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Elberoth

State-of-the-art CD transports vs USB/SPDIF converter shootout

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In the past 12 months, I had a chance to do some extensive comparisions between various, traditional CD transports and the USB/SPDIF converter. (For those who, for the past three years have been sitting in a cave and do not know what an USB/SPDIF converter is - this ia a device, a bridge that connects between the DAC and a computer, and allows to play music from the hard drive.)

 

All the transports I tried, from my dCS Scarlatti to the McIntosh MCD-1000, could easily aspire to the State-of-the-Art status and are top of the range models from the respective manufacturers.

 

So is the USB/SPDIF converter I used to evaluate the transports - the BADA Alpha USB I've been using, is, to the best of my knowledge, the best USB/SPDIF converter available on the market today. (I base my statement on the extensive tests of some 15+ different USB converters I also conducted in the past 12 months - I can describe the results in a separate thread if anyone is interested).

 

Anyway, the transports I have tried were:

 

$33k dCS Scarlatti Transport:

dcsscarlattisetandoffra.jpg

 

$20k Accuphase DP-800:

accud.jpg

 

$9k McIntosh MCD-1000:

mac1000.jpg

 

And here is the $1800 BADA Alpha USB (on top of the Metrum Hex DAC):

mac1000dwa.jpg

 

I have also tried some other transports as well, starting with a $700 Stello CDT100, but those were much cheaper, so are not really revelent to this thread.

 

stello1.jpg

 

All the transports, including the BADA Alpha USB, were connected to my dCS Scarlatti DAC using the generic BNC cable. I'm a firm believer in BNC cables, as in my experience, even a cheap, $10 generic BNC cable can outperform fancy RCA and AES cables costing hundreds of dollars. The only exception was the McIntosh MCD-1000, which was used with the Stealth Varidig Sextet AES/EBU digital cable, as it lacks the BNC output.

 

During the tests, I have also tried the matching Accuphase DC-801 and McIntosh MDA-1000 DACs. In the case of dCS and Accuphase DACs, I did not use the available clock link feature (which greatly improves the sonics in all-dCS and all-Accuphase systems) as I was interested in comparing the pure SPDIF performance of all transports, not learning that SPDIF as a standard is flawed, which I have ackowledged a long time ago.

 

The test was as fascinating, as it was ... short. The BADA Alpha USB turned out to be much better than all of those transports mentioned. There was even no need to switch back and forth as we often do to hear the differencies. The difference was so obvious, that you could hear it in the first 10s of a familiar recording (I recommend a recordings with lots of HF energy, like lots of percussive instruments - triangles, hi-hats etc and a lively acustics; pesonally, when comparing different digital cables, digital transports, USB converters or computers, I always use 'La Spagna' by Atrium Musicæ de Madrid and Gregorio Paniagua published by BIS records - a fabulous recording of XV century music; there is also one by Harmonia Mundi, but I like the BIS one better).

 

The BADA Alpha USB made the sound smoother, with ZERO artificial edge, grain or digital glare.

 

There was also much better layering of instruments, and air around the outlines. The instruments sounded not only better separated in space, but also much more 3-dimensional.

 

The resolution also improved quite a bit. You could hear the sounds that you were not aware are on the recording, the HF decays had much longer trails and hung in space much longer.

 

The most fascinating thing was that sound had better resolution, but at the same time, was so much smoother and fluid. Usually, it is another way round. Very often we try a new component or a cable and at first are fascinated by improved resolution, only to find out a few days later (after we had X-rayed all our recordings), that the increased resolution brings listener fatigue and makes the listening far less enjoyable.

 

Not this time. BADA pulls this incredible trick of sounding both more resolute, more transparent, and much smoother at the same time.

 

The traditional transports sounded grainy and congested at the same time. The whole rendition of space just shrunk, as if someone sucked out all air. Once I have heard the BADA, there was no going back.

 

One may ask - how it is possible that a $1800 device can outperform a $33k transport ?

 

For starters, the USB converter much cheaper to manufacture, as it doesn't have an expensive (in case of Scarlatti - EXTREMELY expensive @ $5000) CD drive, fancy box, big PSU with separate legs for the drive, display, servo, control logic and SPDIF out, etc. Since it is so small and has no controls, it can get away whit what looks like a $100 box that can be hidden away.

 

On performance side, I think it all goes down to the quality of the onboard clocks used (and their respective power supplies). The clock stability has a direct influence on the quality of the SPDIF signal, as the whole SPDIF signal is generated using clock as a reference. So more stable clock = more stable (less jittery) SPDIF signal.

 

All the transports I mentioned use clocks that were available 7-8 years ago, when those transports were designed. They were probably one of the best avalable at the time, but are rather avg by today's standards - there was a great advancement in clock art (with respect to their phase noise) in the past 3 years.

 

The latest Ultra Low Phase Noise clocks that are used in BADA Alpha USB (made by Crystek), have the levels of phase noise that rival the ultra expensive Rubidium Clocks. Sure they do not have the long time accuracy of the Rubidium Clocks (the PPM figure), but that doesn't really matter, as what is important in digital audio is the short term clock stability (the level of Phase Noise).

 

Were does this leaves us ? Well, the dCS owners do not really have to worry, as enabling the clock link feature between the transport and a DAC (during the course of this test I kept the clock link feature disconented to level the playing field) will improve its performance. The Scarlatti clock may not be enough to get past the performance offered by the BADA (the U-Clock shurely wasn't), but the Antelope 10M Rubidium Clock is.

 

dsc3564e.jpg

 

Scarlatti transport driven by Antelope 10M clock (and needed Antelope OCX clock divider) still gave me the best sound I have ever heard from my Scarlatti system. Not to mention the fact, that it does SACD as well.

 

But for the rest of you, who DO mind spending $50k for the transport, clocks and cables, this is a great news. Nowaydays for ~$5000 (BADA Alpha USB + CAPS v3 Lagoon computer + NAS) you can have a State-of-the-Art digital transport, that will rival most super expensive CD spinners.

Edited by The Computer Audiophile
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(I base my statement on the extensive tests of some 15+ different USB converters I also conducted in the past 12 months - I can describe the results in a separate thread if anyone is interested).

 

 

Outstanding review Elberoth. Thanks for taking the time to prepare this information. I am very interested in reading about your comments with respect to the other USB converters.

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Elberoth, you mentioned elsewhere the USB input on the MSB DAC IV bests the BADA Alpha USB converter and the MSB Diamond DAC IV + Galaxy clock is the best you've heard. Is it fair to conclude that in your experience the very best digital is achieved by performing all the digital processing and D/A conversion in a single chassis connecting all critical components directly to the board?

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I do believe so. On one hand the MSB gear benefits from not having to deal with the flawed SPDIF interface, and on the other hand - superior clocks onboard. All things beeing equal, internal clock will be always superior to an external one.

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Outstanding review Elberoth. Thanks for taking the time to prepare this information. I am very interested in reading about your comments with respect to the other USB converters.

 

+1

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Outstanding review Elberoth. Thanks for taking the time to prepare this information. I am very interested in reading about your comments with respect to the other USB converters.

 

+2

 

Greetings from Switzerland, David.

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Thank you for a great review. It is interesting to read that the $1800 BADA can outperform a transport that costs many times more. What would be even more interesting to to compare the BADA to some of the Bel Canto USB converters; the uLink ($675) and the REFLink ($1500) also uses the Ultra Low Phase Noise clocks by Crystek. The REFLink has an internal power supply like the BADA, but I do not know if the USB chip is power by computer or its internal power supply like the BADA.

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Great review, thanks. I would be very interested to learn about your testing of the various USB-SPDIF converters, if you can share that.

 

Although you found that the MSB's USB input beat the Alpha into MSB SPIDF, I'm not sure we can generalize about single box solutions. What I would like to see someone do is a comparison of the USB input vs. SPDIF via the Alpha USB into a selection of leading DACs, such as Mytek, Benchmark, Invicta, Chord QuteHD, Meitner MA-1, PS Audio PWD -- that's a decent list for starters. This is an an area that reviewers tend to ignore (understandable since it involves throwing an additional component into the mix), but that is very important. Can we assume that if a DAC has Asynch USB, that will be the best interface for computer audio? I'm not at all sure of this, but would love to know, at least for some of the leading DACs. If I had the resources, I'd take this on myself.

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Thanks for the review, most of us can sit rather smugly then!

 

But as a relative newbie who's just bought a brand new setup, a Musical Fidelity M1DAC and Burson Soloist SL that sounds incredible (to me, and beat the Composer all in one I compared it to), what is the advantage of buying yet ANOTHER box, the USB Converter? If there are any comparisons or if you need to do one (hint, hint), let me know.

 

great review.

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What would be even more interesting to to compare the BADA to some of the Bel Canto USB converters; the uLink ($675) and the REFLink ($1500) also uses the Ultra Low Phase Noise clocks by Crystek.

 

Indeed, on paper they look very interesting, and the first reports I've read are encouraging.

 

What seems to be misssing in BelCanto designs are the heroic efforts the BADA team has made to isolate the dirty USB side from the clean SPDIF output. BADA not only uses the galvanic isolation on SPDIF outputs (as most manufacturers do) but they also use what seems to be the ADUM chips (those are digital isolators based on Analog Devices, Inc., iCoupler® technology - they combine high speed CMOS and monolithic air core transformer technology) which they put on I2s lines - in the junction between the dirty and a clean side. This, plus some other clever tricks they made, gives the BADA Alpha USB converter an unprecedented level of isolation from computer grunge, and IMO is one of the reasons behind its extraordinary performance. Pls read the full Chris's review to get a better understanding of the technology inside the BADA Alpha USB.

 

Thanks so much for this review!

 

I realize they're no USB-to-S/PDIF converters, but did your comparison include the Weiss INT202 and/or AFI1 FireWire-to-AES/EBU converters?

 

No, I'm not a Mac guy, sorry.

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Can we assume that if a DAC has Asynch USB, that will be the best interface for computer audio?

 

I'm afraid we cannot make such an assumption. The Asynch transmission tells us little about a USB converter performance. It is just a necessary starting point. Right now almost all USB/SPDIF converters use this technology, and yet they vary greately in performance.

 

Same with built-in USB modules. MSB was actually the first DAC I tried that sounded better via its own USB input than via the BADA Alpha USB. And there is a good reason for that - the MSB I had, had the Femto Clock installed on board (this is an $10k option on all MSB DACs). This is another Ultra Low Phase Noise clock - similar to the one used in BADA (maybe even better - who knows).

 

The Metrum HEX dac, which you can see on one of the pics, like many DACs before it, sounded better via the BADA. The sound difference wasn't huge, as the Metrum uses the excellent OEM M2Tech board with a separate PSU, but still noticable.

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But as a relative newbie who's just bought a brand new setup, a Musical Fidelity M1DAC and Burson Soloist SL that sounds incredible (to me, and beat the Composer all in one I compared it to), what is the advantage of buying yet ANOTHER box, the USB Converter?

 

The advantage is better sound quality. But I'm not sure if buying a $1890 converter to go with a $800 DAC with Asynch USB makes a lot of sense. I would rather invest that kind of money in a better DAC with USB in onboard, like the $3k Metrum HEX for example.

 

You may try the relatively cheap (~$400) but still very good John Kenny's SPDIF mk3 converter - which is a modified, battery powered hiface 2 - to see if you get any meaningful improvement. I'm sure many CA readers will be able to share their experiences here.

 

The new, entry level BelCanto may be also worth trying.

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Thanks for your reply Adam. Wow, surprising that the advantage is better sound quality :-) I was only hoping for a better desk look :-)

 

i might investigate that cheaper USB converter suggestion eventually. I've only had my setup for a week, so I'll let it burn in a bit more before considering replacements! Plus I love the setup as is, hearing incredible detail and that real instrument sound we all so love.

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I would rather invest that kind of money in a better DAC with USB in onboard, like the $3k Metrum HEX for example.
...Or the Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC Plus, which also uses the built-in M2Tech OEM, but doesn't set you back $3k, and sounds marvellous too IMO when used in solid state mode with the vacuum tube physically removed from it. :)

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...Or the Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC Plus, which also uses the built-in M2Tech OEM, but doesn't set you back $3k

 

USB/SPDIF converter board is only a small part of a complete DAC design. The OEM M2Tech board is used in many DACs, including even the $30k Vitus Audio MP-D201 DAC:

 

16.jpg

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USB/SPDIF converter board is only a small part of a complete DAC design.

Yes, but like you already said it yourself, it's actually a rather important one. You were referring to an $800 DAC before, which probably doesn't use the M2Tech OEM, and would therefore still "require" (kind of) something like the Musical Fidelity V-LINK 192, for example. However, the $1,100 Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC Plus does use the M2Tech OEM so, at least in theory, that would seem like a better alternative than an $800 DAC which doesn't.

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P.S. - IIRC, the M2Tech OEM isn't an USB-to-S/PDIF converter board, but instead it converts USB directly to I²S and, therefore, it avoids the transport jitter problems associated with S/PDIF.

 

EasternElecTubeDACPlus-1.jpg

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P.S. - IIRC, the M2Tech OEM isn't an USB-to-S/PDIF converter board, but instead it converts USB directly to I²S and, therefore, it avoids the transport jitter problems associated with S/PDIF.

 

Yes, that is correct. All internal USB converters output I²S signal - no need for SPDIF interface inside the DAC.

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Yes, but like you already said it yourself, it's actually a rather important one. You were referring to an $800 DAC before, which probably doesn't use the M2Tech OEM, and would therefore still "require" (kind of) something like the Musical Fidelity V-LINK 192, for example. However, the $1,100 Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC Plus does use the M2Tech OEM so, at least in theory, that would seem like a better alternative than an $800 DAC which doesn't.

 

It all depends on the quality of the other parts of the DAC. A crappy DAC, even with the M2Tech module (which is OK, but nowherere near as good as the BADA) onboard, will most likely still sound like crap. One cannot base his DAC performance assesment on USB converter module used alone.

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Hi Elberoth

Thank you for taking your time to write up this great article. You mention that you tried some 15+ different usb to spdif converters and you would write up about it if there was interest. I am really interested in the different converters you tried and the results. I am sure there are many others that would also be interested in your observations.

 

 

I am going to computer audio but would like to keep an inexpensive cd transport for occasional cd play for non-serious listening. I was particularly thinking about the Stello cdt100 that you picture and mention. I know it is inexpensive but how close does it get to the best there is in cd transports? Is it even sort of close? Is there something you have tried that is inexpensive but very capable?

 

thanks in advance

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