Art DI/O review and comparison (LONG)
Apr 30, 2002 at 12:16 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 17

dhwilkin

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[size=small]Introduction[/size]
Yea, my first full, feature-length review!
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This will be a review of the Art DI/O DAC, and how it compares to the MSB Link DAC II. It's a bit long, so get settled in. Sheesh, now I know why it takes jude has to keep revising his review schedule, this took awhile.

[size=small]Looks[/size]
Physically, the DI/O does not seem very audiophile-ish. It's quite small, looks unremarkable and busy, due to all the text covering it, and is very light. If you have heavy cables, be careful using them w/ the DI/O, they might pull it onto the floor.
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In contrast, the MSB looks very classy. Sparce, but elegant lettering, nice finish, and feels very sturdy.

The DI/O is rather infamous for being a quirky unit. One of these quirks is difficulty getting a lock on the signal from the transport. I did not have much trouble w/ this issue, and when it occurred, either cycling through the synch modes or powering off/on the DI/O took care of the issue quickly enough. Of course, the MSB has no such problems.

[size=small]Notes:[/size]
- MSB has been heavily modded by Dan Wright
- DI/O has been heavily modded (basically the same mods as offered by Bolder Cables), and uses the Stancor PS
- Used w/ BPT Jr. balanced power unit (slightly reduced dynamics, but much smoother, slightly quieter sound)
- Base performance is w/ external synch; compared w/ 88.2 synch, which in turn is compared w/ heavily modded MSB Link DAC II
- Volume level-matching done by guesstimation
- Order of review is: DI/O w/ ext synch; DI/O w/ 88.2 synch; MSB
- If individual tracks are not noted for a test disc, assume that the comments hold true for all the tracks used from that disc
- At the start of each section for the DACs, I list my overall impressions for the DAC, and then list my impressions from each test disc.

[size=small]Associated Equipment[/size]
- Transport: Pioneer DV-343
- Amp: Headroom Max (old model) (mostly neutral, though highs are sligtly rolled-off, awesome bass control)
- Cables: Belden digital and IC (not the last word in any areas, but no real weaknesses, either; generally neutral)
- Headphones: Audio-Technica W2002 (tight & impactful bass, slightly cool midrange, nice highs, very resolving, smooth)
- Power Conditioner: B.P.T BP-Jr balanced power unit (makes background into blackground, does wonders for imaging and soundstaging and instrument/vocal separation) (Max and DAC are plugged in here)

[size=small]Test Discs[/size]
Here are the CDs I used to evaluate the DACs, along w/ what I was specifically looking for:

- Best of Slayers soundtrack (Disc 1, tracks 1-5): Vocal palpability, recording cohesiveness, microdynamics
- Nausicaa OST (tracks 1-3): Incredible recording, instrument decay, imaging/soundstaging
- Evangelion OST 1 (tracks 1-4): Very good recording, macrodynamics, a few pop songs and many symphonic songs
- Sarah McLachlan : Surfacing (tracks 1,7): Excellent recording, vocals, tonality, room ambience
- Stereophile Ultimate Demonstration Disc (tracks 3,9,13,15): So I have some faint hope that others have heard some of my test music
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)

[size=small]External Synch[/size]
- Cool mid-range
- Voices clear, usually realistic, but not always palpable
- Voices can blur together if already very close
- Not much room/ambience information
- Good macrodynamics
- Good microdynamics (instruments)
- Good instrument decay
- Good imaging
- Soundstage OK

Best of Slayers
- OK dynamics
- Bass not very impactful
- Megumi's voice clear, but not palpable
- Hard to hear Masami during duet portions

Nausicaa OST
- Track 1: Quiet bassline noticeable in background, cymbals have decent decay, piano keys are weighty and defined, tuba (?) has noticeable air pressure
- Track 2: Guitar in far back-left easily followed
- Track 3: Awesome sense of space (width and depth) w/ hand-drums in front (can follow hand-slaps) and harp (?) on right side very crisp

Evangelion OST
- Sound seems subdued (macrodynamics lacking)
- Guitars and string instruments blurring together slightly
- Instruments lack weight
- Voices not palpable

Sarah McLachlan
- Track 1: Nice microdynamics, can really hear Sarah's mouth and tongue move (realistic, defined, but not quite palpable and tonality isn't right)
- Track 7: Voice is warm and cool at the same time
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; hints of room ambience (voice echo)

Stereophile Ultimate Demonstration Disc
- Track 3: Another example of a voice being warm and cool at the same time, but the soul behind the voice is intact
- Track 9: Lead voice is clear and realistic, sometimes palpable; finger snaps seem a bit "plasticky"
- Track 13: Drums sound very real; cymbals have plenty of shimmer and decay; piano sound good, but not quite palpable
- Track 15: Saxophone has decent bite, decent amount of air

[size=small]88.1 sampling rate[/size]
- Cool mid-range
- Voices clear, usually realistic, but not always palpable
- Voices are distinct
- Very Good amount of room/ambience information
- Great macrodynamics
- Great microdynamics (instruments)
- Great instrument decay
- Very good imaging
- Very good soundstaging
- Quieter background noise level

Best of Slayers
- Increased dynamics
- Bass has more impact
- Better instrument clarity and defintion
= Good ambience information
- Noticeable improvement over External Synch

Nausicaa OST
- Track 1: Quiet bassline barely noticeable in background; cymbals have decent decay; piano keys slightly less defined; tuba (?) has more noticeable air pressure
- Track 2: Guitar in far back-left harder to follow, though seems more defined when it can be followed
- Track 3: Awesome sense of space (width and depth) w/ hand-drums in front (can follow hand-slaps); harp (?) on right side not only crisp, but can hear plucks and decays better

Evangelion OST
- Same comments as for Best of Slayers, removes all complaints except vocals are still not palpable

Sarah McLachlan
- Track 1: Sarah's voice tonality is much closer to what I expect; also more palpable
- Track 7: Again, Sarah's voice sounds more "right", if still a bit cool; much stronger sense of room ambience (voice echo)

Stereophile Ultimate Demonstration Disc
- Track 3: Voice is fuller, w/ more air; better sense of acoustics; differences in shakes more pronounced
- Track 9: Easier to hear distinct background vocals; finger snaps seem real, solid
- Track 13: Everything just sounds a little more real and distinct; piano now sounds right
- Track 15: Lots of air around the saxophone, great microdynamics

[size=small]MSB Link DAC[/size]
= Mid-range somewhat warm
- Impactful bass
- Great macrodynamics
- Decent microdynamics
- Images a little fuzzy
- Good vocal separation
- Palpable vocals

Best of Slayers
- Vocals warmer, more realistic, and palpable; easier to distinguish between Megumi and Masami during duets; more involving and weightier sound overall

Nausicaa OST
- Track 1: Quiet bassline noticeable in background, though easy to miss, and also has more weight; cymbals have good decay; piano keys defined but not as crisp; tuba (?) not very distinct
- Track 2: Guitar in far back-left easier to follow, though the image is somewhat blurry
- Track 3: Awesome sense of space (width and depth) w/ hand-drums in front, though hand-slaps not quite as distinct as 88.2 synch on DI/O; harp (?) on right side crisp, but can't really hear individual plucks and decay

Evangelion OST
- Vocals seem more palpable, warm, and involving; easier to hear breaths taken; basslines not quite as distinct, but slightly more impactful; brass instruments not quite as outlined w/ air pressure; very nice macrodynamics

Sarah McLachlan
- Track 1: Smoother sound, Sarah's voice tonality is warmer & more romantic; easier to hear Sarah take breaths; voice not quite as palpable; microdynamics need work
- Track 7: Again, Sarah's voice sounds a little too smooth, but the warmth is back; strong sense of room ambience (voice echo)

Stereophile Ultimate Demonstration Disc
- Track 3: Voice is warm, though less clear; imaging slightly blurred; differences in shakes discernable
- Track 9: All vocals distinct; vocals seem more natural and warm; finger snaps seem real, solid
- Track 13: Nice warmth; imaging is slightly blurry; less perceived energy
- Track 15: Nice warmth; slightly lacking in bite and air

[size=small]Conclusion[/size]
What we have here are two high-quality DACs, each of different character. Since I've already listed the relative nature of these characters, I will instead talk about what sort of system each seems best suited for. The MSB would be a great complement to a neutral system, or one w/ cool mid-range, where you want to warm vocals up. Might be a little too much warmth if you focus on instrumental pieces. String and percussion instruments may not be imaged as precisely as wanted. It will also be somewhat more forgiving of poor recordings, though not nearly on the same level as a classic tube amp. OTOH, I can see the DI/O being absolutely wonderful on a system that already has a little warmth. I don't think such a system would have any real weaknesses, except maybe digging a little too deep into really bad recordings. However, I must say that comment is only for the 88.2 synch setting. Just using external synch, I'd be more inclined to recommend the MSB.

Alas, I have something of a quandry. My system is on the cool side of neutral already, thanks to the W2002. While I really appreciate everything the DI/O does, I really miss the warmth in the vocals from the MSB. If I had that, I'd very likely keep the DI/O. I'm REALLY tempted to get a pair of Cardas Golden Reference interconnects, but I'd like a little assurance from those who have heard them coughJUDEcough that these very-expensive cables would likely accomplish my goal. Of course, that TwinHead is also beckoning, but I want a review or two on it before I try that route. Incidentally, vocals are wonderful when using my 580 w/ the DI/O, very close in tone to when I use the W2002 w/ the MSB, thus my theory of needing more warmth. The 580 and DI/O is a very good match.
 
Apr 30, 2002 at 3:16 AM Post #3 of 17

dhwilkin

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It was DIY, but not by me. I couldn't solder my way out of a wet paper bag.
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I purchased the modded unit from someone on Audiogon. Incidently, I was asked by this person to mention that the specific mods done have some influence on the mid-range balance. The mods I got leaned slightly to the cool side of neutral. I didn't know this at the time, but then again, I wouldn't have known what my system needed w/o trying a particular combination anyways.
 
Apr 30, 2002 at 4:22 AM Post #4 of 17

chych

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Which settings (colors on LEDs that is) is the 88.1 setting? I just run mine external synch to the DV343, the other modes seem to introduce hums in it (dio clock sucks I guess).

FWIW, when I had a stock MSB Link DAC II, the stock DIO was clearly an improvement over it.
 
Apr 30, 2002 at 4:03 PM Post #5 of 17

session76

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Chych,
look at the extreme left of the ART, there is a series of led's arrayed like a traffic light, under the words "Sample Rate"
88.1 is indicated by just the yellow led being on the one that says x1 and x2 next to it. On the top of the ART, there is a schematic indicating what the sampling frequency is at each combination of led's,

hope this helped.
 
Apr 30, 2002 at 4:09 PM Post #6 of 17

session76

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44.1khz 48khz 88.2khz 96khz EXt. Sync


0 x 0 x 0
0 0 x x 0
0 0 0 0 x

This is a copy of the diagram of led's on top of the ART
x equals the led being on and 0 equals the led being off.
 
Apr 30, 2002 at 9:29 PM Post #8 of 17

dhwilkin

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chych, 88.1 is a solid yellow on the middle LED, w/ the other two dark, and I never have any trouble w/ it. Are you using a base DI/O, and what digital cable are you using?

As for the MSB, I've never heard an un-modded MSB, but a fully-modded MSB is, IMHOAS, worthy competition for a modded DI/O using external synch. The MSB's faults are probably more noticeable (the blurry imaging being my chief complaint), but it's close enough. At 88.2, the DI/O starts pulling away in terms of performance, and things will come down to system synergy.

Also keep in mind that my MSB did not have the upsampling option. Of course, I doubt even that would fix the blurred images, and you'd be spending more than for a modded DI/O.
 
May 1, 2002 at 12:42 AM Post #9 of 17

Vertigo-1

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My DI/O is back. And it works...
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May 1, 2002 at 9:58 AM Post #10 of 17

Vertigo-1

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dhwilkin, how much did your DI/O change after the 150 hrs of burn in? Was it a night and day difference?
 
May 1, 2002 at 5:47 PM Post #11 of 17

dhwilkin

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Well, I didn't listen to it long enough at the beginning to really say. Actually, I only listened long enough to confirm it was working before leaving it alone to burn-in. There's definitely some changes, I'm just not sure how big they were. Sort-of reminded me of the W2002, in that they both started out bright and bass-shy, but settled down nicely.
 
May 1, 2002 at 10:55 PM Post #13 of 17

chych

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dhwilkin, I'm using an unmodded DIO (tweaked though) with a Zucable Firemine digital IC (not like it makes a difference, pah!). X2 mode introduces a "steel" hum, though only noticable if I increase the volume quite a bit. Also there is a little bit of distortion in the bass area in this mode. Ext sync work better for me... I also do not notice much of a sound difference between the two modes anyway.
 
May 2, 2002 at 2:11 AM Post #14 of 17

Vertigo-1

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Quote:

Vert- so you like the DIO sound more than straight out of the 9000ES?


Funny, I actually asked that question about burn in changes because I'm wondering if it's even worth waiting for burn in to happen before ditching it...
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May 2, 2002 at 3:16 AM Post #15 of 17

dhwilkin

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Quote:

chych said...

dhwilkin, I'm using an unmodded DIO (tweaked though) with a Zucable Firemine digital IC (not like it makes a difference, pah!).


Yeah, you keep on telling yourself that.
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Now Vert, be fair. At least let it burn-in for a few days, and also try the 88.2 rate. Also, you don't have that Stancor PS, do you? It also makes a noticeable difference. I have a feeling your mind's already made up, but don't give up on it yet.
 

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