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Audiomeca Enkianthus DAC

[Italian version]

Product: Audiomeca Enkianthus DAC
Producer: Audiomeca - France
Approx.cost: 4058 Euro/$
Author: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed/built: Febuary, 2003

[Enkianthus]

Introduction

Regular readers of my scribblings will be aware of my personal bias towards the good 'ol 12" LP over the upstart CD. My turntable reviews thus far have only served to confirm this bias, in fact all of them have been preferable to any CD player I had to hand. The trouble is that CD's are now easily available second hand, pretty tough and great for when I've drunk that third glass (who said bottle?) of wine. If only they turned me on like vinyl life would be so much simpler. Are there CD players out there that could change my mind? Of course writing for TNT puts me in a very privileged position, that of being able to answer such questions. Thus TNT review projects are born and so now begins a series of occasional CD player reviews to find a CD player worthy of lining up with top turntables.

So to begin...

It's interesting how many of the old school turntable manufacturers quickly took up the challenge of the silver disc. In a way it was a surprise - after all, surely the major electronics companies had the research budget and electronic know-how to flatten the upstarts in a way they singularly failed to do with vinyl? However from way back some of the best sounding CD players came from the masters of the black stuff, in particular the British triumvirate of Roksan, Linn and Naim. But over the English Channel another vinyl master was turning his hand to extracting music (as opposed to measurements) from the new medium - Pierre Lurné at Audiomeca - and like his British counterparts the results were impressive. I suppose the realisation that vibration control, mechanical coupling and basic mechanical engineering were as important as the electronics gave turntable manufacturers a head start. I suspect that having top turntables as a reference to sound quality did no harm either.

It's also down to financial imperatives as over the years the CD has become the no.1 music carrier and looks set to maintain that position until chip based systems finally take over in (insert your best guess here...), so now CD player production far outstrips turntable sales even for the aforementioned companies.

And the biggest range of transports and DACs comes from the smallest company - Audiomeca. Having been very impressed by the Romance/Romeo TT/Arm, particularly with regards to price/performance, I thought here was a good place to start. Being greedy I asked Pierre Lurné for the loan of his top Transport/DAC combination, the Mephisto/Enkianthus. I was especially interested in the former because Audiomeca are one of very, very few companies that make their own transport mechanism. Not a modified Sony or Phillips OEM item (which you'll find in almost everything else regardless of cost), but a designed-from-first-principles lump of class engineering - too good to resist.

Pierre Lurné was, as always, pleased to help, once again providing sheets of hand written details on the design, but this time sadly most of it was beyond me :-) Then the snag of course. Both were undergoing major revisions and as always with these things the actual date of 'readiness' was dependent on so many things from last minute glitches to suppliers dragging their feet. As it turns out only the Enkianthus was available and even that changed mid-review, so here we have a DAC review, though the Mephisto 11x will follow soon!

Design

Those who remember the Romance/Romeo review will know I was seduced by it's glossy black good looks. Pierre Lurné_ tried to claim it was form following function, which is like saying a pair of Gucci loafers are designed to keep the mud off your socks. Either Pierre is telling fibs, or he's one of these guys who just can't help but make things good looking - me? I think it's something between the two :-)

[Enkianthus guts]

Judge for yourself, but the combination of polished stainless steel and mirror black acrylic takes some beating. Add a row of blue and red LED's, smooth round touch buttons on the facia and you end with something that looks cool and classy.

The row of LED's and buttons are necessary because this is far from a basic DAC. Running from right to left those buttons are on/off, phase invert, Coax input 1,2 (Phono) and 3 (BNC), AES/EBU and AT&T - five in all. There is a digital output for recording, Phono audio and XLR outputs for the analogue side. This gives a clue to the units versatility, as well as the CD standard the Enkianthus will take any standard from DAT to two channel 24 bit, 192 kHz, and lock in automatically to each. In addition new standards can be implemented by software changes. Whilst nothing can ever be said to be future proof this as good as current technology can make it - the only omission being a 'firewire' interface. Of course, as all these inputs are switchable, if you are using a multi digital source system the Enkianthus only needs a passive volume control to act as a preamplifier.

Opening the box it all looks very pretty, everything neat and well laid out, a thick copper shield protecting the digital engine hidden beneath. Audiomeca make no secret of the fact that this engine is bought in, as Pierre says "if you buy a Volvo it has a Renault engine". The "engine" is from Anagram Technologies in Switzerland. The rest of the electronics, power supplied, analogue circuits etc are down to Audiomeca.

For those wanting a list of the DAC specs I won't waste download time here, I'm loath to include technical specs that I don't really understand (or can verify) in my reviews so please forgive me if I send you to Audiomeca's website.

[Anagram module]

Sound Quality

Lacking the Mephisto, the AudioNote Zero transport was brought into play once again. Obviously several price levels below the Mephisto it works pretty well with its own matching DAC and so at least direct comparisons can be made there.

So the Zero DAC was unceremoniously hauled out to reside in the loft and the Enkianthus fired up and plugged into the Zero transport. Cabling varied through the test, though neither unit seemed desperately sensitive to the wire, given that all my stuff is of at least 'audiophile' quality (though not necessarily price). In the end I settled for Audionote Silver cables throughout.

Unlike the Zero DAC it replaced it sounded reasonable from the start (the Zero was bloody awful for a fortnight!) but it certainly benefited from a week's burn in.

Truth was that from the word go it made the Zero DAC sound rough. High-end gear generally sounds 'expensive', that is it has refinement. This is especially true of CD players which at the cheap end can sound unbearably harsh in a revealing system. Here the result was clear, open and silky. You could just tell that this thing measured well. Soundstageing was wide and deep with everything coming out of a suitable dark background - showing a very low apparent noise floor. Detail was likewise better than the Zero and the other CD players I've had here recently, the Roksan Caspian and my old hot-rodded Micromega Solo, in fact it bettered all of them in every respect which given the cost is as it should be.

But I had a reservation. The classic high-end trap is to refine the blood and guts out of everything, to end up with 'perfection' but leaving you unmoved. It's a tough thing to describe, but it's one thing that turntables do so well. Perhaps it's down to sympathetic distortion adding an edge, or superior dynamics, or attack, or rhythm. The point is it exists and it's the sort of thing that you can spot from the next room. One reason so many specialists stuck for so long with the old 16 bit Phillips DACs rather than the newer "Bistream" was precisely this loss of energy. Don't get me wrong the Enkianthus wasn't bad, but it was a disappointment given its excellence elsewhere, albeit one I half expected. I'll add here, that for all its slightly 'rough' nature this energy is one thing the Zero does better than any other player I've heard and is one reason it's still in my system. I repeat, the combination of refinement with energy seems to be one thing that top turntables manage without breaking sweat.

OK to be fair the Enkianthus was hardly matched with its perfect partner but the Zero transport showed the Enkianthus' superiority in every other respect without problems, and it's performance with its own DAC showed that it was capable of extracting the energy from a disc.

But...

With the Enkianthus Pierre send a small plastic bag containing the Mk II of the digital "Anagram Technologies engine". He said that was worth trying and to see what I thought.

Pulling apart a few thousand quid's worth of high-end electronics isn't my favourite pastime even if the tools needed were screwdrivers and allen keys rather than a soldering iron. I also had a sinking feeling that either I wouldn't hear a difference (in which case Pierre would see me for the fraud I am) or that the result of the "better measurements" the level of refinement would go up and the level of excitement down...

Wrong on both counts.

The resulting change was so unexpected and so much greater than I'd though possible that I emailed Pierre the next day to tell him "the energy's there!" The Mk II's changes may be minor but to my ears the result was a resolving of the issue that was bugging me. Hi-fi is a weird business, time and time again I've found a tiny change that has made a major difference (e.g. the blu-tac tweek on the Orbe, changing cables on the Cabasse Sloops, moving one piece of furniture in a room). Where other times you make major changes, even of complete components, to no discernible effect. Maybe it's all to do with chaos theory, or the indefinable things that make music exciting or not to our flawed auditory apparatus - I'll leave you to judge.

So not for the first time I'm left rewriting a review, here for wholly positive reasons. More the point something I'd hoped would happen was taking place. Instead of comparing the DAC with other CD players it became more relevant to slot it into my turntable tests as an honorary guest. And as the turntables become the reference rather than my limited experience with CD players, it's worth while saying here where I think the majority of CD players that I have heard fall sadly short of a good turntable.

The first and perhaps most important I've already covered, the lack of energy, a flattening of dynamic contrasts regardless of what measurements say. Related but not quite the same is the sense of scale a turntable can bring to music. A good CD player can put out a wide soundstage, some even do depth, but the big, meaty, bold spread of an orchestra or a rock band eludes them. Textures - the combination of complex harmonies that go together to make up the signature of an instrument or voice become simplified. On vinyl it's often easy to identify an electric piano over the real thing, CD players struggle with the same recordings. This is linked with poor resolution of really low level signals, the classic example being the decay of a cymbal - immensely complex bell like overtones and ringing slowly vanishing to nothing (or to surface noise in vinyl). In theory a CD should be able to take this down to digital 'black' but in reality it often simply fizzles out. Lastly despite 'ruler flat' frequency response I still find most CD players produce a brightly lit upper-mid, something my horn system - already a bit peaky, can well do without. In CD's defence I could happily point out surface noise, end-of-side-distortion, fragility, stylus wear and a host of other nasties, but the fact is that for me when vinyl is in top form it's still the medium to beat.

So now back to the revitalised Enkianthus, the "what can you hear?"

First low level resolution. You know the kind of thing, when a familiar piece of music reveals not an extra detail, a "ting!" here or a "cough" there, but an extra level of detail, previously masked. Take The Pretenders "Last of the Independents". Not an album that won great critical acclaim but one of my current "Desert Island Discs". One track "Tequila" revealed a whole cacophony of clinking glasses I'd not noticed before (and this I play several times a week). This album has tremendous energy but most tracks are recorded at The Woolhall in Bath (UK) and these can be viscously bright. To maintain the energy and excitement whilst leaving your eardrums intact is a difficult balancing act but the Enkianthus managed it. One of the highlights of the album is Martin Chambers rhythmic power drumming. Like Chrissy Hinde (they are the only surviving members of the original Pretenders) his exquisite timing and energy (that word again) drive much of the album along - even to the extent of rescuing potentially cloying numbers like "I'll Stand By You" and elevating them into high points.

You see what's happened? I've forgotten the Enkianthus and started talking about music, apart from showing a certain lack of focus on my part I can give no higher praise! The Enkianthus just gets forgotten, it doesn't smooth over and flatten music, neither does it sound harsh and grate, nor do complex passages fall apart. It doesn't detract from the music, just lets you enjoy listening, no single aspect jumps out to spoil the effect, it's even-handed and musical.

But I digress. Bass? Tight, well controlled and punchy as good digital bass can be, happily rescuing Fairground Attraction's acoustic bass guitar from sounding woolly, which it's inclined to do especially on vinyl. Likewise the Ted Sirota's "Rebel Souls" album's first track has lots of energy from a snappily played double bass - the Enkianthus handled this with aplomb. In this piece the bass strings rattle against the fretboard, often sounding either detached or like something's broken in a speaker, but with the Enkianthus this came across as a natural facet of the playing...

And here something else happened to change my view of things. I use Polaris horns that rolloff pretty steeply below 80 Hz. However they do manage to sound quite warm and full sounding and the bass is BIG if not deep thanks to the speed and dynamics a horn offers. However right at the end of the test period a friend (thanks Pete) came over and lent me a REL subwoofer. The result was that used to give bigger bass, it sounded hopelessly slow and boomy after the speed of the horns. But turned right down and rolled in at 38 Hz it's effect was quite astonishing. It was as if the soundstage was suddenly much more clearly lit, much more open and clear. This was especially apparent with well-recorded live music where for the first time the 'hall' was clearly audible. The point is that the very clean bass from the CD player and the presence of very low tones on most CD's meant that this 'upgrade' occurred more often with CD than vinyl. For example The Police's 'Ghost in the Machine' is (I'd thought) a very bassy mix. Switching the sub in and out showed that on vinyl there was nothing under 40 Hz - the effect was zero. On the other hand Tracy Chapmen's first eponymous album showed clearly the wholly positive effect of the sub in that opening of the soundstage - this again on vinyl. The snag is that perhaps the majority of vinyl 'rock/pop' records don't seem to have much in the way of sub 40 Hz information - perhaps because rock instruments don't do much under 40 Hz. But also I suspect that because low bass takes groove space many LP's are rolled off to allow a longer playing time. The result is that on CD's the sub made a big difference much more often than on LP, and so for much of my collection gived CD another weapon in it's battle with the black stuff - though clearly vinyl at it's best was a match. Please note that this bass information gives an advantage primarily in soundstaging and openness - not in apparent bass level.

Moving on, the now energetic midband gives fine vocal projection and attack to brass such as the Sax on "Take Five", but it's not overbright, the top end being smooth without giving the impression that it's rolled off. All this combining to give a lovely open presentation.

So it sounds like a turntable? Well in the end no :-) It avoids the aforementioned faults of vinyl, but manages to incorporate much of vinyl's assets. In the final analysis it still lacks some of the weight and scale of a good turntable, especially something meaty like the Orbe/SME/DRT-1. Though the soundstaging was truly excellent it still falls short of the best turntable, producing well spaced but less bold images, though this could well be down to personal prejudice. Strangely, if I were to choose a turntable to match it in sound I'd probably go for the Romance/Romeo and the Music Maker cartridge, a combination noted for a slightly lightweight but highly engaging and open presentation.

Conclusion

Limiting my comments to the Mk II Anagram Technologies engine (now the standard fit) I'd have to say that the Enkianthus pleased me greatly on almost all counts. Playing swings and roundabouts I'd still give the top turntable combo's the edge but I'm prepared to admit that might well be down to personal prejudice and a system inevitably balanced around my main vinyl source. The worry (hope?) is that this situation may change considerably with the addition of the Mephisto transport - certainly I'd be surprised if it didn't match better than the Zero. Happily in the next few months that question should be resolved - the result may finally be that the only arbiter of what I play next is the music content, not the format it has been recorded with - watch this space...

Manufacturers comments - From Pierre Lurné...

You jumped over the technical side. This is not a problem as long as this can be omitted because it acts as just a simple tool. Here things are different (I am a great Anagram defender !) because one cannot understand what is going on without a few technical words. In addition you know how people are afraid of technical details and of everything beyond their own understanding.

To start with I did not get it at once myself. To my great shame. It took me around two monthes to make the full circle around and to listen the incredible job made by these polite and cool Swiss men. After, I even asked them why they are so modest. You know me - the least important thing is measurements' music matters first and the difficulty to extract it is there as everybody knows. Anyway these guys have succeeded in producing the dream of all digital specialists. The theorical solution was known and imagined by those specialists but nobody got it yet. Besides, the components available at the time were not powerful enough. Everybody was waiting for the next component generation. With plenty of chips and lot of money, one could do it maybe, but still it does not happen but nowAnagram are the first at the finish line. They received congratulations from dCs, their main competitor, and from Analog Devices themselves, the giant electronic company. The AD research staff tried to solve the problem but they only succeeded partially.

Little Anagram made things possible thanks to one fundamental idea of programming chips. You must know that the "signal theory" in Physics is a true marvel of the Science. There are specialists in the Signal Theory. I let you imagine how important they are nowadays...The amount of calculation and their level of complexity cannot be followed by the man in the street. The fact is that millions of calculations are done every second to "recreate" the sound. Non-specialists and the audiophile majority cannot believe that mathematics can make good music. This is simply because they are out of touch with modern Physics. No offence, to everyone his own specialities and his God given gifts. Things DO work there like 2+2=4. Audiophiles often complain that very fine details could be lost/ignored by the digital system. Between two samples for example. But in fact nothing can escape Geoff, really. The speed of calculation is so high that there is no way left, no way else. Naturally speed is only one point. The maths themselves have several ways to check, control, compare etc - all the time.

The information is crossed controlled at various points and all, ALL, is duly captured. Even more than this, whatever the incoming data quality and its clock (and jitter), the data is perfectly restored and "independantly" reclocked, leading to virtually Zero jitter. Of course all this can be measured and simulated. It is a shame that scepticism cannot be thrown away simply because of lack of the relevant knowledge. Sometimes scientists disagree. This is when research is not yet completed, but, believe it or not, the Signal Theory is universally applauded. And it works! Have a simple look all around you.

A Renault engine in a Volvo? Maybe Volvo does not make engines, maybe they are partners with Renault, maybe it is a price question, maybe the engine is good and difficult to beat, but it's a common business set-up. We use the Anagram module because we have not the expertise and quite simply because that module is not only the best, this is IT - as good as it gets. You see ? When we started working with Anagram they had module #one. The results, all kinds, were absolutely outstanding. The plots/curves, done through an incredibly expensive computer based instrument, were unbelievable and so was the musicality . So I went to the conclusion that the top was reached and there was no more need to waste more time on that subject. Really. Unusual and rare, but there anyhow. Better for us to put our effort and money elsewhere.

When you get specs so far in advance in comparison with the usual specs of amps, speakers, sources etc you think you need go no further. When the music is playing at normal level, a parasite at -60dB is not discernible. So what about a signal noise ratio at a level so low than minus 140dB ?? Realise that this is not Euros or meters but decibels! Between -60 and -140 there is an incredible difference. One uses decibels when a difference is so great that you can't use a usual linear scale

Ok, back to noise floor. If you have -140dB, do you really need -142dB ? If you have as much money as Bill Gates, would you care about one Euro more or less ? Now you understand why I thought that the Anagram module touched the top limit. But men are men and always strive to improve, or try to. Anagram made Module Mk.II. Why? maybe for commercial reasons, maybe for the fun, maybe because they want to increase the gap with competitors. I do not know. Probably a mix of eveything. Anyhow, the Mk.II is there, better, higher specs, higher plots, and....is more musical as you heard yourself. Amazing ! one can imagine that when sound is superb, this or that minor change will not make a great difference, but when the musical results are brilliant, the slightest difference can be heard. Imagine a white wall covered with one thousand dots. If I remove one or if I add one, nobody will remark it. On the reverse, if there is only one dot, or two or three, on the wall, you will see immediately that something has changed. This could be a reason why we don't think a small difference matters but in fact it does - Psychology?

The END! Oufff! Geoff

Have a nice weekend. Hello to everybody and take care to your cuttings. When spring will be starting, recall me to tell you what to do with them (*). It would be stupid to loose them now. Thanks again and again,

Pierre Lurné...

(*) Pierre is a Rose nut (there must be some latin word for such enthusiasts) so with the Enkianthus came rose cuttings - quite a responsibility I can tell you!

systems used

© Copyright 2003 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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