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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Home Recording Review!
TASCAM UH-7000 Stereo USB Interface:
"A High-End Quality/Bargain-Priced
Microphone Preamp/Line, A/D-D/A

Price: $799 retail/$399 street
Likes: excellent mic pres, A/D-D/A
Dislikes: no onboard effects at 192K
Wow Factor: separates quality in USB box
More info:  TASCAM UH-7000

by Dr. Frederick J. Bashour
  Call it déjà-vu, call it coming full circle, but whatever you call it, I have had this nostalgic feeling the entire time I’ve been using this new TASCAM UH-7000 computer recording interface. My first serious audio tape recorder, the TEAC A-7030 (analog, of course), was purchased in 1970 for the huge sum of $800, a lot of cash for a first year Yale graduate student. I remember picking it up in a huge carton at a Bradley Airport loading dock — on the way to a gig; it was my first (of several) stereo, two-track ¼-inch TEAC 7030s. In 1970, TEAC had yet to branch off TASCAM for pro audio sales, but I find it fascinating that the old and the new have 7000-series numbers.
  Just as my vintage stereo TEAC A-7030 recorder (which still runs just fine) consisted of two parts—the tape transport and the tape electronics — today’s digital audio era still employs the same stereo recorder concept. The only difference is that today’s digital equivalent of the old analog “tape transport” is now the home computer, which has become the most significant part of an audio-recording system. As a result, numerous “interfaces” have come along over the last 10 years, offering a plethora of audio features and connectivity to make the computer pro audio’s most effective recording tool.

  The USB-connector based TASCAM UH-7000, priced at an amazing $599 retail ($399 street price) is a high-quality, 4-input/4-output computer audio interface with phantom-powered, stereo microphone preamps, and similar converter technology as in the highly acclaimed standalone TASCAM DA-3000 hi-resolution recorder (minus DSD): the Burr-Brown PCM4202 A/D converter and Burr-Brown, PCM1795 DAC converter. The UH-7000 USB interface is very well made, excellent sounding, fairly-priced, and made with an industrial design quite a bit different from similar audio gadgets on the market.

 With just a pair of good microphones connected to the UH-7000’s inputs, a modern personal computer and a stereo recording app, such as the freeware Audacity, anyone can make “professional quality” stereo recordings.

  So why is it different from other “USB Interfaces?” First, TEAC has been making audio recorders for a very long time and, over all those years, has developed a strong, coherent company philosophy about audio design and industrial design. It is clear that the good engineering practices demonstrated in their audio designs are reflected in their overall industrial design. Secondly, this is a stereo interface, a very full-featured stereo interface and not a multi-channel unit. There are plenty of multi-channel interfaces there on the market, trying to squeeze multiple inputs and outputs into a single rack-sized chassis.
  The third differentiation is that the UH-7000 can also be used as a standalone mic preamp and/or analog-to-digital converter (with AES-EBU digital outputs), and as a monitor DAC. For this reviewer, the fact that the TASCAM UH-7000 can add two, very high-quality channels — all the way from microphone to digital output — to any DAW, is huge!
  And fourth, because it also has an AES/EBU digital input, when you connect the TASCAM to a computer via USB (i.e., used as a standard USB audio interface), it can mix two stereo pairs — the two microphone channels and the two line channels — into the AES/EBU digital input stream, as well as locking its clock to any incoming digital stream’s clock, since it lacks true word clock I/O.

Compact form factor
  The TASCAM UH-7000 is in the half-rack size form factor, half of a standard 3.5” (two-rack spaces tall) unit, but as supplied for review, was presented in a finished enclosure, with very thick metal end panels. Its front panel is dominated by two large knobs, which set mic (or line) input level — very precisely, over about a 40 dB range — and two LED bar graph level meters.
Plenty of rear-panel connection options 

  On the left is the (smart) power knob and a ¼-inch headphone jack, powered by the line-output driver, and also controlled by a volume knob of its own over on the right. On the right side of the front panel, one also finds two “smart” push buttons, which call up the mixer panel when the UH-7000 is connected to a computer and to activate the “link-line” function. When pushed simultaneously, they activate the 48V DC phantom power microphone circuit. Above these are five status LEDS, showing sample rate (from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz), and whether the unit is locked to its AES/EBU digital input.
  The rear panel demonstrates exactly how “complete” a stereo converter the TASCAM UH-7000 is. Besides pairs of XLR jacks for balanced analog mic inputs and line outputs, there are also a pair of ¼-inch TRS jacks, for balanced analog line input, a pair of male and female XLRs for AES/EBU digital I/O, the requisite USB 2.0 port and an IEC connector for 100-240V AC power.

In the studio
  When the UH-7000 arrived at Studio Dufay, I was scheduled to record myself — while reminiscing about one of my previous lives as a fledgling music theorist in the late 1970s. The president of the Society of Music Theory (SMT) had just called. Since I had actually read a scholarly paper at the very conference in which the Society was originally formed, he wanted my audio file to post on the SMT website. So I figured this would be a perfect first test for the UH-7000.
  I connected one of my Neumann M 249s to the TASCAM channel 1 input, and connected the digital output to one of the sixteen digital inputs of the RME HDSPe AES PCIe sound card, which forms the digital interface to my Mac Pro recording/editing workstation.
  I was counting on using the TASCAM in standalone mode. However, I quickly learned, by glancing over the well-written 32-page manual, that if one doesn’t want to accept the unit’s defaults (which includes a sample rate of 44.1 kHz and I wanted 96 kHz), one must first connect it “normally” to a computer via USB, and then adjust the settings. So that’s why the manual begins with “installing the driver!”
  I then took a detour from my spoken-word project, and connected the UH-7000 to my Mac Pro, downloaded and installed the appropriate driver and, presto, it became the Mac’s audio interface to the rest of the world. I had no problems during set up, and everything worked as described in the manual. The TASCAM driver appeared in Mac’s Audio MIDI Setup, and, once properly selected, all was good to go.

  The A/D-D/A converter circuitry in the UH-7000 uses the latest Burr-Brown delta-sigma chips, and even its internal clock has a TCXO with 1-ppm precision. There are also high-grade audio parts in the D/A path, including film resistors. Claimed S/N specs for A/D and D/A are in excess of 120 dB.

  I pressed “mixer” on its front panel, and in about a second, the mixer-panel screen appeared on my monitor. The mixer panel has three tabbed pages — Interface, Mixer, and Effects. By selecting “Interface,” I was able to change the sample rate to my required 96 kHz, and confirm that the clock setting was “automatic.”
  To enable the standalone mode to work properly, the UH-7000 will save the current setting’s parameters to its internal memory; other settings can be saved to the computer, but when disconnected from a computer, the TASCAM will “remember” only its last setting.
  As previously stated, there is no word clock I/O, so one way to lock the TASCAM, in standalone mode, to my RME/Merging Technologies Pyramix DAW system was to connect one of its 16-digital outputs (with no data, i.e., its volume level turned all the way down) to the UH-7000’s digital input. This trick works with any DAW, but if you also have a studio clock device (such as my Apogee Big Ben, which has a separate AES3 output) one can also use that clock, which is what I did.

The virtual mixer
  There are nineteen parameters, adjustable on the Mixer page, which are also saved for use in standalone mode. I’ll discuss some of them later in this article, when I return to the unit’s use as an USB interface. But first, I wanted to use it as an “auxiliary” stereo pair of channels, feeding, digitally, into my studio’s own DAW and interface setup.
  Once I had it set the way I wanted, I disconnected it from the Mac Pro, and reconnected it to the AES/EBU digital input from my main DAW, and the AES3 output from Big Ben, as previously described. I was gratified to see both the TASCAM’s left meter, and appropriate meters in my Merging Technologies Pyramix software showing signal presence when I spoke into the microphone.
  Because I had its digital input connected, the TASCAM had locked to my system clock, and the appropriate LED on the front panel was lit. Furthermore, according to the manual, its digital output is always active, so whatever appears at the analog outputs (and, paralleled, to the headphone jack) also appears at its AES/EBU XLR as well. It’s assignable as well. Very cool.
Effective reverb and EQ effects

  I recorded my Music Theory project in 24/96 PCM and then played it all back. The first thing I noticed was how good I sounded! Granted, a vintage 249 microphone makes most everything sound big and warm, but I know well how a “cheap” preamp can diminish that quality. My 249, however, really liked the UH-7000.
  The TASCAM’s input impedance is spec’d at 2.2 kHz, a figure sufficiently high to please most mics — except for a few ribbons. The second thing I noticed was that, although the level pots appeared to be accurately calibrated over their entire range, that range was not extreme. The input-level pots are calibrated from 62 down to 22, and since they’re just standard potentiometers, they travel smoothly through their range.
  In addition to that spoken word project I captured with the UH-7000, I substituted these preamps for other pairs of mic preamps in every classical music recording session scheduled during the audition period. Thus, I was able to hear how they sounded with a wide range of sources. I’ll simply generalize and state that the UH-7000’s mic preamps sound very clean and clear, with a hint of dryness. In other words, along the continuum from euphonically colored and “tubey” to the proverbial, completely neutral “straight wire with gain,” the TASCAM is definitely in the latter camp. But it also has a naturalness and “ease” to its sound, which has a lot more in common with the best of the neutral, standalone preamps (like Crane Song, Millennia Media, Grace, AEA, etc.) than with what I would have expected from a sub-$600, all-in-one, computer interface.

Low-noise preamps
  Also, like those expensive, solid-state preamps, the UH-7000 is quiet. To find out how quiet — to give it the best noise vs. gain test I could think of, I connected a “normal” stereo, small ribbon microphone. I used an un-modified “Stellar RM7,” which is an unbelievably inexpensive Chinese copy of the vintage B&O stereo mic I owned back in 1976. And to make the test even more stringent, I connected my “first generation” AKG K-240 headphones to the TASCAM’s headphone jack.
  The AKG phones are the “quietest” headphones I own — which means that their relatively high impedance, compared with low-impedance ‘phones like the Sony MDR-V6, requires more drive from a headphone output circuit to produce the same SPL. So this was a “worst case” test for the UH-7000 — the lowest output microphone I owned, coupled with the most “inefficient” headphone I own.
  And what did I hear? Big, fat, happy, loud, ribbon mic sound, that’s what! Speaking in a normal tone of voice, just a few inches away from the mic, with the TASCAM gain all the way up, and the headphone level also turned all the way up, the sound was just about as loud as I could stand, and right below the point where the whole setup would be ready to start feeding back through my open AKG HPs.
  As for the preamp noise, there was a tiny bit of hiss, but it was much lower in level than the ambient noise from my control room. Just by backing off the gain a bit, below “62” to the “60” position, the hiss disappeared completely; I estimate the gain went down only about 4-5 dB.

Big knobs, easy to use
  I really liked the UH-7000’s “big knobs” for adjusting the channel’s input levels. On cheap interfaces and mixers, the “trim” controls on their mic preamps seem to have 80 percent of their gain in the last tiny bit of their clockwise travel. With the UH-7000, not only is this “pronounced gain” very, very reduced, but the fact that the level doesn’t go down to 0 when one turns the pot all the way down (rather it goes to a lower level, indicated on the big knob as “22,”) makes this unit one of the easiest preamps to adjust mic levels that I have ever used. And I have turned a lot of gain knobs in my fifty years plus in the studio.
  During the review period I was not sure that the numbers engraved around the big knobs (22 to 62) actually are pretty close to the true gain available from the preamps. Bear in mind, however, that the UH-7000 mic preamps have no direct analog output — at +4 dBm or at any other standard level. The signal either goes through A/D and out the AES/EBU (and USB) digital output, or through the D/A analog output for monitoring.

Along the continuum from euphonically colored and “tubey” to the proverbial, completely neutral “straight wire with gain,” the TASCAM mic preamps are definitely in the latter camp. But the UH-7000 also has a naturalness and “ease” to its sound, which has a lot more in common with the best of the neutral, standalone preamps.

  According to TASCAM design team comments made during the fact check of this review, engineers said to not “rely on the knob dB settings to set up a calibrated input (e.g. SMAART). The UH-7000 Mic Pre circuitry uses the front panel gain knob in a fairly unique manner (instrumentation amp type) that gives it excellent low noise characteristics, but puts it at the mercy of the potentiometer's linearity. We worked with the pot manufacturer to create an improved linear curve, but there is a limit to what is possible with this design. (The only way to improve on this design is to do a stepped pot with calibrated resistors)”
  A precise integer value (in -dBFS) will influence its perceived gain spec, which is probably the reason TASCAM doesn’t advertise a figure such as “mic preamp gain: 65 dB” (or whatever it is.) Space does not permit an explanation of the various digital level specs (-18 dBfs, -12 dBfs, etc.), and how they would influence the perceived gain in a unit with only a digital output, such as this.
  So far, I’ve been discussing how I used the TASCAM UH-7000 as (what I now know, as an extremely high quality) combination mic preamp/A-D converter, used as “an extra pair of mic channels into my DAW.” After all, TASCAM calls this gadget a “Mic Preamp/USB Interface.” Actually, though, it isn’t quite “just” a mic preamp, since it has no direct analog output! The only way to hear the mic preamp is through the A/D converter and the D/A circuitry (or another connected D/A), but the two edges of that sword are that this “feature” enables the unit to be used precisely as that extra pair of mic channels while, at the same time, putting great pressure on its A/D converter to preserve all the delicate audio nuances present at the analog output of the preamp circuit.
  TASCAM has been designing its converters for quite a while, and while not generally regarded as the ne plus ultra of audiophilia, to me they have a solid, full-bodied sound, and as reliable as the rest of their design. The A/D-D/A converter circuitry in the UH-7000 uses the latest Burr-Brown delta-sigma chips, and even its internal clock has a TCXO with 1-ppm precision. There are also high-grade audio parts in the D/A path, including film resistors. Claimed S/N specs for A/D and D/A are in excess of 120 dB.

The mixer interface
  Once I selected this interface for sound input and output in Audio MIDI Setup, we are now into the second (and more common use) for the UH-7000 — that is, as a stereo USB interface. And what a stereo interface it is!
  I used Mac OS 10.9.5 (Mavericks) on my Mac Pro for all my tests of TASCAM’s “Mixer” software application, which launched quickly and worked flawlessly. Although TASCAM specifies that any Mac OS from 10.6.8 (Snow Leopard) onward will work with the UH-7000, I was not able to install the .dmg file on either of my 10.6.8 Intel Macs; the installation process would hang and not complete.

  Pushing the tiny “Mixer” button on the UH-7000’s front panel engages the Mixer program and a large mixer appears on your computer monitor. The .pdf manual explains the three available windows in detail, but here I’ll just point out that the UH-7000 can be set into one of two “mixer modes”: Multitrack or Stereo Mix, and its features are slightly different in each of the two modes.
  The default multitrack mode is for “normal” DAW work, and works by allowing the TASCAM’s four input channels (two mic/line, and two digital) to be recorded separately, and mixed with audio coming “back” from the computer; all as separate channels. In Stereo Mix mode, all the audio I just mentioned is mixed to stereo, and output through every way the unit makes output, including USB, digital, analog line and headphone. TASCAM advertises this mode as being perfect for preparing live Internet broadcasts.
  The TASCAM’s mixer does most of the things one would expect from a software mixer. Although, since the UH-7000 is only a 4-in/4-out USB interface, the mixer does not have rows upon rows of virtual faders! In fact — and, perhaps because of this fact — everything on this mixer seems huge. Not just the faders, but when one gets to the effects, the windows look positively huge, as if they were made for the “large print” demographic!

Effects package
  The first thing one must know about the effects built into the UH-7000’s software mixer is that there is limited, finite DSP, which must be shared. At the lowest sample rates, 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz, one can have only one effect from column A (compressor, noise suppressor, de-esser, exciter, EQ, limiter and low-cut filter) and one from column B (reverb appears to be the only effect in this “send effect” category). At the middle sample rates (88.2 and 96 kHz), one must choose between the effect from column A (and you can’t even have the limiter and the low-cut filter together), and reverb. At 176.4 kHz and 192 kHz, no effects are possible.
  I did all my tests at 96 kHz, and auditioned each of the “plug-ins.” The reverb and EQ are the best of the lot, which is a good thing, since, together, they constitute the “meat and potatoes” of an audio engineer’s tool kit. The reverb has four presets (room, live, studio, and plate), with default reverb time ranging from 2.4 sec. — down to below 1sec.

  In fact, the only adjustments in the reverb’s large window are those for pre-delay and reverb time. The three-band “parametric” equalizer is, in fact, only “semi-parametric,” since only the mid-band has a Q-adjustment knob. Thus, there are only seven adjustments on the EQ, but it sounds good, and the large display accurately represents the EQ curve, resulting from adjusting those seven knobs!
  There are only minimal adjustments on any of the effects, but even the extremely stripped-down de-esser works as advertised. The remainder of the mixer window’s three-screen pages consists of the adjustments for each of its approximately twenty parameters, with an opportunity to save them to hard disk (and reload them, as appropriate, of course).
  And now, returning full circle to our initial discussion of standalone mode, it is also important to carefully adjust all those parameters because, when the UH-7000 is powered up without a computer connected, it remembers each and every one of them in the last state in which it was (automatically) saved to its internal memory when last shut down.

The verdict
  In summary, the TASCAM UH-7000 is a worthy digital audio successor to the all those TEAC 15-ips reel-to-reel analog tape recorders that graced my 1970s and 1980s studios. With just a pair of good microphones connected to the UH-7000’s inputs, a modern personal computer and a stereo recording app, such as the freeware Audacity, anyone can make “professional quality” stereo recordings.
  And I can’t emphasize enough how good the mic preamps are; they are “high quality” — better than preamps and converters in many of the popular, multi-channel USB interfaces and, on the other end, certainly good enough to fit in with the some of the more expensive equipment available. We also recommend the UH-7000 for the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award, based on its function, audio quality and pricing.
  Based on my very positive experience with the TASCAM UH-7000 — and my ultimate confidence in it being a potential digital audio workhorse for any class of studio — here’s my challenge to those just getting into professional recording. Since I was able to use my first TEAC A-7030, between 1970-1973, to record master tapes for what became my first four commercial classical label album credits as engineer, I challenge all you recording-studio types to be the first to begin your career with an analogous use of the TASCAM UH-7000. Its high quality and ease of use will certainly make your recording life easier, but what you choose to do with it is up to you. Good luck!

  Dr. Fred Bashour has been a classical recording engineer for the past 45 years, with recordings released on over twenty labels, including Musical Heritage Society, Naxos and Dorian. His studio, Dufay Digital Music, is located in Western Massachusetts. He holds a Yale Ph.D. in Music Theory and is also an gigging keyboardist. He can be reached via the Everything Audio Network:

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Personal Audio Review!
Hi-FiMAN HM-802
High-Res Portable Player:
"A Cut Above The Competition"

Hi-FiMAN HM-802
©Everything Audio Network

Price: starts at $699
Likes: high-end sonics, balanced output
Dislikes: no included digital output cable
Wow Factor: lots of buttons, lots of sound
More info: Hi-FiMAN HM-802

by John Gatski
  It’s a wonderful time to be a high-resolution music listener these days. We have all manner of DACS, streamers, players for the audiophile setups, as well as the portable market. Hi-FiMAN manufactures the high-end side of portable player/headphone amps, and several models have received critical acclaim from end users over the past three years.
  One of my favorite Hi-FiMAN hi-res players is the Wolfson-DAC chip (WM8740)-based HM-802. The HM-802, priced at $699, is an SD-card storage player (128 GB max.) that features up to 24-bit/192 sample rate PCM (including FLAC), and 2.8 MHz/5.6 MHz DSD playback. It also decodes the convenience audio formats, such as MP3, AAC, etc., ALAC, and AIFF, etc.
**The player sports a non-touch screen LCD and mechanical controls, as well as buttons to activate its various functions for playback and operational features.

  The HM-802 player features a user-replaceable battery as well as upgradeable HP amp modules. The standard module features 105 dB S/N; an optional upgraded, balanced headphone amp module adds 5 dB in performance gain.
  Compared to the ultra-compact Astell and Kern portables, such as the popular AK-100, the HM-802 is a big hold for the hand, but its size allows for the larger replaceable battery and changeable HP amp modules, as well as several mechanical controls and connections. Battery life is listed at 11 hours of play. On my demo player, I always got at least eight hours at 24/192 or DSD quality.

HM-802 utilizes SDXC up to 128GB for audio storage

  The front-panel controls include a jog wheel/push button select for the menu items, play controls, and menu back. The in-case, integrated, knurled volume control is a throwback to Walkman-era devices, though the headphone jack is thoroughly modern with the ability to drive balanced headphones when selecting that option with the normal/balanced switch and using an 1/8th-inch HP adapter cable for the balanced ‘phones.
  There also is a multi-pin connector that hosts the AC adapter, which is the only way to charge the HiFiMAN, and the SPDIF digital input/analog output adapter. An optional dock allows full digital I/O, but I could not find out much about it from the HiFiMAN web site. I would buy such a dock since I often use portables as source players for separate DACs in my home system.
  The menu is easy to navigate via the jog wheel, and within each window, it is easy to enable the functions by pushing the “enter” button. However, it must be noted that all these functions are done with mechanical button pushes. In contrast, the Astell & Kern AK-100 portable operates with fewer buttons — since it uses a touch screen. However, I got used to the HM-802’s jog wheel-turning/button-pushing activity, and it always worked.
  Two really cool things the HiFiMAN offers are its user-replaceable battery, which means you can use it for a long time, and the upgradeable HP amp module. The balanced HP amp version ($979) nets about 5 dB better performance in S/N and dynamic range — 105 dB to 110 dB. My unit had the standard module. Thus, I don’t know if the upgraded circuit provides discernible audio improvements using balanced headphones. Good portables, like the original AK-100 we tested, measure in the 105 dB range. Not true 24-bit, but pretty darn good for a battery-powered self-contained hi-res player. A 110 dB S/N performance would be exemplary indeed. Nonetheless, the standard HP module HM-802 ain't no slouch.

As a hi-res music fanatic, I was quite impressed with the HiFIMAN HM-802’s audio playback performance. Its analog out via headphone, or line out, is sufficiently high-end to impress even the most finicky listener.

  Like the Astell and Kern players and many standalone DACs, the HiFiMAN has a welcome on-screen sample rate display. And as important, it also shows word-length (bit) of the music being played. The bit indicator also is handy for digital input connection info — if you connect it to an outboard device.

  The HM-802 contains the aforementioned front panel jog wheel, menu button, back button, and play/pause, track forward button, and track backward button. The volume control is located at the near-top right of the unit. Other controls include a HD/Classic switch, which provides a treble roll-off in the Classic mode and is flat in its treble response in the HD mode. The unit also contains a Low Gain/High Gain switch. A balanced/normal switch engages the balanced circuitry when using a mini-jack-to-balanced adapter to connect balanced headphones.
  On the left side is the headphone mini-jack 1/8th-inch connector. The bottom-mounted, multi-pin connector provides conduits for the analog-out/digital-in connector cable that is included. The included cable has L/R unbalanced analog RCA outputs and SPDIF RCA inputs. The digital input is nice for connecting outboard players, such as CD players, or a universal player. However, you need am optional connection “base” to get digital output, which was not in my HM-802 kit.
  The HM-802 can only be charged by the included charger, which also connects to the bottom multi-pin connector. The portable cannot be charged by the USB cable, which only allows you to move audio files to and from the unit.
**Operationally, you access the HM-802 menu windows by turning the jog wheel and then pushing the enter button. The menu items are: Now Playing, Favorite, SD Card, Artist, Album, Genre, All Songs and Settings. The settings menu includes Repeat, Shuffle, Backlight, Playback Resume, Sleep, Brightness, Cue support, Language selection, SPDIF-In activate/deactivate, Media Database update and Reset settings.
  The battery is easy to remove when it comes to time to replace it. The HP amp module is user replaceable as well, located under the battery. The unit comes with a paper manual, the charging dock, and the digital in/analog out dock.

The audition
  Although the HM-802 is kind of old school in its appearance and multiple-switch approach to operation, its performance is outstanding. I loaded numerous hi-res tracks from HD Tracks and numerous tracks of my own recordings of jazz guitar, acoustic guitar and DSD piano, the latter recorded by Tom Jung of DMP and Sound 80 fame.
  Through my AKG K702, Shure SRH1840 and Oppo PM-1/PM-2 planar magnetic headphones I found the HiFiMAN’s audio performance deliciously listenable. The Wolfson DAC/ HP amp combo relays a detailed, wide, open soundstage, yet is smooth as butter with that desirable analog tape-like transient response.
  On a 24/192 dub of Bob Dylan “What’s A Sweetheart Like You” track from the Infidels SACD, the multiple layers of electric and acoustic guitar tracks are clearly heard, similar to my high-end standalone DAC/HP combos. Yet there was no hint of harshness.
  On a 24-bit download of the Commodores “Sail On,” the detailed, multitrack mix of acoustic and electric guitars, pedal steel guitar, horns and percussion impressed me with its depth in revealing all these distinct audio layers. The HM-802 is truly high-end in its audio delivery.

  Through my AKG K702s, Shure SRH-1840 and Oppo PM-1/PM-2 planar magnetic headphones I found the HiFiMAN’s audio performance deliciously listenable. The Wolfson DAC/ HP amp combo relays a detailed, wide, open soundstage, yet is smooth as butter with that desirable analog tape-like transient response.

  The HM-802’s smooth factor was particularly noticeable on the Jason Mraz track “I Won’t Give Up” (from the Love is a Four Letter Word album). This nice-sounding, 24/96 pop hit starts out soft and acoustic, but gets really loud in the chorus, as the level peaks at digital 0. On lesser DACs, the loud parts can be a bit hard sounding, but on a good DAC the peaks are softer, easier to listen to. The HiFiMAN handled the tracks without that hardness in the loud parts of the song. Much easier on the ears. The AK-100 playback has a little more edge on that track.
  The HM-802’s playback is equally at home on jazz, classical and acoustic as well. On a direct-to-DXD (24/352) recording that I made of a Taylor dreadnaught guitar, sample rate converted to 192 kHz sample rate and transferred to the HM-802, the intricate, flat-picked harmonics and the wide sense of space of the mic placement clearly came through the AKG K702 and HM-802 combo. It sounded ultra-clean and detailed through the Shure SRH1840 as well.

The HM-802/Oppo PM-2 Planar HPs make a great sonic combo

  And a 24/88 Mahler Symphony No. 6 performance also revealed the ample dynamic range, and low-level detail, low noise floor of the HiFiMAN DAC/HP amp. And there was plenty of gain in the high-gain setting to drive the low impedance AKGs — even during the symphony’s more quiet parts.
  The HM-802 also worked with other headphones including the Shure SRH1840s, and the smooth lush, tone-inducing Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic headphone. I also used the player a lot with the Sony MDR-7510, a budget, pro headphone that is fairly neutral in its presentation. I was quite pleased with that combo.
  Compared to the original Astell & Kern AK-100 that used a Wolfson DAC, the HM-802 is slightly richer, smoother sounding and a bit wider in its soundstage, but there are times the punchiness of the A&K’s audio playback comes in handy. I do prefer the simplicity of the A&K’s touch screen operation for track operation, versus the multiple button/jog wheel approach of the HM-802. But at the end of the day, the HiFiMAN’s functions are easy to master and it offers a gorgeous sound signature.
  My only real negative is the lack of digital output from the included connector cable. You need the optional docking “base” and another cable to get the full digital SPDIF output capability.

The verdict
  As a hi-res music fanatic, with access to numerous high-end DACS, headphone amps and other various playback methods, I was quite impressed with the HiFIMAN HM-802’s audio playback performance. Its analog out via headphone, or line out, is sufficiently high-end to impress even the most finicky listener. At $699, it is a good buy. The great sound, replaceable battery and excellent battery life put me firmly in its camp. If it had a standard digital output and USB cable charging, its operation capability would be perfect in my book.
  Overall, the HM-802 gets an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award and an audition recommendation from me to those who want hi-res music playback in a small form factor.
   John Gatski is publisher/owner of the Everything Audio NetworkArticles on this site are the copyright of the Everything Audio Network©Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Audiophile Review!
Essence HDACC 24/192 ADC/DAC
Stereo Preamp/Headphone Amp:
Bargain Price Converter/Preamp
Includes Multiple I/O WITH HDMI

Price: $699
Likes: HDMI, 3x digital I/O, A/D
Dislikes: lacks bit status display
Wow Factor: do-it-all A/D-/D/A
More info: Essence HDACC

by John Gatski
   I love cool little gadgets that are accomplished multi-taskers. Back in the 1990s, digital recording and mastering engineer Bob Katz came up with a box called the FCN-1, a digital I/O that served professional audio engineers by converting from one output format to another and removing and/or ignoring copy code restrictions when making digital dubs for pro use. The Essence HDACC reminds me of that quite-useful FCN-1 with its multiple in/outs, including HDMI. Plus it is quite a good DAC and headphone amp as well.

   Priced at a bargain price of $699, the Essence HDACC is a 24-bit/192 DAC with built-in headphone amp, fixed-level 24/192 A/D, a built-in sample rate converter, SPDIF/TOSLink digital I/O, HDMI digital input for stereo playback (one of the few DACS that even have HDMI), balanced and unbalanced analog output, and analog input for playback through the preamp or feeding the A/D. To further showcase its multiple input dexterity, the Essence HDACC also has USB 2.0 input for computer playback — up to 24/192.
  The HDACC does not natively play DSD from HDMI or USB sources. However, if your Blu-ray player converts DSD-to-PCM (many do), that audio can be transmitted through the HDM to the HDACC. The DAC then outputs the PCM through the DAC. Oppo players, for example, convert the DSD bitstream from a SACD, convert it to 24/88.2 and is output through the HDMI. My Marantz UD-7007 does the same. The DSD-to-PCM loses a little bit of its natural smoothness and transients versus the native DSD bitstream decoding, but it is hi-res enough. Better than 16/48.
  The Essence HDACC features an ESS Sabre DAC, Cirrus A/D chip, adjustable impedance HP impedance-matching circuit, as well as a dynamic range control, embedded in the DSP. The DAC is not that big, about 1/2 rack wide, but the feature set and connections do not feel cramped. A headphone jack and a dual-function volume control/menu operation knob and an OLED display inhabit the front panel, no other controls needed.

I/O galore including HDMI

  The rear panel includes the aforementioned SPDIF coax I/O, TOSLink I/O, HDMI 1.3 I/O, analog RCA I/O, balanced XLR analog output and a USB 2.0 Type-B connector input. The units runs on a 5V 300mA outboard power supply. The power switch is located on the top left front.
  Spec-wise, the factory numbers show a 109 dB S/N ratio (107 dB a-weighted); the other numbers, such as frequency response, crosstalk, distortion are good as well, though the frequency response is only listed to 20 kHz — even though it is wider for frequencies above 44.1 kHz.

All this and A/D too
  Although the HDACC is a first-rate DAC with lots of atypical DAC features, such as the HDMI conduit, the inclusion of an onboard A/D converter intrigued me. Consumer A/D-D/A combos are quite rare — more typical in pro and musician configurations. They are mostly used in USB-interface boxes for recording to the computer. The HDACC configuration gives you the versatility to use the A/D to dub LPs, or other media you own, or use it as a computer interface via the optical port. Though the A/D level is fixed and operates natively at 24/192, you can use the sample rate converter to set an alternative frequency: 44.1 kHz to 176 kHz. Because of the good quality converters and its price, I can see pros and consumers using this feature — not to mention all the I/O options.
  Although there is just the one control, the HDACC is simple to operate. Just push the volume button, select the menu you want and push the button to make your selections for input, sample rate, headphone impedance, etc. The display includes sample rate, volume level, selected input; no digital bit status, however, my only negative in the entire review.
  As enamored as I am of the multiple I/O and onboard A/D, I don’t want to lose sight of the rare DAC HDMI input feature. The HDACC is one of the few out there that even have HDMI. Essence President Bob Rapoport said the HDMI input opens up the separate DAC users to Blu-ray audio, which includes hi-res concerts and pre-recorded music discs from labels such as AIX.
  The Essence HDACC quickly became a favorite all-in-one, do-it-all, bang-for-the buck digital converter/HP amp. Its got that rare DAC HDMI input, and I found numerous uses for the HDACC with my laptop as a standalone DAC and A/D.

  The HDACC offers the HDMI “handshake protocol” that allows Blu-ray audio players to transmit their full fidelity audio out the digital conduit. The two-channel audio is broken out via Essence HDMI de-embedder. Thus, you can play the separate two-channel soundtracks from Blu-ray concerts in full res, or even listen to the L/R channels of DTS Master HD, Dolby TrueHD or linear PCM multichannel soundtracks. Often, BD concerts or prerecorded 5.1 lossless soundtracks put the discrete stereo in the L/R channels.
  The Essence DAC not only allows you to listen to the Blu-ray player HDMI output, but the HDACC elaborate routing options allow you to feed the HDMI input audio to another DAC at the same time, through the SPDIF or TOSLink, or both outputs at the same time. Feed two DACS if you want.

The audition
  I put the HDACC through several months of testing and found it so useful I was hesitant to give it back. First, I used it as BD/universal player DAC. First up, I hooked it to my Oppo BDP-95 via a WireWorld Starlight HDMI cable and played my Blu-ray copy of The WhoLive At The Isle of Wight 1970 concert film. The 16-bit/48 kHz sample rate discrete stereo soundtrack sounded pretty good. But when I selected the DTS Master HD 5.1, I got to hear the 24/96 L-R channels, essential the stereo mix in higher resolution; it was awesome, smoother and more open. It did the same with my Woodstock blu-ray.
  Another Blu-ray sampled through the HDACC was the Celine Dion - New Day Concert. The Dolby TrueHD multichannel is phenomenal, but through the HDACC, I was damn impressed with the 24/96 LPCM stereo presentation. The ESS Sabre DAC-equipped HDACC has that signature smoothness of the ESS chip with abundant detail and good width and depth in the stereo presentation. My Benchmark DAC2-D $1,799 and Mytek Digital Stereo 192-DSD, $1,500 had a bit more dimension and sparkle with this recording (thanks to the HDACC’s ability to connect to them via the SPDIF outputs to set up a comparison), but not as much as the price difference might make you think. The HDACC’s sonic character was quite good through both the headphone amp and the line out, especially the XLR analog outputs.
  The HDACC headphone amp could drive the AKG-K702 and Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic headphones with no problems when using the low impedance HP settings available in the HDACC.
  I played numerous HD Tracks and my own hi-res recordings of jazz and acoustic guitar from the Macbook Pro using Audirvana. I was quite content with the HDACC as my computer DAC during its trial with Everything Audio Network. I used it for multiple audio tasks for my Mac audio workstation, editing and processing hi-res stereo tracks. The unit fit perfectly next to the Macbook Pro, tethered to it via the USB cable.
  The HDACC also was an ideal mate for my Dell Venue 8 and the highly capable, hi-res Android software player, USB Audio Player Pro. With that setup, I used the Shure SRH1840 reference headphones. I played dozens of 24-bit tracks through the duo, without any problems or glitches. The HDACC lacks 352.8 kHz and 384 kHz sample rate decoding, but the USB Audio Player Pro program detects a DAC’s maximum sample rate and down samples to that rate. Thus, my 2L DXD (24/352) classical tracks and my own home-brew 24/384 guitar recordings were played back at 24/192, but they still sounded quite good through the Essence.

And recording, too...
  To test the HDACC’s A/D converter, I hooked up my Mackie 1402 mixer using two Audix SCX-25 microphones to record a Martin acoustic guitar. The mixer's tape outputs were connected to the analog inputs of the HDACC. Since the HDACC does not have USB output, I connected the TOSLink output of the HDACC to the TOSLink input of the Macbook Pro. I selected the digital input in the Audio settings, and commenced recording with Bias Peak recording/editing program, a now defunct software package that is still better than 99 percent of the two-track software editors on the market today.
 Although the HDACC is a first-rate DAC with lots of a atypical DAC features, such as the HDMI conduit, the inclusion of an onboard A/D converter intrigued me. Consumer A/D-D/A combos are quite rare.

  Since the A/D has a fixed level, I controlled the level with the analog mixer control and Peak’s digital input control. The DAC playback revealed a detailed, open smooth stereo guitar recording. Not quite as much detail as my $1,800 Benchmark ADC-1, but the Essence HDACC’s A/D capability is as good as numerous pro interfaces I have used — some much more money.

Dub your records
  For all you vinyl fans, the HDACC’s A/D features makes an ideal conduit for dubbing your records. I connected my Clear Audio turntable/Rogue Audio Model 99 Magnum’s phono preamp output to the HDACC’s RCA inputs and dubbed a copy of my Wes MontgomeryFull House audiophile LP using the Macbook Pro and freeware Audacity record/edit two track program, set at 24/192. I then played the recording back through the HDACC. The iconic jazz guitar live album from the early ‘60s was now preserved and able to be played back as many times as I desire without any record wear.
  As you can tell from this review, I really love the HDACC and its versatility. I used it as a multiple digital output router while A/B’ing two other DACs. I fed the HDMI output of the Oppo BDP-95 to the HDACC’s HDMI input, then connected the TOSLink output to one DAC and the SPDIF to the other DAC. With both DAC’s analog outputs level matched, I hooked their outputs to my Coda preamp, which was linked to a Bryston BHA-1 headphone amp. With the fast, source-switching Coda and its remote, I could A/B the DACs receiving the same signal from the HDACC. Pretty slick.
The HDACC configuration gives you the versatility to use the A/D to dub LPs, or other media you own, or use it as a computer interface via the optical port. Or connect to another outboard device via the TOSLink or SPDIF RCA.

  I also used the HDACC A/D to run a back-up recorder in the workstation. As I recorded the main audio (24/96) into the computer via the HDACC A/D through the Mac’s optical input, I routed the HDACC’s SPDIF RCA output to my TASCAM DR-100 Mark II’s portable digital recorder’s digital coax input. With the digital-sync, I was recording music onto the Mac and, thanks to the HDACC, I made a simultaneous backup recording on the TASCAM portable. Fantastic. Plus, the HDACC D/A was also my live-monitor DAC.
  With all you get for $699 retail, no one can really complain about the Essence HDACC. It would be nice to have a level meter meter and adjustable gain for the A/D — and a USB output; a bit status indicator perhaps? But this box is so well priced and capable, I really can’t get too upset over these omissions.

The verdict
  The Essence HDACC quickly became a favorite all-in-one, do-it-all, bang-for-the-buck digital converter/HP amp. Its got that rare DAC HDMI input, and I found numerous uses for the HDACC with my laptop as a standalone DAC and A/D, and as a digital distribution device. And it only costs $699 retail. This box really shines. From hi-res listening to archiving vinyl, to computer recording my guitars in hi-res, and listening to tunes on the go. I could not be more pleased. For $699, you could justify HDACC just for its HDMI input rarity; it is one the few DACs that utilizes HDMI input for audio use with Blu-ray players and computers that are equipped with the popular interface.
  No, it will not best the top-tier DACs in ultimate audio quality, but the sonic character is ESS chip smooth — with nice detail and the feature set is so deep that nothing touches it at 2X-3X the price. Of course, it gets the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award. And I plan to have one permanently in my arsenal of digital converters.

   John Gatski is publisher/owner of the Everything Audio NetworkArticles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio NetworkAny unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.