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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Audiophile/Home Recording Review!
Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC/Preamp:
New D/A Gets Enhanced Features, DSD


Audio D/A Converter


Brevis...
Price: $1,595
Likes: DSD and PCM sound
Dislikes: no word-length status
More info:  Mytek Stereo192-DSD


by John Gatski

  In the world of audiophile and professional audio digital-to-analog converters, there are numerous high-end players in different price ranges. You can buy decent intro-priced DACs for a few hundred dollars — all the way up to the high-dollar units for many thousands of buckaroos. Despite a price of less than $1,600, the new Stereo192-DSD is right up there with the high-dollar DACs — in terms of build, features and audio quality. In fact, I think you would have to spend three times the price to get significantly better audio playback.
  With features such as ESS Sabre 32 DAC chip, native DSD/DoP playback, dual analog/digital volume control and quality headphone amp, and up-to-date computer connectivity, Mytek designer Michal Jurewicz, who has made high-end DACs for more than ten years, has shown that his latest DAC has what pros and audiophiles are looking for. The last Mytek I reviewed was the DAC-96 in 2006, and I found it to be a good-sounding DAC for its time. The new one, however, is in another league.

Features
  The Mytek Stereo192-DSD is a half-rack sized DAC that is a typical dimension in the audiophile and pro world. It comes in two versions: the audiophile “preamp” black or silver, and the mastering pro version, black only. The price is $1,595 for either DAC. Per all Mytek products, it was designed by Jurewicz; it is manufactured in Poland.
  The “preamp” audiophile version features an array of inputs: AES/EBU, SPDIF coaxial, USB-1 (up to 24/96, no driver needed for computer), USB 2 (up to 24/192, DSD-128, Mytek driver needed), TOSlink, Firewire (24/192, DSD-128), and analog stereo RCA. Outputs include unbalanced RCA analog and XLR balanced analog. It also includes a word clock input and output. It will play up to 24-bit/192 sample rate PCM from all inputs (except USB 1), and DSD on PCM (DoP) and DSD native files from a computer via USB 2.
  The “mastering” version operates the same as the preamp version, but eschews analog inputs for SDIF Left and Right DSD inputs, so it can work with pro-caliber DSD gear including TASCAM’s popular DVRA1000-HD player/recorder. The mastering and black preamp versions contain a PCM and DSD four-segment stereo level display, while the silver preamp model does not.
  Both versions utilize the ESS Sabre 32-bit DAC, a premium DAC chip that is becoming more common in hi-end. Benchmark, Resonessence, and Oppo offer the chip in their flagship products. From my perspective as an audiophile and pro gear user, and as a reviewer, the ESS DACs have brought a wholesale improvement in the “smoothness” factor of PCM DACs. That harsh stridency that has always been a chink in the PCM armor is basically nill with the ESS Sabre DACs. They are indeed the most analog sounding of the DACs that I have heard.


Audio D/A Converter
Mytek Stereo192-DSD Preamp version for audiophiles


  Both Mytek Stereo192-DSDs also sport a number of useful and audible options including 192 kHz upsampling PCM, adjustable PCM filter, adjustable DSD filter, analog volume control and a digital 32-bit volume control path, as well as signal bypass/adjustable gain. The Mytek also sports a sample rate display, as well as function status and numerical volume status. The mastering version adds level meters.
  I appreciate the sample rate display, but I would really like to see the inclusion of a word-length indicator — like the Benchmark DAC2-HGC. When working with computers, it is useful to know the PC’s entire digital output signal status. Sometimes you think you are getting 24-bit audio because the playback software was used to select bit rate, as well as the sample rate. However, I have found that on an Apple computer, the default system audio setting is often at 16-bit/44.1 kHz, regardless of what the playback software setting says. The word-length indicator enables an instant bit status snapshot so you’ll know whether you need to make an adjustment on the computer to get the full-res output. Mytek says that it is possible to add the word-length function in later firmware revisions.
  With a plethora of software features, the Mytek requires an initial learning curve to setup, but it is intuitive and easy to remember. To toggle through the settings, you first push Menu, then you rotate the onboard volume control to select the menu item. You then push the volume control, and rotate again for the options in that menu item. The adjustable options include Input (USB 1, USB, 2, TOSlink, AES/EBU, Firewire and either Analog or SDIF, depending on the version. Other selectable options include Filter PCM (sharp or slow) Filter DSD (50-, 60-, 70-kHz LPF), Volume Control (analog, digital, bypass) Volume Trim (-14 to -17 dB or disable) Function 1 and Function 2 (programmable assignments for input assignment, mute, phase, mono, L-R, mid-side, volume dim).
  The Mytek software allows for Remote Assignment (for optional remote), Display options (brightness in four levels, meters on/off and meters auto/off 5 sec., 10 sec. or 20 sec.) and Firmware Restore. The level meters do not work when playing DSD.
  The SPDIF, TOSlink, AES and ADAT Inputs allow selectable word clock frequency (44.1 kHz to 192 kHz). The SDIF inputs sport three submenus, rate (64 or 128 oversampling), sync, and mode (SDIF-3, Raw).
  With computer playback compatibility, the Mytek web site features specific software to enable synchronization and control of the DAC for Firewire and USB connections. There is also a downloadable Mytek Stereo192-DSD computer control panel that allows selection of the input Bus, sample rate and sync source and monitoring the status of the playback. The software was very easy to install and worked perfectly on the Apple laptop.


SDIF inputs:
Mastering version

  The volume control choice: digital or analog, is a useful feature of the Mytek Stereo192-DSD. If you select analog, the user can assign one volume control path for the headphone output and one for the main output. Selecting digital routes all outputs through the digital audio path.
  Mytek’s use of the ESS Sabre 32-bit DAC chip makes this a thoroughly modern and up-to-date converter. The chip’s eight mono channels to two channel architecture, plus low-jitter clock is said to offer state-of-the-art sound from any source. Rated signal-to-noise on the DAC is better than -120 dB!
  High-end analog components also are designed into the DAC. Low-distortion metal resistors, metal caps in the analog input stage, low-z caps throughout, and high-current headphone stage all contribute to the pristine sound quality, either through line out or the headphone jack.
  The ability to play native and DoP DSD is a big plus in my book, so I picked the right Mytek DAC192-DSD DAC to review — the “mastering" version with SDIF inputs. Because I record a lot with the professional (but easily available to audiophile recordists) TASCAM DVRA-1000 HD, which records DSD (and PCM), the Mytek is a breath of fresh air as a DSD-monitoring DAC.
At $1,595, the Mytek’s utility and audio quality make it a bargain buy compared to DACs or high-end player/DAC combos at twice the price. We have, of course, given it our Stellar Sound Award.

  The onboard DSD DAC is good on the TASCAM, but the Mytek DSD playback moves up another couple of levels in terms of opening up the stereo image and hearing fine detail of high-res DSD. The DSD-on-PCM processing opens up the world of DSD to computer users. The DoP scheme allows download services, such as Blue Coast and 2L, to upload DSD files (the same one-bit encoded music format that is used for encoding SACDs) that are downloaded to a computer.
  The DoP files are encoded onto a 24-bit/176 kHz PCM signal, so they can be output via the computer to a compatible DAC, usually through USB or Firewire output. The DoP audio is not DSD-to-PCM conversion, such as is processed through such programs as Korg’s AudioGate. The DoP files are genuine, native DSD that are piggybacked on the PCM signal, which makes it more computer friendly. Music distributors provide the DSD download music, and software players, such as Pure Music, Audirvana and JRiver enable the files to be played from the computer to a compatible external DAC, like the Mytek.
  Pure Music and JRiver also allow the converted DoP files to be saved as export files that can be played from any PCM device that supports 24/176 PCM output, as long as they are connected to a compatible DAC. For example, you can drag a Pure Music DoP file to a USB stick and play it back through an Oppo player connected to the Mytek or other DoP compatible DAC such as the Benchmark DAC2-HGC. Pretty darn slick. By the way, Mytek has nice software setup guide on its web site that walks Mytek DAC owners through the various DSD/PCM playback software players for computer audio.

The setup
  I matched the Mytek Stereo192-DSD to several of my reference components, including the new Oppo BDP-105 and BDP-95 universal players, both of which use the same ESS Sabre 32 chip. I also connected it to the aforementioned TASCAM DVRA1000-HD, Apple Macbook Pro, Sony PCMD1 and TASCAM DR-100 Mk II handheld portable recorder/players, and an old professional Sony DAT machine (remember those) to see how well it handled old 16-bit recordings.
  Besides listening through the onboard headphone amp, the Mytek Stereo192-DSD balanced and unbalanced outputs were connected to a Bryston BHA-1 discrete headphone amp, and a Coda preamplifier that fed a Pass Labs X350.5 amplifier. Speaker listening was courtesy of the fantastic Martin Logan Montis electrostatics (review coming very soon). All components were AC connected via Essential Sound Products Essence II power cords and power strip. Interconnects included WireWorld digital cable and Alpha-Core solid-silver analog interconnects and speaker cable.
  Besides the typical DAC digital connections, I also used a Kanex Pro HDMI de-embedder and a WireWorld HDMI cable to route full-res audio from the Oppo’s HDMI output to the Mytek — in order to play converted DSD-to-PCM music tracks from commercial SACDs. The Oppo converts DSD to PCM via the HDMI only. The de-embedder allows the end users to tap into the DSD stream via onboard player conversion to PCM.

The audition
  I had high expectations for the Mytek Stereo192-DSD, and it sure lived up to those high standards. With various 24-bit music files, I immediately noticed the enhanced accuracy and depth of detail over previous Mytek DACs. And true to form, the ESS Sabre D/A’s smooth signature made the audio texture much more “analog” in its sonic gradient. The old PCM sound often contained a harsh artifact that lingered in varying degrees with successive generations of PCM converters, since their rise in popularity in the 1990s. However, the latest converters, like the Mytek and the Benchmark DAC2-HGC, have overcome that hard edge sound.

With various 24-bit music files, I immediately noticed the enhanced accuracy and depth of detail over previous Mytek DACs. And true to form, the ESS Sabre D/A’s smooth signature made the audio texture much more “analog” in its sonic gradient.

  I listened to numerous hi-res cuts, via the Mytek, and was impressed by its wide open stage with l expanded inner detail; yet that smooth accuracy made the music much easier to listen to. Even more, processed pop music benefitted from the DAC's signature. On the Natalie Merchant - Tigerlily DVD-A, the song "Carnival," has a well recorded drum set, and with good players and converters; the drum cymbals emerge out of the busy mix with that realistic metallic sheen intact. Yet, it does not sound overly brash; the drums sound like drums. And though the recording gets dense when the vocal bridge and the lead guitar crank up a bit, the converter keeps the separate elements from being too mushed.
  On the Yes - Fragile DVD-A, Steve Howe’s wonderfully recorded “Mood For A Day” classical guitar interlude, recorded in stereo, gets a broad presentation through the Mytek — with all the nuance of string squeaks and the player’s breathing coming through with precision. I could hear it clearly through line-outs or the Mytek headphone amp.
  After listening to a dozen or so high-resolution recordings, my opinion started to solidify with the Mytek. On the DAC signature scale — from the warm and reserved to the energetic and lively  — the Mytek sits squarely in the middle. It is ultra, analog smooth, but it also is analytical — opening up the nuances of percussion, room reverb, string harmonics, and upper register piano. In reality, it is quite neutral in its conversion from digital to analog and ultimate transmission of its line and headphone signal. And isn’t that what we are searching for when it comes to music listening — as close to live as possible? The Mytek does it well.
  This quality also benefits lesser resolution recordings. On some 1990s 16-bit DAT recordings of a jazz band and a bluegrass band, the Mytek Stereo192-DSD breathed a bit of freshness to these 20-year old, direct-to-DAT music files. I had stopped using these tapes as reference listening since the harshness always bothered me versus better 24-bit recordings. But with the Mytek, they were way more listenable. Newer generations of DACs show that the A/Ds of yesterday were better than we thought. As a PCM DAC, Mytek is in the top echelon of today’s D/As.


Mytek handles DSD, PCM from PC/Mac

  The DSD playback is just as impressive. The warm, easy-to-listen to nature of DSD exudes from the Mytek Stereo192-DSD, yet all the fine detail and accurate tonal balance remain. On a DSD dub of the Anthony Wilson - Our Gang SACD, played from the TASCAM DVRA-1000 via the SDIF inputs, the jazz trio presents a live, warm, sonic portrait of a classic jazz ensemble with a mixture of originals and classic tunes, such as "Chitlins Con Carne." With the better DACs, the warm, plump character of the Hammond organ is balanced by the dynamic percussion and expert jazz guitar playing by Mr. Wilson. The recording is outstanding via the Mytek; the analog warmness does not obscure the note picking or the expansive sonics of the drums — especially the close-up recording of the cymbals.
  On another set of SACD-to-TASCAM DSD dubs, the Allman Brothers - Live At Fillmore East and Eat A Peach, the live and studio tracks sounded fresh through the DAC. The acoustic guitar on "Melissa" is mixed prominently out front as is Gregg Allman’s bluesy vocal, on the DSD version, yet the rest of the band is perfectly placed in the stereo image. Even my Esoteric DV-50’s DSD playback, which I have used for reference for ten years, did not sound as good as the Mytek. See what a couple of generations of digital chip advances will do for your audio.
  On classical DSD, the DAC was just as strong as it was on jazz and pop. Janos Starker  The Bach Cello Suites, a  Mercury Living Presence SACD, poured out of the Martin-Logans with a realism you would not expect from analog tape recording from the 1960s. On the 2L Ole Bull violin concerto, the Mytek nails the full, rich violin string overtones and the open aural landscape of the orchestral parts. Just magnificent.
  I played some of my own original DSD recordings made live-to-two-track on the TASCAM DVRA-1000-HD and connected to the Mytek. On a bit of solo playing of my custom Gibson L5 and a Fender blackface Deluxe Reverb, mic’d in stereo, the playback had noticeably more dimension and presence in the treble than the stock TASCAM DSD playback. The TASCAM is a great recorder/player, but a standalone high-end DAC like the Mytek makes the system that much better.

 The DSD playback is just as impressive. The warm, easy-to-listen to nature of DSD exudes from the Mytek Stereo192-DSD, yet all the fine detail and accurate tonal balance remain.

  Since the Mytek Stereo192-DSD is well-equipped to handle computer audio via USB and FireWire, I played various tracks of my DSD dubs through a Macbook Pro using Audirvana playback software, which will playback high-res PCM and DSD via DOP. I used the Mytek software control panel to choose sample frequency, clock sync, etc. It was straightforward in operation and worked without a glitch. On DSD on PCM, the Audirvana program converts the DSD bitstream in real time to a hybrid DSD/PCM stream, with the DSD contained in the last eight bits of a 24-bit/176 kHz PCM carrier. That hybrid signal is then passed to the DAC, via USB or Firewire, which decodes the DSD.
  The DoP tracks also can be saved through Audirvana, Pure Music and JRiver computer playback software and then exported for play on another source. For example, the DoP files can be loaded onto a USB stick and played back from an outboard player to a DoP compatible DAC, such as the Mytek. I played DoP music from an Oppo BDP-95, BDP-105 and a Pioneer Elite BD-62 Elite universal player through the Mytek. Playing the entire Starker Bach Cello Suites from DoP files, via the USB stick plugged into the Oppo, it was kind of strange to see the player indicating 24/176 PCM, but trust me, the DAC only sees the pure DSD.

Operational ease
  From a function standpoint, the Mytek was easy to use and the onboard features were easy to access. I listened to both volume controls, digital and analog, and was quite happy. The analog was just slightly warmer, but the digital volume worked perfectly with my Class A FET amps. The Mytek manual says the digital volume measures better, but the analog sounds better. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I found myself using the digital quite a bit with outboard preamps, such as the FET-based Pass Labs XP-10 preamp that are a tinge warmer than Mytek’s analog output. Just my preference.
  The 24-bit/192 kHz upsampling feature worked well with old CDs, giving them just a bit more presence around the edges. For example, Til' Tuesday - Everything's Different Now CD benefitted immensely via the upsampling, bringing out the edges of the synth pop and drum machine percussion more than the standard setting.


An inside look at the Stereo192-DSD


  The Mytek Stereo192-DSD headphone amp is very good with a substantial degree of width and depth. My reference Bryston BHA-1 standalone headphone amp relayed just a bit more width than the onboard headphone amp, but the Mytek was not that far off. It also handled the high-impedance AKG K702 with no sweat.
  I only have one complaint with the Mytek DAC192-DSD — no word-length/bit indicator. I think every DAC with computer connection should have one. You can’t always trust that the computer is going to automatically spit out full res via USB or Firewire. When working with PCM music during this review, the Mac system settings would often default to 16-bit, 44/1 kHz sampling when I was playing a 24-bit file.
  With a bit status display, you know what your computer is outputting. Benchmark got wise and added a bit/sample rate display to their converter. I use a broadcast DAC, the ATI ADAC, just for that purpose. The six-year old A/D, D/A, SRC was built with a comprehensive bit/sample display that has become indispensable to me. I seldom listen to the ATI DAC, but I always monitor the display to make sure my music is at the max. Hopefully, Mytek can add the word length display feature in the near future.

The verdict
  On a scale of 1 to 10, the Mytek is a 9+; if it had the bit display, I would give it a 10. The mastering version I tested had all the right features for rack component playback or streaming high-res from my trusty Macbook Pro. Audio from the headphone amp or the outputs was top-notch. Like the new Benchmark, the use of the ESS Sabre 32 chip in the Mytek brings more clarity, yet ratchets up the smoothness quotient by a factor of four.
  I highly recommend the Mytek DAC192-DSD to any user: pro or home music lover. Its got the necessary bells and whistles, as well as state-of-the-art sonics. If you like the DSD inputs, then the mastering version is your choice. The preamp version, with a set of analog RCA inputs, is for those who want to use it as a DAC and as their primary preamp. At $1,595, the Mytek’s utility and audio quality make it a bargain buy, compared to DACs or high-end player/DAC combos at twice the price. We have, of course, given it our Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.

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