Once upon a time, there was a company called Audio Alchemy. It made thousands of audiophiles happy by producing little black boxes which cut through the digital chaos and transformed cheap CD players into listenable devices. Every AA device transcended pocket-money performance levels, impoverished music lovers recalling with fondness the DAC-In-The-Box and other assorted D/A converters, a phono stage, transports and more. Hell, the Digital Decoding Engine alone sold nearly 20,000 units, which must make it one of the most successful DACs of all time. But then the company was sold, the principal players left, and Audio Alchemy beca -
No way: I am
Monster Cable's Noel Lee recognised this, too, so he hired the now-freelance Madnick and teamed him with Demian Martin, co-founder of Spectral and founder of the original Entec (no 'h') - purveyors of one of the world's earliest high-end sub-woofers, way before home theatre made sub-woofers mandatory acquisitions. This duo, along with Richard Marsh, whose c.v. includes membership of the AES, journalistic stints with
Given the Audio Alchemy heritage and Monster Cable's absolute supremacy in marketing, Entech should be a dead cert. But there's a fly in the ointment for, while it looked like the rest of the world was caught napping, failing to fill the gap created by an allegedly dormant Audio Alchemy, one Anthony Michaelson of Musical Fidelity in England developed the X-Series. And it's the X-Series against which the Entech devices must be measured. Fortunately for both companies, their lines diverge enough so as to avoid a head-on collision. Here's why:
While both ranges share affordability and charming casework, the X-Series features pre-amps and power amps, headphone amplifiers, integrateds, valve and solid-state wares, a phono stage and more. For the time being at least, it's a video-free zone. Entech, on the other hand, seems to be focusing on (DACs aside) switching and routing A/V components rather than whole audio/amplification products. On an inane level, too, in Musical Fidelity vs Entech you have: cylinder versus box; UK versus US; hefty versus lightweight;
Entech's first three products include the Number Cruncher 205.2 and the Number Cruncher 203.2 D/A converters and the first of the A/V products, the DAV 4.1 Input Source Selector. The Number Crunchers differ mainly in facilities, the internal bits are almost identical, so there's £190 to be saved if you can do without the frills. Common to all Entechs are outboard AC adapters and aluminium extrusions measuring 96mm wide and 60mm tall. One bit of tailoring, though is the depth: 206mm on the AV4.1 and 205.2, while the 203.2 is half that.
Crafty touch: Because the ribbed cabinet tops are arched, you'd expect stacking to be a problem. Not so. Entech's designers produced clever feet which feature grooves that fit perfectly over the rubber strips on the top, with the feet profiled to follow the arc. They fit securely, so - unlike the X-Series cylinders - no extra hardware is needed.
Both DACs use Crystal Semiconductor's CS4329 delta-sigma digital-to-analog converter with 20-bit resolution and CSB41 2 multi-standard digital data receiver, decoder and jitter filter. So how do they differ? The Number Cruncher 205.2 provides front panel input selection for choosing between a Toslink optical or two digital coaxial RCA inputs, green LEDs to indicate which has been chosen, another LED to indicate data lock, and two press buttons - one for scrolling through the three inputs and one to invert phase. It contains six independent voltage regulators, and a five-pole analog anti-aliasing filter 'for removal of distortion-producing digital artifacts'. With a UK price of £489.95, it definitely qualifies as affordable, but Musical Fidelity's less-expensive X-DAC adds HDCD.
Its £299.95 sibling, the Number Cruncher 203.2, provides rear panel input selection between a TOSLINK optical input and one RCA coaxial input, five independent voltage regulators and a three-pole anti-aliasing filter. Specifications are close enough to be academic; more important is a sense of context: For many hi-fi enthusiasts, £190 is not a lot of money, especially for all of the features which the 205.2 offers over the 203.2. But if you look at it in percentage terms, then the 205.2 is nearly 66 percent dearer. You pays your money...
Please don't assume that what I'm about to say regarding the 205.2 applies to the 203.2, which I haven't tried. If the extra outlay for a 205.2 is too much, listen to them side by side and then make your choice, possibly saving £190. What I can tell you is that the 205.2 does for 1998 what the assorted AA models did for the early 1990s: made silk purses out of sows' ears.
Using the coaxial inputs, I compared it to the Theta Chroma at twice the price and the onboard D/A section of the Roksan Caspian, as well as the X-DAC and a trusty DAC-In-The Box. Easy to detect is the Madnick touch of yore, but one soon savours new levels of refinement and detail which find the old AA kit showing its age. Quite clearly, the Entech errs on the side of music, almost disguising the digital nature of the source material with cod-analogue warmth and non-aggression. But the 205.2 is still fast and punchy - thus mirroring the 'boogie' element of the old Alchemy stuff - and quieter, more transparent and 'weightier' than its ancestors. Images are rock-solid, palpable, and the sense of space is especially convincing; please bring along some well-recorded live material to tax this characteristic.
Large though the soundstage might be, it can't quite reach the dimensional limits of Theta's cheapest DAC - but it does create a bigger picture than the X-DAC. The X-DAC, though, has a sweeter top end and tighter bass. Flip back to the 205.2, and you'll hear that what the Entech lacks in absolute tautness and control down below is balanced by deeper bass extension and a kind of mass which will find favour with both lovers of majestic orchestral works (soundtracks included) and excessive rap recordings.
Entech's Director AV4.1 Input Source Selector is a 'studio quality, professional grade' audio/video switcher which allows simultaneous switching of four composite video-plus-stereo audio sources and four S-Video sources to one composite video-plus-stereo audio or two S-video outputs. It can also be used as a digital audio-only switcher, for systems with a number of digital sources and a DAC show of inputs. The AV4.1 includes high speed/high performance audio and video buffers, so you're not being reckless if you assume that the unit performs its own 'clean up' of the signals.
At first, I was baffled by the need for the AV4.1, given that every upscale home theatre processor I've seen offers more than enough inputs to satisfy a typical videophile, many with their own housekeeping sections. With a brace of VCRs, a DVD player and a laser disc player, I've never felt constrained. But standard fare for the typical American sofa spud adds to the above digital satellite, Hi8, Web TV, digital still photography and others.
Quite simply, the AV4.1 has little to offer owners of Theta, Proceed, Lexicon, Krell or any other high-end A/V processors-cum-preamps. The price of the AV4.1 alone - £379.95 - would keep the snobs at bay, so it had to be aimed at another sort of user. Simple: the vast majority of American home theatre installations employ A/V receivers often limited (compared to separate high-end processors) in the number of inputs.
That didn't quite wash. I mean, have you ever looked at the back of some of those Denons and Yamahas? It's Input City. So I looked sideways at another sub-genre: the minimalists. From arch crap like British 'home theatre in a carton' and 'surround sound TVs' to quality stuff like the basic Acurus processor, there's a whole section of the market which became surround-sound-ready at the dawn of the home theatre boom, but which can't accommodate an unexpected half-dozen new sources.
Because the AV4.1 incorporates buffers 'far superior to those generally found on the consumer market', video signal quality is actually improved, not just maintained. Between VCR and Lexicon, the improvement was so obvious as to justify purchase of an AV4.1 just for that purchase - not quite to the extent of line doubling, but certainly an enhancement. Apparently, the Entech A/V products follow the Gospel According to Joe Kane, so the company worked to the of the Imaging Science Foundation, and it shows.
The AV4.1, like QED boxes of 20 years ago, is a solution to a very real problem, far cheaper than replacing a whole component with a costlier processor just to gain more inputs. But it does what it should, and even features a neat remote control learning option which allows you to change sources via any remote control. It bodes well for the forthcoming Entech A/V products, a set of solutions which will have installers sighing deeply with relief.
And the DAC? Above all, the 205.2 sounds 'expensive'. I even tried it with over four grand's worth of Theta DaViD transport and it stood up well against the digital prowess of the Lexicon DC-1. At £489, the 205.2 is a little miracle. But if the 203.2 sacrifices none of the sound while relinquishing facilities, then the cheaper of the two rates as one of the Bargains of the Year.
Darn: If. In keeping with the predecessor's name, Monster had called this line 'Musical Magic' or 'Sonic Sorcery', we could've titled this review, 'Return of the Magi'...
SIDEBAR: Future Tense
If Entech does use Audio Alchemy as a role model, it's unlikely that a mere handful of DAC variants or video switchers will satisfy the Dream Team. To follow (with the proviso that Monster Cable reserves the right to change its plans) are:
Director AVDA1.4 Distribution Amplifier: This routes one video input and two channels of audio to all or none of four outputs. AVDA1.4 includes high-speed audio and video buffers for maximum retention of signal integrity.
Director SVI-1 S-Video Integrator: This integrates composite and S-Video into a single system, automatically detecting composite video to create an S-Video output and vice versa. A high-quality internal digital comb filter improves picture clarity, colour and sharpness.
Director CVI-1 Component Video Integrator: An upscale version of the SVI-1, this integrates composite, S-Video
Now, a caution: what Entech needs is to take note of Musical Fidelity's X-Series concept. Musical Fidelity developed the slick X-PSU to power up to four modules, doing away with a cluster of 'wall warts'. Entech customers will soon be clamouring for a similar device, housed in the same aluminium case and able to drive a trio or quartet of Entech modules.
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