We wrote about the brand Musica, belonging to the company Musica Corporation, while testing the integrated amplifier int1000s. Yoshi Hontai, this incredible man, about whom I often write when talking about Acrolink, Oyaide or Leben, being the representative also for that company, send me an email, where, on behalf of the owner of Musica, he thanked me for showing the int1000s to a broader public – as it turned out, this was the first test of that brand outside of Japan. I’ll just remind you, that this text appeared in English on our page one month after the Polish language premiere (HERE), and a few days later it was published on the American portal “6moons.com” (HERE). So we could say, that we succeeded in making this brand more popular, not only in Poland.
One look at the devices made by this company, and you know, that it completely different than anything around. This is assured by the solutions used in the circuitry, but most of all by the external design.
The tested products are no exception to that. Their roots are in the 40 series, and their direct predecessor is the 30 series. Those are small devices with a very narrow front panel, but long, designed to be placed on desktops, near computers, etc – where space is scarce.
In contrast to many other products of that kind (please look in our archive) the Musica gear has a very worked out looks. After the series “Snow” and “color”, in the three classic, Japanese colors, time came for something more exclusive – the Ibuki series. This word describes the classic way of finishing surfaces – this is a kind of dark lacquer with writing and ornaments sunk in it. This looks really great! In addition the tested devices were devoted to the most important siege in Japanese history – the siege of Sekigahara from 1573. Together with the devices you get also a small manual telling about that siege, the places, the museum, etc.
As usual with small companies from Japan, also this time there is not a lot of information available in English. Using materials I received about novelties, we can say, that the Musica products are made 100% in Japan, in the city Ogaki, the center of audiophile companies in the Gifu province. In the, surrounded by a forest, company devices are made, which were a real hit in Japan. The constructors from Musica believe, that only small audio companies, like Musica itself, can manufacture items, which will be sought after by music lovers from around the world. In the cheapest series we’ll find the miniature integrated amplifier Ibuki-amplifier, USB DAC Ibuki-digital and MM/MC phonostage Ibuki-analog. Above are the series 200 and 1000, designed for the more demanding audiophiles. It encompasses integrated and split amplifiers.
This time we test the novelties – Ibuki-digital, a DAC with USB input and integrated amplifier Ibuki-amplifier. Both devices have an identical enclosure (savings are made), are finished in Ibuki technology and are placed on small granite plates, supplied as standard accessory. Those plates have their own feet and a plaque with the company logo. This may not seem much, but it changes the perception of the devices. The units are very light – the PSUs, small ones, are outside the cabinets and the amplifier is a classic AB construction, using an integrated amp TDA2005 with 20W at 8Ω. The DAC uses a small tube, visible in a window made in the front panel, and the amplifier is equipped with only two inputs. We can connect the DAC to one of those, and the phonostage (also offered by Musica) to the other. Or a CD player. Those devices were prepared in cooperation with the prefecture, which issued a special certificate for the company. For the construction of the units, details from 150 year old cedar trees were used, which grow in the vicinity.
As it turns out, the DAC uses an old Burr-Brown receiver chip, which limits the accepted signal to 16 bits and 48kHz (and 32 and 44.1kHz). This means, that we should forget about hi-res files. But I learned during the test of a similar DAC KingRex UD-1 Pro, with a similar chip inside, that when it is well designed, the quality of the sound can be surprisingly good.
In general, as we will see later, those are very simple constructions. Sometimes they use elements and technologies usually not associated with good sound. But as usual with Japanese manufacturers, I would be very careful in making judgments – for them, audio products are one holistic entity, listened to and improved in that context. Usually even simple solutions, when approached that way, allow to perceive Music in an unusual way.
The devices are quite expensive, we cannot overlook that. But those are handmade in Japan, in small quantities, where much effort was needed to create them, especially in listening sessions. Similar constructions, especially in terms of components used inside, you can get from Chinese or Taiwanese manufacturers for half the price. But they will not sound the same, and beside that, they will not be Japanese made – but absolutely anonymous, typical and mass produced.
Earlier we tested:
A selection of recordings used for testing:
- Audio Accesory - T-TOC Records High Quality Data Master Comparison, TDVD-0002, DVD-R, ripy 16/44,1, 24/96, 24/192 WAV.
- Tron Legacy, OST, muz. Daft Punk, Special Edition, Walt Disney Records, 9472892, 16/44,1 FLAC.
- Annie Lennox, Diva, RCA/BMG, 33102, CD.
- Brian Eno, Craft On A Milk Sea, Warp Records, WAV 24/44,1.
- Carmen McReae, Book of Ballads, Kapp Records/Universal Music Japan, UCCU-9634, SHM-CD.
- Charlie Haden & Antonio Forcione, Heartplay, Naim Label, 24/96 FLAC.
- Deep Purple, Who Do We Think We Are, Atlantic/Audio Fidelity, AFZ 084, gold-CD.
- Depeche Mode, Enjoy The Silence, Sire/Reprise, 21490, Maxi-single CD.
- Helge Lien Trio Hello Troll, Ozella Music, OZ021CD, FLAC 24/96;
- J.S. Bach, Sonatas&Partitas for Solo Violin, Pavlo Beznosiuk, Linn Records, CKD 366, HDCD/SACD.
- John Coltrane, Blue Train, Blue Note/Classic Records, HDAD 2010, DVD-V 24/96 + DVD-A 24/192 + FLAC.
- Nat “King” Cole, Love is the Thing, Capitol/Analogue Productions, CAPP 824 SA, SACD/CD.
- Norah Jones, …Featuring, Blue Note, 09868 2, 16/44,1 FLAC.
- Phil Collins, Face Value, Warner Bros/Audio Fidelity, AFZ 027, gold-CD.
- Radiohead, The King of Limbs, Ticker Tape Ltd., TICK-001CDJ, Blu-spec CD.
- Rod Stewart, Never A Dull Moment, Mercury/Audio Fidelity, AFZ 058, gold-CD.
- Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto, Verve, 24/96 FLAC.
- Suzanne Vega, Close-Up. Vol 1, Love Songs, Amanuensis Productions/Cooking Vinyl, COOKCD521, CD.
- Wes Montgomery, Incredible Jazz Guitar of,,,, Riverside/JVC, VICJ-41531, K2 CD.
- Yoko Ono, Open Your Box, Astralwerks, ASW 88710, CCD.
- Zbigniew Namysłowski, Open, Polish Jazz, vol. 74, SX2539, pliki „master”, 16/44,1, 24/96 WAV.
Japanese versions of the discs are available on CD Japan.
Uuuu – you do not have to listen long to hear, that the Ibuki DAC sounds with a very saturated, warm sound, with the lower part of the sound spectrum underlined. We get something like a “pillow” of a clunk and air. Everything is well placed in its sound, exactly where it should be. This is a kind of sound, which is the “right” one from the beginning. This is not the ideal sound, it has weaker sides, what can also be heard. But we get a kind of legitimate way to forget about that and get over it immediately.
Yes, you are right – this is to a large extent an emotional thing. But this is how you feel this device. For me it was even stronger, because I knew the chip used in the Ibuki. I know them well, and usually they sound bad or very bad. The only exception was the DAC KingRex UD-1 Pro, where a similar IC was used – the Burr-Brown PCM2702 (here we have the PCM2704). Those are isochronal, synchronous USB receivers/DACs, where the signal is clocked with a local clock following the main clock of the computer. And the latter is averaged in some time periods. Usually those periods are so big, that it results in a large jitter and noise. In the best circuits most effort goes into minimizing the averaging timeframe. And good results are achieved – we can hear, what asynchronous clocking improves, but we can get a sound like from the Ibuki. That jitter can be minimized to incredibly low values (for the used chip) can be confirmed by the measurements of the USB input in the McIntosh C50 preamplifier made by “Hi-Fi News&Record Reviews”. Although in the description it is not mentioned, we can assume, that the Mac uses one of the two mentioned chips – the device downsamples the input signal to 48kHz. As it turns out, the measured jitter is at splendid 10ps! The noise is however high (Ken Kessler, McIntosh C50/Mc601, „Hi-Fi News & Record Reviews”, Vol 56, No.05, May 2011, s. 20-24).
Maybe this is the reason that I liked the mentioned KingRex so much. This was the first indication, that old technology well applied has its advantages. Does this not resemble the situation of the 16-bits DAC from Philips TDA series (TDA1543) without oversampling? Yes it does! This is a similar sound, and very close set of assets and disadvantages.
The Ibuki USB DAC just plays what it does. Its incredible ability, placing it higher than many more expensive DACs (yes!) is the vividness combined with thorough approach to timbre. The resolution in the midrange is splendid, exceptional. We will appreciate every improvement of the sound quality, every better file. Together with the DAC I received three new disc issued by Audio Fidelity on gold, in HDCD: Never A Dull Moment Rod Stewart, Face Value Phil Collins and Who Do We Think We Are Deep Purple. I had a good time! My heart was especially touched by the interpretation (this is how I understand every re-issue) of the Collins disc. This is not easy material, because it is a multitrack recording with compression, etc. But it is splendidly mastered and recorded. And this can be heard from the very beginning, from the delicate In The Air Tonight to the far end, a cover of the Beatles piece Tomorrow Never Knows. I was not bored for even a second, I did not want to take off the headphones or switch off the amplifier.
The edges of the sound spectrum are slightly soft and not as well defined as the midrange. The same case was with the KingRex. But here it does absolutely not disturb, the warming is not as clear as there. The resolution of those edges is better, and this may be the reason, that I never, but really never, paid attention to them in a special way. Everything was just a unity, fullness and depth.
The same thing is with dynamics, which seems to be slightly averaged, but which, through incredible vividness, subjectively surpasses that, what – objectively better – devices do!
The problem is, that the Ibuki is limited only to CD quality. High resolution files will be decoded fine, but the computer will downsample them. And this part of the process is audible – as a slight brightening and dryness of the midrange. The changes are by far not big, but the magic, that makes us wanting to listen forever with 16/44.1 material, is gone.
This is the reason – I do not believe what I am saying now – if I would compose a system with an USB DAC, then for CDs I would use the Ibuki, and for hi-res some other DAC. Or the Ibuki for the headphone system – it will be incredible! But you have to remember to set the right values in the Sound menu in the computer. If we leave it on 48kHz, then the computer will convert the signal, what will mean a deterioration. But if we will listen to 96 and 192kHz files, please change it to 48kHz – synchronous downsampling (48kHz is the half of 96 and one quarter of 192kHz) is much easier to do and usually gives better results than an asynchronous one.
Anyway, the Ibuki USB DAC is phenomenal. Its sound is very impressive. It is not the best one, it is limited to CD quality files (if you want to get what I am talking about) and is relatively expensive. But how it sounds!... It impressed me so much, that it was the reason to introduce a new kind of distinction this month – Red Fingerprint, a label for products, which can do something others cannot, regardless of their price. The Ibuki-digital will be the first product awarded with this distinction. For details please read the editorial of this month. And it is not so, that this DAC bends the reality and changes the recordings – the worse ones sound worse, the better ones are better. It is only that, when music is good it is extracted from the worse recordings as well, it does not result in a chaos or clatter. This is “not so well recorded music” with the emphasis on “music”. And this is what this multimillion business is all about.
We have to approach the amplifier in a different way, choose a different methodology. Coldly calculating, we have to say, that good amplifiers from NAD, Music Hall, Marantz, etc, costing around 2000zl sound with a more dynamic and controlled sound. The sound spectrum edges will better articulated, stronger, etc. Also they are equipped with more features than the Ibuki – the latter with two inputs and no output, without a remote, has only the absolutely basic functionality. Also the limitations of the TDA ICs are known – there are things they just cannot do.
So the most important thing for me was to find an element, that was polished by the Musica people. It sounds a bit pompous to say “find” – one did not have to search, because it was clear what that element is, but I wanted to reproduce here my way of thinking. And this element nr. 1 is the human voice. This is quite logical, if you cannot reproduce a strong, full bass, if the dynamic is averaged then we have to concentrate on something, that can go without those thing.
This is why the vocals sound so great here. For the given money. I do not know any amplifier costing up to 3000zl, which could show them equally well. The sound is not warmed – this is one of the strategies of TDA application – but the sibilants are also not strong. I would rather say, that they are slightly smoothened, as is upper midrange. This is a result of not so high resolution of those subranges, but actually quite desirable when building a vocal, especially when working with a sound source from the same price level.
The midrange is yet deep and detailed. It is also brilliantly differentiated. It has slight limitations in transparency, but this can be circumvented using appropriate loudspeakers. I would not choose big floor standing ones, because that will not work, but rather stand mount loudspeakers, with a not so big bass. For example the RLS Callisto III, or even the Sonus Faber Minima Vintage will sound fantastic. There will be communicativeness, good sound and big, precise, full voices with a large volume. The amplifier reacts nervously to recordings with many instruments, and additionally compresses, so I would restrict myself to listen to small ensembles.
Like I said before, those two devices have untypical proportions, because the front panel is very small, and they are very deep. The enclosure is made in the Ibuki technology – this is a lacquer with embedded ornaments in gold color. The devices are placed on granite plinths of the same size as the enclosures. The power supplies are external – the DAC has a 24VDC 0.5A miniature switching PSU, and the amplifier 12VDC 2A from a slightly bigger, but also switching Anthin PSU. I think, that changing them to something like TeddyPardo will allow for a significant jump forward in quality. Also the exchanging the small feet for the also small, but made to control vibration, Acoustic Revive feet will introduce much good into the sound.
Like I said, in the fascia there is a small window, that allows us to see a small vacuum tube placed behind it. Beside it there is a small, three position switch and a LED.
On the back there is only a USB type B input and a pair of RCA analog outputs. The sockets are not gold plated and of rather average quality – we can see the savings had to be done somewhere.
The enclosure is made from three materials. The bottom, front and back panels are made from bent, metal sheets. Metal was also used for the shield behind the tube. The rest of the front, back and the top cover are made from plastic. This is similar to the approach from Denis Morecroft from DNM, who says, that metal in the vicinity of the electronic circuitry is a curse. And there is also a thin plywood insert in the front panel.
The electronic circuitry is very simple and built upon two PCBs. Those look like they were made by hand, in small quantities. At the input there is a PCB with the USB receiver and DAC. This is an old Burr-Brown PCM2704 chip, accepting signals up to 16 bits and 48kHz, working in synchronous mode, what means, that its clock is following the computer clock. We have here also nice passive elements. From here, the signal runs close to the front panel via long wires, where the small tube was installed. This is a small, double triode, soldered directly into the PCB. This is because such tubes were designed in the last years of the “tube years” to be used in computers. They were designed to run cool and be long lasting – 10000 hours is a minimum. Unfortunately the tube has no markings on it at all, which would allow to identify it. But from the photographs on the company page we can see, that this is a 6111 tube. It is powered by 12V (yes!) and thus does not need high voltage. It is mounted in a large PCB with only a few elements on it – seemingly the amplifier uses the same PCB. As it seems the tube is working in the output buffer, because the signal from it runs with unshielded cables to the RCA sockets on the back panel.
The amplifier has identical dimensions as the DAC, so it is 84mm wide, 62mm high and 262mm deep. The output power is 2x20W, and the frequency response 1Hz to 40kHz (-3dB). The input impedance is not so high – this is only 10kΩ, this is why I would be reluctant to connect players with a tube output to it.
On the front we have a three position switch, that allows to select one of the line inputs or power off the unit (in its middle position, unfortunately). There is also a blue LED and a volume knob. On the back there is a pair of loudspeaker terminals – popular gold plated ones – and two pair of RCA sockets. There is also a socket for the external PSU.
Describing the DAC I had good intuition – inside the amplifier we have exactly the same PCB as in it (except for the small PCB with the USB input). The signal from the inputs goes to the front, to the mechanical switch from ALCO, with gold plated pins. It has three positions – the middle one switches the unit off, while the edge ones select the input. From the switch the signal runs to the potentiometer – this is a cheap, open Alps. And from there it goes to the power stage. Those are small, based on TDA2005 modules. Those were bolted to the bottom plate. There are some nice passive elements around, including rarely seen, very good Sanyo capacitors.