In a recent post on the decline of the CD and the inevitable domination of the digital music download, I cited three big reasons why the trend has jazz lovers crying in their jewel cases. First, avid jazz listeners are collectors by nature, and downloads mean the end of the CD “hunt.” Second, downloading leaves you with nothing to hold, nothing to read and no cover art to admire. And third, the fidelity of downloads leaves much to be desired when played through computer speakers compared with CDs on a stereo.
But since waging that three-pronged argument back on April 16, 2008 in a post entitled "The Jazz Download Dilemma," I did a little investigative reporting. While there isn’t much you can do about the “hunting” and “holding” stuff, I can tell you that I did resolve the fidelity problem and that my vast iTunes library now sounds breathtaking. Friends, critics and jazz aficionados can't believe what they hear.
As I write this post, I am listening to At Ease with Coleman Hawkins three different ways—as a Rudy Van Gelder Remaster CD, as a burn from that same CD, and as a download from iTunes. All three versions sound incredible and indistinguishable from the other processed by my computer. I virtually can hear the pads on Hawk's tenor sax clicking away. And every note played by Tommy Flanagan, Wendell Marshall and Osie Johnson is crisp, distinct, deep and warm.
Before I tell you what device I connected to my computer and office stereo system to project such sound, let me start this story at the beginning. About five years ago, I had a few extra bucks saved and decided I was going to assemble a drop dead sound system in my living room for as little as possible.
As a New Yorker, I have access to about five high-end stereo stores around the city. At the time, I had salted away about $2,000 to spend on speakers, a subwoofer and a CD player. I figured that half would have to go toward a great CD player to get the sound I wanted.
To pull off a satisfying sound system within my price range, I knew I had to do some research. So I spent hours testing gear with my CDs at high-end stereo stores. Ultimately, I went with a pair of ProAc Response 1 monitor speakers for about $400 and a B&W ASW 2500 subwoofer for $500.
But before settling on a CD player, I wanted to be sure whether I really needed to spend so much. So I talked my way into a pro audio retailer that sells only to TV networks and recording studios. My thinking here was that if anyone knew how to goose a basic sound system, these guys would.
After an hour or so at the pro studio, I noticed that while high-end stereo stores carry brilliantly designed equipment from Europe, the pro store tended to feature components made in the U.S. and Asia that were more about function than high-tech or visual status.
At some point, the pro store's salesperson popped my imported Count Basie Straight Ahead CD into a Sony CD player and chose a pair of decent studio monitor speakers. We listened for about a minute. The sound was OK. Then he hit a button and the music went from black-and-white to Technicolor.
“What did you just do?” I asked him. Laughing, the guy said he was
testing equipment that a sales rep had brought in from Benchmark Media Systems. The component was a digital-to-analog converter called a DAC 1 [pictured].
“What does it do?” I asked.
"Look, I could tell you about sound ratios and frequencies but you'd never understand what I'm talking about. Let me put it in simple terms." Boiled down, here's roughly what he said: A CD contains a ton of numbers. Most stereo systems have tiny digital-to-analog converters built in that expose only about 25% of that information. You hear the highs and lows, and you’re tricked into thinking you’re hearing a wide range of sound. By contrast, a larger, stand-alone digital-to-analog converter exposes around 80% of those numbers, which can be pretty stunning to a sophisticated ear. To imagine the difference, think about the contrast between a color snapshot and a professional color print from a high-end photo studio. Your joy meter goes off.
“How much does that component cost?” I asked.
“About $650,” the guy said. (This was about five years ago.)
When I brought the Sony CD player and Benchmark DAC1 home and hooked them up to my McIntosh MA 6200 integrated receiver from the 1970s [pictured], I put on a remastered CD of Miles Davis’ 'Round About Midnight. The sound was jaw-dropping. Every audio detail was evident. It was as if Miles & Co. were in the room. The sensation was repeated with every disc I put on—imports, old CDs, new ones, you name it. Since then, jazz friends who have visited can’t believe the sound and clarity.
Flash forward to late April 2008. After grousing in a recent JazzWax post that music downloads sound terrible, I started to wonder whether adding a digital-to-analogue converter would make a difference in my smaller, office system. I called Rory Rall, sales manager, at Benchmark Media Systems in Syracuse, N.Y.
“The sound of downloads is pretty lousy, right?” I asked Rory, seeking confirmation of what I perceived to be a widely held belief.
There was a pause at the other end. “Not really,” Rory said. “How are you listening to the playback?”
Another pause. “Through your laptop?”
I was almost ashamed to answer. “I know, I should buy laptop speakers, right?”
“Won’t help,” he replied.
“Look,” I said, “I’d love to get a DAC1 into my computer, like the one I have in my living room. But last time I checked, you guys don’t make laptops, and the DAC1 won’t squeeze inside,” I said, chuckling.
“Actually, we now make a unit that hooks up to your computer,"
Rall said. In short, the unit is called the DAC1 USB [pictured]. It's compact (about 8 inches square) and attaches to your computer via a USB cable or a digital optical cable that plugs into your computer's headphone port. The DAC1 USB then attaches to your receiver or integrated amp using cables with RCA jacks.
“How does the unit sound?” I asked.
“Let’s put it this way, you know all that stuff you wrote about downloads? I think you may have to eat those words.”
To prove his point, Rory sent down a DAC1 USB loaner for me to test. After two weeks of hard listening, I’m happy to report that the rips (copies of my CDs) and downloads in my iTunes library sound beyond incredible. There’s depth, clarity and a ton of audio detail that wasn’t there before. The result is first class.
For the past two weeks, I've had the DAC1 USB hooked up to my office system: an Arcam Solo Mini ($999) receiver and B&W monitor speakers ($500). Thanks to the DAC1 USB, my office system sounds better than most systems that cost 10 times as much. So much better that I decided to spring for the DAC1 USB ($1,275). Other companies make digital-to-analog converters, but the DAC1 USB is the least expensive model I could find for the configuration.
The unit can be ordered from Benchmark by phone (800-262-4675) or through a local dealer you can find here.
What about my CDs? Tomorrow, in Part 2, I'll tell you what I did to ensure that my CDs sound as vivid on my office stereo system as the digital rips and downloads in my iTunes library.