Lately, it has become quite easy to improve upon your computer's Digital Audio Converter (DAC) with a slew of units from incredibly affordable to stratospherically priced. Now that high-resolution downloads becoming more common, inexpensive USB DACs promise audiophile sound on a budget, especially when combined with some good player software and headphones. Of the two formats for digital audio recordings, the most popular is Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), followed by Direct Stream Digital (DSD) pioneered by Sony.
DSD aficionados speak of a warmer, less sterile analog sound with DSD, as compared to PCM. Others complain about the need to brick-wall filter certain high frequency signals; others insist it makes no difference. With relatively few native DSD recordings, it is being used as a distribution format. Blue Coast records, run by the ebullient Cookie Marenco, often records purely analog, but archives the recordings for distribution to DSD, as well as PCM. She is also recording straight to DSD, so listeners can judge a DSD recording for themselves. One disadvantage, however, is that there are few tools to do post-production work and stay in the DSD format.
Most of the time, with few exceptions, when you play a DSD file through a DAC, it is actually converted to PCM. Even music player software isn't universal in having the ability to handle DSD files. One exception has been Korg's own AudioGate software, which was fully upgraded to a new version with new features. They have even unlocked the player-only version, so anyone can try the software for playback for free; if you own a Korg DAC, it is automatically unlocked to allow the full feature set to shine.
Ah ... but is this the DAC to rule them all? Is there an affordable DAC with integrated headphone amplifier, bus powered by USB, fully asynchronous, that can play DSD files in their native format? And handle other formats like PCM, or MP3? Guess what? The answer is yes - enter the Korg DS-DAC-100M 1Bit USB DAC, which offers native DSD support, as well as PCM, and a promise to even make MP3 files sound better.
First shown in the Korg suite in the Las Vegas Hotel (the old Hilton), the DS-DAC-100M is one of two Korg models sporting similar specs, but differing price points, and connectivity options. I was fortunate enough to get an early model, but it was several months before I could use it. Why the long wait? The short answer is that the software and drivers weren't ready yet. Finally, they released a driver and the unit showed in my list of available devices in System Preferences and in Audio MIDI in the Utilities folder on Mac OSX. The initial beta drivers were finicky to install and use, and I had to uninstall and reinstall several times before the driver worked properly. A newer final version was released in early summer, which solved those issues for my system running 10.6.8, however there are still reportedly issues with newer systems that sport USB 3 ports only, with the workaround to use a USB 2 hub. An update that provides USB 3 compatiblity is in the works according to Korg.
Aesthetically the DAC is lovely. It is designed to sit on your desktop - about the size of a thin paperback book or portable hard drive; it sits flat, and has a textured matte black finish. Its softly curved minimalist design is free of distractions, so it blends into whatever you set it on. A set of micro LEDs gives you a status update, and a front mounted mini-jack for your headphones is at the ready. The rear panel has the USB input, as well as line-level output. As a bus powered device, the headphone amp delivers rich, warm sound, with commendable dynamics into most headphones and earphones I tried. The Oppo PM-1 and PM-2 headphones were a great match, due in part to the Oppo’s exemplary sensitivity. However, some finicky power hungry models might not work as well.
Blue Coast Records were kind enough to supply a set of first-rate recordings, which enabled me to test both the DSD and PCM versions. The Korg handled both with ease, as did AudioGate 3.0.2. AudioGate 2’s GUI and design always struck me as a mash-up of a Star Trek console married to a jukebox. The new version is cleaner, less design-driven, and a result it is more business-like with a gentle, well-designed interface. The controls are responsive, and it also worked with every other DAC I tried it with including the Oppo HA-1, AudioEngine D3, and Cambridge DacMagic XS.
Once AudioGate 3 authenticates the Korg device, it handles conversions between formats without a hiccup. Most folks may not realize that the lite version is not only a fully functioning app, but it’s free to boot! We applaud Korg for making the software as a player-only, for free even if you don't own a Korg device.
In fact, the free version should send a cautionary message to other software companies charging for their player solutions. We should note that the output sample rate for the free player only version is limited to 48 kHz and 44.1 kHz, but it handles high-resolution and DSD files, something that no other free software I’m aware of can handle. Once unlocked, it really kicks into action, with no limitations, and includes Export and Burn Disc functions, editing, and format conversion. Considering it is included bundled with the unit, and price of some competitors’ software is almost the same as the DAC, it represents a bargain.
The unit supports DSD playback of 2.8224 MHz DSD data but also the still higher-resolution of 5.6448 MHz, as well as PCM at just about any flavor you can imagine, including: 44.1kHz/48kHz/88.2kHz/96kHz/176.4kHz/192kHz, at both 16 and 24 bit depths.
I tried to ascertain differences between native DSD and PCM versions but to be entirely candid, it was so close that I wasn't really able to trust my own judgment. Cookie Marenca's decision to record in analog and distribute via DSD is unique. Other companies such as Dr. Mark Waldrip's AIX Records, utilize PCM for their recordings, but makes the music available in a variety of formats, including DSD. DSD fans insist that recordings made with it sound more "analog", with a warmer, more musical sound space. I can't really confirm that since I've never been able to record an event with both technologies to compare. It might not even matter since ultimately, the technology employed should be invisible to the listener.
The Korg DS-DAC-100M's ability to play DSD in their native format is important, and at this price point, just about the only game in town. When I compared Blue Coast recordings that were originally DSD recordings, and supplied to me in both DSD and PCM formats, the DSD played natively through the Korg DS-DAC-100M did seem to sound warmer, and very musical. During the CEA conference held in New York recently, a Sony engineer discussed the effort that’s being made by Sony/CBS Records to digitize their entire catalog to high-resolution DSD files, a decision that could conceivably lead to an explosion of DSD titles for consumers to experience. The Korg DS-DAC-100M will be well suited to this effort and able to handle those files natively.
The Korg DS-DAC-100M stands out for it's ability to handle DSD files natively, a versatile design that sounds great with everything from FLACs to MP3s. Aesthetically, it is an handsome unit, quiet and assured in its design stance, and at the price with the included AudioGate 3 software, a bargain. The Korg DS-DAC-100M comes highly recommended.
Harris Fogel, Posted 8/31/2014
For more information on the Korg DS-DAC-100M 1Bit Mobile DAC visit: www.korg.com
For more information on Korg AudioGate 3 software visit: www.korg.com
For more information on Blue Coast Records visit: www.bluecoastrecords.com