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Reelin' in the Years

Date: 15th August 2014

Reelin’ in the Years

Remember 1989? Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev declare the end of the Cold War, Sky Television launches in the UK, Michael Jackson is named ‘King of Pop’ and ‘Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade’ goes crazy at the box office. It all seems such a long time ago now, and it’s incredible to think how much the hi-fi world has changed since then.

Although a great many people still use CDs as their main music source, the advent of computer audio downloads and streaming is slicing the numbers of Compact Disc album sales, while CD singles have long since gone. Twenty five years ago of course, CD was cutting-edge stuff; it had been in UK shops for six years but was only just becoming affordable. CD players were finally trickling down into portable audio devices – Sony was just about to launch its first Discman – but most digital audio listeners were paying many hundred pounds for the privilege of playing their silver discs, and not very well at that…

All Compact Disc players were either Philips- or Sony-based back then, and even many of the Japanese machines used the Philips TDA1541 16-bit, 4 times oversampling chipset. CD sounded fun and feisty but in absolute terms it was appallingly unrefined by today’s standards. Thankfully though we were just about to embark on a voyage of discovery which would dramatically civilise CD sound, and make it less – as we used to say back then – ‘digital’.

If you were a marketing man at Philips or Sony, then ‘digital’ was good of course. It connoted new, shiny, space-age technology – so much so that even the most mundane budget amplifier from Japan had ‘digital-ready’ rather nonsensically inscribed on its fascia. Audiophiles however, were still in something of a quandary about digital. There was a lot that was positive about this new fangled, 16-bit, 44.1kHz PCM system – not least the absence of all the bugbears that beset analogue like wow and flutter, noise, poor separation, and so on. Yet many discerning listeners also thought it lacked smoothness and sounded unacceptably processed. Some people were even murmuring that DAT (Digital Audio Tape), with its higher 48kHz sampling frequency, was the way ahead – amusingly Sony Music even started making pre-recorded music DATs in an attempt to jump on the bandwagon.

T’was not to be, of course. Instead, we began to realise that it was the players that were flawed, rather than the coding system itself. The company that played the absolutely pivotal part in this process was dCS. When the dCS 950 studio digital-to-analogue converter arrived in 1993, it took the pro audio world by storm. Soon it was given a new set of clothes and repurposed for domestic audiophile needs. The reaction to the 1996 Elgar was rapturous – here was the first ‘clean-sheet’ DAC design for an age, and it sounded dramatically different to everything that had come before.

Trouble was, dCS products were unerringly expensive; this wasn’t because of the fancy boxes or lavish marketing hype – neither of which dCS did well – it was because of the technical sophistication and electronic complexity of the product itself. Unlike its rivals from a range of American, British and Japanese companies, the Ring DAC inside wasn’t simply the repurposing of an OEM chip such as the aforementioned Philips. Instead of sticking someone else’s silicon in a swish box and adding a few flashing lights, dCS did a ground-up platform using know-how the company had developed for its earlier military radar installations. It proved exceptionally powerful at resolving very low level digital signals, where of course digital experiences most difficulty.

The nineteen nineties saw the gradual move to 24-bit, 96kHz processing of course. The new-fangled Digital Versatile Disc, launched at the end of that decade, was capable of this resolution and it set a bar for DAC manufacturers to work towards. dCS was the first to market with the capability, and it didn’t require a complete redesign of the Ring DAC platform; rather, the firmware was rewritten and this functionality added. Being a digital signal processing engine, the Ring DAC could turn its hand to this without the expense of having to design a new chipset from the ground up.

Soon after, the company discovered upsampling. It was actually an accident, because golden-eared dCS staff discovered that by using its newly developed 972 digital-to-digital converter to upsample CD to 24/96, the treble smoothed out and the midband acquired a far more spacious feel, even though no new data had been added along the way. dCS founder and chief designer Mike Story refused to believe it at first, then went away to find out why it worked, when he was finally convinced it did. Upsampling went on to give CD a new lease of life just when it was flagging, and reminded us that – like North Sea Oil – there’s always more buried treasure if you know where to dig!

Now in 2014, most people are enjoying better CD sound than ever – as well as the joy of higher resolution formats at last. But in the intervening years, the one company that kept pushing the envelope of what was possible was dCS – from sophisticated, proprietary DAC technology to hi-res digital audio to upsampling, jitter-reducing external clocks and most recently asynchronous USB. The latter technology, which lets the DAC clock the computer audio source rather than the other way round, has effectively turned everyone’s workaday computer into a high quality hi-res digital source. In 1989, you could pay £5,000 for a state-of-the-art Sony CDP-R1 transport which couldn’t do half of what a £250 sub-notebook computer can do now – when it’s using dCS technology.

So nowadays you don’t need to be rich to play out digital music of breathtaking quality – but you will still need a serious DAC to hear it in all its splendour. Sadly these don’t come so cheap, but when you hear one you soon realise why. It’s a long time since dCS invented the Ring DAC, but in the company’s current range of digital converters it finds its purest expression. New formats race onwards now though, as ever more audiophiles crave better sound. If we’ve come from 16-bit, 44kHz Red Book CD to 5.6MHz DSD in the last quarter of a century, one can only wonder where we will be in another twenty five years. One thing’s for sure, there’s bound to be a dCS DAC around that will do it justice.