Emm Labs CDSA + Nordost ODIN versus Emm Labs TSD1 and DAC2

The question: Does an ODIN power cord on the back of a CDSA make it the equal of Emm Lab’s new ‘black badge’ TSD1 transport and DAC2 pair?

[Thanks Steve G. for the idea for this shootout.]

Starting off with a question like that makes me think of Carrie in ‘Sex and the City’ writing her column [just got done watching the movie. Liked it but it should have been called Spoiled Women and Wimpy Men in the City. Am I right or am I right? :-)].

The question is especially relevant because the price of an ODIN + CDSA combo is about equal to the price of the TSD1/DAC2.

We decided to do a slightly different shootout, perhaps unfortunately, that compares the CDSA + ODIN against the TSD1/DAC2 using fairly decent power cords [Valhalla and ELROD]. At the time this seemed to make more sense – most people would put a decent PC on the ‘Black Badge’ pair [the ‘Silver Badge’ pair being the CDSD/DCC2]. And the Kimber PC that comes with the Emm Labs gear had not been broken in at all – otherwise we should have used that power cord.

Anyway, we learned a lot from the shootout – or at least confirmed what out other – very lengthy shootouts [appearing soon in the Magazine] told us about the two players.

For this shootout, we were able to just switch back and forth between the two players. They were both run into the Audio Note Ongaku integrated using Nordost ODIN interconnects. The Ongaku was connected to the Marten ‘Coltrane’ loudspeakers using ODIN speaker cable. Every thing was sitting on Acoustic Dream’s amp stands.

Since we were eagerly anticipating the luxury of being able to switch back and forth between the two players in real time [usually we have to do a lot of disconnecting and connecting between listening to one component and other – trying to do it as fast as possible to keep as much aural information in short term memory as possible], we needed to find discs that we had two of. We did and they were: red book Radiohead’s Amnesiac, SACD Santanna’s Abraxus, and SACD Janis’ Rachmaninoff.

Radiohead:

The CDSA sounded a little ‘dirtier’, with a little more ‘spit’. Perhaps a little more romantic – but we later decided that the reduced separation here was more familiar, more comfortable, and more accessible. We talked about this before – how as a system gets better and we leave the old familiar problems behind – we miss them. Many people think those problems are part and parcel of the way music is supposed to sound and they [and their poor roommates] get stuck in a sonic rut, a backwater, a musical ‘hell on earth’ [but I probably exaggerate a little].

The Pair had way more separation, a much deeper [spooky] blacker background, and better purity. By purity here I mean that the notes were not more harmonically pure – they are about the same on both players – but that the black background and separation allowed notes to be heard, that they were allowed to live out there lives the way they were meant to, that – well that is what I am calling purity until I can think of a better name [I would say ‘clean’ but that is taken by people describing the lack of note attack aggressiveness. Maybe ‘spotlessness’?? Integrity??].

Anyway, I hope people can begin to see that these 3 things: separation, an incredibly black background, and purity/cleanliness/spotlessness/integrity are all related and are a major factor in the difference between the two players on this particular system. [Previously, the Pair also seemed more linear, more well-balanced, than the CDSA but the ODIN PC helped out a lot on this. It also increased resolution, separation and the ‘romantic/engaging’ aspect of the CDSA as well].

Neli: CDSA fuzzier, not quite as crystalline.

Abraxus:

The Pair: The ability for greater separation between the notes helps out a lot here. The first track is actually quite complicated – and the pair was able to separate out separate strains of the music much better than the CDSA. [there was a feeling of… wow, I didn’t even know that those were separate instruments before…]

The CDSA: Again, somewhat more accessible, but in comparison with the Pair, it sounded like things were mixed up, much more the familiar amorphous mass of cool sounds we usually hear when we listen to Abraxus.

Rachmaninoff:

The Pair: the spatial connectedness is better. The rhythm is much more life like.

The CDSA: A little harsher.

PRaT and Presence/Solidity were ….different between the two.

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OK. It is time fasten seatbelts and leave the standard digital player shootout and discuss just what I think this Pair does to the digital playback universe.

First, I think that finally, digital, THIS digital pair, is now perhaps the equal of analog playback. Before you all click the back button on your browser, let me say what I mean by that.

First, it is OK, for me, that digital be *different* than analog. Why make it sound like analog, we already got analog and it does quite fine, thank you.

Second, what are the ways that analog is better than digital? Separation, midi-dynamics, and sense of rhythm [not PRaT]. It also has a harmonic distortion that many of us enjoy.

OK, in what ways does the TSD1/DAC2 pair excel? Separation. Black background [revealing the midi-dynamics in a way much like analog]. And a sense of rhythm that is not like PRaT.

So, let us talk about PRaT – which in general we can describe as a strong emphasis on the main beat of the song – resulting in an urge to perhaps do some toe-tapping. The idea here is that perhaps it is the lack of separation, causing things to collapse, both spatially and timewise, so that too many things happen at once, and too many things in one amorphous image, causing:

1. an abnormal emphasis on the main beat, and deemphasizing the natural delays between the actual notes and the interplay amongst musicians as they play off one another and which, in reality, are not exactly 100% on the beat each and every beat.

2. an abnormal collapse of the spacial image, in the soundstage, into a solid mass, that makes it seem like there is a solidity and presence there that doesn’t really exist. That in reality there is actually a guitar body, and a guitar neck, and a voice,and the voice reflecting from the microphone…. which makes ‘presence’ and ‘solidity’ more real, and more 3D. And less of a ‘lump’.

So rhythm should be what it should be: and notes should happen on the beat when they were recorded that way, and a little before or after if they were recorded that way. When the notes are smeared the least little bit – it is perhaps made up for in the mind of the listener by assigning them to the nearest ‘beat’. But when they are clearly off of the beat, they are interpreted as the natural interplay between musicians, the natural human failing of not being perfectly on time [and this is a good thing – it is how things sound like, live].

So what the pair did, on this system [and make no mistake, this is a *system*. We’ve done so many, many shootouts here lately, everything contributes: the speakers, the ODIN – the decay of the notes are unbelievably beautiful, on both players – and the Ongaku is not chopped meat either :-)], was to allow us to experience, to enjoy, the music in more ways than we have before using digital playback.

A lot of people [who have lived with audio for awhile and graduated from the impressive], say they want a richer warmer sound. That they want more PRaT. That their system is not involving enough and that adding warmth and toe-tapping PRaT is the way to fix that.

Well, that would certainly help. For awhile.

But what people really want, deep down, beyond this or that tweak or enhancement – if I can be so bold as to say it in print – is to have a convenient playback that evokes the real – that allows them to hear the wonderful interplay amongst the singers and musicians, to hear the beautiful tones and decay and care that went into every single darn note in every single darn piece of music in their music library.

Neli thinks the TSD1/DAC2 Pair is evolutionary. I think it is revolutionary. But maybe she is right. The way way black background [not like stupid power conditioners that strip away detail at the same time], and the ability to keep the different notes from collapsing into each other – is probably just evolutionary.

But there is a tipping point to things. And I think this is one of those ‘tipping point things’. [Boy, and I thought this was going to be a short post].

In this idea, suggesting that the Pair is like analog – different but equal – is the idea that it must be the depth and variety of the ways we can enjoy the two mediums that we need to compare and contrast. It is my sense that the Pair adds more ways to enjoy music – that some of these ways are similar to analog – and unlike the digital of the past – as described above, but that they get there a different way [lower noise floor versus greater dynamic response to notes at ordinary loudnesses, etc.].

More later on all that…


Neli with the Audio Note, Kharma and Acoustic Zen speakers in background, and Jorma Design PRIME interconnects on floor at left.

So, πŸ™‚ we went upstairs and played the same Rachmaninoff music, but on LP on the Brinkmann turntable, Audio Note M9 Phono preamplifier, Kegon Balanced amps and Coltrane Supremes. With the low-gain Lyra cartridge and a problem with noise on the line getting into the sound – it wasn’t an optimal setup by any means.

OK, OK…. But when the massed strings played over on the left, on both systems I enjoyed them, and in similar ways. I could pick out this or that guy a little louder than the others or a little too long with the note… [in some ways, it is the ability to hear the mistakes in the music that make it seem much more real :-)]. I got the same feeling of ‘wow’ that the music was trying to invoke in the audience.

I got the same feeling at being present at a concert – the conscious and subconscious cues each medium was giving me that this was REAL were different but equal.

More about THAT later too. This is all just supposition – that the TSD1/DAC2 pair can offer as convincing an experience as analog – it seems like this is something that will come to pass someday – and it seems like that is today, to me, now – but it will take a long time to verify.

Personally, we do not differentiate here between SACD and red book CDs on the Emm Labs gear. The differences between them has more to do with the recording and mastering than the medium. But lately, and maybe it is just me being lazy [and heaven knows I would love to be less of a perfectionist, it would certainly reduce our high-end audio expenses – Oh, wait, Neli would have to get lazy too] – I did not feel I had to care if we were playing CDs on the TSD1/DAC2 pair and LPs at RMAF, and that has been true here as well. Sure they are different. But all the dimensions in which I enjoy LPs I now can enjoy CDs. This was not the case with previous digital gear.

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So, do we still like the CDSA? πŸ™‚ We had to send our TSD1/DAC2 pair back – it was just loaned to us for the RMAF show – we had previous commitments and were not able to buy this demo pair :-(. Big unhappy frown for Neli. Big unhappy frown for me, too, but I am an optimist – or maybe just a masochist πŸ™‚ – we’ll have our own soon. And then we can think about what it will sound like putting a pair of ODIN powercords on the TSD1/DAC2 instead of the CDSA….

YES we still like the CDSA – it does almost everything as well as the Pair, and we still have the ‘silver badge’ Pair, too. But………………….. stay tuned πŸ™‚