20 November, 2015

Review: Weiss Minerva vs Sparkler S306 vs Sony BDP-S190

Review: Weiss Minerva vs Sparkler S306
Review: Sparkler S306, Part I
Review: Sony BDP-S190, Part II
Talk Digital: Non-Oversampling

Revised January 13, 2016 (added Caveats of Blue Ray Player as Transport, and Sparkler S306 warm up time)

For Review: Sparkler S306, Part II, please click here.

As I continue to simplify my already simple enough system at my current abode (last iteration here), I temporarily retired my Micromega system. For CD transport I fell back on my trusted and humble Sony Blue Ray Player, BDP-S190, which can also play Blue Ray Audio discs, of course. I installed the Sparkler S306 DAC and did a comparison with my shidi Andrew's Weiss Minerva. This report is long overdue. There is a lesson here relevant to my last article on HiFi Basics.

Weiss Minerva
As CAS hit its stride, DAC's underwent a renaissance, with 24/192 capable ones leading the "Hi-Res" "revolution". In the USD 1K category, Benchmark arguably led the pack in widespread acceptance (I personally find it a little lacking in musicality). Price-wise, between the Benchmark and more rarefied stuff like dCS came Weiss, which was quite successful (especially in Asia) in marketing its Minerva (and then the very similar DAC202/DAC2).

Minerva employed a DICE chip for Firewire and used isolation input transformers. DAC appears to be ESS Sabre.

One interesting bit: since Weiss, with its professional roots, has always emphasized so-called "science", almost all the reviews of the Minerva (HiFi News, computeraudiophile, positivefeedback, 6moons) only employed CAS. Only one of these reviews (6moons) even bothered to try the coaxial input with a CD transport, finding it inferior in resolution. There lies a problem, as we shall see later.

Previous Experience I have heard the Minerva, and its closely related successors, DAC202/DAC2, on many occasions. For Hi-Res, I have heard the local distributor's uninspiring setup with Dynaudio active speakers. A friend's all-Weiss CAS was also underwhelming (report here).

Of course, I have heard the Minerva play CD's too. The owner of this unit only started to listen to CD after he replaced it with the Berkley Alpha (reported here). He also compared the Minerva to my Micromega MyDAC at his place (reported here).

In this article, in contrast to all previous press reviews, I only used in my own home the coaxial input of the Weiss Minerva, thereby evaluating it only as a "common" DAC (let's admit it, Firewire users are few and far in between). Also, I only use Weiss' RCA outputs, which may be a different thing from the balanced outputs. However, I do think a reasonable judgement on the basic qualities of the DAC can be had.

Sparkler S306
The Sparkler S306, like the 47 Labs stuff it hails from, is as far away from the Weiss Minerva as you can get. This is a 16-bit non-oversampling (NOS) DAC employing the TDA 1543 chip. Official data:
  • D/A converter: Philips 16 bit non-oversampling DAC TDA1543
  • Rate: 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz
  • Re-clock: discrete BJT extra low jitter oscillator
  • Crystal: high grade (for professional wireless devices), low drift (within 5..7ppm) crystal
  • I/V conversion: discrete BJT current feedback architecture
The S306 is available with only one input. USB and I2S options are available. Now, with sampling rate up to only 48 Hz (no "Hi-Res" files) and no oversampling, why would anyone want this for CAS? Read on.
Talk Digital: Non-Oversampling The evolution of digital playback/CD players is a huge topic by itself. Early players use very low oversampling (or none) and were accused of being coarse. Yet, even the very primitive 14-bit CDP's with low oversampling have their adherents (like me) for its analog-like directness. Fast forward: after oversampling became the norm, some Japanese re-examined the NOS concept. 47 Labs, from which Sparkler is derived, has been a long-time adherent. But one of the earliest exponent is Kusunoki san (tnt interview).

The digital NOS concept has later been propagated by Kondo san (and hence its spinoff, AN-UK). Because of simplicity and cost concerns, NOS DAC's took off like a wildfire in the DIY community. TDA-1541 and the lesser TDA-1543 were the most popular. Many people used multiple stacked DAC's, which to me seems to negate the simplicity. Not so obvious, but to me implicit in this is that even NOS die-hard's recognize that the simplest may not be everything.

AN-UK took the concept for a run. It even introduced NOS into its cheapest ZERO/One range, with the NOS One 1x DAC. To me it trounced its Zero (24/96) player. Those were the days...

For me, NOS DAC's, if well implemented (like Sparkler), has a well-articulated sound, but with large-scale, complex material some (not all) may not respond as well, coarsening in the fray. Similarly, with modern DAC's, complexity is well-handled, though simpler stuff lacks the rhythmic flair that NOS DAC can bring. To each his own.

Think about this: even today, when CAS emphasizes the "prefect bit", reading everything many times over for "correction" and when "Hi-Res" and oversampling and upsampling are rampant, some discerning audiophiles still would not dismiss NOS low-bit DAC's - isn't that something?

Technology is not necessarily a cure-all - something is lost when something is gained; you just have to know your own priorities.

Summary of my views on NOS vs oversampling:
  • The simpler the music, the fewer the instrument, the better NOS shines - there is a directness that more complex algorithms miss. On the other hand, with very complex music, such as a large symphony, oversampling may prove steadier, with less raw edges.
  • NOS, like Analog, has better Rhythm and Pace. The more you over-sample (or up-sample for that matter) the less pointed the music becomes. This negatively affects jazz and pop music more than more complex large orchestral music.
Sony BDP-S190 Blue Ray Player
This is an old model, just a plain vanilla Blue-Ray Player, lowest of the range. However, as I reported in Part I, its performance as a CD player is not bad at all. I have heard Blue-Ray players in 2-channel audio several times , and every time they proved competent. Also, I believe Blue-Ray Players, like DVD Players, make for very reliable transports for CD, as we shall see.

Channel Classics 25 years - sampler cd
Listening Notes
System used:

CDP/Transport: Sony BDP-S190 (Belden 1694A coaxial)
DAC: Sparkler S306 or Weiss Minerva
Amp: Naim Nait 3
Loudspeakers: Yamaha NS-1000
RCA to DIN Interconnects: Gotham GAC-4/1 and Gotham GAC-2/1


  • Channel Classics Sampler CD Channel Classics is a good classical label with excellent artists and exceptionally good recording quality. This Sampler is a tribute to its recording engineer with 25 of his favorite tracks. Various recording venues were used, and the well recorded ambiance information provide very good tests for DACs.
  • Weiss Minerva Used via its coaxial input, the Weiss was an even but not quite inspiring performer. Although the flow of music is, for lack of a better word, somewhat "digital", at least there are no digital nasties to be heard. Sound is upfront and everything is clearly heard, but I find, like many modern DAC's, ambience clues are not well conveyed (Track 12, Rachel Podger's solo Bach was recorded in a church, but you would not know it listening to the Weiss). One thing, this unit must be a later unit, with a small screw between the analog outputs. Turning it reveals indentations which determine output level. When I first got it, sound was too soft for me, and it took this discovery to get back some energy missing with a higher output level.
  • Sparkler S306 As expected, this DAC is almost the antithesis of the Weiss.Coming right off the Weiss, one strains a little to hear certain details, but soon finds most of them present, though less upfront and embedded together with the correct ambience clues. Good ambience information is what I have long noticed with the 16-bit TDA-1541 chip, the much costlier brother of the TDA-1543 used here; and now I can also confirm that the same admirable quality is present in the TDA-1543 as well. But I know not everyone (especially non-classical listeners) value ambience, and some HiFi-oriented audiophiles just may prefer the more upfront Weiss. When it comes to the flow of music, there is no comparison, as the Sparkler completely trounces the Weiss. Again, many audiophiles simply do not have pace, rhythm and timing (PRaT) on their consciousness, and hence may not notice at all the NOS DAC's greatest quality. The S306 DAC should be basically the same as the one in the S303 CDP (my brief reviews, Part I and Part II), but to me it sounds less sharp, with an almost sweet quality. Also, it seems the S306 handles complex passages better. The S306 does not have the take-no-prisoner quality that the S303 possesses. It is logical then to attribute the sound difference to the difference in transport. Quirks S306 is a little picky about the coaxial cable - some of mine just do not work well (occasional clicks and pops, like a poor wifi connection). See below for other issues when using a Blue Ray Player as transport. Warm Up Time The S306 takes a while to reach optimal performance and it is intentionally powered up continuously. I did unplug it to test the AMR DP-77 and when re-connected the S306 sounded subpar for quite a while.
  • Sony BDP-S190 as Transport Using the PCM digital output, the Blue Ray Player is a top-notch CD transport. I can hardly fault it in any parameters. In many ways, for the more complex and large-scaled music I listen to, I think it is better than the simple mechanisms that 47 Lab/Sparkler use (see above), steadier, more rounded, but perhaps less sharp. But there are some Caveats: (1) Unlike CD Players/Transports, the Digital Output is NOT automatically on. When you stop the music, the digital output is lost. With the Sparkler S306 (which has no auto-muting) you get a loud pop; so turn down the volume before hitting the stop button. Similarly, when you insert a disc, the digital output only comes on after the disc is read; with the Sparkler S306 you again get a pop; so also turn down the volume when you start to play the disc. (2) With the Sparkler S306, I sometimes get crackles when the Blue Ray Player's HDMI cable is connected. This is understandable as the HDMI carries also digital signal, so maybe there are conflicts. Remember, without the HDMI connection, you don't get metadata and has to count when you change tracks. So, unless you can put up with nuisances like these, a Blue-Ray Player is not recommended for Sparkler S306. I only have this one Blue Ray Player, so I don't know what I described is universal or only pertinent to Sony, though I suspect it is the former.
  • Sony BDP-S190 analog out  As I reported in before, its performance as a CD player is not bad at all. But this time, coming up against the Weiss, I had even more revelations. It is perhaps even cooler than the Weiss, and things are a little flatter, but the BDP-S190 outperforms the Weiss in pace, has more details and better ambience retrieval!
Conclusion
  • Spec's and "advances" mean nothing. Something is lost as something is gained. Particularly in the digital realm.

7 comments:

  1. Did you have an opportunity to use the Micromega CD player strictly as a transport? If so, how does it compare to the cheap Sony Blu ray player?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Apologies. I read this article on my mobile phone & I missed the italicized paragraph under the header where you stated you "retired" your Micromega system, thereby making my question moot.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Actually, I have used the Micromega as transport before, but not with this DAC. It is competent. While I haven't A/B'ed things I suspect Blue Ray and DVD players make even better transports.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This falls in line with my experience as well. I use an Oppo DVD player (one of the really flimsy looking early models) as my main transport feeding an entry level wadia dac & for some reason, I prefer it to the much more expensive belt driven CEC one that my uncle owns!

    ReplyDelete
  5. The CEC is belt-driven, said to introduce an "analog" feel, but often it is neither here nor there. Real analog, like the LP, has verve and impact, not just warmth. As they are designed to handle massive data, the DVD/Multi/Blue-Ray machines play CD's with utter ease, which I'd think is one reason for their good performance.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You mentioned the Sparkler NOS DAC had issues with some cables. Can you tell me which cable you ended up using in the end?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think it was a matter of certain male connectors not suited to the Sparkler's female RCA connectors. I ended up using my DIY Belden 1694A terminated with Amphenol connectors. My Kimber D-60 someone would not work.

    ReplyDelete