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February 2013
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
M2Tech Joplin Analog-To-Digital Converter
An amazing 384kHz/32-bit ADC designed for modern audiophiles.
Review By Tom Lyle

 

M2Tech Joplin Analog-To-Digital Converter  In the June issue of Enjoy the Music.com's Review Magazine I reviewed the Benchmark ADC1USB, the first outboard two-channel analog-to-digital converter (ADC) that I had ever auditioned in my system. I was very, very impressed with this ADC, not only because of its excellent sound quality. What was really nice about this unit was that even though it was initially designed for the professional recording studio market, unlike most pro gear it is "only" a two-channel unit, which makes it perfect for the audiophile with the desire to archive LPs to digital. Its most likeable feature by far is that it has a USB output that is capable of creating a 96kHz/24-bit file. My experience with ADCs of the past were within multipurpose PCI sound cards, and I've only read about the outboard professional multi-channel dedicated ADCs. The sound cards usually are bundled with a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), speaker outputs, headphone amps, and the like. Unlike most other pro models which most likely connect to a studio owner's computer via either S/PDIF (coax), AES/XLR, or FireWire, the Benchmark has its convenient USB output. So, if one reads my review of the Benchmark ADC1USB one will realize that archiving LPs is both fun and relatively easy, mostly because using a converter with a USB is so simple.

Not only that, the sound quality of the Benchmark was better than excellent, and it blows away the ADC that was contained within my multipurpose sound card. Upon receiving the more expensive, higher resolution M2Tech Joplin under review, I was excited to again archive some records, anticipating even better sound quality. Not so fast. Yes, the M2Tech Joplin can be used as I did with the Benchmark, but the Joplin can be used as a phono preamp (although one with only one default loading option, 47kOhm), with a multitude of phono equalization curves all performed within the digital domain. This feature alone would be good enough for some, yet one of the design goals of the Joplin is that since any analog signal applied to its analog inputs is digitally converted to this extremely high resolution, connecting one of Joplin’s digital outputs to a digital inputs of a DAC, or better yet, a digital preamplifier, allows for listening to the analog signal through the Joplin and the DAC in one's digital system with no perceptible loss in headroom or dynamics.

Herein lies the benefit to those foolish enough to abandon analog for a totally digital system, and now either regretting that they abandoned vinyl, or those just wanting to add vinyl playback back into their system without having to give up their digital preamps. Conversely, those who use an analog front-end along with their digital front ends can take advantage of the newest breed of digital preamps being offered. So, along with describing the performance of the M2Tech Joplin when used to make digital copies of vinyl, I'll also discuss its performance when used as a gateway between my analog front-end and a digital preamp.

 

Mission
M2Tech Joplin Analog-To-Digital ConverterM2Tech is from Pisa, Italy and have their products distributed in the Western Hemisphere by TEAC America. M2Tech's stated mission is "to offer in the form of equipment and software packages for domestic entertainment, a pleasant and easy access to audio contents with regards to new methodologies, and to guarantee a high quality of the exploitation experience". Regardless of M2Tech's possible need for an English translator, their sense of design certainly comes to the fore when viewing the beautifully designed, half-rack width cabinet of the Joplin. The cabinet is made of rather thick aluminum with a recessed, curved, black grille as its front panel, the red characters of its display glowing through the lattice. There are only two silver-colored controls, a small standby/exit button on the left and a larger "controller knob" on the right. By pressing the controller knob one accesses the menu. Rotating the knob displays other menu options, pressing the knob selects the values within these menu options. Once I got the hang of it, selecting the input gain, sample rates, etc. wasn't much of a big deal. A small black plastic IR remote control duplicates all the controls on the front panel, but it instead uses a four-point wheel with an "OK" selector in its center, and also has a menu/escape button. Anyone with a cable TV remote will be familiar with this layout. Even though I kept misplacing the tiny remote it hardly mattered because once the options for the Joplin were set it was a rare instance that I had to make any changes.

Along with a host of standard digital outputs (S/PDIF, AES/EBU, TosLink), the M2Tech Joplin has a high-speed asynchronous USB connection. On its rear panel is also a connection for its power supply, a small "desktop" (rather than wall wart) type box that has an IEC if one wishes to connect an after-market power cord, which I did. The two RCA inputs with a ground post are evidence that one is expected to connect one's turntable outputs to this unit.

 

Expecting
I mentioned above that since the Joplin is priced higher than the Benchmark I was expecting better sound. I also mentioned that because it is also a phono preamplifier, it would also be a game-changer of sorts. What I didn't mention was that the M2Tech Joplin is also a much more advanced electronically, with 384kHz sampling rates and 32 bits resolution through its USB output. In addition to its four digital outputs it also has an S/PDIF input for connecting other digital sources. M2Tech says they designed the Joplin's analog stage based on the "best PGA (Programmable Gain Amplifier) available on the market", with a maximum gain of 65 dB. The 16 phono equalization curves available on the Joplin including, of course, the standard RIAA, which allows to play through the Joplin any record from any era imaginable, including curves for aficionados of pre-1954 records. There is also an EQ for reel-to-reel tape with settings for 3.75 ips, 7.5 ips, and 15 ips tape, allowing one to feed the Joplin straight from the tape head.

 

Fantasy
In the white paper for that M2Tech sent me, they write, "Provided that the only limit in enjoying the Joplin is user’s fantasy, we dare to suggest some interesting uses for the Joplin:", and they list these four suggestions:

1) as an analog input for digital systems, such as connecting one's turntable to a DAC/digital preamp.

2) as a phono stage when performing digital archiving of analog sources.

3) as a bridge between an analog system and a multi-room digital distribution system through a preamplifier or integrated amp's tape output.

4) as a bridge between a digital source and a computer lacking digital audio input.

 

In my system, I mostly used the Joplin to archive vinyl, using the Joplin both as a phono preamp and connected through the tape-out of my preamplifier. I also spent time using the Joplin as per their first suggestion, to connect the turntable to a digital preamplifier. As far as their third suggestion, using it as a bridge for multi-room distributions, I would feel uneasy putting on a record on the turntable and then leaving the room to enjoy it in another part of the house. I can foresee become distracted and leaving the stylus to remain in the LP's run-out groove thus wearing out my phono cartridge. Plus, I save LP for serious listening, not for background listening. I guess I could have connected my FM tuner, but as far as multi-room listening, the only other room where I would need it, there is internet radio.

The procedure in using this ADC to archive vinyl was very similar to the Benchmark. Plus, the front-end remains the same: a LyraKleos moving coil (MC) phono cartridge mounted on a Tri-Planar 6 tonearm, which is hardwired with Discovery cable terminated in Cardas RCAs. Included in my Benchmark review is a sort of mini-primer on archiving vinyl, so I'll skip those details, and go right to describing my time with the M2Tech Joplin. Setting up the Joplin was a bit more complicated, as a driver must be installed in one's computer.

M2Tech Joplin Analog-To-Digital ConverterPlus, M2Tech suggests one use Kernel streaming, so one must download and install that files, and install it in the server software. Those familiar was Direct Streaming and ASIO will know what I'm talking about when I say that installing and then changing the setting for these options might not progress as smoothly as one expects (although I should mention that there are those that are more computer literate than I am, and they would most likely think that this statement is ridiculous). I also thought that parts of the Joplin's manual are a bit difficult to follow. Although it has been translated to English, the screenshots are of a computer that has its default language set to Italian. Still, after loading the driver, getting my computer and recording software to recognize the Joplin's driver, and setting the computer and the software to accept the far superior and highly recommended Kernel Streaming (as opposed to the Direct Streaming that I've used in the past) there weren't any problems.

So, it first it was on to making a digital file of a record. I decide to start simple, by burning a 45rpm seven inch single, The Sweet's "Action", with its fantastic hard-rock/glam/Brit-pop B-Side "Medusa" that I swear must have heavily influenced the rockumentary-parody band Spinal Tap's song "Stonehenge". I connected my turntable directly to the Joplin, ignoring the fact that the LyraKleos phono cartridge mounted on my Tri-Planar 6 tonearm usually sounds its best at loaded at 100 Ohms. When set at the Joplin's 47k Ohms default setting, so it wouldn't be what a perfectionist would have chosen, yet when changing the loading setting other than the optional setting on my phono preamp it isn't bad by any means, just not perfect. During a short trial run where all I had to do was choose the Joplin's input for USB and set the gain just short of clipping, I moved to the recording software, Sony Creative Software's Sound Forge, to change in its preferences for the incoming signal to be recorded at its maximum resolution of 192kHz and 24 bit. And the results? In a word: Extraordinary. The most positive aspect of the Joplin's sound when used as an ADC is transparency, and really, what more could anyone really ask for .

My experience with burning vinyl has led me to the realization that if the record that is being burned is in good condition there are very, very few cases where the officially issued Red Book CD will sound superior to a burn of an LP. Even when burning (or simply down-converting the high-resolution file) to CD's 44.1kHz/16-bit resolution, a file made from vinyl will sound better. This is even true when using my humble M-Audio sound card with a street price of under one hundred dollars. We could spend the rest of our lives how or why this could possibly be so, given the steps involved between the original master tape and the resulting computer file made by an "amateur". Yet the results speak for themselves. Comparing the music files made by the M-Audio and the M2Tech Joplin is hardly sportsmanlike, but as I expected the Joplin trounced the M-Audio. Comparing it to files burned by the Benchmark ADC1 USB was more of a matter of nuance, but the fact that the Joplin could create a file from its USB port with a higher resolution made that comparison valid only when comparing material burned at a similar sample rates at or lower than 96kHz. Disregarding the fact that the Joplin has more features (and a more stylish exterior), with those files the sound quality of the two was practically indistinguishable.

When I just used the tape-out of the preamplifier the sound quality of the resulting files were even better than using the Joplin as a phono stage. I suppose that because I was able to use the Lyra cartridge’s more accepted loading options might have been partially responsible for that, but the fact that the phono cartridge's signal was fed to a Pass Labs XP-15 phono stage before it entered the Joplin's conversion stage is a more feasible explanation. But wowie, what a sound! All the audiophile clichés could easily be employed to describe the sound of the files made via the M2Tech Joplin analog-to-digital converter: it has excellent transparency, a huge soundstage and precise imaging. Acoustic instruments have a realistic timbre, the highs are extended and delicate, it has thunderous but a pitch specific low-end, and the mids are clear and lifelike. Most importantly it has a musicality that bears repeated listenings. These traits were discovered in further detail after burning Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy LP pressed by Classic Records where all the traits listed above were in full sonic view. Comparing these 92kHz/24 bit to the original Red Book CD were a waste of time, as during the first few seconds of "The Song Remains The Same" anyone with ears could tell that now we were hearing a slamming digital copy as close to this 200 gram slab of monster-rock vinyl one was ever going to hear, limited only by the quality of the playback equipment, which in this case was M2Tech's Vaughan DAC.

 

Accomplishment
It is now time to mention a couple of asides. It is quite a technological accomplishment that the M2Tech Joplin is able to transfer a 384kHz/32-bit signal through its USB output. This makes the Joplin as future-proof a component one is likely going to encounter for at least a while. Recording software that is able to capture this mega-hi-rez signal is only beginning to appear on the market. Thankfully, my software was able to take advantage of the excellent sounding 192kHz/24-bit sound. Although disc space is becoming more affordable by the minute, the file I made of this Zep LP was just shy of three gigabytes on its own. I guess there are many that don't consider this too large. When one starts building a collection of these album files a hard-drive is going to fill up rather quickly. I'd rather not get out my slide rule to compute how large a decently sized collection of 384kHz/32-bit albums will be.

As to the other aside, I think Red Book CD's poor reputation in light of these higher resolution files is somewhat undeserved, as one will quickly discover when one starts to carefully burn their LPs or other analog sources, and then convert the hi-rez files to burn a CD. I realize that one's results will be dependent on the quality of the analog front-end.  I have never attended a mastering session of any CD that is mass produced and widely distributed. But if I were loaned a master tape of my favorite artist, borrowed a pro reel-to-reel tape machine, ran its signal through the M2Tech Joplin, and then burned a CD from the files I created on my PC I would bet the farm it would sound better than the majority of crappy sounding CDs that the major record labels have hoisted upon the public. And it makes sense why the re-masterings made by the smaller audiophile record labels sound so much better. I'm not trying to defend the Red Book standard, as I'm sure almost all audiophiles (including yours truly) would agree that in retrospect the 44.1kHz/16-bit standard is insufficient, but the M2Tech Joplin proves that one can overcome many of its limitations.

 

Suggestion
M2Tech's first suggestion for using the Joplin is as an analog input for digital systems. I spent less time using it for this purpose than using it to archive digital, but during the Joplin's review period did use it in that way. I had in house two different DAC/preamplifiers, the Wadia 121 Decoding Computer, and M2Tech's Vaughan DAC/digital preamplifier. Both have similar purposes, but the Vaughan was the superior of the two, if only considering the fact that it is able to decode higher sample rates. It is also nearly eight times as expensive. Using the Vaughan, the Joplin performed as its literature stated it would. Utilizing the M2Tech Joplin as a phono preamp to connect it to a Vaughan DAC/digital preamp was an interesting experience. As I said, the Joplin performed as advertised; I was able to use my analog front-end in the system when using the Vaughan DAC as a digital preamplifier. During this period I was comparing two different LP reissues of Antal Dorati conducting Prokofiev's Love For Three Oranges and Scythian Suite originally released on Mercury, the Classic Records pressing, and the newer double-LP 45rpm version from ORG. It was easy to differentiate the two; the Classic Records reissue was the far better at every quality that made this "Living Presence" such a joy in the first place, and perhaps one of the best sounding LPs in my collection. Most noticeable was that the ORG didn't have nearly the quality or amount of bass response as the Classic Records version, nor didn't have the soundstage, sparkling treble, or luscious string sound. No, the ORG version isn't a piece of junk, so if one missed purchasing the Classic Records version (or doesn't have an original Mercury pressing in perfect condition in the collection) the ORG will do just fine, as it is a great performance of two great pieces of music, the Love For Three Oranges being the better of the two, in my opinion.

The LP converted to digital through the Joplin also sounded excellent, but let's put things into perspective here. When I would archive an album at a decent sampling rate, say 96kHz/24-bit, then play the resulting signal through my system with an analog (tube, no less) preamplifier the signal sounded marvelous, highlighting the excellent way the Joplin had with converting the signal to digital with far less "damage" then I, or anyone else I suspect, would anticipate. When playing LPs directly through the Joplin, then through the digital preamp, the LP sounded good, but very good digital. There is not enough space here to get into the argument that good digital does not sound good because it sounds like analog, or vice versa. These are two different animals, and suffice to say, the Joplin did its part particularly well at converting the signal to digital. And with an analog-to-digital converter as good as the Joplin, one isn't going to be punished, for lack of another term, for converting that signal. When I switched out the Vaughan DAC/preamp for my tube preamplifier when playing LPs, yes, it did sound much better. To me. I feel I should also add that digitizing the analog-front end leveled the playing field, of sorts, for when I played back a file I'd burn from an LP at a high enough sample rate, say 96kHz/24-bit, and played the file back through the same digital preamplifier I would use to monitor the recording, the resulting sound was for all practical purposes indistinguishable from this signal played "directly" from the LP.

 

System
I have only one problem with the M2Tech Joplin, and that is M2Tech's support system in the US.  Often I have questions about the high-end equipment I either own, or am auditioning for Enjoy The Music. Most, if not all of this equipment is manufactured by small, sometimes very small companies. I've gotten used to the tech support phone being answered by designer or designers themselves of the small company that manufactures the piece of equipment in question, and these people that answer the phone are 99% of the time audiophiles. M2Tech is not the largest company in the world, but it is distributed in the US by a company that conceivably aspires to be one of the largest, TEAC. The folks that answered the phone had to reference the manual to help me, and there really wasn't any point in kibitzing with them about the merits of the equipment in question. I imagined them in a cubicle in an office park wearing a headset, my call just one in a string of phone calls from people with questions regarding different forms of consumer electronics, not just high-end components. And he or she is likely not an audiophile. I guess this is more of an observation rather than a compliant, because although it took a bit longer to answer my questions, there was no lack in quality of the tech support they provided. It's just nice to sometimes talk to someone about their perspective about using a piece of gear.

 

Fantastic
The M2Tech Joplin is a fantastic product. Not only is it a fantastic analog-to-digital converter, it also seems as if it was designed for a modern audiophile, particularly one that enjoys archiving vinyl. With its phono equalization performed in the digital domain, the "straight wire with gain" paradigm comes closer to reality when one is transferring their precious records to digital formats. As a bonus, since digital preamps are becoming more popular every day, the vinyl aficionado is being invited to the party because of components such as the Joplin, which not only allows one to connect the turntable to a digital preamp, but to do so in style.

 

Specifications
Type: Analog to digital converter
Inputs: analog single ended on RCA female, S/PDIF on RCA female
Outputs: S/PDIF (RCA female), AES/EBU (XLR), optical (TosLink), and USB (USB female Type-B)
Frequency Response
    10 Hz to 20 kHz +0.1/-0.5dB (fs = 44.1kHz)
    10 Hz to 150 kHz +0.1/-0.1dB (fs=384kHz)
Sampling Frequencies (kHz): 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192, 352.8*, 384* (*USB only)
Resolution: 16, 20, 24 bit (S/PDIF, AES/EBU, optical, with or without dither), 16, 20, 24, 32 bit (USB, with or without noise shaping)
SNR: 122dB (A-weighted, 384kHz, 32 bits, gain 0dB), 114dB (A-weighted, 192kHz, 24 bits)
THD+N: 0.00045% (1.7Vrms in, 192kHz, 24 bits, gain 0dB)
Gain: 0dB, 10dB to 65dB in 1dB steps
Cross-talk: -110dB @1kHz
Input voltage: 1.7Vrms (4.8Vpp @ 0dBFS)
Dimensions: 200 x 50 x 200 (WxHxD in mm)
Weight: 2.2 lbs.
Price: $2499

 

Company Information
NortM2Tech
Via Mario Giuntini, 63
56023 Navacchio di Cascina (PI)
Italy

E-mail: info@m2tech.biz
Website: www.m2tech.biz

 

Distributor Information: 
TEAC America, Inc.
7733 Telegraph Road
Montebello, CA 90640

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