It’s embarrassing to admit but I still have a hangover from the DOS era. For those drawing a historical blank, this was the monochromatic, digital Dark Age that occurred between the preservation of dinosaur DNA in amber and the dawn of Windows and Mac OS graphical interfaces. It was the epoch of the reboot and computer crashes; 20MB hard drives and dial-up were the rage; and WYSIWYG or PnP was still a big “Huh?” Why does this matter? It matters because I am still a little phobic with computer-based audio–and disappointed with the sonic payoff. By comparison the now Old School compact disc is starting to look downright snuggly. However, over the last few weeks, the Electrocompaniet PD-1 USB/DAC has perked up my ears, provoked a reconsideration, and even allayed some of my hand-wringing—a bit and a byte at a time you might say.
The $2990 PD-1 is a full-size stand-alone DAC designed to manage pretty much any digital source you can throw at it, whether a CD-player, a satellite receiver, or a PC/Mac. The PD-1 sports a 24-bit/192kHz upsampling DAC. There’s a complete array of inputs populating the back panel, including a pair of S/PDIFs and a single TosLink, both of which support the highest stated sampling rate, plus a USB and an RF Link which support the 16-bit/48kHz standard. The black faceplate with blue illumination features touch-arrows for input and volume selection—or you can access these functions with the remote control. The volume control adds a significant element of versatility to the PD-1’s operation. Coupled with the balanced or unbalanced outputs the PD-1 can be connected directly to active speakers or to a power amp thus eliminating the need for a preamp. As member of Electrocompaniet’s entry-level Prelude line, the PD-1’s chassis and fittings don’t quite match the robust build-quality of the firm’s elite Classic line, like the ECI 3 integrated (see below), but it’s an elegant package nonetheless.
Set-up note: AudioQuest loaned me its newest Carbon USB cable, which features silver-plated (5%), long-grain-copper, solid-core conductors and solid polyethylene dielectrics. A fair portion of the foregoing impressions came to light after I replaced an assortment of geriatric USB cables with the Carbon. The sound grew cleaner and more transparent in the upper octaves, and imaging became far more stable. I was once again, reminded that cables do matter. (Price: $229/3m) Also my listening rotated between the USB and S/PDIF inputs, the latter running through a Musical Fidelity USB interface.
Available as an option is the Electrocompaniet Music Streamer or EMS-1 ($499). It’s designed to work exclusively with the PD-1 and operates on radio frequencies rather than WiFi. The EMS-1 establishes a wireless radio link between a computer and the PD-1 so there’s no need to run any cables between a computer and the PD-1. Resourcefully, the EMS-1 and the PD-1 have channel selectors to optimize performance and resolve in-house RF conflicts. And since the EMS-1 is independent of any busy shared home-computer network, it may have advantages over WiFi in the form of fewer dropouts. Setup was (mercifully) as easy as slipping the supplied USB cable from the EMS-1 port to the port on my MacBook, opening Settings/Sounds and selecting the sound output device—in this case EC Prelude DAC PC—and then selecting the RF input from the front panel of the PD-1. No restarting was necessary. Throw distances were good in my home. Sonically, the sound wasn’t as dynamically vibrant through the EMS-1. It was a bit leaner. But for general listening and the wireless convenience it affords an aspiring party DJ, it’s a winner.
To these ears earlier-generation USB DACs conveyed an undercurrent of lightly smeared harmonics and mis-timing. The imaging and spatial information of a performance seemed to shift in and out of focus unpredictably. However, the PD-1 was a thoroughly different experience. Music is reproduced with a firm foundation, excellent low-level resolution, and a smooth unprocessed treble. The reference-quality tracks of singer Jen Chapin covering the Stevie Wonder hits “It Don’t Mean Nothing” and “Renewable” on ReVisions [Chesky] were transparent, high impact in both the micro- and macro-dynamic sense, and imbued with a strong element of immediacy and air—the “being there” signature. The character and scale of the baritone sax hit the mark with rich, throaty textures, weighty output from its big bell, and sharp transients off the mouthpiece. Acoustic bass was a satisfying blend of extension and bloom. And, as I listened to Simon & Garfunkel Live 1969 [Columbia], I remarked in my notes: “Gone are the flattened soundstage and gauzy vocals.” For the first time it even seemed possible to count the number of hands of the audience coming together during the long appreciative applause.
Solo piano, one of my sonic staples, was a fluid combination of attack, rounded soundboard harmonics, and articulation. Low-level resolving power was very good and backgrounds were quiet and hash-free. Only during heavy-handed rock or high-caliber symphonic music did I feel that bass response and punch were a little soft and lacking in resolution—good but not a home run.
More than any single criterion, the PD-1 resolves the delicate layers among closely aligned musical images. These might be chamber groups, the neo-classical-bluegrass fusion of Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo Session recordings, or even basic vocal harmonies like the aforementioned S&G. The Beatles often doubled their own vocals, many of which you can hear throughout The White Album. Good examples are the cuts “Julia” (with John) or “Blackbird” (Paul). With less transparent gear these vocals can sound filmy and softly focused, but the PD-1 preserved the more discrete identities of these tightly layered images as if a thin sonic gauze had been lifted. And finally, does the PD-1 exceed the resolution and detail of a stand-alone SACD player, like the Esoteric X-05? Through the PD-1’s S/PDIF input, this sonic gap is indeed narrowing, but I still find SACD done right to have an electrifying micro-resolution and an overall authenticity that have left me breathless and that I’ve yet to hear matched in my listening room via a USB DAC.
A final note: A few weeks ago I was reminded just how easy it is in the digital world to go from live performance to keepsake. I attended a superb Marc Cohn concert at the Barclay Theater in Irvine, California—an excellent sounding hall. The singer/songwriter was performing with only one sideman, gifted guitarist Shayne Fontaine. Before they took the stage the theater announced that the concert was being recorded and that thumb drives and downloads (320kbps/MP3) would be available for purchase following the performance. Bootlegs, baby-boomer style, I thought. And a good challenge for the PD-1’s fidelity. The recorded concert sound was excellent as it turned out—not in the studio-honed sense but in the way it captured the overall musicality of each moment. It reminded me of two things. One, that a live mike feed, smartly engineered and relatively unprocessed (compared to what normally goes on in a studio) has the ability to sonically elevate a lower-resolution recording and, two, that even at lower native resolution a well-engineered DAC can work wonders.
The PD-1 was a real eye-opener on many levels. It dissolved the shroud of electronic haze between me and the musical performance that has dogged my previous excursions into the world of USB. It was the first USB DAC that performed with the kind of pure musical flair and transparency that I’ve come to expect from a genuine high-end source component. Functionally it’s complete, flexible, and well packaged. And operationally it never caused me to break a sweat. Finally I’m starting to enjoy the media-server revolution, not only for the technology but for the music itself.
ECI 3 Integrated Amplifier
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
There’s a reason why the $3400 Electrocompaniet ECI 3 has been around for nearly a decade as a member of the company’s elite Classic line: It’s simply a darn good integrated amp. Visually it’s certainly stood the test of time. A thick black acrylic front panel, overlaid with gold lettering and ice blue backlighting could be a wink at McIntosh glam, but the ECI 3 enjoys its own air of Nordic cool.
The ECI 3 is DC-coupled and fully balanced, outputs 70Wpc (a figure that seems conservative in practice), and is stable into all loads down to 0.5 ohms—a feature Electrocompaniet points to with justifiable pride. The ECI 3 also features Electrocompaniet’s unique Floating Transformer Technology (FTT) power supply which is said to be capable of delivering twice as much current as conventional designs. The back panel houses six inputs and an additional CD balanced input plus a single-ended tape output. Per Electrocompaniet practice, a balanced output is provided as well and can feed an additional power amp to create a biamped setup.
The ECI 3 is equipped with a balanced, motorized volume control, and all input switching is done via relays. Volume up/down and input selection can be controlled using the four navigator buttons on the front panel, or from the remote control (which needs modernizing, IMHO). Electrocompaniet Classic line integrated amps are no second-class citizens: The ECI 3 is built with the same quality components used in the company’s most prestigious models.
This amp may be as familiar as a pair of slippers but sonically it’s no relic. Across the tonal spectrum nothing seems out of place. It’s neutral with a heavier midrange bias, quick, and dynamic, and easily performs up to and often beyond contemporary expectations. When warmed up—and I recommend leaving the amp on continuously for serious listening–the ECI 3 sheds the dry, cooler sound that dogs it from a cold start and begins to sound, well, not exactly tube-like but a bit laid-back, as if partaking of the midrange lushness and rosy complexion characteristic of the best valves. Deepest mid-twenty-cycle bass does soften a bit and there’s some treble shading, but these factors only underscore the essential neutrality of its performance.
For most integrated amplifiers, where compact chassis place limits on isolation and topology, there are two areas where sonic compromises are most often heard: in the spatial/dimensional domain, and in the attenuation of dynamics. String sections tend to compact, individual players squeeze a little closer to one another, and the acoustic venue or symphony hall contracts in both width and height—often to such a degree that the performance retreats between the inside boundaries of the speaker rather than to its outside edges and beyond. The ECI 3 however seems to have avoided most of these pitfalls. During selections from Exotic Dances of the Opera from the Reference Recordings HRx disc, the integrated impressed with its smooth liquid output, openness, and eagerness to paint a wide, dimensional soundstage. There was very little constriction in the treble so string sections and full-tilt brass blasts never ventured onto the sonic-knife’s edge. Significantly, these impressions were drawn in the wake of my recent experience with the best integrated amplifier I’d ever reviewed, the $25,000 Vitus Audio SIA-25. On an absolute basis, the ECI 3 softens the dynamic impact of deep bass and heavy percussion somewhat. Resolution of the smallest pianissimos was not quite as fine as I have heard in the loftier regions of this segment. Still, no apologies were necessary.
In a world where the latest, greatest thing generates all the talk around the water cooler until the next greatest thing comes along, the ECI 3 integrated validates the notion that experience has its advantages. It’s a terrifically musical and articulate component. With a Prelude PD-1 for a wingman, long may the ECI 3 endure.
SPECS & PRICING
PD-1 USB DAC
Inputs: Two S/PDIF coax, one (each) TosLink, USB, RF link
Outputs: Stereo balanced XLR, stereo unbalanced RCA
Dimensions: 16.5" x 2" x 13.4"
Weight: 9.5 lbs.
EMS-1 Radio Frequency Music Streamer
ECI 3 Integrated Amplifier
Power output: 70Wpc
Inputs: Six RCA, one balanced XLR
Outputs: One balanced
Dimensions: 19" x 4.5" x 16.1"
Weight: 26.4 lbs.
97 Linden Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Sota Cosmos Series IV turntable; SME V tonearm; Sumiko Palo Santos, Air Tight PC-3 cartridges; Parasound JC 3 phonostage; ARC CD5 disc player; ATC SCM20SL, mbl 120, Wilson Sophia 3 loudspeakers; Synergistic Tesla Apex, Wireworld Platinum speaker and interconnects; Audience au24 PowerChord, Kimber Palladian, Shunyata Venom power cords