Click here for full DDE v1.2 review
First, a novice audiophile aside to start things off. An external DAC (digital to analogue converter) like the ones discussed here, perform the digital to analog conversion normally done inside your CD player. That is, once the transport mechanism reads the computer bits off a CD, it must be converted from its digital form to an analogue signal. Whether your DAC is internal or external, you do have one somewhere if you are successfully listening to CDs. To hook up an external DAC to your CD player you need to have a digital output. On most standard CD players this would be either a Toslink or a coaxial output. Why do you need an external DAC? Well, as technology improves the digital to analogue conversion process, it can be a cost effective way to perform an upgrade. As well, many believe separate components (eg. transport and DAC) will yield better performance.....although there is a push on today to offer single box CD players to overcome some of the problems of separates! Talk about coming full circle, huh? But that's another story.
The first day I saw an ad for Audio Alchemy's Digital Decoding Engine (DDE) v1.0 I was immediately impressed with their apparent commitment to the budget minded audiophile. At $399 no one else was even close. And that little unit sounded great! If not the ultimate in digital playback (and it wasn't), it offered serious bang for the buck and improved on the internal DACs on many CD players popular at the time.
The DDE v1.0 introduction must be at least 5 years ago now and President Mark Schifter has taken that one lonely product and grown an entire company. Audio Alchemy produces more digital products than many high-end companies combined! As well, AA now produces power amps, preamps, cables and more. Still, digital has been their niche and they've produced a number of groundbreaking products in that domain. Many audiophiles look to Audio Alchemy when they want to get great performance at the lowest price. Or in the case of their DDS-Pro Transport, DTI-Pro32, and I2S connections, when they want to get the best performance - period!
So when I received an e-mail message in July from Mark Schifter that simply said...
"Please try the V1.2.....All the best MLS"
...what more needed to be said. A few weeks later a stock v1.2 was left orphaned at my door, begging for me to give it a home on my equipment rack. Happy to oblige, I unboxed the little critter and found an appropriate spot for its compact form. Despite the many years that have passed since the 1.0 introduction, this is only the third incarnation of 1.x series. And talk about state-of-the-budget-art! The v1.2 in my possession is brand-spanking new and full of features that are hard to find for double and triple the price.
The goal of the v1.2 seems to once again break new cost barriers. In this case, by bringing the cost of HDCD (High Definition Compact Disc, developed by Pacific Microsonics) down another notch. The first shot at budget HDCD was AA's own DDE v3.0. At the time (which was not that long ago) it hosted a roster of impressive features not previously available near the price. Now the v1.2 is trying to better that! The stock v1.2 comes equipped as a true 20 bit DAC (using Analog Devices AD1862 chips), with four digital inputs (Toslink, Coax, AES/EBU, and I2S), has the famed Pacific Microsonics HDCD PMD-100 digital filter, and sports a front phase inversion switch (handy, and I love the inclusion of it at these price points). As well, there is an external power supply in the form of the Power Station Five. Upgrades to this unit, which can be purchased at a later date, include better power supplies, additional jitter reduction (must be performed by the factory, at time of purchase $100, $150 after that), and the rest of the Audio Alchemy goodies to plug'n'play with such as the DTI-Pro32 or the other external DTI products. As well, the I2S interface allows you to experiment with what is reportedly the best way to handle digital connections - providing you have other I2S ready devices.
The appearance and diminutive size of the v1.2 is like most of the AA products. However, the front panel seems to resemble the DDE v3.0 more than the v1.1. Overall, I find the compact size and improved appearance of this generation of AA products very nice. The build quality seems excellent, particularly for the price. And what about that price? This puppy squeaks in at a paltry $550!!! And with the abundance of AA dealers, you're bound to see it advertised for closer to $499!
So now there should be a bunch of you who need not bother reading on. After all, all CD players sound the same, right? Heck, with all those features and that price tag, how can you buy anything else? But for the rest of you who do care about your sound, please tune in next month. The v1.2 is certainly loaded with features, but it's the sound that counts. And I'm finding the DDE v1.2 to be a unique sonic beast that's bound to generate some lengthy discussions in the audiophile circles over the next while.
It's may be brand new, but the v1.2 has already been generating plenty of electronic airtime and Soundstage! has the first ever review. Furthermore, since this product has such wide appeal I wanted to get some other's opinions, particularly with how it integrated into their systems. So Mike Fenech and Craig Schilling called in from the sidelines on key points.
HEY, NICE SET OF........FEATURES
Audio Alchemy certainly can't be faulted when it comes to product features. As a matter of the fact, the DDE v1.2 may offer the most bang-for-the-buck, feature-wise, of any of their digital processors. As I described last month in the Sneak Peek, the stock v1.2 comes standard with four digital inputs: toslink, coax S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and I2S--the latest digital hot-talk. The I2S interface is not exactly new, but Audio Alchemy is pioneering its acceptance as a premium digital interconnection method.
The v1.2 also comes equipped with a front panel phase inversion switch (good move) and an external power supply (the Power Station Five). Internally the v. 1.2 boasts 20 bit DACs, as well as the Pacific Microsonics PMD-100 digital filter for HDCD compatibility. Furthermore, it can be user configured (internally using jumpers) to vary its output from a normal-ish 1.5v to a whopping 3.5v!!! This gives the consumer more flexibility to ensure preamp compatibility and gives a wide open door for the passive preamp crowd.
Although retailing at $549, the street price of a v1.2 seems to be around $499 USD. With its compact size and sharp cosmetics I don't think I could ask for anything more. As well, this is the lowest-priced HDCD compatible decoder I know of. Offhand, I can't think of another company that offers near the features at close to this price. Once again it's another ground-breaker for the Alchemy trophy case. Based on the price and features alone, I give Audio Alchemy nothing but the highest marks on the product design.
BRAND SPANKIN' NEW!
I must confess that it took some time for me to warm-up to the v1.2, perhaps because it was acting just a little too warm around me. My initial sonic impressions weren't what I expected from a budget-based digital product. Frankly, I wasn't sure if I really liked it. In the past, I've come to expect a common scourge from processors costing less than $1000, something many term digititis. In short, lower-priced digital seems to have a problem keeping its high-end clean. The upper-frequencies tend to be brash and etched. This can be readily heard on cymbals crashes and the like. The v1.2 certainly did not suffer from this problem--quite the opposite in fact. If anything, the v1.2 was too smooth and somewhat syrupy. I felt that it could actually benefit from some edge on its upper end, perhaps some bite! "Somewhat plodding, perhaps a little too smooth," was my initial impression.
"Too smooth!" How can a digital product be too smooth, you ask? After all, there's more than a few audiophiles who yearn for that soft, mellow tube-sound. Matter of the fact, many pay serious coin to achieve it. Still, this was fresh outta the box and serious conclusions shouldn't be jumped to that fast. I expected that some break-in was in order and I wasn't yet hearing its true sound so I held off further speculation.
Since the instructions asked for a lengthy break-in period, I heeded that call. The v1.2 wailed on for most of my August and September listening sessions. It hammered out Patti Smith, The Tragically Hip, Sarah McClachlan, Sisters with Voices, The Crash Test Dummies, Bare-Naked Ladies, Patti Smith, Blue Rodeo, and a whole lot more. I'm happy to say that this bit of jamming did the v1.2 some good.
A FEW "PIT" STOPS LATER.....
Although I was initially impressed with certain aspects of the v1.2's sonic performance, I'm now finding far more to rave about. Yes RAVE. I believe that the v1.2 will not only be sonic nirvana for cash-strapped audiophiles but may also give some breathing space in the wallets for audiophiles looking at spending a whole lot more for a full-featured DAC. Plain and simple, it's a great performer at an incredible price.
Despite the v. 1.2's low-end price, I believe that the DAC was designed to be a serious high-end product. Sure my battery of listening tests might be considered tough on the little bugger, but it only speaks well if it can stand up to some big-ass DACs in, say, the $1000-$2000 range. So that is what I compared it to. Besides, Audio Alchemy products have usually delivered more performance than their prices would lead you to expect.
The main difference in comparison to the higher priced DACs is the v1.2 is not as extended in the frequency extremes. The highs don't seem to reach quite as high, and the lows just don't pound through the floorboards as with some processors (can you say Theta). As well, there is slightly less clarity and distinction between voices, instruments, etc. There just isn't quite as much sharpness in the sonic picture, more of a soft-focus shot. Again, this insight doesn't come via comparison to products in the v. 1.2's own price range but when its is matched against processors costing many times more. There might be a few other quibbles, but overall the v1.2 more than holds its own. You have to pay a lot more to get just that little bit of extra performance in high-end audio and Lord knows the price difference could buy Christmas, and maybe even Spring Break, in Cancun.
Even after the break-in period, the v1.2 leans tonally toward the darker side. This warmish character was something that not only I, but fellow Soundstager Craig Schilling, also identified. How does it translate to the sound? Vocals can become more resonant and pressed forward. For example, on The Crash Test Dummies Superman's Song, Brad Roberts vocals are highly textured. The close-miking on this recording makes the voice sound very close and a bit coarse. Through the v1.2 the vocals became a tad carmelized. The sound was smooth and full, but a bit of the detail and edge was lost. As well, through the v1.2 instruments tend to lose a bit of their sharpness, and the presentation becomes slightly veiled, mostly in the midrange. The dynamics are somewhat repressed so the music still comes across as a little plodding. But again this is a vastly different experience than what I've come to expect from budget digital products (including some of those in the past from Audio Alchemy).
These were the harshest criticisms of the v1.2. Craig and I felt that some will find this type of performance extremely enjoyable and would probably term it as 'lush' sounding and praise the performance, perhaps even calling it analogue-ish. So don't take this as a criticism as much as a 'characteristic' of this DAC. Be a master of your own destiny--please listen for yourself.
Mike Fenech, who also had a chance to test drive the v1.2, felt that "...the v1.2's tonal balance is smooth as silk, and reminded me of every Theta DAC I've ever heard. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it would surpass the lower end Theta DAC's. Vocals were very articulate and bass had good detail."
Where the v1.2 did excel was in keeping its composure through most every type of music and recording. Never did it sound etched, bright, or brittle. This is where that little bit of warmth became an asset and rescued the v1.2 where other DACs might have failed. The v1.2 was always enjoyable to listen to. The stock v1.2 may sacrifice a bit in terms of pacing and dynamics, but it can hold true through a variety of music, and this is an important attribute.
Mike wasn't as impressed in this regard by saying, "It's rare when the musical qualities of a component impress me before its sonic qualities do. That makes me different from most of the reviewers, but, that's just me. Maybe someday I'll rearrange my listening priorities. For now though, transparency is my hot button....one thing was evident - a lot of the music I was used to hearing was missing. Macro dynamics were weak. Micro dynamics were almost indistinguishable. There were no natural contrasts between the instruments (something tubes excel at), resulting in a flat sound which in turn masked too much of the emotion. However, all this wasn't necessarily in contrast to my Cary CD player either."
In terms of soundstaging, a weak point for many digital products regardless of price, the v1.2 left me more than impressed. My current system is comprised of a Theta Data Basic transport, Sonic Frontiers SFL-1 preamp, Classe Fifteen amplifier, and Coincident Speaker Technology 'Triumph' loudspeakers (swapped back and forth with my B&W 803 Series 2 speakers). With the v1.2 in the lineup this combo produced a very wide soundstage with an excellent sense of depth. Although soundstaging and imaging is a combination of numerous variables (room acoustics and speaker placement being some of the most important) the imaging was simply outstanding and was some of the best I have ever achieved in my room, particularly when using the Coincident Technology speakers. Vocals, in particular, hung in space with proper size and body. On recordings with a well-recorded 'soundstage' the v1.2 electrified me with great presence and depiction of space. This is fabulous performance and far more than I expected at this price.
Despite the hint of veiling in the mids, the retrieval of detail and resolving power were also excellent. I flipped on a few of my favorite nit-pick-for-details disks including Blue Rodeo's Diamond Mine. Bob Wiseman's barely audible keyboarding, buried deep within a number of tracks, was as apparent with this processor as with any. Spatial cues and instrument locations were also readily apparent. I have nothing but praise in this regard.
"UP, UP, UPGRADE AND AWAY..."
Interestingly, three key upgrades are available for a v1.2 to improve its performance. One is additional jitter reduction done onboard (must be done at the factory: $100 at time of purchase, $150 afterwards). Another is improvement of the external power supply (AA has various models). And yet another, although not touted as an upgrade per se, is the ability to use the I2S interface to an I2S based transport (I'd love to get my hands on the DDS-Pro). From past experience, reading, and discussing, each of these upgrades has been known to improve upon some of the areas I identified as deficient in the v1.2. Obviously, these are upgrades that I wish to try for myself. If they do what I hope they do then we may have a real killer on our hands.
Forgetting about the I2S transport for now, let see what happens when we factor in some of these upgrades. Add in $100 for additional jitter reduction and also add Audio Advisor's currently advertised sale price of $169 for a Power Station 3. Whack, whack, and whack on the calculator indicates a total of $768. Not quite bargain basement anymore, but you now have a totally tricked out v1.2 that is still priced far below much of the competition.
SO, IT'S CALLED 1.2, BUT IS IT REALLY AN UPGRADE FROM THE DDE V1.1???
Craig Schilling and I both say, "nah, we don't think so. It's different!" I have a bit of experience with the v1.1 and Craig is actually an owner of one. We both came to the independent conclusion that the v1.1 is a different beast. The v1.1 is quicker and seems more dynamic, but it's somewhat rougher around the edges than the v1.2. As well, it doesn't have the warmth or the smoothness of the v1.2. Where some audiophiles will enjoy certain sonic aspects of the v1.1 others will prefer the v1.2 Craig prefers the v1.1 because he feels it breathes more life into the music. I agree with Craig; however, I give the nod to the v1.2 since I've come to enjoy its more laid-back, liquid presentation. Seeing both sides Mike took the middle by wisely stating, "....owners of the more musical v1.1 who may be considering an upgrade to the v1.2 should try the DAC at home before committing to a purchase." Both Mike and I count on the power supply upgrade to restore those dynamics and balls to v1.1 levels.
AND IS HDCD ALL THAT AND A BAG OF CHIPS???
As far as I'm concerned the jury is still out on this one. Like my previous flirtations with it, I found that HDCD recordings can sounded very good through the v1.2. But whether this is due to HDCD, or simply that the recording is very good is another question. From what I can tell, HDCD does not seem to be a quantum leap forward in performance, but it does seem to enhance some excellent digital recordings. However, I have some excellent 16-bit recordings, some excellent Sony SBM recordings, now some excellent HDCD recordings, and probably some excellent recordings using technology I haven't heard of. It's the application of the technology that seems to be key.
Still, I welcome the inclusion of HDCD on a processor whole-heartedly. Simply, I'd rather have it than not. Technophiles in whose abilities I trust indicate that the Pacific Microsonic digital filter (the thing responsible for the HDCD goings-on within) is an excellent filter, probably better than many of the filters used previously. As well, bonus points go to Audio Alchemy for implementing the gain adjustment between HDCD and standard CD in the analogue domain. There is a 6db level difference on HDCD discs and standard CDs. To keep the output levels the same, an adjustment must be made, which can be implemented in either the digital or analogue domain. However, a digital domain adjustment can mean a loss of resolution, making such practice taboo in audiophile circles. Audio Alchemy chose the wise path by doing the analogue adjustment.
WELL, IT'S A LOT OF DAC FOR 500 BEANS
Mike sums up by saying, "I can say this DAC does surprisingly well for its price point in overall sonic qualities. Throw in its HDCD decoder plus the multiple input options, and it should be a hot seller for Audio Alchemy. It may even cut in to potential sales of their v3.0, at least until the v3.0 itself is upgraded."
Yup, Audio Alchemy is packing plenty of punch into their v1.2. However, digital audio needs to pack a lot since consumers have a lot of flexibility today. DVD for the audio-only crowd seems like a long way off so our 16-bit 44.1kHz standard is here for what looks like years longer. We may see 24-bit DACs in the future to take advantage of resolution enhancement equipment such as Audio Alchemy's own DTI-Pro32, but these will probably constitute a small market. As well, despite the still limited amount of software, HDCD has made its mark and seems firmly entrenched enough to make it mandatory on any new digital equipment. In that regard the v1.2 offers everything serious shoppers are looking for and perhaps more by including a good upgrade path and what is shaping up to be one of the finest digital connections, the I2S bus.
Most importantly, the v1.2 has sonic performance that demands an audition. It's not perfect, and it may not be to everyone's liking. However, audiophiles in any price range owe it to themselves to at least audition the v.1.2. No, it's not the type of product to cause any of the mega-buck processors to lose any of their standby sleep. It's not designed that way. Instead, it offers one heckuva lot of performance for a great price that will leave many wondering if they should drop double, triple, or even quadruple the price to get that notch up in performance. Plain and simply, $499 is buying a lot of serious performance and so much more bang for your buck than much of the equipment out there its almost silly.
If you're the type of person, like me, who feels just a little bit awkward about having to lay down huge money on all your audio purchases, you owe it to yourself to test drive the v1.2 before you break your credit card limit.
|Audio Alchemy DDE v1.2 DAC
Price: $549 USD