With my Rotel performing transport duties, the TubeDac+ offered grain-free smoothness and a warm, forward and even 'wet' midrange that made it easy to relax into the music. Playback was completely devoid of any digital brightness or hardness. At first I thought the frequency extremes were slightly rolled off but after further audition, I was convinced that this appearance was due to the utter lack of edginess and the slightly more present midrange. I certainly didn't feel I was missing any musical information during playback. Voices exhibited a delicious, full- bodied glow without any trace of edge or unnatural sibilance. Veronique Gens' lovely performance of Berlioz's Les Nuits d'ete [Virgin Classics 45422] sent shivers up my spine. Her voice was fuller and even lush via the TubeDac+, with the orchestra arrayed behind her without spatial compression or obscured details.

On my Rotel, Gens' voice was slightly thinner and not as rich and palpable. It just didn't quite provide the tingle factor as this little black box nor was there as much separation between her and the sections of the orchestra.

The TubeDac+ displayed enhanced silence between notes that led to a blacker background thus allowing for more pronounced dynamic swings between soft and loud. I found my toes dancing about to a greater extent with the Nixon DAC than via my Rotel flying solo. I obtained a better sense of the Rolling Stones' forward momentum and slightly off kilter rhythmic chug on such juicy tracks as "Bitch" and "Brown Sugar" from their wonderfully decadent, sleazy yet tasty Sticky Fingers [Virgin 47863]. The slurred, ramshackle jauntiness of "Dead Flowers" evoked the image of dragging a busted tail pipe down a dusty country road in a beat-up El Camino with a wheel wobbling out of alignment.

Truly wretched sounding but musically brilliant recordings were rendered listenable by the TubeDac+. Take Husker Du's killer Warehouse: Songs and Stories [Warner 2-25544] released back in the late 80s. It's an awesome recording illustrating the destruction of a relationship (not to mention the real one between Bob Mould and Grant Hart) featuring Bob Mould's buzz-saw guitar and the gut-crunching rhythm section of drummer Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton. The Huskers from Minneapolis were one of my fave bands during the 80s and miles better than the MTV hair bands and synth-drenched aural pap that was passing for Rock'n Roll back then. Alas, they appeared on the scene too early and were gone before Nirvana showed up in their flannel shirts and guitars.

In fact, Curt Cobain cited Husker Du as one of Nirvana's chief influences. Like the Velvet Underground, critics loved them, too. However, few bought their albums. Just about everyone who did later started his or her own band. Unfortunately, most of Husker Du's CD albums are sonically severely challenged and prime examples of early digital sound's serious flaws. Warehouse is especially poor, sporting what might be the thinnest, tinniest drum kit ever recorded. Even the vinyl is wretched. Rumor has it that the band wanted the album to sound great on Walkmans and mixed it very heavy on the treble. I have to admit that's how I generally listened to this recording back in my low-fi days when Kenwood ruled my conceptions of HighEnd. Via the TubeDac+, this album, while still sonically stilted, managed to banish most of that nasty 80's digital grain and edge. For once, I could enjoy this album without reaching for the Advil. Hopefully one day soon, the Husker's catalog will finally be reissued in decent sound.

Piano, notoriously difficult to reproduce, showed full yet vibrant tone and effortless dynamics via the TubeDac+ and did not sound glassy or hard as it does ever so slightly on my Rotel. Pierre-Laurent Aimard's fine recording of Debussy's Images and Etudes [Teldec 83940] offers a unique yet enjoyable perspective on these works. Aimard allows Debussy's music to speak for itself without indulging in any interpretational histrionics. Some may find this a little cold and analytical but Aimard's exceptional skill and virtuosity make this a refreshing experience nonetheless. Via the TubeDac+, I could pick out subtle little details such as the piano's pedal actions which were slightly obscured on my Rotel. I was also rewarded with greater depth and atmosphere. I could hear notes reverberate clearly off the surrounding walls.

However, the TubeDac+ exhibited a slightly narrower soundstage than my Rotel though depth and layering were enhanced. I could easily visualize the front-to-back seating arrangements of orchestral players in Loren Maazel's spectacular reading of Prokofiev's playful Romeo & Juliet [Decca 425970], especially in the more complex parts such as the "Morning Dance", "Quarrel" and ensuing "Fight" from Act 1. This little box did not at all trip up on dynamic swings nor were woodwinds drowned out by brass fanfares or percussion batteries. But most of all, I found myself more emotionally engaged with the TubeDac+ than with just my Rotel.

Hooking up the TubeDac+ to my $79 budget-wonder Apex DVD player was an interesting exercise. On its own, this el cheapo player is barely listenable with Redbook. Music turns thin, vague and shapeless. Via the TubeDac+, this Chinese or Taiwanese disc spinner was transformed into something far more rewarding. Although nowhere near as full-bodied and punchy as my Rotel, it was definitely a step up in performance. It also highlighted just how important a good transport is for decent digital playback. Still, for less than $700, this combo didn't do too badly.

I also briefly compared the TubeDac+ to Audio Note's Zero DAC. With my Rotel, I favored the TubeDac+ over the Zero which I found to be a trifle bright, edgy and overblown. However, I thought it also offered a slightly superior bass response. Perhaps there was a mismatch with my Rotel? Hard to say. The Zero could not achieve signal lock with my DVD player and I didn't have any other players handy during the review.

Overall, I preferred the TubeDac+ over my Rotel's hardware arsenal of dual Burr-Brown PCM 63 DACs, Pacific Microsonics' PMD-100 digital filter and OPA2604 opamps in the output stage. Music flowed easier and I was able to listen with less effort. However, I'm sure that more tricked- out conventional DACs such as the Bel Canto DAC-2 enjoyed by moonies Mike and Edgar or the Birdland Odeon would give the TubeDac+ stiffer competition.

In summary, the TubeDac+ with its upgraded power supply was an absolute treat and bona fide bargain for the price. It offered a grain-free, dynamic, emotionally involving presentation with a lovely, almost lush midrange and an enhanced feeling of musical continuousness. This would be a fine upgrade to an older CD player or any number of relatively inexpensive current players.

With a DVD player, I think you'd be surprised how good CD playback can be. For around $1000, one could put together a decent budget digital playback system with the likes of Pioneer's DV-563A or Denon's DVD-2200 universal players as transports. Connected to the TubeDac+ via a length of DH Labs $75 D-75 overachieving digital cable, you could sample the competing hi-res formats, watch the odd movie and, most importantly if you're first and foremost a music lover, obtain more enjoyable Redbook playback. On the other hand, if you currently have a more expensive player but are frustrated by grain, thinness or a lack of emotional get-up-and-go, I believe you may find the TubeDac+ a balm for your withered musical mojo.

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