Hey -- someone does listen to reviewers. Or partly, at least. After bemoaning a shortage of affordable CD transports in the review of the £200 DAC-In-The-Box in the January issue, I find myself using one that almost fits the bill. The 'almost' part is that the price is still wa-a-ay above what I want to see, but at least we're talking less than the price of a round trip to New York on Concorde. And considering that it comes from an American high-end manufacturer, I should be grateful that it's 'only' £1549. But this review would be rimmed with gold stars if I was able to tell you "£999".
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Enough with the price tags. Counterpoint has done a lot better than most because the DA-11 transport doesn't stink of badge engineering, even though we know that all but Philips and the Japanese giants have to buy in the lasers and transport mechanisms. Like the much dearer Mark Levinson, Wadia and Krell transports, the Counterpoint suggests ground-upward design, the company having made much noise, for example, about the generous use of machined aluminium. Indeed, that seemed to be the main selling point at the Summer 1993 CES, when the prototypes were unveiled. 'The loading tray of the DA-11...is machined out of a solid billet of aluminum by Counterpoint' says the literature. And so you do get an impression of mass and solidity and resonance-free construction. Which we're all learning is just as important with CD as it ever was with LPs...
Styled to match the DA-10 converter (reviewed by MC in the August 1993 issue), the DA-11 is an ultra-slim, low-profiled antidote to the more macho transports we've been offered of late. Instead of seeming like a throwback to those massive and daft-looking first-generation players, the DA-11 stands a mere 57mm tall. Its 480mm width and 250mm depth allow it to stack with all manner of components, so owners are spared the space consumption demanded of top-loaders and oddly-shaped machinery.
At the extreme left of the fascia (coloured black on the review sample but also available in silver) is the display which tells you the track number and time elapsed. As with most of the exotic transports I've seen (as opposed to the pocket-money plasticity of the Orient), the DA-11's display isn't exactly brimming with data and those who like to scroll though all sorts of time read-outs will be disappointed. But it does beg the question: how many timing modes do you need to have at your command? Which, I suppose, depends on how involved you get with copying CDs to tape...
Occupying the centre-third of the panel is the CD tray, the aforementioned piece of sculpture which -- along with the equally solid remote controller -- imparts such a sense of 'class'. It slides out, reveals itself to contain an inner section for the late, unlamented 3in discs and slides back in with grace. Next is an array of press buttons with 'open' and 'play' being larger than the rest, which include all of the necessary track accessing and programming keys, duplicated on the hand-held controller. A nice touch is the LED panel dimmer, for those who can hear the difference when it's on or off. If there's anything to complain about regarding the ergonomics, some might find that the minor buttons are a bit tiny and that all are, for my tastes anyway, too 'flush' with the panel. Being something of a dinosaur, I like chunky toggles which let you know by feel that a function has been initiated. At least they're not membrane-type controls.
Counterpoint spared no expense when it came to sourcing the heart of the DA-11: the company chose the latest in Philips' CDM-series of transports, the new 12.1. This is the first Philips transport (I think) to use a straight-line
tracking system for the laser optics rather than a swing-arm, which should result in greater accuracy and better reliability. The laser is based on the Laser Diffraction Grating Unit (sounds horribly like a kitchen tool) developed for the familiar CDM 9/9 Pro transports beloved of the high-end community; Counterpoint uses a 2-stage, 3-beam variant with integrated opto-electronics. A digital servo IC controls the focusing and tracking with software controlling all adjustments of the servo characteristics, believed to be superior to 'tedious and error-prone manual adjustments'.
One thing the CDM 12.1-equipped DA-11 did demonstrate is exceptional speed when moving from track to track, or responding to the remote controller for whatever functions are accessed. It wasn't as blindingly quick as the dearer Vimak, but few are. The transport and chassis are damped with vibration-absorbing material, but tune-up freaks will be relieved to find that the DA-11 isn't completely immune to the benefits of aftermarket tweakery. Still, the construction so good that the actual location of the DA-11 and the integrity of the equipment stand or shelf are more important than experimenting with feet, cones, ad nauseum.
A single-chip digital IC controls the disc's rotation speed, decodes the digital data stream from the CD and converts it into S/PDIF format. The memory functions of the digital decoder are managed by an external RAM IC with its own power supply, to eliminate intermodulation of the input and output clocks in the FIFO buffer. Tweaks take note: this is said to eliminate the kind of modulation which would 'otherwise interfere with the "beat" and rhythm of the music'. Which sounds like designer Mike Elliott has been spending too damned much time in hanging around the British...
A up-to-the-minute a device as the DA-11 must offer a selection of outputs, so the back features two gold-plated coaxial outputs fitted with BNC sockets (a BNC to-phono adapter is provided). The one marked 'Direct' is -- obviously -- directly driven and the one marked 'Isolated' is transformer-coupled to ensure compatibility with most D/A converters. Inside, the direct output is connected electrically to the internal electronics, while the isolated output's transformer coupling floats it from the drive electronics. TOSlink output for the aurally challenged is also present, while AT&T optical is a £210 option.
Before boring you with the litany of product names which constitutes the review set-up, I have to state now that the DA-11 is one of the toughest transports to describe because -- like its matching converter -- it offers so much flexibility. All three outputs sounded different, as expected, but there was never a clear winner. The choice between isolated and direct BNC outputs can only be determined by the converter selected for use with the DA-11, so don't think for a moment that I'm about to start some craze for isolated vs direct BNC outputs. I tell you this only to prevent the inevitable misunderstandings when you attend a shop demo. If something doesn't sound right, have the salesperson swap the outputs before swapping DACs.
Which is what I spent weeks doing, having tried the DA-11 with the DA-10 (which it positively adored in an almost loathesomely incestuous manner), plus the Vimak D1800, Krell Reference 64 and Krell Studio, the Audio Research DAC1, Audio Alchemy Digital Decoding Engine 1.0 and, but of course, its baby brother, the DAC-In-The-Box. And almost immediately the satellite link between here and southern California was up and buzzing because the DA-11 didn't get on too well with my other DACs.
It's not that it didn't play: the DA-11 actually worked with every single one of the DACs. But it put up such a fuss, the various converters clicking like mad as their muting circuits went wonky when the signal ceased. Which it does when the discs stop rotating. It was great if you wanted to test the 'locking' LEDs on converters, but some of the clicking actually came through the speakers. And with the DAC-In-The-Box the noise consisted of a lot more than just a click before and after the music played. So a second DA-11 arrived, having had its muting circuits modified for greater universality, and this did cure the graunchy noises produced in conjunction with Audio Alchemy's baby. But the clicking remains. Which leads to one closing statement about compatibility, which you've heard a zillion times before: always audition a product with the partnering equipment. You'll probably find that you can get used to the clicking which emanates from within the various converters when used with the DA-11 or even through the speakers, but I thought you ought to know that it's not terminal. Merely irritating.
That aside, the DA-11 is a joy. As with any new transport, there's a learning curve the user must undergo, and it's here that ergonomic rather than sonic considerations affect the user/player relationship. It's like anything with operating controls -- cameras, cars, whatever. Some you like, some you don't. The DA-11 is a mix of instant familiarity, emulating the best of Japanese user-friendliness, with personal touches like the dimming facility, the ability to use the 'previous' button past the first track to go straight to the last track, the full array of unimportant but handy features like shuffle play, and all the rest. Or, to put it another way, this is no hair-shirt device.
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