Sugg. Retail: $799.00 (CAN)
Distributor: Evolution Group, A.C Simmonds & Sons LTD,
580 Granite Court, Pickering Ont, L1W 3Z4
(905) 839-8041 FAX 839-2667
(Reprinted from the Summer 99 Audio Ideas Guide)
When Audio Alchemy closed its doors several years ago many young and budding audiophiles felt as though they had lost a friend. During the early to mid nineties the company’s name became synonymous with high quality seperates at entry level prices. Armed with a dizzyingly large and diverse artillery of products (in hindsight maybe a little too large and diverse for their own good) Audio Alchemy gave legions of consumers a point of entry into high end equipment they might not otherwise have been interested in or able to afford. Not only did their stuff sound great for the money, it was extremely modular, allowing inexpensive, step by step upgrades. Most importantly, it was fun. For a few hundred bucks you could improve your existing transport with a little outboard DAC, then take the next step with a jitter reduction box, later you could upgrade the transport, and then pick up an external power supply to run all three pieces. In short, you could have all the fun of being a compulsive audiophile at a fraction of the cost.
With Audio Alchemy gone a void was left in the industry. Not only was it that much harder to get high performance entry level equipment, the industry as a whole lost one of its most effective recruiters, few companies being as successful in turning neophytes into hopelessly addicted audiophiles. Thankfully that void has started to fill with companies like Musical Fidelity introducing their X-Series line of small, modular components. Entech is the latest player in this area of the market, offering a small but growing line of two DACs and an audio/video input source selector.
While you may never have heard of this new company they’re no basement operation, possessing both the design talent to make great electronics and the infrastructure and experience to sell them. A division of cable giant Monster Cable, Entech (short for Entertainment Technologies) is headed by designer/engineers Peter Madnick (co-founder of Audio Alchemy), Richard Marsh (inventor of the Multicap, among many other things) and Demian Martin (co-founder of Spectral Audio). If you were a company hoping to pick up where Audio Alchemy left off it would be hard to assemble a better team.
Of Entech’s two DACs the Number Cruncher 205.2 is the more expensive and sophisticated. It’s bigger too, housed in a stylish 8″ x 6″ silver anodized aluminum chassis, a couple of inches deeper than its little brother, the 203.2 ($299 US — Pictured above). While both share the same critical parts, including the Crystal CS4329 delta sigma 20 bit DAC chips and Crystal CS8412 data receiver and jitter filter, the 205.2 incorporates switching capabilities and a Burr-Brown 5 pole anti alias filter which the 203.2 does not (the 203.2 uses a 3 pole version of the same filter). Its switching capbilities make the 205.2 an ideal companion to a multi-source digital syste, providing front panel selection between one optical (toslink) and two coaxial digital inputs. Unlike it’s smaller brother the 205. also has a front panel phase inversion switch. Unfortunately, being a push button toggle switch and unlabelled, it’s impossible to know whether you’re listening to inverted or normal polarity.
Other internal highlights include a sophisticated voltage regulation system using six independent voltage regulators and “audiophile grade” Nichicon MUSE low impedance electrolytic capacitors and 1% metal film resistors and film capacitors throughout. Like it’s competitors, and most components this size for that matter, the 205.2 uses an outboard “wall-wart” DC power supply to deliver the juice.
Once the 205.2 had been powered up and used off and on in the system for a couple of weeks I sat down to do some serious comparative listening to it. I started with what I thought would be it’s easiest test (and one of it’s most common applications) by using it with an aging Pioneer CLD-3090 Laserdic transport. Once again my Audio Alchemy DLC preamp proved an invaluable reviewing resource, allowing me to perform instantaneous, level matched comparisons between the Pioneer’s built-in DAC and the Number Cruncher. What I noticed first was that the output of the 205.2 (fed by the optical output of the Pioneer) was 3 db hotter than the analogue out of the 3090. In fact, the Number Cruncher was consistently about 3db louder than anything I compared it to, making unmatched comparisons extremely misleading. If you’re auditioning the 205.2 in your own system or at a store make sure you’re doing level-matched comparisons or the Entech is going to be a consistent winner in terms of dynamics, detail, and involvement simply because it’s likely to be playing louder than the reference.
Even with the playing field leveled, however, it still wasn’t much of a contest. A little long in the tooth to be sparring with this digital up and comer the Pioneer went down hard in the first round. The knockout punch? Resolution, plain and simple. While I listened to lots of CDs through the Entech, I’ve found that Patricia Barber’s “Ode to Billy Joe” from Cafe Blue is an extremely telling digital workout for CD players and DACs, the general ambience and especially the attack and decay of the constant snaps really testing a component’s resolving prowess. The Entech passed this test beautifully, pulling significantly more information out of the bitstream than the Pioneer could on its own. This made for more air, more detail, greater recovery of ambient information, and a generally livelier and more musical sound. Sounding hashy and dull by comparison the Pioneer’s DACs couldn’t compete with the Entech’s smoother highs, firmer bass and more expansive and believable soundstage. When comparing DACs such differences are often extremely subtle, making it a challenge to be able to consistently identify them. In this case it was abundantly clear that the 205.2 had wrought some pretty dramatic improvements over the Pioneer’s internal DACs, saving the machine from the steaming pit of obselescence and making it part of great sounding digital system.
Of course the 205.2 is also intended to be used with the exploding number of DVD players out there, which, especially with second generation units, are using significantly more advanced digital technology than was available when the Pioneer CLD-3090 was designed. In fact, many of these new players (like the Panasonic DVD-L10 and the Pioneer DV-09) have turned out to be sleeper CD players, their 24 bit, 96 Khz DACs often outperforming single-box “audiophile” players costing significantly more. Conveniently I just happened to have perhaps the most surprising sleeper of them all, the Samsung DV-905, on hand for comparison.
A second generation player using 24/96 DACs the Samsung is a great sounding CD player, capable of producing a surprisingly delicate and airy sound. It’s also possesses amazing soundstaging and imaging abilities, qualities which belie its mass market heritage and mid-market price. Direct comparison between the Samsung’s analogue outs and it’s digital output feeding the 205.2 (using spdif/coax connection this time) was no night and day affair this time. Working my way through five or six CDs it became increasingly difficult to tell the two apart (after level matching of course), both machines benefiting from the smoothness and detail of high resolution converters. I thought the Samsung on its own did a better job of portraying the space on acoustic recordings, throwing a wider, deeper and more believable soundstage than the Number Cruncher. The Entech, however, did seem a little more focused at times, having a touch more transient bite and a slightly more up front character which made the Samsung’s DACs seem laid-back by comparison. Both machines gracefully tackled the midrange, the Entech again sounding a little more up front with a smidge more inner detail (especially on vocals). The 205.2 had a slight edge when it came to the lower octaves too, producing slightly tighter bottom end than the Samsung could on its own. If your musical tastes favor rock, pop, and jazz or you feel that your system already sounds a touch too laid back, the 205.2 might be an excellent match, its sound more lively than luscious.
In all fairness these differences were pretty slight relative to the Entech versus the Pioneer CLD-3090. Much less a case of clear superiority, the differences were subtle and largely subjective, something which attests to the surprising quality of the DACs in second generation DVD players. If you already own a DVD player equipped with 24/96 DACs then the 205.2 is not likely to bring about a substantial improvement in performance (keep in mind of course that I’m basing this on the wonderful sound I’ve heard from second generation players like the Samsung, the Panasonic DVD-A310 and DVD-L10, and the Pioneer DV-09. Just because your DVD player has 24/96 DACs is certainly no guarantee of superior sound, but, from what AM and I have heard so far, it’s a trend that’s impossible to ignore).
If you have a first generation DVD player or some older digital gear you want to bring up to speed, however, putting a Number Cruncher downstream of it could be just the ticket, offering an easy upgrade to near high end digital at a killer price. The Entech could also be considered an elegant and thrifty temporary measure, taking over digital conversion duties until high resolution digital is a viable alternative (which, if there’s a format war between DVD-Audio and Sony/Phillips’ SACD, could be good long while). Those already equipped with high end digital systems also might want to consider a Number Cruncher as an excellent upgrade to a secondary bedroom/office/cottage system.
If you don’t need the switching capabilities and are willing to sacrifice the 5 pole anti alias filter for the 3 pole you can have pretty much the same DAC, the 203.2, for only $299 US, a price which brings you firmly into market territory once dominated by Audio Alchemy’s Dac in the Box. In fact, having been designed largely by Audio Alchemy co-founder Peter Madnick, the 203.2 is the DITB’s most natural successor. Judging by the sound of its bigger brother it could be just as successful, the 205.2 clearly outperforming the venerable DITB (which I also had on hand for comparison) in every sonic respect. Now if Entech would only come up with a power supply upgrade, oh, and maybe a jitter filter, and hey, it’d be great to have a matching transport, and maybe some….