dCS Vivaldi – digital playback system
Stereophile 01/2014 - Michael Fremer
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More than a decade ago, Data Conversion Systems, aka dCS, released the Elgar Plus DAC, Purcell upsampler, and Verdi SACD/CD transport, for a total price of $34,000. In 2009 came the Scarlatti—a stack of four components for $80,000, also available individually (see myAugust 2009 review). The latest variation on the English company's theme are the four Vivaldi components, launched at the end of 2012 for a total price of $108,496.
The Scarlattis improved on the Elgar Pluses in cosmetics and, more important, technical and sonic performance that, in the opinion of many, put it at the top of the digital audio heap. It will be obvious to those familiar with the Scarlatti stack that the Vivaldis take visual appearance and fit'n'finish to new heights. These sculpted boxes in a silver matte finish, each with a unique, flowing wave pattern machined into its front panel, are pleasing to the eye and silky-smooth to the touch. Who said engineering geeks aren't sensual?
The four components are: the Vivaldi DAC ($34,999, slightly more than the original Elgar-Purcell-Verdi combo), which, using can decode every digital resolution, from MP3 to DSD to DXD (a 24-bit/358.8kHz PCM format used primarily for editing DSD files) and everything in between; the Vivaldi Upsampler ($19,999), which can upconvert the lowest-resolution MP3 data to 24/384, DSD, and DXD or any format in between; the Vivaldi Master Clock ($13,499), containing two groups of four clock outputs, which can be independently set; and the Vivaldi Transport ($39,999), a smooth, quiet, quick-booting SACD/CD drive based on TEAC's Esoteric VRDS Neo disc mechanism, considered by many to be the world's finest (footnote 1). This is controlled by dCS-designed signal-processing electronics, and can also upsample CDs to DSD or DXD.
The total price is an astronomical $108,496, though of course you could start with just the DAC and save $73,497. Considering the cost of some preamplifiers, audiophiles with only a single source component can drive their power amplifier directly with the Vivaldi DAC, which has a digital-domain volume control, and save the cost of a standalone preamp.
Most audiophiles prepared to drop $35k on a DAC will head straight for the full stack, I feel, especially those who want to add a music server, since the Upsampler includes an Ethernet connection for network streaming via UPnP. (dCS makes available a free iPad app to work with UPnP-based servers.) While both the DAC and the Upsampler have an asynchronous USB-B port, to allow them to accept audio data from a computer, the Upsampler also has a USB-A port, for use with USB flash drives or i-Devices. The USB-B ports can operate in Type 1 mode, with data sampled up to 96kHz, or in Type 2 mode, which allows DSD and PCM up to 192kHz to be streamed to the Vivaldis. Type 1 operation doesn't require a driver program for Windows PCs or Macs; Type 2 operation doesn't need a driver with Mac OS10.6.3 or later; dCS supplies a driver program for Type2 operation with Windows XP and Windows 7. (They say that it will work with Windows 8 in Windows 7 compatibility mode.) The dCS driver is not compatible with ASIO-type drivers, which will need to be uninstalled.
In other words, while continuing to offer a transport option for those with large collections of CDs and SACDs, dCS has configured the Vivaldi for the discless future—already the present for some, particularly those who never got into SACDs—though it will still be some time before downloadable DSD content catches up with what's already available on disc.
Major Changes Inside
Compared with the older products, the structural rigidity of the Vivaldi components' cases has been upgraded, including top plates of thick aluminum into which are machined asymmetrical cavities that contain damping pads. The combination is said to reduce vibrational modes. But the Vivaldi DAC's insides have been given far more than a cosmetic makeover.
While dCS's products have all been based on the company's proprietary Ring DAC technology, the Vivaldi is based on a complete revision of the Ring DAC concept. The earlier Ring DAC used quad latches (a circuit element that can be instantaneously "flipped" between two stable states) to select current sources based on metal-film resistors. The new Ring DAC design still includes high-speed latches and metal-film resistors, but instead uses individual latch chips said to eliminate between-latch, on-chip crosstalk resulting in lower jitter. The total number of latches has been increased to make better use of the Ring DAC's available dynamic range. A pair of high-speed, software-updatable (FPGAs) replaces the Scarlatti's mapping ROM chips, which allows individual errors in the DAC's current sources to be randomized, reducing the level of distortion and spuriae by 3dB.
The Vivaldi DAC's and Upsampler's digital-processing platform, which runs dCS-developed and -maintained code that forms the core of the entire operating system, has been completely upgraded, including use of a single field-programmable gate array (FPGA) chip with more than twice the capacity of the previous two chips combined. These FPGAs are programmed from flash memory each time the DAC powers up, so that performance improvements or new Ring DAC operating modes can be added with a firmware update.
The Vivaldi DAC's analog circuitry has been redesigned for reduced DC offset, lower noise, and less crosstalk. The completely dual-mono architecture is claimed to improve left/right crosstalk by 15dB at 20kHz. New, higher-output mains transformers in all of the Vivaldi components run cooler than in earlier dCS products, and are mounted on specially damped subchassis to eliminate vibrations. Even the transport has been given a serious mechanical upgrade, which is claimed to reduce the level of acoustic noise by a significant 10dB.
The Vivaldi stack's exterior elegance sacrifices some user-friendliness: the small buttons and their even smaller labels aren't backlit, so if you like doing your digital business in the dark, or even in moderate light, keep a flashlight handy.
The non-backlit remote control suffers a similar problem. While it's a heavy, nicely made piece of aluminum finished pleasingly for the hand, its brushed-aluminum surface makes it difficult to read the labels just below the unmarked buttons unless it's angled just so to reflect any available light. But when you do that, the reflected glare makes the buttons that are marked hard to read.
Setup and Use
Setting up the Vivaldi system can be complicated, but when you spend almost $110,000 on a digital playback system, you can expect plenty of dealer help. The multi-cable system, featuring five AES/EBU cables—two each to connect the Transport and Upsampler to the DAC and a fifth to connect the Transport to the Upsampler—five word-clock connections, and four AC cords, is a cable manufacturer's dream.
But once everything has been set up for you, and the routing for each input and the many screen icons have been explained, you're on your own. Believe me, until you figure it all out and memorize the icons' meanings, you'll feel lonely.
Your options are then seemingly endless. For example, you can route the transport directly to the DAC via the dual AES/EBU connections, which will send DSD signals in their native format and, should you choose, upsample CDs to DSD or DXD—or you can send CD signals to the DAC via S/PDIF or AES/EBU and play them in their native resolution—or send CD data to the Upsampler via the single AES/EBU connection and, by selecting the Upsampler's AES input, play them back at 24/44.1 (the Upsampler automatically outputs at 24 bits)— or you can upsample the CD data there to high-resolution PCM or DSD.
The Vivaldi DAC has six filter options for PCM, with four more for DSD playback. dCS says that with PCM data, the first four filters give different tradeoffs between ultrasonic image rejection and impulse response. Filter 1 gives the most rejection, Filters 2–4 offer progressively relaxed image rejection and better time-domain performance. For data with sample rates from 176.4kHz to 384kHz, two extra filters are available, one with a Gaussian character, the other asymmetrical with almost no pre-ringing. With CD data, Filter 5 is also an asymmetrical type, Filter 6 a very sharp linear-phase type with pre-ringing. The DSD filters progressively roll off the format's ultrasonic noise, in case there are system synergy issues.
dCS recommends Filter 5for CD playback, Filter 2 for 48, 88.2, and 96kHz-sampled data, Filter 6 for 176.4kHz data and above, and Filter 1 for DSD data. For this review, I stuck with Filter 1, which had been recommended by dCS distributor John Quick.
When the Vivaldi Upsampler and DAC are fed audio data via USB or the Upsampler via Ethernet, the incoming sample rate can be anything from 44.1kHz to 192kHz or even DSD. As the Vivaldi Master Clock has two independent groups of word-clock outputs, you can set one to 44.1 and the other to 48kHz; that way, you're less likely to get silence instead of music because the clock frequency doesn't isn't a multiple of the incoming bitstream's frequency. When they are connected by the dual-AES/EBU link, both the Vivaldi Upsampler and DAC correctly switch between the clocks for 44.1kHz and its multiples (including DSD) and 48kHz and its multiples.
For use with a UPnP server and control point, you'll need to set the Upsampler to its Network input. However, it turned out that my Meridian Digital Music Server was incompatible with the Vivaldi Upsampler, and could only be connected to the Vivaldi DAC via S/PDIF. John Quick therefore provided a "pre-filled" server running dCS's proprietary UPnP software.
I now had at my disposal my collection of SACDs, more than 3000 CDs, and 24/96 downloads on the Meridian, and a large collection of DSD files on a hard drive (also provided by Quick) that connected to my MacBook Air, in turn connected via USB to the Vivaldi Upsampler and the iPad-controlled server. I had the digital power!
The Digital Promise Finally Fulfilled?
Before doing any listening, I wondered how the Vivaldis' reproduction of PCM recordings would compare with that of MSB's Signature DAC IV with Diamond power supply ($43,325), which I'd borrowed along with their Platinum Data CD IV transport. (See Jon Iverson's review.) The MSB combo had produced the best digital sound I'd heard. It was clearly a leap forward from the dCS Scarlattis' playback of CD and hi-rez PCM recordings, particularly in terms of overall openness and three-dimensional, widescreen sound, minus the usual associated brightness and brittle transients.
With the MSB and Scarlatti systems no longer in my system, I couldn't perform direct comparisons. However, based on my aural memory, the Vivaldis immediately sounded more open and less reserved than the Scarlattis, which, while free of obvious digital artifacts, seemed to achieve that by hiding them in the folds of its warmish sound. Yet while sounding more open, transparent, and spacious, the Vivaldis still retained the Scarlattis' warmth and transient delicacy, minus their tendency to softness. The Vivaldis' overall sound was as nondigital, transparent, and—especially—as three-dimensional and spacious as I've experienced with digital. They also produced the most convincing musical textures I've yet heard from digital, 100% free of cardboardy or metallic artifacts.
No single overarching, obvious sonic character permeated every disc's or every source's sound: no bright overlay or etchy transient fingerprint that, once heard (usually quickly) in lesser gear, just can't be ignored.
Which is not to say, "Come back, Compact Disc—all is forgiven!" With hi-rez recordings at my fingertips, including some for which I also had the CDs, two things were clear: 1) While the best-engineered and -produced CDs can sound pretty good, CD sound pales next to SACD or hi-rez PCM; and 2) Those who trumpet CD's transparency and claim that higher resolution is inaudible are being guided by mathematical "proof"—not their ears, which for some reason they fail to trust.
I like to first evaluate a DAC using poor recordings. I'm not sure why, but I find that the more poorly recorded and/or mastered the recording, the more it spotlights a DAC's sonic character. Soft-sounding, poorly resolving DACs cover up recording flaws; harder, etchier, more analytical DACs make flawed recordings the audio equivalents of turning up a video display's Sharpness control.
The Band's Live at the Academy of Music 1971: The Rock of Ages Concerts (3 CDs, 1 DVD, Capitol UME 6 02537375271) features a new Bob Clearmountain mix of the original multitrack tapes, said to have been supervised by Robbie Robertson. It sounds nothing like either Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's SACD or vinyl reissues, sourced from the original mix. Both the SACD and LPs sound relatively warm, with plenty of hall sound, along with the inevitable leakage from the stage monitors. They also emphasize bass and kick drums, at the expense of percussion and guitar transients and treble detail. You can comfortably turn up either the SACD or the LP to live performance levels.
The remix offers far more detail, particularly in the upper octaves. It's all about the guitars and cymbals, and it's bright, hard, and flat, with little sense of depth. It's threadbare in the bass—you can barely hear the kick drum, let alone feel it. The sonic balance reminds me of one of those thin, wiry, 1980s-era, coke-influenced mixes that for about half a decade ruined the sound of recorded music.
This new edition doesn't sound terrible at low levels, but if you try to play it at live SPLs, your ears will demand that you turn it down. Through the Vivaldis it sounded ultraclean, fast, and appropriately sharp, with not a hint of DAC-infused grain, glare, or sheen. The Vivaldis' transient speed and resolve were impressive, even with a thin, bright CD—which lesser DACs coarsen, adding their own hash and glare.
Pop in the MoFi SACD and you get a warmth and a delicacy that make it hard to believe it's the same DAC, never mind the same recording. Unfortunately, the instant juxtaposition makes the MoFi sound smothered under a pillow, and the new version coming from an iPhone speaker. Not the Vivaldis' fault, of course, but to their credit as a neutral decoder.
Feel free to turn the volume up—way up—with good SACDs, and don't worry that you'll be assaulted by etchy digital artifacts. I'm not a huge Billy Joel fan, but "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," from his Turnstiles, recorded at Ultrasonic Studios in Hempstead, Long Island (SACD/CD, Columbia/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 2063), sounded remarkably analog-like, producing a generous sense of studio space and deep bass on the Phil Spector–patented kick-drum rhythm and percussive transients, which were cleanly and sharply drawn, without unnatural etch. Joel's voice sounds naturally smooth, round, and solidly three-dimensional. The Vivaldis' bass performance was the best I've heard from a DAC: deep, rich, and particularly well textured.
I could play the Vivaldis at whisper-low levels. Unlike many digital front-ends, which fall apart and get murky at low SPLs, and get hard and etchy at high ones, the Vivaldis maintained their graceful, delicate, yet solid sound at volumes high and low.
The Zombies' Greatest Hits has always been one of my SACD benchmarks (Audio Fidelity AFZ 001). Rod Argent on electric piano, lead singer Colin Blunstone, and the rest created a uniquely sophisticated, melodic pop sound with tight three-part harmonies propelled by a rolling, flowing rhythm section. "Tell Her No," "She's Not There," "You Make Me Feel So Good," and, of course, "Time of the Season" are the highlights, but many of the lesser-known tracks are also worthwhile. Originally released on UK Decca vinyl, the recording has a suave, delicate, almost buttery quality, with everything equally bathed in generous reverb that softens and blunts percussive transients and rounds the vocal images. Like the tuneful music, the sound never offends, but can draw you in and produce a state of hypnotic suspension. Despite the heavy amounts of reverb overall, the guitars and some of the background vocals are closely miked and presented relatively dry. With those instruments and voices, the effect produces a startling jump-from-the-speaker immediacy and in-the-room three-dimensionality.
I know these recordings very well; for some lame reason, I long ago tried to analyze what made this record so uniquely attractive to my ear, so capable of producing a feeling of easy-flowing serenity. I've played the SACD/CD on every SACD and CD player I've reviewed and/or owned. What set apart the dCS Vivaldis' rendering of it? The speed, resolution, size, and timing of the vocal sibilants, for one thing; and, for another, how clearly I could hear the processing as a separate event that didn't etch and exaggerate the size or length of the actual sibilants. The Zombies' familiar tunes were presented with a depth-of-field three-dimensionality, delicacy of attack, generosity of sustain, precision of decay, and transparency I never thought I'd hear from digital. The launch of the reverb around Blunstone's voice had never before been so cleanly resolved, or timed so effectively.
On to the sonic spectaculars: I played the 24/176.4 files from the HRx Sampler 2011 (DVD-R, Reference Recordings HR-2011 HRx) on a Mac laptop running Pure Music and the signal sent to the Vivaldi DAC's USB port. This produced the deepest, most robust, most controlled bass; the widest dynamic swings; and the most enormous sense of space I've yet experienced with the darTZeel NHB 458 monoblocks driving the Wilson Audio Specialties XLF speakers. Erik Satie's Gymnopedie 1, with Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra, produced a wide, deep, spacious sound, yet despite all the space, the instrumental focus was precisely and delicately drawn. In the Finale of Walton's Crown Imperial, played at ridiculous SPLs, the rumbling organ's textural suppleness and bass weight, and the overall sound, would have had even the most fanatical vinyl die-hards reveling in every aspect of the music.
The Vivaldis presented the 24/96 file of Neil Young's Live at Massey Hall 1971 with abundant transparency, spaciousness, and organic wholesomeness, but when I switched to the AAA vinyl (two LPs, Reprise/Classic 43328-1), the LP added life to what was, in all other ways, a truly superb, pristine sound.
On the other hand, Doug MacLeod's superb There's a Time (DVD-R, Reference HR-130 HRx), originally recorded on the Skywalker Ranch Soundstage at 24/176.4 by Keith O. Johnson, sounded very similar from both digital and LP, the digital original getting the nod through the Vivaldi for its somewhat more robust bass and wider macrodynamics—but with a good analog front end, the differences were fewer than those who think we like vinyl for its euphonic colorations would care to admit. The vinyl can't sound better than the original 24/176.4 file it was mastered from, unless the vinyl mastering engineer's DAC betters what you have at home.
dCS Server iPad software
Using the iPad UPnP app I'd downloaded from dCS with a router and the AVA Media Zara Premium server connected to the dCS Vivaldi Upsampler via Ethernet, you can have instant access, with touchscreen convenience, to an entire music library, with files of resolutions up to 24/192. The software also lets you switch the Upsampler to its USB-A port to access and play files from thumb drives.
The iPad app's user interface is neither as elegant nor as intuitive as the Meridian Digital Music Server's, but it does allow playback of files with higher resolution. Some nasty digital noise occasionally marred playback from thumb drives, but for the most part the iPad interface worked well. A server adds more value to the Vivaldi stack, though whether or not a $110,000 digital playback system can be called a "value" in the first place is arguable, to say the least.
Getz/Gilberto (24/96, Verve/HDtracks) sounded as delicate, liquid, highly resolved, and analog-like as digital has ever sounded in my room, rivaling in many ways the 45rpm reissue (2 LPs, Verve/Analogue Productions AVRJ 8432-45). The 24/176.4 files of the Rolling Stones' 12 x 5(ABKCO/HDtracks) sounded spectacular in the true stereo mix, but the SACD produced greater transparency and liquidity.
Compared to the Vivaldis, the other digital systems I've had here, the MSB excepted, all sounded spatially constricted, two-dimensional, texturally dry, and mechanically processed. Even the MSB sounded somewhat dry and "techno" in comparison. With other digital systems, I couldn't wait to return to vinyl playback. By contrast, I ran the Vivaldis directly into my darTZeel amplifiers for the last week of the review auditioning, and though couldn't play any vinyl that week, I didn't miss it.
The dCS Vivaldi components produced a texturally supple, delicate, musically involving sound filled with color and life. Their soundstaging and imaging capabilities surpass what I thought was possible from digital.
Some may find the Vivaldis' complexity daunting—but if you're willing to put in some time, you'll be able to operate it comfortably. Depending on your needs, you might be able to get away with just the DAC or the DAC-and-clock combo, which, directly driving my amplifiers, produced high-resolution digital sound that I found easy to warm up to.
The Vivaldis comprise the best non–digital-sounding digital system I've heard.
dCS Vivaldi specifications
dCS Vivaldi associated equipment
dCS Vivaldi measurements