In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote that, “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven” – in other words, it’s all relative. This strikes a chord for anyone who has followed the development of digital audio from its consumer debut back in the early nineteen eighties, up to now…
The very first Compact Disc players seemed amazing at the time, not least because they had none of the faults of the vinyl LP format that we had all become so accustomed to. The new digital disc had no wow and flutter, no tracking error distortion, no turntable bearing rumble – and of course the ‘snap, crackle and pop’ from all those vinyl surface imperfections was also banished. Instead, the new format came over as strikingly clean and open, so much so that some critics declared that it was actually too stark and forward to be listenable.
We didn’t realise it at the time, but many complaints about the new format’s bright sound were simply because most audiophiles had built their hi-fi systems around analogue front ends that were rather veiled in real terms. For example, the reference moving coil cartridge of the day was Supex’s SD900, which when fitted to most reviewers’ favourite turntable – the Linn Sondek LP12 – sounded rather warm. To counter this, many opted for forward sounding amplification or loudspeakers. Inevitably then, when you put a new CD player into such a system, it sounded bright.
As the decade progressed, audiophiles began to better integrate digital into their hi-fi systems, building them around their new Compact Disc front ends. The controversy about ‘the sound of digital’ began to subside, and the new format began to gain mass appeal. Then Philips launched its new Bitstream DAC and digital filter, which found its way into countless mainstream CD players from all around the world. It further smoothed out digital sound, having less of the ‘glare’ that characterised earlier generations of multi-bit DACs. By the early nineties, Compact Disc was now a mature technology giving pleasure to huge numbers of people.
There was resistance at the top, though – in the high end market analogue still held sway. Ironically the latter half of the nineteen eighties saw some major leaps forward in terms of pick-up cartridge and tonearm technology, which made LPs sound cleaner and more accurate than ever before. In 1996 dCS launched the Elgar, the company’s first ever consumer digital-to-analogue converter. This proved a major market disruptor, offering more transparent and neutral sound than any other digital source on sale, as many critics attested. It ratcheted up the audio quality from silver disc significantly, finally making digital audio the choice of many high end users.
At that time, Elgar showed that many people using lesser digital front ends had indeed been making “a heaven of hell”, as they hadn’t realised what the CD format was capable of until they heard it. Yet as time went by, Elgar itself was eclipsed. The launch of Debussy in 2008 was a major inflection point, because it offered greater performance despite being the company’s ‘entry-level’ product. Its newer implementation of the Ring DAC was a real step up, bringing more refinement and insight into the recording, and giving a less constrained soundstage.
Due to the unique way that dCS DACs are made, they have upgradeable firmware which allows the company’s engineers to update them with new features and/or format compatibility. That’s why they have far longer production lives than rival manufacturers, most of which use bought-in silicon chips that cannot be improved upon after the design is finalised. For this reason, dCS DACs are not routinely replaced – they stay in the range for a protracted period of time and are only replaced when there’s a comprehensive improvement possible.
Now that time has come for Debussy. The DAC that made the once state-of-the-art Elgar look ordinary, has itself now bowed out to be replaced by the Bartók. It’s quite a thing to compare the two. Separated in time by a decade, the new DAC sports a hi-res OLED display, which is necessary to control its wide range of modern features. This includes full streaming capability and the option of a high quality headphone amplifier – plus of course full app control.
The key difference is in its sound, though. Major tweaks to the Ring DAC control board, ancillary circuitry and the computer code that runs things have delivered a step-change in performance. Bartók sounds dramatically faster, more open, engaging and insightful than its predecessor. It has a more tuneful bass, superior rendition of the music’s rhythms and greater dynamism – which makes the once-excellent Debussy seem rather laid-back by comparison. This shows two things, the first being that despite dCS having used the Ring DAC for three decades, it has constantly been improved over the years. Second, the things that we think are pretty special at one point in history, are never as good as it gets. “Time and tide wait for no man”, as the saying goes…