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Equipment Review

September 1999

Channel Islands Link DAC Mods and Monolithic Sound HC-2 Power Supply

by Doug Blackburn

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MSB Link DAC

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Monolithic Sound HC-2

Review at a Glance
Sound "Clear and obvious improvements" including "improved sense of space and transparency" and "an overall sense of coherency, refinement, balance and detail that the stock unit couldn’t match" with 24/96 software.
Features Can be purchased separately, but should be considered as a pair; power cord on power supply is detachable.
Use Plug and play, very simple; power supply is or can be made compatible with many Audio Alchemy components.
Value Seems expensive compared to the $399 Link DAC, but wait until you hear the sound you get for the extra $458.

Hot on the heels of the MSB Link DAC review I wrote for the July ’99 issue of SoundStage!, I received an even better-sounding Link DAC. This one was aided and abetted by modifications from Channel Islands (Dusty Vawter, formerly of Audio Alchemy) and a new power supply from Monolithic Sound (Greg Schug, builder OEM products for other high-end companies). The stock Link DAC was on hand during the evaluation period, so there was a perfect opportunity to make some very worthwhile comparisons of the stock and improved products to ensure that the changes were, indeed, improvements.

Before the comparison of the products’ sound, here’s a summary of the features and "what you get" for your Channel Islands/Monolithic Sound investment, in Dusty Vawter’s words:

"The upgrades (DAC mods and new power supply) can be done individually. The power supply will work fine with the stock Link DAC, but there’s a bigger improvement when both the mods and the power supply are used together. The HC-2 power supply uses separate high-current transformers for analog and digital circuits, has built-in AC and DC filtering, 15,600uF of total capacitance, ultra-fast diodes and a shielded IEC power cord. The power supply is made by Monolithic Sound, Inc. The retail price is $259. The HC-2 can also be used with most Audio Alchemy products; some AA models require a different DC cable than the one normally supplied. The power supply was designed by Greg Schug of Monolithic Sound and me. The Link DAC upgrade consists of raising the operating voltage of the analog stage from +/-8v to +/-15v for better headroom and replacement of many parts in the analog stage. We also replace five power-supply caps and add some bypassing. There is only one level of Channel Islands mods for the Link DAC. We call it the "Link DAC mod." The cost is $199+ shipping. Upgrade parts we used are by Burr-Brown, Siemens, Rubicon, Nichicon Muse, Vishay/Dale and a handful of generics. The mods and power supply will be available through many MSB dealers or direct from us."

I was curious about Dusty’s assertion that the mods and power supply sound better together than separately, so I tried them separately first. No need to belabor this point -- he’s right. If you are on a limited budget and can only swing one of the two parts to the ultimate setup at one time, I’d recommend the power supply first. It seems to have a bigger impact on the stock Link DAC than doing the mods first. However, I should tell you that even though the power supply improves the stock unit, there are some sonic qualities uncovered that make this combination sort of a good news/bad news deal. While there were improvements in transparency, bass definition and midrange detail, these revealed previously unnoticed unevenness in frequency response. The sound was a bit lumpy, and the top five octaves sounded more electronic and unnatural than with the stock power supply. It's not clear whether these changes were a result of the Monolithic Sound power supply being optimized for the Channel Islands-modded Link DAC and not working as well with the stock unit, or whether these things always existed in the stock unit but were masked by the reduced transparency and detail provided by the stock power supply. Either way, you should consider the power supply only the first step in upgrading your Link DAC.

With CDs

Comparing the sound of the stock Link DAC with the Channel Islands/Monolithic Sound combo wasn’t all that tough of a job. There are clear and obvious improvements when using the CI/MS pair. Starting with Squirrel Nut Zipper’s Hot [Mammoth MR0137-2, 1996], the sound improves at least a little bit in every way. Notable betterments in the sound of horns and sax are easy to hear -- the CI/MS pairing reveals more of the full sound. The bite is just right, aggressive without being annoying. The horn tone has just the right combination of characteristics to sound "horny" (no letters please). In comparison, the stock Link DAC/stock power supply combo sounds a little muted and "de-contented." The horn is still a horn, but not the same whole-sound rendition you get with the CI/MS combo.

Associated Equipment

Loudspeakers – Vandersteen 3A with two Vandersteen 2Wq subwoofers.

Amplifiers – Warner Imaging Endangered Species 200w, Belles 150A with binding-post upgrade.

Preamplifier – Audible Illusions Modulus 3A with Gold phono boards.

Analog – Roksan Xerxes turntable, SME V tonearm rewired with Nordost Moon Glo cable, low-output Cardas Heart cartridge.

Digital – Panasonic A-310 DVD player, CAL CL-25 CD/DVD player.

Interconnects – Magnan Signature, Nordost SPM Reference, Nirvana SL.

Speaker cables – JPS Labs NC Series.

Power cords – VansEvers Pandora and Pandora Photon; JPS Labs Analog, Digital, and Amplifier cords; Audio Power Industries Power Link 313; Magnan Signature.

Power conditioners – Tice Power Block III Rev B; VansEvers Model 85, Unlimiter, jr. Video, jr. Analog, Reference Balanced 5; Monster HTS 3000, 2000 and 800; AudioPrism Power Foundation III and Quiet Line Mk I; Magnan Signature; Audio Power Industries Power Wedge Ultra 115, 116, and Power Enhancer Ultra.

Room acoustic treatments – Michael Green Audio and Video Designs Pressure Zone Controllers, Argent Room Lens, VansEvers Spatial Lens and Window system.

The CI/MS duo also brings an improved sense of space and transparency, which makes the soundstage quite a bit more convincing than that of the stock components. In fact, I would say that in this regard, the CI/MS pair perform right in the midstream of the best digital components you can buy today. You can do better, but the cost involved in doing so is nose-bleed territory for most people.

Next, the weight and bass character of the CI/MS cousins is noteworthy for how it improves the foundation of the entire musical performance. The Zippers are fine on the stock components, but the CI/MS setup anchors and drives everything harder. The drums are tighter and more detailed; the bass line is very tuneful and has great pitch definition. The mids, upper mids and all four top octaves improve noticeably as well. You’ll hear this in smoother female vocals and much better rendition of cymbals, tambourine, triangle, bells and the like. The top end of snare drums is notably more detailed as well.

Moving on to a simpler recording, on the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band In Concert Live In Ireland [Lismor Digital LCOM9012, 1989], I discovered more improvements. The 1987 world champion Fraser Highlanders (of Ontario, Canada) bagpipe and drum corps offer a nearly hypnotic performance, as perfect as one could imagine. In fact, the perfection is so blatant that you can scarcely believe they can maintain it for the 60+ minutes of this recording. The drums sound odd, like masses of washboards being banged because of the distance the microphones had to be from them to get the bagpipes up close. There’s no real bass weight to the drums, so this recording doesn’t exercise a component’s bottom end significantly. The drums actually do sound accurate in one respect. If you have ever heard drums from a considerable distance, like way up in a large football stadium, that’s the sound captured here.

Under the light demand of this recording, the stock components fare quite a bit better. They can delineate the sound of massed and solo pipes quite well. I detected only a very slight lightness to the pipes on the stock Link DAC setup. The CI/MS pair subtly fleshed out the pipes a bit, making things a little richer-sounding. As a second point of comparison, acoustic jazz trios also fared pretty well on the stock setup. This result would indicate that those listening mostly to simpler recordings of acoustic instruments and male voice may not hear a huge difference from the CI/MS mod/power supply pair. There is a small improvement with "easy" recordings, but you have to feed the system something wide-band and complex to really hear what the mods and power supply can do.

With 24/96 DVDs

The last test I put the CI/MS combo through was 24/96 playback. The goal here was to see if the CI/MS combo had hidden reserves of resolution that are uncovered with finer recordings. I used Classic Records’ Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances for Orchestra Johanos/Dallas Symphony originally recorded in 1967 on Vox Turnabout [Classic DAD1004, 1998]. The CI/MS combo sounded considerably more expensive than the stock units. Huh? By this I mean that there is an overall sense of coherency, refinement, balance and detail that the stock unit couldn’t match. Transparency is several steps up the ladder with the CI/MS pair, and this only helps you appreciate the large soundstage and precise imaging. You notice richness and harmonic completeness being nudged upward too. In the upper bass, there were actually notes present that were either missing or glossed over by the stock unit. Some of the finer sounds in the top end seem to appear out of nowhere with the CI/MS combo while being almost completely lost in action on the stock Link DAC.

Nearing our destination

While the stock $349 Link DAC is an incredible price-performance value, it isn’t as good as it gets. The Channel Islands mods and Monolithic Sound HC-2 power supply combined give you an $857 package (includes cost of Link DAC) that vaults you over much of moderate- to medium-priced 16/44.1 playback hardware out there, especially equipment that has a few years on it. Some of the really high-cost high-line 16/44.1 products sound awfully good and won’t be beat by the CI/MS combo. Add a $300-$400 DVD player with 24/96 digital outs -- select carefully, there are some, but not many -- and you’ll end up with one sweet $1100 -$1200 digital front end, one so good that you won’t fret about the small differences you’ll hear from "the best." And this was a persistent thought. I didn’t feel like I was in the cheap seats when listening to this combo. Instead, a sonic threshold is crossed. It’s as if you have arrived in the zone of great digital sound, and the small improvements that may be out there just aren’t enough to compel you to feel like you have to spend more money.

The thought that "I could live with this for a long time" kept popping into my head as I listened to great music through the Link DAC/Channel Islands mods/Monolithic Sound combination. The more complex and spacious the music, the happier you will be that you made the investment. If you aren’t a Link DAC owner but were thinking about becoming one, note that I have seen an offer at one retailer for a discounted price when you buy the Link DAC, Channel Islands mods and Monolithic Sound HC-2 power supply all at the same time. For most of you who already own a Link DAC, the Channel Islands mods and Monolithic Sound power supply are virtual must-haves.

...Doug Blackburn
db@soundstage.com 

Channel Islands Link DAC Mods and Monolithic Sound HC-2 Power Supply
Prices: Channel Islands mods, $199 USD; Monolithic Sound HC-2, $259.
Warranty: One year parts and labor on both.

Channel Islands Audio
567 W. Channel Islands Blvd., PMB #300
Port Hueneme, CA 93041
Phone: (805) 382-9398
E-mail: ciaudio@4paragon.net

Monolithic Sound, Inc.
515 Sandydale Road
Nipomo, CA 93444
Phone: (805) 929-3251

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