Review: Audio Mirror Tubadour MK II DA converter
Review: Audio Mirror Tubadour Mk II Universal Non-Oversampling Tubed DAC
Audio Mirror's engineering team has topped itself once again with the new Tubadour Mk II.
Rather than blather on with a full review of something not out long enough to be broken in, I just want to give a heads up on a product sure to go up in price once word gets out and the introductory period is over.
There's a reason their retired products such as the redbook D2, which has been praised at length (and rightly so) become legendary and routinely sell, when you can find them at all, at or near and sometimes above original retail. The reason is the chief engineer and owner is an audiophile/music enthusiast who is devoted to making the best sounding high-end products affordable in the real world... and yes, I believe this is another piece destined for legend.
Compared to any "real world" priced DAC which has come before, the Tubadour Mk II is a revelation. Make no mistake, this is not another of the plethora of jittery USB DACS upsampling everything with pseduo-bits, then sticking tubes on the end of a solid state output for aesthetics or softening the inherent hash in such a scheme. Nor is it marred by the standard USB input scheme. While it is an all format auto-selecting DAC with frequency readout and both S/PDIF (coax and toslink) inputs switchable from the front panel, because the MK II is a fully functional NOS asynchronous ultra high precision master clocked DAC, the 24/192 USB 2.0 option renders music in uncompromised resolution free from the jitter problems associated with multiple clocks. In fact, the Tubadour ignores the flawed computer clock signals altogether employing the large and expensive IV (current to voltage conversion) analog devices decoder chips (yes, the same chips used by Audio Note) straight to the tubes. Unlike lesser units, no intervening solid state devices are needed or used. The clean, straight forward signal path allows one to hear all that was captured on the original master with absolutely startling clarity.
Let me back up a bit. I was listening to my supposedly excellent Marantz player when I found (along with a great many others) that it sounded way better with the Audio Mirror's previous effort, the redbook only D2 attached. I was very happy to find the D2, and although I had intended to step up to an outboard "hi-rez" DAC in the future, multiple players, multiple DACs, multiple channels (fine for movies...but really now) and multiple format wars had left me still waiting in a world where my digital collection was and is 90 to 95% redbook. The question was, do I drop another five grand on some behemoth that plays Blu-discs too, only to find out it doesn't sound very good on CDs? Blu-discs aren't the way to go because of the small but growing world of hi-rez downloads. Surely I am not the only one.
I was excited last year at the appearance of the original Tubadour, yet finances prevented immediate action on my part. However, I subsequently was able to audition one in a system not dissimilar from my own. I was blown away! A CD was playing and yet it was the best sound I had ever heard! I promptly placed an order only to learn they were somewhat overwhelmed with orders and there would be a slight delay. No problem. I would just nervously sit on my hands!
I should mention, that at this point I'm no equipment junkie. Yes, there have been brief affairs with, among others, Birdland, the dAck piece and even a Sonic Frontiers tubed unit.
(Anyone old enough to remember those?) On the whole, I don't really like changing DACS until something comes along that is far better. Going back and forth trying to decide which unit makes one's teeth gnash the least isn't my idea of fun. Plus it makes one feel as if the latest, greatest digital player is now out of date. Well truth be told, it is.
Remembering how good a plain old CD had sounded going through the Tubadour, yet not having one, was resulting in no small degree of restlessness. Suddenly, I was informed I would receive my unit and did I want the MK II upgrade consisting of a slew of upgraded precision parts, wiring and circuit changes which kept the signal in the most linear portion of the output stage tubes resulting in a huge improvement on the original Tubadour's sound. Additionally, I was informed all first generation Tubadours could be upgraded to full MK II status as well. (Detailed product info at www.audiomirrior.com.) I thought, how much better could it be than the unit I had heard? I could hardly wait!
Enter the Audio Mirror Tubadour MK II
Upon arrival, I was stunned to see that while it was built on the same heavy, all steel chassis and included the same thick aluminum face, there was now a pair of tubes peeking out from the top plate protected by polished tube guards. Powering it up revealed just enough ethereal tube glow reflecting off the tube guards to give it an other worldly appearance. What a cool looking piece of gear! Under the top plate, which was removed briefly to install a pair of Herbie's Audio Lab tube dampers (which do their job without cluttering the looks of this piece) I couldn't help but notice the quality build and parts, large transformers, separate power supplies for each section, custom boards, 2% Jantzen Audio Superior Z Caps and shunt regulated 6N1-P push-pull triode outputs. The works. It definitely looks as if it is built to last and is laid out like it means business.
But on to the sound...
Upon hooking it up to the main system (stats) I first noticed a very deep tight bass - clearer, cleaner, more open, more transparent and highly detailed mid-range with great top end detail and extension - wider and much, much deeper soundstage layering, I got goose bumps. Sure the MK II does anything up to 24/192, but I had goose bumps from a CD! Eventhough I was warned burn in was not a quick process, this was already killer and I hadn't even sat down yet. I started pulling out discs I hadn't listened to in years.
On Marcus Miller's Cousin John, the synth bass was deeper, more textured and tuneful than it had a right to be. The pluck of the electric bass strings was so real, it was like a different song. The rich timbre of the upright bass on Patricia Barber's Ode to Billy Joe was conveyed in such a solid satisfying manner with her vocal coming across as if from a larger space and at the same time more intimacy and yet not the slightest hint of sibilance.
I couldn't believe it sounded so good right out of the box. Jing Chi's Train Song provided a gripping subterranean bass intermingled with delicate nuanced guitar and dynamic drum slam that really showed what the MK II is capable of.
I thought it might be only a synergy with my main system (stats), thus I tried the Mk II with
my second system (ribbons) but the same improvement was instant and then my office system (moving coils) benefited in a way I thought was impossible. So what from Kind of Blue not only sounded like it was recorded live in a real space but I could follow the bell of Miles' horn in relation to the mic with each note. I had forgotten how open and downright
dynamic this recording is - or perhaps I never knew until now. And what great cymbal
sound, a recurring theme since the Tubadour arrived. I was like a child with a new toy. I excitedly arranged auditions at several "audio friends" homes, some with similar systems, some not. Same results. The Mk II was compared to the Benchmark DAC1 with all the "extras" and clearly bested it. Then I compared it to the vaunted Ayre C-5xe, the Tubadour driven by a $200.00 transport sounded more organic, more cohesive while the Ayre had a bit more detail although at the expense of coming across as analytical with an
unfortunate bit of etch. I won't say the Tubadour completely blew it away, just that it was better, but then again within weeks the Ayre was sold. Yes my Tubadour was hanging and hanging well in the same league as top flight gear more than four times the price!
Still not broken in I heard surprisingly fleshed out and palpable piano on Bugge Wesseltoft's Skog and on Piano from the same disc amazingly delicate dynamic shadings
of all kinds - I couls almost see the vibration of the piano stringd at the end of this tune as
it leads into the next track. I didn't think I liked this recording, it's been sitting untouched for a couple of years and now I'm captivated. Burning Money and Scorpio Rising from
Encounters of the Fouth World not only were more transparent than I remembered but the sense of space was uncanny, a sort of organic intergration. On Interference from Rita Marcotulli the subtle layering of sounds drew me in, then the spooky real vocal locked me in my seat.
Stats, ribbons, cones, domes, tubes or solid state, no matter, the image focus and soundstaging are so real it can be scary! Female vocals and piano attack and decay, I
did not think possible from digital. And the shimmering cymbals with no hash again and
again even on the Beetles remasters where the drum kit went through a compressor and several generations of tape before it got to what was called the master, yet Ringo's cymbals sound super and the vocals come through so well. Indeed, on Do You Want to Know a Secret from their very first album, Harrison's vocal reaches through the decades
and pulls you into the studio with him.
For those of you familiar with Audio Mirror, . more need not be said. For those not familiar
don't let the small price mislead you. This is big league stuff and this latest offering is the best yet. The Mk II is clearly my new digital reference standard.
Don't get me wrong, while not in the same league, the D2 is still an important piece if you're sticking with redbook for now and on a tight budget (good luck finding one) but no mine isn't for sale , as it will now serve as a quality DAC for my office system. Soley because the Mk II is so very much better at making redbook sound better than analog and hi-rez did before in my system or any other I've heard, have I taken the time to write this.
You would be correct if you infer at this point that I'm extremely happy with my new Audio Mirror Tubadour Mk II. It has not only exceeded my expectations, but has in fact made my
large collection of disc (encoded in what I believed until now was a hopelessly flawed format) sound stunningly lifelike - truly holographic - only better, more comparable to being
transported to another place and time with song after song. I did not ever expect digital to approach this kind of realism.
The Mk II produces the most believable musical presentation I have heard, period. I've waited all my life for sound this good, I never dreamed it would come from my existing CD collection. Yes this piece is ready for the hi-rez downloads that are our future, but more importantly this piece will completely transform your present. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Innersound Eros Mk 3s, Clements Reference RT-7s, Tekton Design 4.5s, Sanders SB TL-10 Prototype Subs (pair), NHT Sub-Two (pair), AudioKinesis Swarm V.1 Subs (4), Rogue Audio Zeus, David Berning EA-2100 (pair) Innersound ESL 300 Mk II, Primaluna Prolog 7 Monoblocks, Aesthetix Calypso Signature, Aesthetix Janus, Audio Mirror T-61,Oracle/Delphi 250 S/Keotsu Onyx, Various digital from Ayre, Apple Computer, Benchmark, Cary, Dennon, Marantz, Pioneer, Various cables from Analysis Plus, Audioquest, DH Labs, Signal, Speltz Vampire.