Any decent DAC should be up to the task.
One thing I have found does particularly well with vocals in my system is DNM Reson ICs from DAC to pre-amp (and from pre to power amp as well if applicable). I can easily understand most all vocals in any recording with these whereas not so much always with other more conventional and less coherent sounding ICs. They are reasonably affordable and might be worth a try with current DAC or analog feed from any digital source for that matter.
BTW, I think any good system should deliver clear and clean, understandable vocals and that mid-range/vocals in general are very good for testing and tuning a system initially.
If you cannot understand what is being said more often than not, there is probably something not right.
Get legible mid-range vocals right first then work on the more extreme frequency ranges from there as needed is a pretty practical way to go about getting to good sound. Most music occurs in the mid-range and vocals make for good test material to determine if the reproduction is accurate or not.
If words are not understandable in more than just a few cases with decent to better quality recordings, chances are something significant is wrong in the playback system.
Female vocals on particular are masked by high jitter levels. I recently developed a version of my products with S/PDIF output jitter in the 10psec range. Compared to the 50psec that I had been achieving this extremely low jitter delivers much better intelligibility, particularly of background singers. It develops a much more 3-D picture of the vocalist as well.
So, what does this mean for the DAC?
If you use the USB input driven from a computer, the master clock is in the interface, sothe jitter of this is critical. These USB interfaces are all at different performance and jitter levels. If you drive the DAC with a transport, the jitter of this transport is critical. If you drive it with AppleTV or Sonos et , then the jitter of these is critical. These are notriously bad BTW, but they can be improved with a good reclocker.
I was going to reply with something along the lines of Steve.
But once jitter is taken care of the character of the DAC also comes into it. The DAC I have heard recently that makes vocals sound really good is the new Chord QuteHD. Another DAC with a really beautiful liquid and fluid midrange that really works well with vocals is the Tranquility SE DAC - but its USB only.
With the Tranquility you wont need to worry about it but as Steve said with any other DAC make sure its fed with a low jitter source.
Thanks for the thoughtful responses. To be more specific about my request, I am currently using a "pretty good" dac (the Calyx 24/192) which does a beautiful job with female vocals in general. Karrin Allyson's jazz album "Round Midnight" (a 48k/24bit download) sounds fabulous. What I'm referring to is the soprano vocalist who can produce an immediate crescendo of immense power and beauty. I have only heard this done with any grace by the Berkeley Audio Alpha, and it was lacking the warmth of the real thing. In my system, those powerful crescendos on a redbook cd are typically hard and glassy.
In most cases, I'm thinking that 44.1k/16 bit recordings just aren't capable of capturing this accurately without some "reinterpretation or interpolation" by a dac. If you want to know what I'm talking about take a listen to Kiri Te Kanawa's cds from the 80s and 90s. And the latest from Susan Graham (a mezzo) isn't a whole lot better. Are these performances just going to be lost in the wake of the turn to digital recording?
I'm not sure CD format is a barrier to good female vocals.
I can vouch that mhdt Constantine or Paradisea tube dac possibly with a minor tube upgrade like NOS TUng Sol can do them well if teh system overall is up to the task.
Try a well built DAC based on the venerable TDA1541 chip, peferably Double Crown. The ones I've heard preserves the timbre of female vocals like no other modern DACs, closest to a vinyl rig. The modern DACs may be better at soundstaging and imaging and frequency extension, but no modern DAC I've heard can beat a NOS ladder DAC when it comes to vocals and acoustic instruments sounding like the real thing.
Was the Berkeley Audio Alpha the Alpha2? If not perhaps you could give that one a listen as it has been refined a bit over the original.
HF - the problem with glassiness you are experiencing is due to two things:
1) the poor digital filter that the DAC imposes on that sample-rate
2) high jitter
I listen to 44.1 tracks all day long and don't get any of this glassiness or hardness. I do select a more optimum digital filter on my DAC. If you are at the Newport Beach show, come to the Atrium hotel and have a listen to my system.
I used to upsample everything to eliminate these nasties, but with the right digital filter (or no digital filter as in NOS DACs) and low jitter it is not necessary anymore.
Hello Steve and thanks,
That's what I've been waiting to hear. That is, how does one rid a good system of these digital nasties. I've been aware of your products for some time and appreciate your input. I can go all day long listening to redbook and be quite happy until I put on one of my favorite opera recitals. SACD goes a long way in improving the sound but I'm still searching for a remedy for 44.1 discs. Any chance you'll be at the Capital Audiofest in July?
Hfl, why not simply rotate a few of the contenders in your pricerange through your system and hear for yourself. This would certainly include Steve's overdrive DAC, but MSB offers in house trial on their new analog DAC, and I'm sure there are others. In my experience, the range of opinions is so broad you really have to hear electronics in your own system to make an informed decision.
I personally either get stuff on trial, or even better, scout audiogon for a very good deal on a used piece that can be resold without loss if you don't like it. For the latest greatest digital the latter approach does not work, but if you want to try something like the perfectwave MKII or even a BADA II this is a viable approach.
Edorr,thanks. I generally try to use your approach for a lot of components. What's interesting to me about this thread, so far, is that no one has replied with any first hand experience from listening to opera. I guess that means I'm a very small audience for this stuff, and that the empirical approach may well be the way to go. No pun intended, Steve.
Hfl, while not necessarily opera, I'm pretty sure female vocals in the high register are part of the vast majority of DAC evaluations. I personally always play some Rachell Ferrell (Jazz), who has a six octave range.
For what it is worth, the top of the line MBS stuff can handle what you are looking very well, but the pricetag may be prohibitive. I'm not sure how close their "budget" analog DAC comes to this level of performance.
Hf - the only show I'm exhibiting at this year is Newport Beach May31. No time for any more.
Hfl, I listen to opera and gave my opinion. Try NOS ladder DACs. It may be what you're after.
Thanks, I hear you. Am looking at the Metrum Hex. NOS gets good reviews regarding acoustic music. Interesting that I started this thread thinking that code manipulation was the answer, but now see that many consider NOS the superior way to go.
Hfl, the delta sigma chips in most modern DACs sound processed and unnatural to my ears. The best chip I've heard in producing natural sound of acoustic instruments and vocals is the TDA1541 Double Crown chip, which virtually impossible to find now. I saw one go for $600 on eBay and it was a fake. It is used in the Zanden DAC, the old reference Marantz CDP, etc. The Metrum, dB Audio Lab Tranquility, MDHT Havana, Ack!, Audial, Tent Labs, so on all use multibit ladder DAC chips. Some are extremely affordable and sound great.
One of my vices I keep quiet about, is opera. Most of my collection is on LP, but quite a few are on CD. I have'nt auditioned many DACs, but I am very pleased with my Ayre QB9. It is very good indeed with one of my favourires, I also use for demo purposes, becaouse of it's range and dynamics. That is Dvorak's Russalka, with Rene Fleming. She sounds just wonderful through the Ayre.
Thanks for the suggestion regarding the QB9. Has that dac been updated recently?
Renee Fleming has been served a little better than her predecessors. I have several of her recordings and even a couple that sound pretty good as digital. For some reason, Renee Fleming "The Beautiful Voice" sounds good even with my dac. And her SACD "Bel Canto" is also very nice.