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6moons reader Francis Baumli contacted me with a proposal. He had penned a very lengthy dissertation-style review on a component he had had professionally modified. Would I be interested in publishing it? Looking it over, I agreed and would only caution the patient reader that certain statements made do not rest on the common foundation of the writer having had the referenced comparators in his own system to conduct actual side-by-side assessments. As an amateur musician with claimed perfect pitch, Mr. Baumli's focus on critical listening and his Ph.D. type approach to describing it however contain much useful information which I felt our readers might enjoy. - Ed

In early April of this year, I received back from SMc Audio my McCormack DAC-1 Deluxe which had just been upgraded to an SMc Audio Ultra DAC-1. Being a vinyl addict, I had been aware that this upgrade might prove to be the most disappointing investment I ever made in audio. However, matters turned out quite the opposite. Before I discuss these superlative pleasures, allow me to note some initial impressions.

The unit arrived with minor changes such as the balanced outs on the back along with two new RCA outs (WBT NextGen gold-plated copper), a new RCA digital in (WBT NextGen platinum-plated silver), an updated fuse holder with a Furutech fuse (copper with rhodium plating), three new grounding switches, a new Furutech gold-plated IEC receptacle that had been slightly repositioned and an added reset switch. Before hooking the DAC into my system, I checked it for absolute polarity using an Elfix polarity tester. As has been the case with all my McCormack and SMc Audio gear, this unit's polarity was correct.

For transport I use the McCormack SST-1 with its bottom-threaded chassis spike and its patented hold-down puck. For digital cable I use the McCormack Wonder Link. Power cords to both the DAC and transport are Acoustic Zen Tsunami. The interconnect to my preamp (McCormack ALD-1 with outboard power supply) is an Audio Research Litz Line One with locking WBTs. It deserves being mentioned that for damping I have on the DAC two small leather bags of sand, each shaped like though slightly bigger than a man's wallet, and I use similar though heavier damping on the transport. Also, since the DAC does not have a spike, I use two small items called Door Stops. They are hemispherical in shape, made of a soft silicone-like material and normally used for gluing to bathroom tile walls so a door handle won't slam into the tile and crack it. They are just the right size for fitting beneath the DAC and create a very slight upward pressure which cancels any vibration coming from the bottom of the chassis. I use two spaced about ten inches apart. The transport and DAC are both plugged into a Cardas power strip, which itself is plugged into a hospital-grade outlet connected to a dedicated circuit on 10-gauge wire.

Honeymoon problems
I turned the units on plugged in the Cardas power strip and left everything at idle for several hours. At this point, even before listening to music, I noted one decided improvement: namely, the new Avel Lindberg toroidal transformer is dead quiet. In my almost silent listening room, I could hear a slight buzz from the DAC's transformer before. That buzz was now gone.

Later that night came the music along with the break-in aural artifacts. The first and most startling problem was something I had never encountered in any system with any piece of equipment. Let me momentarily digress: There are audio engineers who swear that there is no such thing as soundstage height. They say it is not theoretically possible and swear they cannot hear it. If any one of these dogmatists had been in my listening room that night, they would have come away with altered views on this subject. At the beginning the sound was coming from right at the floor, or at most six inches above it. I sat there thinking, "I can't live with this. How can I, in a polite way, let Steve McCormack know that this is simply not acceptable. Everything is on the floor! I have tower speakers and before I always had amazing height!"

I decided that even if I could not live with this, at least I could listen to it for one night. So I listened and then, after about 15 minutes, the image began rising up off the floor, about 2-4 inches per minute. After about 15 minutes, the image height was up to where it should be. What a relief. Meanwhile I had slight stridency and brightness to contend with. This was familiar and I knew what was causing it. I had, with a Duo-Tech unit, burned in the digital cable and interconnect but the power cords had been sitting unused for too long and needed burn in. After they got their due, the bright edge went away. Also, amidst this listening the bass had been weak but after about an hour it took on appropriate heft. The soundstage width had started out very narrow and took about two hours to widen to where it had always been before.

There was another problem which would prove quite a hurdle. Since I am blessed with perfect pitch (and cursed when playing with, say a guitar player who stubbornly believes he is in tune when he isn't), I was able to locate this problem to be aware of how uncanny it was: the musical information in the 1400-1900Hz range was awry. It was recessed about -6 to -8dB, i.e. a lot. Moreover, this spectrum and only this spectrum kept shifting location. A bit of work by the drummer on the high hat would be about halfway over toward the left channel and then on second listen three minutes later dead center or even a bit toward the right channel. In the somewhat famous Enya song "Orinoco Flow" from her Watermark CD, toward its beginning are the words "let me crash upon your shore" which end with the sound of waves crashing upon a shore. Before this information was always precisely located just slightly over toward the left channel. Now it might be anywhere from the far left channel over to the center. After about three nights of this, it even moved into the right channel. How was this possible? I phoned SMc Audio and Steve McCormack made several suggestions. I followed them all. I removed the Caig ProGold contact enhancer. I tried different interconnects, different power cords and nothing changed. I couldn't try a different digital cable because although I own two others they both were out on loan. I was in despair but listened longer. Then a vague idea arose and I slowly realized it to be a vague memory: I had experienced this before.

About 15 years ago, with a different pair of speakers, I'd had them rewired with a relatively heavy 14-gauge and better wire. During the first few hours of listening, those rewired speakers had done exactly this same thing. Their image had shifted around in the same 1400-1900Hz window. Something almost identical was now occurring but not going away as it had with those speakers. And this time the problem couldn't be with my current speakers. Things sounded fine with vinyl. Surely the problem was not in the power cords which were almost broken in. Might I have burned in the digital cable backwards by mistake? (The directional markings on the Duo-Tech can mislead.) I hooked up the digital cable to the Duo-Tech making sure the signal flow was correct and burned it in for a full five days. Then the cable went in. Problem solved. Utterly. Just to experiment, I would later burn in the cable backwards, encounter the problem again, then solve it again by burning the cable in correctly. The lesson learned from all this: The SMc Audio Ultra DAC-1 is so sensitive that you need to pay attention to every ancillary component, especially your wire.

A discussion on classic CD players
Thus far I have only discussed problems and solutions. I've yet to speak of the DAC's positive aspects. I shall but first, a digression to put the subsequent discussion in context. Many years ago I read an article in which the writer dogmatically, even pompously, claimed that there will never be such a thing as a classic CD player because they were so awful back at the beginning and every improvement in CD players so dramatic that every earlier player sounds decidedly inferior.

I didn't agree. Yes there have been significant improvements, and yes some of those early CD players were quite bad. But some were very good and deserve being remembered because what they achieved endures. Even though most new players have surpassed them, they have not eclipsed them. Several times I have listened to systems using the latest and greatest and I could introduce my humble Rotel 955 and people's eyes would go wide, ears wider and someone would warily say, "You know, some of those early CD players were pretty good." Someone else might humbly say, "They had a sound all their own that still appeals." But then always -- and I mean always -- someone would say, "Is this a trick? Has that CD player been upgraded?" I would sweetly state that no, nothing had been done to it; that rather it was just a fine-sounding player.

What were some of those early classics? As for the relatively cheap, there was the humble Rotel RCD 855 AX which sold for $450 back in the early 90s. It would be replaced by the 955 which, except for the model number, was exactly the same and cost the same. I bought one -- my third CD player -- and would use it with considerable satisfaction for several years. Its strengths were dynamics, rhythm, pacing and excitement. The player is still in my home now used by my 18-year-old son. Another relatively cheap classic was the Pioneer Elite PD-65 which sold for $800 back in 1994. It had the strengths of the Rotel but a somewhat smoother presentation. Many people liked it because those who upgrade players enjoyed applying their clip 'n' snip approach to it (usually, in my opinion, with retrograde results). But the original Rotel or Pioneer players can even today run the race with some of the most expensive players out there.

There was a second level of classics in the mid-price category. One was the Audio Research CD 1 which came out in 1995 and retailed for about three grand. It was very dynamic, smooth and though a little strident in the lower midrange (an area where few components ever are) nevertheless a very fine player well worth the cost then and still worth owning now. It was one of the first players to have some degree of what grateful reviewers called an analog-like sound and it was impressively rugged and reliable. There also came on the scene the Sony CDP-X779ES. Introduced in 1992 and selling for $1900, it would in but one year be replaced by the CDP-X707ES which was identical in every way except for the model number and the fact that it retailed for $2000.

These were very fine players. They had a smooth sound, excellent soundstaging and for CD players unusually good onboard headphone amps. At the time I needed a different CD player because writing liner notes for classical CDs, I needed indexing access. There was only one British player which had that and I did not much like its sound. The only player in the U.S. I knew about which had this feature was the Sony but their cheap players sounded bright and thin and their middle-of-the-road players too soft and ill-defined.

So I bought a 707 and was quite satisfied even though it did not have the dynamics and rhythm of the Rotel. Its soundstage was gorgeous and it had a smooth beguiling presentation I came to feel was too smooth. In fact I would soon be describing it as oily. But I appreciated this player's merits, it was the best player I could find with indexing and I stuck with it for over a decade. A third classic in this price range were the McCormack separates of DAC-1 with SST-1 transport which came out in the early 90s. When I seriously considered this set, the DAC-1 retailed at $995 and the SST-1 for $1995. These three grand combined didn't include the necessary wire. But I loved this player, more than one friend owned the combo and I felt it had the best of both worlds - the dynamics of the Rotel and the soundstaging of the Sony. It was not as smooth and soft as the Sony but I had progressed to where I could do without soft since this too often failed to let the personality of the music through.

The Sony bested the McCormack slightly with soundstaging but of these three mid-priced classics, the McCormack came out on top. However, I needed indexing which only the Sony provided. Moreover, I didn't want to fool with separates, taking the naive attitude of "why bother with two components and all that wire when you can get good sound from a single unit?"

But the day came about a year ago when the review stampers of CDs not yet in production no longer relied on the indexing mode. I decided to go after a better player. I auditioned many up to about $5,000 but kept coming back to the sound of that mid-priced classic, the McCormack separates. I bought a DAC-1 and managed after considerable searching to score an SST-1 transport and also a McCormack Wonder Link digital cable. I was mightily impressed. Not long after, I came across a McCormack DAC-1 Deluxe and bought it, sold my previous DAC-1 and felt (almost) satisfied with a very high-quality digital playback system. (I admit to also enjoying befuddling people by talking about my seven-piece CD player of transport, hold-down puck, DAC, digital cable, two high-quality power cords and the interconnect from DAC to preamp.)