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Blacknote DSS 30i Tube DAC Review

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Blacknote DSS30 DACIf you read my review of the Blacknote CDP300 player, you know that I found it to be a terrific player that made the most of the redbook standard. When Hiram Toro, the U.S. importer for Blacknote, spoke with me about the DSS 30i Tube, he made a point of emphasizing that I should not think of it as a traditional DAC. He promised that though its output section was similar to the CDP300, playing a CD that had been packed onto a flash drive would yield better results than feeding the DSS the output of a transport. That sounded fishy to me, but what damage is there in investigating the claim?

The product specs for the DSS are like reading the box for a new computer. My comparison to a Swiss Army Knife holds water (see Specifications to the right). The specifications say very little about the vacuum tube output stage, but I have a feeling that it is just as important to the sound of this unit as the digital part of the unit. I’ll just say that it must be very good based on the overall sound I was hearing.

My main goal was to investigate Hiram’s claim that flash drives somehow worked magic on otherwise decent digital recordings. Though I should have, and though it would make this review more informative, I never hooked up a server, computer, iPod, camera, washing machine, car, cat, tube tester, kitchen sink……..

Blacknote DSF large external display for the DSS

Horse, Dead, Being Beaten

I am loathe to praise anything digital. How do I hate digital? Let me count the ways: “perfect sound forever” (please note that anyone who says that anything made by man is perfect is delusional); “bits is bits”; the demise of the JVC pressing plant in Japan; the death of cover art; the BS from the RIAA about how digital was going to put them out of business (simply because the hypocrisy of the RIAA goes beyond the pale—just ask the relatives of the many black artists who have been ripped off over the years); the loudness wars (you can’t cut vinyl at high volumes with zero dynamic range because you would eventually overheat the cutting head and destroy it); the commoditization of music; and I could go on for days. If it weren’t for the love and devotion of a handful of men, like Chad Kassem, Stan Ricker, and DJs like Mixmaster Mike and DJ Q-Bert, we’d be without vinyl. Without the amazing strides in analog sound, would we have any improvement in digital? (Phillip is now officially our vinyl champion. I’ll be our digital champion. –Ed.)

Somehow, there are designers who are able to navigate the minefield of digital mistakes to create products that can make good music from digital recordings. The successful products have been a combination of good engineering, old engineering and intuition: the Audio Note DACs were the first musically engaging digital sources that I could listen to for hours without suffering boredom or cauliflower ear (or both). For me, they set the benchmark for enjoyable digital.

On a tangential note, I’ve found the no-holds-barred designs with infinitesimal distortion and absolutely perfect recreation of digital to be among the most annoying and unenjoyable designs. It is as if the more perfect the measurements, the more you hear every fault in digital recording/mastering /playback process.

And Boom Goes The Dynamite

To stop beating about the bushes, Hiram is absolutely right about the transformative process of packing a CD onto a flash drive. Why? I can only hazard guesses:

1. Transports inherently suck;

2. The clock/reclock/interface between transport and DAC sucks;

3. The transport is interjecting noise that rides on top of the 010100101011010101 stuff, causing the DAC to “wig out”.

Is this new news? Am I late to this new digital party? I’ve heard a lot of different implementations of streaming digital and music servers, and some of them were worse, much worse, than a “good” CD player.

Maybe it’s like you had a record that is pressed off center, way off center, and it did that thing where you get seasick: the pitch goes up and down and up and down for the entire record. Maybe the analogy is that you were able to take that record and fix it—make it perfectly centered so that the pitch doesn’t vary, and that the cartridge isn’t constantly being jerked around. Only Nakamichi offered a solution for off-center records and perhaps “good” digital is just as rare. Perhaps another wild analogy, but I like it.

If the transport and digital cable were no big deal, then a zip drive should sound identical. But obviously, they don’t sound alike. The elimination of the transport might be the biggest improvement in digital since Audio Note put tubes and iron in a DAC. By the way, those Audio Note DACs were/are expensive. The DSS combines affordability and good sound, with Swiss Army Knife flexibility. This means you can stream your digital from the internet, play music via flash drive, or even hook up an old CD player.

This is the sound I am hearing: The frequency response and dynamics are comparable to most other high-end digital products, though there is a softening in the deep bass compared to discreet transistor output. I think this is due to the higher output impedance of tubes, versus the low output impedance of op-amps and discreet transistors.

Micro-dynamics, detail and subtleties are much more natural. Whether it was 16/44 or high bit rate, everything seemed put together correctly. The subtle clues that make music real were superb and analog-like. In comparison, my shabby CD player sounded like a transporter accident had occurred: Spock’s head on Kirk’s torso on Uhura’s legs. (And I thought the Jem’Hadars were nasty enough. –Ed.) I don’t think that my CD player is reassembling things in the wrong order, but it sure sounds like it when listening to the DSS.

What is most beguiling about the DSS is a smooth, lyrical quality that I hear with live music, 2-track tape and good vinyl. If you listen to live symphony orchestras, you know that there is an absence of force, even with loud music. Much vinyl and almost all CD/MP3 digital have a forced, mechanical jerkiness that is totally unnatural. It’s easy to see problems with digital video, and I’m thinking that digital audio has the same problems, but is much harder to pinpoint. With the DSS, the sound was put together in a way that was gracious and natural.

Another Car Analogy – General Impressions of Blacknote

With some things, the form and function are one. A race car doesn’t have radical lines and spoilers just to look cool. They are important parts of the whole—they keep the thing on the ground, which is not easy when you are going 150+ mph. It’s the same with the Blacknote products, but not so much with outward appearance as circuit and parts selection. Whoever is designing the Blacknote digital products is doing a good job of balancing the build, parts quality, and circuit topology.

Listening to and investigating the Blacknote DSS leaves me with the impression that the designer was looking to combine the best practices of new digital with the best practices of tube design, while being pragmatic about parts and case work. I hate to burst bubbles, but expensive parts won’t fix a bad circuit. The conversion is also true, that a good circuit doesn’t need diamond encrusted silver from asteroids, from another galaxy, for good performance. I can say that the Blacknote products start with intelligent designs and use high quality parts that complement, rather than cover up, the design. Some designs are putting 200mph rated tires on a Ford Pinto.

If the DSS is a car, it would be a rally car (think Subaru with upgrades)—it will stick like glue to anything short of quicksand or water; it is mind-numbingly quick around corners, both paved and unpaved; it can get you to work; it is reliable; it is versatile. It may even get more girls than a Veyron. It won’t go as fast as a Veyron. It won’t do 0-60 in 2 seconds. But a Veyron would last about 2 miles in the Baja 500, can’t haul groceries and runs out of gas very quickly. The driver of the Subaru gives you the knowing nod, while the poseur polishes his super car.

I have to admit to some glaring hypocrisy: I would denigrate the digital designers who say “bits is bits”, while at the same time saying that transports and digital cables can’t make enough of a difference to be worth trying. While I would defend the claims of analog playback without any hard evidence, I would automatically dismiss claims that a major limitation of digital is the transport and digital link. Shame on me. I have been shown the error of my ways.

DAC & CPU for DSS “Improved” Series

Conclusions

This is a digital product that I can listen to for long periods without fatigue or boredom. The only other digital product that did this for me were purposefully smoothing over the rough edges and sweetening the tonal balance. Blacknote isn’t artificially smoothing or sweetening with the DSS: they have come up with a better way of reassembling the zeroes and ones back into an organic whole.

Remember, I am judging the unit based on its performance with a flash drive. Its performance when used with a transport is good, but not profound, and very similar to the sound of the Blacknote CD player, which is a very good player. There is plenty of competition from other CD players and DACs at this price, but when you look at the functionality and versatility of the DSS, it makes it easy to recommend to anyone looking at a digital purchase, whether you are primarily a digital listener or hardcore analog devotee.

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One Response to Blacknote DSS 30i Tube DAC Review


  1. Sergei says:

    Dear Mr. Holmes

    Reading your impressions make me think that you wouldnt recommend their DAC30, but DSS30 only. Have you ever tried DAC30 and if you did, how differ it sounds from DSS30 please. They dont use the same tubes, also, not sure if their output stage the same as well, as DSS30 using 2x ECC83 and DAC30 4x 6H2P‏ Soviets.
    Anyway, like your review, but unfortunately, there are not that many out there, maybe because Blacknote do not care about marketing, just the product they made.

    I am planning to get DAC30 to use it with my Unison Research Unico CD player as transport, but also start to build my PC based system around to see how it will goes.
    There is a huge differences between 2 machines, regarding FILES they can play, where DSS30 plays FLAC only and DAC30 every possible.

    Kind regards
    Sergei.

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