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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Digital: Sony PlayStation 1 SCPH-1001, Shindo Arome CD matching transformer [in for review], Apple MacBook feeding digits to a Hagerman HagUsb USB to S/PDIF converter [this review], in turn feeding digits to a 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC [this review]
FM Tuners: vintage Scott 370 Stereomaster
Preamplifiers: Leben RS-28CX [in for review], Shindo Monbrison [in for review], Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe with Pulse power supply
Integrated amplifiers: Leben CS600, Leben CS300X Limited, Almarro A205A Mk1 & Mk2
Amplifiers: Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A, Fi 2A3 monos, Shindo Cortese [in for review]
Speakers: Harbeth Super HL5 (with 18" Skylan stands), Merrill Zigmahornets, ART Emotive Signature [in for review]
Cables: 47 Laboratory OTA Cable Kit interconnects; Nirvana S-L & S-X interconnects, S-L speaker cables, and Transmission Digital Interface; Auditorium 23 speaker cable; Tom Evans Audio Design interconnects; various SilverFi interconnects and digital interfaces; White Lightning Moonshine DIY interconnects and speaker cables; Shindo silver interconnects [in for review]; Furutech power cables and connectors [in for review]
Stands: McKinnon Bellevue Symphony walnut media cabinet, Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Skylan speaker, isolation [in for review] and amplifier stands
Room sizes: Room 1: 20' L x 17' W x 17' H; Room 2: 11' L x 11'W x 9' H
Review component retail: Apple MacBook with 2 GB SDRAM and 200 GB hard drive $1649; Hagerman HagUsb USB-to-S/PDIF Converter $119; 47 Laboratory Shigaraki DAC $1480
It was at retailer Matt Rotunda's Pitch Perfect Audio in San Francisco where I first the heard the combination of an Apple MacBook, a Hagerman HagUsb USB to S/PDIF converter and a 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC playing the tunes. Make no mistake, I was impressed with this rig's smooth, flowing and musical presentation ensconced in expensive Shindo ancillaries. Matt told me that in his Silicon Valley area of California, this was a popular combination - more popular in fact than expensive one-box CD players or two-box transport + DAC sources. Computer interfaces are a given in Silicon Valley, naturally. Yet I wondered if computer audio would catch on as something desirable with the rest of us music lovers. I shouldn't have wondered I guess. Not long after my visit to Matt, my pal Stephæn bought a MacBook as a dedicated music server and told me that since doing so he has listened to a lot more music since because of iTunes' ability to archive all his music into a library and play it back any way he likes. Stephæn's comment about listening to more music really got my attention. That's what it's all about for the music lovers among us.
I followed Matt's and Stephæn's example and bought an Apple MacBook to start exploring the world of computer audio. Jim Hagerman of Hagerman Technology was gracious enough to send me one of his HagUsb USB to S/PDIF converters just like the one Matt uses. The always cool Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems, US importer for 47 Laboratory, kindly sent along 47 Laboratory Shigaraki DAC for the same review. That allowed me to recreate the digital front end just as I had heard it at Matt's. Thanks guys!
Apple MacBook and iTunes
When I ordered my MacBook, I maxed it out with the biggest baddest hard drive and most RAM I could because I plan on using it for more than just audio. So 2GB and 200GB it was, respectively. I also have a 300GB outboard drive as a backup if I need more space for my beloved music files. Loading music onto a MacBook couldn't be easier: Slide a CD into the internal drive and iTunes checks it against a music database, adds all the CD information like song titles and such and then begins downloading it to hard drive for your listening pleasure.
Let me talk about iTunes and file formats for a moment but consider my comments preliminary because I'm just getting started. Apple's iTunes can read, write and convert between MP3, AIFF, WAV, MPEG-4, AAC and Apple Lossless file types. It seems a lot of HiFi buffs favor the sound quality of WAV files, which is an uncompressed pulse-code modulation (PCM) file. Red Book and WAV files are similar in that they both code their data in PCM but WAV files differ in that they are computer files with file header information which a CD player can't read. When you download a CD to iTunes in WAV format, you are getting the same PCM data that's on the CD, albeit with some additional header data that WAV uses to run on a computer. The downside of WAV files is that they are really big. You'll use up a lot of disk space - but then disk space is cheap these days so that's not really a huge concern. After downloading your CDs -- if you decide you want to burn a compilation CD of favorite songs that will play in a CD player -- the file header information has to be stripped from the WAV files and the data laid out as naked PCM in individual tracks. iTunes automates this process so all you have to do is push a button to burn a CD-player-ready disc.
About the time I got my MacBook, I ran across a thread on Audio Asylum about the article that Danny Kaey had written about the LAME audio codec for Positive Feedback, The Future Is LAME. In it Danny said that in most cases the files he created using the LAME codec sounded better than the WAV files. That piqued my interest because LAME files are one heckuva lot smaller than WAVs. If an average WAV file size is 30MB, the LAME file is in the range of 6MB. Mine isn't an article on LAME so I am only going to mention this format in passing and refer you to Danny's article for the full scoop. You can download the LAME codec for your Mac here for free. When you install it on your Mac, LAME automatically sets itself up as one of the import options in iTunes, under the MP3 Custom tab. It doesn't actually say LAME anywhere but it's there as evidenced by the 320 setting under the Custom tab.
Here's my take on LAME for the time being: It sounds good and the files aren't huge and that's a good thing for music lovers who want to store tons of music on their computers, iPods or iPhones. I suspect -- but haven't really proven it to myself fully yet -- that on truly well recorded and mastered music, WAV files do sound better but the verdict is still out while testing continues. However, on regular quality CDs or CDs that don't sound all that good to begin with, LAME seems to give a really nice sounding and musical result. My current read? When you have a lot of good high-quality data, keep it all WAV; when you have average or dicey quality data, go LAME. Simplistically speaking, more of the good stuff is better (WAV) and less of the bad stuff is better (LAME).
One of the really cool things about using your MacBook as a digital front end is the powerful iTunes application. It allows you to download your CDs to hard drive and create a huge music library arranged any way you fancy. You can easily organize playlists of any description like guitar, rock, jazz instrumental, jazz singers, classical, folk, movies, or even "audio dork demo tracks" if you want to (yup, I've got one of those). You can even rate how well you like each track and create a Favorites playlist. Or you can play your whole library with iTunes selecting tracks at random. iTunes can set the volume the same for each track too so you don't have to jump up and down to adjust volume as tracks change - way cool.
You can also edit the file information in iTunes to add little personal comments to tracks. If a particular track really sucks, you can erase it to never be listened to again. With iTunes, you can download your CDs, burn compilation CDs from hard drive to a disc for use in your CD player. You can also listen to podcasts, internet radio or audio books over your HiFi rig. It'll really revolutionize the way you listen to music. Like Stephæn and now me, you'll find yourself consuming a much greater variety of music. That's a really good thing for increasing your appreciation for different kinds of music or for refreshing your love of music if you've hit a rut listening to the same tunes over and over again. While not inexpensive at $1649, the MacBook is a bargain as an audio transport in a world of audio looniness that has people part with five figures for mere disc spinners.
The Hagerman HagUsb USB to S/PDIF Converter
The next step is getting the music off your MacBook in a way your HiFi rig can understand. That's becoming increasingly easy with the appearance of USB DACs or the newer CD players and DACs with plug 'n' play USB inputs in addition to their usual socketry. But what if -- like me -- you already have an outboard DAC you want to use? That's where Jim Hagerman's HagUsb comes in by allowing you to interface your MacBook USB data stream to any outboard S/PDIF converter. The HagUsb couldn't be easier to use: Connect your DAC digital link to the HagUsb like you would with your transport, then plug the HagUsb into your MacBook using the included USB cable. The MacBook powers the HagUsb from the USB port, automatically detects it and makes it available as an output option in System Preferences under 'Sound'. On his website, Jim comments that "Once you get used to playing CDs from your computer, you'll never want to go back to a traditional transport." He's right. Using the computer as a front end for your DAC is hard to beat. Jim's 10-year warranty and 60-day trial period with "Satisfaction guaranteed, always" is pretty hard to beat, too. At $119, the HagUsb is a no-brainer bargain and after having used it, I don't think I could live without it.
47 Laboratory Shigaraki DAC
If you've read my review of the MC Bee phono cartridge and Shigaraki phono stage back in October of 2005, you might remember that I'm a big fan of the Shigaraki line of components from 47 Laboratory. The Shigaraki components are finely made, simple no-nonsense designs, offer superb performance, are sanely priced and with their chassis crafted of Shigaraki stoneware, extremely cool in an exotic sort of way.
The Shigaraki stoneware forming the chassis of the Shigaraki series is rooted in Japan's ancient past with an important cultural and spiritual message relevant to music lovers today. Shigaraki stoneware is inextricably linked to Zen philosophy and its 'way of tea' that arose in ancient Japan over 1000 years ago. Tea drinking in Shigaraki stoneware cups became symbolic of building personal relationships and enjoying one another's company over a rejuvenating drink. Shigaraki pottery with its simple and modest beauty has a spiritual aspect. It teaches that the best things in life are the simple things - and that those are best enjoyed with friends. Guess what? When I visited Matt in San Francisco, he shared with me some Japanese Matcha green tea over a nice evening of music through a Shigaraki DAC and Shindo turntable. It was a really nice way to spend the evening. These days I too enjoy the company of friends while drinking a little Matcha green tea from Hibiki-an in Shigaraki tea cups while listening to music through a Shigaraki DAC. Thanks for the cool example, Matt. What fun!
When you visit Yoshi's website, the intro reads "For some it's Zen. For others, radical. Call it what you will, but at the end of the track, it's all about trusting your ears. About letting the simplicity of design, the energy and flow of the music carry you away. Small in size, big on sound, and more music than mere audio jewels, 47 Lab distills technology down to its simplest, purest form ... see why only the simplest can accommodate the most complex." Normally you would dismiss that sort of talk as marketing but in the case of Junji Kimura's 47 Labs creations, it's the gospel - or rather, the Zen gossip (and etymologically, gospel and gossip enjoy the same root).
The Shigaraki's circuitry is almost identical to 47 Labs' premier Progression DAC. They are both non-oversampling, non-filtered designs with passive I/V conversion. The Shigaraki DAC consists of two parts: the DAC unit and the power supply, connected by an umbilical power cord. Both DAC and power supply are encased in Shigaraki ceramic whose "totally de-electric and non-conductive character contributes to Shigaraki's smooth, open sound." At $1,480, the Shigaraki DAC like the MacBook and HagUSB represents good value to the music lover and in combination, are hard to beat for sound quality and flexibility.
Listening to the Tunes - iTunes that is...
For this article, the system listened to for the majority of the time consisted of the exotic ART Emotion Signature loudspeakers from Scotland, the Auditorium 23 speaker cables from Germany, the Fi 2A3 mono amplifiers from the USA, Shindo interconnects from Japan, the Leben RS28CX preamplifier from Japan and the aforementioned USA/Japanese combo of MacBook, HagUsb and Shigaraki DAC connected via a SilverFi digital cable from Turkey. All of this equipment is very nice and works together as a synergistic whole to play music superbly. It'd be nice if actual countries got along as well politcally as this kit from around the globe did musically.
In the first two weeks of using the MacBook, I loaded nearly 5000 songs from CDs to hard drive which is only a fraction of my digital music collection. One of the really nifty items with MacBooks is a small remote that allows the listener to manipulate iTunes from the listening seat just like any CD player. When I push 'Menu', a list of choices pops up on the MacBook screen which I can easily read from the listening position. You can select music to listen to by playlist, artist, album, song, genre and so forth. That really makes it easy to navigate through your library as it grows to an otherwise unmanageable size. You can also skip through tracks, pause the music just like with any CD player remote - Macs are very kewl indeed.
Through this system, sound quality was excellent, musicality superb and user flexibility unparalleled in my experience. I set up a playlist to listen to my favorite jazz guitar albums and another containing WAV and LAME files of the same songs for comparisons. I enjoyed playing tunes in the iTunes "Party Shuffle" mode that randomly picks songs from the hard drive. I had forgotten how much I like some of the music I hadn't heard in a while.
The overall character of the system came across as natural and somewhat warm, with deep saturation of tone colors and good musical texture. Beat, rhythm and melody were all easily discernible but none of them were overemphasized in a way that would have distracted from the music. I heard a wide and deep soundstage of natural height with very good image density. Cymbals had a beautiful natural shimmer in the Bill Evans Trio recording of "My Man's Gone Now" from the Sunday at the Village Vanguard album. The string bass in SVVB was also superb, being both taut and punchy. Shelby Lynne's vocals sounded rich, natural and provocative enough to raise your temperature a few degrees on "Buttons & Beaus" from her Identity Crisis album and boy does this song swing through this HiFi rig. Lots of fun! Johnny Cash on "Deliah's Gone" came across as scary as he should and his acoustic steel string guitar sounded woody and percussive like the real thing. Hovhanes' Mount Saint Helens Symphony under Schwarz with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra was positively spellbinding with its ethereal and dramatic energy. "Blue in Green" from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album was fantastic, mesmerizing in fact, with Miles' trumpet having just the right amount of musical bite.
I consistently found that I wanted to listen to more and more music through this HiFi rig and a lot of that was due not only to its excellent sonics and music-playing ability -- first rate all around -- but also to the flexibility of having a huge library of music literally at my fingertips via Apple's remote control. A MacBook, HagUsb and Shigaraki combo is a great way to listen to music. I honestly think I'd find it terribly frustrating and hard to go back to a single disc player after having lived with this setup. It really and truly is a revolution in listening to and enjoying music for the music lover. I highly recommend it. Do yourself a favor and give this combo a try. You won't be sorry: A definite Blue Moon award digital front end for music lovers everywhere!
Quality of packing: Shipping containers and packing materials for all of these products were nicely done.
Reusability of packing: Can be reused at least once.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Very easy.
Condition of components received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: You get everything you need except for a digital cable for the DAC The SilverFi digital cable I used worked great.
Quality of owner's manual: There is online information for the HagUsb. With the Shigaraki there wasn't a manual but you shouldn't need any information to set it up - the connectors are labeled well and self-evident. The MacBook owner's manual sucks so I bought a MacBook for Dummies book to help me with all the Mac's secrets.
Website comments: These products all have excellent websites.
Warranty: 5 year on the Shigaraki, 10 years on the Hagerman HagUSB and 1 year on the Apple MacBook.
Human interactions: The few times I called Apple I got a real person on the phone and they were polite and helpful Yoshi is the best Jim Hagerman and I communicated by e-mail and he was responsive and helpful.
Pricing: I think the pricing is fair for the level of build quality and performance.
Final comments: This is the future of digital audio for music lovers, my friends.