Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Super-size your sonics with Bryston combo

To call the Bryston BDP-1 digital player and the matching Bryston BDA-1 DAC 'analogue' seems to me to be oxymoronic. So I will call the combo 'undigital' instead.

The Bryston combo is one of the most undigital-sounding digital systems I have ever heard.

The Bryston combo.

The just-released BDP-1 digital player seems to be one of those trend-setting components that appears destined to be included in Hi-Fi's Hall of Fame and I won't be surprised if clones of it appear in the market in the near future. Imitation is the best form of flattery and I'm sure the designers in Bryston have been flattered by the heaps of praises from consumers and critics about it.

It appears that the Bryston designers have taken note of all the tweaks and gizmos used by DIYers and tweakers to come up with its silent and cool digital player. There are people out there who have built their own noiseless digital music players with PCs made with Zalman components without fan (or low-noise low-vibration fans) and no spinning internal hard disk. Sometimes, they use liquid-cooled systems. Sound cards from companies like Lynx, M-Audio and Asus have been mentioned in computer forums. And solid-state drives are a must.

What Bryston has done is to incorporate the latest thinking in digital players and put everything into one sleek box that can be controlled wirelessly by an iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch or smart phones. The digital player comes with a remote control, but I had so much fun controlling it with an iPad that the remote control was not used at all.

Just download the MPoD app, which has a much better GUI than Bryston’s software, and you will have a fabulous time showing off the latest in hi-fi technology to your friends. The MPoD software even shows you the native resolution of the file and the streaming speed.

The BDA-1 plays everything - FLAC, WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, WMP and MP3 - from four USB inputs. The two in front are for devices requiring low power like thumbdrives and the two at the rear are for devices requiring more power like USB-powered external disk drives.

Bryston recommends using a large 500GB or 1TB hard drive permanently connected to the BDP-1 and use smaller 8-16GB thumbdrives for specific playlists.



Initialising the BDP-1



Like a computer, the BDP-1 needs to boot up when you switch it on. The initialising and updating process can take a while depending on the amount of data you have connected to it.

The front USB ports are for thumbdrives.

With three thumbdrives plugged in, it took more than a minute. For the heck of it, I plugged in a 1TB Buffalo and a 500GB Western Digital external disk plus two thumbdrives to find out how long it would take to reboot - it took three and a half minutes.

So it would be a good idea to do some housekeeping and ensure that music files are not duplicated in the hard disks and create specific playlists in the thumbdrives. And try not to use a 1TB external hard disk.


What the BDP-1 does



The BDP-1 does not play CDs or rip CDs. You will have to do that with your PC or Mac with whatever software you are comfortable with like Exact Audio Copy, dBpoweramp or iTunes.

It merely accepts digital music files from the USB devices in their native sample rates and bit depths from 16bit/44.1kHz to 24/192, processes them and streams them to an external DAC through AES/EBU and BNC/Coax (SPDIF) outputs.

The absence of a cooling fan and spinning internal hard disk has resulted in a cool and silent digital player. This ‘cool’ feature plus a well-designed power supply have resulted in very smooth and undigital-sounding music.

The BDP-1 can be partnered with any external DAC, but Bryston recommends the matching BDA-1 DAC. After testing the pair for a few days, I would recommend that combo too.



Bryston BDP-1 partnered with Benchmark DAC1 Pre



My resident system comprises a Roksan Caspian CD player used as transport, a Benchmark DAC1 Pre, a Bryston 4BSST power amp, ATC SCM40 floorstanding speakers, MIT Shotgun interconnects and biwire speaker cables, Audioquest Panther dbs XLR balanced interconnects and a Furutech power distributor with various power cords.

My Benchmark DAC1 Pre has been souped up with Furutech fuses and a Siltech power cord.
The Bryston BDP-1 was connected to the Benchmark with a BNC to Coax cable while the BDP-1 was connected to the BDA-1 DAC initially with an analogue XLR cable from QED.

James Tan of AV Design, the Malaysian distributor of Bryston, had lent me his thumbdrives containing MP3, ripped CDs and hires 24/96, 24/88.2 and 24/192 files. I had my own collection of hi-res files including three HRx 24/176.4 files from Reference Recording in the WD 500GB external drive.

The Western Digital 500GB external disk drive
was plugged into the rear USB port.

Compared with the BDA-1, the Benchmark sounded leaner and the soundstage was pushed backwards.

Wiith the Benchmark, the presentation was very back row - it was as if I had walked to the last few rows of the concert hall and the music seemed distant and thinner.



Bryston BDP-1 partnered with Bryston BDA-1 DAC



If you need evidence that synergy is vital in hi-fi, look no further than this pair. They are indeed a match made in sonic heaven.

Together they made some of the most involving and moving undigital-sounding music I have ever heard from digital components and digital music files.

The Brystons have the capability of creating very rich and full sounding music that gives a lot of body and weight to the singers and instruments. The music is thick and layered and also very detailed.

However, the soundstage was thrust forward but I found the effect quite intimate and enjoyable. With the Bryston pair, it was a front-row presentation. I had walked all the way down to the first row of seats and music was richer and the images became fuller and bigger.

Initially I felt that the music sounded too rich with the QED analogue XLR cable and after googling around, I learnt that analogue cables should never be used for digital purposes as the impedance mismatch (AES/EBU specs specify 110 Ohms) can result in signal reflections.

So I bought a Chord Chorus AES/EBU cable and with it, the music sounded slightly less rich but the treble improved with the timbres of instruments like horns, violins and higher notes of the piano sounding more accurate. The Chord AES/EBU cable was used for the rest of the listening session. If you buy the Bryston combo, it is advisable to use a good AES/EBU cable.

Somehow the Brystons can create harmonically-rich sounds even from MP3 files which normally sound spartan. With well-recorded 24/192 files like a few from HDTracks, the soundstage is immensely large. The Linn 24/88.2 Studio Master files of Handel’s Messiah sounded spectacular with great spaciousness.

It would appear that while MP3 files sound good with the Bryston digital player/DAC, they are  especially well-suited to play hi-res files.

Previously when I used my Toshiba laptop to stream hi-res files stored in the Buffalo 1TB external hard disk via USB to the Benchmark DAC1 Pre, I encountered data drop-outs. I was told that I should use only disk drives of up to 500GB to stream music as the slower download speeds of bigger drives can affect the streaming of data via USB.

So I decided to test the 1TB drive with the Bryston BDA-1. I encountered no data drop-outs and even the problematic (some DACs cannot decode them) Reference Recording’s HRx 24/176.4 files were played with no issues at all at their native resolution.



The Bryston BDA-1 DAC



Bryston’s designers were smart enough to sidestep the current debates over whether USB or Firewire is the superior connection, and whether asynchronous or adaptive-mode USB is better.

The BDA-1 offers only a 16/48-capable USB input and it obviously is its weakest feature, but the superior AES/EBU, Coax, BNC and Toslink connections more than make up for it.

I presume Bryston’s designers offered the USB input solely to allow the owner to play MP3 and ripped CD (16/44.1) files. Hires files should be played via the other inputs, preferably the AES/EBU.

I used my Toshiba laptop and Media Monkey to stream some files through the BDA-1’s USB input.

The ripped CDs and MP3s sounded quite good. The hi-res files were downsampled to 48kHz and strangely if I played a ripped CD file after playing a hires file, the 48kHz sampling rate light would glow, but if I played an MP3 or ripped CD file from the beginning, the 44.1kHz light would glow.

The song title and band name appear on the BDP-1's screen
 while the BDA-1 shows the sampling rate.
Though the ripped CD and MP3 files sounded better streamed by the BDP-1 via AES/EBU, Bryston’s 16/48 USB input was the best such input I have heard so far.

The BDA-1 uses dual Crystal CS-4398 DAC chips, two independent linear power supplies, Class A analogue output stages and impedance-matching transformers at the inputs. Incoming signals are re-clocked and re-sampled for jitter reduction.

It also offers an upsampling feature which is functional when using sample rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96.

I tried upsampling one Frank Sinatra ripped CD file and while it sounded cleaner and clearer, I felt it sounded processed and un-natural.

In my view, digital files ought to be played at their native resolutions and except for that one time when I pressed the upsampling button, the entire reviewing sessions were done with the button disengaged.



Laptop vs Bryston digital player



James Tan could not go to my house to ‘repossess’ the Brystons on the scheduled day because the city was all jammed up. So I took advantage of the extra time I had with the Brystons to carry out more tests.

With the Toshiba laptop (running on battery power to reduce power supply noise), I listened to MP3 and ripped CD files using Media Monkey through the Bryston BDA-1’s 16/48 USB input since hires files would be downsampled.

Compared with the same files streamed from the BDP-1, the laptop somehow sounded less detailed and transparent. With the BDP-1, the soundstage widened, there was greater clarity and the inherent richness of the Bryston combo made it a clear winner.

While the BDP-1 is a great digital player, I feel the superiority of the AES/EBU over the USB connection is a contributory factor.



CD player (used as transport) vs Bryston digital player



My Roksan Caspian is a pretty decent CD player and when used as a transport, it sounds very transparent and clear with the Benchmark DAC1 Pre. I connected it to the Bryston BDA-1 with an MIT coax cable.

Compared to the BDP-1, the Roksan sounded quite good, but the Bryston combo sounded smoother with larger soundstage and again its inherent richness gave it the edge over the CD transport.



The future of hi-fi

Despite the fact that I still think analogue sound has the edge over digital music in terms of ‘naturalness’, the Bryston combo exemplifies the coming of age of digital music and proves that digital files can sound delightfully good if things are done right.

The playlist on the iPad.

The MPoD app even shows
the sampling and streaming rates.

And with the ease that the digital player can be controlled with an iPad, which is also starting a revolution by itself, and the convenience of having thousands of songs stored in thumbdrives and external hard disks, digital - if it is done right - is definitely the future of hi-fi.



1 comment:

  1. The reason the lap-top sound worse than the media player BDP is probably due to the type of connection; USB implementation in the Bryston DAC (BDA) is not a proper jitter reduction /asynchronous types that is adopted by Arcam, Ayre, Wavelength, Wyred for sound, Antelope Zodiac or DCS . Did the BDP connect to the BDA using the AES output ? AES is the superior implementation and the have probably the lowest jitter reduction connection.
    So ideally in your case, would be to compare the AES input type DAC like the Berkeley Audio as the Bryston Media (BDP) do not have a USB output but only input? correct! In theory the Media will appear more superior implementation than a standard tweak Laptop or a desktop, but who knows? But then Media Monkey will then sound different from J river perhaps? PC set up for computer based audio slightly more complicated - disabling certain auto softwares , enabling full usb resources , etc. apparently has improved sonics properties!

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