Feature Articles & Reviews
This is a continuation of last month’s column, in which I recommended Dirac, a program that’s a superb way to get better sound from a computer-based audio system. I concluded that article by swearing, hand on heart, that until something better comes along, I will use Dirac. That settled, all we now need is some way to convert digital signals to analog, and some powered speakers.
I use Digidesign’s RM2 active speakers, a transmission-line design; each RM2 has two amps, a fine DAC, and drivers designed and built by PMC. Digidesign has been swallowed by another company and no longer makes the RM2, but if you want something similar, check out PMC’s AML-2. But this month, I focus on DACs.
Jeff Fritz, editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! Network, writes the monthly “Opinion” at UltraAudio.com. One of the things I like about Jeff’s column is that he regularly sticks his neck out by listing what he would actually buy. Last month, without having planned to, both of us focused on the digital devices we use with our computers. In his column, “What I’d Buy: Digital Source Components,” Jeff offers a cogent list of exceptional products and makes a strong case for each.
Here, I recommend something completely different: Go pro.
A few illustrative examples of why I trust artists' ears
Musicians, recording engineers, and mastering engineers use better equipment than most of us do. After all, their livelihoods depend on the quality of their sound. Electric-guitar players like Mr. Grunge himself, Neil Young, use tubed guitar amps just so they can overdrive them, then add all sorts of compressors and overdrive units to further muddy the signal. Yet even through that, the best guitarists can still hear the tiniest differences among specific cables. Young has probably blown more speakers and exploded more tubes than anyone else alive, yet his hearing is acute enough that he hates all things digital. He once spoke with some enthusiasm about Blu-ray, but even that wasn’t good enough. So he developed a new system, called Pono.
Jazz saxophonist Elias Haslanger’s new album, Church on Monday, was spectacularly recorded by David Boyle in an old wooden church with ideal acoustics. Haslanger had the tapes further polished by mastering engineer Kevin Gray, of Cohearent Audio. Gray remasters many of the most valuable old recordings reissued by Acoustic Sounds, Columbia/Legacy, and Audio Fidelity. The reason he went to the expense of Gray's mastering is Haslanger has good ears and can hear the difference.
I attended a post-concert dinner with violinist extraordinaire Anne Akiko Meyers, who had just bought a Stradivarius violin for $3.6 million. That night, she performed Prokofiev’s ravishing Concerto No.1. By the end of the first movement, I was in love with her tone. Had the violin inspired her? Or did it actually sound better than any violin I had ever heard? When I asked her, she modestly said that the Stradivarius deserved the credit. What did she do? She bought another Stradivarius. Subtlety of sound is that important.
Conductor Andrew Litton has a stereo system better than most audiophiles. It includes Conrad-Johnson tube preamps and amps, and B&W 800 Diamond speakers. His office speakers are the massive B&W 801s. He has always demanded the best possible sound in his recordings -- 115 releases so far. It doesn’t matter whether he’s recording for Bis, Decca/London, Delos, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Hyperion, Sony, or Virgin -- the sound of a Litton recording is always of demonstration quality.
Beginning musicians may use a good-quality audio interface, which is a combination of ADC, DAC, microphone and line inputs with switching and a volume control. They usually emphasize quiet microphone preamps and musical DACs. I’m sure there are curmudgeons out there who still believe the audiophile version of an old wives’ tale: musicians don’t really understand true high fidelity. Claptrap, twaddle, and hokum. Of course, as in every art, there are some performers who don’t care about their medium, but that is the minority. Most musicians lead a peripatetic life and struggle financially. But the best oftentimes spend money to get that amazing sound they hear in their imagination.
Musicians operating at the highest level spend their lives listening for the tiniest details in their own instruments and voices. Good recording engineers have a similar obsession with reproducing the sound they’re hearing. And the most clinically obsessive sound people on earth are mastering engineers. For the most part, all of these people use the best professional equipment they can afford. Beginning musicians may use a good-quality audio interface with quiet microphone preamps and reliable DACs. Recording engineers usually have mixers with separate mike preamps and DACs. The most expensive mastering engineers -- the very best earn upward of $500/hour -- usually have several cost-no-object listening rooms, each equipped with dozens of sound-shaping tools.
When it comes to computer-sourced music, I follow the paths of these sound artists. For this article, I tested five audio interfaces, and found that all five offered more than your average home DAC of similar price -- things like a volume control, and multiple analog and digital inputs. And while all of these audio interfaces had features that you might never use, you might find some of their abilities entertaining and educational.
If you play an instrument or sing -- how well or poorly doesn’t matter -- try recording yourself. It will teach you so much about the art of recording that every recording you own will then come alive in ways you never dreamed of. Do you have a friend who’s an actor or poet? Record him or her performing some of their work.
Another thing you can do with an audio interface is to try your hand at mastering with a freebie audio program like Audacity. Or try my favorite, Soundforge; a cut-down version, Audio Studio 10, costs $45. Trying a little mastering is one of the most instructive things a music lover can do. The best place to start is with something cleanly recorded in the days before engineers had too many toys to play with. Maybe an early Sun Records album by Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, or Jerry Lee Lewis? Buddy Holly’s From the Original Master Tapes is ideal, as is Elvis Presley’s Elvis (1956). My favorite is Dion’s Runaround Sue. Wow, does “The Wanderer” sound cool with some extra bass.
There’s a drawback . . .
The biggest hurdle with the audio interfaces I discuss below is that, unlike most consumer electronics, they’re not plug-and-play devices -- they take a little while to learn how to operate. But with good support, you should be up and running in an afternoon. Another thing to keep in mind is that professional engineers and musicians are more interested in how something sounds; you won’t see as much wordplay or the ubiquitous pseudo-science. Instead, most descriptions are about functionality.
Professionals usually look for three things in an audio interface: 1) The noise level on the preamps must be inaudible at any gain level. 2) It must have vanishing levels of distortion. 3) The device drivers must be rock solid. Then the real work begins: listening to the best-sounding DACs they can afford. These must sound right, neither too clinical nor too lush. The first three are absolutely essential; the last is a matter of art.
The quietness of a preamp and the level of distortion are easily measured and verified. Drivers, on the other hand, are an endless source of trepidation. Applied Acoustics Systems, one of the world’s top designers of synthesizers, makes Tassman, Ultra Analog, and Lounge Lizard. I spoke with one of their designers, who told me that, given the exceptional quality of today’s preamps, ADCs, and DACs, the most important issue ends up being the quality of the drivers. You’ll understand just how important the second there’s a major upgrade of the Windows or Mac OS. Many small manufacturers have trouble keeping up with the constant changes in operating systems. And while Apple provides easier driver integration than Microsoft, don’t kid yourself: With every upgrade from either company, expect problems.
After writing last month’s article, I’d hoped that the Dirac would prove so powerful that it would be able to make an inexpensive audio interface sound comparable to an expensive one. Instead, the Dirac simply made everything sound better. My rankings, pre- and post-Dirac, didn’t change.
The equipment and why drivers are so important
The five interfaces I tested are all well loved in their price ranges. In order of cost, they are:
Focusrite 8i6 ($300 list, $250 street)
Steinberg UR28M ($500 list, $400 street)
Focusrite Forte ($749 list, $600 street; recently reduced to $500)
RME Fireface 800 ($2000 list, $1800 street)
Universal Audio Apollo Duo ($2500 list, $2000 street)
I use Windows 8 (64-bit). My longtime reference audio interface was RME’s Fireface 800, but it stopped working as soon as I installed Windows 8. As an RME support person explained to me, “Music is such a small part of Microsoft’s business. They don’t care, and they especially don’t care about FireWire.”
OK, but RME is known for having great drivers. What about Windows 8 drivers from RME?
“I have no idea. Not soon.”
So, despite several years of loyalty to RME, I sold my Fireface 800. If you have a Mac or are sticking with Windows 7, I’d rank it third best of the five converters. If you’ve moved to Windows 8, I can’t recommend it at all. The newer RME interfaces are supposed to be better, but given the disdain from RME’s support department, Windows users should look elsewhere.
I was most disappointed with the drivers in Universal Audio’s Apollo Duo. Not only did it sound incredible, it came with hundreds of dollars’ worth of state-of-the-art mastering software. Since Universal makes some of the best software in the business, that was a compelling plus that would really get you experimenting in style. Sadly, Windows 8 rendered Apollo Duo unpredictable. I couldn’t get any sound at all from MediaMonkey, iTunes, Firefox, Sonar, or Windows Media. I could, however, get full service with Soundforge.
Soundforge is a recording and mastering program; it’s not made for listening to music. While it was a pain in the ass to use for listening, I could at least get an idea of the Apollo Duo’s sound. Had Universal’s drivers worked with Windows 8, the Apollo Duo would have been my top choice. But their support folks (the best of any I dealt with) couldn’t give me a date at which Apollo would start working with Windows 8. Using Soundforge, the Apollo’s sound was convincing, dynamic, and opulent. It was easily the best audio interface I’ve heard.
Here are a few musical examples. My pick so far for album of the year is Jim James’s Regions of Light and Sound of God (CD, ATO 218352). His song “Know ’Til Now” uses reverb to give the soundstage depth, but it’s still convincing. Through the Apollo, it sounded so lush, I felt I could stick my hand into the mix. Violinist Giuliano Carmignola’s razor-sharp recording of Mozart’s violin concertos 1-5 (2 CDs, Archiv 477 7371) also features one of our greatest living conductors, Claudio Abbado, leading the Orchestra Mozart. With this set’s natural soundstage, the Apollo sounded superb. As I packed it up to ship it back to UA, I cursed the need for drivers, and for how long it takes to get fully functioning versions out to the public.
The three least-expensive interfaces came with perfect drivers: Focusrite’s 8i6 and Forte, and Steinberg’s UR28M. Given the amazing impact of the Dirac system, along with the fact that my speakers have great built-in DACs, I hoped that the 8i6 would be a giant killer. So I ran an S/PDIF coaxial output from the 8i6 straight to my RM2 speakers. Sadly and surprisingly, the sound immediately became harsh. I have no explanation for it. A digital signal should be a digital signal. What I did notice was that the 8i6’s built-in mixing program seemed to affect the sound. I called Focusrite’s support line to see what might be causing it. Here’s the nice thing: The quality of Focusrite’s support was right up there with Universal Audio's, for an item that costs only a tenth as much. After spending more than an hour on the phone, I had to live with the fact that, even with the Dirac’s overhaul, the 8i6 just wasn’t up to the other DACs. However, those other models cost two, three, eight, and ten times as much. Given the 8i6’s drivers and Focusrite’s exceptional customer support, I still recommend giving it a try if its price is right for you.
Steinberg’s UR28M sounded good, and its drivers were perfect. Compared to the Apollo, the UR28M’s DACs produced a shallower soundstage and slightly compressed dynamics. This especially showed up when I tried using the 24-bit/88.2kHz files of Linn Records’ spacious recording of John Butt leading the Dunedin Consort and Players in Handel’s Acis & Galatea (Linn CKD 319). On the other hand, the Steinberg has some benefits for people who like to record, such as the ability to add compression, equalization, and reverb to the signal sent to the headphone amp, so that musicians don’t have to listen to their signals dry. But it had lots of features that computer-music listeners just won’t need. Sound-wise, I rank it just below the RME and a long way from the Apollo.
Yamaha, which owns Steinberg, is notorious for offering poor support, but Steinberg’s was amazingly bad. If you live in the US, forget about phone support. You can send them a series of e-mails; if they’re satisfied that you really need help (it takes lots of convincing), they’ll set a date and time when they’ll call you. I was finally granted a phone chat, set three days in advance at 11 a.m. By 3 p.m., they still hadn’t called. I sent a note saying that I would no longer wait. A chagrined support guy finally rang, apologized profusely, and said he’d forgotten our appointment. Then he provided excellent help. What infuriated me was that if I lived in Canada, Ireland, the UK, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, or Switzerland, I could get toll-free phone support. I tried calling their Canada office, but got a recording warning me that if I live in the US, I’m not allowed to use their support line. A pox on whoever created this policy. I sent the Steinberg back.
For my needs, the best of the bunch turned out to be the Focusrite Forte. Despite the Forte’s modest price, Focusrite has created an all-out assault on the state of art of semi-pro. While other companies jam as many features as possible into their audio interfaces, Focusrite has taken the opposite tack and aimed at quality. The Forte has two analog outputs for the speakers, a superb headphone amp, and two inputs that can be used with line-level items sources or microphones. And if you don’t need the inputs, the Forte can operate purely off the power from the USB connection. Anyone using a phantom powered microphone can easily find pristine, ultraquiet preamps that put to shame anything under five times the Forte’s price, but their use requires a wall-wart power supply. I understand that most of you just want to hear the music and may have no interest in mike preamps. As for the Forte’s ADCs and DACs, they rivaled the Apollo’s, and sounded much warmer and livelier than the others’.
A FLAC of the Avison Ensemble’s recording of Corelli’s Violin Sonatas, Op.5 (Linn CKD 412), ripped using dBpoweramp’s CD ripper, demonstrated the Forte’s perfect reproduction of the resiny rasp of the baroque strings. The soundstage was convincing and room-like. For any who haven’t discovered the French label Naïve, do so ASAP. Their set of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with Tugan Sokhiev conducting the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra (CD/DVD, V5192), was thrilling as could be, with perfect integration of sight and sound. The Blu-ray of Andrew Litton’s recording of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (Opera Australia 56027) offered clear sound and beautiful production. Get your hankies out when chapter 62 (“Marie Theres’! . . . Hab’ mir’s gelobt”) rolls around; Litton draws the most sumptuous singing and playing from his soloists and the Opera Australia Orchestra.
Besides sounding delightful, the Forte is machined from a solid piece of aluminum that looks lovely and modern. Its oversize volume control is smooth, and so finely calibrated that you can get infinitesimal changes in volume. The Forte’s drivers worked right out of the box, and with both Macs and PCs. The attractive, color, organic-LED (OLED) display does an accurate job of relaying levels, but my favorite thing about it is that when the Forte is booted up, it displays this message: “Sound Is Everything.” How’s that for a mission statement?
I went with the Forte. It sounded almost as good as the Apollo, ditto Focusrite’s support, and their drivers are better. I would have been happy to spend $2500 for the Apollo, but I was even happier to spend $500 for the Forte.
Jeff Fritz’s recommendations are germane here. I’ve worked with Jeff for almost 15 years, and I know that he agonizes over presenting the most accurate information possible. When he states that something is the best in its price class, it means that he’s tried dozens, if not hundreds, of devices before deciding which to recommend. So when he endorses the Resonessence Labs Concero ($599), the Benchmark DAC2 HGC ($1995), the Arcam FMJ D33 ($3299), the Calyx Femto ($6850), or the EMM Labs DAC2X ($15,500), I’m certain that these are fantastic components. Benchmark and EMM also make professional models. But check those prices -- the most expensive of the five I discuss here costs $2500.
There are a few products that I haven't covered that often show up in the best mastering studios. Two examples worth looking into are the Lavry 4496 ($2500) and the gorgeous Prism Lyra 2 ($3225). Probably the most interesting model I couldn’t lay hands on is Metric Halo’s ULN-8 ($6000), which has been used to master recordings by an amazing roster of artists, including Patricia Barber, Beck, Béla Fleck, Herbie Hancock, Chris Isaak, Los Lobos, the Dave Matthews Band, Van Morrison, Radiohead, Bonnie Raitt, Rascal Flatts, Brian Wilson, and . . . Neil Young.
But the Metric will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, at least toy with the idea of going pro. Using a pro or semi-pro audio interface will undoubtedly give you more tools than you need, but you might really love playing around with one. You’ll appreciate your music even more, and the high-quality DACs might save you some money. It works for me.
. . . Wes Marshall