Review: Musical Fidelity TriVista 21 DAC DA converter

Category: Digital

I awaited for the arrival of the TriVista 21 with both excitement and nervous apprehension. Sure, it had some rave reviews, as did its ancestors, the TriVista SACD player and the TriVista 300 Integrated. But I wondered, do the British mags live up to the accusations brought up against them as being unjustifiably biased towards products from their motherland? And, I wondered, is Stereophile's glut of Musical Fidelity reviews & raves based on advertising dollars & inner handwashings & perks, as is often suggested by many? Is this Trivistor-Nuvistor phenomena just a cleverly conceived marketing tool of Antony Michaelson? Armed with my trusty Bel Canto DAC 2, I was determined to get to the bottom of this.

The TriVista DAC is certainly a beautiful and impressive piece. Weighing 30 pds, it is truly a substantial piece. My little Bel Canto looked afraid that it might get eaten alive. A photo of the interior reveals a huge power supply with multiple transformers and chokes and an impressive layout. The thick faceplate, done in an elegant, frosted silver with a chromed silver bottom edge, was graced with a row of cool blue lights. This 24/192 processor was switchable between 96 and 192 via a rear pushbotton. The side panels are attractive black heatsinks, which are functional, I believe, as they do get warm.

I used a variety of demonstration grade & conventional recordings, because, in my experience, a wide range of different material really allows me to focus in on the abilities of a piece.

Listening to Sarah Vaughan (Mercury 1963-1967), it became clear that the TriVista fleshed out vocals better than the Bel Canto. Sarah's voice was fuller, more complete – the cavity resonances in her large voice were fuller, more distinct, more dimensional. The BelCanto sounded like it may have slightly more clarity in the attack, but then lost out in the sustain, the meat of the note, sounding leaner and less complex in harmonics. Two cuts off Sarah's Mancini album good to use and well-recorded are "Dreamsville" and "Slow Hot Wind." Moving to a 1961 Roulette recording, "Count Basie & Sarah Vaughan" gave similar results. This recording is very clear, though a bit bright. It was more listenable and enjoyable on the TriVista. I was coming to the conclusion that the Bel Canto was a touch brighter and leaner and more forward in the upper mids to lower highs, yet vocals were a bit further back in presentation.

Sinatra's voice reached its peak during the Capital years, although it can be argued that there was a maturity of expression during the 60's Reprise years that followed. A great recording ,and his last for Capital, is "Point of No Return." Some classics off this album are "When the World Was Young," "I'll Remember April," "There Will Never Be Another You," "It's a Blue World." This recording only reinforced what I found with Sarah – there was a completeness and fullness to vocals that was beguiling and true, from the attack on the lips or teeth to the sustain through to the release that the Bel Canto was not capable of, good of a DAC as it was. All elements that comprise a human voice line up in perfect fusion in a way I have not heard before. There is an organic wholeness that the TriVista possesses that just sounds right, and sounds closer to the real thing.

I still wondered, however, if the Bel Canto was cleaner and more exacting on the attacks of notes, or if this was simply a case of transients sounding clearer because the whole sonic picture is leaner, emphasizing this area of performance more. I continued to listen, moving on to Chesky recordings.

Listening to Chesky JD1, the guitars on "Stompin at the Savoy," the pluck of the strings sounded more incisive on the Bel Canto. However, following each pluck, the ringing of the string and the resonance of the guitar cavity were much less heard in the Bel Canto. The TriVista also provided a more realistic size and presentation of the guitars, which sounded confined by comparison in the BelCanto.

At this point, it was clear that the TriVista created a huge soundstage that solidly kept each instrument in a defined position with spread and air around them that sounded so right and natural, and, most importantly, COHERENT. The BelCanto couldn't compete with this level of imaging and soundstaging.

Next was Chesky JD28, "Viola Fora de la Moda,." This busy, rhythmic, jungle-esque mix of vocals, highly percussive instruments and guitars was more clearly delineated, with each instrument more clearly placed in its own space within the whole, with more depth and separation than the Bel Canto was able to do.

On Chesky JD97, "Out of this World", James Taylor's brother, whose voice has a spooky similarity, was set back a bit more, as were voices in the other recordings as well. I realized there was a difference in presentation between the two DACs. The Bel Canto was more like being in row 5, the TriVista being in row 15. Which is correct? Probably neither, since no electronic piece is perfect, but recreating its version of reality. However, the TriVista's ability to more clearly sculpt spaces for each image to hang in space in was clearly closer to the real thing. On Taylor's recording, his guitar sounds more like a living, breathing instrument, whereas on the Bel Canto it sounds more cramped and confined by comparison with less guitar cavity resonance. I don't want to give the impression that the Bel Canto sounds wrong or bad. It does not, and it is a great DAC that I could be happy with as well, had the TriVista not come along.

On Reference Recordings, "Dick Hyman From the Age of Swing," The Bel Canto demonstrated its great ability at delineating the initial attack. Brass instruments had bite, blare and that blatty quality that real brass has. There was a rhythmic propulsion that drew you into the music. The TriVista did not have as much of this, though it excelled again in the "meat" of the sustain, possessing a somewhat fuller sound that sounded true to the instruments. On track 7, there is a passage where a quartet of saxes & trumpets separately echo each other in a chromatic descent, followed by a chromatic ascent, that creates a lush bloom of blended sound that is quite captivating. This track sounded wonderful on both processors, but the separation of the instruments and the delineation of their images in space was more fully developed in the TriVista. I highly recommend this glorious recording to lovers of big band jazz.

A note on the 96/192 switchable choice. After considerable comparison, I preferred to 192 setting, finding it added depth, impact and high end extension. I can see where the hard-core tube lovers might prefer the 96 setting, as it does sound quite nice and coherent, especially on vocals.

A note on power cords. The TriVista seems sensitive to power chords. I found best results with a BMI Shark, followed by the Acoustic Zen Tsunami. You don't need a chord to warm up the sound. A transparent, detailed chord is what you want.

To sum up, here are two musical DACs. The BelCanto has a somewhat cooler sound with excellent, defined attacks on the beginning of notes, excellent rhythmic drive and pace. It has a grain-free, extended response at both ends of the frequency spectrum, and a nice midrange presentation. It is marginally upfront in presentation, but far from a highly forward sound. It is a great product, especially at its price point, and I highly recommend it.

The TriVista DAC is more of an attempt at the state-of-the-art. It is a further refinement of the DAC section of the $6500 TriVista SACD player. Its unique use of miniature military triodes that last for at least 15 years provides certain of the positive attributes of tubes that still elude transistor design. It has a palpability, an ease, an awe-inspiring recreation of space, air & soundstage that I have never heard before. The TriVista creates an enormous soundstage that is wide, high & deep with images anchored in space. The Bel Canto stages nicely, but is clearly not up to the level of the TriVista. The bass is tuneful and natural-sounding, with a full palette of color & overtones that elude many other pieces. This is especially evident on acoustic bass. Voices are beguiling with a naturalness and rightness to them I have not found before. The only area where the Bel Canto bests it is that last degree of incisiveness to the attack on certain instruments such as brass, but it could be argued that the slight emphasis the BelCanto gives to this frequency area, along its leaner rendition are responsible for this perceived superior attack. In any case, this is a minor issue and outweighed by the TriVista's incredible performance in all other areas. These positive qualities, combined with an overall quality of a natural, organic wholeness to the sound, define a digital processor, that in its $2400 price range, makes it a formidable opponent for other DACs to measure up to.

Associated gear
Pioneer PD65, as transport
Kimber Illuminati digital cable
Acoustic Zen Matrix II interconnects
Audioquest Caldera biwire speaker cable
Power Cords: AZ Tsunami, BMI Shark, RS Cables Starchord
Parasound JC-1 monoblocks
Von Schweikert VR-4jr, biwired

Similar products
Bel Canto DAC2
Classe DAC1
Theta ProBasic IIIa
I like the way you describe the Tri-Vista’s soundstage I have the Tri-Vista SACD Player and the soundstage is the same way you describe it very deep and on my system it goes directly behind the speaker, which is something that just turns me on. In addition, you can listen to the Tri-Vista all day and not get fatigue. However, I would like to know how long did you let it break in before you wrote your review? I found that my Tri-Vista took a very long time approx. 3 weeks of 24/7 playing.
I forgot to list my preamp - it is a Rogue M99......

As far as break in, I think it has about the time on it you suggest, but some may be on time, not play time.

Yes, the soundstage is incredible, and, as you suggest, it just lets you in, no listening fatigue, and an airy, present sounding sound that is most appealing.
"There is an organic wholeness that the TriVista possesses that just sounds right, and sounds closer to the real thing."

You hit the nail on the head! I've never heard any other gear that gets it as right as the Tri-Vista series.
Additional thoughts:
I want to emphasize how this DAC has the ability to clearly delineate instrument positions in space and keep them separate without homogenizing with each other. In certain recordings, I found the Bel Canto gave a clustering effect, where closely positioned instruments did not separate out from each other nearly as welI. I don't want to give the impression that the Bel Canto has no ability at at separating musical threads, as it does, but the degree to which it is capable of this is definitely a large step below the TriVista's ability.

On the issue of detail, it is interesting how the TriVista provides a wealth of detail, yet there is no brightness or emphasis, or detail being thrown in your face. This is the hallmark of a product that is both eminently musical and technically capable.