Crane Song Avocet with Quantum DAC

QuantumDAC

David Hill of Crane Song LTD builds some genius pro audio equipment. His mic pre amps and compressor designs have always held a special place in my sonic memory. I’ve been lucky enough to use his gear in broadcast studios and through my own personal music recordings.

The Crane Song Avocet is a Class A monitor controller with a built-in DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter). Having undergone 5 iterations, the current  Quantum DAC boasts impressive jitter specs and uses a proprietary reconstruction filter for accurate time domain response. Operating asynchronously with a 32 bit architecture, the reference clock is less than 1pS and all digital inputs are up-sampled to 211Khz.

Upgrade Note: If you are sending in your Avocet for the Quantum DAC upgrade, you will receive an optical input that replaces the original dual wire AES input. Cool, now you have AES, S/PDIF, and Optical.

The design is utilitarian and solid- sporting a modern industrial build with primary colored buttons and center volume knob. This might sound strange, but it always reminded me of Jacque Tati and his modernist take in films like Playtime (go to 23 sec). Monsieur Hulot would surely get lost in the maze of colored square buttons ;). The Avocet proves smart modern design can improve the future for all…err, yeah that is… for Audio Engineers!

AvocetIIA

Talking with David Hill at AES last year revealed his excitement about this new Quantum DAC design. In particular, David felt that the combination of filters being analog and some digital help provide a more realistic impact of sound. His words, if I remember correctly were, “a snare hit now sounds more like the real snare.” Now that I had Mr. Hill’s new Quantum DAC in hand, it was time to test it out.

To listen, I brought the upgraded Avocet down to a studio with Lipinski speakers and amps. There, we also had a previous generation Avocet to listen to and compare. A good hour of warm up was given, and a couple more listening to various digital audio sources from the SADiE DAW. Quantum entanglement aside, we began listening to this latest generation DAC design from Crane Song.

Using some familiar music tracks, we fed the Quantum DAC via AES/EBU, then out to the Lipinski speaker system with amps. It certainly sounded good right off the bat, but only after spending a little time did all the new sonic upgrades become clear. Switching to the previous generation Avocet DAC proved that this new design provided a more robust or dimensional envelopment to sounds. David was right about the snare sound. Even more, the guttural impact of kick drum was solid and more 3D. Instruments achieved a more realistic timbre and acoustic space with this Quantum DAC upgrade. While the previous generation DAC is no slouch, this new design allows a more fleshed out roundness to the instruments in the stereo image. remoteThe user-interface offers simple and functional controls that allow you to smartly and intuitively work. With the precise relay based volume control (with offsets for level matching) and brilliant class A output stage, the 5th generation Quantum DAC furthers audio resolution while maintaining full control of your audio sources. The Crane Song Avocet maintains its place as the hidden gem of my audio experiences. My highest recommendation.

-Happy Listening!

The State of Digital Audio Cables

 

AQUSB

Audioquest USB cables for digital audio, Coffee in focus

After recently writing about solid core audio cable designs, I began listening to various digital audio cables.  To dig in, I started by examining the transmission from computer to DAC (digital-to-analog converter) via the Audioquest USB cable line. For this listening test I employed the Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DAC with 10m Clock – simply connected to amp and speakers (Lipinski, and Green Mountain Audio).

The basis for the Audioquest designs start with solid core copper, then they add silver in varying amounts, a noise dissipation system, and finally a DBS or dielectric bias system.

Starting with a generic USB cable I familiarized myself with the sound. To be fair, I listened to several generic type USB cables…not all are created equal, and yes some sound decent too. After establishing the best sounding generic USB cable, I began exploring the Audioquest designs.

The Pearl, a basic LGC (long grain copper) USB cable was implemented from computer to DAC. Compared to the generic USB cable, the Pearl provided a modest but noticeable step up in clarity to the music files. The Forest, with its mere 0.5% silver over copper was easy to distinguish from the sound of the Pearl USB. A distinct and greater clarity came upon first listen, and continued use proved it more detailed indeed. A layer of background vocals was now more apparent. Moving past the Forest, one encounters the Cinnamon USB. At 1.25% silver over copper, this is still in the range of affordable USB cables (ok, for music lovers). The Cinnamon is yet again, more resolute. Not just more resolute, but better controlled and more balanced than the Forest. Next up, the AQ Carbon USB employs a whopping 5% silver over copper. This is also where Audioquest begins adding a 3 layer noise-dissipation system around the USB cable. If the Cinnamon was better balanced, the Carbon adds a more relaxed presentation – possibly due to less noise riding on the conductors. The Carbon also provided a greater sense of depth.

The last two USB cables in the Audioquest line include a 72v DBS (Dielectric Bias System). First up is the 10% silver over copper Coffee USB cable. After noticing the obvious clarity, balance, and extreme quietness (no background hash), another characteristic to the stereo field becomes apparent. Stereo height and depth information becomes easily distinguished. The arc of sound in the stereo field becomes less congested. Low, Middle, and High frequencies have a specific horizontal plain they reside in. Using the Lipinski Speaker system with subs (in addition to my 2way speakers) made this very obvious.

What comes after 10% silver, well 100% PSS (Perfect Surface Silver) of course. The Diamond USB is the most expensive offering from Audioquest. This USB cable spotlights ultra clear transmission while still being hash-free. Like Coffee USB, the Diamond possesses quiet backgrounds, great dimensionality, and rendering distortion free audio signals. Where it differs in sonic presentation is in the stereo height or arc. Compared to Coffee USB, I found the Diamond to create even greater distinctions between low, middle, and high frequencies. Specifically, center vocals were presented physically higher above the speaker than with the Coffee. While some stereo system might benefit from the Diamond, we found the Coffee USB to have the best overall balance in our systems.

Coffee

Audioquest Coffee AES/EBU

To test out the Audioquest AES/EBU cables, I used my trusty Yellowtec PUC2. The PUC2 is a USB to AES converter. This allowed me to listen with basic Canare AES/EBU cables and compare them to the Audioquest designs. Note: I used the same AQ USB cable as AES/EBU cable being tested, for the Canare AES/EBU I used a generic USB cable to connect the PUC2 to computer. Canare AES and the AQ Coffee/Diamond were compared using the Crane Song Avocet (with Quantum DAC update).

Starting with the Canare AES cable, I connected the the AES out of the PUC2 to my Crane Song Avocet DAC. From the the Crane Song Avocet, I went into Lipinski Sound speakers with amps. Using the same track (Paul Simon, Proof), I began listening. After familiarizing myself with the sound, I quickly swapped the Canare AES/EBU for the AQ Coffee AES/EBU.

I was stunned by the differences, and so was my colleague (a seasoned mastering engineer). Just as I heard when using the Coffee USB, the AES cable provided a clarity and distinction to the many layered tracks of this Paul Simon mix. Bass was tighter, better defined, more robust. Middle and high frequencies also benefited from greater clarity while still being balanced yet distinct. The stereo arc allowed height information to be easily perceived and not exaggerated. Swapping back the Canare AES cable made it apparent that the sound was now congested, or squeezed sounding.

Diamond

Audioquest Diamond AES/EBU

When replacing the Coffee AES/EBU for the 100% Perfect Surface Silver Diamond, the height information became even more distinct. That arc (in the stereo field) I spoke of earlier was even more pronounced than on the Coffee AES/EBU. Extreme clarity and low background noise was obvious, but Paul Simon’s voice appears to be physically higher in the center image. When testing this AES/EBU cable in my home system I noticed the same phenomena.

The Audioquest USB and AES/EBU cables offered a clear improvement that was easily heard. While the Carbon and Coffee were my favorite designs, even the entry level USB cables from AQ provided a clear balanced presentation without any harshness.

-Happy Listening!

 

Benchmark’s AHB2 Stereo Amplifier

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Achieving the full performance/responsiveness out of my speakers has motivated me to examine various amplifiers designs lately. In this quest to squeeze the last sound molecules from my speaker drivers, I have been comparing class A, Class A/B, Class D, and now this hybrid Class H and AB design from Benchmark and THX.

Delivering clean power with an exceptionally low noise floor are the key ingredients to Benchmark’s new Amplifier. The AHB2 is a 2 channel audio amplifier with 100 watts of power into 8 ohms, and 190 into 4 ohms(bridged mono mode 380 watts/8ohms). This super quiet amplifier topology allows for a signal-to-noise ration of 130dB unweighted. The distortion is also quite low, at 0.00011% THD in stereo mode.

With a clean and tidy footprint, The front panel allows access to 1 power button, and several LEDs that indicate proper operation. Benchmark built into the AHB2- a power supply fault protection to monitor voltage, current, and temperature. If issues arise, the fault circuit mutes both channels to protect the amplifier and speakers. The clip lights will illuminate when occasional clipping is present (something that never happened for me), and the fault protection kicks in when severe overdrive occurs- to protect speakers.

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On the business end of things, connectivity is straight forward. Other than the addition of Speakon connectors, the Balanced XLR inputs and speaker terminals are standard. One dip switch on the right controls mono or stereo operation, while the 3 position switch on the left controls input sensitivity – a welcome feature. Matching the input sensitivity allowed me to optimize the Gain control between the Crane Song Avocet and the AHB2.

Technically speaking, the AHB2’s Vanishingly low noise floor can be compared to the dynamic capabilities of a 22-bit digital system. Most current professional and audiophile DACS can also achieve very low noise floors – a match made in audiophile heaven.

I used the Crane song Avocet and several other DACs to feed Balanced stereo program material to the AHB2. For speakers I used my Green Mountain Eos HX 2-way speakers. All cabling was balanced solid core copper.

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The tidy AHB2 Amp runs cool

I gave the Benchmark amplifier some time to warm-up and have had it in my system for several weeks. My initial reaction was in the form of a grin, as I heard my music amplified in a clear and coherent manner. The extremely low noise floor became revealed as orchestras truly faded to the acoustic space and black was truly black – no residual noise whatsoever from speaker drivers. Even more obvious was a clarity to the amplification. This amplifier runs like a high-performance sports car. I was amazed at the AHB2’s ability to keep up with dense music mixes and never sound congested or lacking. In fact, this tidy beast produced some of the tightest low end I’ve ever heard in my 2 way speakers. The midrange was articulate and clear with an obvious clarity that bested my current class A/B amplifier. Extending to the high frequencies were equally clear and distortion free, no hype here- just honest clean reproduction.

Listening to Beck’s “Morning Phase” (24/96) was ear opening and lovely on the AHB2. The track “Morning” enters with  acoustic guitar strumming and stereo vocals, and leads into lovely strings with reverberant stereo space all around. Even with this wash of sounds, the hit of the Floor tom, or the crisp full fleshed out sound of the snare was colorless and clearly projected.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s performing Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountains (Telarc 16/44.1) was sublime. Mount St. Helens Andante, Grazioso unfolds gracefully and with tip top double bass walking the piece along. The bass holds true and rings out even as the full strings come into glide the momentum along. The expansiveness of this orchestral recording is deep and wide with excellent localization. Acoustically, the AHB2 performs so cleanly and quietly that it resolves the hall and space between musicians distinctly- something professional engineers and audiophiles can equally appreciate.

The Benchmark amplifier allowed for dense music mixes to be fully appreciated. Micro-dynamic detail was never lost or distorted, even as complex passages competed. Orchestral and Popular music mixes equally excelled on the AHB2 with authority, control, and balanced sonic presentation. If you are looking for an amplifier that can reveal your source material and DAC without flinching, then the AHB2 is a top choice.

Happy Listening,

HiFiQC

Photography: Vahan Baladouni

 

Crane Song Debuts Avocet IIA with Quantum DAC at AES 139

Crane Song Avocet IIA with Quantum DAC

Crane Song Avocet IIA with Quantum DAC

While I was making my way through the exhibition floor at AES139, I ran into owner/designer, David Hill of Crane Song Electronics. I have been a user and big fan of Mr. Hill’s designs and today I was in for a treat. The Avocet monitor controller had undergone some upgrades and David Hill was excited to tell me about it. I was first treated to a comparison of the upgraded DAC, and then we shot a short video describing the various updates to the Avocet IIA Quantum DAC.

My first video for HiFIQC

Sony Portable PHA-2 Headphone Amp/DAC with DSD

Coming March 2014, Sony releases the PHA-2 – a portable rechargeable headphone DAC and Amp. Sporting features like PCM files up to 24 bit 192 Khz and even decodes DSD audio files.  Portable DSD from the company that brought it to you!

Sony PHA-2 coming March 2014

Sony PHA-2 coming March 2014

  • Hi-Res audio: PCM 192kHz/24 bit, DSD 2.8/5.6MHz
  • Direct Digital Connection for PC and Apple® devices
  • Enhances non hi-res music sources (via analog input)
  • Asynchronous, precision USB clock for superior sound
  • Premium DAC with separate operational and headphone amps
  • Durable aluminum enclosure with protective alloy bumper
  • Selectable gain supports impedances from 8 to 600 Ohm
  • Lithium-ion battery for up to 17 hours battery life
  • Line-out to connect external amp or active speaker
  • Mounting straps, protection sheet and cables included

Also released (October 24, 2013) is this new app for playing those Hi-Res files:

Onkyo HF Player App Offers Precision Equalizer, 192/24 Playback on iOS Devices

Listening to the Hegel HD20 DAC…and Beyond

Hegel HD20 DAC from Norway

Hegel HD20 DAC from Norway

Digital-to-analog converters have come a long way, and it seems like there is no end in sight. Precise timing of the samples in a digital stream of audio can make the difference between music being reproduced naturally or with some haze and artifacts. And like many DACs the Hegel HD 20 reclocks the incoming signal for the lowest possible jitter. In addition to this reclocking, Hegel also uses a special imepedance correcting input (coax 1) to ensure the best sound from a standard RCA terminated digital cable.

At first glance this unassuming black box simply has digital inputs and analog outputs on the rear with a simple blue LCD display on front. The power supply is built-in, and a supplied remote controls the input selection and digital volume. The remote may also be used to control your computer if the DAC is connected through USB (which is limited to 96kHz SR). 2 coaxial digital inputs on RCA, one optical input, and one USB input are supplied. Analog outputs come in 2 flavors; single-ended RCA and balanced XLR.

Rear of the Hegel HD20

Rear of the Hegel HD20

In Use: The Hegel’s balanced outputs connected directly into my amplifier as well as my monitor controller for two setups. 1)The direct-to-amp scenario requires using the built-in digital volume, which can leave something to be desired when played at low volume settings. 2)When connected through my class A monitor controller via XLR the sound was tight, smooth and detailed. The space of the stereo image was well-defined and localization of instruments was clear. Funny enough, we found that coax 2 provided this tighter larger stereo image compared to coax 1 (with the impedance correction).

Playing acoustic music through my Green Mountain Audio Eos HX was natural and defined with the HD20. If it has any sound signature, I would say it is relaxed and detailed. Nothing in the mixes I listened to sounded hyped or overly detailed. The beauty of this DAC was its ability to stay organic and 3 dimensional in the home environment.

Using the HD20 with a dedicated headphone amp was may favorite. The sound is spacious, natural….just plain listenable. Many of my favorite Jazz recordings came through my HD-600 headphones with a smoothness that made music listening a treat. Combined with the CI Audio headphone amp, the Hegel truly shined.

Opting for the USB input allowed me access to internet radio and computer audio files. This USB input  is limited to 96kHz SR. While this is certainly a convenient feature, it lacks the full sample rate handling for high-definition downloads..

Other than the coaxial 1 input issues, I was impressed with the large natural sound stage and the organic timbre that the Hegel HD20 was capable of delivering. Now with the introduction of the Hegel HD25, the company has harnessed current 32 bit DAC chipsets, and allowed the full 192Khz SR over the USB input. In addition, the NEW HD25 also allows you to choose between two different digital filters to suit your tastes. While I have not auditioned this new DAC offering, I can certainly say that if the HD20 is any sonic indication, an audition of the new HD25 from Hegel is a must.