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Music & Sound's DCC-1 Digital Control Centre Reviewed

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Think of it as the modern day equivalent of a phono section. For years you've been using a pre-amp or integrated amp in which all of the input sections operate at line level. Except for the one on the end, with higher gain and an RIAA equalization section. That one only accepted signals from your cartridge, and you learned quickly that the myriad other sources -- virtually interchangeable among the remaining inputs -- were not to be used there. It was dedicated, the odd one out.

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Now we're at a stage where at least three 'true' digital sources are available to the home user, and you don't have to be a financial wizard to recognize that you can make a substantial savings if all three share one digital-to-analogue converter. So, stand-alone CD transports have proliferated in the past two years; now that DAT is 'kosher', expect to see transport-only decks with digital outputs. That leaves NICAM, which you can be sure will enjoy the same flexibility. (How about it, Arcam?)

For such a cost-saver to be worthwhile, a pre-amp with an on-board D/A converter has to be accessible to those who need to save money. Face it: a #3000 digital pre-amp isn't of much use to those who are looking at such combo units as a way to stretch a budget.

Enter Music & Sound's DCC-1 Digital Control Centre. The company should be familiar to readers who have read my raves about its cables. M&S has formed a new line under the 'High Technology Group' (HTG) banner, and the DCC-1 is the debut product. Although this US import will hit the shops around the same time as units made here in the UK, the price should be low enough to make it competitive. The reason is simple: M&S has loaded the DCC-1 to the edges, and it will make up for any cost disadvantage against UK-made rivals by offering facilities and flexibility which I don't expect from the minimalists who dominate the British mid-to-high-end sector. I'm assuming that companies like Musical Fidelity, Cambridge, Arcam and others will offer digital pre-amps in the #400-#700 sector, and I'll bet that they offer no more than two or three digital inputs and four (analogue) line level sections plus tape, plus the minimum of controls.

The DCC-1, despite dimensions so compact that it would seem undersized even for a modern Japanese FM tuner, bombards the owner with (audiophile-approved) facilities: For starters, the company has made accommodations for ¬seven¬ analogue signals: three 'normal' analogue sources, two tape decks with record in both directions ¬and¬ two composite video inputs for hi-fi VCRs (or laser disc players), again recording in both directions. You can tell that this was designed in a country where videophiles number more than myself and Barry Norman because the DCC-1 is fully compatible with S-VHS, which explained the weird-looking sockets on the back. Additionally, the DCC-1 can feed two TV monitors. At last the gizmo-oriented hobbyist can, for example, record from an S-VHS recorder to open reel, while listening to CD. Or whatever other esoteric permutation comes to mind.

The main reason, though, for considering the DCC-1 is its digital section, and here you get three inputs, just right for the above-mentioned CD/DAT/NICAM triumvirate. One input is straight coaxial, another is straight optical while the third is internally selectable for either by moving a small jumper connector. The DCC-1 can also feed digital signals to two DATs, but note, though, that the DCC-1 has only one DAC, so you can't play one digital source while recording from a second digital source. A DCC-1, as it happens, makes reviewing a doddle when you want to compare transports offering either or both types of digital output.

Controlling this plethora of inputs is easy. Grouped together on the left are rotary controls marked 'play' and 'record', both offering selection of any of the ten inputs; it's so straightforward that you'd have to be immeasurably dense to foul up a 'record out' session. On the extreme left is a vertical row of tell-tale lights indicating the status of the D/A section, showing 32kHz, 44.1kHz or 48kHz; sadly, I was only able to test this at 44.1kHz as I've yet to indulge in a DAT machine. Fourth light down is an indicator labelled 'locked' which glows when the converter has chosen the right sampling frequency and decided that it's error-free. It's extinguished while you switch digital sources, when you digital source is switched off (the sampling rate indicator stays lit) or if an error condition exists. The fifth and last light shows whether or not the source was recorded with pre-emphasis, indicating that the DCC-1 has switched on the necessary filters. By the way, the DCC-1 emits the occasional clicking sound while scanning a CD or DAT when de-emphasis is being determined and/or selected.

That makes up the left-hand side of the fascia. Smack in the middle is the company's logo, which lights up in orange-y red against black to show 'on' status. Next is a toggle to select or by-pass an external processor; given the usefulness this holds for video users, I expect it to host most often a Dolby Surround unit. The second toggle in the row is tagged 'Line Amplifier', choosing between 'on' and 'bypass'. This bypasses the line stage entirely, feeding the volume control directly to the outputs and effectively converting the DCC-1 to a quasi-passive pre-amp. This offers superior performance at the cost of gain, so its usefulness will depend on the length of the cables between the DCC-1 and the power amps. You'll soon learn whether or not the DCC-1 can drive your power amps in bypass mode; I was able to use bypass almost exclusively as it only had to drive one metre of wire in my system.

The final toggle is an ever-useful mute switch, while the remaining controls consist of rotary balance-with-detent and stepped playback level knobs. There is no on-off switch, suggesting that MAS would like owners to keep the DCC-1 powered up at all times.

The back is a socket-freak's dream containing no less that 20 pairs of phono-type gold-plated sockets to cover all analogue inputs and outputs, co-axial digital inputs and outputs and VCR monitoring, AND there are two TOSlink digital sockets, the aforementioned video sockets and two sets of main outputs. The user can run the DCC-1's double outputs as a pair for bi-amping; balanced mode is available by moving jumpers mounted internally to invert 'Main Out 2' relative to 'Main Out 1'. No, it's not as neat as a cannon-type connection, but what the heck. Another socket accepts the mains from the surprisingly compact outboard power supply. Relegating the power supply to an external box offers the usual sonic gains and it also helps to explain how MAS crammed everything into a chassis measuring only 55x237x430mm (HDW) ¬including¬ the knobs and sockets.

Yes, you're right: The DCC-1 is a cutie, and it offers a nicely finished, grey Nextel-type face to the world. It's small enough to be unobtrusive, while the switch-and-knob-laden front panel is laid out in such a way so as to seem uncluttered. I'm not suggesting mass hypnosis or anything like that, but M&S did a great job at offering a feature-filled panel which is still user-friendly and aesthetically acceptable.

The heart of the DCC-1 is an 18-bit chip with 8-times oversampling, although the digital filtering already built in is suitable for 20-bit technology. MAS is a bit more pragmatic than most Americans when it comes to Bitstream, but the company still opted for multi-bit. Even so, the DCC-1 is designed to be upgradeable for other DACs and filters via internal multi-pin connections (hence the readiness for 20-bit). The digital section also includes a precision crystal-controlled internal clock and a single-chip high quality AES/EBU input interface. Inside all is nicely finished and tidy if not as bomb-proof in appearance as, say, a Krell at three times the price.

Installation is absolutely straightforward, though you do have to have a good view of the back panel when making connections. There are too many sockets and the main outputs are not placed at one end as you'd expect, so allow some slack in your cables to enable to you to turn the unit around with ease. Other than that, there's just the burn-in, and this baby wants a good week of live mains in its kiester before it will perform well. It more than confirms the suggestion that you should leave it on at all times because, even after the initial burn-in, the DCC-1 needs two or three hours warm-up.

Although a phono section may one day be an option -- the next two MAS products are the DCS-1 stand-alone converter without pre-amp and the SPA-100 stereo power amp -- I used the DCC-1 with my Basis turntable/SME V/Lyra cartridge analogue front-end by unearthing my cherished Moscode SuperIt valve phono amp. Which goes to prove that Harvey Rosenberg was years ahead of his time. Anyway, the other sources used through the DCC-1's line sections included the CAL Tempest II CD player, the Marantz CD12 CD player and the harman-kardon CD415 cassette deck, while the various digital inputs were tried with the CD12's transport both coaxially and optically, the Arcam Alpha CD player's coaxial digital output and the Proceed transport's coaxial output. Comparisons were also made with the Meridian 203, one of 1990's greatest bargains.

If a small, all-in-one package is what you require, then you won't bother comparing this with a pre-amp and separate D/A converter with a similar price. Assuming that the DCC-1 will sell for #1000-#1300 depending on the greed of a soon-to-be-appointed distributor, I thought it fair to run the DCC-1 side-by-side with a Croft Super Micro-plus-Meridian 203, about as good a combo for the price as I can name. (Actually, it's only #750 in total, a bargain combo if ever I heard one.) I chose to ignore the fact that the Croft/Meridian package includes a phono section, and that the DCC-1 destroys all-comers as far as facilities and conservation of shelf space are concerned. Personal requirements will determine whether or not those merit consideration in a given setup. Besides, those ¬should¬ come into play only ¬after¬ you've established the level of performance. So, if an all-singing, all-dancing digital pre-amp is what you require, read no further, 'cause this is it.

But here's how the DCC-1 stacks up against a very tough combo, the Meridian and the Croft being absolute champions at their price points. Just as a line-level, analogue pre-amp, the DCC-1 offered Leitz-like transparency and detail which the Croft nearly matched. On the other hand, the Croft had a natural feel and warmth which was clearly lacking in the DCC-1. Only when I tried the DCC-1 with the Moscode phono section could it match the warmth of the Croft -- and you thought I'd outgrown my tube fetish.

What the DCC-1 offers which surprised the hell out of me, especially as it's present even in by-pass mode, is real slam and control, no sloppiness whatsoever -- a boon for systems where the bass is a bit ¬ferblondget¬. It's in character with the precision of the spatial portrayals and the detail retrieval; it also means some lightning-quick transients across the board.

Judged just as an analogue pre-amp, I would -- if blindfolded -- regard the DCC-1 as smack in the #500-#600 category. Upon opening my eyes and factoring in the styling and facilities, I'd add on another #200. Then I'd look at the Croft and wonder why Glenn isn't worth #800,000,000 and buying up the whole of the FBA or something...

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