Before it even arrived, I knew I was going to dig this DAC. Like equivalent models by Perpetual Technologies, MSB and Bel Canto Design, the original Birdland Audio Odeon-Lite enjoyed an enviably strong reputation: For topnotch performance without hobnob pricing.

Was I ready though? You see, for the last few years, I'd made do with a Marantz CDR-630 for my principal source. As a semiprofessional CD recorder -- semipro referring to accepting computer blanks and allowing endless copies of copies -- its laser tracking precision is probably above average. It burns CDs after all. I always figured it'd make a good transport - one day when I got around to adding that killer DAC.

But, I really prefer one-box solutions. Less clutter, greater cost effectiveness. No self-inflicted diseases that mandate otherwise unnecessary engineering solutions - like defeating jitter that's added by routing fragile digital datastreams offboard. So I was still listening to the Marantz vacillating on what to get. Meanwhile the main rig's other components were upgraded out of proportion with the source's relative modesty: Avantgarde DUOs, AUDIOPAX Model 88s (yes, my personal pair's arrived), Bel Canto PRe1, inSound/Mapleshade Excalibur ICs, Analysis Plus biwire Oval 9, Audio Magic Stealth and Digital Stealth Power Purifiers & Clairvoyant powercords, WorldPower double-cryo'd Hubbell wall outlet... long on everything but short on digital.

How short was brought home when the Odeon arrived. Gawd was I behind the times. High tide to gather my things and run up that slippery dune of better sound. I contacted VMax-Services. Their Richard Kohlruss had sold me three pairs of Triangle speakers, first the Lyrrs, then the Ventis XS, then the Ventis 222. From experience and trade shows, I knew his tastes. When he describes what something sounds like, we agree. His Cairn Fog v2.0 24/192 CD player had the features, appearance, build quality and pricing I wanted.

Presumably it also had the sound. He described it just the way I like it. Ditto for Sam Tellig's review of the piece. Sam's reviewed plenty of Triangle speakers. I know we hear the same things with 'em. I wasn't worried about auditioning the Cairn first. I mailed out a check and waited for my FedEx guy to -- for once -- not pass by my driveway in dust-kickin' haste (he hates those heavy boxes I sometimes get).


I believe that 16bit/44.1kHz digital has become a very mature medium. Hairs split the differences between good, equivalently priced players. Go for the look and features you want, at the price you can afford. The overall sound is more a function of the analog output stage and power supplies than the silly numbers' wars. Manufacturers feel coerced to "do" 24/192 whether it's really necessary or not.

Case in point. Just a week ago I heard a 10-year old EAD DAC. It had been expertly modified by a private party specializing in digital mods - new output stage, new current-to-voltage conversion, same old 20-bit chips. I compared it to the Birdland. Surprise. The antiquated chip set not only held its own in the resolution department, but the whole package sounded more analogue-like and threw a deeper stage.

This is no backhanded criticism of the Odeon. The modded EAD was a precursor of an anticipated from-the-ground-up production piece under its own brand name that should enter the market late this year for around $1,700 - i.e. a natural competitor. As we shall see, the Ag is a fabulous product with some very trick functionality that's usually reserved for much dearer units. It simply means that upsampling to 192 is not the magic bullet it's often made out to be. It's just the newest buzzword. If you want to sell digital, you better get a buzz cut, step in line and salute.

What if a manufacturer upgraded his firm's newest entry in the aforementioned areas and perhaps even threw in a current chip set (but not 192, and not upsampling either)? The results could be identical or better. But where's the sex appeal in invisible innards? 24/192, on the other hand, looks like a heckuva lot more than 20/96 or 16/44. It's like being a kid and getting 100 one cent coins. You feel rich while daddy smiles and pockets his single dollar bill.

But back to the review at hand. Obtaining the purpose-built Odeon-Ag for review was bound to kick butt and polish my Italian floor tiles with the Marantz' leftovers. That much was a given. It turned out exactly so. The reviewer's challenge was putting it into context. How'd it compare against other high-ranking contenders?

The Cairn ($1,595) was enroute and would or would not make my deadline for inclusion. Regardless, I needed a proper stand-alone DAC for comparison. I requisitioned for what I assume is one of the Odeon-Ag's most capable competitors - the Bel Canto DAC-2. Both pieces are 2nd generation 24/192 revisions of the 96kHz originals. Both are priced within spitting distance. Both will undoubtedly gain many reviews.

The Odeon-Ag has already been hailed as #2 Best Buy of the Year 2002 by Stereo Sound of Japan (issue #141). I know of a pending DAC-2 review on SoundStage!. Others are bound to follow in due time.

Such a juxtaposition would be useful for future reviews on either piece. Based on this one, deduce what one sounds like by reading further descriptions on the other. Also, I didn't want to plagiarize Art Dudley's brilliant and brilliantly honest opener of his Listener Shigaraki DAC article: "Consumer Alert! While I can tell you what this thing sounds like, I have no idea what it means". I can't claim to really know what today's report means either in the greater context of sub $2,000 DACs. But at least I can be specific about how it compares to one.


The Birdland Audio Odeon-Ag is one of two products currently comprising the firm's Silver Series. It's named for the 5/8" clear-anodized bullnosed and grained 6063 aluminum panels that front the clamshell hard plastic casings with their inserted aluminum rears. The second entry is dubbed the Pleyel-Ag, an 18/60 watts stereo/mono amplifier with digital bias control. Both use what designer Gilles Gameiro calls Solid-Tube output stage. That's a proprietary take on cascading Bipolar, JFet and MOSFet transistors to "mask the shortcomings of each other while leading to extreme linearity and a very natural, realistic sound".

The reference to tubes is purely allegorical. It's meant to denote a certain sonic signature - no tubes are in either piece. Looking at the Odeon-Ag, this doesn't surprise. At 8.9" wide by 6.75" wide by 1.6" high and 3 lb., it's positively tiny. Even horizontally mounted, a 12AX7 or 6DJ8 would barely fit, never mind melt down the crammed quarters' other inhabitants.

When the UPS box first arrived, I was dumbfounded. The generic small white carton gave no indication of contents. The female sender's address stated Pebble Beach, California. Since when had I high-rolling lady golf admirers? Until I opened the box, I had no clue what was inside. I certainly didn't expect the DAC. From the photos, I had come to believe it was a full-size component. Not. It's in the Audio Alchemy / Perpetual Technologies vein - half-width, single rack space profile.

Like with those predecessors, there are lots of tiny indicator LEDs but thankfully not in all the colors of the rainbow. From left to right (and with corresponding pilot lights) there is the power button; buttons for inputs 1 thru 3; a row of five LEDs to indicate input frequency lock at 32K, 44.1K, 48K, 96K and SACD/192K; a motorized analog volume control; and a thru-hole for the IR sensor that is mounted behind the actual front panel.

In operation, the bright and non-defeatable illumination includes two small green lights (power and one input) and one red for frequency lock. On the back, and from left to right, is a pair of high-quality RCA analog outputs, an XLR/BNC duo for input 3, two TOSLINKS for inputs 2 and 1, two computer-modem type "Data In" and "Clock Out" ports and the IEC power inlet.

For promotional purposes, my unit included a generic Zenith remote control with concise instructions on how to program it for code 807 to control the DAC's output voltage via the servo-assisted motorized ALPS pot. It yields a maximum output impedance of 5kohms. If connection to a preamp is desired, Birdland recommends to set this attenuator to its 3 o'clock position for optimum impedance and an output voltage of 1.5V. Maximum output voltage (attenuator wide open) is 2.7V RMS at 7.68 volts peak-to-peak.

Programming was straightforward - hold "power" and "mute" simultaneously until the red LED turns solid, then press the "vol -" button 8 times and the "vol +" seven and finish off with "mute" to save. The red LEDs goes off to confirm success. The Odeon now acknowledged receipt of remote commands with a blink of its green power LED - a thoughtful touch.

I grilled Gameiro on the somewhat dinky -- but flawlessly functional -- remote. He was nonplussed. To include a fancy purpose-designed custom remote would have significantly impacted the $1,390 retail of the DAC, easily adding a few hundred dollars. Why? Gameiro -- rightly in my opinion -- counts on the user to already own a nice system remote that, with Birdland Audio's assistance, can be easily programmed to control the DAC. Perfectly sensible!

Bravo then for including this amplifier-direct feature without driving the price up. And bravo again for going analog rather than digital-domain lose-bits-as-you-attenuate. And bravo one more time for making this unit SACD-ready if/when such players output a DSD digital data stream.

Specs not of dust but perhaps leaving -- in -- the dust

Frequency response is given as DC to 38kHz +0/-1dB, dynamic range >118dB, S/N ratio >118dB, channel separation 112dB. Add-on cards include a "hyper-stable jitter-free 20ppm reclocker" and a pending SACD module.

With these technical and introductory potatoes and green leafy veggies out of the way, we now get to the real meat. How's it sound?