My absolute watershed audio experience? Hearing one of the earlier Audio Note DAC 4.1X’s play Rainbow “Hunting Humans (insatiable)” some 15 years ago. Much water has flown to the sea since then. So what to expect when the latest version of DAC 4.1X Balanced visits my home?
I have been writing about hifi for more than 25 years now. During those years I have been in the lucky situation that I have heard some of the best hifi money can buy. After the mentioned DAC 4.1X experience way back when, I have heard a quite a few DAC’s that made leaps forwards in digital audio; the huge three box Esoteric, the top model from APL, and rater recently, the flawless PS Audio. So it is with a kind of anxiety I get the latest version of Audio Note DAC 4.1X in house; has the kind of old fashioned Audio Note now silently been surpassed by the rest of the pack? Was my recollection of the sound from the original model just fooling me, was the whole thing in fact just an old dream? So I set out chasing that old dream, then, heavily armed by Audio Note. Watch your back, all ye DAC-producers out there!
Like a few of the top notch DAC’s I’ve been listening to lately, the Audio Note comes with a dedicated drive, the CDT 4. In my view a heftily priced unit to spin a silver disc with, to be honest. Skeptical as I am, I am questioning the importance of a digital drive, but at the same time I do admit being surprised lately by both PS Audio and the Japanese, belt driven player from C.E.C. So I will not debate the possibility of differences between digital drives, but I will argue that there might be other, more important parts of a good hifi set-up, and leave it at that. The CDT 4 came to Norway with a possible handicap, though, as it during the transport from U.K. received a serious blow from nothing less than a fork lift. And, by that beating, proving a mechanical quality beyond debate. It does not look very well, but still plays immaculate. A cheapo Pioneer rattle box would never play a single disc after such a treatment, I promise you that much. Anyway, all the findings in the following review are made by using the CDT 4 / DAC 4.1X Balanced as a unit.
So mechanically this player / DAC should be ace stuff. Still, there is a thing I’ve been a bit confused about all the years I’ve both owned and tested AN CDT’s; why on earth is it impossible to make it easier to insert and remove the disc from the drive? Have a look at the beautiful, French Métronome players as examples; pretty much the same top loading system, but they have made some pits for the fingers, making it much easier to get a grip on the disc. In turn, you avoid finger marks and following replay problems towards the end of the disc. The CDT’s are actually a bit fiddly to use, and, I guess it won’t be better when the user gets older, either.
Both the drive and the DAC comes with both XLR and RCA contacts, on the DAC that goes for both digital and analogue connections. The DAC is balanced through the output transformers, in short it will drive any input you can let it feed. Hell, I even tried short-cutting my DAC 3.1X way back when, ill advised trying out some XLR-RCA adapters. The result? A slightly darker, more “cuddly” sound. But I still liked it! When switching to “Balanced” on the rear output switch, what you actually do is grounding the output trafo, by that balancing the XLR output. Theoretically, a small quality gain is possible that way, but way more important is actually finding an amplifier that matches the DAC. On some amplifier XLR inputs, you’ll discover that they’re not really balanced, what they do, however, it to shortcut the DAC output signal. The DAC 4.1X handles that too with grace. The volume drops a bit, but it still plays fine, although loosing some dynamics and vividness. On my Spec amp (not really balanced), I clearly preferred the SE connection, so here it’s open for both taste and testing.
All products from Audio Note are based around audio valve technology. Further, much of the qualities and characteristics are based on simplicity, good component quality and high end output transformers, often with loads of silver involved. Top that with endless listening, research and experiments, and a dedication beyond Rolls Royce standard, and you’ll understand some of the aura surrounding this unique brand. To put it short, I have never seen anything like the focus on all details, bits and pieces as you find at Audio Note these days. But they might stretch it a tad too far at times, maybe? From my own point of view I would like to see more than one input on the DAC, for example, how difficult can that be? When asked about that, they just say that’s the way Audio Note build their DAC’s. Like it, or forget it; listen to it, and you’ll understand. Anachronism is the word. Fair enough, that works in audio, besides, there might be good audible reasons behind such choices. You just don’t get remote control, fancy menus, all-in-one, Spotify or network connection when choosing Audio Note. But the sound!
As mentioned, the DAC’s from Audio Note have approximately one input. OK, they have the choice between RCA and XLR cable for digital input, but for all practical purposes, it’s one, and one only. Calm down, guys, that’s the way it is. You want a near magic reality from CD? Audio Note is the answer. You want more inputs? Cambridge? NAD? Sonos? Pioneer? I can go on all day! Why not combine it? It’s like a RIAA, right? One input on most of them, and you use it for best possible LP sound, so what’s so crazy about thinking the same thing about CD? Ah, the price, I hear you say. I can’t argue about that, I must admit. Did you use that argument last time you visited your car dealer, by the way? If you did, that’s fine with me, enjoy your Škoda, then, I don’t mind! But back to Rolls…eh… Audi…o Note, that is. We’ll put it through the paces as no DAC ever have, ’cause this is the moment of truth. Is Audio Note really any good, or is this just valves and romantic dreams about a past that never really existed? During the introductory rounds, at least it became obvious that the DAC 4.1X has a few characteristics that’s hard to disregard. Attack! Dynamics. Control. Grunt. Clarity. Shall I continue? Pace! Rhythm. Timing. Well, so people say that’s a Naim-thing, the PRaT. No, it isn’t. It’s a music thing. And Audio Note plays music with the realism intact. So that’s where you find the pace, the rhythm and the timing; it’s absolutely not invented in Salisbury!
So play, then, CDT Four! Into the open lid, I drop an easy start, a well recorded jazz disc from STS Records of Holland, and wow! Digital signals flows to the DAC 4.1X, and “the dreamcatcher” is at work, immediately. What strikes me the most, is the timbre, the atmosphere, the sensation of being there. The musical message, the ability to grab the listener and hold. So we continue with the the 1960 release (recorded in ’58 and ’59!) “Blues in Orbit” by Duke Ellington, and we’re immediately beamed to a different world. Oh, the atmosphere! An incredible insight, wonderful timbres, although clearly carrying the colors of the fifties, it sounds so unbelievably realistic and credible. I just love it.
To describe just how versatile this beast is, I throw in Black Sabbath’s “Mob Rules” (Dio era) and their powerful song “The sign of the southern cross”. A mediocre recording, let’s agree on that. Here, the DAC 4.1X shows up one more of its fantastic abilities; how to totally change its character, switching from timbres and atmosphere to brutality and power in a split second. The small dynamics left in the recording seems to grow through the DAC, the sheer power and darkness of the composition is totally present in the listening room. And so I just can’t wait any longer… Ritchie Blackmore made this overtime Rainbow album back in the nineties, seemingly because he just had no idea what to do with his life after Deep Purple. There are a couple of good, heavy melodies there, though, but no real good recording. In my mind, the memory of how a DAC can totally change a poor recording is for ever connected to my first experience with the Audio Note DAC 4.1X Signature around year 2000. Will I now discover that it all was just an exaggeration of a few good minutes in my life? Will I kind of call my own bluff? No! No way, I was flabbergasted again! Audio Note still makes “Hunting Humans” totally its own, to something out of this world! So open, so clear, so goddam’ hard hitting and precise, topped with a kind of a threatening, insisting presence, that just makes this song stand out as a strange way of high end presentation. All of sudden this is not just a mediocre product from the left hand of a genius, it’s a living documentation of a point in time. Inexplicable, but still true. No matter how many high end DAC’s I’ve listened to lately, none of them did this; in fact they weren’t even close.
So it is with great confidence I enter the normally simpler examples, like Bob Dylan’s 26th studio album “Oh Mercy” from 1989, and the song “The man in the lang black coat”. A slightly mystical and rather apocalyptic song, and I am thankful to Bob for being so nice that he popped by to tell me this story personally . To me, the song gets a whole new meaning, all of a sudden, and it wasn’t actually meaningless before, either! Back home again; in Norway we have this wonderful studio called Rainbow, extensively used by Manfred Eicher of the fantastic ECM jazz label, among others. All these recordings sounds elegant, detailed, with huge room and precise soundscapes. In 2003 the studio owner and chief producer, Jan Erik Kongshaug recorded the album “All these years” with his own quartet, a jazzy, swinging recording. The Audio Note plays it brilliantly, the attack of strings, the drum sticks, the skin, the edges, the lovely piano timbres, the controlled bass… The recording is in itself kind of forgiving, but still, I cant remember hearing it better than this, even after all these years…!
So we conclude with classical music, I guess. The notoriously difficult “Holiday morning” by Claude Debussy, in Telarc’s brutal recording from Cincinnati is a hard trial, to make it clear. Further, this is an SACD pure DSD recording, but dual layered, so AN will have to deal with the normal CD layer only. A clear handicap. I own a serious SACD player myself, normally a standard CD player will not be able to challenge it on this great recording. Off we go, then. Initially I was taken a bit aback, as when not to much is happening, the AN plays this just as open and vivid as my good APL SACD-setup. But when the whole shebang kicks in, the SACD layer has a small advantage, no doubt about that. That said, the Audio Note is a powerhouse, the dynamics are almost scary in all its brutality. My (also very dynamic) APL sounds calmer and sweeter somehow, more open on this recording, but it just cant deliver the enormous size shown by the DAC 4.1X. The crescendo in the end exceeds all I have heard in this house, ever, CD and SACD players alike. Impressive, indeed.
This should leave no doubt, then. I still love everything Audio Note does, I love the presence and music the components deliver, I adore the dynamics, I enjoy the timbral qualities to the full. In short it’s my opinion that this seemingly outdated technology, without oversampling or upsampling, filtering or any other bulls**t, totally dwarfs everything you can find to put your digital music files through. Yes, I know this might my subjective perception only, but in my mind it’s a kind of “magic” realism in the way the music comes alive through the Audio Note DAC 4.1X. I have to admit here, though, that the prices are chilling to the point of freezing me stiff, but hey, the same goes for Rolls Royce, remember. So if you have the money, look no further. This is how to play music from a digital source. Forever.
Audio Note CDT Four, CD drive, price GBP 13 350,-
Audio Note DAC 4.1X, price GBP 13 110,-