Counterpoint DA-10 digital processor

Someone interested in buying a digital/analog converter today must make tough choices. Not only are there several competing technologies to choose from—multi-bit, 1-bit, hybrid—but every converter also has its own musical signature. When someone buys a converter, they're locked in to both the technology and the sound.

Counterpoint Electronics has addressed this dilemma with their DA-10 digital processor. The DA-10 is actually a "mainframe" into which different DAC boards can be installed. If a new, better DAC comes along, you can pop out the old one and put in the new. Or if you significantly change your playback system, you can choose a different DAC for the DA-10 that better complements the new system's musical characteristics.

But is this a real advantage? Is a digital processor designed around just one DAC inherently better than one that accepts many DACs? And how much of a digital processor's sound is determined by the DAC chip?

Description
The DA-10 is housed in a sturdy, slim-line chassis with a very attractive front panel. At first glance, the DA-10 looks more like a preamplifier than a digital processor; the unit offers more features and controls than most digital converters. Four of these controls are rotary knobs, furthering the impression of a preamplifier: One knob selects between one of four digital inputs, another provides full digital-tape dubbing (1-2 and 2-1), the third is a digital-tape monitor switch, and the fourth is an invert/operate/mute control. LEDs indicate which input is selected and the position of the invert/operate/mute switch. An additional LED illuminates if the data carries the SCMS flag, which will prevent digital recording of that signal. The front panel also has a feature that I believe is unique to the DA-10: a user-adjustable Most Significant Bit (MSB) trimmer. More on this later.

The rear panel has three electrical inputs on gold-plated BNC jacks. A fourth input is an optional ($200) AT&T ST-type glass fiber jack. One of the digital tape-monitor inputs and outputs is on BNC jacks; the second digital tape loop has TosLink input and output. Analog output is via a pair of single-ended RCA jacks. All the rear-panel hardware appeared to be of high quality. Moreover, the DA-10's features, look, and "feel" were all more than I would expect for $1695.

Inside, the power supply features separate transformers for the analog and digital circuits and 17 regulation stages. Seven of the latter are three-pin types, which are then followed by ten discrete stages. All the supplies to the analog output section and DAC are doubly regulated, first with three-pin regulators, then with discrete regulation stages. Power-supply filtering is unusual in that it's provided by 44 470µF electrolytic caps instead of a few larger caps. According to designer Michael Elliott, many small capacitors sound better than a few big caps. Overall, this is an impressive supply for a product of this price.

The S/PDIF input receiver is the now-ubiquitous Crystal CS8412 ("C" version). This feeds a Burr-Brown DF1700 8x-oversampling digital filter, which is identical to the popular NPC SM5813 chip.

The DA-10's unique feature is its switchable DAC cards, which allow the user to select from among many DACs simply by plugging in different DAC cards made by Counterpoint. The currently available DACs are the multi-bit UltraAnalog D20400 and Analog Devices AD1862, along with the Crystal CS4328 Delta-sigma part and the Burr-Brown PCM69 hybrid DAC (a combination of multi-bit and 1-bit). Additional DAC cards will be available as new DACs are introduced. The DAC cards are about 4.5" by 2.5", except the UltraAnalog D20400, which is somewhat bigger. The UltraAnalog card sells for $995, the Analog Devices board costs $259, the CS4328 is $355, and the PCM69 costs $595 (footnote 1). I evaluated the UltraAnalog, Analog Devices, and Crystal boards.

To accommodate this wide range of DAC technology, the DAC card sends a signal back to the digital filter telling it to put out either 18- or 20-bit data, depending on the card installed. Further, because the Crystal CS4328 has its own on-chip digital filter, the 8x-oversampling DF1700 digital filter is bypassed when the Crystal board is installed.

Changing DAC cards is easy. The board unplugs from connectors and the new board pops into place. With the UltraAnalog DAC card, the user must plug in a two-conductor cable from the motherboard to the DAC card (engaging a de-glitch circuit). A pair of toggle switches on the motherboard must also be thrown when changing to certain DAC cards.

I mentioned earlier that the DA-10 has a user-adjustable front-panel MSB trimmer. What does an MSB trimmer do? In most multi-bit DACs, the transition between the digital levels 1111111111111111 and the next-higher binary number 0000000000000000 (footnote 2) occurs at the zero crossing point, also called "bipolar zero." If the value of the most significant bit (the leading "1" in our first binary number) isn't exactly the value of the 15 lower bits plus one, non-linearity will result. In practice, it's very difficult to achieve close enough accuracy between steps to avoid a discontinuity at the zero crossing transition. Consequently, DAC manufacturers provide a means of adjusting the value of the MSB so that it's exactly one quantization step greater than the value of the 15 lower bits (in a 16-bit DAC). Although digital-processor manufacturers usually set the MSB at the factory by hand, the optimum MSB adjustment changes with temperature and age. A perfectly set MSB trimmer may be misadjusted when the unit is fully warmed up, or a year later after the circuit has drifted.

Counterpoint has addressed this problem with the front-panel MSB trimmer. Although it requires some test equipment to correctly set the trimmer, Counterpoint suggests it be adjusted by ear (they liken this to setting phono-cartridge VTA). Note that, of the currently available DACs for the DA-10, only the Analog Devices AD1862 DACs need trimming. One-bit DACs work on an entirely different principle and need no adjustment. The UltraAnalog multi-bit DAC has been factory-calibrated by hand-soldering metal-film resistors into the resistor ladder network so that trimming is unnecessary. The UltraAnalog DAC will maintain its virtually perfect linearity over time (footnote 3). You can tell which DACs need trimming and which don't simply by looking at the front panel: an LED above the trimmer illuminates when the DA-10 is fitted with a DAC card that needs trimming.

Another feature unique to the DT-10 is its discrete current-to-voltage (I/V) converter. Most processors use an op-amp for the I/V stage, but designer Michael Elliott wanted to remove op-amps from the signal path as far as possible. The I/V stage also has no feedback. Only the AD1862 DAC card uses this discrete I/V converter: 1-bit DACs inherently have a voltage output and don't require I/V conversion. Further, the UltraAnalog converter has an integral op-amp I/V converter which also doesn't require the DA-10's stage. A manual switch on the pcb engages the I/V converter when the AD1862 DAC is installed.

The analog output stage is a discrete, direct-coupled unity-gain buffer that incorporates a high-speed video amplifier. The DC-servo'd circuit uses no feedback. All the transistors have small heatsinks mounted to them. De-emphasis is passive, switched in by a relay. The output filter is a passive third-order Bessel type. A muting relay prevents noise from appearing at the analog output jacks when the processor isn't locked to incoming data.

Pick a card, any card
I'll start by describing the sound of the three DAC cards relative to each other, then give an overview of those sonic qualities of the DA-10 that were common to all the DAC cards. I'll also compare the DA-10 with the Crystal CS4328 card installed to the $895 Meridian 263 processor, which also uses the CS4328 DAC. Finally, I'll put the DA-10 up against the PS Audio UltraLink, with both the AD1862 and UltraAnalog DAC cards in the DA-10.

The Crystal 1-bit DAC card held no surprises: the sound was similar to what I've heard from other processors using the chip. The CS4328 has a distinctive signature: soft bass, limited dynamics (particularly in the bass), lack of extension, but a beautiful, almost ethereal, midrange and treble.

The DA-10 with the CS4328 had some appealing qualities. The treble was nicely balanced and very clean. In fact, the DA-10 has the best-sounding treble of any converter using the CS4328 I've heard to date. The top end was open, airy, and integrated with the music. Moreover, the midrange and treble were free from grain and hash. Strings weren't overlaid with the gritty texture often heard from digital. Similarly, cymbals had a nice shimmer and detailed character rather than sounding like bursts of undifferentiated white noise.

Soundstaging was also excellent. The DA-10 with the CS4328 DAC board spread out before me an open, spacious, and very transparent soundstage—the presentation had a real sense of depth and space. Instrumental images were surrounded by an impression of air and bloom rather than sounding like cardboard cutouts. Moreover, the soundstage was transparent and crystal-clear. The ability to hear deep into the soundstage was first-rate, and the lack of opacity gave the music a sense of realism I greatly enjoyed.

The overall presentation with the CS4328 was smooth, laid-back, and musically accessible. The sound didn't offend, yet it didn't have the dynamic impact and gripping immediacy of many competing converters.

Switching to the AD1862 DAC card was like changing processors entirely. The AD1862 was incisive, tight, and highly focused compared to the CS4328. The AD1862's bass differed vastly from the Crystal DAC's. Through the AD1862, kick drum took on a depth and power only hinted at by the Crystal—the AD1862 gave some real weight and impact. I could hear the bass drum through the CS4328, but there was no power behind it. But with the AD1862, this important instrument was powerful, better-defined, and sounded vastly more dynamic.

I was also struck by how different acoustic bass sounded through the two DACs. With the AD1862, John Patitucci's bass on Kei Akagi's Playroom (Bluemoon/Moo R2 79342) had a much wider dynamic expression. The AD1862 portrayed the transient attack of fingers on strings—virtually missing from the CS4328—infusing the music with greater life and enthusiasm. The CS4328 tended to mute the attack, thus blurring the distinctions between notes. Moreover, the AD1862's "bouncier" bass quality made music much more rhythmically involving than the CS4328. Bass guitar had more weight, power, and "purr," which, when combined with the deeper extension and wider dynamics, produced a greater awareness of the music's rhythmic characteristics.

The AD1862's soundstage was also more transparent and focused than the CS4328's. Images were more tight and compact compared to the CS4328's slightly unfocused rendering. The soundstage also had tremendous clarity, with a distinct impression of there being less in the way between me and the music. Although the presentation was more forward, instrumental timbre had greater palpability, presence, and realism with the AD1862. Soundstage depth and the ability to portray spatial relationships was superb by any measure. The totally transparent rendering and excellent resolution of spatial detail combined to make the DA-10's presentation like a clear picture-window on the music. I greatly enjoyed this aspect of the DA-10 with the AD1862.



Footnote 1: The Philips SAA7323 and SAA7350 Bitstream DACs are no longer available as Counterpoint cards. I heard them at a CES and thought they sounded horrible. The popular Burr-Brown PCM63 isn't available for the DA-10; Michael Elliott thought the AD1862 was a better-sounding DAC.

Footnote 2: Rather than use a simple offset binary 16-bit encoding where the lowest analog voltage level is equivalent to 0000000000000000 (ie, 0), and the highest to 1111111111111111 (ie, 65,535), the CD system uses "twos-complement" coding. This is so that the coding operates symmetrically about the midpoint of the maximum !X voltage swing. With offset binary, where the signal is described by only positive digital numbers, any kind of processing in the digital domain can easily result in an increased offset and thus a loss of accuracy. An additional advantage of twos-complement encoding is that it minimizes the circuit complexity for mathematical signal manipulation. In 16-bit "twos-complement" coding, the most negative voltage before clipping is represented by 1000000000000000, the highest positive voltage by 0111111111111111. The MSB therefore acts as a "sign bit": when set to 1, it indicates that the encoded voltage is negative.$GJA

Footnote 3: See "Industry Update" in Vol.16 No.6, p.57, for a report on how the DACs are hand-calibrated.

COMPANY INFO
Counterpoint Electronic Systems
company no longer in existence
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
smargo's picture

reviews of digital from 1995 are so prehistoric.

your kidding me - that this was written now

John Atkinson's picture
smargo wrote:
reviews of digital from 1995 are so prehistoric.

your kidding me - that this was written now

Published in 1995, as it says in the heading, but posted now as part of our project to have every review published in Stereophile since the magazine's founding in 1962 available in our free on-line archives.

I'd offer to refund your money but as our archives are free access, I won't. :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

RH's picture

Hi John,

It's always intriguing (to me at least) to read the old reviews posted on this site, so please keep them coming.

Having visited the measurement section for the Counterpoint DAC it had me wondering: In your experience measuring these for so many years, could you sum up some of the areas of measurable improvements you see in the best modern DACs vs 90's (and earlier) era DACs like the Counterpoint?

smargo's picture

John: I have been reading stereophile for 25 years - Im not looking for a refund - im just saying id rather read about where companies and the people that ran them - are now - in this day and age

signalbeach's picture

A Counterpont DAC from 1995 ? Really ? This review is so old it's not relevant today; and not a very interesting piece either. I've been an audiophile since the early 70's and am very interested in reading reviews of seminal equipment from the past. Republishing old Audio Research, Krell, Levinson, McIntosh, etc reviews would be great.

BradleyP's picture

I'll bet that this DAC sounds just fine today for 44.1/16. I am the original owner of a storied JVC 1050 CD player from 1993, which also sounds just fine. Using it as a transport and feeding a more recent DAC with it yields only slight sonic improvements.

stereophilereader's picture

i wonder if anyone is still using this unit today ?

rschryer's picture

— a well-respected company that had at its core a gifted and innovative audio designer in Michael Elliott. In 1996, a year after this article was published, the company filed for bankruptcy, but not because its stuff didn't sound good. It just ran out of money.

stereophilereader's picture

but build and reliability were not the best.

tonykaz's picture

I ran out of money and customers in the middle 1980s. Geez, Counterpoint held out till 1996 ?, that's say'n sump'n !

I'm thinking the Customers are back now and bringing their pals, because the Recorded Music is wonderful, better than ever and improving. Phew!!

Of course there's plenty of Competition from 4K OLED TVs but that stuff is sooooooo computer generated ( not real and hard on the eyes ).

Simple music seems real and easy on the nervous system, it lets everyday life proceeds as normal and doesn't try to barge in on our "attention".

Nice recorded music ( like Lang Lang playing ) seems like going "off the grid" in your own home.

This is a very good time to be starting out as a recorded Music lover and consumer.

Too bad about Counterpoint and Michael Elliott, where is he now ?

Tony in Michigan

ps. I've never owned or even touched one single piece of Counterpoint Gear. Hmm....

rschryer's picture

...he was still posting back-page ads in audio magazines, Stereophile included, offering to repair/mod Counterpoint gear.

And I agree with you about these being unprecedented times in terms of access to recorded music. Tidal, bRadio, LPs, CDs... so much to enjoy, in so many different ways. I thank my lucky stars for it every day!

tonykaz's picture

Today,

Paul McGowan delivers a incredible summary about Audio's developments, to date.

Steve G talks logic concerning SubWoofers.

Brilliant stuff being released from Colorado & NY on the YouTube Channels.

Audiophile TV is where it's at.

Tony in Michigan

ps. listening while I work

rschryer's picture

...but probably not the "audiophile TV is where it's at" thing, which sounds to me dangerously close to being an oxymoron.

But that's only because TV sound doesn't interest me much. I am, however, interested in any potential technology that can accustom more people (read: regular folk) to good audio, and make them more resistant to not-good audio.

Good sound a bad thing? Never!

tonykaz's picture

Silly boy, Audiophile TV is Paul McGowan and Steve Gutenberg ( our people ) doing Audio Reviewing.

It isn't a TV thing it's a YouTube Channel specifically for us types.

Tony

rschryer's picture

Oops. I guess I should listen to music less and watch YouTube more (hehehe, as Herb would say). But I will check it out, Tony. Thanks for the heads up. (And, hey, nobody told me!)

tonykaz's picture

I'm nobody ?

Geez, you don't treat your pals very well, do ya?

So, I'm tell'n ya.

Anyway, Paul and Steve are the Competition, who would tell you?

The whole thing wouldn't matter except that these two are FiveStar Philosophers with tons of real experience, they're better than Harry Pierson & Pals at TAS!

Tony in Michigan

rschryer's picture

I will surely drop in to YouTube to check out Paul and Steve. You're right, these guys do know a ton of stuff about the audio biz. Should be interesting...

tonykaz's picture

It will be interesting and informative.

Mr.Carson's Lab and Blueglow Electronics are two more ( kinda at the grass roots level ) both are informative and insightful about how gear is built, breaks, is repaired and performs.

YouTube has become a wonderful adventure place.

Tony in Michigan

volvic's picture

Always wanted to own Counterpoint products in the 80's and 90's, but as a struggling poor student I could never afford them. This DAC was enthusiastically reviewed by a magazine that I love and respect north of the border, the reviewers loved it so much they used it as their reference. If I recall the authors thought the bitstream cards wasn't the way to go but with the HDCD card it was a killer. Pity such great companies; Counterpoint, Sonic Frontiers and Hovland are no longer around. Thanks for sharing, such great memories living in Montreal, spending endless hours at a local hifi store that I supported, which sadly is no longer around, and which always had an open door policy with me.

rschryer's picture

...Counterpoint was one of the first audiophile companies to properly implement HDCD capability in its DAC, the DA-10. That unit could make digital playback sound musical!

I do wonder if the demise of some of the well-known audiophile companies of the day wasn't partly due to bad customer service. Over the years, I've dealt with some talented, widely revered designers whose people skills could best be described as hostile and antithetical to repeat business.

I hope you've found an audio shop oasis in your neighborhood where you can feel at home, Volvic. If not, at least you live in a city replete with live music venues.

volvic's picture

I do live in a city that has great live music, thank god for the top tier at the Met and the subscription to JLCO. But sadly here, there are no local hifi dealers I can hang my hat, like I used to in Mtl. It was great listening and being introduced to great gear growing up at my then local audio store. After it shuttered, I gravitated towards another one which only recently closed, on the east side of Mtl. Great service and great guys. That personal touch I feel is lost, especially in a larger city like NYC. Keep the postings down memory lane coming JA, love these old reviews.

Ortofan's picture
volvic's picture

That's when Sony was a great company. Good times!

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