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Reviewer: David Abramson
Source: Audio Note CDT One transport; Audio Note DAC 2.1x Signature DAC
Integrated amplifier: Unison Research Unico
Speakers: Totem Arro
Cables: Ensemble Megaflux FSF speaker cables; Audience Au24 digital interconnect; Au24 analog interconnects
Stand: Sound Organization
Sundry accessories: n/a
Room size: 16.5' x 18' with 11' sloped ceiling

Brief requisite philosophical meanderings
If a component's not tonally correct in a subtle manner, it can be quite hard to tell. For instance, if your favorite recording sounds brighter than normal with this component in place, could it not be that this is really the way it was recorded while your own favorite tried-and-true component had been coloring things all along? Or maybe your new component simply doesn't like the wires you've used to leash it to its new colleagues? Or maybe ... you get the idea. Unless you've been at the recording session, there's no way to be certain just how it oughta sound. That's why I'm not a real big fan of the absolute sound idea. It's why I and many audiophiles who've been around the financial block -- ouch! -- and many sane reviewers (oxymoron alert?) tend to stress system synergy and the "if it sounds good to you it is good" approach. That way you don't spend lots of time and money chasing some absolute that really is unknowable to begin with.

While we can never be sure about the true tonal qualities of a particular recording, one sonic quality is bankable. Detail. If you substitute a new component and you hear more, then no one can argue it ain't there. You can only argue that your other components may not have been retrieving all of it. Perhaps this is why the pursuit of detail in the high-end has become the thing to do. It is bankable - solid. You can't fake details. You know it was recorded if you can uncover it.

Unfortunately and as our editor has recently written about at length, more detail does not necessarily equate to more music. One can become hopelessly disenchanted with the high-end (not to mention broke!) in pursuit of it. Like our editor, I too say "why bother?" While it may be fun to peer deeper and deeper into your favorite CDs with a sonic microscope of ever-increasing power, the thrill of hearing one or two extra bells or whistles in your mix in no way makes up for a component which is either musically sterile or worse, just plain uninvolving.

Give me an involving component over a more detailed and therefore supposedly more accurate one every time. Then there's a better chance I'll actually use my stereo for casual listening rather than just as an analytical tool for comparing an Audioquest demonstration CD to a Chandos demonstration sampler. Naturally, there are components that can do both in equal measure. For myself though, I need food and a house and a car and date money ... you get the idea. If you're looking for a digital component in the price range of the Audio Zone DAC, I'll wager these are real concerns for you too.

Sonics, Sins and Functionality
It is most certainly a good thing that the Audio Zone DAC doesn't come standard with an on/off switch. The DAC seemed to take some time while coming on song from a cold start. In fact, initial listening impressions within 20 or 30 or even 45 minutes after power-up weren't entirely favorable. Phone conversations with George Todai at Audio Oasis confirmed that the product is indeed of the leave-it-on-at-all-times variety.
Exactly how long does it take until you can listen and enjoy? Well, I can't say for certain but I wouldn't go unplugging this unit every time you're done. Just leave it plugged in at all times like George says (except of course, during an electrical storm) and you'll never have to find out, either!

Once this li'l silver rectangle did come on song though, I heard a relaxed, rhythmically taut and enjoyable sound whose sins were largely those of omission. Those omissions in turn were generally consistent with the types of sonic omissions I hear (or rather don't hear) from products in this price range. Let's go to confession.

For one, your neighbors will probably like the fact that the Audio Zone doesn't extract low bass with the same degree of proficiency as some (but not all) pricier DACs I've heard. Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for example is awash in great, punchy bass lines underpinning all manner of new-agey synth music. On many tracks where I know there to be significant bass information, the Audio Zone seemed just a wee bit stingy. Nothing major - you just don't get maximum womp factor when you should. This was evident also on John Lee Hooker's "Teachin' the Blues" [Rhino Collection, CD1] where I had to turn up the volume a bit beyond normal levels to get all the bass information/impact to come through - the big beat he talks about throughout the track and lays down simultaneously with his instrument. Even then, it missed the very bottom of it.

Bear in mind, my Totem Arros are bandwidth limited so if I'm not hearing all of the bass info, this failing will certainly become more apparent with larger, more bass-capable transducers. Fortunately, that's just the sort of large, expensive transducer with which a $750 DAC is unlikely to be used. Nice how that works out! Comparisons with my admittedly far pricier Audio Note DAC 2.1x Signature revealed that the Audio Zone DAC is also a bit stingy with detail. With more expensive DACs including my AN, the cavernous space of the recording venue surrounding Willie Nelson on my fave Teatro album gets lit up on certain tracks ("I just can't let you say goodbye", for example). That doesn't quite happen to the same degree here. The same goes for my recording of Alexander Markov doing the Paganini Caprices [Erato}. In fact, this was the case in general, regardless of CD played. With digital in this price range, something's gotta give and one of those things is frequently a degree of ambient information on a recording, whether it's Wilco or Werther.

Curtailment of reverb in recorded venues is a straightforward way of noticing a component's limitations at portraying detail. A you might expect, deeper listening also revealed a slight rounding off of general details. Those synth noises on the Wilco CD for instance weren't as sharp or crisp sounding or quite as noticeable as with some more expensive processors I've heard. You don't quite get all of the overtones with a violin in a hall or with my main man Pavarotti. It is well to note how this quality did not translate into a blunting of transients. Those were crisp and right on if a little less sparkling in terms of pricier componentry (notice I didn't say "absolute" terms). Finally, I feel obliged to mention that again in comparison to my much pricier front end, there was a slight dynamic reticence both macro and micro. This had a slight ill effect on the ebb and flow of a piece, such as "A Te O Cara" from Pavarotti's King of the
High Cs on Decca. In this aria, solo vocals, chorus and orchestral accompaniment are all brilliantly interwoven in a languidly waxing and waning -- though never broken -- legato line throughout the piece. In short, lots of different levels of dynamics and opportunities for expression thereof, both on the micro and macro scale.

While the AZ certainly gets the tone and the languidness right and sets the stage well to boot, it does miss out on being able to give full expression to the pulsing charge so essential to the proper conveyance of this complex piece. Fortunately for you, I know how to fix it - all of it. It's a two-step process:
  • Open your wallet
  • Throw money at the problem.

Now there's a good audiogoner! In the case of the Audio Zone though, I ended up feeling these sins of omission weren't sins enough to detract significantly from the overall musical enjoyment this DAC had on offer.

On Musical Enjoyment
Precisely because more detail doesn't necessarily mean mo betta, for the paltry sum of 750 bucks, you're in luck. While not as tonally colorful as my Audio Note, the AZ's only tonal failings were a slight emphasis of sibilance on certain recordings and an equally slight perceptible thinning of instrumental and vocal timbres in the upper registers. This slight thinning and concomitant emphasis of upper harmonics was more readily apparent when listening over my trusty Sennheiser HD 600s and Creek's OBH-11 headphone amp to some of the tenors I am fond of and whose recorded voices I know well. Neither of these tonal infractions were present to a significant enough degree to detract from my listening enjoyment but they nonetheless did represent deviances from the tonal palette of more upwardly mobile processors.

Comparison to the Rotel 1072
While this DAC is neither too bright nor too lean tonally, its overall presentation does have a somewhat easeful quality to it, which became immediately apparent upon direct comparison to the similarly priced and well-reviewed Rotel 1072 player the good folks at Audio Dimensions in Little Rock/AR loaned me for this purpose.

I wouldn't call the Canadian laid back in terms of the soundstage as it definitely was able to present voices/instruments up close and personal when called for. However, there is a certain mildly relaxed quality to its presentation akin to those slightly soft-focus lenses used on Barbara Walters and other aging news celebs. This isn't good or bad but just is. If it appeals to you, so much the better. It definitely appealed to me and I feel it is part of this DAC's particular charm. Feel free to play all your crappily recorded classic Rock CDs - the Audio Zone will never bite the hand that feeds it regardless of how many drugs the recording engineer was on at the time.

It was also refreshingly free from rhythmic palsy. On this front, the AZ DAC definitely does not require a handicapped parking space atop your rack. PRaT a tat tat - this DAC most assuredly had no problem keeping up with my rhythmically respectable AN gear on all types of musical fare and equally importantly, didn't impose any of its own ideas on the conductor or musicians about the timing of any particular piece I played through it.

Further direct comparison to the current media-darling Rotel via the Sennheisers revealed that the Rotel, in keeping with most players/DACs in this price range, makes off with a bit of detail as well, being tonally a bit thicker through the upper registers than the AZ and hence not suffering any sibilance. It does suffer a bit of dynamic blunting and is on a whole perhaps just a touch more closed in, missing a few puffs of top air compared to the Audio Zone. The Rotel held a slight edge in soundstage dimensions though within the confines of that stage, groups of voices and instruments seemed to have a bit more internal breathing room with the AZ. Rhythmically, I might give the edge to the Audio Zone as well but only just.

The Rotel is an excellent player and for the money, absolutely cracking as the Brits call it. It's just that a really expensive DAC is often really expensive for good sonic reason. You'd be surprised though how close you can get in certain respects with a DAC like the AZ or a player like the 1072. On the other hand, ours is a pursuit and indulgence of subtleties and it does really take a bit more funding if you want to tap into all the nuance and color that's on your discs.But if you want the gestalt of the performance and most saliently, to enjoy your music unfettered by the drastic failings of so-so-Fi, solid products like the Audio Zone and Rotel will deliver.

An Olive Branch and a finale ...
If it seems like I've been excessively harsh on the li'l silver box, it's really because where it lacks, it only does so in comparison to an excellent and comparatively expensive converter like my Audio Note. However, if you are searching for an affordable outboard DAC or have an ailing/older player you are loathe to put out to pasture (like one of those superb Rotel 855s from a few years ago), I would not hesitate to put the Audio Zone at the top of your list for several reasons.

Firstly, it is sure hard to notice the shortcomings I've described unless you have a $4000 front-end around for comparison - in which case you wouldn't need a $750 DAC in the first place. Secondly, in comparison to machines in its own price range, it is certainly competitive on all accounts, with a little extra by way of a relaxed listenability factor thrown in for good measure. And lastly, George isn't quite done with this little guy yet. As it turns out, the DAC Paul Candy and myself reviewed is a version in "late prototype" guise. The actual production version will contain a more highly evolved power supply and a few additional parts upgrades.

George and Peter of Audio Zone are known as upgraders/tweakers extraordinaire. Moreover, if their award-winning/giant-killing AMP-1 is any indication, they also happen to be blessed with ears for how things should sound. As such, I have little in the way of reservation when I say that the final and finished product is sure to be an even more competitive performer in its price range, likely to give even some pricier spreads up the ladder something to wince about. Watch for the final version in these pages -- this oughta be good.

Publisher's comment:
After formatting this 2-part review, I had Paul Candy forward a fact-check copy to Audio Zone prior to publication as is our habit. George Todai signed off on all the facts but also indicated that certain performance comments on the DAC have already been addressed in the final production version. Rather than postponing this review until Paul's had a chance to put a full production DAC through its paces, we shall publish a follow-up report that will compare the late prototype to what customers will actually purchase in the new year.
Audiozone Website