Digital Front End: Critical Listening

I'm motivated to write this post after some initial comparisons I made between the DAC in my Marantz DVD player and my Levinson 360S. Using the Marantz as transport, these units fed into a Mccormack RLD1 pre, a Levinson 334 amp, and Celestion SL12si monitors. I realise this system is not your typical "high-end" system used for comparison.
The problem is that I couldn't hear much of a difference between the Marantz and the Levinson. Actually I felt a little foolish for having paid over $3000 for the Levinson when it doesn't seem to offer asignificant improvement. The Marantz is a mid-level DVD player with their "HDAM" technology which is said to replace op amps.
Can anyone offer an opinion as to why I'm not hearing not only a significant difference but drastic improvement with the Levinson. Could it be the Preamp not passing on the improved resolution offered by the 360S? Or maybe it's the speakers but I really don't think so.

Any thoughts?
A couple of thoughts:
1) The marantz transport could be the limiting factor if the 360S is not reclocking the digital input. Does the 360s reclock the digital input to remove jitter ? The marantz player probably does not have a very good clock internally. Mind you, it seems unacceptable to me that the 360, costing over $3k doesn't reclock the input !

2) People overemphasize the differences in digital. My own experiences are that moving from a $400 player to a $2000 player do not give the same leap in performance as that amount would do in terms of speakers or amplifiers.
>>People overemphasize the differences in digital<<

I completely disagree. The difference between a $1,000 [new] Universal Player like the Yamaha s2300 and a 1,700 [used] cd/sacd player like the
Sony SCD XA777ES is nothing short of astounding. The difference between the Sony and the Meitner Emm Labs DAC6 is a similar order of magnitude. Astounding. Speakers are important -- and I might even rate them as most important, but the quality of your front end matters -- a lot. After you find a nice set of speakers, do yourself a favor and get a great front end.
I'm with you Sean, differences in digital are small.
yep, learned this from personal experience as well. moving up in digital didn't really net much for me... small differences for big bucks.
I know what you guys are saying is true but recently wehn I tried a few different preamps in my system one really changed my system significantly versus the others having mreo of this or more of that. Also when I had my ystem build around the B&W Matrix 803 speakers, differences were not that great. Now the system could be the limiting factor so before you make your decision, try a differnt DAC like the ELectrocompaniet and see what it does in your system for example and see what you hear with it. If it does not change the sound you are hearing (maybe not significantly but for the better over the Marantz) then your system could be the limiting factor.

Just my opinion and guessing at best.
This really is the law of diminishing returns. The jump from an off-the-shelf Radio Shack player to Marantz is more than worth the differance in cost.

But, having made that jump, is the differance between your Marantz and 'high end' worth the extra dollars?

Probably not, working from some kind of a linear 'bang-for-dollar'equation. It is kinda like the fellow who has a very decent stereo system who goes shopping for a $5,000-$10,000 improvement and finds it.....and then comes home and re-listens to his existing system and says, "okay, what I just auditioned does sound better but not $5,000-$10,000 better".

I admit to paying 200% more for 50% increae in quality. I am, however not crazy to pay 800% more for 25% improvement in quality, although I too, have my dreams. The only solution has to do with your own sense of value. I know lots of people who believe in going to consumer reports and finding the highest rated name-brand unit and buying it and that-is-that. I come here to audiogon and I research what opinions I can from prople I respect and then I try to give it a listen and, if I agree I buy it, and I stop looking.
I have done more experimenting with digital sources than any other part of my system. I'm not a big experiementer, so this isn't saying a lot, but I've probably tried six different digital front ends a serious listen. I just have never found the differences to be big. The only front end I've heard what I thought to be a significant difference was a Muse Model 9 Signature player - it was still largely a qualitative difference, and one that I'd have been hard pressed to a/b differentiate.

For me, I either haven't heard or don't buy that a high-end transport or a high-quality digital cable is going to make enough difference to warrant the cost. There do appear to be some differences in DACs, but I attribute this mostly to voicing and preference.

Many will tell you that your system isn't resolving enough, your ears not trained enough, etc., and they may be right. For me, I have found it both liberating and cheaper to accept that there just isn't much difference.
I agree with the above posts. The different in digital is small.

I'm not starting fire,but digital VS analog is a big different.
I recently compared my older Adcom CD player (a very good model in it's time - with Class A circuitry) to my Ah! Njoe Tjoeb CD with upsampler (about $900). The Njoe Tjoeb was noticeably better.
I just added a Genesis Digital Lens to my system and WOW! My transport is just a cheapie Sony DVD player a'la Good Guys ($175.00). My DAC is the one onboard my Rotel integrated PRE/PRO. My system went from nearly unlistenable to incredibly detailed and involving. Speakers are Thiel CS2.4's. Our next move is going to be a Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 21 Tube DAC. From there we are going to trade up pre/pros and a new amp. Definately check out a Digital Lens, made a world of difference for us.
Are you using a good digital cable from transport to DAC? That would be the other all new component in your system besides the DAC, going from a one-box player. Just a thought. A new cable getting some press is the Stereovox HDVX.

Don't ask me, tho, I still use a Meridian one-box player.

Good luck!
I dunno, I've just beeen through a raft of digital upgrades in the last 8 months. I started with old Arcam Alpha / Assemblage 2.6 / D2D-1 lashup, bought a SimAudio Nova, then switched to Audio Note gear - ending up with an insanely expensive CDT-2 / 4.1x Balanced Signature combo. There is no way on God's green earth that I'd have followed that kind of bank-account-draining path if I hadn't heard a difference at each step of the way that was worth the cost - to me.

A lot depends on the rest of the system and (even more important, IMO) your values, preferences and goals for reproduction. I can understand that the perceived differences, both objective and subjective, may not be significant enough to justify the expenditure.

I have to say that the biggest jump in quality I heard was going from the Nova to the Audio Note transport with a 3.1x Balanced DAC. The change wasn't so much in the objective audiophile performance parameters, as in the amount of sheer music that seemed to be released. But keep in mind that this change involved moving to a totally different design philosophy and technical implementation, as well as a 3x jump in price.
Wow, judging from all the interest in this subject I guess there's a lot of us who are questioning the claims made by manufacturer's and reviewers alike.
First, a couple of things I neglected in the first post. I don't use any AC filtering or regeneration. I do use decent cables, synergistic research X series (approx. $200 per pair). Digital is not as good, the best monster cable and a custom AES/EBU on one end and RCA the other. I had a lond talk with an engineer on the subject of digital cable and he agreed with me that, in theory, it should really make a difference and that the hype was just that, markering hype.
I've taken apart my Celestion's and, as a speaker builder with decent knowledge of what is good and why, I think it's doubtful that the speakers are the culprit. The crossover use Solen caps and good parts all around.
I must say I was suprised to see so many of you questioning the sonic differences in digital gear. I also own a Sony SCD 777ES. Soon I'll be reorganising my system using different speaker placement in the room and different speakers, a DIY pair using the very best part I could find. I also plan to place the X-overs outside the enclosure so I can easily change parts throughout the voicing process. For speaker I'll be using E-speakers G3 ribbons and Scan Speak 5" mid, the revelators, and Scan 10" in a sealed WMTMW. This is my attempt at using what I've learned about speaker technology and computer analysis to build the best speaker I can. Maybe these will be able to reveal some more subtle differences.
Thanks for all the feedback.
Your DAC section cannot unleash the potential of the ML. Need an adequate DAC, price and quality wise to match what the ML can do.
I don't follow Bemoptil, I use a Levisnon 360S DAC. In the original post I said that I was comparing the Levinson to a newer Marantz DVD player, one of the better ones. To restate my original suggestion, maybe the newer DAC's are almost equal to older one's like my Levinson. There's about 5 years difference between the build dates. I'm gearing up to finally build a pair of DIY speakers that should be the last word in resolution, IMHO. Using the new E-Speaker G3 ribbon and 2 San Seak 15W's (5") per side in an MTM. The trouble, and what delayed this project so long is whether to add woofer and make it a 3-way, or using a separate active subwoofer per side. My room is only 12 by 20 by 8. With the 3-way design, I'd have trouble keeping the enclosure narrow due to the large volume required.
No opinion yet just my experience in the last month.

I figured it was time to let the B&W CDM9NT's sing. Speaker Cable upgrade. Huge difference especially in the bottom end. With B&K Pre and Amp. Interconnect upgrade difference ???. Then there goes the allowance Upgrade to Musical Fidelity A308 integrated. Nice sound out of my Denon DVD 2800 II which I had just purchased to replace my Denon DVD 2800. At this point I am a goner. Added Musical fidelity Tri-Vista tube DAC. After about a week of burn in with the Denon as the transport beautiful difference, more open and warm sound. Had trouble with the transport in the 2800II and returned it (Fedup with Denon). Purchased the Sony DVPNS999ES DVD SACD player. Beautiful fixed base transport. The music became brighter and not as warm as the Denon but very pleasing. At this point I blew a crossover and then a cone in the CDM9NT. My dealer loaned me a pair of DunAudio speakers so I could break in the system and still have music. Over the next week I A-B the Sony and the Tri-Vista many many times there was no audible difference to my ear. Reaching the frustation point a 2400.00 DAC aginst a 900.00 DVD and no audible difference. I took the Sony to my favorite audio store for a different ear and a listen. We used 308 Integrated to keep things the same. The only differnece was the Speaker Cable and the Speakers. Still no audible difference to my ear. There was to the salesman whom by the way I trust. A-B'd the Sony and the Tri-Vista for about an hour. Then we switched to the Musical Fidelity A308 CD Player using it as a transport nice difference over the Sony in all respects. A-B the 308CD and the Tri-vista DAC shall we say to my ear the DAC was warmer and more refined is it worth going separates over a CD player, I don't know yet I am looking for a good transport as I spent my allowance it will have to be used and mid-grade.
It will probably take another month to get the system together I will post again at that time. Remember to take the system as a whole.
Hmm, my $1500 DVD/SACD player SONY DVP-S9000ES vs old $300-400 Arcam ALPHA6 player just lost. I have already placed full review on Audiogon and Audioreview. I was so dissapointed with SONY.
(SONY was playing SACD layer of hybrid SACD disk, Arcam CD layer). I was using MF A300 amp and Thiel 3.6 speakers.

You make some good points, looks like transport synergy might be the issue. My local stereo guy always refers to a CEC transport he once owned as his reference. I read somewhere that Parasound sold a similar design under their banner that was made by CEC. Both are belt driven. With my Sony I was trying to have digital separates and a good SACD player in one. Now I'm starting to think about mod's to the Sony, Richard Kern's in particular. Thanks for the good feedback.
Two things:
1) your Transport is the weakest link - get it modded

2) THe ML360S is very good, but also can be better once modded
What do you mean, or what are you looking for, when you say 'difference?' Maybe the music wasn't demanding enough, (no quality judgement here), to reveal differences. I've recently gone from a Rega Planet 2000 to the Musical Fidelity a308cr, and there was a huge difference in transparency *but* this was only noticeable when listening to large-scale classical music. The Rega and the MF players sounded just about the same with small-group ensembles, whether chamber group or jazz, but the MF would expand, (bloom), when orchestra and chorus get going full-tilt . I too tried the Tri-Vista DAC, both with my $2 DVD player and A308cr as transports. The sound was (surprise) gritty with the DVD player. When comparing the A308 alone and the A308 as a transport with the Tri-Vista DAC, the sound was only *slightly* more fleshed out with the later combo. Though not enough for me to go on a transport and cable hunt.


Musical Fidelity A308 Integrated
MF A308 CD player
Cardas Neutral Reference interconnects and bi-wired cable
Vandersteen 3A Signatures
(Two Vandersteen subs on way!)
First, jdaniel, you bring up a very good point that I had considered but sort of dismissed, thinking that any general improvement should be at least audible with any well recorded music, regardless of genre. But I guess complexity of the signal is your point, and the subtlies of largescale acoustic ensembles. I have only a handful of classical disks. I don't have a classical music education so I think a lot of that stuff is just lost on me. I am beginning to get into Jazz so maybe there's hope.
About the transport issue, the Levinson 360's has what they call intelligent FIFO. This technology, says the user manual, makes the quality of transport and digital cable less crucial. It's a kind of buffer or resevoir that reclocks the data in such a way as to render jitter practically non existent. The manual goes into more detail and basically says their FIFO is different from some other recent attempts in several important ways. Considering that Levinson sell transports, why would it be in their interest for marketing to lie or misrepresent this feature if it weren't true? Now I know much heated controvesy exists surrounding the claims made about digital technology, some saying digital is digital and expensive cables are theoretically a waste of money and all claims to the contrary are the result of self-fulfilling auditory anticipation, etc. I haven't made up my mind simply because I don't think I have enough experience, listening wise, to weigh in on either side. But judging solely from arguements I've read, I have to at least partially side with the aforementioned critics.
I find the differences in digital front-ends to be significant but subtle. I can't tell much of a difference with A/B comparisons between most "hi-fi" digital components. But in extended listening the differences are huge. Digital is fatiguing in general. But I listen to digital exclusively. And for that reason I spent more money on my source than any other component in my system, including the speakers!

I tend to listen to music for extended periods, upwards of 3 hours at a time. With a low quality digital front end I never listen for that long. When I turn off the music after an hour, I get a momentary feeling of relief. It's like stepping out of a loud party into the bathroom. You think to yourself "ahhh... silence for a moment."

The better the digital front end, the less significant I find the effect of "digital fatigue." My advice would be to try keeping each setup in your system continuously for a week or two. Monitor how much time you actually spend listening to music with each one.

A personal note, there is a possibility that I am unusually sensitive to this. But I've been listening exclusively to digital for over a decade, and I was never into vinyl before that.
Hmm. Sjh32 it would seem a USB fed buffer (or IEEE1394 or similar async bus) would be the next logical step for the Levinson DAC, IMNSHO. A USB interface could, in theory, offer better performance for the same or less money. But it's all speculation until USB transports and DACs appear on the market.
what interconnects, digital interconnects and speaker cables are you using ?

I have to admit, Aroc, that your suggestion is over my head. A USB fed buffer sounds like it uses a USB cable, but why that might be superior (bandwidth?), I can't figure out on my own. As with most of my hobby knowledge, I pick things up slowly over time, and that's what interests me in your post; I should probably have at least a conversational grasp of these subjects if I'm dropping over $4000 on digital gear (I love it when some bored looking saleperson tries to wow me with some marketing technobable and you just know they're full of shit,).
Is there a newletter or other publication for laymen that follows advances in digital audio, like Speakerbuilder was to DIY speaker building?
For analogue, my whole system is wired and connected with Audio Synthesis. Some of the RCA's(no balanced) are better than others but they're all at least "very good" according to the research I did when I bought the stuff. I also got a very good deal on most of it. I understand that varying cables can be used to fine tune a system but I don't think I'm there yet. First I need to get off my ass and build my DIY speaker which I finally got all the parts for but now need to design the crossover.
Ok I have my transport. The Thete Digital Data Basic II. What a difference over the previous combinations. I even A-B'd it aginst the MF A308CDR as a transport, no comparison. The Theta is warmer by far not nearly as bright, tonally the system is awsome even my step daughter things so. Well I also upgraded my speakers to the B&W Nautilus 803. It's only money. After almost a month of break in on the whole system it is comming in to its own. The Theta and the Tri-Vista are an execelent combo. Unfortunitaly I have little time to do critical listening as my grandson has taken over the Stereo and TV.

The system as it is today.
MF A308 Integrated
MF Tri-Vista DAC
Theta Digital Data Basic II Transport
Project RM-4 Turntable
Sumiko Blue Point Cartridge
Synergistic Research Kaladiscope Phase I Interconnects
Synergistic Research Signature 10 Speaker cables
Synergistic Research Digital Interconnect!
B&W Nautilus 803 Speakers
Monster Power HT5100 Power Conditioner

Remember to take the system as a whole.
Digital front ends although very similar in design, are as different sounding as analog. A Mark Levinson dac compared to Musical Fidelity, Chord, Krell, MBL, DCS all sound different from one another. The same sound differences are found in transports, interconnects, amps, pre-amps It is IMO very important to try as many component combinations as humanly possible, because some components just don't sound well together. I've heard systems that were well in excess of $ 100,000.00 that I personally could not listen to for any length of time. Everytime I am ready to upgrade something in my system, for several days I would only listen to several of my favorite CDs. Once the change was completed, I would relisten to the same CDs, which will allow you to easily pick out the perceived differences and if the differences are to your liking. I personally really like Mark Levinson dacs, I like MBL dacs better, although both are laid back, throw deep soundstages, very musical, revealing, but sound different from one another. To build a system that translates your listening preferences can only be built over time and through trial and error. Just my opinion.
My System:
Krell Amp and Pre
CEC Transport
Mark Levinson Dac
DCS Purcell Upsampler
Piega & Rel speakers
Hydra 8 AC cond.
Marigo Apparition- AC
Shunyata Power Cords
IC- Jena Labs & Purist Audio
Digital Cables- Goldmund Lineal 75 Ohm
Speaker Cable- MIT-MH-750 Magnum
Sjh32, the advantage of a USB connection is that it's bi-directional, meaning that it can feed back signals from the sink (DAC) to the source (computer) to implement perfect error recovery. In practice this means a very low-cost technique for doing error-free, zero-jitter data transmission. There is at least one DAC on the market, from Wavelength Audio, that uses a USB link from a computer - it has no SPDIF interface at all. You can use a laptop as the data storage and the transport, which has the added advantage the advantage of a nice screen/mouse interface for selecting your playlist. For a bit more info take a look at Wavelength's Cosecant page
Don't forget the cable. I just put in a new SR Phase II. To be blunt it sucks It died. I am hoping burn-in.