. Those of us following the long running contest of vinyl vs. CD over the last 25 years have become adjusted to the conventional view that vinyl is "warm" and CD "hard"; the former more mellow and "smooth" perhaps but the latter more detailed and cleaner. The conclusion often was �V leaving aside convenience - that your preference depended on whether etched detail was your taste or mellow melodies.

Well, that established distinction is evidently wrong. Comparing the purely digital Olive with my turntable front end, it is the Olive that sounds "warmer" and smoother. LP still sounds completely natural but it has more immediacy and detailing. The difference remains best summarized by that old metaphor of the Olive providing an ultra-clean window through which to "view" the audio landscape while vinyl simply throws open that window.

Now of course, my front end is of very high quality and the Olive a substantially cheaper device. The point I am making, however, is that smoothness as opposed to detail no longer appears a vinyl/digital trade-off. This suggests that the differences are to do with how the original signal is processed, not whether it is received in digital or analogue form. All those years believing digital was "harsh" were a side alley. This opens up an interesting future for digital. As the investment into digital hard drive based systems continues, perhaps solid-state memory, not a rotating drive, is the ultimate medium-term option, with bit-streams downloaded from the internet later taking over if bandwidth permits super high quality.

So my final conclusion; vinyl still leads but the music centres like the Olive show digital is perhaps not out of the race yet.

From a contributor (and we are grateful!)

DPS3

 
Jason Kennedy in HiFi+, Issue 55, gives the DPS3 a sparkling review saying that it is "one of the best I have heard".

Garrard

 
The last time I wrote for this web site I mentioned the pleasure of listening to music on hard drive. I want to now go from the sublime to the ridiculous and turn back the clock some 50 years and join in the debate (which has been extensive) extolling the virtue of idler drive turntables. The classic turntable of that genre was, of course, the Garrard 301 and 401. Much, has been written about this iconic turntable, and indeed if you take the trouble to google "Garrard", it will amazingly come up with 105,000 entries and here is one more to add to the list!

The reason that Garrard attracts so much attention in the audio world is simple, they always have been and still are today wonderful turntables. It is something of a mystery that the direct drive turntable succeeded the idler drive turntable and thereafter belt driven turntables dominated. Interestingly, Garrard still makes a "modern" idler drive turntable, the 501 and the 601 (http://www.garrard501.com/index.html). But the 301 and the 401 are still sought after and being used in high-end systems around the world. The Garrard name still exist today, thanks to Loricraft Audio, a small firm located near Swindon, where the original Garrards were made.

We have recently been appointed representative for Garrard products (the turntables and record cleaning machines) in Hong Kong, Macau and China, and we are delighted to be their representative in this part of the world.

I am personally using a 401 at home at the moment and I find it staggering that after 50 years, such a piece can play with the verve and rhythm that it does. There is a sort of coherence and rhythm (I think the word rhythm probably is the key word), when listening to music on the 401.

I had the opportunity to listen to a 301 recently, because Ken Chan of Sound Chamber has taken it upon himself to become something as an expert in old turntables (along with all other areas of audio, of course!) and has a Garrard 301, a Thorens TD124II and TD160II, not to mention a rebuilt Lynn in his showroom at the moment. Anyone who wants to get an eye and an earful of some classic turntables from the 50's and 60's, should call round and have a chat with Ken, who enthuses for these turntables matches my own.

Of course, it is not just the turntables that get attention in the audio world, the old question of their plinths, and the tonearm and cartridge best suited for the job are also hotly debated. I am using an Ikeda 345 arm with either a 47Lab MC Bee, Kondo IO-j, or Denon 103 cartridge, which I can swap effortlessly because the Ikeda arm has a headsell and makes the stylus change a breeze. The Ikeda is a nice old fashion heavy arm, which is ideal (says Terry O'Sullivan of Loricarft) to be used on the Garrard deck and it all certainly sings.

In the end, as we all know, judging audio equipment is a subjective exercise, and if you ask yourself the question "am I enjoying the music?" and the answer is "yes", you probably have a decent piece of equipment. I can report that using a Garrard 401, I am really enjoying the music!

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