With the Da Vinci, I found myself seated on my front porch at dusk, with the little buggers just swarming the soundstage. Interesting bit? It wasn’t just the opener that was infested—it was the entire track. Every transition. Every change-up. Somebody clearly needed to call an exterminator. You can imagine me leaning abruptly forward in my listening chair, a studied look of snobbish boredom suddenly broken by a creased frown, darting eyes, and a stabbing jab at the replay button on the remote. That. Was. New. Cool!
Or rather, it wasn’t. That sort of thing is always there; it’s just whether or not you can get to it. Noise is a tricky thing, a great mask, but it’s also one of those things—like that window—that’s really only obvious when it’s gone. Now, “black backgrounds” are about as cliché as you can get in high-end audio, and talking about them without sounding like a random-phrase generator that habitually spits out the word “inky” is apparently quite difficult. It’s hard to know what the term actually means, especially out of context—silence is silence, after all. Which made the surprise visit from Inky Blackerstein and his Complete Ensemble of Deep-Space Emptiness such an unexpected and completely revelatory treat. Apparently, I’d never been formally introduced, but be assured that he’s quite a fine fellow to have over for a listening session. Anyway, what all this meant was a spill from The Cornucopia of 3-D Information pretty much all over my listening room.
Todd Garfinkle’s excellent MA Recordings label, for example, is a marvelous way to explore these kinds of experiences. Todd is a “recording artist”—that is, he creates recordings in a downright artistic way. The idea of capturing music in “living spaces” is probably not new or unique, but it most definitely is unusual. La Segunda is the second outing for Sera Una Nocha, an eclectic group of musicians pulled together by Todd and his partner to play some equally eclectic music. This particular recording was made in a small monastery in the Argentinean countryside with only a pair of omnidirectional microphones, and the venue is the cradle that holds the haunting and delicate work. Played back at 24-bit resolution and 176kHz sampling, the sound is wildly open and airy. Playback shows the players clearly arrayed in a semicircle around the microphones, and the specificity of their placement is utterly transparent. Interestingly, Todd told me that the percussionists were actually sitting behind the mics; translation into my two-channel system places them behind the vocalist. It’s a fascinating effect and is especially clear with the Da Vinci, and another something I hadn’t noticed before. Again, neat.
Okay, after detail and depth, I tend to look for bass “authority.” For whatever reason, my experience with high-res-capable DACs has been dominated by a sense of litheness in the presentation. It’s as if the tonal balance is anchored a bit high. A great deal of listener attention gets focused on sonic aspects like “air” and “detail,” which is generally a rather pleasing effect, but doesn’t necessarily mean baby’s got back. So, I reached for another track from Chris Jones’ Roadhouses and Automobiles. “No Sanctuary Here” enjoyed a year or two as the Most Overplayed Song At An Audio Show, due in no small part to the ominousness of the bass track. It is, in a word, Big. Like, that’s-a-thunderstorm-and-we’re-never-going-to-reach-shelter-in-time Big. Played back on big speakers in a big room it’ll shake the walls and everything between, which is probably why it was so popular—it’ll stop show traffic out in the hallway, for sure. Anyway, I’ve found that many supposedly full-range loudspeakers don’t handle the track with equal aplomb, so I like to use it when Looking For Mr. Big Bass. What I’m listening for is a deep, satisfying sense of harmonic rightness, of pitch definition, of... okay, you know what I really want? It’s fear, plain and simple. If the sound doesn’t make me dive for the floor screeching “holy crap,” it isn’t right. It’s also not enough to sketch that tone, I want speed, precision, and decay, but perhaps most importantly, I want fullness and continuity, and they are rare. So, assuming the speakers can go there, the question is, will this DAC Thelma-and-Louise me right off the cliff and into an audio abyss, or will there be some kind of last second slide just short of the danger zone? The Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC does this zone particularly well, and quite frankly, it was the reason I bought it. The Da Vinci also gets this particular aspect “right,” but with a slightly different take. Namely, there’s the sense that there’s nothing to catch you as you dive off the background into forever. Thank you, Inky.
Tracking bass speed and PRAT took me to Jem’s Finally Woken and “Come On Closer.” A sexy track, this, where the bass line is front-and-center and climbs and dives throughout the tune. Another one for testing the limits of a loudspeaker or setup, it’s a matter of continuity and roundness to the notes as they drop like cannonballs onto a suddenly trampoline-like soundstage. With the backdrop the Da Vinci knitted out of the void, tracking the bass was an athletic exercise, arresting and explosive and altogether addicting.
Reference Recordings has a reputation for great recordings, and the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is dynamic and complex in just the right way to short-sheet a digital converter. I’ve heard this piece quite a lot in 24-bit/176kHz high-resolution PCM; it’s included on the HRx Sampler that’s available from Reference Recordings that came with the Berkeley DAC. The piece begins softly; the temptation will be to crank it up early, which makes the crescendos even more entertaining, the sudden climbs so stark and unexpected that my dog fled in a mixture of terror and outrage and led to another argument with my wife over “proper listening levels” and whether or not I’d be allowed to have the remote back. Whoops. But the Deep Space Da Vinci’s backdrop sets a really involving stage and tensions mounted swiftly as the woodwinds and strings began to struggle with each other, battling for supremacy, instead of battling for audibility. And even with the lightning crash of cymbals and the thunderbolt of the timpani, you had depth, placement, and delineation. This is the most coherent rendition I’ve heard of this piece, and played back at appropriate volume (i.e., loud), even a diehard classical skeptic (that would be me) was thrilled.
Note to self: Play demos when the kids are in school not when they’re in bed.
There are those who would call the Da Vinci “very analog.” I’m not sure I’m one of them, as Great Big Bass on a vinyl system is even more problematic than it is for a DAC. So, no, the Da Vinci is not analog-like. It’s better than that. But, that said, there’s an ease to the sound that is entirely non-fatiguing. Not to say that it’s in any way treble-challenged, but tracks do not tend to go brittle when bad—bad recordings stay that way, which is to say, Adele’s 21 still sounds horribly compressed, even with the Da Vinci’s Duet Engine sorting it out (more below). But what I mean is that it doesn’t sound worse. Some DACs, when fed crap, tend to either smooth out the hard edges or use them as an excuse to start swinging bags of broken glass at your ears. The Da Vinci does neither—compression sounds like what it is, which is “a horrible tragedy.” Here, vinyl tends to do better, as whatever travesties usually visited on a recording destined for silver discs and/or iTunes tend to not be visited on the vinyl version.
Again and again, I was tempted and taunted about the volume—a little voice kept saying, “Maybe you should turn it up.” My wife loved that part. Ahem. But the grain-free view on the music was as transparent as I’ve been able to achieve at home, and that view was fully as three-dimensional as the source material allowed. I can’t be faulted for throwing myself headfirst into such waters, now can I? Volume restrictions be damned! Ha HA!
Tonally, I found the Da Vinci to have a balanced presentation as no particular part of the sonic tapestry stands out. The bass is exemplary, and there is no tonal shift upward or downward that would mark the designer as overly celebrating some favored portion of the audio band. On the whole, the DAC’s presentation is unremarkably excellent and nothing feels out of place; it’s all of a piece. Organic. Which makes isolating its signature something of a nightmare, but there it is.
I’d say that it was, in a word, musical, but I’m pretty sure that’s another one of those damned clichés, so let’s just settle on “awesome.”