Audiofile
Review

DAC in a box ... or two

The local hi-fi industry is getting more adventurous, discovers SUJESH PAVITHRAN as he samples some home-cooked digital cuisine

THE lessons learnt as we traverse the path to enlightenment are precious indeed. In the quest for hi-fi's nirvana, we are so blinded by the cosmetic trappings of exotic and established names that we tend to forget what it was we were seeking in the first place.
OMIGAWD, THEY KILLED KENNY ... the Octave Etude DA-1716 DAC didn't do it. But it sure can put up a good fight against any of its competitors.
So let's put aside the Americans, British, Europeans and Japanese for a bit, and let's look inwards, into Malaysia--in the realm of hi-fi manufacturers, an anonymous entity until recently.

Since the mid-90s, the old town area of Petaling Jaya has been host to Octave Electronics, a company founded on passionate do-it-yourself philosophies. From its rather modest beginnings, Octave has taken on the mantle of homegrown DIY doyen, nudging the mushrooming local hi-fi industry to higher terrains with every AV Fest.

Thus far, Octave's efforts have mostly been confined to valved amps of the "put-it-together-yourself-or-we-can-do-it-for-you-for-a-bit-extra" variety and the occasional loudspeaker, using a mix of local and imported technology and parts. But the first steps into the digital domain have been taken, a move born of necessity, demand, and perhaps, even a sense of adventure.

Last year, saw the DAE-1 digital enhancer arrive, a device fitted between the analogue outputs of the CD player and amp inputs, for a bit of tube-ular tweakery. And now, Octave presents the Etude DA-1716 digital-to-analogue converter, in readiness for a better digital future ... or so one would like to believe.

Features

The Etude is available as either a DIY kit or a fully built-up, two-box set--two rather simple, plastic boxes, one of them dressed in metal plates at the front and rear. One case houses the power supply; the shinier other, the D/A converter. The heart of the Etude is its 24-bit/96kHz converter--the direction in which all things digital are moving.

A digression here. The standalone DAC market, at least locally, has been at a virtual standstill the past two years; look at the Etude as part of a sampler of the future of digital audio, SACD or DVD-Audio.

Inside the DAC box are a Crystal CS8414 96kHz digital audio receiver, a Burr-Brown PCM 1716 24-bit/96kHz sampling CMOS Delta-Sigma D/A chip (designed for mid-to-high grade applications) and Burr-Brown OPA2604AP low-noise, dual op amp.

Power from the outboard supply is routed to the DAC unit via a multi-pin link. A digital coaxial input, and a pair each of "normal" and "DAE" analogue outputs are provided, the latter to be routed to the DAE-1, should you want to do so.

The DAC uses Philips and Rubycon electrolytic capacitors, all mounted on the PCB along with the resistors, diodes and trimmers--both the DAC and power supply box spot blue LED indicators.

Completely built up, the two-box Etude will cost you just under a grand, but as a kit, this one goes for RM550, without the casing. You can add a Toslink optical output for RM45, the casing is another RM200 and an upgraded, nine-volt torroidal supply costs RM125. Typical DIY upgradeability, which ensures the punter won't get left behind--expect a 24/96 lock-indicating LED in future.

Cosmetically spartan and modestly built, the Etude won't turn heads ... until you feed a standard 16/44.1 or 24/96 data stream into it.

Performance

The usual suspects: Sources were a Theta Data transport and a Marantz CD 63SE CD player, with Theta ProPrime DAC for comparison, and links included Ensemble Digiflux, Straightwire Virtuoso, Nordost Blue Heaven and van den Hul The First. A DAE-1 went along for the ride as well.

Although I did use various amps, my main one for the review sessions was the Audiolab 8000S, driving Monitor Audio Silver 7 speakers via vdH The Wind cables. Late into the sessions, I also hooked up a Pioneer DV-K301C DVD changer via its digital coaxial output to the Etude, to tap into the 24/96 capabilities of both units.

I know the Marantz is showing its age, but this was made even more obvious when the Etude was thrown into the equation. The CD player's DAC section bypassed, the combination sounded more spacious, with a better laid out soundstage and a tighter focus.

When I added the DAE-1, another level of performance was attained--subtle, but noticeable in the beguiling results. Instrumental timbres were better defined, with a more lucid resolution of vocals. The upper regions turned crisper, without getting edgy, while the midrange retained its comfortable glow. The lower-end also articulated more tangibly.

Coupled to the Data, the Etude hinted at a limit to its perceptions. The Data/ProPrime combi has an immediacy not always apparent with the Etude; in fact, with the Data, the DAC sounded almost languid, retaining its tonal integrity and musicality, but perhaps less involved ... a case of system synergy coming into play.

It was with the Pioneer that the results were most dramatic. As a standalone, audio-only component, the Pioneer can sound a tad detached and well, ordinary ... routed to the Etude, everything immediately opened up, the bass sounded fuller and weightier, treble sparkled and, overall, the sound possessed a vitality and coherence previously missing.

Unfortunately, the closest I could get to compatible software was a 24/96 mastered CD (not recorded) by Sue Matthews (Love Dances); still, the Pioneer/Etude combination was more palpable, more involving, than the Marantz/Etude set-up ... it was as if the whole recording were coming alive!

Conclusion

Infer what you will from my findings. I believe the Etude has the potential to intimidate snooty audiophiles ... I mean, a sub-RM1,000 DAC, linked to a DVD changer, and delivering the sort of sound many on a tight budget believe beyond their reach ... it's just not cricket!

Whether you want to turbo-charge your geriatric CD player (CD63 SE or otherwise) or avail yourself of the potential inherent in your DVD player, the Etude appears capable of meeting your requirements. Give me another choice, for the price, and I'll let Hardy sit on my guitar.

Model: Octave Etude DA-1716 DAC

Price: RM965 per built-up set

Manufactured by OCTAVE ELECTRONICS (03-793-7939), 81 Jalan 1/12, 46000 Petaling Jaya, Selangor / E-mail: octave@pc.jaring.my / Website: octave.addr.com

For: Price; upgrade options; certainly the thing to inject new vigour into your digital systems.

Against: Ancillary dependent; not the prettiest of sights ... but then, at the price ....

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