The digital torture rack - definitely not a medieval affair like my Current Concepts Pilates reformer
Using the Furutech Digi Reference S/PDIF cable BNC-to-BNC from my usual Cairn Fog as transport -- with the $10,000 Zanden DAC as comparator -- the customary Ortho Spectrum AR2000 buffer/filter was relegated to the bleachers. The HMS cord feeding the Reimyo plugged into the Velocitor like the Zanden and Cairn, to give a slight air and space gain of 'digital separation' over plugging everything into my proud new BPT BP-3.5 Sig. Standing by for later experimentation?

The i2digital X-60, Stereovox HDXV and Omega Mikro Planar Ebony digital interconnects; the Harmonix Studio Master and Mapleshade Omega Mikro power cords; Mapleshade triple-point HeavyHat brass footers. Before I hit play, here's Kiuchi-San's addendum to my facts presentation of the previous page:

"I think your report already covers all your readers need to know about our design. I only hope that they'll understand how the very natural sound quality of the DAP-777 and the other Reimyo components differ from what other companies produce in their class, by utilizing our unique Harmonix tuning technology. There is much excellent electronics engineering and technology in our industry. However, in order to maximize any technical advances, it is essential to adapt them via electromechanical and resonance tuning protocols - what we call Harmonix. This is an area of research which I have spent more than 30 years to develop and which is based on experience gathered from musical instrument building, concert hall tuning and assisting in the mastering of audio recordings. The Reimyo Series is a direct outgrowth of how to apply these insights to electronics. Accordingly, they incorporate more than 90% of custom-designed and fabricated parts including wiring. However, the circuits themselves are the most simple and basic possible."

Simple done right. That seems the core message here, not for its own sake but to serve what Kiuchi-San calls natural sound. Now, anyone who tells you about day-and-night differences between truly accomplished RedBook playback devices is either lying through his ears; in the marketing business which could mean the same thing; or endowed with far better hearing than the rest of us mortals. And that could be hyperbole as well. This by way of prefacing what follows. Switching from my beloved valved 16/44 Zanden to the K2 climber did not provoke instantaneous recognition of large-scale sonic differences except that the former's low 1V output voltage had to be matched. Otherwise, the music continued to flow seemingly unruffled.

That should come as no surprise. 16/44 Redbook -- and it bears repeating: That's all any CD playback ever is, regardless of fancy guess-work interpolation! -- is a very mature medium. Nowadays it's all millimeter rather than inches or yard progress. Power supply and analog output stage prowess, grounding scheme and resonance control wizardry are often far senior in ultimate importance than chip sets used or math involved. What's more, both Yamada-San and Kiuchi-San subscribe to the school of organic sound and would tell those on the super-resolution highway that they're going nowhere fast. Or, as I was informed once without flattery, if you haven't yet perfected the art of complete extraction, of everything contained in the 16/44 format, why abandon it in favor of new formats which, due to even tighter tracks and smaller pits, require extraction skills superior to those you've demonstrated thus far? First master the basics. Learn to walk before you dare dream of running. I did tell you about how my correspondent wouldn't mince words, didn't I?

With today's setup, what better way to play investigative audio gumshoe than John Kaizan Neptune's Tokyosphere on JVC's World Class Music label [3316, 1988]? It's a nouveau shakuhachi celebration surrounded by purely traditional instruments - two kotos, bass koto, Japanese percussion and kokyu, an erhu-derivative. It pursues very non-traditional, Jazz-tinged avenues of all-original compositions, with a variety of flute lengths all the way down to the 2.4 bass shakuhachi. On some tracks, the koto strings are muted with rubber tubing for a more percussive timbre, or finger-plucked for effect instead of using the normal tsume picks.

Take "Tokyo Blues". It sees Satomi Fukami's koto hit quavering diminished fifths, sevenths and other blue notes by skewing the fundamental string pitch with finger pressure on the far side of the bridge. Eric Golub's double-bowed intervals go way twangy on his fiddle licks; and John The Mountain Neptune (that's what his middle name signifies) turns mildly raunchy with slurred glissandi and throat trills. Though essentially cut from very similar cloth, the Zanden DAC's tubes made for a bit more pronounced soundstage layering, that heightened awareness of performer placement in the depth perspective often tied to transient reflections within the recording venue. Tonally, the Reimyo seemed a skoch leaner, this most apparent on string tones. By concentrating on the plucked or bowed surface event proper, it evoked a different balance between agitated metal and attached resonant wooden cavity. Alternating between digital feeds, the Reimyo felt a bit more incisive, the Zanden a touch softer, as though the Combak unit favored the precision of the initial transient attack, the Model 5000 the middle and end of the same tone. Two subtly different perspectives, none intrinsically superior. That was exactly what expectations, about superior though disparate digital conversion implementations, would have predicted.

By the time the happily vocalizing rendition of "Sheikh of Araby" by Harmonious Wail [Gypsy Swing, Naxos World 76056-2, 2003] came around, I could spot these differences blind. This time, I missed Akiba-San's Ortho Spectrum AR2000 on the Zanden. Without undoing the tube DAC's phenomenal mix of musicality, endless decays and harmonic rightness, it adds rhythmic tension, on-the-button timing and Pippi Longstockings spunk. Its absence on the Model 5000 MkIII now had the Reimyo swing harder; separate the backup vocals more distinctly; stoke the brilliant fireflies of metallic glitter zipping off Tom Waselchuk's Selmer-style Rob Aylward guitar with greater liveliness. It came down to the old silver vs gold color temperature. One is cooler but apparently faster and energetic. The other's warmer, slower and more comfortable.

Granted, I'm exploding the actual differences to describe them in appreciable terms - at this level of the game, it's all about subtlety. That said, swing doesn't want Gemütlichkeit. Swing needs pep. Naturally, once you add the AR2000 to the Cairn/Zanden mix, you get incision and full-bodied magic - the best of both worlds. But that kind of perfection comes at a price: $11,100 plus a set of good interconnects and another power cord. In other words, easily double over what the DAP-777 would set one back. Sounds like a compliment for the Reimyo? You bet. I next needed a test for poise under duress - something complex and convoluted which, nearly by definition, mandates culling from the classical repertoire: Jean Sibelius 2nd Symphony in D major Op. 43, with Sir Alexander Gibson conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos [6556], cued up to the "Vivacissimo" and subsequent "Lento a suave" which together make up the 3rd movement.

Once again, the Zanden took the lead in the onion department of layers upon layers, revealing farther depth of the SNO's Centre in Glasgow. Its tonal distinction already noted still held up and was particularly noteworthy in the cantabile woodwind interlude of the "Lento", giving the oboe and clarinets more saturated timbres. Intelligibility of interweaving lines was outstanding with both converters, the pizzicato filigree of the opening and the staccato brass motif of the transition more acute via the Reimyo. Where the latter couldn't quite keep up was in the sheer scope of dynamic contrasts where tubes properly used seem to reign supreme. The Zanden's climactic swells simply represented bigger waves and higher crests. This too conformed with expectations but also proved that Kiuchi-San's organic mission statement was achievable with solid-state.

An easy mistake in this reviewing business is to come to premature conclusions, not about what you hear but what you believe is causing it. In this case, we have 16/44 with no digital but a proprietary analog reconstruction filter and valved power supply and output stage; and a 20-bit converter with basic 8 x upsampling, transistors and unspecified tuning. Assigning specific audible qualities to the respective absence or presence of certain components is impossible. Only the designer knows how the various building blocks uphold his super structure - which ingredient is responsible for what. All a reviewer can do is point out sonic traits that remain repeatable with various software and perhaps describe how add-ons like different power cords, interconnects, resonance attenuating footers or mass-loading devices can shifts the perceived sonic signature in different directions. Thus far, the Reimyo DAC had proven itself to play in the same league as the costlier Zanden, causing an experienced listener in a >$70K system context to find certain qualities preferable with either party, thus turning neither into a clear victor.

Moving to Carmen Lundy's Self Portrait [xrCD JVC 0005-2] for that instant confirmation which always occurs with truly well-recorded vocals, the harmonic envelope difference between either converter was spotlighted as anticipated, but gentler than assumed. On Jobim's "Triste", Carmen operates in her alto register, at the lowest-most reaches her voice is comfortable at. The Reimyo rendered her pipes more lithe and lissome, the Zanden fleshier and more burnished. Neither at all occupied the extremes of this cool/warm polarity, being just removed enough from central to remain audible and worthy of mention. On this stunningly executed K2 album, and with this type of Jazz/lounge material, the articulate/soft difference shrunk rather than expand, to diminish in impact as though equalized by the recording's stupendous mastering quality.

Put differently, there was just enough otherness left to suggest that if one of these pieces used tubes, the Zanden had to be it - but those thermionic notions would be an iffy proposition to begin with. You might suspect it in the slightly greater weight of Nathan East's bass on "I don't want to love without you", the marginally rounded-off bite on Ernie Watt's sax - but you wouldn't be sure. Which, returning to our earlier statement of millimeters rather than inches, is as it should be. Where a lot of digital misses, in the eyes of analogue devotees? With its lack of believability in the domain of flow and naturalness. These folks compare digital to a mixed-media collage that's assembled from different bits and pieces. Enough scissor borders are left to render the final outcome an assemblage rather than unified and grown organic whole. Regardless of how exactly you describe this involuntary reaction to analog's wholesomeness, nearly every listener notices it while likely also commenting on the pops, clicks and inconveniences. Naturally, it's this elusive yet tangible harmonious presence thang that digiphobes cite as the primary reason why they diss the binary method; not its instant track access nor sheer length of one-sided music content.

The Reimyo DAP-777 didn't play second fiddle to the Zanden's stressless analogue ease. It was merely a bit more incisive and articulate, a bit less spacious and dynamic. Otherwise, it used the same larger canvas or context to paint on. It reminded me of a famous Zen story. An acolyte gardener proudly shows off his skills to the master. It's autumn, with most the leaves fallen. He has meticulously removed any traces of unruliness, with not a single withered leaf dancing in the wind or nestling in the dry grass. Perfection? Not according to the Sensei. He finds the real-life balance disrupted, its wildness sanitized. He proceeds to walk over to the compost area, stuffs the carefully discarded dry leaves into a bag and walks his gardens doling them out by the bushel, left and right like a ferocious Santa for Christmas. This anecdote hints at a Zen essential. It abhors artificial perfection, celebrates instead the natural bio rhythm of life. And the Reimyo's got it, that natural ebb and flow. It just so happens to be more attuned to the timing fixation of popular music than the Zanden whose more natural habitat --without Akiba-San's analogue reconstructor intercession -- is the classical domain. With the AR2000 in my usual system, I've already tuned the MkIII to embrace Take Six's harmonizing but hard-fitting funk without compromise. Could the DAP-777 be tuned in the opposite direction should one wish to? Time to experiment with the add-ons.