AVM Ovation SD 6.2 Preamplifier/DAC

Winning the Darwinian Struggle for Digital Sound

Equipment report
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters
AVM Ovation SD 6.2
AVM Ovation SD 6.2 Preamplifier/DAC

Sound Quality
What really make the Ovation SD 6.2 exceptional are the nuances of its sound and its exceptional musicality. I’ve spent more than two months listening to the unit, as much for sheer pleasure as for review purposes. It will not turn a recording from the sonic equivalent of a sow’s ear into a silk purse, but it will get the best out of a very wide range of digital recordings.

To go back to digital Darwinism—and today’s evolutionary competition between bit and sampling rates—the AVM Ovation SD 6.2 has a key strength that I’ve found in all of the very best DACs and digital front ends. It both exposes the differences between various bit and frequency rates and minimizes their musical importance. This may seem contradictory until you actually start listening.

I have a number of recordings from my friends that make direct comparisons of MP3 to 16/44.1, 16/48, 22/88, 24/96, and 24/192. I also have a range of similar professional recordings from sources like Linn that include 24/352.8 PCM and DSD64 and 128.

I find these sources to be more useful in making comparisons than much of the material you can buy on the web. Far too often, recordings that claim to be “hi-res” give you no real data on the actual performance and source of the recording (e.g., whether it was actually made in a high-resolution format, and how it was produced and altered before it was made commercially available). In all too many cases, with what claim to be “hi-res” commercial downloads I find that I am listening to a transfer from an older analog recording, where changing the bit and sample rate makes no meaningful difference, or to a digital download that sounds different from my original CD in ways the make me wonder if the “hi-res” version really uses the same master or has been tweaked. It is a little like buying a very expensive wine without having any reliable provenance, and having nothing more to show its origin that a label picturing a non-existent chateau.

When the only difference in recordings is the bit and sampling rate used by two different machines to record the same music at the same moment, however, I find the sonic differences are subtle and often musically insignificant compared to the choices made in microphone, mike placement, mix, and venue.

Digital Darwinism is only one part of the fight for survival in the audio jungle, and often a less important one. Much also depends on the digital front end. Once you go above 16 bits and 44.1kHz, sonic differences are often very minor or inaudible with really cheap CD players and poor computer interfaces. At the same time, such differences tend to be most audible with digital playback equipment that is good, but not great. For reasons I can only guess at, good-but-not-great players have more trouble with CD bit and frequency rates than great players, and directly comparable 24/88 or 24/96 recordings sound better than CD rates on such players with more consistency.

This is far less true, however, if one goes on to 192kHz or 352.8kHz, or shifts to DSD64 and 128. I have yet to hear a convincing demonstration that hi-res recordings above 24-bit/96kHz—or from PCM to DSD64 and 128—really improve musical realism in even the best players. Even when I feel I can hear a difference, it requires a level of attention to upper-octave detail that can detract from the musical listening experience, and the level of difference—real or imagined—has no impact on the other, far larger aspects of musical sound quality.

What I do notice, however, is that the very best digital units like the Ovation SD 6.2 differ from their competition in minimizing the differences between CD sound and 24/96, and improving MP3 as well. The differences in dynamics in the upper bass/lower midrange, and the presence of any upper midrange hardness and excessive energy, diminish significantly.

I first noticed this with the Meitner XDS1, then with the PS Audio Directstream DAC as it was upgraded, and I now hear it with the Ovation SD 6.2. I should stress, however, that this superiority is a matter of nuance. It will not alter your sex life, make you cry, raise you to a level of transcendental ecstasy, or alter your bodily functions. At the same time, the ability to get the very best out of CD is critical to anyone with a large existing library of CD recordings.

I have not heard MQA under controlled enough conditions to judge it, but I do feel that much of the current focus on bit and sampling rates focuses on the wrong evolutionary path in high-end Darwinism. It puts upper-octave detail before preserving the natural warmth of music, and this is a matter largely of the miking and production values rather than the bit and sampling rates.

Jonathan Valin addresses these sonic issues in a very different way in his comparison of the Wilson and Magico speakers in his review of the Magico M Pro in Issue 255, but I believe he focuses on a key aspect of sound quality that is just as important in the differences between the Ovation SD 6.2 and far too many competing units. Every component in the audio chain is voiced to some degree by its design team. The voicing in digital front ends is far subtler than in speakers, but overall sound quality is still the critical standard and getting the balance of upper midbass and lower midrange is essential.

Equally importantly, the Ovation SD 6.2 gets depth, width, and imaging right, to the extent that source material makes this possible. Low-level dynamics are as good, detailed, and lifelike as I have heard from any player, and the sound of the upper octaves is open, provides life and air, and delivers consistent pleasure.

Unlike with some products, I also did not find myself gradually tailoring my music selection to suit the player—by dynamics and timbre, analog or non-analog origins, or the age of the digital technology used to make the recording. The Ovation SD 6.2 did not change the character of any recording, but it got the best out of my collection, and I went through one hell of a lot it because of the pleasure I had listening to this unit.

Highly recommended!

Specs & Pricing

Analog inputs: One balanced, one unbalanced
Digital inputs: SPDIF optical (x2), SPDIF coax (x2), USB, AES/EBU
Outputs: One balanced, one unbalanced, one line-out
Streaming formats: MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG Vorbis, FLAC (192/32 via LAN), WAV (192/32 via LAN), AIFF (192/32 via LAN), ALAC (96/24 via LAN)
Supported media server: UPnP 1.1, UPnP-AV, and DLNA-compatible server, Microsoft Windows Media Connect Server (WMDRM 10), DLNA-compatible server (NAS)
Web radio: vTuner Internet Radio Service
Digital signal processing: Up to 192kHz/24-bit (USB, 32-bit/384kHz)
Upsampling frequency: Native, 44,1, 48, 88, 96, 176, 192kHz
Dimensions: 430mm x 130mm x 370mm (17" x 5.1" x 13")
Weight: 12kg (26 lbs.), plus standard flight case of 6kg (13 lbs.)
Price: $8995

AVM AUDIO USA (U.S. Distributor)