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April / May 2009
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Reimyo DAP-999EX Digital-To-Analog Converter
You owe it to yourself to listen... I already miss it.
Review By Jules Coleman
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Best Audiohpile Products Of 2009 Blue Note Award  With two exceptions, I have never heard digital playback approach the sound of music. One of those exceptions came in the form of an early proto-type of the VRS hard drive system that John Hughes, then a principal in the VRS project, demonstrated at my home in the company of several of my audio friends and others from the industry. That demonstration gave me a respect for the possibilities of the digital medium. The VRS involved bit-by-bit playback and to that point I had yet to hear music sound nearly so good from spinning aluminum. That changed when the North American distributor of Reimyo products, May Audio, arranged for me to review the Reimyo CDP-777. Soon thereafter I was invited to review an entire Reimyo system including the preamp, amplifier, speakers as well as assorted interconnects, power cords and speaker cables.

I listened to the Reimyo CDP-777 in both contexts – in my then reference system (with Shindo electronics) and in the full Reimyo system. It shone like no other CD player before or since has. The one box player produced the most natural, relaxed, revealing, and overall musically persuasive sound that I have heard from digital. The Reimyo CD player set the standard against which I assessed the performance of other digital playback systems. Because nothing since has approached its performance, I find that digital playback has been relegated to back-up duty and plays very little role in my reviewing.

Reimyo DAP-999EX Digital-To-Analog ConverterEven if digital playback has been little more than an afterthought in my serious listening sessions, I have not ignored it completely. In fact, I have reviewed more than my share of digital products over the years. An early version of Gordon Rankin's Cosecant USB DAC excelled at portraying the rich tonal palette of real music whereas John Tucker's modifications of various Denon players were especially well-balanced and musical. Empirical Audio's modified DACs uniformly conveyed a dynamic realism that few other units could match. Virtuous in its own way, each player fell considerably short of the Reimyo, however. Only the Reimyo presented digital as a musically resolved whole and in that crucial way, only it presented digits as passable conveyers of music.

The impact of Reimyo's presence in my system and its subsequent departure was far greater than I had anticipated it would be. The Reimyo was the exception to my experience that digital sounds more similar than different. As a result, once the Reimyo left my reference system, I have found it difficult to invest more than $2000 in digital playback.

If anything, my sense is that the ‘floor' of quality in digital has risen significantly and that one can do quite well (for digital) at ever-lower prices. At the same time, I have heard no reason to believe that the ceiling has been raised. There are finer and finer gradations between the floor and the ceiling of digital playback and more products are capable of revealing those fine gradations in quality – and are priced accordingly.

That is one reason why my ‘eyes lit up and ears perked up' (sympathetically and instinctively) when I was offered an opportunity to review the latest Reimyo digital product, the DAP-999EX, digital-to-analog converter. I had every hope that first rate digital playback would grace my listening room again – if only for a few months. I was not disappointed. In fact, even my most optimistic expectations were surpassed.

 

Enter The King
The good folks at May Audio arranged for me to listen to the DAP-999EX accompanied by the Reimyo CDT-777 CD transport (which will make an $11,000 dent in one's pocketbook) as well two Harmonix power cords and the Harmonix digital interconnect. I am a believer in ‘one voice' audio systems and understand that I own a system that, with the exception of digital playback and speaker cables, is Shindo Laboratory from turntable to speaker system and all stops in between. I don't believe that one hears what a particular component is designed to sound like outside the context of the components with which it was voiced. And so I was grateful to review the DAC in the context of the Reimyo transport. At the same time, I realize that many readers who are interested in the DAC would likely pair it with other transports and employ other digital interconnects; and that is why I also auditioned the DAC with several one-box CD players serving as transport, and employed a Stealth digital interconnect as an alternative to the Harmonix supplied by the distributor.

The full Reimyo digital front end was placed in my reference system. It replaced my ‘reference' Meridian and other players that I had been shuffling through, but I did not compare its sound with theirs – which would have been pointless. I rarely compare components anyway, and certainly not in the context of how they perform in my reference system. I listen to the system as a whole with the component in it; and make adjustments if necessary in order to optimize the performance of the component under review.

Sometimes doing so requires cable or interconnect changes. Often it requires moving the speakers around the room to alter tonal balance. Every once in a long while it requires changing equipment racks, and I have done so. Whatever it takes to optimize the performance of the component under review, I take it that my task is to report on the musically significant attributes of my system with the component under review. It needs to perform at its best, or at least as best as I can get it to perform given the limitations of my room, equipment and other components I can substitute into my system. My experience has been that very few components sound as they were intended to when one merely plops them into one's system. Something that one has probably spent a good deal of time voicing already.

It's hard enough to take reviews seriously (once you hear what most reviewers' systems sound like), but it is impossible to do so if the reviewer does not take some considerable care in working with his or her reference system to bring the best out in the component under review. I make every effort to do just that and then to report on how my overall system sounds. To try by describing and characterizing the sound heard in the light of what I take to be musically valuable attributes of playback. I try to resist making comparisons because the only comparisons one can have confidence in making are those between systems. It is the sound of the system one hears, not the component. In order to isolate the sound of the component one would have to hear it in a number of different systems. The sweeping judgments that characterize so many reviews are largely unwarranted and not helpful. I try to avoid making evaluative comparisons beyond those that are too obvious to ignore.

I could care less how the Reimyo sounded in comparison with the Meridian or with any other CD player. I care whether or not it makes music, or to put it another way, I care whether it conveyed the musically important dimensions of the performance as captured on disk in a way that is credible and satisfying.

 

The Transport And The DAC
One cannot let this review pass without saying a few words about the CDT-777 CD transport. It is gorgeous, beautifully made and finished and in conjunction with the DAC provides a foundation to the music – a sense of relaxed control – that I simply could not duplicate with any of the other digital front ends serving as transports I had on hand.

One of the great joys of the original one box CDP-777 was the JVC transport device that is unfortunately no longer available. Instead of abandoning a CD transport and producing only a DAC, the legendary, Kiuchi-san, the resonance control and component voicing magician behind the Harmonix company, remained committed to engineering a transport worthy of his DAC. After considerable experimentation, Kiuchi settled on the much praised CD-Pro M2 drive manufactured by Philips. The transport unit that houses the drive is a work of industrial art, weighing in at a tad over 30 lbs, and features the typical Kiuchi concern for resonance control and component voicing. There is but one digital out socket and it is designed for the standard 75 Ohm digital interconnect.

Like Shindo who encourages the use of Shindo interconnects, Kiuchi's products work best with Harmonix interconnects and power cords. Kiuchi clearly envisions someone using the transport to do so in conjunction with the DAC. Though I did not audition the transport with other DACs, something I would likely have done had I been reviewing the transport as well as the DAC, I am confident that it will work well as a transport in any digital front end and that it will give a solidity, control and overall sense of balance to the presentation of any high quality DAC.

Stylistically, the DAP-999EX DAC compliments but does not emulate the appearance (or weight) of the transport. The DAC employs JVCs K2 technology. The K2 processor converts standard 16-bit/44.1kHz CDs to 24/88.2, and then sends that signal through the ubiquitous Burr-Brown PCM1704U converter chip. The net effect is a 24-bit, 8x oversampled analog signal.

The DAC housing is slender and elegant. There is little excess in the design. The rear panel allows for after market power cords (again the Harmonix is favored); balanced and unbalanced analog outputs, AES, coaxial, optical and BNC connections. A special treat is the presence of a switch for shifting phase, though its location on the rear makes it less likely to be used than might be optimal. The front panel has button selection mechanisms for choosing the appropriate connection (made on the back), LEDs to indicate both the connection made and the sampling frequency. Everything that is necessary in a package suitable to its function; and nothing more. What a relief… and but for the phase switch a joy to operate.

Both the transport and the DAC had seen some service before the review and so I was able to avoid the longish break-in periods that invariably accompany new products. Within a few days of constant playing, I was able to listen critically. Both the transport and the DAC worked flawlessly during my time with them.

 

Music
In the early days good digital was often equated with inoffensive sound. In general digital was rendered inoffensive by taking the edge off the presentation, by rounding it into shape so to speak. The problem was that in rounding the corners and the edges, musically relevant information was sacrificed in order to preserve listenability. Inoffensive and listenable: hardly ‘perfect sound forever.' For the better part of its existence, digital playback has exhibited all the dimensionality of cardboard with a soul to match. With few exceptions, digital playback favors an undue emphasis on the leading edge of notes at the expense of revealing their harmonic structure and a sense of natural decay.

The emphasis on the leading edge of notes naturally invited a fixation on what I take to be musically irrelevant features of playback: soundstaging and imaging. Digital highlights visual rather than auditory features of performances and in doing so distracts from and obscures the musically significance of a performance – timbral integrity, tonal accuracy, dynamic realism, overall coherence and structural integrity – what I think of as resolution (in the same way in which in art we distinguished paintings that are resolved from those that are not).

Digital has come a long way, but some characteristics of it remain largely unchanged. Of the many artifacts of digital playback three have proven almost insurmountable obstacles to my ability to enjoy listening long term to it. I can perhaps best characterize the true excellence of the Reimyo by identifying the digital artifacts that the Reimyo largely if not completely avoids.

First, most digital playback strikes me as rushed and harried. I often get the sense that the performance is not developing but is being rushed along. I hear this as failures of timing and flow. In saying that I experience digital playback as exhibiting timing defects, yet do not mean to suggest that digital gets the beat wrong or that it can't keep time. Rather, to my ears, there is a difference between walking and marching. Digital marches along; it almost never walks, swivels or sways along. Have you ever tried to keep time with a musician? There is something about the feel of a musician keeping the same time you are keeping. It exhibits an ease by comparison to your relative rigidity; there is a flow to it that yours typically does not exhibit.

Digital playback is often unnerving to me because it presents music in what for want of a better term strikes me as at an a-musical speed. Analog can be rough and frenetic; but it has a grace and flow that seems appropriate to music that digital lacks – or which digital displays too infrequently. Have had the same response to the way some modern turntables keep time: a military march rather than a walk with Fred Astair. Marching to a conclusion: making sure you get from point A to point B; as opposed to say, enjoying the walk or the trip, or just going at a natural and appropriate pace. This feature kept me from fully enjoying the otherwise impeccable Clearaudio Reference turntable, for example.

The second feature of digital that is a bar to my appreciation of it is that the music decays into an infinite darkness. This accounts in part for the clarity of digital playback, but it is completely unnatural. Real music decays into space that has density and dirt. The dark backgrounds of the digital domain do not replicate the space in which real music is played and recorded. As a result the way in which notes hang in space and decay in digital is far removed from the way in which notes are expressed and develop and meld with one another in the real world. This gives digital a kind of presence that is doubly weird. The music is presented hanging in space rather than as occupying space and so it stands out and an apart from what is in fact an integral part of it. At the same time the presentation is more a visual picture and leaves the listener at a distance from it thus creating a presence that oddly one cannot be immersed in.

Finally, partially as a result of one and two above, digital reproduction often strikes me as a collection of parts and not as an integrated whole. Digital playback lacks the kind of integration that presents the performance as structurally complete, as resolved, and thus as a potential source of meaning. All the elements are presented, but too often in a way that draws one's attention to their distinctiveness rather than to the contribution each makes to the meaning of a piece. If these elements of digital playback sound familiar to you, then the Reimyo digital front end may be your savior. For me, the Reimyo front end is analog like in that it overcomes much of what is artificial about digital… and more.

The Reimyo front end does not eliminate entirely the unnatural darkness into which digital sounds decay. That is very much a function of the recording technique I fear and can only be altered by CD playback adding ‘dirt' or ‘grain' that is itself an artifact, and likely to appear in places it is not wanted. In this regard, the Reimyo front end is essentially and unavoidably true to digital. Elsewhere it is much truer to music than to the medium.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the timing and flow of the musical presentation. The Reimyo front end presents the music in a forthright and direct yet altogether relaxed and natural manner. There is a grace to its presentation that is seductive and intoxicating. Yet there is nothing soft about it. There are no rounded edges or rolled off frequencies top or bottom. The presentation is honest and true, but the Reimyo almost looks beyond the mode of recording to the essential emotional and musical values of the performance itself.

It conveys everything that is essential to the musical event with a modesty and confidence that is beguiling. The Reimyo is (in my experience) unmatched in its timbral integrity and tonal accuracy. And when mated to the extraordinary transport gives the music a strong, unwavering and persuasive foundation that carries the performance from machine to one's heart. The Reimyo engages, engulfs and immerses the listener. It does not present the performance as something staged for one to observe from a distance – in another part of the room. It invites one into the performance; it immerses one in it as does vinyl.

As I mentioned above, I find most digital presentations to emphasize the parts at the expense of part-to-part and part-to-whole relationships. The music is taken apart but rarely put back together. The great thing about the Reimyo is that it misses none of the parts – and one can follow along to them or focus on them should one choose to do so – yet it draws one's attention to the whole; and it does so by revealing the structural integrity of the performance. A fully resolved performance is rendered as such. A less than fully realized work is portrayed accordingly.

The Reimyo front end could not achieve this level of performance if it lacked the capacity to unravel and accurately portray the most complex and demanding passages in orchestral music. The Reimyo system was never once tripped up and at no time did it sound confused or confounded by the material. Rare is the player that display all the complex individual parts of a performance yet does so in a way that does not unduly direct one to the trees at the expense of the forest.

I do not think that the Reimyo front end is meant for those audiophiles who like to take their music visually. I am sure that with the right (or wrong) associated equipment the Reimyo will image and soundstage on a par with the best of breed. But that is not what the Reimyo system is all about. Mr. Kiuchi is notorious for his ability to employ his ‘tuning devices' to change entirely the voicing of everything from instruments to listening rooms. But the voice he hears has always been that of music. Those who have visited his rooms at CES will notice that his taste runs a bit to the sweet, dense and rich. If his electronics, including the digital front end, have a coloration at all, it is that they too favor the rich and full over the lean and light. I found this coloration less to my liking in the Reimyo preamplifier and amplifier than in the digital front end. In fact, I find it downright desirable in the digital domain.

The DAC stands on its own as a great achievement, but there is no denying that it shines most brightly when partnered with the Reimyo transport. When I substituted other CD players used as transports alone there was a corresponding reduction in overall level of performance. The greatest loss was in the strength of the foundation to the music that the transport provides. The Reimyo system did not fool me into thinking I was listening to vinyl. What it did was make the fact that I wasn't significantly less important. If you are interested in listening to the best that digital has to offer, then you owe it to yourself to listen to the Reimyo digital front end. And if you are in the market for a state of the art digital to analog converter, I cannot imagine your doing better than the Reimyo DAP-999EX. I already miss it.

 

Specifications
Type: High resolution digital to analog converter
Frequency Response: DC ~ 20kHz (+/-0.5dB)
S/N Ratio: Better than 114dB (IHF-A)
Dynamic Range: Better than 100dB
Input Quantization: 16-bit
Sampling Frequency: 48, 44.1 and 32 kHz (auto-switching)
Digital Inputs:
     AES (XLR-3P- Hot: No.3) Input Impedance:110 Ohm
     BNC: 75 Ohm
     Coaxial (RCA) 75 Ohm
     Optical (TORX)
Signal Procession: K2 Technology (CC Converter IC; 16-24bit)
DA Converter: 24-bit 8-time oversampling/multi-bit
Phase Inverter SW: 0-180 on the back panel.
Analog Outputs:
     XLR balance/ 5.1 Vrms/ Low Imp.
     RCA unbalance/ 2.55 Vrms/ Low Imp.
Linearity: +/-0.5dB (+10dBm ~ 90dBm) 1kHz IHF-A
THD: Better than 0.003% (30kHz LPF on)
Channel Separation: Better than 105dB (1kHz)
Dimensions: 430 x 44 x 337 (WxHxD in mm)
Weight: 11.2 lbs
Standard Accessory: Harmonix X-DC2 1.5m Special made (ROHS compliance)
Price: $9000

 

Company Information
Combak Corporation
4-20, Ikego 2-chome
Zushi-shi, Kanagawa 249-0003
Japan

Voice: 046-872-1119
Fax: 046-872-1125
E-mail: harmonix@combak.net
Website: www.combak.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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