Krakow Sonic Society
Meeting No. 92
apella Cracoviensis is one of the most distinguished orchestras on the Krakow music scene. It was founded in 1970, three years before I was born, by Stanisław Gałoński who was its conductor and musical director until 2008. Although he was successful for many years, in the end he lost its identity and began a gradual descent into the hell of mediocrity.
Almost exactly five years after the “crowning” of Jan Adamus the band has now moved on to somewhere completely new – you could even say it’s in another galaxy. I meant to write about John Zurek’s – our guest from “Positive-Feedback Online” – surprise in my previous report from the Krakow Sonic Society (see HERE), but I didn’t get to do it. John, our friend now, was moved both by the fact that the orchestra played on period instruments, as well as by the performance itself and its decorum. We were both at the concert and we were both very impressed.
Data Conversion Systems,
During the concert, I was sitting at the right side of the row, in front of the violas visible between the two cellos and double bass. The violins, positioned on the other side of the axis defined by the two harpsichords, were the loudest instruments. But it was the violas underpinned by the larger instruments that made the deepest impression on me. Listening to them, I perfected my confidence in what is the most important aspect of music presentation and one that is still missed by most audio designers: a velvety depth. High-end audio gear is usually understood to be resolving, well-differentiating, detailed and selective. And, sometimes, also dynamic. Indeed, they are all very important, basic aspects. But in themselves they are nothing but useless and often harmful. What really matters is what they build up, and at the top of the building should be the velvety depth with music flowing from it.
It takes years to reach this place and not everyone will find it. Some audio manufacturers get stuck in a race for this or that sonic aspect, others close down their business or change its direction. A few, however, will eventually arrive at the place where music playback miracles begin to manifest.
It had a unique character, as we played host to another important person from an esteemed company, in addition someone who came to Poland specially to meet with us. Our guest was none other than Raveen Bawa, export sales manager for dCS. His background story is very interesting. Before joining dCS he first trained to be and then for a few years worked as a chef, specializing in Greek, Italian and Indian food. After this experience he decided for a career change and took up electronics. After working for a few years for large semiconductor manufacturers he was employed by dCS technological department. He spent six years working in the production department, assembling and testing all dCS products. Only after this experience he was offered a job in the sales department. Initially, he didn’t see himself as a sales representative but the company heads must have recognized in him someone more than just a capable electronics guy. During our meeting, we couldn’t help noticing his great communication skills and extraordinary ease in making contact with other people. You just cannot resist this likeable, unassuming man with the most sincere smile… Recognizing his skills, people from dCS soon offered him a job as Export Sales Manager for the company.
Raveen, who is now a new KSS member, has also been responsible for contacts with music producers consulting their new products with dCS. The company’s development strategy has been a combination of its technical “in house” expertise and auditions carried out mostly by the customers, coming both from the world of professional audio as well as home audio users.
Raveen emphasized dCS’s people surprise to find their rather Spartan-looking, utilitarian product on the shelves of fabulous Japanese audiophile audio systems. They saw it in 1995 while receiving the prestigious award for the dCS 950 studio DAC. It was only a matter of improving the cosmetics, changing user interface and adapting the unit for home operation (safety permits and approvals) before the first audiophile dCS Elgar DAC (24/96) was presented at a “Stereophile” show in June 1996. It was followed by the Purcel upsampler. The upsampling idea was almost completely unknown back then. Despite the fact that dCS’s founder, Mike Story, presented a paper at an Audio Engineering Society convention in the early 1990s, showing that sonic improvements can be achieved by using high sampling rates (see the article by Robert Harley, chief editor of “The Absolute Sound”, HERE). Thus was born the dCS legend.
To put it simply: the Vivaldi
The system that arrived to Krakow together with Raveen and Jarek Orszański, Polish distributor for dCS, is its current flagship model. Presented for the first time at a Hong Kong audio show last year, it was expected to achieve monthly sales of two to three sets, which was very optimistic given its price tag ($108,000 in the US). After the first day, the local dCS representative ordered 30 sets, which almost paralyzed the operation of the British company. dCS is a small manufacturer with only 17 employees, commissioning preparation enclosures, filling plates and other things that require machine park outside. Prepare them the best producers, specialists in the field, normally performing missions for large companies. Fitting into their schedule is very difficult, and such a change almost unmanageable. It took a while before the case was able to straighten up and out of the world were leaving in a month for more than 20 sets of Vivaldi system, not counting the individual components thereof.
There's a reason I'm talking about the "system" - a full four elements Vivaldi Vivaldi Transportation, Vivaldi DAC and upsampler Vivaldi Vivaldi Master Clock. Transport play SACD and CD, the upsampler can bring files from the NAS (so fully the role of the player files), and the clock signal from the computer USB. To make this meaningful work, you need a suitable base, power supply and wiring. In Krakow, stood on the table Artesania Audio Exoteryc, and took the power conditioner Synergistic Research PowerCell 10 SE MK III with cable Anaconda and The CTS Digital Power. Digital cables come from Transparent Audio and ZenSati.
And nothing but the sound
When we arranged to audition the dCS system I thought I knew what I signed up for. But it was only when I saw it, touched it, and listened to it that I felt overwhelmed by its sheer number of features. It was difficult to properly prioritize the most important things that we wanted to explore, or which I wanted to explore. The decision helped by a short introductory lecture prepared by Raveen who, step by step, first introduced us to the company history, then explained the evolution of digital platforms that were the basis of its products and, finally, discussed their capabilities and how they’re assessed by the people from dCS.
The second important issue was the choice of upsampling mode. We spent a lot of time on that, switching between DXD (24-bit, 352.8 kHz) and DSD (1-bit, 2.8224 MHz). Raveen said that the world dCS users, not only of the Vivaldi system but of all those that capable of DSD upsampling, is generally divided into two camps: the supporters of PCM and DSD. Apparently, these two cannot be reconciled because the choices are motivated by emotional reasons. While based on experience, they have more to do with subjective beliefs than objective facts.
Without deciding in advance which side is right, we auditioned a few albums, both knowing which upsampling mode was currently on, as well as doing blind auditions.
The second question, DXD or DSD, also found a unanimous, clear answer: DXD. Our observations were confirmed by Raveen who said he also always chooses DXD upsampling at home. And although there was one exception, Brenda Lee’s album, all the other sounded better without the PCM to DSD conversion. The sound with DSD upsampling was perhaps warmer, rounder and maybe even smoother, yet at the same time less credible and more "made up" towards velvety playing style for pensioners. Part of the musical information was lost, particularly at the top end. This direction might be preferable with certain audio components, as it removes the irritating harshness of digital processing, bringing the sound closer to that normally associated with vinyl (in terms of its general character rather than the so called "analog sound").
What’s more, it was the best sound we’d ever heard, period. These are big words, I know, but I cannot find any other adjective to describe our experience. Even assuming, without any prior audition, that the very price of dCS and its accompanying “accessories” warrants such a statement, it would be contradicted by the small stand mount speakers and low power amplifier at Janusz’s (the Sonus faber Electa Amator I and the Ancient Audio Silver Grand Mono, respectively). However, after listening to a few albums, I saw Raveen walking around the Sonus fabers and muttering something under his breath. I could have sworn it was something like, “that’s f…ing impossible", if I hadn’t known him to be a most cultured man. But internally, he must have communicated something similar, since he said himself that he’d never experienced something like that. And he was shaking his head exactly the same way and at the same pace as John Zurek from "Positive-Feedback Online" had done a month earlier, walking around the same speakers (see HERE). Janusz’s amplifier from Ancient Audio never, ever sounded this way. There was no usual audiophile talk about various sonic aspects and how they were rated. Instead, we simply talked whether the church venue was larger or smaller, or whether the vocalist was closer or further from us.
And the reason I’d never heard the Ancient Audio monoblocks that way before was that the Lektor Grand SE, the best digital player I’d known so far, sounded inferior to the Vivaldi. Given their huge price difference and how much one or the other would set you back in the bank account, I could say that it’s understandable. Only that in the high-end world nothing is given "a priori" and everything needs to be touched, smelled and listened to. Money does not always “make sound”. That's why we kind of got used to the fact that nothing ever beat the Lektor, regardless of its price. And we’ve listened to almost everything worth listening to. I perfectly remember our audition of the previous generation dCS system, about eight years ago. It was a great, thoroughbred sound. However, it didn’t stand a chance against the several generations older Lektor Grand. The dCS seemed too light and too detailed, without proper “connective tissue” and maturity. The same was with the Linn CD12 – a wonderful unit whose sound was not resolving enough to talk about a serious duel. It was only the previous four-piece flagship Jadis system (see HERE) that showed even more saturated and deeper sound than the player from Krakow. But even the Jadis was not capable of presenting an equally large and credible soundstage, and was focused on the foreground.
Comparing the players from Cambridge and Krakow was a unique experience. For a rather long time, we didn’t really know which way would be worth going in the digital audio. The sound of the Grand SE, perfected and refined over and over again by Jarek and Janusz, was so satisfying that all that seemed left was to further improve what had already been very good. And then one evening with a stranger from the foggy Albion was enough to know exactly what the player from smoggy Krakow was missing. Lektor’s designer looked far from happy and Janusz probably lost his temper a little bit. They quickly pulled themselves together, however, and for the next few days I had discussions with that evening’s host of, exchanging ideas that may need to be slept on.
And that would be it, or: it’s wonderful!
On Friday night, December 20th, Piotr Anderszewski gave a concert in the Krakow Philharmonic Hall. The Polish pianist who unfortunately rarely performs in our country played Johann Sebastian Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major and English Suite No. 3 in G minor in the first part, and Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C major, Op. 17 in the second part. The audience held breath after each piece, afraid to break the silence by clapping and come back to reality. I know it because I was there, sitting not far from Wiciu who, together with Tomek, Andrzej, Janusz, Jarek and me, less than a week earlier listened to Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the dCS system worth a few hundred thousand zlotys. If I wasn’t ashamed, I would have cried. Although Mateusz Borkowski who reviewed the concert for “Gazeta Wyborcza” was brought to his knees by Anderszewski’s rendition of Schumann’s Fantasie, for me it was Bach that was simply a stunning experience. Never ever before have I heard anything like that. The air froze for a moment, trapping us all in, voluntarily, and stopping the passage of time for a moment, rendering the outside world irrelevant and narrowing it down to the "here and now".
Thus understood, the dCS system would be closest to the utopian idea of re-creating the soundstage, instruments and vocals in our own room; closer to the excitement of the original than any other digital audio component.