A personal quest towards building a better computer-based music player, and reviewing my first external D/A converter
Back when all I had to stream my fuzzy little hard-drive based warbles from was a Creative Audigy 2 ZS—a state-of-the-art gaming soundcard back in 2004—I couldn’t imagine any computer audio solution delivering the fleshy, goosebumps-inducing presence or timbral faithfulness of my Dad’s old Technics turntable, or even a used Denon CD deck I picked up at a Rochester, NY audio shop for $50.
Heartbreaking, considering the convenience of having any one of over 8,000 songs in my FLAC collection within a few mouse clicks of being played on the living room hi-fi, should have easily made its own case. But I found myself routinely tossing that convenience in favor of wresting session after hard-earned session from the increasingly trippy and temperamental Denon. (I can see now why it sold for $50.)
So it may have had the attitude of a rescued coywolf with PTSD. But when it behaved, especially when fed my heavy-rotation set at the time—early Jeff Beck, Santana, and the soundtracks from Koyaanisqatsi and The Incredibles—it made me thirsty for more…
My ears told me the struggle was worth it, and my refusal to accept the Creative card and its DSP-powered amenities only strengthened each time I tried to convince myself I could live with its (relative) sonic mediocrity.
Dreams of building a reference-grade home theater PC were put indefinitely on ice, as I could see no way forward but to spring for a megabuck digital audio workstation card—and I’d never spent anywhere near the cost of a professional solution on anything computer or music-related.
Would it even be possible to try and extract a clean, and (as best as could be had) jitter-free signal from such an electrically noisy place as the innards of a personal computer?
Part I: LynxTWO
It’d damn well better—the recording industry would be in big trouble if not.
And into my world of well-intentioned consumer level gaming cards and (*shudder*) motherboard audio, stepped Lynx Studio Technology’s LynxTWO 24-bit/192kHz Multichannel Audio Interface card, which although it may have been designed way back in 2000, and requires a motherboard with a conventional PCI slot—an interface which went obsolete almost as soon as I bought the card—it is still among the highest performing analog-to-digital/digital-to-analog interface cards in pro audio.
The basic purpose of such a device, serving as the bridge for a digital file to get from the A/D converter to the editing suite inside a workstation computer (Read: Why not use just any USB or S/P-DIF port?) is to isolate the bitstream from electrical noise, and to manage integrity of the ‘word clock’—the digital drumbeat which determines the sample rate, and which is also vulnerable to corruption (jitter) by the often hundreds of simultaneous processes running on most PCs. (That is, the modern CPU is one hell of a multitasker, but letting it carry the word clock is akin to letting Radar O’Reilly carry a bugle.)
That exact steady cadence must be preserved throughout the entire mixing chain, and ideally through playback to your ears. Screw it up at home (digital-to-analog), and your hi-res file won’t sound quite so… you get it. That’s a personal tragedy easily managed. Screw it up at the recording studio (analog-to-digital) and the digital master is fucked, and that’s a tragedy for billions, forever.
A Pedigreed Kitty
When it came time for Battery Studios engineer Mark Wilder to create new 24-bit/192kHz archives of that most audiophiley of audiophile recordings: Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, he recruited a LynxTWO-equipped workstation to ingest the bitstream from Pacific Microsonics HDCD Model 2 A/D converters, fed from the original three-track master tapes. The resulting 2013 Columbia/Legacy reissue is, per HDtracks.com notes, “like being IN THE STUDIO with Miles” (emphasis theirs), and in the words of AudioStream’s Michael Lavorgna (who reviewed the 24/192 download), “Simply stunning.”
“It sounds big, airy, intimate, warm, cool, and hot. All of the instruments sing out with a natural and beautifully clear voice. The remaster is in a word, most excellent.”
I would offer more of my own input and analysis, this reissue having been my very first HDtracks.com purchase, but comparison of the 24/192 FLAC to the 320kbps MP3 I ripped from a friend’s CD nearly ten years ago doesn’t seem fair. (I’d have much rather used a 16/44.1 lossless rip.) Nevertheless, Kind Of Blue is a spectacular sounding record, even in MP3 form.
Cues that immediately made it clear that the hi-res was a superior article, however, was a smoother, more buttery texture to the tape hiss, (sort of like the first time you use a Zeiss or Hasselblad portrait lens with the aperture wide open, and you find out what bokeh is supposed to look like) and the fact that my ears didn’t have to ‘work’ to cognize the details behind that troublesome little bit of Paul Chambers’s fingering of the bass, just before he, and the rest of the band groove into the main theme of ‘So What’—something that the mp3 always seemed to muffle.
In lieu of writing more cliches (greater dynamics, cymbals that decay forever, sharper imaging—all true BTW), I’ll just say that I’ve heard nothing that would cause me to disagree with the tenor of Mr. Lavorgna’s or Michael Fremer’s accolades.
Besides, I only wanted to touch briefly at the LynxTWO’s pedigree as a mastering workhorse. I certainly didn’t need its discrete clock frequency diagnostic hardware and SMPTE time code reading capabilities as much as a recording studio would; my intended use was far more humble.
I had read mention of pro-audio cards being used in home theater PCs on the boards at AVSforum.com, and got familiar with brandnames the likes of RME, M-Audio, and Lynx, with consumer opinion largely favoring Lynx when compared to the others.
Of the three flavors of LynxTWO: (A: Four channels in/Four channels out; B: 2 in/6 out; and C: 6 in/2 out) Model B, with its six analog outs is positioned perfectly for 5.1 home theater, and could’ve potentially turned my HTPC into a one-box media server and multichannel preamp/processor. So, as soon as I was fiscally able to assemble a new PC around this card, in late 2008, I sprung for the LynxTWO-B. (Lynx also offered the two-channel L22 ($675) that would have fit well for home stereo purposes and those who don’t need all the extra SMPTE stuff, but because bragging rights…)
The LynxTWO’s multilevel delta-sigma ADC/DAC was good for bit-depths from 8 to 32, sample rates from 8kHz to 200kHz (with analog output at 192kHz max, AES/EBU output at 96kHz max), and with a signal-to-noise ratio of 117 dB, and channel crosstalk of -120 dB, its analog output promised vanishingly low background noise and excellent imaging performance.
So, How Did it Sound?
Despite a rocky period where my Emotiva USP-1 preamp was clipping due to a ‘hot’ trim level being set in the Lynx Mixer application by default (because I didn’t RTFM), it has been so far the best digital source I ever heard, ever.
So why does this thing give me the seven-year-itch?
Well, a lot has changed since 2008. Motherboard manufacturer ASUS had moved into making soundcards and DACs with pretty impressive specs, a couple of which have received positive coverage from Stereophile, (here, and here.) It is also common now to see motherboards with electrically-isolated audio circuits.
Not to mention that ‘serious’ listeners have largely moved away from internal soundcards to external DACs, and the reasons why really ruffle my OCD; no matter how well my LynxTWO performs on paper, it still gets its power from the PC’s switching-mode power supply (which, not to get too deep into the topic, can introduce high-frequency distortion to the electric signal at the rate of ‘switching’), as opposed to the cleaner power offered by linear power supplies, which external DACs have all to themselves, in their own box, away from other components.
Even with switching-mode power supplies in tow (and DAC makers like to fab their own proprietary low-noise designs), the electrical and mechanical isolation that external DACs have over internal soundcards can allow higher performance for the dollar. That, in spite of the fact that Lynx still supports my old component with driver and firmware updates, had inflamed my curiosity about going fully discrete.
Plus, I felt a little left in the dust of progress, and it wasn’t acute audiophilia nervosa. Ears aren’t by nature monogamous; they can get restless, especially with a market full of such attractive Schiit.
(Only Schiit joke, promise.)
Part II: The Schiit Gungnir Review
When I put down my order for California-based Schiit Audio’s balanced Gungnir DAC in 2013, the multibit Yggdrasil ($2499) hadn’t yet been released, which, if I had actually been able to sell my Lynx card for a reasonable (how ‘bout any) price, would’ve been within my budget.
But at the time, in terms of value for money, if I thought “$2000 DAC”, I was thinking lustily of the well-reviewed NAD M51, with the Rega DAC first on my list of maybes at half the price. The LynxTWO, with the best will in the world, is one of the nicest sounding pro audio cards, but it still sounds like a pro audio tool.
When, for instance I’m listening to David Bowie’s “Heroes”—beginning to end, one of my favorite albums—the Lynx takes me right back to the Hansa Studio in 1977 Berlin, which is kind of the aural equivalent of stepping into a broom closet made entirely of flashlights. (One of the inimitable charms of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.)
Miles Davis at the 30th Street Cathedral in NYC, it ain’t. Nor should it be; if the recording was harsh, then when played back with a pro audio tool like the LynxTWO, it should sound harsh. However, it would be nice to listen to “Neukölln” without being stabbed between the eyes by that tortured alto sax!
This time around, I was hunting in earnest for a DAC that was more of a view camera than a microscope. Something warmer and more analog-sounding, hence my interest in the Rega, whose sound reminded reviewers of the same company’s turntables.
Even before that, I was reading similar opinions about Schiit Audio’s popular Bifrost DAC ($399), and thought that if enough of my fellow listeners on the Stereophile and HeadFi.com forums were wowed by this well-built (in the USA) and affordable little thing, then Schiit’s former flagship DAC, the Gungnir, must be worth serious consideration. After reading David Mitchell’s AudioReview.ca review of the Gungnir, in which he not only held it in the same highly-regarded company as the Bryston BDA-1 and NAD M51, but came out liking the Gungnir the most, at $899, I was sold.
Unboxing & Exterior
More than enough has been said in press reviews about Schiit Audio’s rock-solid build quality across their whole product line, but what of the packaging? The Gungnir came firmly suspended by block foam in a box that was probably over six times the volume of the DAC itself, if only to protect the sensitive components inside its 3mm-aluminum shell and steel chassis, which altogether exhibits just about as much flex as a solid ingot, and would probably be just as deadly to hurl at an enemy’s forehead.
Its sharpest corners are yet more of a tactile reward than the tip of Odin’s spear (the instruction manual cautions not to use the Gungnir to stab your friends, no BS), but the DAC’s defining characteristic—the smooth way in which its shell is bent around the spine of the chassis, the part that faces you—give the appearance of a book with a brushed aluminum cover, lying on its side. It is a motif used throughout the Schiit product range of DACs, preamps, headphone amps and power amps, and is uncommon—but welcome—to the eyes and hands. Better than the usual rolled steel box with a plastic or aluminum face kind of construction one usually gets at this price level. (Now it seems I’ve fallen into waxing about their build quality, too.)
With nothing on the front of the unit but a polished, unlabeled input select button and pinprick idiot lights (letting you know which input you’re using, as the Gungnir will accept coaxial, USB, BNC, and optical—and one more light to let you know if your source sounds like s**t), the Gungnir’s simplicity, weight, heat output, and an overall feel of having been milled from a contiguous mass of possibly radioactive something, adds up to a gestalt of mystery. Like some wonderful things must be happening inside that box…
The delta-sigma equipped Gungnir consists of dual AKM AK4399 32-bit DACs, with differential output (one ‘+’ and one ‘–’ channel from each chip, four in all) to discrete JFET analog stages, for fully balanced operation. Both the digital and analog circuits each get their own big power supply transformer, and eight regulation stages.
But what really got my geek glands throbbing was Schiit Audio’s proprietary Adapticlock™ circuitry, which regenerates the word clock from any input source, routing high-quality signals to a low-tolerance VCXO (voltage-controlled crystal oscillator), and lower-quality signals to a higher-tolerance VCO, per Schiit’s literature: “Nontechnically, it’s a way to decrapify the inputs, no matter how craptastic they are. If they are not very crappy, they get maximum decrapification, but even if they’re crappy, they get some decrapification.” Somehow, their brusque confidence is confidence-inspiring.
After hitching it to my HTPC via a Pangea USB cable, the first thing I played was track four of the hi-res 20th Anniversary Jurassic Park soundtrack reissue, “Journey To The Island”.
From the first sweeping measure, the Gungnir made it known that it was a totally different animal from the Lynx, which now sounded very analytical in direct comparison to the Gungnir’s warm, woolly, and smooth presentation. Soundstage width was a little constrained, but the new DAC made the Jurassic Park score sound the way I remembered it in my childhood, when it was the first soundtrack album I ever acquired, from the first movie I had ever seen in a theater, where it was, at that time, the most glorious thing I’d ever heard.
After that, I couldn’t resist playing the hi-res remaster of Sir Georg Solti and the Wiener Philharmoniker’s performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, starting with the Walkurenritt; “Hojotoho, Heiaha!”, the Ride of the Valkyries. Here again the Gungnir distinguished itself from the Lynx, as the vocals seemed to leap out from higher up, as if an actual chorus of realistic height stood before me. Now, my Magnepan MMG’s are only four feet tall, but the Gungnir somehow made the speakers seem a little taller. (Weird.)
Well, after not quite satiating myself with an all-too brief first listen, I steeled myself for the break-in period, and let my HTPC play through my entire Dan Carlin Hardcore History podcast collection, over the next ten days.
I returned to the cave to check in on how the Gungnir was evolving, and stopped the Hardcore History marathon to play some of the original 1982 Island Records release of Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi.
Ever since I seriously began this hobby, I would always audition the opening titles for Koyaanisqatsi, not just because of the profound bass pedal of the organ that anchors the track, but to listen for the organ’s timbral details—a tradition going all the way back to when I found out that busted Denon CD player beat out the Creative Audigy 2 ZS for making Glass’s organ and Al DeRuiter’s basso profundo vocals sound like they were that much more ‘in the room’, and that much more evil. The Gungnir delivered prodigious deep bass to my little MMG’s. So much so, that at my typically solid (so mild shouting is required) listening volume, the organ’s bass made my speaker’s diaphragms vibrate against their magnet arrays.
[The MMG’s bass response rolls off past 50Hz. That’s what Magnepan measured at the factory in White Bear Lake, MN. It isn’t supposed to play any lower (and we shouldn’t expect any lower, because of the speaker’s size.) Even so, if fed enough of the right kind of power, one can still feel infrasonics in the air, and even hear deep bass outside of the listening room.
I had used the Cardas speaker placement calculator to position the MMGs, which helped amazingly in this regard. But, placing them correctly in the room so I could just barely hear things that the speakers aren’t designed to play with any real fidelity, isn’t really getting extra mileage out of their lower bass reproduction; it just made me want to abuse them (and my Emotiva UPA-2 amp) even further!]
I discovered that on albums with lots of strong continuous basslines (which includes a lot of other Philip Glass music), I’d have to just turn the volume down so I wouldn’t have to listen to my speakers rattle, as they were for the first time in their two-years tenure in my listening room, being force-fed heroic doses of frequencies they just weren’t designed to handle. Not without a subwoofer’s help, anyway. (And now with a Rythmik Audio D15SE sub in my possession, fixed.)
So, long story short, I turned the volume down to where the lil’ Maggies were comfortable. I still got details, but the presentation was a little bit darker overall (and turning the volume back up didn’t make it any brighter.) The Gungnir’s softer top end response helped take the edge off of some harshly-mastered albums, like my beloved “Heroes” and "Low". The stronger and punchier bass of the Gungnir also helped to breathe life into my rock collection, and some other dryly mixed works, like The Best of Sweet, and Danny Elfman’s Batman score album.
As the days passed, the Gungnir’s soundstage continued to widen, but the finer details that the Lynx used to deliver were muffled by the new DAC. Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” had acquired a heavier punch, but lost its sting. I resigned to the notion that this was just the way the Gungnir sounded, and I thoroughly enjoyed how it treated orchestral music.
But… back to Brünnhilde and Des Nibelungen; the thing that had me grinning like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange when I listened to the Walkurenritt, was the voices. Oh, how those voices filled my head with such wonderful pictures… And I must admit, the Gungnir injured me while I listened to my beloved Valkyries, as the new DAC made them sound veiled and ever so slightly farther away. I was a little pissed.
Wanting to give the Gungnir (and my ego, since I bought this thing to own it) benefit of doubt, I blamed my speaker cables, the star-quad Canare 4S-11 (terminated and sold by Blue Jeans Cable), upon remembering that some reviewers had reported that the Canare cables had a slightly dark sound to them, while however having a beautiful midrange. And while they did indeed show a darker presentation than my self-terminated Audio Research cable that I had bought bulk from Best Buy over ten years ago, the midrange was also indeed beautiful—in fact the extra timbral fidelity was good enough that I forgave the Canare for being a little less bright. But add the warm and woolly sounding Gungnir to the equation, and that’s two-too-many layers of sheer for the way I like to listen to music.
Overcome with curiosity, I put on The Matrix score album’s “Main Title/Trinity Infinity”, playing just the first thirty seconds before doubling back, reconnecting my preamp to the LynxTWO, and re-playing.
Oh, my, deus… The detail, dynamics, and the soundstage was back to where I knew it should have been; the honest, detailed sound I had grown so accustomed to was seemingly restored to my system. I wasn’t just pissed anymore, I was PYST. And after A/B-ing several times between the Lynx and the Gungnir, the notion crossed my mind that I should pack the new DAC back into its well-foamed box, and send it right back to Schiit and get a full refund. I still had five days left in their 15-day trial period, and I don’t waste $900 if I can help it.
And then something in my head went, “WAIT! Matt, the Gungnir is ‘balanced’.”
And I thought back, “But my preamp isn’t balanced, genius!”
And the voice said, “But the Lynx is balanced too, smartass.”
And I said out loud, “You’re suggesting I should get the Cardas RCA-to-XLR adaptors from the Lynx, and…”
And the voice said, “Bingo.”
The Gungnir Rises
I had, in good faith, been listening to the Gungnir through its unbalanced RCA connectors. In high-end audio, and unless your equipment is all tubes (where RCA connections are often the only option), unbalanced connections are considered by many manufacturers to be a gratuity, with greater attention paid to the naturally higher-bandwidth and lower-noise balanced connections. A flip through to the end of the Gungnir’s instruction manual shows Schiit Audio to echo this sentiment, per the FAQ:
“We don’t really have to answer this, do we? While the single-ended outputs are summed from the hardware-balanced outputs, balanced is the best way to go. By far.”
My apologies to Schiit for not RTFM-ing sooner.
With my judgement cautiously reserved, I used the Cardas adaptors to connect the Emotiva USP-1’s RCA ins to the Gungnir’s XLR outs, just as I had with the Lynx. Well, fuck if that didn’t do the trick.
As I put The Matrix back on, and that opening crescendo rose like a katana was being unsheathed before slicing crisply through a curtain of ice, I knew from the goosebumps on my arms that the Gungnir might be finally, truly ‘on song’. I had to stop the music then and calm down for a few moments, as I now found that I could neither get the grin off my face, nor stifle a welling column of giggles. “It’s alive!” I thought to myself.
I’m not into football, or Catholicism, but what the Gungnir did just then was throw one last Hail Mary pass in sudden death, and was now just on the verge of sweeping me off my feet. I went through everything I had listened to before and sat stunned. “Dazed And Confused” now had punch, and plenty of bite, and thanks to the new Jimmy Page-produced 24/96 remaster of their first albums (Led Zeppelin I, II, and III), I could hear more order to John Bonham’s furious pounding than I’d heard previously with the CD rip. The Gungnir let the details come through, but with a less-fatiguing top end than the Lynx offered.
What an amazing discovery! Despite not measuring quite as well as the LynxTWO on paper in some areas (signal-to-noise, total harmonic distortion), the Gungnir seemed to hit most of the Lynx’s bases, and slid home sounding not like a tool, but something altogether more fun. And as my man-cave isn’t a recording studio, ‘fun’ is eminently more doable.
Part III: The Gungnir and Lynx get married
That was 2014. In the two years between, the Gungnir, along with other forms of technological progress, had drastically changed the priorities of my setup. A Plex Media Center app on the Blu-ray player had eliminated the need for a huge ATX form-factor HTPC, so I cannibalized its motherboard, CPU and RAM for a FreeNAS box. The Lynx machine was gone.
I had found a better source in my completely solid-state MacBook Pro running J.River Media Center 20, and with Schiit Audio’s announcement of Multibit DAC module upgrades for the Gungnir and Bifrost (giving owners of those less-expensive units a taste of what Yggdrasil owners have been enjoying for the past year), it seems the Gungnir would sit happily in my possession indefinitely.
Yet still, my ears were growing restless with the dream of the dedicated Audio PC unfulfilled. I wondered then that if the Gungnir’s Adapticlock system could benefit from a cleaner source than one of the USB ports off my MacBook’s logicboard, (and why shouldn’t it?) then the LynxTWO might have one more trick to play.
The shell of the old Lynx-based HTPC, an Antec Fusion Remote Max—with its dent-proof brushed aluminum face and extensive internal bracing, a solid, once-beautiful Scottish claymore of an ATX chassis—was languishing in an unventilated basement under layers of drywall dust and mold spores, the undignified picture of utter neglect one ought to expect from an older, less-loved piece of obsolete tech, like a 386 office desktop or a Laserdisc player.
I didn’t have to spend anything to perform this experiment—an audio PC doesn’t need the latest and fastest hardware. So, after hauling the Antec case upstairs, air-gunning the dust bunnies and spider-skins out the inside and Windexing the crud off the outside, I un-gifted the innards from out of the NAS and re-gifted them into the Antec, reinstalled the LynxTWO in its PCI slot, and took a step back.
It felt damn good to see the Antec HTPC put back together again… But I had resurrected it not for video playback, but solely as a music server and digital audio transport for the Gungnir, for which the LynxTWO would serve as its interface card.
I was initially as interested in using the LynxTWO’s digital outputs as Hannibal Lecter was in going vegan. Chalk that up to more OCD (read: snobbery); because the LynxTWO’s AES/EBU output is limited to a maximum sample rate of 96kHz, I thought they were completely useless. Yes, I have a few 24/192 downloads from HDtracks, but I’ve even more at 24/96, with the majority of my library being 16/44.1 CD rips.
In short, I was being an ignorant fool. It wasn’t until I caught myself looking at discrete USB audio cards like SOtM’s tX-USBexp solution for PCIe ($350), that I realized I had possibly been cheating the Gungnir out of using a much higher-pedigreed interface card, which in spite of its (perceived) handicap, could feed it a stream of refined digital nectar so low in jitter that its Adapticlock circuitry would have time for a smoke break. (In theory.) And best of all, the thing was paid off.
A fresh Windows install, drivers, J.River Media Center 16 (an old Windows license, keepin’ it cheap) and music library loaded, I split the baggy holding the Lynx’s 15-pin digital breakout cable (releasing that fresh ‘2008’ air, leavened with heady optimism), put the supplied AES/EBU-to-unbalanced coaxial adaptor on the cable’s digital output, and plugged it in the Gungnir’s coax-in port. An install of the JRemote app ($9.99) onto my old iPhone 4, allowed me to control Media Center and navigate my music library from the listening chair.
Now we were ready. The Gungnir had already sounded pretty good with a simple USB connection, enough so that I didn’t miss the LynxTWO’s analog output too much, but it wasn’t thrust into the bosom of the heavens by Odin himself, either. Nevertheless, what difference could there be?
I started at what I was sure would be the setup’s weakest point, again by playing the 24/192 FLAC download of the Jurassic Park 20th Anniversary reissue, track 07 “Welcome To Jurassic Park” (actually the end credits suite as heard in the film). Media Center’s software DSP had to be configured to downsample streams higher than 96kHz before the Lynx could spit it back and tell Media Center to take a huge shit. So anything over 96kHz wouldn’t be bit-perfect. For the sake of curiosity, I had to hear what the system managed to do with it.
Soundstage: wider than fucking ever. Fine details in the upper registers were a bit sheared off (no doubt due to the DSP’s downsampling), but that orchestra swelled with an expressiveness and power that neither the LynxTWO, nor the Gungnir could accomplish by themselves alone. I didn’t even mind the DSP; all I could do was sit back and enjoy. It was an oceanic experience, and as the anthemic ‘Journey’ fanfare returned halfway through the track, I felt the energy of the music sweeping over me like waves.
So what did bit-perfect material (≤96kHz) sound like? I brought up a 16/44.1 rip of the Deutsche Grammophon Grand Prix recording of Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony (FLAC, DDD, 00289 477 6334 GGP).
Mahler is known for grand gestures, huge orchestras, and exceedingly melodramatic and temperamental swings, able to shift from childlike frolic to sustained wailing apocalyptic terror, before pleading and pining with unremitting, implacable grief—all in the course of a few minutes. Bernstein, probably Mahler’s most preternaturally sensitive interpreter, produces a reading here that is pure, unbridled emotion.
I mentioned at the beginning that I was chasing the sense of presence that my father’s direct-drive Technics turntable could conjure; the way it could effortlessly project performers into the room on a seemingly three-dimensional soundstage, damn the pops and scratches.
That was mostly a distant childhood memory, conjured by a different system when the Audio-Technica cartridge was newer, but the old beater still has the power to command my attention. Even today, even with a little ground hum, a nice record could electrify the room in a way the Lynx, for all its resolution, couldn’t quite manage.
Moments into the Mahler 5th, which has an opening which was clearly the inspiration for Star Wars, I forgot about the turntable.
The leading trumpet began calmly, centered right between and just behind the speakers, its tone clear as a bell, penetrating, electrifying, present. It seemed to move towards the chair as its mood became more insistent, before the brass unit then burst forth with a triumphant two-note salvo that lifted the ceiling off the soundstage, soon followed by an almighty crack from cymbals, bass timpani and snares, which took care of the other four walls. That was the sound of Schiit Gungnir and LynxTWO in perfect harmony.
[I also hold this up as an example of why even the best headphones are no substitute for how a set of good full-range speakers (or even a cheap, but high-value set like my MMGs and Rythmik Audio D15SE subwoofer) can, as John Williams once observed of a symphony orchestra, “disturb the air.”
If you can sit through the dynamic swings of the first and second movements and not so much as flinch, if Mahler fails to provoke a visceral reaction, you’re listening to it THE WRONG WAY!!! ]
With the LynxTWO as its interface card, the Gungnir retained its own muscular traits on the low end, but seemed to inherit the older soundcard’s analytical nature on the top end. This meant that Bowie’s squealing alto saxophone in “Neukölln” on ‘Heroes’ again threatens to stab me in the frontal lobes—albeit with a smoother-edged implement—if the volume is too high. (So I should turn it down! I know, I know.)
But that’s just the way ‘Heroes’ sounds; it didn’t inspire the confidence of the young salesman at a high-end audio boutique in Bethesda, Maryland when I blasted “The Secret Life of Arabia” through a pair of Wilson Audio Sasha W/P’s.
“Yeah, this sounds really low-res,” he commented.
So what? I wanted to hear what these five-figure speakers did with a piece of music I loved. Bowie’s charm didn’t come from working with Steely Dan’s engineers, after all. (I am hopeful, however, that once 24-bit reissues of the Berlin Trilogy hit HDtracks.com, their top-end response will sound a little bit more natural.)
This experiment has been a resounding success—the Gungnir got a low-jitter bitstream, the LynxTWO got a new lease on life (at least until I can replace it with its successor, the Lynx E44), and I got a digital source that for the first time since I started climbing this little audiophilic ladder, doesn’t have me looking back in time for inspiration on how to move forward.
There is room for improvement, but I can appreciate what the system does today, because for the most part, it does right by the music (moreso than previously). I should feel cheered by the fact that the Gungnir didn’t lie on ‘Heroes’, and in fact made it sound as good as it ever has on my system.
What in most cases would have sounded as squeezed and dynamically truncated as any recent pop creation, was given layers, depth, and a surprising panoply of textures. With the Lynx, I've got a little pipeline from the mastered bits on CD to my ears. The combo didn’t make Heroes sound as polished as Station To Station, but that was never the point of a pro-audio instrument. The Gungnir nevertheless helps warm up the album for home listening enjoyment.
I had only just finished putting the Antec case back together in the early morning hours when I learned the sudden, tragic news of David Bowie’s death at the age of 69. I consider this my tribute, that I managed to put a system together that, to my ears, does right by his music.
[This article, however, should really be dedicated to my Dad, whose hifi and vast music collection got me started on this journey. And had it not been for his love of computers and technology, which was passed on to me, none of this would have been possible.]
Okay, so does this mean I’m telling everyone to get a top-dollar interface card with the Schiit Gungnir? No. A clean source will help any DAC perform at its best, but Schiit’s Adapticlock™ clock regeneration system does a fine enough job by itself. I had it plugged into my Macbook for two years with no complaints. (Do avail yourself of J.River Media Center if you haven’t already. Software counts.)
- Source: Retina MacBook Pro 15” & J.River Media Center 20
- DAC: Schiit Audio Gungnir delta-sigma balanced DAC
- Preamp: Emotiva USP-1
- Power Amp: Emotiva UPA-2 (185 watts RMS @ 4Ω)
- Loudspeakers: Magnepan MMG
- Sub: Rythmik Audio D15SE 15” servo-controlled subwoofer
- Speaker Cables: Canare 4S11, terminated by Blue Jeans Cable
- Interconnects: Analysis Plus Oval One, Cardas RCA to XLR adaptors
- Power Cables: Pangea AC-14 for the sources, Pangea AC-9 for the power amp
AUDIO PC SPECIFICATIONS:
- Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD3, Socket AM3+
- CPU: AMD Phenom X4, 3200 MHz
- RAM: G.Skill Ripjaws Series 8GB (2GB x 4)
- Soundcard: Lynx Studio Technologies LynxTWO-B
- Boot SSD: Samsung 840 EVO 250GB
- Storage HDD: Seagate Barracuda 4TB
- Power Supply: Rosewill Hive Series 550W, 80-PLUS Bronze Certified
- Chassis: Antec Fusion Remote Max
- OS: Windows 8.1
- Playback Software: J.River Media Center 16
SCHIIT AUDIO GUNGNIR (Delta-Sigma version):
- D/A Conversion IC: AKM AK4399 x 2 (4 total channels, hardware balanced configuration)
- Analog Stages: All fully discrete, JFET-input topology, DC coupled, summed for single-ended output
- Frequency Response, Analog Stage: 20Hz-20Khz, +/-0.1dB, 1Hz-100KHz, -1dB
- Maximum Output: 4.0V RMS (balanced), 2.0V RMS (single-ended)
- THD: Less than 0.002%, 20Hz-20KHz, at full output
- IMD: <0.002%, CCIR
- SNR: > 112dB, referenced to 2V RMS
- Inputs: Coaxial RCA SPDIF, BNC SPDIF, Optical SPDIF, USB
- Input Capability: up to 24/192 for all inputs
- Input Receiver, SPDIF: AKM 4113
- Input Receiver, USB: C-Media CM6631A
- Output: One pair XLR balanced and two pairs RCA single-ended
- Output Impedance: 75 ohms
- Clock Management: Bitperfect clock management at all native sample rates via Adapticlock analysis and VCXO/VCO regeneration, plus asynchronous USB Gen 2 module
- Power supply: two transformers (one for digital supplies, one for analog supplies) with 8 stages of regulation, including separate local supplies for critical digital and analog sections.
- Upgradability: Separate, modular USB Input Card and DAC/Analog Cards are snap-in replaceable.
- Power Consumption: 20W
- Size: 16 x 8.75” x 2.25”
- Weight: 11 lbs
LYNX STUDIO TECHNOLOGY LynxTWO-B:
- B Model: Two inputs / six outputs
- Type: Electronically balanced or unbalanced, XLR connectors on L2Audio Cable
- Level: +4 dBu nominal /+20dBu max. or -10dBV nominal / +6dBV max., software selectable in channel pairs
- Bandwidth:< 10Hz - 92 kHz @ 200 kHz sample rate, < 10Hz - 46 kHz @ 96 kHz sample rate, < 10Hz - 23 kHz @ 48 kHz sample rate (analog input to analog output)
- Input Impedance: Balanced mode: 24 k , Unbalanced mode: 12 k
- Output Impedance: Balanced mode: 100, Unbalanced mode: 50
- Output Drive Capability: 600 impedance, 0.2 µF capacitance
- A/D and D/A Type: 24-bit, multi-level, delta-sigma
- Sample Rates: 8 kHz to 200 kHz, including all standard rates with variable adjustment
- Bit Depth: 8, 16, 24 or 32 bit file types
- On-board Buffer Size: 16 Kbytes per input and output stream (mono or stereo)
- Number / Type: One input and one output, AES/EBU or S/P DIF format, transformer coupled, XLR connectors on L2Sync Cable
- Sample Rates: 32 kHz, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz
- Sample Rate Conversion: Supports conversion ratios up to 3:1 on digital input, 128 dB dynamic range
- Bit Depth: 8, 16, 24 or 32 bit file types
- Control / Status: Complete subcode and channel status support
- On-board Buffer Size: 16 Kbytes per input and output stream (mono or stereo)
Analog Out Performance
- Frequency Response: 20 - 20 kHz, ± 0.05 dB at 44.1 kHz sample rate
- Dynamic Range: 117 dB, A-wtd.
- Signal-to-Noise: 117 dB, A-wtd.
- Channel Crosstalk: <-120 dB, 1 kHz signal @ -1dBFS
- THD+N: -97 dB (0.0014%) @ -1 dBFS, -104 dB (0.0006%) @ -8 dBFS, 1kHz signal, 22Hz - 22kHz BW