Ready to rumble

Seeing that the Odeon-Ag allocates two of its four input options to Toslink, I thought it prudent to explore the fiber versus S/PDIF debate. Common Knowledge insists that by comparison, Toslink sucks like an Oreck vac. But there's evidence this could be a misspelled hence ineffective mantra by now. A quick query on Audio Asylum generated three solid Toslink cable recommendations: Wireworld Supernova III+, Audioquest OptiLink 4 and Van den Hul Optocoupler II.

Quite a few of the correspondents had experimented extensively between both formats. In their rigs, some actually obtained better results with the right fiber cable than with the ubiquitous RCA interface. As for me, I was the unwashed heathen and had no allegiance either way. Naturally I knew all the hearsay on the S/PDIF (RCA or BNC) superiority over plastic/fiber. Would it validate itself in such stark contrast? To find out, I contacted Wireworld, Audioquest and The Cable Company with a request for short-term loaners and started my listening using Acoustic Zen's finest S/PDIF digital IC.

With the analog outs of the Marantz on input 1, I connected the Odeon to my PRe1 on input 2 and set its attenuator slightly above the recommended 1500 hour position for perfect level matching. The PRe1's slick remote now allowed endless A/B toggles from my seat. Yes sir! Start the cannons.

I began with something simple to get a feel for the lay of the land: Adam del Monte's Ezordio [GSP 1020, 1999], an album of acoustic solo guitar that recalls the elegant legacy of Julian Bream.

The differences were silly obvious and potent in the way a shot of premium Mescal will make a nondrinker happy in a hurry or risk Code Red for a soldier on duty: Significantly more air and ambient information. By comparison, the analog-direct feed had a slightly edged quality. Think shadow puppet theater - sharp black and white contrast without gray scale.

The Odeon rendition sounded like an instrument performing in space while the Marantz erased most this space and portrayed the instrument flatter against a white background.

The curtailed hall reverb robbed the guitar of some of its singing quality. This made for a drier, matter-of-fact statement, not this more poetic and "ensouled" expression trapped inside the very selfsame pits. The Odeon also increased the sense of width, not by stretching out the Pedro de Miguel custom creation but by unearthing subtle venue reflections.

Time for more complex material. Same artist, but now donning his fiery flamenco alter ego: "Blue Rumba" on Viaje a un nuevo mundo [Lyricon 21113, 1997] that adds Andre Manga on bass, Paul Tchunga on percussion, Milcho Leviev on piano and Hugh Levick on alto sax.

Same differences, but significantly compounded. Now that bass energy was present, it was definitely lower, stronger, more powerful. An all-around sensation of heightened juiciness, denser colors, increased drive and urgency. "This is interesting", my notes say. "Enhanced resolution in this instance equals more excitement, not more relaxation. There's also a distinct impression of taking off one's hat, replacing the confined space around the scalp for communion with the sky above. Must be that 38kHz high-end. You can't hear it but definitely sense a tactile hat's-off presence."

An image now comes to mind - angled sunlight filtered through air dancing with dust motes. You can see the actual light beams rather than just observe their brightness effect. The dust particles act like dither - subliminal noise of sorts but definitely enhancing the "visibility" of the light. The Odeon's HF energy is like that - a kind of pressure or presence, an aural MSG contrast agent.

Jacques Loussier's Bach Book [Telarc 83474, 1999], on the Andante of the harpsichord D major Concerto, opens with extremely lucidly recorded triangle accents. The Marantz portrayed the endless decay trails every bit as long. The difference? Via the Odeon, it was far easier to hear how the lower harmonics of the struck triangle faded out consecutively one after the other until only the very highest ones remained.

Amongst this album's many stellar highlights are surely Vincent Charbonnier's wonderous bass exploits - rotund, woodsy, sonorous, extended, at times massive, at times nimble, but always an absolute delight to follow and recorded in reference-quality clarity by Loussier himself.

2:53 minutes into the track come two open string pulses on the bass' lowest notes. The Odeon's portrayal was firmer, weightier, with more growl. Repeated A/Bs confirmed that the Marantz's more subdued bass performance throughout the track wasn't a function of less extension but simply less weight - a light morning eater versus the Odeon's lumberjack breakfast.

The concluding Allegro and album's last track features a marvelous one-minute bass/percussion solo between Charbonnier and Andre Arpino working out his circularly spaced drum kit. The added dryness of the Marantz caused his cracks, snaps and other transients to be harder and edgier. The Odeon once again added that certain spatial bloom yet didn't undermine rhythmic coherence. The sense of "space behind the performers" was a lot stronger than with the 630.

To inject perspective at this juncture: My flatland hoi polloi Marantz acquitted itself surprisingly well against the chichi Pebble Beach native. It wasn't quite the Cro-Magnon primitive I had feared. For someone whose overall system is comprised of high-quality components capable of fine resolution, the improvements offered by the Birdland DAC are plain and bring one that much closer to the desirable suspension of disbelief. However, a less optimized system might achieve greater initial returns by securing the absolute best loudspeaker performance one's budgetary and room restraints can wring out.

"Spente Le Stelle" of Emma Shapplin's hiphop/opera crossover album Carmine Meo [EMI/Pendragon, 1999] could rip your ears off - the lady's got reach and power in the high soprano register. Backed by massed strings, the French Opera Choirs and phat beats by Christophe Deschamps, this stuff hovers on the edge of kitsch. But is great fun if, like me, you crave the occasional dose of operatic soprano without the usual operatic excesses.

The instant sensation of switching from the Marantz to the Birdland was that of a movie theater getting ready for the widescreen feature. The projectionist widens the curtains after the trailers finish. Translation? Left-/right expansion in space, depth and presence expansion through stronger colors and more image density. Emma's voice lost none of its intensity or slight edge - but it filled out. The Odeon didn't smooth out the harmonic sharpness in her hair-raising pipes. Rather, by becoming more full-bodied, it took out some of the former thinness within this "on-edgeness".

The sonic contributions noted thus far turned out to be repeatable on everything I threw at the DAC. They grew more pronounced on lesser -- or what I thought were lesser -- recordings, and remained appreciable but less acute on the choicest cherries in my CD collection.

It was time to explore the Odeon's ability to stand in for a first-rate preamp and let it drive my long-term SET direct.