Unit was purchased at retail price from a dealer. Resolution Audio provided technical information for the purpose of this review, but I only used it where relevant while noting it as such.
I wasn’t looking for a new DAC. In fact, I’ve been perfectly happy with my Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2, and loved its performance. It was when I visited my local Leben dealer that I heard the Cantata; he had set it up as a source for the CS-300XS audition. Having brought along material with which I was familiar, I immediately noticed quite a difference in the way it sounded – deeper, wider, more organic, quite analog-like. Intrigued, I asked more about the unit, and took it home for a longer term audition and to put it head-to-head with my DAC-2. It didn’t take long, not even a few hours, to make it clear to me that there was absolutely no way I was going to let this one go. I contacted my dealer, and he ordered me a unit, while being kind enough to let me keep his demo until mine would come in.
I felt a bit deflated when I received the Cantata – I was greeted by a lovely wood crate which to my instincts could only contain some fine Bordeaux, sent to me as a surprise. Unscrewing the hinged top revealed not some gently dusted bottles, but rather foam inserts swaddling the Cantata itself. At the bottom lay a cardboard box with the manual, cables and remote control. All the contents seem to have endured the shipping process with no apparent issues.
The Cantata is one massive slab of precision-machined aluminum on top, on which all the boards and components are affixed, and a bottom cover made of sheet metal. The aluminum is also acting as a heat sink, and the unit will sound best once it gets uniformly warm.
The supplied remote is a cheap plastic number, forgettable but functional. I didn’t even put the batteries in, as I am using the Cantata iOS app to remotely control over WiFi (prerequisite, of course, being that the Cantata is connected to the home network).
In real use it looks visually appealing, with the large dot-matrix display easily readable from across the room at the default medium brightness. There are 3 brightness levels, plus one completely off.
One issue, right out the box, involved the CD transport. The slot-loading transport struggled to properly catch the CD, requiring manual push-in almost to the point of complete insertion (despite the servo actuating much sooner). Resolution Audio was very responsive, and has sent a replacement CD transport for in-field replacement. They also offered to repair the defective one and return to me as a spare (which I declined). It is reassuring knowing that the company fully stands behind their products.
The Cantata accepts USB (async, 24/192), USB-over-Ethernet (async, 24/96 as of the time of the review), AES, coax and toslink. It also has connectivity to their C50 amplifier, in which case the Cantata will act as the controlling unit.
Outputs are offered both single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR). More on these outputs later in this review.
Power is via a 15-amp power cord, with a mains switch also present on the back. Unit standby can be controlled from the front panel.
Resolution Audio specifies that the Cantata can be used on a wired network or in a setup involving wireless bridges. My initial configuration included 2 wireless bridges: from the NAS to the router, and from the router to the music playing computer (all wireless-N). From there it was wired Ethernet to the Cantata. This is similar to a diagram published on their site, so I was within design specs.
However, in real life, I experienced a lot of drop-outs and intermittent distortion to the sound. Stopping the playback and then restarting it would generally solve the issue, albeit temporarily. It was so bad, at one point we even considered exchanging the Pont Neuf USB to Ethernet adapter. Being familiar with networking due to my profession, I opted instead to change from wifi bridges to wired LAN in the entire house. Once this was completed, all the issues disappeared. Gone were the dropouts, the distortions. I could go back to actually enjoying the music.
ON THE INSIDE
Once the bottom panel is removed, a well-machined shell holds all the components nicely separated, both physically and electrically. Each major module has its own power supply, and the DAC is fully floated.
Legend to layout (Steve Huntley of Resolution Audio contributed to the list below):
- SATA connector for transport (modified Pioneer slot load drive)
- High speed input board (24/192k capable)
- Digital Signal Processing (DSP) section (computer audio input signals from high speed board are completely isolated with special magnetic isolators)
- DAC (floated) and analog output section
- Standby circuit
- Digital supply transformer
- Main logic board
- High speed input board transformer
- DSP section transformer
- Analog stage transformer
- Display module
The DAC and output implementation in more detail
When talking with Steve regarding the DAC design, he mentioned their belief that a Burr-Brown 1704 configuration of two per channel, in full differential mode, offered the best sound currently available. By locating the clock in close proximity to the DAC chips, jitter is extremely low and noise is kept off timing lines by careful circuit board design.
The output stage is SMD with a Burr-Brown instrumentation amplifier for current-to-voltage. I would like to point out that instrumentation amplifiers (not to be confused with operational amplifiers) are differential amplifiers with buffered inputs; some of the inherent benefits include low noise and drift, as well as excellent accuracy – another common implementation for instrumentation amplifiers is in testing equipment. Volume control is performed by a Burr-Brown analog control IC (with relay bypass at 100% level), and discrete transistors drivers feed balanced output drivers.
One noteworthy item is that the Cantata has both balanced (XLR) and single-ended outputs (RCA), which are independently buffered and hence can be used at the same time without degrading overall output quality. In my particular case this came in rather handy, as I have my headphone amplifier connected to the RCAs and a speaker amp to the XLRs.
NAS > Mac Mini (BitPerfect and/or Amarra, 16/44 Apple Lossless) > Resolution Audio Pont Neuf USB to Ethernet adapter > Wired Cat 5e LAN > Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center > Wireworld Eclipse 6 RCA Interconnects (1 meter) > Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire (Siemens E88CC gold pin) > Q Audio headphone cable (9 ft.) > Audez’e LCD-2 Rev. 2. (and for the last impressions section, LCD-3)
All applicable power cables were Shunyata Research Venom 3 (1.5 meters), plugged into a Furman IT-Reference discrete symmetrical AC power isolation. I’m not a big believer in aftermarket power cables, but I listed them in case they help provide further context.
Domnerus Group / Jazz at the Pawnshop – K2 HD Mastering, 24k gold Ultimate Disc Collector’s Edition
Diana Krall / All for You
Pink Floyd / Delicate Sound of Thunder
Emiliana Torrini / Me And Armini
Gino Vannelli / Powerful People
Diana Krall / Stepping Out
Patricia Barber / Modern Cool
This is no regular CD transport; the drive is connected via SATA and the CD is buffered into memory as needed. The memory data is then error-checked, clocked, and passed on to the DAC. This means that once a CD is inserted, playback doesn’t start as quickly or silently as on a regular player. However, once the initial buffer is loaded, playback is very quiet and responsive.
The immediate reaction to the sound quality, to whomever I showed the Cantata, was that it was smooth, analog-like in a big way. Bass was deeper and tighter than on the Wyred DAC-2, and the overall sound envelope had a very detailed presentation.
The Cantata is not a device with a noticeable burn-in progress. In fact, the most noticeable change is from cold to uniformly warm to the touch at the top, which generally occurs within 30 minutes. Once I became aware of this aspect, I did all critical listening after about 1 hour of warm-up. Don’t get me wrong, it sounds excellent right off standby, but it gets that special character after it becomes ever so slightly warm. The immediate thing that comes to mind is a swirling glass nicely cupped in one’s hands holding some fine cognac. Akin to the spirit releasing aroma once warmed up, the Cantata rendered some of the finest mids I’ve ever heard. Matched with the Liquid Fire amp and the LCD-2, attack had an unmistakable punch, cymbals were crisp and clean, while vocals were textured yet lush in the finest way.
Of note: Emiliana Torrini’s “Birds” from “Me and Armini” had an inaudible but vibrant thump, some of the deppest vibrations I’ve heard on a recording. The Wyred DAC-2 rendered it just as plenty, but by a hair perhaps the Cantata beat it in terms of timing. Patricia Barber’s “Constantinople” from “Modern Cool” had very good transient response, rich and fast rendering of upright bass bowing. “Light my Fire” from the same album showcased her lower register singing in a velvety-smooth way, with just the right amount of grit. Think Mollydooker’s Carnival of Love Shiraz, 2005 vintage, if you’ve had it, but in terms of vocals. Lovely.
Not very much has changed, so I’m passing this step with a note to give it some more time.
The sound has settled in by now, though the difference is nowhere near how the Wyred DAC-2 sounded after 150 hours – its improvement was dramatic. Everything is a bit clearer, wider and deeper.
Having received my Audez’e LCD-3 phones, subsequent notes reflect this particular model.
The presentation has a three-dimensionality to it that has to be heard. Mere words don’t do it justice, and I struggle to find the proper way to convey the feeling without sounding like a marketing machine for Resolution. The instrument separation and placement are simply outstanding, and the timing of the sound envelope is about as fast as I’ve heard. Attacks are crisp and textured, not at all merged acoustically, and decay fades into a very black background. Of note in this regard is the ending of Gino Vannelli’s “Lady” from “Powerful People”.
One very positive aspect of the Cantata is the ability to combine surgical precision with a fluid, organic sound. Yes, it does present details quickly and accurately, but never at the expense of losing sight of the musical whole. On Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (opening song from “Delicate Sound of Thunder”), the cascade of chimes was about the most detailed and with the greatest separation that I’ve ever heard. Adding weight is the fact that their level is rather low and yet they were resolved properly against the rest of the material. The song is much layered and I’ve clearly heard detail that was at best obfuscated and at worst not noticeable when playing on my previous setup. On the same album, the beginning of “Learning to Fly” had very tight and precise rumble and bottom, despite the whole album not being what I consider a recording of great quality.
Diana Krall’s “Jimmie” from “Stepping out” has my reference bowed cello sound, and the Cantata didn’t disappoint in presenting it with life-like detail. The drum entrance had crisp attack and a delicious body.
DIRECT COMPARISON WITH WYRED 4 SOUND DAC-2
I realize this is a bit apples-to-oranges, given the significant price difference, but in my opinion the DAC-2 is just a fantastic DAC and can easily play in a league above its price point. Besides, I’ve owned it for quite a while and am thus very familiar with it. The Cantata improves over the DAC-2 by a very noticeable but not dramatic margin; the law of diminishing returns is in full force sound-wise, and as far as features are concerned, it’s a toss-up as outlined below:
Feature advantage of the DAC-2 over the Cantata
- More inputs
- Configurable DAC parameters
- Small footprint
- Can stack other components on top of the unit
Feature advantage of the Cantata over the DAC-2
- Can act as a USB DAC regardless of distance (still within Ethernet cable run specs), as long as it’s on the same network as the USB-to-Ethernet adapter.
- Has a built-in CD transport
- Can use both RCA and XLR outputs at the same time without sound quality degradation
- Has a remote control iOS app
The Cantata Music Center offers a very elegant file-based music solution, as the USB-over-Ethernet implementation allows the computer playing music to be located in another room (in my case, it’s on another floor altogether). Thus, the listening environment can be entirely devoid of computer-related noise (fans, or, in case a hard drive is used as opposed to SSD, disk access clicks). If said computer happens to be an apple product, iTunes can be controlled from an iPad acting as not only a remote, but also to display album art and track progress. Add to this a sleuth of Internet Radio stations and one has a limitless music library in a minimalist and visually elegant set up in the listening room.
Is the Cantata system worth its asking price of around $6.5k? There certainly are other well-respected DACs that can be had in this range, such as Weiss, Berkeley Alpha et al. I haven’t heard the Berkeley, but have auditioned a Weiss DAC202 and while its output was superb, to my ears the Cantata offered a more organic presentation. Again, we’re talking about minute differences in the direction of presentation; none of these DACs can be said to sound worse than the other. It’s one’s Pauillac to another one’s Margaux.
Edited by mwilson - 12/8/11 at 1:54pm