October 15, 2008

TWBAS 10/2008

Speakers: Rockport Technologies Altair

Amplifier: Boulder Amplifiers 860

Preamplifiers: Simaudio Moon Evolution P-8, Boulder Amplifiers 810

Sources: Apple MacBook running iTunes, Stello DA220 Mk.II D/A converter

Cables and power conditioning: Shunyata Research: Aurora-IC interconnects, Aurora-SP speaker cables, Hydra V-Ray power conditioner; Anaconda Helix Alpha/VX, Python Helix Alpha/VX, Taipan Helix Alpha/VX power cords

Sea Change: Weiss Minerva Digital-to-Analog Converter

As I write this, several e-mails from readers sit in my Saved folder waiting to be answered, all regarding the Weiss Minerva D/A converter ($4500 USD). Seems audiophiles are curious about this little jewel from Switzerland for myriad reasons, not least because it’s just about the only standalone high-end DAC that can accept an input signal of 24-bit/192kHz resolution from a music server based on an Apple MacBook computer. That fact alone makes it special.

Some background

I was converted from a CD- to a computer-based audio system about a year ago. I wasn’t breaking new ground in using a server as my primary source of music -- many others blazed this trail long before me. I remember Peter McGrath, of Wilson Audio Specialties, using a laptop years ago at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Survey the landscape right now and you’ll see that a great change is taking place -- one that began at the turn of the millennium but is only now maturing.

Most audiophiles I know are either experimenting with music servers to augment their CD-based systems, or replacing their disc spinners altogether with hard-drive-based products. You could point to the Slim Devices/Logitech Squeezebox as the landmark piece of hardware in the latter category, but if I had to pick just one product that has had a greater effect than all the others, it would be a software program: Apple’s iTunes. Millions of consumers, audiophiles and non-, embraced the iTunes revolution en masse. For the average person, iTunes -- in conjunction, of course, with Apple’s iPod -- offered the most useful user interface ever designed to access a music collection. It was the coolest thing they’d ever seen, and the game of digital music delivery changed forever.

Once the audiophile world took notice, it wasn’t long before serious music systems began popping up that used iTunes, iPods, and other Apple products, such as MacBook laptop computers. Of course, Apple products didn’t corner the market. Systems using PCs were also growing in number, as well as setups that included such products as those from Sooloos, Sonos, Slim Devices/Logitech, and more. Although many converts will admit that their initial reason for adding a music server to their systems had everything to do with the way they accessed their music collections, something else happened. You couldn’t escape reading about it in online forums, where a common thread began to emerge: My music server sounds better than my CD player. It was if thousands of audiophiles had come to the same conclusion all at once: music servers were outperforming CD players, and often at a far lower cost.

It’s obvious that we’re in the waning days of the CD. I remember, about five years ago, and perhaps up until just recently, that slews of CD players were being introduced that were priced in the stratosphere: high-end companies seemed to decide that they would offer a final statement-level CD player that incorporated "everything we’ve learned over the past 20 (or 25) years." (Variations of the phrase seemed to be used by just about every maker of digital audio equipment.) Reviewers followed suit, with such conclusions as "If you want to buy one CD player for the ages, this is it." It seemed the pinnacle of CD playback had been reached.

From my perspective, this all but concluded a chapter in the product-development cycle of the CD player. This isn’t to say that you won’t see more CD players, and possibly even better ones than we have now. But it is to say that the focus of many companies and consumers is shifting. Over the past year or so, it has become clear that high-end audio equipment makers are setting their sights on products that will help audiophiles push the digital-music envelope via hard-drive-based music servers.

The challenge

Multiple interfaces are available through which your computer can talk to your audio system. A huge advantage that computers offer is the ability to go wireless -- streaming music from a central computer to a device(s) connected to your audio system(s) rooms away is a convenient way to do it, particularly if your computer is set up in an office or remote bedroom. But we in the audiophile world all know that if there’s a way to get better sound, we’ll gravitate toward it -- even if it means giving up something as cool as wireless connectivity. In this case, the quest for better performance means piping music directly from the computer to the big rig via a wired connection. As a result, the choice of products available to make such connections has expanded quickly.

200810_minvera_back.jpg (29985 bytes)One product segment that has grown by leaps and bounds is the standalone D/A converter equipped with a USB input. USB outputs are available on most every modern computer because it is a reliable interface for transferring data from point to point. USB DACs range in price from a couple hundred dollars or less to many thousands, and I’m sure we’ll see even more options introduced at next year’s CES in Las Vegas. The technical limitation of USB, at least as I write this, is that very few such DACs can accept greater than a 16-bit/96kHz signal (one that I know of is the Benchmark DAC1 USB, $1275), with most stuck at 16-bit/44.1kHz. For CD resolution, 16/44 is no limitation -- that’s CD’s native resolution -- but it precludes higher-resolution downloads. Search the Internet and you can find higher-resolution music -- that’s one of the exciting aspects of computer-based audio. One such example of hi-rez music is the HRx series of recordings from Reference Recordings. These discs, billed as "digit-for-digit copies of the original Reference Recordings 176.4kHz/24-bit digital masters," are shipped as DVD data discs that must be loaded onto the consumer’s computer. The 24/176.4 resolution means that more data space is devoted to the music -- each HRx disc uses about 4GB of your hard drive, vs. the 500MB of a standard CD. But how to play them?

The Minerva

The Weiss Minerva D/A converter is the brainchild of Swiss electronics guru Daniel Weiss, and its specs are impressive. It will accept sampling frequencies of 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192kHz, and word lengths of up to 24 bits. Its inputs include two FireWire, AES/EBU via an XLR jack, RCA, and TosLink. The outputs are stereo RCA and XLR. The Minerva itself is smallish -- about 9"W x 2"H x 12"D. The front panel has a selector button and corresponding LED for each digital input. When an input is chosen but no signal is present, the LED blinks continuously; it glows continuously when the Minerva locks on to a digital signal sent to that input. Other than the selector buttons, the only other thing on the front panel is the Power button.

The Minerva comes with a driver that must be uploaded to your computer via a CD -- versions are included for Apple’s OSX and Windows. I found installation to be straightforward, with no drama or hiccups. In fact, the Minerva worked perfectly and without glitch, from the day I unboxed it to the day I reluctantly shipped it back to Switzerland. In the comprehensive manual, Weiss includes as much technical information as you’d probably ever want to read about the design aspects of his DACs. Much of that info is also available on the Weiss website, to which I refer the more technically minded. I found the Minerva to be built to very high standards.

Getting started

After installing the Minerva’s driver on my Apple MacBook, I connected the Minerva to the computer with a FireWire cable. This is the key: Instead of USB, Weiss uses FireWire, which is also compatible with Apple products and can be used to transmit greater-than-CD resolution. I then selected the Minerva in Apple’s Audio Midi settings and away I went.

A slight frustration with the way Apple has configured its audio settings: You must shut down iTunes each time you change the source resolution. For instance, for CDs loaded onto my MacBook -- the vast majority of my music collection -- I set the Apple’s output to 16/44.1. If I want to listen to a Reference Recordings HRx recording, though, I have to shut down iTunes, manually choose 24/176.4 in the Audio Midi settings, then reopen iTunes. At first this seemed a huge oversight on Apple’s part, but a little research turned up why they do it. You’d think the Mac would be designed to default to the native resolution of the file you’re playing, whatever that might be. The thing is, most people don’t have a Minerva, or any device that accepts greater than 16/44.1 -- but many people download music to and play it from their computer. Apple therefore made their digital output compatible with most devices out there -- so the default is 16/44.1. For just this reason, the MacBook will sample-rate-convert everything to the setting chosen in the Audio Midi settings, so that compatibility with external devices is never an issue.


Once all was set up, I rolled along, listening to hundreds of songs. I was never less than immensely impressed. One of my first observations was that voices, particularly male, sounded more present than I was used to hearing. The Fairfield Four’s I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray (CD, Warner Bros. 46698-2) sounded spookily real, the singers placed closer to my listening position than with the Stello DA220 Mk.II DAC ($1650), which has long been my reference. It was almost disconcerting at first, but as I listened more I came to appreciate that the Minerva was simply more transparent than the other digital sources I’d been using, and that that transparency resulted in better separation of instruments and voices. The separation, in this case, let me scrutinize the harmonizing of these old gents. Vocals, both male and female, were more palpable, with perfect scale and soundstage presentation.

Regardless of what music I played, the results were similar: the Minerva was supremely transparent, and I found myself paying closer attention to the music I know and love because I could get more involved in what I was hearing. I could make out fine details within the small details that I hadn’t noticed with the Stello DAC. For instance, the natural decay that comes at the end of the bass notes in "Norbu," from Bruno Coulais’s music for the film Himalaya (CD, Virgin 10127), had more texture and nuance. Not only were the tiny details better resolved over the Minerva, but the bigger picture improved as well. "Norbu" contains powerful, extended bass blasts, and has become one of my go-to references for bass depth, power, and the decay that comes after the heavy drum whacks. With the Minerva, the drums were just a touch more extended in frequency while remaining tonally perfect. If you’ve ever listened to a good amplifier, then to a really great one, and experienced the increased bass control that can result, you have a good idea of what I was hearing. Going from the Stello to the Minerva was a significant improvement.

I guess at this point you’re wondering if there was anything about the Stello DA220 Mk.II that I preferred to the Weiss Minerva. Basically, no: The Minerva was more transparent, more resolving of fine detail, had greater impact and extension in the bass, and was better controlled over the entire frequency range -- all without any penalties that I could hear. The Stello did sound just a touch more distant than the Weiss, but I don’t think that aspect of its rendition was any more or less correct, and this very subtle difference in sound was evident with only a few recordings. For instance, one of my longtime references is "Tall Trees in Georgia," from Eva Cassidy’s Live at Blues Alley (CD, Blix Street 10046). With the Minerva, I moved closer to the club’s stage by a table or two, gaining a more intimate sonic view of the singer. I can’t say I preferred one presentation to the other -- but after hearing both, you might feel differently.


But beyond the Minerva’s somewhat upfront sound -- which can be a matter of taste -- I can’t imagine anyone preferring the Stello in any other area of sound reproduction. Voices were clearer and more full-bodied with the Minerva, tonality was always spot on, and the high frequencies seemed to extend into infinite darkness without any harshness or grain. Although it’s a somewhat odd adjective to use in describing a DAC, I thought the Minerva sounded more powerful than any digital source I’ve heard. The soundtrack album of The Dark Knight (CD, Warner Bros. 511101) contains some of the most intense music you’ll hear -- this score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard fits the kinetic nature of the film perfectly, and the Minerva added horsepower to the score in all the right places. At any second, I expected Batman to crash through the wall of my Music Vault.

One of the few hi-rez recordings I have on my computer -- Crown Imperial, with organist Mary Preston, conductor Jerry Junkin, and the Dallas Wind Symphony (DVD-R, Reference RR-112 HRx) -- was arresting in its crystalline clarity and delicious detail. This is what high-end audio should be about, and where the Minerva really shone. I could listen deep into this recording, hearing such details as tinkling bells with absolute clarity -- something I’ve not heard bettered by any system. It has whetted my appetite for more. If you’ve not heard this degree of resolution over a really good audio system, you owe it to yourself to do so -- though you might then be spoiled for anything else. Now, if only I could get all of my favorite recordings at this kind of resolution, I’d be set.


The Weiss Minerva is the best DAC I’ve used with my Apple MacBook, though that’s not saying much -- until this review, I’d used only the Stello DA220 Mk.II and the very inexpensive Blue Circle Thingee ($189). More relevant is that, without any qualification, the Minerva-MacBook combination provided the best sound I’ve heard in my system, which has included the best CD player I’ve heard, the Audio Research Corporation Reference CD7. The Weiss-Apple also handily beat my prior disc-spinning reference, the Esoteric UX3-SE SACD/DVD-Audio player. Hands down, this is the real deal.

As I sit back and chill to the sounds of Sea Change (CD, Geffen 493537), the recording Beck made after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, I realize that I’m coming to the end of my own long love affair -- with the Stello DA220 Mk.II. The Weiss Minerva has changed my view of how good it can get, and now I’m spoiled for anything else. This is the golden age of digital sound.

. . . Jeff Fritz

Manufacturer contact information:

Weiss Engineering Ltd.
Florastrasse 42
8610 Uster / Zurich
Phone: +41 44 940 20 06
Fax: +41 44 940 22 14

E-mail: weiss@weiss.ch
Website: www.weiss-highend.ch


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