Regular readers of this site know that, when it comes to digital reproduction of music, my attitude is a bit icy. With good reason, since, especially with sloppy CD mastering, and particularly today’s current trend toward ultra-compressed MP3s, the sound is, well, icy. Brittle, irritating and fatiguing are other descriptives critics use when being polite about the sensation of listening to music converted and stored as numbers. Though we are 30 years into the digital era, the process is still far from perfect—inadequate sampling rates standardized early on still severely limit bandwidth and ultimate musicality—but quality has, admittedly, made some great strides in recent years.
Yet the truth is, digital is here to stay, and with the advent of the iPod generation, more and more young folks are being weaned from the idea of buying discs of any sort, relying more and more on downloads from the ‘net for their principal source of software acquisition. So now the trick is getting the best sound possible out of these digital downloads and from our existing CD collections as well.
Leave it to an inveterate tinkerer and musician—not to mention designer of some of the sweetest sounding vacuum tube-based amplifiers on the planet—to come up with one of the most logical solutions to high-end digital music playback: use a simple computer to act as an audiophile-grade CD transport and music server system. Of course many people already use their computers for music, and are content with the mediocre sound provided by most such devices and the Internet-downloaded MP3s so prevalent in these systems, but Gordon Rankin, Chief Scientist (his real title) at Wavelength Audio (wavelengthaudio.com), was convinced there was a better way to get high-performance sound, even from our lowliest laptops.
“The idea stemmed from a headline i saw on Excite.com that said something to the effect that CD sales were down 12%, downloaded music sales up 6000%,” says Rankin. “Well you don’t have to hit me over the head any more than that.”
So he set out to take advantage of the characteristics of the data transfer scheme of the USB output of today’s PCs and Macs by designing a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) for connecting any modern computer to a quality hi-fi system to extract the best possible music reproduction from digital files. The resulting sound is nothing short of breathtaking.
Why? Well, largely because the inherent problems in the data recovery and interpretation by the average CD player have been overcome. Using the USB bus of the computer as opposed to the standard S/PDIF [Sony/Philips Digital Interface] bus makes all the difference according to Rankin. “Basically the DAC has a single digital USB input. USB, unlike S/PDIF, is bidirectional and therefore has error correction and buffering on both sides. This happens automatically so the data on the disk is identical to what is going out all the time. Also since this interface is asynchronous, the clocking problems associated with S/PDIF go away,” he sums up. In other words, the age-old faults of CD-read errors and jitter in the digital stream disappear. So the sound coalesces in a way not heard in traditional CD or computer playback.
Rankin’s original DAC, the Cosecant ($3,500) was introduced nearly ten years ago, and in early 2005 he debuted the more affordable Brick ($1,750) examined here. Though the Cosecant is slightly more neutral and more refined than the Brick, when I first plugged in the Brick, the results were jaw-dropping. The sound opened up as I’d never heard it before, with far more ambiance surrounding the musicians, far more presence, far more realism, just far more like music than the CD player I’d been using. Other reviewers have compared the Brick to $20,000 CD decks and found no difference, while my modest $1,200 player has been resigned to the corner in shame until the Brick has to go back to Rankin.
And true to Wavelength’s “tubes sound better” philosophy, all Rankin’s DACs include a vacuum tube in the output stage. Oh, and unlike most CD players, the Wavelength solution includes no filters and no oversampling or upsampling, the lack of which helps keep things simpler, mathematically speaking, and thus, more faithful to the original recording.
Setup is a breeze with the Brick because it is totally software independent; as long as your computer is USB 1.1 compatible, you are ready to go, though USB 2.0 is preferred. It takes no more than a couple of minutes to plug and play—a simple assignment of sound output to the cast aluminum brick-sized Brick in the Mac system preferences settings is all it takes once the cables are in place. Windows machines are slightly more difficult, but still no software required, just change a setting or two.
Since the sonics of the Wavelength DACs are so superior, even to those of multi-thousand dollar dedicated CD players, Rankin is also promoting the idea of using a standard computer as a high-end music server. “A computer will always be better than even the most expensive transport, just from the virtue of an endless supply of software,” Rankin states. In addition, the nearly flawless error correction potential of CD ripping or playback through the computer’s advanced buffering capacity creates, as Rankin mentions above, as close to a bit-for-bit reproduction of the original as is mathematically possible. He advocates using iTunes as the digital jukebox software, implementing the Apple Lossless compression scheme since it does not suffer from the quality loss encountered in traditional MP3 algorithms.
In this way, he estimates a 250GB drive can hold up to 500 CDs, so most music collections should fit on one or two of these devices. And, though it’s a breeze to add new items to the library as new discs arrive, since real-time CD playback is of the same quality as that of stored tunes, except for the convenience, there is no need to rip all those esoteric titles into the server, saving them for those once-a-year spins of say, that old Mingus disc from 1957. Going this route, a state-of-the-art digital playback system can be assembled for the price of a cheap laptop, an inexpensive hard drive and a Brick—maybe a tad over $3,000—and expandability is almost unlimited. Don’t forget the wireless capability of this system which allows for transmitting the music from your computer to other sound systems throughout the home.
In my all-too-short audition of the Brick, I can say that, in various comparisons, I always preferred the musical experience of the Brick and my Mac iBook to any other playback of the same material, at least digital versions…vinyl is another story. I piled on many old favorites, all of which grabbed my full attention because they sounded so much better and alive than I remembered from previous listening—in all, more enjoyable and inviting than standard CDs.
My usual test selections from vocalist Ann Dyer and the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio were all greatly improved. Reflections, an old Prestige recording of Steve Lacy interpreting Monk bloomed in my living room with a richness and musicality that, perhaps, only the original analog tape, or a very clean LP of the session, could equal. By the way, this Lacy disc is a forgotten gem well worth examination. So is the sadly overlooked disc from guitarist Anthony Wilson on Groove Note entitled Savivity. Wilson, best known via his work with Diana Krall, has released several knockout organ trio sides under his own name and through the Brick, Savivity spotlights to great effect, Wilson’s ability to emulate the sound, feel and emotion of the old chittlins circuit and soul jazz players featured on Blue Note and Prestige LPs in the early ’60s. From the bottom end, provided by Joe Bagg’s B-3 organ pedals, all the way up to the highs of Wilson’s upper strings, the resolution is accurate, pleasing and engaging, with none of the usual digital artifacts. It bears repeating that the essential musicality of the recording was not masked one bit, but instead, was brought into full focus via this unique playback system: I was transfixed by Wilson’s artistry and the underlying soulfulness of the recording.
One note: the Brick will not work with the iPod because the iPod does not have a digital USB output and Apple has no plans to allow for one. This minor shortcoming aside, if you are in the market for a new digital playback system, and would appreciate the convenience of a high-quality music server, the Brick is one basic digital music building block that should be on your shopping list.