November 15, 2003
Weiss Engineering Medea Digital-to-Analog Converter
Certain audio laws are seldom violated. The First Law is that more expensive gear will generally sound better than less expensive gear, the Second Law is that separates sound better than all-in-one components, and the Third Law is that upstream improvements in the audio chain are more beneficial than downstream improvements.
Exceptions to the First Law do occur, especially between dissimilar technologies -- inexpensive tube amps that blow the doors off megabuck transistors, for example -- but such exceptions tend to generate so much excitement and press that its good to remember that they are, after all, exceptions. Exceptions to the Second Law, particularly those that do not also violate the First, are even more rare. As for exceptions to the Third Law, forget it. Even if you think youve found one, you cant prove it until you upgrade your source to the highest level.
So lets face it: Somewhere in your future, assuming you live long enough, save hard enough, and still care, lies audio nirvana, and in that land there is a combination of CD transport and digital-to-analog converter. Your mission, should you choose to afford it, is to select a DAC from among the relatively small number of offerings available in the World Class category.
And where better to begin the search than in Switzerland with a relative newcomer, the Medea DAC from Weiss Engineering?
Medea at a glance
Weiss Engineering entered the high-end home-audio marketplace in 2001, using their experience in pro audio to attempt to design a world-beating component. The result, the Medea, retails at $13,500 USD and is built accordingly. The sample I reviewed was beautifully finished in a silvery white matte (also available in black), with a power button and four digital source-selection buttons on the front panel. Two screwdriver-accessible potentiometer controls discreetly recessed to the right of the front panel allow for trimming of the output levels. An eye-catching, bright blue LED sits atop each selection button and glows steadily when a lock is achieved on the incoming signal. My sample had no trouble locking to the signal from my Sony SCD-777ES CD/SACD player (in CD mode only), and operated flawlessly for several months.
All four outputs have both RCA single-ended and XLR balanced connectors, with a high/low output switch on each (the standard setting appears to be High). Inputs 1-3 were equipped with both RCA single-ended (S/PDFI) and XLR balanced (AES/EBU) digital inputs, while input 4 offered RCA and TosLink.
The Medea is capable of accepting signals of a variety of sample rates and bit depths, up to 24 bits. Sample rates of 176.4kHz and 192kHz (which are produced by certain home upsamplers, such as my dCS Delius, and, I presume, by some pro-audio gear) can be accommodated using inputs 1 and 2 simultaneously. All incoming signals are internally upsampled to greater than 350kHz, and extensive built-in jitter correction is applied.
To top it off, the Medea is extensively shielded, with internal copper shields and multiple grounded compartment dividers. The build quality, features, technology, and appearance are all topnotch.
My review system included a Sony SCD-777ES CD/SACD player acting as a transport through a dCS Purcell-Delius combination upsampler and DAC. Digital interconnect was via MIT Digital Reference. The output of the Delius (which has a remote volume control) went directly by way of MIT 350 interconnects to my KR Enterprise 300bsi single-ended tube power amplifier, thence to a pair of Focal-JMlab Electra 315.1 speakers via Cardas Neutral Reference biwire.
Being used to the sound of the dCS combo, my first impression of the Medea was, yep, high-end sound. In a nutshell, the Weiss sounded energetic, full, clean, and highly resolving. Though the dCS gear is widely considered the best available, and the two dCS pieces together retail for a bit less than twice as much as the Weiss, the Weiss clearly plays in the dCSs league.
A few differences were immediately apparent. The Weiss had stronger bass, for one. Others have commented favorably on the Medeas bass performance, and I echo that. Interestingly, there seems to be a wholesale redistribution of signal energy through the Weiss as compared with the dCS combo. The Weiss had more energy in the upper mids, highs, and lows, while the dCSs tonal balance favors the lower mids and the midbass. Which of these two approaches is strictly correct is a matter of interpretation, but I tended to find the tonal balance of the dCS a bit more natural in this system.
The Weiss, however, indisputably rocked harder than the dCS. This was true over a number of different recordings in different styles, but particularly apparent with less energetic material. Tunes that I normally consider to be laid-back and reflective, such as Norah Jones Come Away With Me [Blue Note 32088], actually seemed to have a faster tempo, and an almost danceable beat. Since I usually attribute a large measure of rhythmic drive and satisfaction to the midbass, I found this a little surprising. As Ive said, the midbass region of the dCS duo was more present and better developed than that of the Weiss. I guess the extra kick in the Medeas top and bottom ends, plus a greater degree of timing punch overall, gave it the edge in this area.
The Weiss also tended to be more fun. If I stopped analyzing the sound and relaxed, the Medea tended to present a pleasant toe-tapping ambience. The dCS combo was rather more studious in comparison. Nevertheless, the resolution of inner detail that the dCS products are famous for still brought a level of realism, naturalness, and freedom from digital hardness and compression that edged ahead of the Weiss. This was true throughout the frequency spectrum, but particularly in the midrange and highs. The dCS combo seemed to have fewer objectionable artifacts associated with it, even on busier material, and complex instrumental timbres such as piano and guitar were better rendered through the more expensive dCS Purcell-Delius combo. Overall, the First Law wins again, though some listeners will legitimately prefer the special sense of fun and rhythmic impetus that the Weiss has and the dCS gear doesnt.
For those diehards out there who insist that theres no reason a one-box player cant sound as good as a transport-DAC combo, I made a few comparisons with the equipment on hand. Comparing the Weiss Medea with one-box CD players, including my own Sony SCD-777ES and the well-regarded GamuT CD1R, produced results consistent with the Second Law. The one-box players alone couldnt touch the sound quality achievable when using them as transports through the dCS or the Weiss. Vividness, coherence, soundstaging, and detail all suffered, particularly in the resolution of the high frequencies. Sorry, no free lunch -- truly great sound seems to require a transport-DAC combination.
A final word
The Weiss Engineering Medea is a big-league DAC at a big-league price, and delivers on features, build quality, ease of use, and sonic performance. This set-it-and-forget-it component is not intended for those who love to fiddle with complicated setup menus or optional filter settings. It is also not intended to replace your preamplifier, as it has no volume control. The sonic character of the Weiss is fast, rhythmic, and vivid, with particularly strong bass and a uniquely fun quality that can make your recordings come to life in a whole new way.
Price: $13,500 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Weiss Engineering Ltd.
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