Birdland Audio's Silver Series Odeon-Ag DAC
In today's world of format wars between high resolution DVD Audio and SACD, the choice for the consumer has become quite daunting. There is a strong likelihood that most consumers will choose not to choose and go along with whatever formats their DVD players accomodate. Individual sales of CD only machines are becoming rarer these days as the 'DVD monster' attempts to swallow up this admittedly tiny niche market. What should the audiophile do? Many of us want to take advantage of these higher resolution formats, which bring us closer to an analogue waveform, with the added convenience of CD. But how to decide? And what to do with our large, 'Perfect Sound Forever' CD collections?
Have no fear audiophiles, for along comes Gilles Gameiro, the audio and musical guru behind Birdland Audio. Gilles, the designer of this little gem of a DAC, has taken great care in making sure you hear music, not bits.
Ag is the chemical symbol for silver, and the Odeon's silver look is imitated well by grained anodized aluminum. The unit weighs 3 lbs (1.35 Kg) and is 1.6" x 8.9" x 6.9" (41 x 226 x 178mm). It is a diminutive and elegant package. The faceplate has a power/standby button-like switch with an indicator light situated below. Adjacent to the power button are three input selector buttons with their accompanying indicator lights. Just to the right of them are five sampling frequency indicator lights, 32Hz, 44.1Hz, 48Hz, 96Hz and 192Hz, followed by a volume knob and an infrared sensor. The universal remote matches the diminutive size of the unit. The remote looks like it was designed by the folks at Apple computer, but it was actually done by Zenith. The rear panel has three digital inputs. Inputs one and two are Toslink fiber and input three, unbalanced BNC 75 ohms. The BNC input comes with an adapter for single ended RCA connection. Input 3 also has an XLR AES/EBU connector, so one has a choice to make. I'm not a fan of adapters and would have preferred an RCA input, as enjoyed by its predecessor, the Odeon-lite. There are two additional ports for future additions and upgrades, such as a hyper-stable, jitter-free 20ppm reclocker or SACD card. An IEC power socket is provided for after market power cord experimentation. And let us not forget the gold plated, variable, analogue outputs via the front panel volume control. The unit's fit and finish are first class except for the four small soft rubber feet that are glued to the bottom. I would like to have seen a more substantial connection -- I experienced some problems with the feet separating from the unit.
Although not an engineer or a physicist, I'll attempt to give you some idea of what is behind the operation of this divine little unit. Birdland Audio describes it thus: 'Not only does it convert any digital format at sampling rates of 32KHz to 192KHz but it also up-samples digital input to virtually recreate 24 bits, if the input data is less, while over-sampling the input frequency by up to four times'. Got that? Additionally, Gameiro designed what he calls his 'Solid-Tube' output stages. Solid tubes! What are they? According to Gameiro, he uses various solid-state devices such as j-fets and mosfets, bipolar in combination, allowing each to operate in their most linear ranges and complement each other, creating a musical blend of detail and warmth. Seems like a tube ideal, without tube hassle! When a true digital output of higher resolution is made available from manufacturers, the Odeon-Ag will be able to handle it. I can only imagine how good a true 24/96 or 24/192 signal would sound going through this unit.
Set up proved very easy and intuitive. I connected the Odeon to my Musatex Melior CD transport with Acoustic Zen's new Silver Byte digital interconnect (with the supplied BNC adapter) and to my Kora Eclipse preamp with Acoustic Zen's new Matrix Reference II interconnects (cable reviews forthcoming). I also used Acoustic Zen's Gargantua power cord. The Odeon-Ag took the place of my Sunfire Theater Grand II, which I have been using as my DAC. The chain was completed by connecting the Matrix II's to the InnerSound ESL Mark II amplifier and Acoustic Zen's Hologram II speaker cables to my modified TMS Adiabat 8.5 speakers. Following the manual's directions, I programmed the remote for the DAC and moved the volume control to the 3 o'clock position (volume adjustments were controlled by the preamplifier). I also connected my Sony DVP 7000 DVD player, via Toslink to the DAC as well. One minor problem emerged when I started the set up. The unit, being so small and light weight, was pulled back on my shelf from the weight and tension of the power cord and various interconnects, and the little rubber feet kept detaching from the unit. This was easily remedied by placing a handy old brick on top of the unit with Vibrapods above and below the DAC. Feel free to use any non-metallic weight you want but I thought the juxtaposition of that old brick contrasted beautifully with the silvery, high tech unit.
Where to start? This little gem is astounding! There, I said it. Reviewers often use superlatives only later to discover equipment that surpass the performance of gear of which we recently effused. In this case, improvement will be a challenge. Eventually, it will and should happen, and if I'm lucky enough to be around, I'll tell you about it. In the meantime let me tell you what the Odeon-Ag did for my sound system.
I consulted my notes and realized there wasn't one parameter that I could name that didn't improve with the Odeon. It took standard CDs to another realm. Naturalness, air and clarity only begin to tell the story. The ability to be transparent, with delicacy and palpability was remarkable. The resolution of complex passages, providing air around instruments and illuminating the performers on stage giving their spatial relationships to each other, were all accomplished so easily that I accepted it as my system's new benchmark. Instrumental tonality and textures were never better at 'Chez Appel' and a little Champagne did flow.
NOW, TAKE OUT THE PREAMPLIFIER...
I removed my Kora preamplifier and connected the Odeon straight into the InnerSound ESL Mark II amplifier with Acoustic Zen's Matrix Reference II interconnects. My fear of using superlatives too freely was going to haunt me sooner rather than later. As good as the sound was with the preamplifier in, it was even better out. The Odeon sounded even purer and uncolored. I doubt that a preamplifier exists that doesn't impart some sonic characteristic to the music. In some instances, it can be beneficial. But in this case, as good as this preamplifier is, I preferred listening to the system with the Odeon-Ag directly feeding the amplifier - images were even sharper, the faintest haze swept away. Vocal performances by Jacintha, Holly Cole, Frank Sinatra and Eva Cassidy, to name a few, were a revelation. I have not heard such a faithful reproduction of voices in my system. Natural and effortless.
OFF TO DENNIS' HOUSE WE GO
I felt it was necessary to try this Odeon 'magic' in another system to see if the brilliance transferred to systems of different types. I called up my colleague and friend Dennis Parham and told him the Birdland story. I set him up perfectly. I was very non-committal to all his queries, playing it very low key. I didn't want to muddy the waters. Mike Levy, another colleague and dear friend, also joined us. The table was set.
Dennis saw the size and said, 'that's it!' I said 'just plug it in and let it warm up while we listen to your system.' Dennis has a Sony XA 777 SACD player, Kora Eclipse and Hermes DAC with the BAT VK 500 amplifier, Acoustic Zen cabling, Usher Dancer speakers and a Talon Roc subwoofer. Shunyata line conditioner and Room lenses complete the system. After getting an aural fix on his system we changed DACs and started listening. The Kora Hermes tube DAC retails for about US$3,400.00 and is about three years old. After a few short minutes, our collective reaction was one of amazement. It was especially gratifying listening and watching my colleagues' reactions. You know that sound of jaw hitting floor, well it was there aplenty. The overall impression was as if the entire stage had been in shadow and now became illuminated with music. The instruments became crystal clear, popping into focus with lifelike body and air. Dennis was especially taken with the improvement in bass performance, both its extension and definition, as were we all. Accolades kept pouring forth to the point that Dennis, who thought he was finished tinkering with his system, (we all had a good laugh with that one) would be doing some serious re-evaluating. Perhaps Birdland Audio has made another sale? Mike, who was familiar with Dennis' sound, was quite taken with the improvement. In fact he wants me to bring it to his house post haste. That'll be a story for another day.
It has been a treat to be one of the first to review the Odeon-Ag. I'm sure in the near future there will be more and I look forward to reading other reactions. Regardless, I remain amazed at the level of performance that the Odeon-Ag brings to CD reproduction. I've been lucky enough to review several groundbreaking products, including pieces from InnerSound and Acoustic Zen. The Odeon Ag is one of those rare products that advances the state of the art in both performance and value. I know that other companies have come out with, or are planning over-sampling/up-sampling DACs, and as I have not heard them in my system, I can't say with any certainty that the Odeon is the best there is. But I can say that Gameiro should be extremely proud of creating a unit that makes superb performance attainable for what is a high-end entry-level price point.
[It is with great pleasure that we award The Audiophilia Star Component Award to the Birdland Audio Silver Series Odeon-Ag DAC. Congratulations! - Ed]
This review was completed using the standard unit. When I asked Gilles Gameiro about the jitter free reclocker and what its impact would be, he responded by saying that there would be a big improvement. I was just a little taken aback. I plan to do a follow up and let you know the results. Somehow I'd be surprised if he was exaggerating.
Stay tuned and keep listening.
Bluport, Noel Jewkes Quartet, If And When The Stars BP-J005*
Pablo, The Alternate Blues OJCD-744-2 (2312-136 )
Grove Note, Jacintha, Autumn Leaves, the songs of Johnny Mercer GRV2006-2
JVC XRCD, The Famous Sounds of three blind mice TBM-XR-9001
Eva Cassidy, Songbird G2-10045
London, Rossini Overtures - OSM/DUTOIT D164382
RCA, Living Stereo, Stokowski Rhapsodies 09026-61503-2
The Birdland Audio Silver Series Odeon-Ag DAC
Birdland Audio, PO Box 51863, Pacific Grove, CA 93950
web: http://www.birdland.com e mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source of review sample: Manufacturer loan
|Copyright © 2003 AUDIOPHILIA|