Review: Audio Note DAC 4.1 balanced DA converter
One of the hazards of being bumptious enough to post product reviews on audio forums is that they hang around like former wives, able to bite you in the behind several years later.
In 2004 I was foolish enough to give a hostage to fortune by writing about my move to an entirely Audio Note system, asserting that so musically satisfying was it, that I had stepped off the upgrade treadmill and would be spending any future spare cash on building my music collection.
Indeed, the all-Audio Note system was satisfying to a remarkable degree. But satisfaction is an addictive recreational drug. I was very aware that Audio Note offered several higher levels of system above the one that I was enjoying, and that among audio manufacturers it remains almost unique in spending big bucks on genuine research, rather than on spinning the upgrade wheel with the help of industrial design and marketing consultants. Not only were there better sounding Audio Note systems – none of which I could possibly afford - but the audio quality of every level, including the humble level three system I owned, was steadily being improved. As surely every reader will recognise, this is a recipe for eventual unease and discontent. And so it was that I began to think about changing my CDTII CD transport and 3.1 balanced DAC for later versions. Such had been the gains realised in on-going development that Audio Note was now offering new models of both products.
People unfamiliar with Audio Note and its philosophy will need to know that the emergence of new versions of two of the company's products is an event worthy of remark, rather than the bored yawns and cynical 'oh-yeahs?' that deservedly accompany 'new models' from most other audio vendors. This is because Audio Note continues to offer the same product until on-going development work shows a way of making it sound significantly better. That's a strategy that few if any other audio vendors pursue: like motorbike manufacturers, most sustain bottom-line health by perpetuating continual new model fever. Except of course it's not four-cycle or two-cycle - it's 12-month cycle. And without the churn generated by new model fever, many of them (motorcycle makers and audio companies) would be bankrupt.
In contrast, Audio Note sustains a healthy growth curve by marketing to new customers and by up-selling to existing customers. There's a further and highly revealing distinction: Audio Note customers are in the main music lovers, rather than audio hobbyists motivated by a magpie-like compulsion to collect glitzy audio jewellery.
And so we come to my system upgrade. I had really liked the original CDTII and DAC 3.1. I thought them both to be fine products – the transport I dubbed an outrageous bargain and the DAC, particularly following its mid-life filterectomy, I said was exceptional at its price point.
The CDTII was first to go. I returned it to Audio Note for a service and was persuaded by Peter Qvortrup to try the new version, the CDTII MKII, while my own was in the queue for attention. Naturally I should have seen this coming: Peter is nothing but a canny salesman. The guts of the original CDT II with its Philips professional CD drive and forest of Black Gate capacitors and other high quality components had been tweaked by a hairy-arsed group of audio electronics engineers in Lithuania out to show Audio Note that behind the former Iron Curtain is a low-cost development resource buzzing with ideas and keen to join the AN family. I think they made their point. Straight out of the box the new transport had a sonic weight and authority that hustled familiar music along with a new authority. As it burned in – roughly about the 200 hours mark – it began to reveal a level of transparency that also comprehensively bested the MKI. Within days, of course, I had decided it was a keeper.
The subsequent and highly complementary move from 3.1 to 4.1 DAC occurred through a combination of rather fortuitous circumstances. I'd lusted after a 4.1 for some years. Whereas the 5.1 is just plain out of reach, the 4.1 is, at least when second-hand, relatively affordable. It says much for the original design of the 4.1 DAC that while the 3.1 has been recently completely re-designed to achieve better sonics, the 4.1, launched in 2000, remains pretty much the same as it always was, the only recent change being a modification of the analogue output stage to a pairing of different drivers. Where the original featured twin 5687s, the new version uses a single 5687 and an ECC82. Qvortrup and his audio design engineer, the affable and talented Andy Grove, have come to believe that repeating the same coupling can, under certain circumstances, lead to undesirable repetition of sonic signature. Thus enhanced, the 4.1 retains sufficient blue water between it and the less costly sister product to remain a sensible and fair fit in the product portfolio, despite its £3,500 premium.
I came to the 4.1 fresh, so to speak. Unprejudiced by having heard anything in the Audio Note range above the previous combination of MKII CDTII and 3.1 DAC, my initial reaction was one of intrigued reflection. As always, my observations come with a health warning. It may well be that someone else, coming to the 4.1 from another DAC, would take issue and perhaps wish to highlight other aspects of the performance. I could only compare the 4.1 to the original 3.1, and it's undoubtedly a very different animal.
The 4.1 has the familiar Audio Note family sonic signature, present from the DAC 1.1 upwards. It is organic and non-mechanical, musical, and gives a sense of event and timing – but it adds what I can only describe as an enhanced sense of presence. What undoubtedly contributes to this is the hugely tightened sound stage presented by the 4.1. It renders instruments and performers with a more tactile presence and with a more convincing sense of scale. I think another factor is that the 4.1 delivers a seemingly smoother and more extended top-end that reveals previously hidden information about the performance space. Challenging high notes, such as those at the extreme right of the piano keyboard, are delivered with greater control and sweetness.
The 4.1 throws respective recording qualities into sharp relief in a way that the 3.1 did not. Take Radu Lupu with the Israel Philharmonic in the five Beethoven piano concertos (Decca 475 7065), for example. Having read the liner notes, I was aware that the material on the 4-disc set was recorded over the space of seven years in five different locations. But it wasn't until I listened to the set through the 4.1 that I realised just how much the sound quality differed across each recording.
There is, of course a pattern here. It's not the first time that I've found higher levels in the Audio Note range to be more revealing than their more lowly siblings and I daresay other customers can report similar experiences. I think what this amounts to is that – and this sounds terribly pejorative so needs to be taken very much in context – the 4.1 delivers less homogeneity and more veracity than the lowlier DACs. In a rather uncompromising way it strips bare and exposes recording flaws in all their shame. By the same token, it allows good quality material to give of its best.
I think the 4.1 is also more neutral than the 3.1. At first I was puzzled by the sound it generated. In virtual back-to-back comparison, it sounded flatter and less exciting. But the more material I played, the more I realised that the 3.1 had been giving music a pleasing bottom-end and mid-range bloom whereas the 4.1 gives a performance that can initially sound slightly austere but is ultimately probably more truthful. The collaboration between saxophonist Johnny Griffin and the decidedly and determinedly French jazz pianist Martial Solal on In & Out (FSM 36601 2) has always wowed me both for its musical creativity and for the excellence of its recording. Through the 4.1 Solal's piano has weight, clarity, percussive drive and sweetness – some of this down to his strong technique, but most of it because the engineer Gérard de Haro took the time and trouble to get the miking and balance right. Clearly, 'good enough' was not good enough for de Haro. He went the extra mile and we benefit from an absolute benchmark recording that really does justice to the skills and creativity of Solal and Griffin. Anyone who doubts how very tough the piano is to record should read this article by jazz pianist and recording engineer Nathan Rosenberg: http://www.doghousenyc.com/articles/piano1.php
To end this diversion into recording technique and return to the 4.1, I'll highlight a piano recording that in my view exemplifies much of what is bad about current studio practices. Rosenberg states the blindingly obvious when he closes his article with the assertion: "If it sounds good it is good." This mantra assumes that the studio actually listens to the result through an audio system capable of accurate resolution. Murray Perahia's 2000 CD of the Goldberg Variations (SK 89243) is a good example of a recording where such critical analysis clearly did not take place. The performance rightly won Perahia plaudits from Gramophone magazine, but the sound quality? Oh dear…In the car it sounds OK, but through the 3.1 it always left me feeling uneasy, like something…something wasn't quite right. The piano tone, particularly on higher notes, sometimes sounded right on the edge of raggedness and it failed to convince at the bottom end too, lacking believable weight and a coherent percussiveness. The 4.1 is merciless, revealing the recording to be poorly miked and processed almost to the point of annihilating any musicality. Perahia and his piano sound almost as if they are in a tiled bathhouse. Notes ring nastily and smear into one another while the processing has destroyed the critical timing cues in the music and added a vague haze of artificiality to the sound.
The contrast with the Solal/Griffin collaboration is stark. Through the 4.1 Solal's piano, recorded simply and with the barest minimum of post-processing, is a physical creation of wood, metal and felt rather than a clangy artifice of jumbled up bits and bytes. Griffin's instrument swings back and forth in time with his body while he caresses the saxophone keys and coaxes out the most wonderful and sublimely phrased sounds. Given pristine information such as this, the 4.1 faithfully transcribes subtleties of timing that the original 3.1 tended to mask and it generates dynamic contrasts that are glorious and sometimes downright startling.
My initial reaction to the bottom end performance of the 4.1 caught me out and made me smile. For some reason – and I don't know why this should be because I've been playing about with audio gear for over two decades – I was somehow expecting the 4.1 to deliver more bass than the 3.1. The fact is that it does not – and in many circumstances it seems actually to generate less. I eventually realised that what I was hearing was a manifestation of better quality. The 4.1 keeps a powerful grip and is more capable than the original 3.1 of resolving low frequency information – which means that what you hear is less a general room-pressurising boom in the case, for example, of an electric bass, and more a complex mix of lower frequency sounds together with their accompanying harmonics. I've long admired the early work of the US MOR jazz group Fourplay, mostly because the group's founders, Bob James, Lee Ritenour, Nathan East and Harvey Mason are all such stellar musicians and together generate an uplifting and highly entertaining sound. As a former bass player myself, I'm not the only one to recognise and salute the work of Nathan East in particular. On Midnight Stroll (Fourplay, Warner Bros 26656 – 2) the 4.1 shows him at his funky and tastefully restrained finest. East's playing of his Yamaha bass simply demands respect and, just before the fade out, delights with its humour and subtlety. Through the Audio Note DAC, it's like hearing the track for the first time all over again.
The 4.1 can play a similar trick of memory erasure with the human voice. It gets mass chorus more right than any DAC I've heard and renders solo vocals simply bewitching. I had not played Joss Stone's The Soul Sessions (Virgin 24359 71532) for some considerable time until an unguarded moment late one evening about a fortnight after setting the 4.1 up in my system. How old was Stone when she recorded the album's closing track For The Love Of You? 16? 17? Through the 4.1 I heard her as if for the first time. Stripped of musical accompaniment save a sparse electric piano figure, through the 4.1 Stone is beguilingly soulful and with a degree of control that belies her age. The coaching by black soul singer Betty Wright comes through clearly, and yet Stone's voice is shown to be far more than one moulded and pumped up by the wicked record industry. The 4.1 reveals a vulnerability and honesty in her voice that is deeply effecting, qualities that one can only hope will not be suppressed as she matures.
And isn't that what makes a piece of audio equipment transcend the gap between good and truly excellent: an ability to reveal nuances in recordings and to develop in the owner a new appreciation of even the most familiar and over-played material? The Audio Note DAC 4.1 does not disappoint.
Audio Note CDTII transport, M3 preamplifier, P4 monoblocks, AN/E speakers.