Musical Fidelity X-DACV8 Digital/Analog Processor Page 2

Charlie Haden's bass was forceful and propulsive on Charlie Haden's Private Collection, No.1 (CD, Naim cd005). Haden prods Charlie Parker's "Passport" along with a walking motif that positively sprints —yet through the V8, his double bass sounded warm, taut, and agile.

This quality of nimble precision was also apparent on Steve Miller's "Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma," from The Joker (CD, JVC XRCD ERCD0043-2), which skitters along on a syncopated riff that's simultaneously powerful, agile, and delicate. The V8 nailed it perfectly.

Having established a baseline by bypassing the tube buffer, I now activated it and tried comparing the solid-state and tubed versions of the V8. The difference was far from day-and-night. Rather than hearing more warmth or spaciousness, or more of any other hi-fi clich é, what the V8 sounded like with its buffer engaged was louder —and not a lot louder, but just a tad. If the bass was a bit fatter or Miller's guitar had a bit more bite in tube mode, it wasn't by enough that I could attribute it to anything more than about 1dB of gain. After many A/B sessions, I left the tubes disengaged.

Less ambiguous, however, were the results of comparing the X-DACV8 with the X-DACV3. I had no real complaints about the V3, but Miller's voice sounded rounder and more three-dimensional through the V8. I heard deeper into the acoustic of South Presbyterian Church on Sing We Nowell, and Haden's bass had more body on "Passport." Again, I'm not saying the V8 smoked the V3, but I preferred it consistently to the V3. Did I prefer it enough to pay money to trade up? I wasn't convinced, although better is always, um, better.

That was in the listening room. Then I listened to the two in my office system, comparing the V3's TosLink performance to the V8's USB input. Now that was a difference to reckon with: bigger soundstage, greater depth of field, and, most important, the V8 gave me deeper silences and far greater dynamic contrasts. Less jitter? Lower distortion? Either or both is possible —perhaps JA's measurements will tell us. All I know is that the V8 made my Apple Lossless files sing in ways the V3 never did.

That's how burlesque was born
Like the X-DACV8, the Bel Canto e.One DAC3 ($2499) uses the Burr-Brown 1792 chip, but it employs a Cirrus CS8421 rather than the Burr-Brown SRC4392 to convert the sample rate to 192kHz. Would that make a difference? Don't look at me —I've never designed a product. However, as an experienced cook, I can tell you that haute cuisine depends a lot more on the skill of the cook than it does on pedigreed ingredients. Judging from what they put on my plate, both Bel Canto and Musical Fidelity know how to sling the hash.

The sonic signatures of both DACs were cut from the same cloth. Both had exceptional clarity and dynamic contrast, and they shared a warm, silky timbre that was closer to analog than anyone could have expected from digital even just five years ago. Over time, however, I began to get a feel for minor differences between them.

Haden's small acoustic bass had more impact through the e.One DAC3. Somehow, the leading transient and the bloom of the note were more integrated —the V8 blurred the transient ever so slightly. In fact, the Bel Canto's bass was consistently a smidge tighter and, dare I say, faster.

It also better resolved the artificial reverb around the drumkit on "Evil," from The Joker —it was more obviously not cut from the same cloth as Miller's guitar or vocal. Since the track is live, I suspect the kit was sweetened in postproduction.

Listening to Angelica's Sing We Nowell, I found it extremely difficult to pick one DAC as better than the other on. Call it a draw —which makes the V8 a winner at $999 less.

Then I decided to take a page from JA's book and connect the Bel Canto and V8 to my Oppo DV-970HD universal player and play some 192kHz DVD-Audio music recordings through them. I had just gotten Mark Waldrup's DVD of John Gorka's The Gypsy Life (Aix Collector's Edition 83053), so I gave the linear PCM version a spin.

Holy Moley, this is what the High End is all about. The hair stood up on my arms. "I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair" made the journey from joke to heartache with startling presence. And, interestingly, here differences emerged with greater clarity. The Bel Canto put me more vividly in the studio with the small ensemble, particularly Michael Manring's soaring fretless bass. But not just the bass —Gorka's guitar had more sparkle, and his rich baritone voice was issuing from a more fully fleshed body —and Gorka's body is a huge part of his voice. And did I mention Russ Rentler's mandolin? Hearing this disc through the Bel Canto explains, better than words ever will, why Lloyd Loar mandolins cost what they do.

The V8 was good —very good —but fed hi-rez digital, the e.One DAC3 was better.

But let's put things in perspective: The Musical Fidelity costs three-fifths what the Bel Canto does.

If you want to grind it / Wait until you refined it
There are some ways in which the Musical Fidelity X-DACV8 puzzles me. I found its tube buffer essentially a wash —it seems as though consumers who find that it doesn't make a difference are forced to pay for a function that used to be an option. Ditto the oversize power supply with outputs that work only with Musical Fidelity's current-generation CD player and (UK-only) tuner. On the other hand, if you like the tube buffer and own an X-RayV8 and/or X-PloraV8, think of those extras as value added.

Taken on its own, the Musical Fidelity X-DACV8 delivers very fine digital performance at a reasonable price —especially if you need to convert the output of a computer via a USB link. Unfortunately, this seems to come at the price of the TosLink input sported by the older X-DACs —and which are still the sole digital output used by many inexpensive digital products that could most benefit from the X-DACV8. That's an option that I, the owner of a TiVo and several budget DVD players, would prefer to either the power supply or the tube buffer.

Ultimately, people will choose the X-DACV8 as they do any other component: on the basis of its feature set, which in this case is unquestionably attractive. For its superb performance as a detailed, sweet-sounding DAC, the X-DACV8 stands on its own.

And, as the Sondheim songs tell us, just because you've got a gimmick, it doesn't mean you don't deliver the goods.

Musical Fidelity Ltd.
US distributor: KEF America, Inc.
10 Timber Lane
Marlboro, NJ 07746
(732) 683-2356