Counterpoint DA-10 digital processor Page 2

Treble performance was also good with the AD1862. I noticed similar lacks of grain and hash with the AD1862 and the CS4328. The treble was a bit on the forward and immediate side, but was never aggressive or annoying. This forwardness was offset by the treble's pristine quality—there wasn't the typical layer of grunge overlaying high frequencies, which instead sounded clear and natural. This allowed the DA-10 to resolve lots of treble detail without sounding overly etched or analytical. However, I would have preferred a slightly less immediate treble presentation in my system.

I'd assumed the UltraAnalog DAC card would be the best of the three: I hold UltraAnalog's DACs in the highest regard, technically and musically. Ultimately, however, in the DA-10 I preferred the sound of the AD1862. The UltraAnalog card had a brighter, harder upper midrange and lower treble. Instrumental textures were less liquid, making the presentation more fatiguing. The upper treble was clean, however—a characteristic I heard from all three cards. The bass was warmer and fatter than the AD1862's tighter rendering, so the UltraAnalog sounded a little slower. Further, the AD1862 had greater soundstage transparency and clarity. Overall, the AD1862 was clearly the more musically engaging DAC card. But I believe these characteristics are due to the DA-10's implementation, not the UltraAnalog DAC itself. In fact, I've never heard an UltraAnalog-based processor with the sonic characteristics I heard from the DA-10 fitted with the UltraAnalog card.

In short, the Crystal CS4328 DAC card had the most ethereal sound, with a clean treble and good space, but a lightweight presentation. This card worked best on small-scale classical music, worst on music with kick drum and bass guitar. It was also the least forward-sounding of the three DAC cards, which will be a benefit in some systems.

For my system and tastes, the AD1862 allowed the greatest communication of the musical message. Its much more dynamic and tight bass presentation greatly influenced my preference for the AD1862. It also had the greatest transparency, soundstage depth, and most natural rendering of timbre.

The UltraAnalog DAC card had some musical virtues, but the AD1862 was smoother in the midrange and lower treble. The UltraAnalog card's soundstage was slightly opaque compared to the AD1862. The AD1862's bass was tighter and better defined, though less full and warm.

Toe to toe with the Meridian 263 & PS Audio UltraLink
I compared the DA-10 with the CS4328 to the $895 Meridian 263, which also uses the Crystal 1-bit DAC. Assuming you like the sound of the CS4328 and you only need one digital input, is there any reason to spend $2050 for the DA-10 when you can have the 263 for $895?

Yes and no. The DA-10 had a cleaner treble presentation than the 263—the slight layer of grain overlaying the midrange and treble in the 263 was absent from the DA-10. The Counterpoint was more forward, however, particularly in the treble. This made the 263 more laid-back by comparison, and the DA-10 more immediate and incisive. The DA-10 was able to get away with being brighter only by virtue of its grain-free treble—it was bright without being annoying. Soundstage presentation was clearly more transparent and better focused through the DA-10. The 263 had a trace of opacity by comparison, making the presentation less palpable and "see-through." The DA-10's bass was also better defined, with a weightier presentation. Dynamics were also slightly better portrayed by the Counterpoint. Overall, the 263 was more polite and restrained, the DA-10 more up-front and incisive.

It's a fairly close call, but I give the nod to the DA-10. At less than half the price of the DA-10 with the CS4328 card, however, the 263 was clearly a better bargain if you don't require the DA-10's extensive features (polarity inversion, multiple inputs, ST-type optical option, digital-tape loops, nicer look, full-size chassis), and the ability to switch its DACs.

The next logical point of comparison was the PS Audio UltraLink, the benchmark in $2000 processors. Even after two years on the market, the UltraLink still holds its own musically against more recently designed products. I compared the UltraLink to the DA-10 with the UltraAnalog board installed. This combination makes the DA-10 $700 more than the UltraLink.

In the bass department, the UltraLink had better pitch definition and wider dynamic contrast, with bass guitar and kick drum being tighter and better resolved. It wasn't a big difference, but the nod goes to the UltraLink. The UltraLink's portrayal of midrange textures was more liquid, its treble softer and smoother. The UltraLink's better bass, combined with its smoother treble, created a tonal balance that was warmer than the DA-10's.

Soundstaging was also better through the UltraLink. As transparent as the DA-10 was, the UltraLink had more of a hear-through quality. In addition, the UltraLink had more air, depth, and space—there was a feeling of air surrounding the treble from the UltraLink that wasn't there to the same degree with the DA-10.

I next compared the UltraLink to the DA-10 fitted with the Analog Devices AD1862 card, the best-sounding of the Counterpoint DAC cards—it also makes the DA-10 virtually the same price as the UltraLink.

The two products had very different sonic signatures. The UltraLink had a smoother, more refined treble that was set farther back in the soundstage, although the mids were more forward. Conversely, the Counterpoint's treble was drier and more up-front. Midrange textures were better portrayed by the UltraLink, with a more liquid rendering.

The AD1862 card clearly outperformed the UltraLink in bass performance. There was a tautness, power, and control heard from the DA-10 that I found very appealing. Bass impact and rhythmic drive were also more powerful and involving through the DA-10. The UltraLink had a softer, less forward treble presentation that allowed me to listen longer without fatigue. In the mids, the UltraLink was more liquid and musical and had greater clarity. While both converters were excellent—particularly considering their price—I preferred the UltraLink on balance.

Listening past the DAC cards
Although each DAC card made the DA-10 sound very different, I could still hear some of the mainframe's intrinsic characteristics. First, the DA-10 had a very clean, pure upper midrange and treble. The lack of grain, hash, and bite in the top octaves was commendable. This is one area where many digital products fail: No matter what else they do right, a hashy treble makes music fatiguing and annoying (see SS's SOTA Vanguard review in this issue). This quality was apparent with every DAC card, and greatly contributed to my favorable assessment of the DA-10.

The other quality that seemed intrinsic to the DA-10 was its remarkable soundstage transparency: It removed the opaque veil between me and the music, and allowed a greater communication of the musical message. This hear-through clarity made instrumental images more tangible and palpable—more real-sounding. Image focus was superb by any measure, particularly with the AD1862 DAC card. The DA-10's soundstage was the antithesis of thick, murky, or congested, instead becoming a pristine picture-window view onto the music. Although the DA-10 tended to be a bit on the forward side of reality, it was not excessively so.

Bass performance tended to be good, though not superlative. Although the bass of the DA-10 (with the CS4328 card installed) was slightly better than the Meridian 263's, I've heard deeper, tighter, and better-defined bass from other processors using the AD1862 and UltraAnalog D20400 DACs (compared to the DA-10's sound with those cards installed).

Conclusion
Overall, I liked the DA-10's sound. It wasn't a giant-killer, but it was competitive with the best comparably priced digital processors, nonetheless. With the CS4328 DAC card, the DA-10 sounded marginally better than the $895 Meridian 263. If you don't need the DA-10's features and interchangeable DAC ability, the 263 is a better value at less than half the DA-10's price.

But with the AD1862 DAC card, the DA-10 became a strong contender in the "Best DAC Under $2500" sweepstakes. Fitted with the AD1862, the DA-10 had a grain-free treble, remarkably transparent soundstage, good portrayal of space, and an exciting immediacy and palpability. This was clearly the DA-10 at its best. Fortunately, the AD1862 is also the least expensive of Counterpoint's DAC cards.

Although the UltraAnalog DAC card had some appealing characteristics, the DA-10 didn't seem to offer the best implementation of this excellent converter. The mids were a little hard, and the bass was warm and full rather than tight and well-defined. Considering that the UltraAnalog DAC card costs nearly four times as much as the AD1862 card, the DA-10/UltraAnalog card is no bargain. A better implementation of the UltraAnalog DAC can be found in the $1995 PS Audio UltraLink, so far the best converter I've heard under $2000.

Although the DA-10 is nicely finished and has plenty of features, I was concerned about its poor bench performance. The power-supply noise in the audio signal (not heard through the loudspeakers), grossly misbehaving DAC (the first AD1862 sample), the MSB trimmer misadjustment of the second AD1862 sample, and large de-emphasis error, suggest the DA-10 could be more carefully engineered. Although a product's musical performance is always the bottom line of its worth, I prefer to see a product that sounds good and performs well technically.

We must also consider whether or not interchangeable DACs are a good idea. On the plus side, the ability to switch DACs allows the user to tailor the digital front-end's sound to match his or her system and musical tastes. Conversely, the concept might not be ideal for achieving the best possible implementation of a particular DAC. It seemed that the DA-10 was designed to optimize the AD1862's performance over those of the other DACs surveyed.

With that caveat, I can recommend the Counterpoint DA-10. Its excellent intrinsic sound quality and unique ability to accept different DACs make it competitive with the best processors in its price range.

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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