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Freaks: See the Midget Fight the Monster!
No sense of proportion makes for freak shows. Audiophiles, witness my €1,4500 Nagra CDC player, by far the most unbalanced purchase in decades of reprobate hifi expense. Be that as it may, after 18 months of Swiss precision, the Nagra player began suffering from some unhelvetic quirks diagnosed as bugs in its early-version operating system. The machine was duly sent through my dealer to Lausanne, leaving me in the digital lurch since I am not nostalgic for vinyl.


Though I do keep a large collection of MP3s on my white Macbook, I knew from past experience that feeding the laptop’s phone output to my tube electronics was not the way to go. So egged on by 6moons raves, I decided to order a Trends Audio UD10.1 USB DAC from Playstereo, a reliable Italian (imagine!) website. Just before clicking however I found out that for a few euros less (€99 + shipping), I could have the Lite version of the UD10.1, which has a simplified clock and power supply and lacks BNC and XLR outputs. Being terminally cheap, I chose the stripped-down model minus the optional battery pack since a desktop variable DC power supply has forever freed me from wall warts and the like.

Two days later but not before buyer remorse had set in, a small package was delivered to my door. With no great expectations I opened it, extracting a USB freebie, a vile stereo-RCA-to-mini-plug adaptor and a neatly put together if unprepossessing 250 gram all-aluminum box. On connecting the USB cable to the Macbook and the midget DAC, a blue death ray glared out at me immediately. Encouraged by this show of simplicity, I plugged in my trusty Sennheiser PX 100 phones, clicked an MP3 in iTunes and wow! No mistaking this for the Mac’s sound card. A quick system check showed that the Mac recognized the device perfectly and, just as important, that output volume was adjustable directly from the main volume icon on the control bar. Full points for plug 'n' play at least.


Time for the big test then, playing the thingy on my rig, which in the summertime consists of Manley Mahi monoblocks fed by the single-ended variable outputs of the Nagra CDC to drive Tannoy Yorkminsters (the sizzling hot Nagra VPA monos and the matching Nagra PLL preamp are kept on hold until the weather cools down). The no-less-despicable-for-being-gold-plated RCA adaptor replaced the phones and was connected directly to the Mahis’ inputs by the only cables available to me, the carbon fiber Van den Hul The Seconds which cost 2.5 x as much as the UD Lite. Overall system adjustments were easily made following the heaven-sent Mac setup instructions on the Wavelength website while software used was the Dylan-Lanois opus Oh Mercy and Jordi Savall’s classic La Folia ever so easily ripped to AIFF files on iTunes. To sum it up, a €100 DAC connected by a death-to-all-audiophiles adaptor and €250 cables to highly pedigreed €3,000 tube monoblocks driving 93dB coaxials with a list price of €18,000.

How’s that for proportion? Bear also in mind that the UD Lite’s clock, besides being under-specified, is synchronized with the Macbook’s master clock. In computer audio terms that's a no-no, albeit a very common one in current USB DACs, even big-ticket big-name ones. What’s worse, the Mac’s digital volume control works as all such controls will by shaving dBs and resolution; and since the Tannoys are sensitive, the digi volume must be trimmed to something like 2/3rds of full output. All right already, how did it sound?


This is where it gets tricky. Comparison by memory is unreliable, particularly if it involves components evaluated in a different rig. Still to these ears the Macbook/Trends combo forcibly evoked the beloved ghost of my sainted Quad CDP 67 of yore, a player with no obvious vices and legions of small virtues. More specifically, soundstaging was perfectly adequate if hardly astounding, highs clear and glare-free if slightly recessed, mids both unexceptionable and unexceptional and bass lines correct though somewhat softened. By a different standard, it thrashed all miracle DVD players to death and was on the whole more than the equal of all of the €500+ legitimate entry-level players I have auditioned (quite a few and bearing quite respectable logos).

To this may be added that the Macbook ran on its battery, thus avoiding mains cockups and that tune selection and volume were very enjoyably controlled onscreen by the Mac remote. So much for memories, now for the real circus. When the CDC came back home (in mint condition it must be noted, with a detailed factory log attesting to a complete electronic and mechanical upgrade to current production standards at no charge whatsoever), I inserted the €9,000 PLL pre back intothe chain so as to run the Mac’s output volume unattenuated. For good measure, I plugged the Trends DAC into the aforementioned non-switching external power supply to provide 5 clean volts.


Connection to the PLL’s twin unbalanced inputs now allowed me to stage a direct comparison between the two sources. And what was my surprise when the CDC totally outclassed the UD Lite! Actually I can in all honesty evaluate the Trends’ tweaked performance with a now wider soundstage and better defined lower octaves, at a full fifty percent of the Nagra’s. What does this tell us? That freak shows are both in bad taste and inconclusive. It’s of no particular relevance if a monster mulches a midget in thirty seconds or in a minute. And yes, you can buy 145 UD Lites for the price of a single Nagra CDC. If f you have a use for them.

Another line of thought may be more productive. The terms portable and hifi are incompatible in my hidebound view but listening to the AIFF Folia through the Trends and the unshakably decent Sennheiser PX 100, it dawned on me that times being what they are, I would not be buying €15,000 components for the foreseeable future. And that even if I had to sell my rig to get by -- and there are worse things in life by far -- the combination of a €50 set of cans and a €100 DAC hitched to iTunes and uncompressed audio makes for rock-bottom and rock-solid high fidelity, at a disproportionately, even freakishly low price - provided you remain sane and stay away from audiophile USB cables that is.



Trends Audio website