DACs

Theta Generation VIII Series 2 Digital-to-Analog Converter/Preamp

ARTICLE INDEX

Computer Interface Using the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96

More and more audiophiles are shifting from physical CDs and SACDs to digital media files stored on computers and media servers. Computer playback also allows you to download and play high-res 24/96 files currently available from HDTracks and a few other sites. One reason for the Benchmark DAC1 USB's popularity is its ability to playback 16/44.1 and 24/96 files stored on computers.

I use the Benchmark DAC1 USB in my upstairs system. Fed by my iMac via a Belkin USB 2.0 cable, and playing through AudioEngine 5 self-powered speakers, it makes mighty fine music. (It sure helps that I'm using a Nordost Valhalla power cable on the Benchmark, interconnects from Harmonic Technologies, and WireWorld Gold Eclipse speaker wire). My little computer system can't hold a candle to the main system downstairs, but it sounds a helluva lot better than most of the systems you encounter in people's homes these days.

Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the Gen. VIII and most other older DACs lack a USB or Firewire input. To address the problem, Bel Canto has recently released a convenient, lightweight USB Link 24/96 that allows users convert USB computer outputs to SPDIF. The link uses native drivers supplied with either Mac or Windows operating systems, and comes supplied with a Stereovox XV2 BNC cable and RCA adapter to connect to any DAC. It is also self-powered by the computer's USB output, and does not need a separate power source.

Theta Generation VIII Series 2 Digital-to-Analog Converter/Preamp

I've begun to experiment with connecting my Apple Powerbook G4 to the Gen. VIII Series 2 using the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96 and my standard Belkin USB 2.0 cable. Because I'm concerned that the BNC to RCA adapter supplied by Bel Canto will compromise sound, I'm doing straight BNC to the Theta, using either an old Nirvana 1.5 meter BNC digital cable or the supplied Stereovox XV2 BNC cable to connect to the Theta's BNC input. (I will also be trying a BNC cable from DH Labs in the near future). My goal is to see if I can get at least as good if not better sound from files I've burned onto my computer from well-recorded CDs as from playing the same CDs through Theta Carmen II transport and Nordost Valhalla AES/EBU digital cable.

As of this writing, I am still in the experimental stage. For example, I just learned that Spotlight search feature on Mac computers can compromise sound quality, and should be turned off. I have yet to try that and hear the difference. Before long, I will receive a WireWorld USB 2.0 A-B flat cable to try instead of the Belkin. Hence, my comments are preliminary, and should not be taken as my final word on the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96. Once I finish my experiments, I will update this review via the Comments section.

After listening to a number of tracks, including the first five minutes of Anne Sophie Mutter's sensational new recording of Sofia Gubaidulina's violin concerto In tempus praesens (DG), the superb Dialoghi piano/cello recital from Elinor Frey & David Fung (Yarlung Records), and baritone Matthias Goerne's most recent Schubert recital (Harmonia Mundi), I find myself happier with standard CD playback through the Theta Carmen II transport. Whether listening for air, glistening highs, richness of midrange, bass slam, or overtones, the CD playback supplies more information and sounds more musical.

Since this flies in the face of an abundant amount of literature that extols computer playback over CD playback, I can only speculate that one or more of the following is affecting sound quality: (a) the Spotlight search function is a major culprit; (b) iTunes itself is an imperfect media server, which comparison to the Amarra Server shown in select rooms at CES 2009 suggests is the case; (c) the USB and BNC cables I'm using with the Bel Canto link are not the equal of my Nordost Valhalla AES/EBU digital cable; (d) the fact that I use my Powerbook for writing, scanning, email, and other functions rather than exclusively for music playback has introduced various factors into the interface that compromise sound quality; and/or (e) the Bel Canto link is a less than ideal interface. Clearly, more experimentation is in order.

What I can't play through my transport are 24/96 files. In the coming weeks, I will be downloading a few of those from HDTracks.com, and using the Bel Canto link to play them back through the Gen. VIII Series 2. My hope is that they will sound at least as good if not better than the physical CDs in my library. Again, look for my comments down the road.