This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad is displayed above
The Sutherland/Bonynge collaboration of Serate Musicali [Decca 475 7984] recorded live at the celebrated couple's home in Switzerland is a cozy event, with the coach accompanist conductor husband accompanying his bel-canto wife at the piano. I restricted myself to only eight Italian songs composed by Rossini. Due to the simple setup of the recording facility, I supposed this CD was typical of any home recording. Nothing spectacular but I still should expect a fair reconstruction of the music-parlor atmosphere. MP3 playback on both chip A and chip B was monotonously flat, with a very narrow and shallow soundstage. WAV playback on chip A offered deep-setting focal point and smooth high-pitched coloratura trills. Separation between piano and vocal was not great but managed to bring forth the delicate piano passages with just enough details.

That somehow made the caressing passages in "Barcarola" more intimate. Chip B cleared up vocal and piano separation. Sonic elements were distilled and reasonably well-defined. The piano came to life with leaping, galloping and bouncing notes so characteristic of Rossini as in "L'orgia" and "La pastorella". CD playback on the PowerBook showed further improvements. Vocals were silky and piano sounded like pearly droplets. Better soundstage and layering turned the simple home gathering into a musical event. The difference between chip A and chip B was almost indiscernible except that the piano in "La danza: Tarantella" seemed more sparkling.

Jan Peerce Sings Hebrew Melodies [RCA 09026-61687-2] provided immediate contrast with his heroic voice and wide soundstage of the RCA Victor Orchestra conducted by Warner Bass and Abraham Ellstein. I picked three tracks: "A Plea to God", "Mom-e-le" and "Shiroh". MP3 playback on both chips confirmed my worries. The vocal was very metallic, showing signs of digital edges typical of audio compression. Thanks to my OCOS speaker cables, ringing was under control. Original CD and WAV playback saved the day by transforming Peerce back into his normal self – lyrical yet full of pathos, flesh and blood. Again, the difference between the two chips closed in. Nonetheless, Chip A was more forward and chip B delivered a bit more depth.

Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic [Point Muisc 446-061-2] could be the tribute to the band that kept on playing the hymn "Autumn" as the ship went down in the North Atlantic. This Episcopal hymn played here on three violas and two cellos forms the base upon which other materials are superimposed - including fragments of interviews with survivors, sound effects reconstructed according to survivors and speculations (the impact of the iceberg, engine room sounds and bagpipers aboard) and realized on various instruments, from bass clarinet to Korg keyboard. Though monothematic yet full of imaginations and noble humanity, the music is strangely peaceful. I picked five tracks: "Opening", 'Titanic Hymn", 'Titanic Lament", "Last Hymn" and "Coda". MP3 playback was again disappointing. There was almost insufficient resolution to distinguish the subtleties between stringed instruments above water and under
water. Miscellaneous sound effects had no details. The WAV files shed more lights on the nuances. That luminous sheen on the strings above water was restored. The hollow strings under water once again reverberated in "the more sound-efficient medium". The dark hue over the sound effects was removed. Original CD playback on the PowerBook further exemplified the true magic of this very quiet recording full of nuances. Woodblocks, tam-tam, bells, marimba, water gongs and the very occasional electric guitar, no matter how subtle, were faithfully and meticulously presented. Chip A versus chip B was almost pointless at any level except that B, for some unknown reason, seemed to be louder and delivering more energy in the mid to lower frequencies.

GianCarlo Menotti who just passed away in February this year at the age of 96, was the most performed operatic composer of his era. Yet his ballet Sebastian [ASV CD DCA 741] was unjustly neglected. This is probably the only recording available thanks to conductor José Serebrier and the London Symphony Orchestra. Menotti painted this hauntingly beautiful ballet with romantic melodies, operatic drama and inventive orchestration. Sebastian is the love story about the Prince and notorious Venetian courtesan whose evil sisters conspire to intercept the alliance with black magic by piercing a wax image of their sister with arrows. Sebastian the Moorish slave, secretly in love with the courtesan, substitutes himself for the wax figure, takes the lethal arrows and breaks the evil power. The ballet is only 36 minutes long and hardly contains one inane note. MP3 playback depicted a compressed sound image
even though Menotti's ingeniously appointed tonal palette was somewhat preserved. The WAV file improved the soundstage dramatically. With chip A, instrument placement was well articulated across the breadth of the stage but fell flat from front to back. Chip B opened up the soundstage even more and defined front to back layering more proficiently if not superbly. CD playback on PowerBook had the soundstage fully restored to 3D, with chip A being more dynamic and chip B more detailed. As in "Barcarolle", string bowings and harp plucking were vividly portrayed.

Time for the final show down between the $25 USB DAC and the $1,000 CD/SACD player. Marianne Thorsen/TrondheimSolistene's Mozart Violin Concertos [2L 38] was chosen to be the reference software for two simple reasons: artistic brilliance and sonics extraordinaire. While most Mozart interpreters try too hard to please by portraying Mozart as a wide-eye innocent porcelain doll, the young Norwegian violinist dares to tell it like it is. This is the most original Mozart with true zest for life. However, MP3 playback on chip A did no justice to this superb recording. The strings sounded coarse. Chip B sounded marginally more refined. WAV saw little improvement, with chip A still sounding lightweight and chip B just adding minor body. On the whole, WAV sounded impatient and strung up. Then I tried FLAC. This is the technical part I could use help with. Correct me if I'm wrong. When converting approximately
750MB of audio data to MP3, file size is reduced to roughly 1/3rd. WAV and EAC are the same as the original. FLAC is about half. Yet FLAC sounds way better than WAV and EAC. It might have something to do with the software I used to play back FLAC. FLAC -- Free Lossless Audio Codec -- is basically encoded WAV in a lossless but compressed file. I used Amadeus II for playback. Even when the Sound Characteristics were set to the original 16-bit/44.1kHz, the FLAC playback outperformed WAV and EAC with decisively more mellowness and finesse. At times, I even might say that it outperformed the original CD playback on the PowerBook. If you still follow, let me further complicate the picture by saying that the difference between chip A and chip B was more evident with FLAC, with B offering richer harmonics and finer texture. Yet this is not the complete story of FLAC.

Original CD playback through the Philips was clearly the winner with its DSD upsampling at work. Superb 2-channel multi-channel SACD playback, excellent Red Book performance plus selectable upsampling to 24-bit/96KHz or DSD bit-stream only found on machines ten times its price make this piece of exceptional hardware the most desirable hybrid player of all times. Why Philips pulled it off the market in under one year has me befuddled. But prepare yourself for more mind-boggling phenomena. Back to FLAC. The Amadeus II is a sound recording and editing software for Mac only. One of its many functions is recoding the sampling size and rate. I used that to upsample the FLAC audio data to 24-bit/96kHz and played it back on chip B. Guess what, the result was so close to the Philips DSD upsampling, the latter only excelled by a smidgen of resolution. I was puzzled at first. How on earth could the upsampled 24/96 FLAC audio data have any effect on the 16/44 DAC and churn out such awesome performance? Then I thought of the EMI 24-bit digital remastered CDs, the Japanese K2 series and the like. By the same token, the final making of these CDs is all in Red Book format but the prior upsampling remastering process somehow improves the sound. The real difference is from FLAC to KingRex USB/DAC - pure digital transmission skipping the error-inducing injection molding of pits and bumps and laser tracking mechanism.

Time to reveal the op amp identity. Chip A was OPA2134 and chip B was OPA2604, the latter being regarded as the better op amp by DIY consensus. As a low-pass filter, the OPA2604 enjoys a reputation of being very analog sounding, with refined resolution and musicality. It's great news that after I completed my first course in chip-rolling, KingRex decided on the OPA2604 as production standard. In fact, any low-noise JFET or CMOS dual input op amps that fit the 8-pin DIP socket can be rolled. It's been reported that OPA2227 and LM4562 are very good choices so it's just a matter of finding one to suit your tastes. Even so, the $25 DAC didn't beat the Philips SACD/CD player but we knew that to be an unfair comparison right from the start. However, any CD player no matter how advanced will devolve into obsolescence the day you put your money down. With the KingRex T20U, you are buying into more than a chip-rolling USB DAC. You are opening up the unlimited realm of many newer and more advanced audio codecs and playback softwares to come. FLAC and Amadeus II are only the two I know of - and I am such a computer idiot. The latest Amadeus II and Amadeus Pro are equipped with 24-bit/192kHz upsampling. I'm sure more options already exist for both Mac and PC. And more are bound to follow.

Part I: Conclusion
I have given my highest commendation to the KingRex T20 by honoring it with the Blue Moon Award for heart-warming tube sound from a cold-running Class-T amp. The T20U is the same amp, only more truthful to the category of integrated amp by offering a second input via its USB interface. If you fancy listening to music from your computer and upgrading your listening pleasure, simply think of the T20U as the best $245 USB DAC money can buy - and the award-winning Tripath amp comes with it gratis.

For curiosity's sake, I did compare the line input of the T20U with the T20 but have nothing to report. Not only is the difference itself negligible and meaningless, the need for reporting it is pointless. You either need USB or you don't. If you are sure you'll never need USB, save yourself $25. If you are not sure, the extra $25 pays for a good insurance policy.