The Audio Geek!

My Benchmark DAC1 USB Review

My current headphone listening rig comprises a Cambridge Audio DacMagic into a Yamamoto HA-02 headphone amplifier, all fed by hi-res and iTunes ALAC files from a MacBook Pro via KimberKable B Bus Ag USB cable. An audiophilleo2 handles the 192 / 24 USB / SPDIF conversion. An Ear Science PF1 Powerbox is now in place to handle clean power delivery duties. Vibrapods under the Mac and Black Diamond Racing cones supporting the amplifier are controlling any stray vibrations / resonances.

I had a sneaky feeling that the DacMagic was a weak link and that I might also like solid state point of comparison to the tube-based Yammy. So, enter the Benchmark DAC1 USB, acquired second hand (but in mint condition) via the classifieds of my local audio forum.

My software of choice is Fidelia which handles the interface with the Apple Midi Setup environment seamlessly, swapping bit rates and word lengths on the fly while playing hi-res FLAC files (up to 192/24) and Apple iTunes ALAC tracks at 44/16, via an attractive interface which kills the more expensive Pure Music and Amarra products IMHO.

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The Headphone Rig - 2011

The setup process in my headphone system was a breeze once I found the correct adapter to insert the audiophilleo2 into the S/PDIF input. If you can get a product going without reading the manual it is a bonus in my view, and I am a guy so the manual is an A4 paperweight anyway. My secondary uneducated challenge was cycling through the inputs to select my preferred input option. A second or so of patience as you cycle through is rewarded. Too speedy and the signal is never locked on.

And speaking of the unboxing, while it doesn't affect the sonics, the quality of the Benchmark DAC chassis & controls, the packaging materials, supplied accessories and manual all ooze quality and class.

Initial listening was done using my AKG K702, with an aftermarket AudioMinor silver cable. After listening to three different tracks, all at different bit rates it was easy to understand that the Benchmark products were originally designed as a pro audio monitoring tool. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth flowed through the AKGs. No romance, no bloom, no thumping bass, no take your ears off highs. Just the accurate rendering of what was recorded. I was initially disappointed with the lack of fireworks, but I quickly settled into listening to the music rather than the audiophile artefacts and really started to enjoy the presentation, and forgot about the technologies in play. This is not a product for those who like to use their DAC as a form of tone control.

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Benchmark DAC1 USB - 2011

Without an A/B test to fully evaluate, my sense is that the Benchmark is more balanced and more composed than the DacMagic. The Cambridge Audio DAC is a great budget value-for-money performer but with multiple filters and a presentation that swings between slightly veiled and strident it is unable to match the Benchmark's confident, consistent if slightly clinical output.

I have not yet used the DAC1 USB as pre-amp, but plan to ASAP as I can run the Benchmark's RCA output into my Yamamoto amplifier to get the tube-amp headphone experience and be able to compare the two amplifiers with a standardised DAC front end.

Another use for the Benchmark is for headphone comparisons. Two separate 1/4" plugs enable two different headphones to share the same input / tracks and enable genuine evaluations on the fly. Should help remove the 'memory effect' of swapping / unplugging 'phones when comparing.

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US v Japanese craftsmanship - Benchmark & Yamamoto - 2011

Is there anything not to like about the Benchmark? After a few hours, frankly, not yet. I have read quibbles about the texture of the volume control knob (are you kidding me?), the input selector is slow to lock on (get over it) and the obvious flaw that the product delivers output that is 'uncoloured' (unforgivable...).

There is much to learn about the many features and options built into this compact device. More details and listening impressions to come.

A formal (if a little quirky) Benchmark DAC1 USB review by Home Theatre Hi Fi can be found here.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in any of the companies / products mentioned. Also my findings and thoughts are based on my ears, my music, in my room, with my BAC level and mental state. YMMV.

My First Watt Aleph J Review

While my beloved valve power amps are off being repaired, I thought I should have a 'reliable' standby power amp for everyday listening / backup. So after some searching and a stroke of luck I was able to purchase a second-hand, factory configured 240v First Watt Aleph J solid state stereo power amplifier from the very pleasant folks at John's Hi Fi Exchange in Melbourne. For an older amplifier (Serial number 011 of 100) which was first introduced in 2005, it is in mint condition with original manual and box and is a credit to the original Sydney owner.

An imposing product, weighing over 10 kilos, sporting two serious side mounted heat sinks and simply purposeful to behold, it contains some 25 Class A watts per channel (30 watts at clipping) this beast runs very warm and sounds, not surprisingly, very much different to my Red Rose Music and Supratek EL34 push / pull amps. But not in the ways you might imagine. And I should add that this is the first solid state amplifier I have had in my system for over a decade.

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Simple front plate - 2011

My current system configuration is the Wadia 861SE, balanced into a Supratek Sauvignon (tube) pre-amplifier running single-ended into the First Watt Aleph J. Cables are Kimber Select interconnects, Kimber Monocle X speaker cables with a Furman providing the power conditioning.

So what is good about the Aleph J? The Aleph J is extremely quiet with a very low noise floor allowing it to dredge the very last ounce of detail out of my recordings. A big plus. This transparency also seems to assist in rendering the intonation of voices extremely nuanced, with even well known discs giving something a little extra with greater vocal articulation. There is no sign of any solid state grain or top end harshness at all. The mid-range is almost tube-like (didn't want to really use that cliche) rendering an overall sound that is extremely smooth and musical. In comparison to my valve amps which can leave the listener with the job of re-creating the musical event in their head (I had previously blamed this sonic trait on the Zu's, my apologies), the Aleph brings the detailed and disparate parts of the recording back to a whole engaging presentation leaving the listener with the simple task of enjoying the music.

Anything not so good? While vocals are extremely detailed, Phil Manning 'Two Roads' sounds a little more hi fi-ish and less like Phil sounds 'live'. Some timbre & richness is missing. Update 1: This has been partially resolved today by increasing the pre-amp gain on the Supratek and the vocals are now slightly warmer with greater timbre and just a bit less articulation. No detail has been lost and the net result is a significant step forward. Surprisingly the Aleph also lacks the PRAT of my previous valve amps. The finger snaps on Patricia Barber 'Ode to Billie Joe' lack sparkle, the guitar and drum attack on SRV's 'Tin Pan Alley' is more reserved. I was expecting more top end clarity and extension lending the feeling of greater dynamics. Maybe this may be improved by some system synergy tweaks as well. Update 2: A change of the Wadia decoding algorithm (from B to A for those in the know 'wink') has improved this area of performance tangibly as well.

Imaging is excellent with plenty of space around the instruments while I would say that the soundstage is only marginally smaller in both width and depth than previously experienced.

Bass response is similar to what I am used to, probably no surprise given the powered drivers on the Zu's.

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Serious heatsinks - 2011

All in all, a very nice, inexpensive, 'collectible' solid state amplifier. It does somethings better and some things worse, and some things different to what I have been used to. My wife Robin sat down with me for a few tracks last night and immediately heard the same differences as I did. We agreed that the overall sound was probably less flattering to good recordings but gave a fairer presentation of lesser ones.

In summary, the overall sound is (now) extremely good, but clearly different to what we had become used to over the last twelve years. What I can say with certainty is that it is a very engaging and listenable amplifier which connects you to the music and doesn't rely on any audiophile pyrotechnics to deliver the goods.

Follow Up - Interestingly, the Aleph J reviews that I have read indicate that speed and top end are strengths of the amplifier. There must be something in the synergy of my rig limiting this. I look forward to fixing it. Time for some serious tuning methinks. Some options include:

- Supratek Sauvignon Pre-amplifier changes

  • Replace SE connectors to Balanced from the pre-amp to Aleph;
  • Add caps/plugs to the unused RCA points;

- Wadia CD player changes
  • Increase the output voltage on the Wadia to lessen the load on the pre-amp;
  • Add caps/plugs to the unused RCA points;

- Environmental changes
  • Run the Wadia direct to the Aleph;
  • Add some vibration control / cones under the Aleph;
  • Add some vibration control / cones under the Supratek;
  • Add some speaker spike cups under the Zu's to stabilise the speakers further;

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An early serial number - 2011

A formal review of the First Watt Aleph J by Michael Lavorgna of SixMoons can be found here.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in any of the companies / products mentioned. Also my findings and thoughts are based on my ears, my music, in my room, with my BAC level and mental state. YMMV.

Australian A/V & Audio Show

There has not been a dedicated Audio show is Melbourne in recent memory, so a large number of people made their way to the Marriott Hotel in the city over Friday, Saturday, Sunday to get a peek and a listen to some decent audio gear. Also there were some audio royalty in attendance as well. Mr Cabasse, showing off his latest orb-ish / eyeball looking speakers, and Dan D'Agostino, was demoing his new Class D amps and signing autographs as well! It was a very good event I thought. Well organised, reasonably well spread out given the hotel-style restrictions, and feedback I got from several exhibitors was very positive about interest levels, response etc.

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Forget all that fluff, was there anything good?

Well, let me say, without any exaggeration at all, I saw and heard the most impressive piece of audio technology that I have ever seen. The start up company is from the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Kyron Audio, and it was their first product, Gaia Speaker System. Recommend you take a tour of their website. A Dipole design, over five feet tall, twelve bass drivers, four mids and four dome tweeters. Five thousand watts of DEQX DSP managed amplification. Price? About $A160,000. The sound was spectacular, not so much what it did, but what it didn't do. The sound stage and imaging was so vivid, placing the voices and instruments on such a completely black background with seemingly unlimited space and air around. Like nothing I have ever heard before. Music was played via hi-res files from a server.

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Kyron Audio jewellery, poorly represented by an iPhone pic - 2011

Like many of these shows, the music is often played too loud, and tends to be too strident and / or too bass boomy. So the second best room was by Audio Note. Playing some vinyl-based jazz, through big tube mono blocks and their latest Alnico monitors the sound was so cool and smooth, like an oasis in the desert.

I very much enjoyed the Vivid Audio room, with their little B1 I think. Strange, oval looking stand mount thingys, driven by an Esoteric integrated amp and CD player. Very smooth, effortless and engaging. 

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Cute and ccol Vivid Audio speakers - 2011

Best of the rest? One of my favourite local dealers is selling Japanese spec JBL horns, with Ypsilon electronics and a pretty impressive Kuzma Stabi XL2 turntable. A very rich and immersive sound. 

Unfortunately I missed a demo of the Wilson Sashas driven by those D'Agostino amps. Shucks.

All in all an enjoyable three hours spent wandering and listening and chatting. Rumour has it that if successful, the show will alternate annually between Melbourne and Sydney. Sounds like a good reason to take a trip to Sin City every second year.

audiophilleo2

As I explore the complex world of computer-based hi-res audio, the limitations of USB become more obvious. Somewhat DAC and source (computer type / age dependent) but it is not always to get the expected resolution from your source files.

Enter products from companies like JKenny and Audiophilleo. I decided to buy an audiophileo2 low jitter USB S/PDIF transport / converter.

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The audiophilleo2 package (Image source - audiophilleo Website)

Very easy to install, literally plug & play, it effectively mates with the software (in my case Fidelia), the computer (Apple MacBook Pro) and DAC (Cambridge DacMagic) to ensure each track's native bit / sample rate is transferred to your amp then either speakers or in my case, headphones.

The manufacturer / designer who takes a personal interest in his customer's installations, recommends some 200 hours burn-in before the device hits full stride. So I will follow his instructions and delay my thoughts until around that rolls around.

Early listening impressions are promising, with the digital sound presented in a very natural and smooth fashion, making my Grado GS-1000 sound very mellow indeed. Stay tuned!

New Music

While my main system has been idle, my music purchasing has not!

My first stop was to try some high resolution music download sites. Easier said than done from Australia I found. The major site, HDTracks unfortunately does not allow purchases outside the US, but I may have found a workaround and tried a download a 96/24 version of SRV / Albert King 'In Session'... BTW, it is 96/24 AIFF file weighing in at 2.24 GB! Then I tried Linn Records. I had more immediate success and downloaded Pete Alderton's 'Cover My Blues', still only a 44/20 bit recording but outstanding sound quality and a nice acoustic blues set.

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I have discovered SecondSpin.com and CDwow.com as suppliers of discount used and new CDs respectively. Second Spin is US-based but offers really cheap shipping ($6.99 to Oz), while CDWow have keen pricing and free shipping. After several orders from both companies I have not had a single ordering / purchasing / shipping problem. A happy customer!

Because both suppliers have a wide range of products, you can indulge some of your wider musical tastes and come up with just about anything. Here is a sample of my recent purchases by genre:

  • Pop / Rock - Squirrel Nut Zippers, The New Pornographers, Walter Becker, Drive-By Truckers
  • Blues - Walter Trout, Michael Hill's Blues Mob, Delbert McClinton, Bettye Lavette, Chris Whitley
  • Jazz - Ginger Baker Trio, Melody Gardot
Also I found an interesting remastered / reissue of 'The Best of Apple Records' featuring a number of names from the early 70s - including Mary Hopkins, Jackie Lomax, Biliy Preston and Badfinger. And it has an awesome cover image too!

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Updated Headphone System Configuration

With the main rig experiencing some reliability issues, my attention has returned to enjoying some tunes through headphones of music stored on my Apple systems. With the renewed focus has come some new products, configuration and tuning.

My rack is still the three shelf Spider Rack, using just two shelves which have granite blocks resting on the rubber 'feet'. The top shelf has three VibraPods supporting the laptop, with the Yamamoto and DacMagic side by side on the second granite shelf below, again resting on rubber 'feet'.

A late 2009 Apple MacBook Pro (Intel Core2Duo) is my source for ALAC files (stored in iTunes) and for higher resolution music stored in a separate library, accessible by other programs. As reported a week ago, my preferred music player for the Mac is Fidelia. It handles both iTunes and other hi-res file types and is very simple to use.

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Kimber Silver USB (left) and Red Rose Music Silver RCA (right)

I connect the MBP to a Cambridge DacMagic via USB. This has been another change in as much as I used to use a 'vanilla' (meaning cheap) computer USB cable. Thought I would experiment with a 'better' one so bought a Belkin 'Gold' USB cable for less than $A20 and it probably sounded better but not much. Fortunately I was speaking to a Kimber Cable distributor buddy who gave me Kimber 'Silver' USB cable to try. For a reasonable cost ($A150-ish from memory) it sounds much better, especially in the bass. It is a keeper.

I had reasonable after-market RCA connectors between the DacMagic and the Yamamoto power amp, but I was able to free up my 'old' Red Rose Music Silver Litz cables and they added a degree of speed and clarity over the previous copper RCAs. Another worthwhile change.

All the listening up to this point was with the new AKG K 702 headphones as I am trying to understand their strengths and weaknesses in my system, to my ears. Also I have only been using the stock cable, which according to the seller, had only about 10 hours on it before it arrived here, but must be getting closer to 25 hours now I am guessing. Observations over at Head-Fi suggest the K701/702s need 300 hours to sound their best...

So I think there is more to come with the Kimber USB cable to burn in a little and the stock cable also to get a little better with more hours on it. Then I can plug in the AudioMinor silver AKG cable to see where that leaves me with the overall sound.

So far the sound is pretty good. The K 702s strength is one overall competence. Good balance from top to bottom, they are an easy 62 ohm load to drive (although they supposedly sound even better when fed by more powerful amps) and are very comfortable to wear for extended sessions. My major gripes with the AKGs are that they can be a bit 'bland' (the flip side of broad competence, no highlights) and they don't seem to project a large image so far. Once I believe there is nothing more to come from the AKGs, I look forward to comparing them with my Sennheiser 600s and Grado GS-1000, both of whose sound I am much more familiar with.

Future changes? I have some work to do to get the hi-res files playing via USB out of the MBP. So I have ordered an Audiophilleo 2 USB/S/PDIF converter which will give me up to 192/24 from my DAC. Should sound pretty good. Another obvious upgrade would be to try some improved power supply / conditioning / isolation for the Yamamoto & DacMagic. A very 'easy' tweak to test would be to remove the power cord from the laptop to assess if running on battery power alone does anything to the computer's output signal. Finally to be honest, the DacMagic is probably the weakest link in my headphone system chain, but what to replace it with is the $A1500 to $6500 question. Sensible upgrades could start with a Benchmark, DAC1 then you could step up to a battery powered Red Wine Audio Isabella or go the whole hog and get a Weiss DAC 202 with firewire connection and an inbuilt solid state headphone amplifier. How deep are my pockets...

I see lots of enjoyable headphone listening in my future!

Hi Res - The Decision

Following on from my original post in December, I have continued to review my options for adding high resolution audio playback from my Apple MacBook Pro laptop and for audio files of greater resolution than 44.1 kHz / 16 bit.

After a little more listening and much more guesswork, I dropped a lazy $A20 on the program 'Fidelia' by Audiofile Engineering. Why I hear you ask?
  • Fidelia is tangibly cheaper than all of the other 'paid' applications (Amarra, Pure Music)
  • A far simpler licensing scheme than the complexity / upgrade limitations of Amarra
  • Fidelia is actively developed and far better supported than all of the 'free' applications (Decibel, Play, AyreWave etc)
  • Overall, the SQ is clearly superior to iTunes and very similar to the major competitors to my ears
  • Native FLAC support means simple 'Click and Play' for FLAC & other hi-res formats
  • Built on OS X foundations and integration and delivers a very simple and intuitive interface with adequate iTunes integration
  • The Fidelia architecture allows Apple (AU) & VST plug-ins to be used as and when required

Fidelia Screen Shot

Having tried many alternatives over the last six months or more, I find Fidelia clearly the best option for me.

I loaded and tested the trial versions of the other products and had great trouble in the trial window period, understanding the interface, finding my tracks, ensuring the Apple MIDI interface switched correctly etc. To be honest, my objective listening tests of Amarra and Pure Music were impacted by my subjective assessments of their usability.

I have not optioned up to the Advanced version of Fidelia as I manage the environment on my laptop (HOG mode less important) and as I listen via headphones, many or most of the plug ins are less relevant (e.g, room correction) to me.

AKG K 702 Headphones

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There is a danger of surfing Flea Bay as temptation awaits at very click...

One of my longer term headphone ambitions is to explore a balanced audio solution from source to DAC to amplifier to headphone. I can support the source / DAC side with my Wadia 861SE, the amp today is an unknown and from a 'phones POV, my Sennheiser 600 have a removable cable which can be replaced with a balanced version. But I wanted more options!

A pair of AKG K 702 came up for bid with an after market (single ended) silver cable from AudioMinor. Short answer, I made a bid and I won. Early days but my observations are 'interesting'.

Straight out of the MacBook Pro, the sound was extremely fine. Smooth, balanced, punchy a real treat. Not what I was expecting frankly. The comfort of these 'phones is a delight also. Firm enough to feel like they wouldn't flap around, but loose enough to make extended listening sessions pleasant indeed. Some AKG fans don't like the black finish of the 702, but I find them attractive and the quality materials I am sure will be long wearing.

With my expectations re SQ now through the roof, I plugged the MBP/Fidelia combo into the DacMagic and the Yamamoto, and... what happened? The whole sound was 'flatter', slower and less engaging. More work to evaluate and understand I'm afraid. I did try the 702s with my HeadRoom Cosmic portable solid state amp out of the MBP as well. No better. Hmmmm.

I haven't tried the aftermarket cable yet. I would rather get my hands and head around the basic AKG K 702 signature first.

iPad & Hi Fi

I haven't really used my iPad as an audio device. I have had some earphones in it once or twice but that's about it. iDevices usually mean portability for me so most of my out & about listening is done on my iPhone. And enjoyably too.

So what is this entry doing here?

Well, my major use of the iPad at the moment is as an eBook reader. Several car magazine subscriptions have found their way onto the device and so have three hi fi mags: Hi Fi+, The Absolute Sound and now Stereophile. Here in Australia, international magazines and postage drives the cost up significantly and with little volume to be had, the individual news stand prices are pretty steep. $A12 an issue or more. This does not compare too favourably with the recent download subscription for Stereophile which cost $A9.60 for 12 issues via Zinio. This is my first Zinio subscription and there is some internet chatter about the quality of their reader / app and reliability of their service but for less than $10 how bad can it be!

I have enjoyed browsing and reading the other two magazines (really just PDF downloads) and only occasionally miss the feel and smell of the printed item.

Apple TV

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Also arriving over Christmas was a new Apple TV. Having read a little about it's capabilities it seemed like it might be a reasonable addition to the living room audio / visual system.

So what is it? Well, it is a very small black box (controlled via a neat brushed metal remote control), which acts as a wireless transmitter / internet connection streaming data from your computer to the TV. Some external movie and other services are available via the internet, as are You Tube videos.

Relatively straight forward to setup (thanks Tony!), it was up and running in 30 minutes and has been a pleasure to use. From streaming You Tube videos, just having a random slide show (from an Aperture or iPhoto library) displaying on the plasma screen, to replaying the in-car videos of my GT3 antics to simply playing music by artists, albums or playlists.

I know there are many people out there who will say that different solutions, probably cheaper, can do what the Apple TV does. I don't doubt that. I do doubt that any other options would be neater, cleaner and more integrated with my existing computer technologies. And look as cool! Count me as a fan!

iTunes library work

With my 'big rig' hi fi system in a state of flux after some amplifier reliability issues, my attention has turned to music, specifically adding to and cleaning up my iTunes library.

Over the summer, I finally finished copying all of my CDs in ALAC format to iTunes on my iMac. The library is getting quite large. Some of the old tracks were also missing artwork, release dates and various other pieces of meta data which I have had fun tracking down and updating. I know that there are apps you can buy to do that, but sometimes they don't get it right and often it can be just downright wrong as they over-write some information that was perfectly good in the first place. Also there is some mindless fun to be had in searching and chasing some of this data yourself, especially for old Aussie bands and artists. Ah, the memories.

My serious listening system lately has been via headphones and I am ready to start loading all my iDevices with fresh, decent resolution portable tunes again.

Some new music

That great man Santa managed to load up with a copy of the Dylan Mono Box Set for me for Christmas. And boy, I am glad he did.

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Sometimes it is easy to gloss over the contribution to musical history of some of the legends of recorded music. Bob Dylan might meet that criteria. Heard all his stuff before, don't like his voice, has he done anything lately etc etc.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Listen to these discs. And I mean, really, really listen. From the early days of the early 60s, to his later work on 'John Wesley Harding' you will hear a singer / guitarist grow to a musician to a poet for the people. It is a very identifiable trail of musical and social commentary growth.

A superbly packaged offering, it is well worth the price of admission. Enjoy!