Sound: 8.8
Pressing/packaging: 9.4
Value: 9.5

Original released by Columbia Records in 1969. Catalog Number: CS 9750. Engineers: Arthur Kendy, Frank Laico. Producer: Teo Macero.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue released in 2015. 180g, 45RPM, 2LP. Catalog Number: MFSL2-438. Numbered, Limited Edition. UPC: 821797243810. MSRP: $50. Buy on Amazon.com

Introduction

Here’s another impressive MoFi reissue of an essential early fusion Miles Davis record. Cut at 45RPM and meticulously pressed, this record sounds phenomenal and is an easy recommendation, but there is one fly in the ointment (unrelated to the music, which I won’t attempt to cover here). Thankfully, it only affects the first and last tracks–tracks recorded later and with a slightly different lineup. According to Wikipedia:

The June sessions featured Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on the electric Rhodes piano, Ron Carter on electric bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The September sessions replaced Hancock with Chick Corea, and Carter with Dave Holland, making Filles de Kilimanjaro the last Miles album to feature his Second Great Quintet, although all except Carter would play on his next album, In A Silent Way. During the September sessions, Holland played acoustic bass and Corea played an RMI Electra-piano in addition to acoustic piano.

Sound: 8.8

So what’s the problem? On the first and last tracks, there is a slight, mysterious, intermittent distortion which is in the recording, sadly, since it even appears on the earlier CD issue, so is no fault of the MoFi team. The distortion often corresponds to the low bass, as far as I can tell, but is also heard on the drumkit–especially the tom-toms. At around 6:45 on the last track, Mademoiselle Mabry, Williams hits a tom repeatedly and it distorts badly. A similar distortion (or vibration?) causes the bass on these two tracks to occasionally sound, for a lack of a better term, “Burpy.” I honestly don’t know how else to describe it!

Maybe it was a mic problem, or perhaps something vibrating in the studio. I actually think it may have something to do with the lower registers of Corea’s RMI Electra-Piano, as it is often doubling the bass, and it really sounds like a toy compared to Hancock’s Rhodes. Perhaps the tom and bass distortions are unrelated. Perhaps the tom distortion is from a loose drum head. Perhaps I have a loose drumhead… In any case, I find it irritating. Not enough to skip these tracks, but almost!

Luckily, the middle three tracks are exceptional in every way. “Tout de suite” (Right Away) is stellar, and is, significantly, as far as the Second Quintet would go into fusion while still 100% intact. “Petits machins” (Little Stuff) has beautiful, golden-toned horns, and the title track is equally brilliant.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/packaging: 9.4

Just like the 45RPM Mobile Fidelity reissue of Miles in the Sky we previously reviewed, the quality of this vinyl and its packaging are as good as you are likely to find anywhere. Ruler flat discs with all four sides pressed within a couple millimeters of bulls eye centered. And the heavy gatefold jacket is a pleasure as well.

Value: 9.5

You may not hear the baked-in distortion I mention above (weirder things have happened when it comes to me hearing things others don’t!), so, by all means, if you have $50 to spend, go out and buy this record right now–especially if you like the music as much as I do and you want what is sure to be the best LP version of it out there. You can try your luck on an original pressing on eBay, but you’re going to pay just as much for it (or more), and I doubt the sonics will be as impressive.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue LP on Amazon.com:

Sound: 8.7
Pressing: 9.6
Value: 9.3

Original released by Embryo Records in 1970. Catalog number: SD 524. Recorded at A & R Recording Studios, New York, 1969. Recording Engineer: Dave Green. Produced by Herbie Mann.

Pure Pleasure reissue released in 2016. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: Embryo PPAN SD524. UPC: 506014962242. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Introduction

I don’t know if this reissue is the very best pressing of this record in existence, but I’m willing to bet it’s close (I’ll let others talk in detail about the music, per our review philosophy). Without an original LP or any other pressings to compare it to, I can’t say for sure. But I can say this is a very good sounding record–better than the CD issue I’ve had for many years–and the music is phenomenal. John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, and Jack DeJohnette, tearing it up with a virtuoso young bassist in late 1969. Goodness! A fortuitous and timely meeting of jazz giants at the dawn of the fusion era. There was a synergy in the studio when this was recorded. The players sound as if they truly enjoy each other, which was likely the case since several of them played together on previous and subsequent records.

Sound: 8.7

Sonically speaking, the production is straightforward and lets the music through. No studio trickery, as was starting to come into vogue at this time. Clean and balanced is how I would describe the sound. Vitous’s basslines, if you can call them that, are easy to hear (if not “follow”), and all the other players sound as they should. My only complaints are typical: It’s slightly veiled (as many reissues are, perhaps due to old tapes), and it’s a little tubby (the leader is a bassist, after all!).

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging: 9.6

As for the pressing, I am glad to report this record is of a very high standard indeed. The vinyl is silent. When I put the needle down, I literally thought my preamp was muted! That just doesn’t happen very often. The pressing is flat and is only a hair off-center. Give me this pressing quality for all my records and I would be a happy man.

Value: 9.3

I’m guessing this record was originally released in a small quantity, which is probably why it is not something you see in the used racks very often. Embryo’s parent company, Atlantic, re-released the record in 1972 with a new title, “Mountain in the Clouds,” as well as an additional track. Checking eBay turns up a few examples of both vintage LP issues, but I suspect the Pure Pleasure reissue is the way to go. The back cover of the retitled version on Atlantic describes how the songs were “re-mixed to improve the presentation of the music,” which just sounds ominous to me.

Pure Pleasure reissue LP on Amazon.com:

Sound: 8.8
Pressing/Packaging: 9.1
Value: 9.2

Speakers Corner reissue released in 2010. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: Philips PHS 900-000. UPC: 4260019713728. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Original first US edition (pressed by RCA) and released by Philips in 1962. FR1/RFR-2 I (Indianapolis) stampers. Catalog Number: PHS 900-000. Late US edition (pressed by Columbia) and released by Philips with same catalog numbers.  Original late Dutch edition released by Philips. Catalog Number: 835 474 LY. Recorded: July 1961 at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, by C.R. Fine. Production: Harold Lawrence.

Introduction

If I could hear only one master tape (er, film), this would be it. There is just something special about this recording, the only one the Mercury team made for Philips using the 35mm equipment they purchased from Everest. Similar to the best 35MM Mercury titles (Ravel Paray SR-90313 comes to mind), it has astounding air and effortlessness. The music is, of course, well-known and well-analyzed by others more qualified than me, so I’m not going to cover it here (see my review philosophy).

Piano is notoriously difficult to get right on record. Muddy, thin, woolly, twinkle-y, warble-y, out of tune — take your pick, such problems show up in the majority of solo, chamber, and orchestral records. This one has no such problems. It sounds natural, full, and harmonically complex, like the real thing. And it is dynamic. Perhaps because of the advantages 35MM magnetic film affords, the piano is positively enormous when played loudly. Too big, actually, but undeniably engaging.

Unfortunately, as with all things in this life, nothing is perfect, and this record has one, gigantic, fatal flaw, which shows up in all the pressings except the later Dutch Philips. Due to the program length and wide groove spacing needed to capture everything in its full-bandwidth glory, the ending of Side 2 has serious inner groove distortion problems–at least with my Technics EPA-100 and Rega RB-250 pivoted tonearms (linear tracker owners could be in luck). If there was ever a recording that deserved to be reissued as a 2LP set, this is it! For now, we have only single LP versions.

Sound: 8.8

This record sold a ton of copies and was pressed in many editions. Since the recording is so good, all four pressings I own sound outstanding, with only the later Columbia-pressed copy sounding anything less than audiophile.

The original, first RCA pressing is out of this world, which makes sense, since this was essentially a Mercury production and RCA was accustomed to pressing their finest discs. It has air! Tone! Guts! Boundless life! My copy is very clean and obviously was not played much by its former owner. Top end extension is extraordinary, although it does have a hint of aggression in highs (Mercury sound). It has lots of “tubey magic,” and is harmonically rich.

The Speakers Corner reissue is like the RCA pressing, only less of it. By most measures, it is a blockbuster record. Dynamic, clean and balanced. However, compared directly to the RCA pressing, it is missing some tone, air, and guts. It is less transparent. Piano notes lack some body and are a little boxed in. Again, criticizing the sound on this reissue is like complaining the Hope Diamond isn’t big enough. We should all be so lucky to own a record that sounds as good as this one does!

As for other pressings, the late Dutch Philips I have on hand is also very nice. Maybe a little too nice, if you know what I mean. It is missing some dynamic range, transparency, tone, and guts. It is also slightly veiled compared to RCA. The later Columbia pressing is comparatively ragged. It has some tone in there but is missing air. It also has a higher noise floor than the others. It sounds like a good 2-eye Columbia pressing. Nothing special, but not as bad as I imagined.

Pressing/Packaging: 9.1

The reissue vinyl is impressive. Just less than perfectly flat and centered. Quiet surfaces. No ticks, pops, scratches, or other imperfections. The cover is nice quality as well. Laminated front and back, printed on heavy stock. My only complaint? Most of the typefaces used in the dramatic cover graphics are incorrect and don’t match the original. Even the Philips logo and Mercury’s iconic spine text are off. At first glance, it’s difficult to notice what’s “wrong,” but after looking at it for a second or two, it’s clear. Wish they had matched the typefaces! Kudos to Speakers Corner, however, for choosing the correct variation of the banner at the top of the front cover. The later Columbia-pressed edition includes only a single “35MM” logo, while the original RCA-pressed edition has two. Given the impact the 35MM process had on the sound, I think it deserves two, minimum!

Value: 9.2

At $30, this Speakers Corner reissue is an easy recommendation. Buy it new and immediately enjoy this very special recording. Over time, as you encounter the plentiful supply of originals in used record shops (check eBay), look for a clean RCA pressing (with “FR1/RFR2” in dead wax). You can probably get one for less than $20 given the supply. If you have a conventional pivot tonearm and want to avoid hearing any trace of inner groove distortion, get a NM Dutch Philips for less than $10. The upside of its narrow groove spacing is its immunity to this problem. The downside is less bass.

Speakers Corner reissue LP on Amazon.com

Original released by CTI Records in 1971. Catalog Number: CTI 6007. Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder. Producer: Creed Taylor. Recorded at Van Gelder Studios, 1970. Edition reviewed: Yellow label repressing. Matrices: Side 1: RVG 87660-A-RE 4 12-29-70 VAN GELDER, Side 2: RVG 87660-B-RE 4 12-29-70 VAN GELDER.

ORG Music reissue released in 2016. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: ORGM-2005. Matrices: Side 1: ORGM-2005-A BG/CB -35979- P.USA, Side 2: ORGM-2005-B BG/CB -35979- P.USA. Source: “Original analog tapes”. Mastered by: Bernie Grundman. Pressed by: Pallas in Germany. UPC: 887254671619. MSRP: $30. Buy on Amazon.com

Pure Pleasure Records Limited reissue released released in 2014. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: PPAN CTI6007. Matrices: Side 1: PPAN CTI 6007-A -32929-, Side 2: PPAN CTI 6007-B -32929-. Source: ??? Mastered by: Ray Staff at Air Mastering, Lyndhurst Hall, London. Pressed by: ??? UPC: 5060149622056. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), George Benson (guitar), Ron Carter (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums).

Introduction

This is an odd, fun and mostly satisfying record, overshadowed by its more famous predecessor, Red Clay. The music is described well by All About Jazz, so I won’t bore you with another take on it (as per my review philosophy). Bottom Line: This is jam-oriented but serious music with tons of energy and a line-up of genuine superstars.

Sound

Original CTI: 7.2
ORG Music: 8.2
Pure Pleasure: 7.4

This is a good but not great sounding recording considering all that is going on instrumentally. The problem is the amount of high frequency energy coming off the drumset and percussion, especially the cymbals and the tambourine. Sometimes these instruments get distorted due to overload. They have an overly metallic quality that is unnerving. There is also a slight glare present on the original and both reissues.

The CTI original suffers the most from the high frequency issues, but it also has more “air” and sounds a bit more “alive.” However, the trumpet sounds thin, the sax has some nasal-ness, and the bass lacks both quality and quantity.

The ORG Music reissue tames some of the high frequency madness. Cymbals and tambourine are more pleasant and less in-your-face, although distortion on the tape is still heard at times. Trumpet and sax have more body and sound more real. Bass quantity is better, but leading edges of plucked strings are more diffuse. Guitar has a slightly cupped-hands quality.

The Pure Pleasure reissue sounds similar in a lot of ways to the ORG Music reissue. However, this reissue goes a little too far in trying to solve the problems on the original. The cymbals and percussion are somewhat rolled off, and high frequency info is missing. The midrange is nice, very similar to the ORG Music reissue in this regard. Unfortunately, the bass is a little too plentiful. Extra bass can be nice, but it overwhelms in spots.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging

Original CTI: 8.8
ORG Music: 4.3
Pure Pleasure: 9.7

Original CTIs of this era are nice from a quality standpoint. They have laminated, gatefold covers, and decent pressings that are above average for the time.

The ORG Music reissue cover is a disappointment. It isn’t laminated, and instead of a gatefold cover, it includes an insert with the text and images from the original gatefold. More problematic, however, is the pressing. My copy is flat and well centered, but it has many light, inaudible scratches on the vinyl. This is likely due to the record moving around in the inner sleeve during shipping, although some marks look like they were from handling during assembly. ORG Music sent me a second copy, which was much better, but still showed signs of mishandling. Not what I’d expect from an audiophile reissue. Both were sealed when I received them. ORG Music is looking into the issue and assured me they’ve received no other reports of problems.

The Pure Pleasure reissue cover is fantastic. It is both laminated and gatefold. It also matches the details of the original’s graphic design better than the ORG Music reissue (although I think the ORG Music reproduces the correct green labels). Pressing-wise, the vinyl is nearly flawless. It is flat, well centered, and fairly quiet. No marks or sonic issues.

Conclusion

An original first pressing might be the way to go, but only if you can find one in perfect shape (check eBay). My original was a mid-to-late ’70s CTI repress, which may be why it has some issues. If you want to avoid rolling the dice on a used original, either reissue provides very commendable sonics. The ORG Music version is best for neutral systems, while the Pure Pleasure version is better for lean or bright systems. If you want the look-and-feel of CTI’s original deluxe packaging, Pure Pleasure will make you very happy, but you’ll pay a little extra for the privilege. It’s great to have options.

ORG Music reissue LP on Amazon.com:

Pure Pleasure reissue LP on Amazon.com:

Sound: 8.5
Pressing/Packaging: 9.6*
Value: 8.3

Original released in UK by Decca and in US by London in 1963. Catalog Number: SXL 6044 and CS 6358, respectively. Recorded: February 1963 at Kingsway Hall, London, by Arthur Lilley. Production: Ray Minshull.

Speakers Corner reissue released in 2012. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: Decca SXL 6044. UPC: 4260019714091. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Dvorák: Symphony No. 8, Op. 88; Scherzo Capriccioso, Op. 66. London Symphony Orchestra. Istvan Kertész, conductor.

Introduction

The music and performance on this release has been reviewed many times over, so I’m not going to cover that here (as per my review philosophy). Bottom line: Aside from the slightly schmaltzy strings in spots, it’s difficult to find fault with this performance. Confident and balanced. Kertész was a top interpreter of Dvorák, the LSO was in top form at this time, and the Decca recording powers were in full force for this recording.

Sound: 8.5

Recording is exceptional, although there is a bit of glare in the lower treble during loud passages. Otherwise, a natural and dynamic recording with no obvious shortcomings. I compared my mid ’70s narrow band UK London pressing (10G/7G stampers) to the Speakers Corner reissue.

The original has a lower noise floor but the soundstage is somewhat constricted. There is generally more bloom and harmonic structure. Violins are sweeter, more palpable. Upper midrange has more body, better definition. Bass is OK but sort of lumpy and round.

The Speakers Corner reissue is overall very nice. It is however slightly veiled, with more tape hiss (although cut at a lower level). It has a wider, deeper soundstage, and a much better sense of the hall. Violins can be somewhat thin, grainy, smeared, detached, and one-dimensional. Upper midrange is somewhat homogenized. Bass is significantly deeper, more articulate and textured.

Jonathan Valin recently added this Speakers Corner reissue to the new incarnation of the TAS Super LP List.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging: 9.6*

(*) My copy is a test pressing, with generic white labels and black cover. However, pressing quality of the record is excellent. The vinyl is very flat, and is perfectly centered. Surface is quiet and free of marks of any kind.

Value: 8.3

Is the reissue worth $35 when originals are relatively plentiful and cheap on eBay? Depends on your sonic priorities (and whether you want to take a chance on condition, stamper variations, etc.). If you value soundstage and dynamic range over instrumental tone and palpability, the reissue will make you very happy. Even if you value all four of those qualities equally, the relative magnitude of the differences favors the reissue. Recommended.

Speakers Corner reissue LP on Amazon.com:

Sound: 8.3
Pressing/Packaging: 9.4
Value: 9.3

Original released by Columbia Records in 1968. Catalog Number: CS 9628. Engineers: Arthur Kendy, Frank Laico. Producer: Teo Macero.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue released in 2015. 180g, 45RPM, 2LP. Catalog Number: MFSL2-437. Numbered, Limited Edition. UPC: 821797243711. MSRP: $50. Buy on Amazon.com

Miles Davis (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano, electric piano), Ron Carter (bass, electric bass), Tony Williams (drums), George Benson (guitar).

Introduction

There are many insightful reviews of the music on this disc elsewhere, so I’m not going to cover that here (as per my review philosophy). Bottom line: There is some blistering and influential music in these grooves. Tony Williams’ drumming alone produces several jaw dropping moments.

Sound: 8.3

Sound-wise, this record is somewhat inconsistent but supremely interesting and important. Drums sound exceptional, especially on the first and last tracks. Super clear with terrific immediateness. Crisp and snappy. No distortion. Electric piano on first track is also extremely nice. Coherent, tonally balanced, and surrounded by a pillow of believable air. Trumpet and saxophone are good most of the time. Saxophone has extra rich tone on the second track. I think the 45RPM cutting gets every ounce of life from the (aging) tape.

However, there are problems. Trumpet has some distracting, phasey sizzle in loud parts. Muted trumpet at the beginning of the last track is thin and screechy (admittedly, I’m not a fan of the mute). Bass quantity is uneven, with some low and upper bass notes sounding anemic.

But the main issue has to do with the varying “sizes” of each instrument–especially acoustic piano. When not soloing, piano, bass, saxophone, and even drums sometimes sound “smaller” as opposed to “quieter.” This unnatural shrinking and expanding of the instruments can be unnerving (the hard panning of drums and piano doesn’t help).

Real instruments in a real environment never sound like this. Of course, sounding “real” wasn’t necessarily the intent when this was recorded. From this record onward, Miles made greater and greater use of electric instruments and studio experimentation.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging: 9.4

Pressing quality is excellent. My copy is fantastically flat and centered. There is a touch of vinyl noise, but well above average in this regard. Packaging is nearly as good as it gets. A heavy gatefold cover with sharp images and crisp text houses this 2LP gem.

Value: 9.3

As for value, at $50 it ain’t cheap. However, run-of-the-mill reissues cost $30 on average. And those are single LPs–not double. I’m not sure what an original sounds like, or what it would cost to get a nice copy (check eBay). Considering the quality on offer here, value is very high indeed.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue LP on Amazon.com:

Post image for Daily Audiophile Reference System

Daily Audiophile Reference System

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Here’s the system used for music and gear reviews. It’s dedicated to vinyl, but can play hi-rez digital from computer by swapping in a DAC/preamp–something that happens only occasionally these days.

Cartridges

  • Ortofon 2M Black MM cartridge
  • Denon DL-103 (stock) MC cartridge
  • Signet TK7E MM cartridge

Tonearm and Turntable

  • Technics EPA-100 tonearm with Applied Fidelity rewire (copper)
  • Technics SP-10MK2 turntable with obsidian base

SUT and Phono Preamp

  • Cinemag CMQEE-3440AH step up transformer made by Ned Clayton
  • PS Audio GCPH Phono Preamp


Preamp and DAC

  • PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC / Preamp (occasional)

Speakers

  • Avantgarde Acoustic SOLO active, coaxial 2-way horns
  • REL Strata III subwoofer (occasional)

Cables and Power

  • Audio Technica phono cable (RCA)
  • AudioQuest G-Snake interconnect cable (RCA)
  • AudioQuest VSD-1 75ohm coaxial digital cable (2 meter)
  • Blue Jeans Belden 1800F with Neutrik NC3-B series XLR interconnects (25 ft)
  • Mogami 3173 with Neutrik NC3-B series XLR interconnects (1 meter)
  • Monoprice power cables (1 meter)
  • PS Audio UPC-200 power center

Record Cleaning

  • Loricraft PRC-3 record cleaning machine
  • Audio Intelligent Formula No. 15 cleaning fluid

Room

  • 21′ x 14′ with 8′ ceiling
  • Carpet with heavy pad over concrete floor
  • LP shelves provide some diffraction
  • No dedicated room treatments

Setup

  • Speakers 7′ apart
  • Listening spot 8′ from each speaker

Audiophile Reissues

Our music reviews focus on audiophile reissues; primarily LPs. Since these records were released previously (sometimes, many times over), we don’t spend time going into depth about the music, which is often well-known and has been described at length dozens of times elsewhere.

Sound Quality

We evaluate the sound instead of the music. Does it sound natural or artificial? Do the performers and instruments sound like they occupy real space? Is the timbre of the instruments realistic. Are the highs, mids, and lows in correct proportion to one another? Are quiet and loud passages sufficiently different in volume yet equally clear? Is there distortion? Is there tape hiss? Is there pre-echo? We describe these sonic attributes as best we can, given the playback equipment (see the reference system).

Comparisons

If you’re an audiophile, your goal is to get the best sounding version of the music you love. Whenever possible, we review new reissues in direct comparison to original pressings or other reissues. This helps you decide which one to buy (or keep).

Pressing Quality

Pressing a perfect record isn’t trivial, and imperfect pressings almost always mean degraded sound quality. Is the disc flat? Clean? Free of handling marks, scratches, and sleeve scuffs? What about pressing defects like non-fill, bits, or bubbles? Is the spindle hole centered? Is the vinyl quiet? We expose problems such as these so you’re less likely to get disappointed.

Value

As music fanatics, we are prepared to spend good money on software. But we don’t hand over $50 just because a reissue is new–it actually has to sound that much better than cheaper versions already available. Price is important to all but the luckiest of us, so it’s always factored into our recommendations.

Wax Stacks: Best LP Crate Ever?

Friday, July 10, 2015

This Kickstarter campaign for a new kind of LP crate is worthy of a look. Precision cut plywood panels snap together without tools or hardware. With $10K to go and only four days left, they’ll need help to make these a reality. A single crate is only $59, and you get a discount for buying more.

Wax Stacks Kickstarter campaign

PS Audio NuWave DAC Front

Price
$995. Available direct from PS Audio (USA customers only), or via local dealer.

Description
Newest and most affordable DAC from PS Audio. Notable for 192 kHz asynchronous USB and defeatable upsampling (native mode). Effectively replaces the discontinued Digital Link III DAC model, which was introduced in 2006 and still sells on some websites.

Features & Specs (from PS Audio website)

  • Three digital inputs
  • 192kHz asynchronous USB
  • RCA and XLR balanced outputs
  • High current class A output stage
  • Native mode
  • 192kHz selectable upsample
  • Low jitter PerfectWave clocks
  • Class A fully balanced discrete analog electronics
  • Burr Brown 24 bit DAC chip
  • Weight: 12 lbs
  • Dimensions: 14 × 8.5 × 2.75 in
  • Color: Silver, Black

Purpose of this Review
Evaluate NuWave DAC ($995 list) for use with computer audio via USB. Compare it to the PS Audio Digital Link III DAC ($995 list / $499 street) with and without the Musical Fidelity V-LINK 192 USB/SPDIF converter ($399 list / $199 street). This converter employs 192 kHz asynchronous processing and is part of my current digital front end. Please see complete equipment list below for details on the review system.

Background
About five years ago I evaluated several DACs in my system over the course of several months. These included a handful of mid-priced DACs from Bel Canto, Channel Islands, and Musical Fidelity. I used either the Hagerman HagUsb USB/SPDIF converter or a glass optical cable straight from my Macbook. I settled on the Bel Canto DAC2 with the optical connection and lived happily with it until it was replaced by the PS Audio Digital Link III (DLIII) sometime in late 2010. A couple months ago, I added the Musical Fidelity V-LINK 192 USB/SPDIF converter, which was a nice improvement but made me wonder how such a combo would compare to PS Audio’s newest offering, the NuWave DAC. After receiving the NuWave for review, it was played continuously for over 100 hours prior to serious listening.

NuWave vs. Digital Link III
Since my main goal was to determine how the NuWave compares to my current setup, I did the following comparisons:

  1. USB direct, both DACs set to 192 kHz upsampling.
  2. USB direct, NuWave set to native, DLIII set to 192 kHz upsampling.
  3. V-LINK 192 converter, NuWave set to native, DLIII set to 192 kHz upsampling.
  4. USB direct to NuWave set to native, V-LINK 192 converter to DLIII set to 192 kHz upsampling.

Note: The USB input on the DLIII can only handle sample rates up to 48 kHz, so the first two comparisons in the list above were done using 16 bit/44.1 kHz music only. The third and fourth comparisons above included both Red Book and hi-res music since using the V-LINK 192 converter with DLIII or USB direct to the NuWave allows for 24 bit/196 kHz material. Please see the list of music used below for details on what was played.

Listening
Overall, the NuWave is an improvement on the Digital Link III. The NuWave has more detail, air, and richer tones.

However, the differences between the two DACs were less dramatic than I expected. The sound of DLIII was surprisingly close to the NuWave, especially when used with the Musical Fidelity V-LINK 192 USB/SPDIF converter. I found the DLIII presented a slightly warmer, more pleasing sound, while the NuWave was more realistic and interesting. There were times when the DLIII sounded more cohesive, but other times when it sounded somewhat congested. Again, the differences were subtle.

The best sound was achieved using the USB cable direct into the NuWave DAC with the native setting activated. Soundstage height was maximized and tones were harmonically rich. This was especially true on hi-res material, which generally sounded more refined and nuanced than Red Book.

Wish List
The NuWave DAC is an impressive package, but it’s not perfect. Here are my only nits:

  • I really wish the NuWave had a volume control and remote to make running it without a preamp more convenient. The volume control with remote on PS Audio’s GCPH phono preamp allows me to run it direct to my active speakers for my vinyl listening, which is fantastic.
  • I also wish the NuWave had an incoming sample rate indicator, if only to confirm what I think it’s receiving from my Macbook.
  • I like the more substantial case and buttons of the DLIII better than those used on the NuWave. The plexiglass top and plastic buttons on the NuWave feel slightly cheap in comparison. On the other hand, if these materials were used in order to keep the price under $1K, I can live with it.
  • Lastly, I wish the design of the cardboard box used to ship the NuWave made it easier to re-pack the unit should the owner need to ship it again. The box doesn’t use styrofoam or cardboard spacers. Instead, it uses a single raised piece of cardboard, onto which the unit is secured by a single piece of shrink-wrapped plastic. This minimal approach is effective and great for the trip from the factory. However, once the shrink-wrap is cut and the unit it is removed, the interior of the box will need to be creatively augmented by the owner in order to keep the unit in place for another shipment.

Conclusion
The NuWave DAC is a worthy successor to the Digital Link III. It has improved sound and better features. Its few shortcomings are easy to overlook given it’s excellent price. At $995, it’s a bargain. That said, the NuWave’s predecessor, the Digital Link III, is still a surprisingly good sounding unit. Its performance at the discounted price of $499 is tempting, especially if one pairs it with a decent asynchronous USB/SPDIF converter such as the Musical Fidelity V-LINK 192 for an extra $199. Whether the extra $300 for the NuWave is worth it in your system is up to you. For me, it is. Curious how it will sound for you? Take advantage of PS Audio‘s generous 30-day in home trial purchase and give it a try.

PS Audio NuWave DAC Layout

PS Audio NuWave DAC Back

Equipment Used

Software Used

  • Channel D Pure Music v1.89d2 music server software using Memory Play and volume set to 0.0 dB.
  • All music files in Apple Lossless format.
  • All 16 bit/44.1 kHz files ripped from CD using Apple Lossless Encoder setting in iTunes with Error Correction.
  • All hi-rez files downloaded in Apple Lossless format or FLAC.
  • FLAC files converted to Apple Lossless format using XLD v20121222 decoder

Music Used (16 bit/44.1 kHz)

  • The Mercury Program: “Arrived/Departed” from Chez Viking (CD, Lovitt Records, 643859860021)
  • Jose Gonzalez: “Down the Hillside” from Stay in the Shade EP (CD, Hidden Agenda Records, 795306508120)
  • Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition from Fritz Reiner, CSO (Hybrid CD, BMG Classics, 828766139426)

Music Used (24 bit/96 kHz)

  • Arcangelo Corelli Opus 6: Concerti Grossi from The Avison Ensemble (Linn Records, info)
  • Joachim Kwetzinsky: Shchedrin: Basso Ostinato from Polyphonic Dialogues (2L, info)

Music Used (24 bit/176.4 kHz)

  • Dick Hyman: “Thinking about Bix” from HRx Sampler 2011 (Reference Recordings, info)
  • Respighi: Belkis, Queen of Sheba Suite from Elji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra (Reference Recordings, info)
  • Walton: Crown Imperial (finale) from Jerry Junkin, Dallas Wind Symphony (Reference Recordings, info)

Music Used (24 bit/196 kHz)

  • Haydn: String Quartet In D, Op. 76, No. 5 – Finale – Presto from Engegårdkvartetten: String Quartets (2L, info)
  • Beethoven: Sonate Nr. 32 c-moll op. 111 – Maestoso from Tor Espen Aspaas: Mirror Canon (2L, info)
  • Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique from Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Linn Records, info)