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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Audiophile Review!
Parasound zdac v.2
Stereo D/A Converter


Parasound zdac v.2 DAC
"Upgraded Headphone Amp Enhances The New Zdac"

Brevis...
Price: $549 retail
Likes: more HP oomph, first-rate build
Dislikes: give us 24/192 via USB please
Wow Factor: still way above its price

by John Gatski
 In 2013, I reviewed the Parasound zdac, a great value/performance 24/192 D/A that fit into numerous audio listening niches, including audiophile, home recording, and for use as a computer DAC (to 24/96). Never one to rest on its success, Parasound has made some key upgrades to the zdac, and made it better.
  Priced at $549, the zdac v.2 now offers front-panel quarter-inch and eight-inch headphone jack, separate line out and HP volume controls, digital audio connection to Lighting jack-equipped Apple devices (USB adapter required), increased headphone amp gain, fixed/variable line out switch and 12V input/output triggers.

Features
  The new zdac maintains its solid feature set of USB TOSlink, SPDIF digital inputs, plus XLR balanced and unbalanced analog RCA line outputs. The most audible improvements are increased headphone gain and the fixed variable line out switch for those who want a fixed level for routing the output audio to other preamps.
  The zdac v.2 maintains its computer compatibility with USB input though it is still limited to 24/96 using the USB 1.0 protocol, which requires no computer drivers. However, most DACs use the USB 2.0 protocol, which requires specific drivers, but allow up to 24/192 and higher sample rates. Today, most DACs, even inexpensive ones, can decode up to 24/192 and higher sample rate audio; some as high as 24/384. I would like to see Parasound add sample rate decoding to at least 192 via USB to remain competitive. With the increase use of computers as primary hi-fi players, a DAC needs that high-sample rate compatibility.
  Nonetheless, you can still play 24/192 via the optical input from a Mac computer to a zdac v.2. On 2013 and newer Macbook Pro Retina laptops, the  Mac's optical digital audio, maximum sample rate output has been increased from 96 kHz to 192 kHz, which means the zdac v.2 (and many other DACs) will natively play 192 hi-res from those Macs  Older Intel Macs have the ability to play out to 96 kHz. Those computers take the 24/192 and downsample to 96 kHz, which means the zdac v.2 can still play music from 192 kHz sources.


Plenty of connectivity, including balanced XLR out


  The zdac v.2 maintains its excellent sound quality by using the Analog Devices AD1853 24-bit/192 kHz digital-to-analog converter chip, the same chip used in the Benchmark DAC1 series. All digital input signals are re-clocked and up-sampled to 422 kHz for improved sonics and improved jitter reduction. The Analog Devices AD1895 sample rate converter chip is used for the up conversion.
  The zdac's high-current headphone amp is claimed to drive virtually any headphones from 32 to 600 ohms. Unlike many low-cost DACs, the zdac v.2 is designed with a high-quality, toroidal transformer in its power supply circuit, ensuring plenty of voltage and current to drive most any headphone and line devices. The zdac v.2 factory specs are quite good with a 110-dB signal-to-noise ratio, and low distortion throughout the audio band at the various sample rates. The analog outputs, via unbalanced or balanced, have plenty of oomph — with 2.1 volts and 4.2 volts respectively.
  The half-rack zdac form factor makes it easy to install in a rack or to carry around in your bag for use as stereo-recording monitor DAC wherever you go. The unit weighs about 5 pounds. It is available in silver or black finish.

The setup
  As with most DACs that I test (and I test a lot of them), a DAC needs a good listen to establish a sonic benchmark. I linked the zdac v.2 to an Oppo BDP-95 via SPDIF. For comparison, I had the original zdac, a Benchmark DAC2-D, and Mytek Stereo 192-DSD: much more expensive DACs, though with the similar form factor. I also listened to a couple of DACs closer to the price range of the zdac v.2: the  USB-connected Korg DS-DAC-100M ($350) and the USB/SPDIF Resonessence Concero-HP ($849); these two DACs do not have near the connectivity features and advanced analog circuit of the zdcac v.2  but do have good audio quality and compatibility with higher sample rate PCM and DSD.
  I know there are lower-cost DACs out there, but when you compare the build quality and parts selection and its well-above-its-price-range sound, the Parasound zdac v.2 is a steal at $549.

  For headphone amp comparisons, I listened to audio via the onboard headphone amps. For additional comparisons, I also routed the Parasound’s analog output to a Bryston BHA-1 HP amp/line out as well as to the analog input of the Oppo HA-1 HP Amp/DAC.
  Headphones included AKG K702 Anniversary, Shure SRH1840, Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic and Sony MDR-7510 headphones. Wireworld digital cables were used throughout the system. Essential Sound Products Essence II Reference power cords connected the components to the AC.
  I also integrated the zdac v.2 into my high-end playback system, consisting of, at the time, Pass Labs XP-10 preamp, Pass Labs XS-150 mono block, Class A amplifiers and my MartinLogan Montis speakers.

The audition
  When I reviewed the original zdac in 2013, I raved about its sound quality, considering the price. In fact, when I took it to the Capital AudioFest that year and put it in our stack of DACs A-B listening sessions, most people were hard pressed to differentiate it from other DACs, including the more expensive ones, on demo.
  For the most part, the zdac v.2 is sonically identical to the original, but with increased headphone amp gain. In fact, i did not need to turn the volume control knob nearly as far with the low-impedance AKG headphones as I did the original zdac.
  During my testing, I played dozens of hi-res tracks from different genres, including Classical, Jazz and Pop. As with the original zdac, the zdac v.2 is a detailed, revealing DAC that performs considerably above its price point. I have always liked the analytical character of the Analog Devices DAC chip (Benchmark used it in its DAC1 Series), and the zdac v.2 gives me that quality in spades. Tight bass, a generous soundstage and crisp transient response on such instruments as cymbals and piano will please those who appreciate honest digital audio decoding.

Smart devices play just fine with zdac v.2


  When playing a DSD-to-PCM dub of the Warren Bernhardt So Real SACD — from the Oppo BDP-95 and monitoring via the AKG K702 headphones — the detailed presentation of drum cymbals piano and bass was well spaced. The kick drum was nice and tight. The line-output lets out more image and width when paired up with the gorgeous-sounding MartinLogan Montis electrostatics and the pair of $60,000 Pass XS150 amps that I recently reviewed.
  When comparing the zdac v.2 to the ESS Sabre chip units Benchmark DAC2-D, Mytek Stereo 192-DSD and Resonessence ConceroHP, the zdac's tight, tightly focused signature was more apparent in headphone amp A/B comparisons. The Benchmark and Mytek had more warmth to the mid and bass frequencies, and  a bit more space around the instruments but again, I liked the analytical persona of the Parasound.
  When comparing the DACs through speaker listening, their sonic personas are harder to differentiate. They all sounded good. Picky headphone listening can spot the audio variables between these DACs, but a room often swallows up those differences. The zdac v.2 is definitely a competitive D/A.

Mobile-source audio
  With the 24/96 ceiling on zdac v.2's USB input, I carefully selected 96K download music to play from a Dell Venue 8 tablet via USB Audio Player Pro software. I linked the two via Wireworld Starlight USB cable, the software player recognized the DAC, and I commenced playing a variety of tunes.
  The first cut I played was "Tangerine," from the 24/96-remastered, hi-res Led Zeppelin III. The remaster has much greater separation and space between the instruments, which includes acoustic guitar and pedal steel guitar, mixed into a widely spaced stereo image. Through the headphones, the zdac v.2 projected the gracious instrument spacing of the mix, and its cool, quick transient character enhanced the detail. The line out into the amp/speaker system was even more immersive through the ML electrostatics.
  When playing a DSD-to-PCM dub of Warren Bernhardt’s So Real SACD — from the Oppo BDP-95 and monitoring via the AKG 702 headphones — the detailed presentation of drum cymbals piano and bass was well spaced. Kick drum was nice and tight. The line-output lets out more image and width when paired up with the gorgeous-sounding MartinLogan Montis electrostatics and the pair of $60,000 Pass XS150 amps

  On my PCM 24/96 dub of the Mercury Living Presence BachThe Complete Cello Suites by Janos Starker SACD, I really liked how well the organic tone of Mr. Starker’s cello — with the complex string harmonics, subtle room reverb —played through the zdac v.2. It may only be $549, but this is a really good DAC.
  As with the original zdac, the zdac v.2 is a smart choice to add new life to your old CD player or a cheap DVD player. I used the zdac v.2 as a high quality DAC/headphone amp for a RCA portable Blu-ray player with built-in 9-inch LCD that I took to my beach house. Playing through a connected HDMI de-embedder, I played CDs, 24/96 hi-res downloads and BD stereo soundtracks using a pair of Oppo PM-1 planar headphones. With the zdac v.2 this little A/V system kicked butt. I even watched The Who - Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 Concert Blue-ray, with the linear PCM stereo soundtrack blasting through the headphones.

A workstation D/A
  For those who have home recording suites (even pros), the zdcac v.2 can be smartly placed next to your editing computer or source deck, and used for monitoring your mixdown or direct stereo recordings. It would be better if it did 24/192 as well, but if you do CD quality or the more typical 24/96, the zdac v.2 works just fine. And as mentioned, it does decodes 24/192 from a Mac through the computer's optical output on the newest Macbook Pros, and outputs at the 192 at 96 kHz from older Intel Macs.


Per usual, Parasound uses good design and parts selection


  I pressed the zdac v.2 into duty for editing a Gibson jazz guitar track I was working on using a Macbook Pro and the Apple Logic recording/editing program. Via the Shure SRH-1840 open headphones during playback, I could clearly hear deep into the track, with the guitar’s pick attack and smooth Fender Deluxe Reverb harmonics, without any additional grit coming from the DAC. At twice the price, you will not do any better.

The verdict
  As with the original, Parasound zdac  I had few complaints about the zdac v.2, it has true hi-sound quality, the headphone gain gets a boost, we now have separate volume controls for line and headphone, and the a fixed/variable line-out circuit adds to its flexibility. It only lacks the ability to natively play 24/192 music via the USB, though you can play 24/192 via Mac using the optical jack. I know there are lower-cost DACS out there, but when you compare the build quality, parts selection and its "well above its price range" sound, the Parasound zdac v.2 is a steal at $549. A Stellar Sound Award for a stellar DAC.



John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1992. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music,The Audiophile Voice and High Performance Review. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, MDArticles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. He can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Home Theater Review!
Yamaha AVENTAGE MX-A5000
11-Channel Balanced Input Amplifier


"A genuine bargain for such great sound + 11-channels"

Brevis...
Price: $2,995 retail
Likes: 11 channels, fantastic fidelity
Dislikes: zilch, nada, zero complaints
Wow Factor: lots of channels, lots of sound
More info:  Yamaha MX-A5000

by John Gatski
  From pro audio to motorcycles and ATV's — as well as home audio video — the name Yamaha always means a high-caliber product — no matter what the niche. After hearing about the new AVENTAGE MX-A5000 11-channel home theater amp in 2013, I expected it to be top-notch multichannel amp. Almost every Yamaha pro audio/consumer audio product I have ever tested has been aces. And that is exactly what I found during my test run with the MX-A5000— a dynamic, yet smooth, multichannel power house that is quite a bargain when considering how much you get for your $2,995.

Features
  The made-in-Asia MX-A5000 is a high-end multichannel amp that can continuously crank out more than 100 watts per channel in 5 or 7 channel modes, and I estimate as high as 80 continuous watts, across all 11 channels, if so desired. Yamaha’s two-channel rating is 170 wpc at .9% distortion. At 150 wpc across two channels, the amp distortion falls to .06%. The listed signal-to-noise is 116 dB (@ less than 60 µV residual noise).
  The amp features 11 balanced XLR and 11 RCA inputs for flexible setups, such as Dolby Atmos speaker scenarios — as well as powering a home-theater setup and a couple of other room/zone speakers. The sheer number of speaker outputs also makes this amp a great choice for bi-amping speakers.

 In the context of high-end multichannel amps, I rank the Yamaha up near the top — especially with its price tag at under $3,000. There are some expensive multichannel separates that may eek out a bit more space in their presentation and higher-power levels. But even against those amps the MX-A5000 is an impressive amplifier, considering the price, for serious home theater/serious music listeners who have their systems in medium to large rooms.

 The key to the MX-A5000’s sonic signature is its current-feedback, three-stage Darlington bipolar output circuit, a massive power supply and 27,000μF custom block capacitors. This amp can deliver and hold current for deep bass and intense dynamic bursts of main channel audio and surround effects, as well as high-res multichannel music playback from Blu-rays or music-download sources, such as 2L.
  Yamaha likes to tout not only the electrical design, but also the amp’s physical construction. The amp includes a rigid housing for the internal parts and the chassis stiffness is enhanced by an H-shaped cross frame that boosts mechanical strength of the support structure. To further enhance resistance to airborne and room-to-rack vibrations, an installation A.R.T. (Anti-Resonance Technology) Wedge was installed in the center of the bottom cover, and a double bottom, consisting of vibration control plates made of 1.6 mm black steel. In order to support the heavy heat sinks and other electronic parts, the amp features a left-right independent construction strengthened by a rigid-frame structure. And the bottom frame further reduces the transmission of vibration produced by the large power supply transformer and heat sinks.
One brute of a power supply; check out those caps

  The MX-A5000 is designed as a high-end AVENTAGE line companion to the CX-A5000 multichannel preamp/processor, which was out of stock when we received our amp review sample. But the amp can work with any preamp/processor, or the pre outputs of a multichannel receiver.
  Being an amplifier, the MX-A5000 is a much more simple device to set up than the preamp in front of it. The front panel of the attractive power amp houses its power switch and Channel A/B speaker selector. Around back are the pairs of line inputs, via RCA unbalanced or XLR balanced, and the three-way speaker terminals which are arranged on each side of the amp.
  A 12V trigger also comes standard for those installers and do-it-yourselfers who take the sequential power-up route. There also is an auto-off switch that engages a self shut-off after eight hours, and there is a balanced/unbalanced selector for each channel.
  With so many speaker connectors and input connectors, the wiring looks a bit daunting at first, but once you settle on your particular configuration and have the cables in hand, attaching the conduits is a piece of cake. For my setup, I configured the MX-A5000 amp as a five channel amp for my main home cinema room. Left, right, center and two surrounds, using an AudioControl Maestro 3 multichannel preamp as the primary signal source and running balanced cables to the amp inputs.

  The Yamaha kicks butt with the Bruce Willis Live Free and Die Hard soundtrack; the opening shootout's spent shell casing effects rained down on me like a sonic cloudburst, and the intense explosions pushed up the SPL meter with no trace of sonic sludge. Clean, dynamic and open! That is what you want from AV amplification.

  With the sheer numbers of inputs and bi-amping capability, you can set up numerous speaker scenarios including running the home theater in 5.1, 7.1, 9.1 or up to the 11 full channels if so desired. You can also set up multichannel configurations as well as two room zones. With all its channels, it is also possible to bi-amp up to five pairs of speakers. Bi-amping can enhance clean signal amplification by allowing each driver to have its own amp connection.

The set up
  I installed the MX-A5000 in my home theater room. It was mated with my reference professional Westlake LC8.1 L-R speakers, Westlake LC2.65 center and NHT One surround speaker system. Bass duties were handled by my reference Paradigm Reference Studio Sub 15 subwoofer. I fed the amp line signals from either the AudioControl Maestro 3 or the AudioControl AVR-4 receiver’s preamp section. I also put in the bang-for-the buck Outlaw 975 pre/pro — a steal at $500!
  Just for comparison, I also enabled a BD player direct-to-amp playback system by routing five analog RCA outputs from my Oppo BDP-105 straight into the amp’s unbalanced inputs, playing lots of movies and hi-res surround music directly from the BD player
  On hand for amp comparison, I had a first generation five-channel AudioControl Pantages 80 wpc Class H amp, and two 1990s-era Carver home theater separates (a three- and a two-channel amp). Because the AudioControl AVR-4 receiver is as good as most separates, I also used it for comparison, as well as using its preamp section to link to the Yamaha.
The MX-A5000 has generous connection space

  Setting up an amp usually takes less time than setting up a pre/pro; you just need to connect the inputs and all the speaker cables. The amp weighs about 56 pounds, which is quite manageable compared to the high-end Pass amps I reviewed a few months ago (more than 300 pounds split among two separate chassis). Yamaha maximizes the rear-panel space pretty well with left speaker outputs on one side and right on the other. The inputs are mounted in the central portion of the back panel.
  I find it interesting that more and more amps, including the Yamaha, no longer have grounded AC receptacles and cables, opting for the two-pronged power cables. Nonetheless, an Essential Sound Products Essence II Reference power cord was connected to the amp during the review.
  For line level connection, I chose Wireworld’s superb, accurate-is-neutral, Eclipse7 balanced analog cables for preamp-to-amp connection, and Wireworld’s RCA cables for the direct Oppo BDP-105-as-preamp setup; Wireworld speaker cables also connected the speakers to the amplifier.
  To test the MX-A5000 as an audiophile caliber amp, I added a Resonessence Mirus high-end DAC for two channel playback up to 24/384, which I actually had one demo track at that high of a sample rate. I played hi-res music from a Dell Venue 8 as the source player (via USB Audio Player Pro) for the hi-res music, linked to the DAC and the DAC fed directly into two of the balanced inputs of the MX-A5000.
  I matched the speaker levels precisely using a professional AudioControl real-time analyzer/SPL meter, lab-grade mic, and the AudiControl Maestro pre/pro’s onboard test signal generator. I find that the cheap handheld meters don’t do a good job in accurately measuring the SPL level of low bass. Thus, the pro analyzer/SPL unit allows me to precisely match the speaker levels, which makes a big difference in clean multichannel performance.

The Audition
  First up, I played the animated movie BD of Meet The Robinsons. It has a linear PCM 24-bit/48 kHz 5.1 soundtrack and among the most open and dynamic BDs that I own. It has lots of steered surround effects, and open, boisterous music soundtracks that lesser amps and receiver amp sections strain to reproduce cleanly when you crank up volume.
  My reference AudioControl AVR-4 and a few other high-end receivers, as well as high-end Krell, Marantz and Classe amps can do this soundtrack justice at loud levels. The late 1990s Carvers I used for comparison are pretty good up to say around 87 dB continuous level, but when you push them to the lower-to-mid 90 db+ peaks, they start to sound strained.
  Strain is not a word you can associate with the Yamaha's sonic description. The MTR BD soundtrack’s sonic signature, like the AudioControl receiver’s, was big and imposing with great width and space spread among the tracks’ varying elements. Right off the bat, I could tell that the MX-A5000 had the capability to relay the massive dynamics of the linear PCM soundtrack.
  Strain is not a word you can associate with the Yamaha. The BD soundtrack’s sonic signature, like the AudioControl receiver’s, was big and imposing with a great width and space spread among the tracks’ varying elements. Right off the bat, I could tell that the MX-A5000 has the capability to relay the massive dynamics of the linear PCM soundtrack.

  Pushing into the mid-90 dB region, not a hint of harshness or stridency in the midrange or low treble. And its ability to handle the non-subwoofer bass was just as impressive — quick, taut and deep.
  Next up was the Live Free and Die Hard Blu-ray, the Bruce Willis action movie from 2007. The early action sequences have intense bursts of gun fire explosion, car chases, and a lot of added effects in the rear channels. Like the Meet The Robinsons, the soundtrack is quite dynamic, and its maximum peaks can punish you with sub-standard amplification. Cheap receivers and amps can’t cut it with this disc.
  The Yamaha kicks butt with the Bruce Willis flick soundtrack; the shell casing effects in the beginning shootout rained down on me like a sonic cloudburst, and the intense explosions pushed up the SPL meter with no trace of sonic sludge. Clean, dynamic and open! That is what you want from AV amplification.
  The AudioControl receiver and the Yamaha amp are similar in their presentations and smooth factor up to about 95 percent. The AudioControl is still slightly more audiophile in its sense of space and finesse with music soundtracks, but the Yamaha amp’s sheer extra horsepower may eek out a slight dB advantage in a really large room. Still you are comparing a receiver (though an expensive one) to a separate amp only unit; a high-end, separate, high-power amp ought to deliver high sound level with no problem.


Yamaha does not skimp on quality parts selection

  I switched to surround music listening with several AIX Record Blu-ray music discs played directly from the Oppo to the Yamaha, using the Oppo's digital volume control. Again, the Yamaha excelled at the nuances, the timbre of classical piano, and the well-recorded multichannel soundtrack enveloped me in its reassuring smoothness. Not tube amp smooth, but a natural, analog music instrument smoothness.
  I fired up the Dell Tablet and the Resonessence Mirus DAC, input directly into Yamaha amp and I played several hours of stereo, hi-res download music from HD Tracks. From the 24/96 reissue of Led Zeppelin III, I was impressed with the remaster’s expanded space of the guitar tracks and fullness of Robert Plant’s vocals. The Yamaha amplified the classic blues-folk rock cut, Gallows Pole in fine form — with Plant’s high-pitched velocity vocal. Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar and banjo and John Bonham’s heavy drum sound is much better heard in this reissue. Listening to the cut through the MX-A5000 adds to the hi-res sonic experience. This is a very good hi-fi amp.
  To test the dynamics of acoustic guitar and ultra high-resolution recording and playback, I turned to my own 24-bit/384 acoustic guitar test cut that I made with a pair of high-end mics, and an Antelope Eclipse 24/384 A/D-to-computer recording setup. Recording myself on a Taylor 810 guitar in stereo, the two-minute, 30 second cut personifies the extra nuance and textured sonic space of high-res recording. Though not as expansive sounding through the Yamaha as it was through the $60,000 Pass Labs XS150 mono blocks tested earlier this year, my guitar snippet was not let down by the Yamaha amp. It still sounded fresh and extended — and it only costs $2,995!
 I also liked the sound of my Beatles 24-bit reissues played through the Yamaha. The stereo versions of the early albums are remarkably well recorded, and the hi-res transfers bring out that simple, yet full fidelity sound. Just listen to that snare from Ringo’s perfectly rendered "Act Naturally."

  I also liked the sound of my Beatles 24-bit reissues played through the Yamaha. The stereo versions of the early albums are remarkably well recorded, and the hi-res transfers bring out that simple, yet full-fidelity sound. Just listen to that snare from Ringo’s perfectly rendered drumming on "Act Naturally."
  All in all, the Yamaha MX-A5000 excels not only at playing your movie soundtracks, but also is a pretty darn good music amp. If you want it all in one amp, this is one to consider. I did not have any complaints with the Yamaha MX-A5000. Easy to setup, plenty of space for the speaker cables to co-exist with the input cables, and it has a 12V trigger for remote turn on. At 56 pounds, it is not light, but not a boat anchor either.

The verdict
  In the context of high-end multichannel amps, I rank the Yamaha up near the top — especially with its price tag at under $3,000. There are some expensive multichannel separates (Classe, Krell Mark Levinson) that may eek out a bit more space in their presentation and higher-power levels, but the MX-A5000 is an impressive amplifier for serious home theater/serious music listeners who have their systems in medium-to-large rooms. I expected nothing less from Yamaha, and they delivered An Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award for sure.

John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1992. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music,The Audiophile Voice and High Performance Review. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, MDArticles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. He can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net








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

Brevis...
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.

Features
  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: everything.audio@verizon.net