Newport 2012: Empirical Audio

I get asked — a lot — about the sound quality at shows. “Hear anything good?” has a double-meaning, with the underlying assumption being that, no, I didn’t because nothing at an audio show sounds good.

Well, that’s pure BS. You wanna know how I know? Because of rooms like Empirical Audio. This room sounded fantastic.

This is the first time I’ve heard the $30,000 TAD Evolution One, so I don’t have much to go on here, but it’s stupid-good. The frequency response on this thing is something like 28Hz-100kHz, which is insane and my dog is probably very happy to know that I can’t afford this speaker. But! If you do have the dough squirreled away in a sock drawer and you were allowed to blow it all on a pair of speakers, I can heartily recommend checking these bad boys out. Fit and finish is, like the rest of the TAD line, absurdly good and the sound is nothing short of stop-you-in-your-tracks quality.

But they’re not the story here.

Big amplifiers that were originally from Parasound provided all the juice. I was told, by Empirical Audio’s chuckling Steve Nugent that the amps have been … ah … tweaked. A bit. Maybe. Okay, probably beyond all recognition, but they’re not the story either.

The story, to make a long story, ah, longer, is the stuff in front of all that — it’s the new $5,999 Empirical Audio Overdrive SE DAC. This DAC is, essentially the same that I saw at RMAF last year, where it was sporting a nifty bronze steampunk case. Steve still wants to bring that chassis to market, but in the meantime, he’s got a half-width aluminum case that more than does the trick.

Three little toggle switches give you some flexibility — source selection, the preferred digital filter of 44.1/96/192 — Steve recommends leaving it in the 192 position for all playback as this moves the noise out of the audible band — and a “deemphasis filter”. He went on to explain that this last filter is for those us still carting around some of those early CDs, where “emphasis” was added to the high frequencies. With better playback chains, this can be rather annoying, rendering the audio thin, brittle and bright — this filter can take that out. Interesting way to keep those CDs playable, no?

The Overdrive comes with its own outboard power supply, with an identical form factor. Easy to fit on a shelf and some great isolation to boot.

The DAC comes with options for BNC S/PIDF, asynchronous USB, and even I2S over an RJ-45/Ethernet cable (like Northstar, Stello and a few others) — for those transports that support that (hello, PS Audio …), XLR and RCA analog outs, a sub isolator, and a rather unusual volume control in that it is not a digital attenuator throwing away bits or some kind of analog resistor (or even a set of them). The Overdrive’s volume control actually varies the reference voltage that is used to scale the D/A conversion. Admit it! You’re intrigued — and so am I. And if the sound in this room is any indication, well, let’s just say this thing works like a friggin’ charm.

Signal separation came courtesy of the superlative Classic Passive Magnetic Preamplifier from Music First Audio. According to Steve, this preamp is total overkill, but it provides great isolation for those who need to bring in multiple sources. Like, say, vinyl. Hey, it could happen.

Here’s Steve, plugging in an Off-Ramp, now in version 5. This is another cool widget that specializes in taking dirty, jittery computer-based signals and converting that mess to an ordered, dejittered signal worthy of an audiophile-grade DAC. It can take 24bit/192kHz signals over asynchronous USB, and can spit it out again as AES/EBU, S/PDIF over BNC, or I2S. Pricing starts at $1,299. An upgraded clock, and Hynes regulators, can be added for additional cost.

The soon-to-be-released Short Block is an inline USB filter, pricing is targeted somewhere south of $200. Fully compatible with 192kHz sample rates, the fully passive Short Block is another way to completely isolate the computer from the rest of the network.

It’s fully compatible, also, with the all “regular” A to B connector USB cables. The Short Block plugs into the upstream device and your fancy USB cable connects it to your downstream device. And that’s all there is to it.

The Short Block should be available soon. Steve said 3 weeks.

The Synchro Mesh, by contrast, is available right now.

Another terrifically useful bit of technology, the $599 Synchro-Mesh Asynchronous Reclocker looks like a less expensive Off-Ramp. And it does. But it’s different. Look, the Off-Ramp works via USB — the Synchro-Mesh is for the other sources. The more troubling ones. Like that old Oppo you’ve got squirreled away in the closet. The Off-Ramp does nothing for that. Your Squeezebox, Sonos system, Apple TV and your old non-USB computer are likewise left out in the cold. No, for that, you need a Synchro-Mesh to convert that crap-ass signal into a clean, de-jittered signal to the DAC of your choice.

Here’s Steve, driving the tunes. Easily some of the best sound here at T.H.E. Show.