This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below
However, without S/PDIF reclocker amelioration these stream boxes stand as second-rate digital transports. Firestone Audio no longer make their excellent Bravo S/PDIF reclocker which leaves S/PDIF-spitting streamers with a field of two: Audio-gd's digital interface; and today’s Empirical Audio Synchro-Mesh. I compared the two. And then I unplugged my Audio-gd. To be fair the digital interface Version 1 isn't that far behind. Its main deficiency in the face of this stiffer competition is woollier bass definition. At half the Syncro-Mesh sticker, the DI (~US$300) is appropriately priced as a halfway-house compromise that ditches the optical input in favour of USB. The Synchro-Mesh sounds better and has an optical input/output. Audio-gd's DI only does USB and coax.
A couple of very minor quibbles. 1. The supplied 12V AC adapter is a switcher which emits a high-pitch whine that's tough to ignore. I had to tuck it behind a cupboard. 2. Go for the 44.1kHz Synchro-Mesh and your listening is restricted to Redbook only. Well, kinda. My review unit willplay 24/96 but only downsampled. The bit depth remains intact. Hi(gher)-res lovers could opt for the 24/96 version and then listen to upsampled Redbook tunes.
"Unlike the Pace-Car, the Synchro-Mesh does not deliver bit-perfect data. It is resampled. As the name suggests, it matches the speed of any device to the speed of the new master clock in the Synchro-Mesh, providing a low-jitter but not bit-perfect output. It utilizes the best resampler chip ever developed with very low distortion and noise floor", adds Nugent. Bit-perfect freaks might cringe but in the context of the broader audible improvements it's a minor compromise.
Moreover, more luxurious decoders might gain less or even zero from being introduced to the Empirical Audio reclocker. I could discern no audible improvement when meshing it with PSAudio's PerfectWave DAC II. With a $4K RRP I am relieved to confirm that Paul McGowan's Digital Lens tech looks after its own. And then some. (But that's a story for another day).
I've said it before and I’ll say it again: hi-res audio remains a side dish to the main meal of Redbook (16/44). Steve Nugent probably sees this too. That or he'll set to work on a bit-perfect capable version of the SM as soon as the mileage is clocked up on the original. The Synchro-Mesh kicks its goals by bringing an emphatic improvement to 99% of this fellow's music library no matter what the playback device: Squeezebox or Mac. I tapped the optical out of a MacBook Air with minimal fuss and a single adaptor.
The broader implications of my time with the Synchro-Mesh are obvious. One no longer has to rely on a computer + USB converter to get those jitters under control. Empirical Audio's S/PDIF reclocker brings streaming and other devices back to level play with a USB DAC’d PC or Mac. It's not just a nice-to-have addendum but a near must for serious furrowed-brow Squeezebox and Sonos owners. And yup, that's yours truly.
CD-transport users set to benefit too. As do iPod dock fanciers. I did the math: iDevice + Pure i20 (AU$130) + Synchro-Mesh = killer front end for under $1k. Or how about an Airport Express (AU$129) tethered to a Synchro-Mesh for a knockout iTunes streaming solution? It might not take binary journeymen as far as the Off-Ramp but the Synchro-Mesh has potential to improve a far broader range of digital audio transports. Don't most flat-panel TVs offer a single Toslink socket as their only digital output? Ditto the Western Digital TV Live media player or Apple TV V2. And XBox. And Playstation. For these optically outputting boxes the Synchro-Mesh operates in a field of one at this price point. Hobson's choice designed to a performance level that's seemingly incognizant of the same. Game on.