A veteran of AVRev.com, Jim Swantko also wrote home theater and audiophile component reviews for HomeTheaterReview.com in the early days of the publication. His focus was on mid- to high-end audio brands like Mark Levinson, Classé, Noble Fidelity, Cary Audio, MartinLogan, and Paradigm.
Many believe that the age of the compact disc has come and gone. Looking at all the iPods hardwired to kids and grown-ups alike, it's difficult to argue this fact. We are quickly becoming a society with musical libraries that exist only in a virtual sense, but there are many of us who simply cannot live with the sonic compromises that result when music files are compressed. Luckily, there is a middle ground that seems to offer the best of both worlds, somewhere between the pure performance of compact disc playback and the ease of use and power of a computer-based music playback system. This convergence is creating an entirely new product category for audiophiles, known as the USB DAC.
• Read more about Cary Audio Design including all of the HomeTheaterReview.com reviews of Cary AV products.
• Read about high end AV source components like USB DACs here.
Cary Audio is one of the latest high-end companies to see the advantages of, as well as consumer demand for, a digital-to-analog converter that can be driven from a computer, as well as traditional sources. The $1,499 DAC is part of Cary Audio's new Xciter line of products that also includes a $2,750 five-watt (yes, I said five-watt) Class A triode integrated amplifier. These products target users who are comfortable using their PC/Macs as their audio sources, but now want them to have audiophile sound.
The Xciter DAC is not a "me, too" product for the PC crowd, but rather a true audiophile-grade component designed from the ground up, with cutting-edge components from National Semiconductor and AKM Digital Devices. The design collaboration effort lasted over a year between the three companies involved, illustrating the effort that was put into the product. Physically, the DAC is a very attractive unit, featuring a heavy-gauge black chassis with a thick billet aluminum faceplate. The rear of the unit provides four digital inputs, including S/PDIF, Toslink, USB 2.0 and BNC interfaces, as well as a set of single-ended analog outputs, all of which are gold-plated. The face of the unit is dominated by a large rotary knob that turns with the precision of a fine Swiss watch and is used to select the input. The remaining space is filled with nine Cary signature blue LEDs that indicate which input is active, as well as the sample rate of the incoming signal and power status. A bright red logo also proudly announces that this is part of the Xciter product line.
The highlights of the DAC circuitry include an AKM digital receiver and a 32-bit chip running at 192KHz doing the actual conversions, as well as Cary Audio-specific National Semiconductor TO-99 current feedback and output devices.
Connecting the Xciter DAC into my system was extremely simple, but I would have preferred a few more coax inputs for future growth. I connected my Esoteric DV-50 and DirecTV satellite receiver to the DAC via Transparent digital interconnects and Audio Magic Spellcaster single-ended cables between the DAC and the Cary SLP-05 preamp. The user manual told me everything I needed to know and, in less than two minutes, I was ready to go.
In preparation for this review, I had ripped several of my reference discs, using Windows Media player set to lossless, which is the program's highest resolution. At this setting, each song averaged about 40 megabytes, so make sure you plan your storage accordingly if you want to rip your entire library.
I decided to begin my review using the DAC, with my Esoteric acting as a transport, and loaded up one of my favorite and most familiar albums, Jar of Flies (Columbia - CD) by Alice in Chains. Within the first few seconds of "Rotten Apples," it was obvious that Cary had created a winner. What I first noticed was the incredible clarity and definition of the instruments. Each instrument had more space around it and the soundstage was less congested than I had heard before. The numerous guitars that are overlaid during the song's introduction became easier to differentiate, so that it is possible to follow their location in space not only left to right but also front to back. Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell sing the entire song in unison, so this is an excellent test of a system's ability to keep vocals separated. The Cary did an excellent job at this difficult task. It may seem like a contradiction to want voices to be separate yet remain integrated with each other, but this is part of the magic of music, in my opinion. Depending on how you listen, your experience will change. The Cary allowed me to choose how deeply I wanted to peer into the music.
I moved on to track six, "Don't Follow," which consists primarily of Jerry Cantrell's vocals, a harmonica and an acoustic guitar. I was impressed with the Cary's ability to convey the delicacy of the acoustic guitars strings, as well as the power and beautiful texture of the harmonica. When the drums finally come to life, they do so with excellent definition and weight. It was as if each drum skin were a little tighter than the last time I listened.
Having determined how the DAC performed being driven by a transport, I decided to next feed it a data stream directly from my laptop. Theoretically, having the data stored in a buffer should result in a steadier, more accurate stream of ones and zeros, as opposed to encountering all the potential errors involved in reading a spinning disc with a laser: things like dust, scratches, jitter, etc. Would this be noticeable? This is the million-dollar question in my mind.
Upon queuing up "Rotten Apples" again, I once more noticed many of the same improvements over the internal DAC. Instruments, which were previously defined by a scalpel, were now etched by a laser. The background was noticeably blacker, which resulted in yet another improvement in detail and separation that I had heard earlier. Micro dynamics were clearer and it was easier to paint a picture in my mind of the recording studio, as I was aware of many more spatial cues. I was surprised by how obviously better the laptop-sourced music was than it was on the transport.
Read The Downside and Conclusion on Page 2