December 2000Birdland Audio Odéon-lite Digital-to Analog Converter
by Ken Micallef
We've come a long way, baby
Just a couple of years ago, a good digital front-end would resemble the one I proudly owned: Muse Model 2 DAC, Genesis Digital Lens, Theta Universal Transport. And it was a solid, affordable front-end -- for the time. The Muse DAC made digital not only listenable, but downright enjoyable. The Genesis Lens upped the ante further with its innovative foray into dither-aided sonics and jitter reduction. And workhorse manufacturer Theta still gets my vote, and my dollars.
With digital technology moving as fast as a convict with a bad DNA test, high-end-audio prices keep dropping while quality improves and, in some cases, components get smaller. I replaced my Model 2 with the scene-stealing MSB Link DAC, which wiped the floor with the Muse in almost every aspect except treble smoothness. Hey, you can only do so much for $349, right? My 24/96-capable Bel Canto DAC1 is an organic, musical, fast, and future-ready component that is the size of a cigar box and sells for $1295 -- $700 cheaper than the fully outfitted and outdated Muse Model 2. And after experimenting with various foreign-made transports, I happily purchased a Theta Jade for its sparkling tonal balance and slamming, accurate bass (it's painfully impossible to read its front-panel readout from a distance though). Some can rightfully claim that the non-DVD/SACD-capable Jade is less than future-proof, but we all know the moral of that story.
Which gets me back on track. With the gods of DVD and SACD still duking it out for corporate control, world market domination and, let's face it, an audio future based on planned obsolescence, we consumers have to be more savvy than ever. Damn, it can be as confusing and frustrating as picking a decent mutual fund. We are faced with a growing number of audio options for which to lay our money down. The current trend toward upsampling DACs is just the ticket while the gods get their act together, enabling us to enjoy 24/96 DADs (with the proper DVD transport) and also vastly improved CD sound. The Birdland Odéon-lite DAC is the latest contender in the 24/96-and-upsampling sweepstakes; it also claims to "virtually re-create 24 bits out of 16-bit recordings."
The cute little -- and I mean little -- Odéon-lite lists for $980, making it perhaps the least expensive upsampling DAC on the market. But what it lacks in girth it makes up for in hardware (well, mostly). This DAC may look flimsy, but it is loaded with high-quality components and ingenious technology. Birdland designer Gilles Gamiero packs in value with a volume control, separate power supplies for digital and analog sections, and a "Solid-Tube Technology" output stage, which the Birdland manual explains as "a combination of JFET, MOSFET and Bipolar transistors such as each technology works to hide the shortcomings of the others while extracting only the most desirable linear characteristics of each. Solid-Tube outputs are experienced as a very natural and extremely open soundstage where the system disappears to leave only the music." This kind of verbiage doesn't help explain much, but does tell you that Odéon-lite is an interesting product.
Then there is the rather cheap-looking, gray plastic case of the Odéon-lite, along with a scrawny, non-grounded, non-detachable power cord that wouldn't look out of place on a table radio. With a DAC that converts at 32, 44.1, 48 and 96kHz and upsamples (creating 88.2kHz out of the input instead of 96kHz as other up-samplers do), you wonder why the Birdland looks like a child's toy. Gamiero explains all in an online FAQ: "Aluminum cases only shield you from the electrical vector of high-frequency noises. Our PCB is double-sided and the bottom side is practically a SOLID COPPER plane connected to the analog ground; the other half is also solid copper connected to the digital ground. This acts as an electrical shield as a aluminum box would."
Ingenious, huh? But what about that measly power cord?
"Because our box is not metallic, there was no advantage in using the ground, and the wire we use is literally the same as the one found in the larger round power cables with three conductors except it has no ground." As fellow SoundStagers Grant Samuelson and Doug Blackburn will tell you, power cords and PLCs are the new frontier in audio, so just claiming that the ground is all that matters is questionable. But at least there is some method to Birdland's madness. The Odéon-lite seems to be an extremely well-engineered and thought-out product.
The Odéon-lite offers more versatility than many DACS, 24/96 or not. Measuring 1.6"H x 8.9"W x 6.5"D, the unit's front panel offers a push-button power switch, selector for five digital inputs, LEDs displaying sampling frequency and de-emphasis, and a very plush, smooth-feeling volume control, which for this review I initially left at full throttle, though Birdland recommends you put it at high noon. At first, I found that setting to be too quiet for my normal listening levels, but after trying the DAC setting at high noon and then advancing my preamp's volume control proportionally, the sound did incrementally improve. Someone once told me that preamps run at their full potential when set in the 12 o'clock region; now I can agree. Turn this high-end toy around and it gets even more serious: RCA, BNC, AES/EBU, and TosLink inputs; heavy-duty RCA outs; and then that ugly little power cord. (Must resist urge to grab scissors and perform audio vasectomy.) Inside, we see dual power supplies, a voltage-controlled oscillator that aids in jitter reduction, and a Crystal 24-bit DAC. Nice copper under- and over-girdle, Gilles.
Micallef's MacDougal rig
My rig, which has solidified of late, includes the Bel Canto DAC1, Theta Jade transport, Blue Circle BC21 (with power supply upgrade) and Audio Note M2 preamps, Cary SLM-100 monoblocks, ProAc 1SC minimonitors, and Audio Physic Virgo floorstanding speakers. Cabling and interconnects are by Analysis Plus (Oval Nine and Silver Oval bi-wiring), JPS Labs digicable and Harmonic Technology Pro Silway IIs. Power cords are JPS Labs Power and Digital AC, and the Shunyata PowerSnakes: King Cobra on the DAC, Black Mambas on the Carys, and Sidewinders everywhere else. PLCs are Richard Gray Power Companies on each Cary, and a Multiwave-upgraded PS Audio P300 for front-end and preamp duties. Squishy feet, Seismic Sinks and different pucks abound, all held aloft by Standesign, Atacama and Salamander racks and stands. Lotsa RPG foam panels are all over the place (they work). My shirt is by Gucci, my jeans by Calvin, but only my hair dresser knows if I am a real blonde. Hey, you can't take it with you and the kids may not care, so let's enjoy the music, OK?
Sound by Gilles
As I've mentioned, the Odéon-lite can be used into a preamp or directly into an amplifier because of its integral volume control. I ran the Birdland DAC in for a month or so before doing any critical listening, at first with my preamp in the system and later without. My opinion of the Odéon-lite remained consistent pretty much right out of the box. The Odéon-lite is quite resolving and musical -- creamy-sounding is perhaps the best way to put it. Bass response was ample, articulate and well extended given a good recording, and the midrange was well fleshed out and natural-sounding. My first impression of upper transient response was that the Odéon-lite was softly "hot" and ever so tight -- not hard, but a little inflexible, like sunlight reflecting off a hard shine on a wood floor. This can actually be a good trait for hearing the nuance in Diane Krall's sexy vocals and understated piano, or the breadth and slam of a big-band or rock recording. But tambourines, cymbal attack, trumpet blasts and instruments that are struck suffered. Then again, acoustic guitar sounded amazingly real, enough to really surprise me. This transient sound was subtle, but when your system is very resolving and revealing to begin with, subtleties are what matter most. The soundstaging of the Odéon-lite was very good, but at times it could be a little congested. Instruments and voices were big, bold, and beautiful, but sometimes there was not as much separation or decay as I am used to. Articulation in the lower, mid and upper bass was very good, although sometimes I detected a little boominess, which certainly could be a product of my room.
Onto some recordings...
Lalo Schifrin with a Bullitt
My latest favorite CD for both fun and work, er, reviewing, is Bullitt by Lalo Schifrin ([Aleph Records 018] www.schifrin.com). Schifrin recorded the original soundtrack back in the early '70s with crack LA studio players, but this is a new recording with Germany's renown WDR big band. The bass on this recording is deep and weighty, drums and brass sparkle, and woodwinds are sumptuous. And the WDR big band performs brilliantly under Schifrin's direction.
On "Bullitt, Main Title," the bass is potent with the Odéon-lite, and there is overall a big, rich sound. High hat, guitar and flutes are well delineated; drum sound is very spacious and again, rich. The Odéon-lite seems tailor-made for such a big, bold-sounding CD.
Drums are always a good measure of a system's dynamic range, and I recently found a great Dennis Chambers drum solo on the forthcoming John McLaughlin CD, The Heart of Things - Live in Paris [Verve VERF-01030-2]. On the tribute to Tony Williams track titled "Tony," Chambers goes from quiet to boisterous, flailing snare and toms with bombast and incredible technical skill and virtuosity. Here, the Birdland DAC sounded fine, handling all the dynamic shifts, but somehow the drums sounded a little pitched up and high (I was a professional drummer for 15 years, so let me nit-pick!). A high hat keeping time in the right channel was clear, but it lacked proper cymbal ring. But decay was good on the drums, and the sound was overall very liquid and punchy. Closing with Diane Krall's "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from When I Look In Your Eyes [Verve IMPD-304], the Odéon-lite was its usual creamy self, making Krall's voice breathy and tangible. Brushes on drums were well articulated, strings as smooth as silk, and the bass was present, if a little soft.
To pre or not to pre
Here is the motherlode, dear friends, and perhaps Gilles' mission in life. If you want resolution, clarity, truth and every last bit of music out of your system, the Odéon-lite minus the preamp is the only way to fly. Resolution in this mode was simply breathtaking. Cliché alert: I heard things on old Beatles records that I didn't know existed. This was definition as God intended, every last iota of sound presented for your stunned enjoyment.
Hyperbole? Well, it has a downside. Resolution sans preamp is great, but you also give up a sense of weight, some bloom and ultimate depth -- at least while not using my preamp. It is one of the weirder things I have heard as an audionut. You definitely get more music, even all the music, but after a while you miss the weight that perhaps a good tube preamp can bring. Of course, your ears and results -- depending on your preamp -- may differ.
Running the $1295 Bel Canto DAC1 with the same interconnects and a Shunyata Sidewinder power cord (DAC and power cord cost more than the Birdland DAC by about $600) proved quite a difference. Bullitt was more open-sounding but had similar soundstage depth and spread. With the Chambers drum solo, the toms became even more liquid, and the drums generally sang out with more ring and sonority. Snare drum and high hat had more weight. With Ms. Krall's disc through the Bel Canto DAC1, acoustic bass was more solid and extended, piano notes had slightly more decay, and Krall's voice sounded more dynamic and soaring.
If only Charlie Parker knew...
I was happy with my time spent putting the Birdland Odéon-lite 24/96 DAC through its paces. It offers quality and diversity in its tiny package -- along with clever engineering, fine sound, and good versatility. Its sound might be just the thing for a harder solid-state system, or the perfect compliment for a good DVD player. And running it direct to the power amp can prove addictive.
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