As many of you know, there are several ways to listen to good SACD and Bluray hirez (TrueHD, DTS HD MA, 24/192 linear PCM), but they either require you to put up with the average-to-good analog outputs of a universal player like the Oppo BDP-83, trust your even-riskier jack-of-all-trades AVR/AVP to do the decoding and analog playback (assuming you have the decoders) or, most recently for us audiophiles, upgrade the analog sections to much higher levels (Nuforce NE version or full analog stage mod/replacement from Modwright). In many cases (Modwright for example) the multichannel aspects can be improved, too, These upgrades are mainly done for pristine 2 channel performance.....the subject of this new product review.
Well, what if you are like so many of us that have already dipped our toes in digital audio and have made a commitment to a stand-alone DAC, which, ipsofacto, comes with a most musical analog stage, etc? Why are we now using another DAC (the one in the Oppo, etc) for music listening. Why not treat the Oppo as a wonderful $500 transport (and movie machine) and send the Hirez music to our trusty DAC of choice.
Up until now we couldn't make that choice. But there are options. The first one (of two main options in this category) is a simple $219 stand-alone box that purports to 'de-embed" the stereo hirez music that is carried on HDMI and send it across an optical cable to our DAC of choice!!! All the while providing a simple pass-through for the HDMI to continue to our AVP's and/or display devices. Yes, I mean glorious 24/192 2 channel BlURay, or decoded SACD in 24/88.2 HiRez PCM, as well as up-to-24/192 DVD-Audio. Well....here are my first impressions:
(Note: For those who don't wanna read this....The $219 Atlona HD570 HDMI "de-embedder" has proven to be quite the little magic box that is more than worth its price...way more.
It's called an Atlona HD570 HDMI de-0embedder. (Note: other $100-200 products are out there from different companies, most Chinese; my investigation shows they don't fully work, at least not to 24/192 or anywhere close. They have almost identical casing, but to no avail. If you want my reviewed product, it's the Atlona brand). It plugs into the wall via a typical small cell-phone-recharger-sized wallwart and has an HDMI input and an HDMI and optical digital output (and also includes an 8 channel analog output set, albeit on four miniplugs, but moot for this discussion). I connected my Oppo BDP-83 SE's HDMI into it and then passed the HDMI through on to my home theater processor and projector. The processor needs to simply be on to handshake with the HDMI signal. My $40 glass optical cable was connected from the Atlona to my Weiss DAC2 24/192-capable DAC.
My evaluation was among three sources of SACD/PCM and two sources of Blu-Ray. My SACD example was the Jimmy Cobb Quartet's Jazz In The Key Of Blue (Chesky). Sources were:
* Pure DSD via Oppo analog outs (Stealth Nanofiber RCA to Wyred4Sound STP SE preamp).
* 24/88.2 PCM via HDMI/Atlona, optical glass toslink to Weiss DAC2 toslink input (ASI liveline XLR's to Wyred pre)
* 24/88.2 purchased HDTracks file (song 6) played via Pure Music 1.45, Macbook server, firewire to Weiss DAC2 (Goldx 24k power-less fw cable) to pre
Amplification was done via the powerful and wonderfully musical Modwright KWA-150 monoblocks (in black anodized cases, gorgeous). HDMI cabling was Nordost to Atlona, Bluejeans out to AVR and pj.
My evaluation of BluRay was done with 2L's Trondheim Solsteine PCM 24/192 and AIX sampler disc PCM 24/96.
* Atlona digital optical
* Oppo analog
The SACD test was interesting in that the Oppo SE analog had a slight theoretical advantage in that it was sending Direct DSD-decoded analog vs "downrez'd" 24/88.2 on the two Weiss examples. For the BluRay test the playing field was level as to resolution of the software.
On SACD the Atlona box optical out provided the most musical of the three examples, with the HDTracks file a close second. That surprised both me and my buddy listening. We assumed the tweaked music server and pure firewire approach would win out but the Atlona/optical path was as smooth and organic sounding, yet slightly more dynamic and without any hint of top end harshness or rolloff that we were worried about (jitter from optical input and Atlona decoding). Bass energy and control were identical. The Oppo's analog output was hotter, with a slight harshness on top and an overall higher noise floor. I don't know how much of this is attributed to the Stealth cables vs Livelines, but I've not noticed the Stealths ever being harsh or tipped on top. I think the differences in sample rates/resolution were far outweighed by the Weiss's cleaner, broader bandwidth and better analog stage....at considerable more $$. The Oppo analog was no slouch, but less preferred. The HDtracks/Mac server coming in second was a surprise, but it would never be noticed without realtime a/b.
On BluRay the fight was over before the opening bell stopped ringing. The Oppo had no advantages going in and it was evident from the first notes of Mark Waldrep's wonderful acoustic recordings on AIX (24/96). The differences were large and could be discerned by all but the most musically deaf listeners. Dynamics, noise floor, tonality, air, leading edges, etc. No brainers. Then as we moved into 24/192 mode (classical selections from 2L's Trondheim Solsteine disc) the gap grew larger still. The Weiss does a very nice job with 24/192, and the Oppo Sabre DACs-to-analog couldn't keep up (even in SE mode). It was most evident in string tonality. The Oppo was midfi in comparison, although prior to this test I wouldn't have guessed.
So, I can unequivocally say that the $219 Atlona is a great little box (wish it was coax instead of optical) that can do what it says, grab HDMI audio up to 24/192 and present it, with little jitter in evidence, to a DAC of your choice. As a choice for SACD-based (albeit PCM) music, it is a clear option.
I will update this review as I listen more and find out more about its pluses and minuses. I will also post a review of another option (Shawn Fogg's 4-SPDIF board mod....same idea, just digital multichannel) in the next 30 days or so. That option will post in a separate thread.