Top CD transports vs USB converter shootout

In the past 12 months, I had a chance to do some extensive comparisions between various, traditional CD transports and the USB/SPDIF converter. (For those who, for the past three years have been sitting in a cave and do not know what an USB/SPDIF converter is - this ia a device, a bridge that connects between the DAC and a computer, and allows to play music from the hard drive.)

All the transports I tried, from my dCS Scarlatti to the McIntosh MCD-1000, could easily aspire to the State-of-the-Art status and are top of the range models from the respective manufacturers.

So is the USB/SPDIF converter I used to evaluate the transports - the BADA Alpha USB I've been using, is, to the best of my knowledge, the best USB/SPDIF converter available on the market today. (I base my statement on the extensive tests of some 15+ different USB converters I also conducted in the past 12 months - I can describe the results in a separate thread if anyone is interested).

Anyway, the transports I have tried were:

$33k dCS Scarlatti transport:
Scarlatti image

$20k Accuphase DP-800:
Accuphase image

$9k McIntosh MCD-1000:
McIntosh Iimage

And here is the $1800 BADA Alpha USB (on top of the Metrum Hex DAC):
Bada image

I have also tried some other transports as well, starting with a $700 Stello CDT100, but those were much cheaper, so are not really revelent to this thread.

Stello image

All the transports, including the BADA Alpha USB, were connected to my dCS Scarlatti DAC using the generic BNC cable. I'm a firm believer in BNC cables, as in my experience, even a cheap, $10 generic BNC cable can outperform fancy RCA and AES cables costing hundreds of dollars. The only exception was the McIntosh MCD-1000, which was used with the Stealth Varidig Sextet AES/EBU digital cable, as it lacks the BNC output.

During the tests, I have also tried the matching Accuphase DC-801 and McIntosh MDA-1000 DACs. In the case of dCS and Accuphase DACs, I did not use the available clock link feature (which greatly improves the sonics in all-dCS and all-Accuphase systems) as I was interested in comparing the pure SPDIF performance of all transports, not learning that SPDIF as a standard is flawed, which I have ackowledged a long time ago.

The test was as fascinating, as it was ... short. The BADA Alpha USB turned out to be much better than all of those transports mentioned. There was even no need to switch back and forth as we often do to hear the differencies. The difference was so obvious, that you could hear it in the first 10s of a familiar recording (I recommend a recordings with lots of HF energy, like lots of percussive instruments - triangles, hi-hats etc and a lively acustics; pesonally, when comparing different digital cables, digital transports, USB converters or computers, I always use 'La Spagna' by Atrium Musicæ de Madrid and Gregorio Paniagua published by BIS records - a fabulous recording of XV century music; there is also one by Harmonia Mundi, but I like the BIS one better).

The BADA Alpha USB made the sound smoother, with ZERO artificial edge, grain or digital glare.

There was also much better layering of instruments, and air around the outlines. The instruments sounded not only better separated in space, but also much more 3-dimensional.

The resolution also improved quite a bit. You could hear the sounds that you were not aware are on the recording, the HF decays had much longer trails and hung in space much longer.

The most fascinating thing was that sound had better resolution, but at the same time, was so much smoother and fluid. Usually, it is another way round. Very often we try a new component or a cable and at first are fascinated by improved resolution, only to find out a few days later (after we had X-rayed all our recordings), that the increased resolution brings listener fatigue and makes the listening far less enjoyable.

Not this time. BADA pulls this incredible trick of sounding both more resolute, more transparent, and much smoother at the same time.

The traditional transports sounded grainy and congested at the same time. The whole rendition of space just shrunk, as if someone sucked out all air. Once I have heard the BADA, there was no going back.

One may ask - how it is possible that a $1800 device can outperform a $33k transport ?

For starters, the USB converter much cheaper to manufacture, as it doesn't have an expensive (in case of Scarlatti - EXTREMELY expensive @ $5000) CD drive, fancy box, big PSU with separate legs for the drive, display, servo, control logic and SPDIF out, etc. Since it is so small and has no controls, it can get away whit what looks like a $100 box that can be hidden away.

On performance side, I think it all goes down to the quality of the onboard clocks used (and their respective power supplies). The clock stability has a direct influence on the quality of the SPDIF signal, as the whole SPDIF signal is generated using clock as a reference. So more stable clock = more stable (less jittery) SPDIF signal.

All the transports I mentioned use clocks that were available 7-8 years ago, when those transports were designed. They were probably one of the best avalable at the time, but are rather avg by today's standards - there was a great advancement in clock art (with respect to their phase noise) in the past 3 years.

The latest Ultra Low Phase Noise clocks that are used in BADA Alpha USB (made by Crystek), have the levels of phase noise that rival the ultra expensive Rubidium Clocks. Sure they do not have the long time accuracy of the Rubidium Clocks (the PPM figure), but that doesn't really matter, as what is important in digital audio is the short term clock STABILIY (the level of Phase Noise).

Were does this leaves us ? Well, the dCS owners do not really have to worry, as enabling the clock link feature between the transport and a DAC (during the course of this test I kept the clock link feature disconented to level the playing field) will improve its performance. The Scarlatti clock may not be enough to get past the performance offered by the BADA (the U-Clock shurely wasn't), but the Antelope 10M Rubidium Clock is.

Antelope 10M Rubidium Clock image

Scarlatti transport driven by Antelope 10M clock (and needed Antelope OCX clock divider) still gave me the best sound I have ever heard from my Scarlatti system. Not to mention the fact, that it does SACD as well.

But for the rest of you, who DO mind spending $50k for the transport, clocks and cables, this is a great news. Nowaydays for ~$5000 (BADA Alpha USB + CAPS v3 Lagoon computer + NAS) you can have a State-of-the-Art digital transport, that will rival most super expensive CD spinners.
92efbda5 9cba 4d79 9e39 cc1d8039b6b7elberoth2
Elberoth , Thanks for the information.

You mentioned "BADA Alpha USB + CAPS v3 Lagoon computer + NAS"
I assume you are talking about replacing the original caps on the Bada Alpha?
Not surprising. I retired my highly modded (Superclock) years ago. It beat most transports when I used it. Now, its not even close. There are quite a few excellent USB converters out there. Many reviewers now use them for their digital reference.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Very interesting post, Elberoth. It is always useful to read of hands-on experience.
I am currently using the m2tech hi-face evo. Was considering the off-ramp. What is your opinion on the off-ramp vs the BADA Alpha USB.
You mentioned "BADA Alpha USB + CAPS v3 Lagoon computer + NAS"
I assume you are talking about replacing the original caps on the Bada Alpha?

CAPS stands for Computer Audiophile Pocket Server.

This is a PC computer project made by Chris Connaker from

You can put it together yourself, or get one already built from Small Green Computer.
CAPS = Computer Audiophile Pocket Server (NOT capacitors in some other electronics). Basically they are designs for small servers published at Computer Audiophile - several iterations or versions, you can build your own from the parts list or find 'em pre-built to the spec.
Thanks for the comparison. I'm also interested to hear your thoughts on how the BADA compares to the M2Tech, particularly the full stack (w/ battery + clock).
Flying among the eagles...interesting review of top notch gear. Enjoyed seeing the pictures as well. Well done.
I have compared thr sound coming from CD Transport of my Esoteric K-01 with the same recordings ripped on my Musica Pristina Virtuoso server using a USB Cable and USB DAC portion of K-01 i.e. DAC was identical in both cases.

Everytime music coming from Musica Pristina Virtuoso was MUCH superior (richer, silkier, bigger soundstage etc) to the same CD running from Esoteric K-01 Transport. I don;t know dcS but besides this machione - Esoteric Transport is considered the best in the world.
there are two transports you did not consider, as well as many others. i would rather consider these two.

he elberoth2:

There are several transports which were not included in your comparison. In particular, two come to mind.
i am refererring to CEC and Zanden. I wonder if the results would have been the same.

you also mention a smoother presentation. i can accomplish that using cables--analog and digital.
yes, your methodology was fair but your conclusions are not unequivocal, because it may be possible to achieve better results using a transport, but fine tuning with cables and even tubes in a tube preamp.
If the bulk of your digital collection like most people are
44.1/16 recordings, I suggest you try the ART Legato II
USB converter.
A good bit of work Elberoth well done. As subjective as comparisons can get, when the difference is clearly apparent its truly valuable information for potential customers but also usable information for budding designers.

While your results may not be as "unequivocal" as some would like, your ability to mass together such a collection of contemporary digital components without the (I'm assuming) benefit of manufacture participation is something even our exalted periodical and blog writers rarely come close to.

So regardless of what transports you didn't use, this comparison is the mouth of the preverbal gift horse. So for those needing to gander into the horses mouth I believe I can speak for quite a few by saying we'ed gladly welcome hearing about your comparisons too.
Excellent post Elberoth2; I am surprised dCS, and other high end CDP owners, have not mounted a campaign against your words of wisdom. I recently took the plunge into computer audio (MacBook Air, Audirvana Plus, MF V-link USB-S/PDIF, Krell HTS 7.1, Krell KSA-250 and B&W N801) and could not be happier with the results. IMHO, for a relatively modest outlay, I have achieved sound quality comparable to that heard at HiFi shows on astronomically priced CDP based systems. The days of the spinning silver disc are numbered!
Mr. Tennis,

If you need a five figure transport and then tweak with cabling and tubes in the chain in an attempt to equal (or even surpass by a narrow margin) a $2000 USB converter, it is game set and match for the USB converter, and the CD transport has become a relic of the past....
Yes indeed, thank you for the post. I just went computer audio and for little money it sounds better then my highly touted CD player. I have ripped almost 300 CD's thus far and the sound is much more 3D compared to a CD player. All this music at the touch of my finger on my my iPad. I should have done this earlier.

Fun stuff!
I am surprised dCS, and other high end CDP owners, have not mounted a campaign against your words of wisdom.

I think that they are aware of this fact. That is why their new Vivaldi DAC has USB input onboard.

Please note, that the Scarlatti transport fed from a top quality standalone master clock (like the Antelope Rubidium 10M I used) will still sound better than any of those USB/SPDIF converters, as this arrangement allows you to get rid of SPDIF interface jitter (something those USB/SPDIF converters will always be - by definition - suspectible to).
Adam - Nice job on the review. There was one mistake. You said the BAD BNC output was a good one. Its actually a 50 ohm BNC, not 75. There are actually 75 ohms versions that they could have used. I use several.

One thing to keep in mind with all professional reviews is that they are snapshot in time, and by the time they are finally published it is possible that a lot has changed. I know it has with the Off-Ramp 5.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
I want to thank Steve at Empirical as it was his posts and site that helped get great sound from my 2009 Mac Mini as a transport.

2009 Mac Mini with 256gb SSD drive and soon to come Mojo Audio linear power supply. I use The Amarra version Steve has said sounds the best 2.3.2 4019 I think?

I have a nice Eximus DP1 dac and no CD player or dac/CD spinning transport has ever sounded this good.

Granny - my pleasure. I get a lot of help from my customers too on things that I just dont have time for.

Make sure that you also do the tweaks on the mini that I recommend. Available on iTunes ibooks as "Audio Optimization" guides.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio

Thanks for the excellent review! Is the dCS Scarlatti DAC
your favorite DAC?

Elberoth - if the USB converter outputs I2S, then it is not susceptible to S/PDIF conversions.

Not that I feel these conversions are that significant. With some gear, the conversions might be.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
I feel MSB DAC IV Diamond with Femto Clock upgrade is slightly better than Scarlatti. Havent't heard the dCS Vivaldi though.
Elbroth, thanks for the excellent review, can you please tell us your exprience with the metrum Hex Dac?
Great post and discussion, but today not one seems able to answer the big question:

If the money is not the problem, from what front digital can we to have the best sound, USING THE SAME DAC:

a.-from PC system(Apple or windows) and DAC

B.-from a front digital composed by transport and DAC

and one more questions:

1.-which are the best servers for you

2.-best DACs

3.-Best CD transport
Sidvee, I believe Elberoth2 is being a gentleman in not answering your query. I own the Evo myself and there is a descussion on the web in which a well respected man has rated a large number of the converters on the market. He has rated the Evo stack which includes the converter, the power supply and the clock at 100 which is at the top of his rating system. He has also rated Steve's design very high on that list. The Evo by itself rated well but not as well as Steve's design. As Steve states in this thread technology is changing at a rapid pace.

Elberoth2, Thank you for a very well written and informative post, I very much appreciate the effort you put forth on verious sites to inform the people like myself that do not have the access nor the funds to do these type of comparisons.

How does the Bel Canto Ref Link compare? It also looks like an excellent synchronous USB converter.
Dear Emigene,

pls, see below my reply:

If the money is not the problem, from what front digital can we to have the best sound, USING THE SAME DAC:

a.-from PC system(Apple or windows) and DAC

B.-from a front digital composed by transport and DAC
---Metronome Technologie C8

and one more questions:

1.-which are the best servers for you
---Aurender W20

2.-best DACs
---For Redbook: CF DAC-040
---For Hi-Rez: Metronome Technologie C8

3.-Best CD transport
---Metronome Technologie Kalista (Référence or Ultimate edition)

Best regards,
Someone compared REFLink to Berkeley Alpha USB over at computer audiophile, and concluded that Berkeley is much better. Not really surprising, if you look inside how both are designed.
Thanks Greg, yes I read the other review where the triple stack of m2 tech boxes was rated 100. Consequently I have decided to stick with M2 tech, as I have the same limitations as yourself in trying to compare the many converters available in the market.
One thought though. In the computeraudiophile writeup, the offramp 5 scores a 95 without powersupply, and the EVO stack with powersupply is 10 points higher than without. One could mkae the inference that the OR5 with powersupply (monolith or other) takes this setup well above 100. EVO would still be better price/performance, but not better absolute performance. Of course, in Elberoths system, the BADA would still beat OR5+PS....
Ok, mainly based on the excellent write up by Eleberoth2, I ordered the M2tech Evo psu and clock. Undoubtedly my system performace has taken a leap forward. Through my Ayon Skylla II dac, FLAC & WAV's are now sounding superior to CD playback from my prior Ayon Cd2s - better bass, more dynamic range, better soundtage depth etc. So in my case the m2tech trio. along with a Sony Vaio laptop running Jriver v17, has handily beaten the Ayon Cd2s as a transport. I am now smitten with computer playback and plan to build a dedicated music PC. Thanks Eleberoth2.
In general I agree with the OP with respect to a general trend. Even though I have not experienced the rareafied air of the the big bucks products mentioned, it seems that digital sourced music such as bit perfect 44/16 has sounded better than the same music played through PCM CD transports, and you have to spend much more to get comparable sound through those. The nice thing is better sound for less money, at the expense of your time "ripping" or downloading your source material.