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Bricasti Design Model 1 Series II D/A Converter and M5 Network Player Review

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I’m not ready to be called old at 61, but I must admit I am making boneheaded mistakes I presume are associated with age. Such was the situation when I called Damon Gramont, Director of Sales and Marketing for Bricasti Design, to discuss a problem with the review unit of the Model 1 Series II DAC (hereafter M1S2). The USB input was not working, a showstopper considering that USB is my primary connection for listening to digital audio. Damon was eminently patient and thoughtful as I discussed the situation with him.

Years ago, Bricasti DACs were somewhat susceptible to having their USB boards burned out by surges from audiophiles hot swapping USB cables. The Owner’s Manual states that a computer source should be turned off before the USB cable is attached or changed when connected to a Bricasti DAC. After assembling the first system with it and putting several gorgeous listening sessions under my belt, I was reconfiguring the system when the mishap occurred. Apparently, USB cables that are outside of normal specifications and not shielded can cause damage to a DAC. Bricasti was seeing a lot of damage caused by one particularly popular cable company’s USB cables, prompting the company to update their USB boards to protect against it.

It’s not as though I had cavalierly disregarded the Manual’s instructions. I turned the M1S2 off entirely, at the back power supply as well as the front Power button. But it seems that the USB carries a power signal from the computer that would still be present. Damon and I both scratched our heads mentally, and he politely offered that if the USB board was damaged the unit would have to be serviced before proceeding with the review. I had even removed, then reinserted, the USB cable to ensure it was seated properly. It did seem a bit loose, a telltale sign that should have been definitive evidence that my setup was wrong.

Rarely in 14 years of reviewing have I incurred damage to a product on loan, and this was a shock. I struggled to think how sensitive the M1S2 must be that it could be damaged by swapping a USB cable while the unit is off. Damon suggested that I check whether the unit would work properly with a SPDIF connection. I glumly ended the call and told him I would check it and report back. I grabbed an appropriate digital coaxial cable and scanned the back of the unit for the connection.

That’s when I saw it.

Before I open myself up to well-deserved snickering, I wish to buffer my confession with an appeal to age. You see, I had the USB cable in the Ethernet port! How stupid! How inept! How incredibly unobservant to misplace the cable and then call for support! But wait, there were some mitigating circumstances, including dim lighting (why put on all the lights to insert a simple USB cable?), not wearing my glasses (at 61, I’m struggling to admit I need them for fine work), and I was short on sleep, having awoken at 3:30am and tired from a vigorous workout. Yeah, these are all excuses, the kind that at my age I’m not so embarrassed to use!

It’s a good thing I was motivated by Damon’s suggestion to try the SPDIF connection, because it was while leaning over and peering into the dimness while removing the USB that I saw a square port just under where the USB was plugged in. I knew in an instant I had committed a sin of the aged! Lazy, with unaided sight, in dim light, assuming I knew the unit better than I did, it was a perfect storm of overconfidence.

I am not the only one. The odds are good that if you’ve spent much time reconfiguring your rig over the years, you have experienced a duh moment. I am grateful I didn’t get discouraged and quit, determining to send the unit back for repairs. When I called Damon to share the embarrassing but good news, he revealed that 80% of the units that are sent back for repair work perfectly! It appears that many audiophiles find fantom problems. The moral of the story is I have no evidence the USB input of the M1S2 is susceptible to USB hot swapping (but follow the directions to power off the computer/server anyway!), that I must more gracefully accept my aging and limitations, and that you may want to slow down and reconsider if you have overlooked something before returning a perfectly operating component!

In celebration of the joyous resolution, I determined to start my listening with a few appropriate tracks, such as Avi Kaplan’s “I’m Only Getting Started” and Vanessa Williams’ “Oh, How the Year’s Go By”! Yes, to the younger listener, it’s geezer music. What can I say?


The power of an upgrade cycle

It has been about five years since I last worked through digital sources to find one suitable for listening and reviewing. During that time, digital products, such as HiFi servers and integrated streamer and file playback components such as preamps, DACs, and amps have been on the ascendancy. It appears the traditional preamp, amp, and integrated amp are less common.

Each audiophile needs to determine whether they will accept a stagnated rig long term or pursue SOTA (state-of-the-art) sound, with emphasis on the word pursue. Sound quality changes and SOTA is a moving target, as the equipment becomes better with new technology. From my perspective, the path toward better analog sound is not clear, as there are few measures to ensure that the actual sound is improved. A person can change a vinyl rig’s plinth, motor, tone arm, cartridge, footers, cables, and still have little means of demonstrating that the change was efficacious.

In contrast, digital is measured to death, with arguments about whether a specification is relevant to the second or third decimal point. Perhaps, finally, the digital reductionists, the “bits are bits” people, who held back many are losing as more listeners upgrade their digital source and find out to their shock that servers, streamers, DACs, and cables have vast influence upon the sound quality. Not only so, but the landscape of digital sound quality and products available is changing so quicky that anyone who does not purposefully keep up is doomed to have antiquated sound within five years.

That is the conclusion I reached about my own system this past week. Because I was out of touch with newer products and system building methods for digital sources, my digital sound slid away from SOTA further than I had thought. Not anymore! This review marks a new elevation reached in my digital front end and it came with the Bricasti M1S2 under review, and a little surprise tucked in toward the end of this review. (Hey! No peeking! You don’t want to ruin the whole review!)


Comparisons of digital sources have become problematic

The days of a simple comparison of two digital products are receding into the past. The ease of dropping a disc into two CD players or swapping out a dedicated DAC for comparison are fading away. In its place is a bailiwick of functions, connections, and software. There are so many integrated components that use a variety of user interfaces and online music sources that it has become practically impossible to isolate one variable to compare. This review is an example of that difficulty. As for the past five years I used a single digital source, I did not have to pick my way through the maze of currently available streaming digital sources. Now that I am handling several streaming sources from different manufacturers, I realize that there are no less than three critical elements to streaming audio that defy easy comparison. Those three elements are the physical hardware, the user interface, and the online music source.

For instance, how would you compare these two digital sources:

Aurender N20 Digital Transport (streamer), USB cable, DAC, such as the COS Engineering D1, Aurender Conductor user interface, and Tidal or Qobuz music service.

Bricasti M1S2 DAC with built in Network Player, Audirvāna or Roon user interface, and Tidal or Qobuz music service.

The only variable that potentially can be isolated in this instance is the music service. The variables with each digital source defy a simple comparison. That is the situation I find myself in as I have been searching for a new digital front end. I reviewed the Aurender A20, which is akin to the Bricasti M1S2 as it contains a streamer, DAC, and preamplifier in one box. I followed that up with a review of the Aurender N20, a dedicated streamer, set up as I just described. In assessing the Bricasti’s capabilities I have been switching between the two setups described above.

How is an individual supposed to arrive at a tight comparison of these products? It is not possible. All that can be done is to share impressions of results and discuss the advantages or disadvantages of combinations of gear, software, and music sources. I would consider suspect anyone who suggested they could definitively state which piece of electronics is superior. By the time one adds in the variables of cables and amplification, much less speakers, — and let’s not forget personal preferences — the assessment has lost much of its precision. Nevertheless, that is the task that audiophiles must attempt, often as they shop remotely from a website, and it is the task I will attempt in this article. Suffice to say that unless discussing general levels of performance that arise from selection of low, mid, and high-fidelity gear, what can be said definitively is limited.

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