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July 2008
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Empirical Audio Spoiler USB DAC
A big step forward in USB DACs
Review By Jules Coleman
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Empirical Audio Spoiler USB DAC Unit  Steve Nugent is all of the brains and most of the brawn behind Oregon's Empirical Audio and their Spoiler USB DAC. Steve began his professional career as an electrical engineer. At first a sideline operation, the success of Empirical Audio soon enough proved sufficient for Steve to abandon his day job and turn his love of audio into his primary livelihood. From the outset Nugent cultivated a reputation as a fine audio engineer and a straightforward and honest businessman. In short order, he became one of a handful of ‘go-to' modifiers for those seeking to extract as much performance as possible from commercially compromised audio products.

Though he has modified everything in the music playback chain, Nugent has focused his most attention on the digital front end. It will come as no surprise then that when Nugent set out to manufacture and market products of his own design, his emphasis has been on digital front ends — in particular digital to analog converters, and various products to maximize their performance.  Nugent's modification services are still very much in demand — and he designs and produces a fine interconnect and power cord as well, but the bulk of his creative resources have been devoted to perfecting his own DAC and its required accessories.

Having reported previously on Nugent's ‘turbo off ramp' — which is basically an interface device between a computer's USB out and a standard DAC's SPDIF and I2S (if you are lucky enough) inputs — I welcomed the opportunity to review Nugent's attack on the state of the art USB DAC. I was very favorably impressed with nearly all aspects of Nugent's Turbo Off-Ramp and its' performance in conjunction with his heavily modified Perpetual Technology DAC, especially using the I2S input.

In my previous experience, I found the sound of Nugent's digital products to be honest, energetic, packing considerable dynamic wallop, lifelike — even ballsy --but ever so slightly hard around the edges. I did not know what to expect from the Spoiler DAC sonically, but I was anxious to hear the fruits of Nugent's labors.

I was not disappointed — in fact I was very pleased with the results -- but I was surprised, The DACs shared a family resemblance, but the differences in presentation were significant. The Spoiler proved to be considerably easier on the ears, substantially more refined, somewhat laid back by comparison, and ever so slightly dynamically restrained. But I am rushing ahead of myself a bit.

 

The System
I have been focusing largely on my academic writing the past few years and have taken something of a sabbatical from reviewing chores. During this period, I have continued to listen to music with the same urgency and frequency that I always have. I simply resisted sharing my impressions of what I heard with anyone but a few friends. I am sure that my absence from the review scene went suitably unnoticed.

My reference system has remained largely unchanged over this time. My analog front end consists in the Shindo version of the classic Garrard 301 that includes Shindo's upgraded platter, bearing and the Shindo 12-inch Mersault arm (based on the original Ortofon) tracking the Shindo modified SPU classic cartridge. Almost any Garrard 301 table will sound significantly more dynamically honest and alive than virtually any of its modern counterparts, but the key to extracting all the wonders of the 301 is the plinth. I have read more bad advise about plinths for 301s on audio forums; and I have seen and heard more mismatched plinths and 301s than I care to recall. Nor have I adequately resisted the temptation to let others — including other reviewers, including those with whom I have toiled — know just how misguided they were. The Shindo plinth is expensive, but it is the result of 20 years of product development and more than 40 years of experience with the table itself — not six weeks with a CNC machine; and it shows. The 301 is capable of refinement and resolution that rivals the best contemporary designs in addition to offering a dynamic realism that no modern table can match. But you have to be willing to pay the price to hear it — but even at that the price of a fully tricked out Shindo 301 will fall in the range of a standard high end contemporary design that is much less musically persuasive or honest.

My preamp is the dual mono all tube, full function Shindo Catherine; amplification is provided by Shindo's 300B Ltd monos. The speakers include the Auditorium 23 SoloVox and an original pair of JBL Hartsfield ‘toploaders' with Shindo crossovers designed specifically for them. Interconnects include Stealth Indra, Shindo silver, a number of different wonderful and surprising offerings from Silver Fi of Istanbul, Turkey; speaker cables included my standard Auditorium 23 which I continue to recommend as the best value in audio, and another surprisingly strong offering from Silver Fi. I used the Silver speaker cable exclusively with the Hartsfields and the A-23 with the Solovox. This seemed the optimal match in both cases. I can strongly recommend all of the Silver Fi interconnects and speaker cables, and in future reviews I hope to have more to say about various combinations of them. Another rare high value, high performance product that I am to recommend with confidence.

All of my electronics benefit from being placed in extraordinary Harmonic Resolutions SRX equipment racks that I will be reporting on next month. The SRX is the latest offering from vibration control guru, Mike Latvis, and to my mind, his best and most versatile offering to date.  HRS sets the industry standard, and while no product produces uniformly exceptional results across the board, I have yet to hear a product that did not benefit from finding a happy home in an HRS equipment rack. Expensive as they may be, spread out over four or five components, an HRS rack may well be among the best, most cost —effective upgrades to your system you can make.

My system may not have changed much, but my listening room has. The dimensions (30x18x9) have remained the same, but the large area rug has been removed, the hardwood floors refinished, and the heavy family room furniture replaced with sleeker, contemporary (and less absorptive) alternatives. The impact of the changes has been subtle but noticeable. The room is livelier, bass response and definition has improved somewhat and there is a touch more sparkle in the highs. Just a bit bouncier and fuller all around; it remains a somewhat forgiving and flattering space.

 

The Review Component
Sometime in the early spring, Steve Nugent and I exchanged emails and phone calls and soon thereafter, Steve sent me a complete digital front end for review.  Along with the Spoiler DAC, Steve sent me his personal Toshiba laptop (which had much of the music he plays when demo'ing his DAC at audio shows loaded on its hard drive), a battery power supply for the DAC, a power cord, USB cable, and a pair of Empirical Audio interconnects which I ultimately employed between the DAC and the preamp for most of the review period. Nugent included easy to follow set up instructions which I managed to follow without incidence. Within a couple of hours, the digital front end was set up. I turned the system on, set the computer to the Nugent's preferred playlist, and let it play uninterrupted for a day or two to provide background listening.  After a couple of days, I began to listen with more care in order to fine-tune the system, and by the end of the first week, I was ready for sustained, critical listening.

The Spoiler begins as the Lite DAC-60, which is sourced from China. Basically, Nugent employs the D/A chips which are sourced from Burr-Brown, the front panel and the embedded CPU section on the main board. Nugent felt that beginning his design with the chassis and the transformers alone constituted a sufficient savings in time and money to outweigh the time it takes him to strip all of the components from the main board and cut/jumper the traces and the like.

It is of course not uncommon for audio components to use modules and off the shelf parts. In the case of the Spoiler, Nugent keeps the display board and cable, the power transformers, the power switch and the CPU section on the main board. He modifies the lower chassis, the cover and the power supply, and jettisons the TOSlink output. He modifies or changes half of the parts on the main board, the IEC inlet, the fuse holder, power supply caps, front panel, RCA jacks, associated wiring, the tubes, coupling caps and feet. To this assortment of parts, he add, capacitors to the main board, logic chips, connectors, switches, I2s circuit board, Pace-Car circuit board, Off-Ramp I2S circuit board, power supply caps, wiring harness for Off-Ramp and Pace-Car, and of course the front panel Empirical Audio display.

Some may view the Spoiler as a heavily modified Lite 60-DAC and others will view it as an innovative design that employs some basic parts from a readily available and easily sourced Chinese DAC. At some point this is a debate without a point. The question is how does the DAC sound and where does the innovation lie; not whether it is a unique design that is novel from beginning to end.

 

Inside The Spoiler
The Spoiler is a very complex piece of audio equipment, but that complexity is hiding inside a rather unprepossessing exterior. All the beauty, elegance and style is on the inside, and Nugent has made no effort to doll his pet up with fancy make-up like the thick aluminum or metal face plates one finds on much high end audio. I am very big on aesthetics and industrial design, but to be honest, with rare exceptions, I do not find audio products works of aesthetic merit. Many of my friends love the look of my Shindo equipment, but though the design is to be praised for its connection to the overall voicing of the products, the style itself does nothing for me. But oh my, the sound sure does.

Look you can't take too seriously the aesthetics of most audiophiles. Have you looked at the rooms they live in — not to mention the clothes they wear; or how about their personal grooming habits (smile). It is enough to give one nightmares.

So the fact that the Spoiler is a plane Jane at best is of little importance to me, but the average consumer might find the look a bit bland at the price point. The basic Spoiler comes in at around $5995 and that price can be easily driven up to the neighborhood of 10K once all the options are included. And if your experience mirrors mine, you are going to find it hard to live without most if not all of the options that are available.

The basic $6k Spoiler package includes:
Spoiler DAC with Siemens 6922 tubes; Belkin Pro Gold 5m USB cable; Empirical Audio's power cord for the Spoiler (valued at 1.5K). PC and MAC Software — SRC plug-ins, Foobar, EAC, Directsound2 plug-in; Wall-wart for powering USB interface; Second Wall-Wart for Pace-Car if (if one chooses to include the Pace-Car option).

The Spoiler can be customized by including several very desirable options. These include:
A battery power supply (which I would highly recommend); the Pace-Car (which is an internal reclocker that can be configured for USB or for a Wi-Fi source such as a Squeezebox or Sonos device (also strongly recommended); I2S and AES output (also desirable).

Of the options Nugent makes available, the Pace-Car reclocker is essential. At this price point, the aim is to produce a refined and highly resolved sound, and the Pace Car is designed to reduce the number one nemesis facing USB DACs, namely, jitter; and Nugent claims that the Pace Car succeeds at reducing jitter to inaudible levels. In my listening I found no reason to doubt his claims. The Pace Car reclocking technology may prove to be Nugent's greatest contribution to digital audio playback. It can be configured to interface with a range of devices like Sonos and Olive or Squeezebox and can turn water into wine. Or it can be used (as I primarily used it) as part of the digital chain that began with my computer hard drive.

I could not test what the Spoiler would have sounded like without the Pace-Car upgrade, but I wouldn't have wanted to find out either. The Pace-Car made for smooth running that equaled or surpassed for refinement and ease of listening all previous USB DACs with which I have been familiar. That's enough proof for me that one wouldn't want to leave home without one's Pace-Car.

Unsurprisingly, the use of the battery power supply added just a touch more refinement and ease while further reducing noise. There was simply nothing inelegant about the design of the Spoiler or its sound. Like many modifiers, Nugent is what I think of as a ‘parts' guy. He sources what he takes to be the best sounding individual parts, including the ubiquitous Black Gate capacitors, and his product is a showcase of premium parts. Unlike others who follow a similar path, Nugent exercises some restraint and seeks to find the most important locations in the circuit for the parts — the place where their presence is likely to make the biggest and most salutary benefit.

In general I am agnostic about the ‘parts' approach. My instincts are considerably more holistic. I prefer designers who can use all manner of parts, especially ones that others haven't thought of or which the audio community has shunned. The designers I love are those that know so much about iron, circuits and tubes that they know that all manner of parts can be put to previously underappreciated good use in some circuits and in conjunction with some other parts. Ken Shindo is a good example. He has used tubes in the phono section of his preamps that would never pass muster among the ‘parts' crowd as suitable for phono. It is why I like to read people — even good friends of mine — explain why a 12-inch tone-arm cannot possibly sound right; though Ortofon, Fidelity Research, Ikeda, SME, and Frank Schroder among others seem to have produced some pretty amazing sounding 12-inch arms. Here's my take on the scientific method when it comes to audio. There are few apriori proofs that something cannot possibly sound good. Be open minded and listen before you condemn. Some audiophiles and reviewers — too may who frequent the forums I fear — know that a number of products that they have never heard must sound absolutely awful. “The circuit is wrong.' ‘The output transformer is cheap.' ‘That tube sucks.' And so on. The arguments may be faulty or non-existent, but they do save the time and inconvenience of actually listening.

 

The Sound
In the early years of digital, some front ends were praised for sounding like analog. This was shorthand for the claim that the digital product in question would not rip one's ears off. What set this group of digital products apart was not the fact that they sounded like analog; they didn't'. It was the fact that they were listenable, which was both rare and plenty good enough — given the state of digital at the time. The problem is that this form of audio description has outlived whatever usefulness it may once have had. Whenever a manufacturer, reviewer or audiophile wants to praise the sound of a digital product, he cannot resist describing it as ‘analog-like.' In fact, such characterizations are invariably doubly misleading.

Not only are digital products nothing like analog, analog is nothing like they think it is. They praise digital products as analog like when the sound is soft, warm, fat, loose, undefined, unresolved and rolled off at the frequency extremes. In fact, good analog, let alone great analog, sounds nothing like this. It is well defined, detailed, highly resolved, dynamic, filled with information at both frequency extremes; well defined and ballsy.

The best digital has come a long way from the dark ages of the 80s and 90s, but there is nothing to be gained by trying to compare digital to analog. I have heard a lot of good digital in the past half dozen years including Steve Nugent's product under review here, but it just isn't analog. No, the Spoiler was not better than my analog front end. So what? That doesn't diminish it in any way. In fact, the Spoiler DAC is excellent, and among the very best digital products I have heard in the recent past.

Much of the sound of the Spoiler DAC remained the same whether playing 16 or 24 bits: seductive, refined, smooth, relaxed and coherent. There was a top-to-bottom integrity and balance to the sound. The Spoiler imposed no signature on playback. It called no attention to itself. It got many of the most important musical cues — timbre and tone primarily — correct. Even though the Spoiler was basically without a character and evenhanded in its presentation, it did seem to favor certain music over others. It really shone on female vocals, small ensembles, folk music and acoustic jazz. In contrast with the Turbo-Off Ramp and Perpetual Technology DAC combination which packed a wallop that rivaled if it did not quite equal the 301s way with music, the Spoiler seemed a bit restrained. This meant that it was a bit less persuasive with large-scale symphonic pieces, rock and electric blues. The differences were minor but noticeable. In addition, I found myself being drawn to particular tracks on Steve's playlist — those that reproduced particular instruments in isolation — even drums (not for the thwack, intensity or impact, but for the clarity and precision); vocalists and acoustic jazz.

The Spoiler could make almost any other digital product seem dirty and a bit unrefined by comparison. The sound was pristine and pure. Listening sometimes made me feel like I was among the down —home sweet and honest characters of the musical ‘Carousel.' There was nothing brazen or rough around the edges. Everyone is dressed up in his or her Sunday best, heading to Church, then to a town picnic. The overall presentation reminded me of being at a Church social. There will be fun, laughter and food, but it will all be proper, safe and appropriate. There may be a rough edge to the boy somewhere under the Sunday best he is sporting, but you are not going to see it.

Many reviewers love the Clearaudio turntable sound while others refer to it as ‘digital' and they attribute its digital signature to the acrylic platter. In referring to the Clearaudio sound as digital, these reviewers and audiophiles typically mean that the presentation is cold, firm, controlled and button-downed. I have some experience with the Clearaudio sound having reviewed the Master Reference table, but I don't hear the table as cold or digital in the sense that others do. The sound is firm and precise; the timing is impeccable. It's just that when I close my eyes and imagine walking in time with the beat as the table presents it, the picture I have is of a drill squad or a military platoon answering a 6am roll call, rather than Gene Kelly or Fred Astair. No one keeps time any better than Fred Astair or Gene Kelly, but when they walk, they dance. That's the difference, as they say, between ‘music' and ‘military music.'

If Clearaudio analog is digital, then it is not the digital of the Spoiler. There is nothing ‘engineered' about the sound of the Spoiler. Nor is there anything artificial about it. It is straightforward, sincere, honest, true to the source and unedited. It is as easy to listen to and enjoyable as any digital component I have ever heard. It's one shortcoming is a kind of politeness in presentation, that comes off less as sleepiness or laziness than as a reluctance to take the risk of offending. It's as if the edges of Nugent's previous work have been smoothed to increase refinement, but at the expense of some of the rock ‘em sock ‘em quality of his other efforts.

Ultimately, it is a matter of listener choice. The Spoiler is unquestionably as refined a digital product as there is on the market. It is a joy to use; it is incredibly flexible and the person who stands behind it is as good a person and businessman as he is a designer. This is the sort of component that most people who buy and like will never have a reason to replace. On the other hand, its inability to offend — even a little — might make it appear to some as a bit lacking in character. I found its relative dynamic restraint the one area in which it came up short relative to Nugent's earlier work. We will see how the product evolves over time as Steve Nugent is not one to sit on his laurels.

I should add that from a musical point of view, I by and large did not prefer upsampling and the higher bit rates. I find that upsampling tends to unbundled the sound and pick it apart, so that the overall presentation is significantly less integrated even if it is somewhat more ear catching. I prefer hearing how the parts come together to form an integrated whole rather than how they can be pulled apart and spot lit. That is clearly a personal preference, and one of the great things about the Spoiler is that it gives you both options — basically on the fly.

 

Conclusion
Many readers have asked me to compare the Spoiler with other USB DACs with which I am familiar. I hesitate to do so because I don't think comparisons — especially those that emphasize evaluations and rankings — provide useful information to consumers or to manufacturers. Frankly, there is no reason on earth why you or anyone else should care about my rankings anyway. If I have something useful to add, it is in terms of characterization of the sound, not in terms of ranking products. Still, there are some points of contrast between the Spoiler and the Wavelength Cosecant, which had been my USB DAC reference (used with a iBook computer and Apple Lossless).

Both feature tube output stages, and Gordon Rankin of course has had his hands in and around tube designs for well over 20 years. I loved my time with the Cosecant, which is soon to be replaced with a newer version. The Empirical Audio Spoiler and the Wavelength Audio Cosecant are very different products sonically. They interpret music differently and present it very differently. The Spoiler is a more evenhanded, top to bottom balanced and refined product. Everything has a place and everything is in its place. In this regard, it is like Shaker furniture. No excess, nothing extraneous. It is polite and charming and will not offend; nor will it respond with anger when pushed. It will simply move backstage and resist the temptation to show off its stuff.

In contrast, the Cosecant is somewhat more visceral. The music comes across as somewhat more textured and developed. The bottom octaves of the Cosecant in the iteration I owned were less well defined than the mids and highs were. The Cosecant carried a nice wallop in the lower midrange that moved the music along.

In game and decision theory, we employ a familiar distinction between ordinality and cardinality. An ordinal ranking offers an ordering, say, 1-10 of a set of options. 1 is preferred to 2; 2 to 3; 3 to 4 and so on. It is often extremely important to get the order right. On the other hand, an ordinal ranking does not reflect how much more 1 is preferred to 2, or 2 to 3, or 3 to 4 and so on. It may well be that 1 is intensely preferred to 2 whereas the differences in preferences among the rest of the set is very small indeed It may be, for example that 1 is preferred to 2 far more (with greater intensity) that 2 is preferred to 10. So a person may be willing to give up a lot to insure that he gets his first choice and very little to make sure he gets his second rather than his fifth, seventh or even last choice. Cardinal rankings are designed to reflect intensity of preference and not merely ordering of them.

If I were forced to contrast The Spoiler USB DAC ($8500 as tested) with similar offerings from Wavelength (the Cosecant V2 I had, with the new Cosecant V3 being  $3500), I would say that Steve Nugent is very concerned to get the order right: have things in their right place; in contrast, Gordon Rankin is more likely to risk getting the order a bit off if doing so will allow him to reflect better the intensity of the expression. Both represent exceptional products that emphasize different musically significant aspects of musical playback. If I were to liken them to speakers with which the reader may be familiar, I would say that the Spoiler presents music in the way that a classic electrostatic does: transparent, even handed, refined, even elegant, but falling just a bit short on dynamic or visceral impact. In contrast, the Cosecant presents music in the way that is reminiscent of the best of the horns: effortless dynamics, harmonic completeness, and tonal integrity; but failing to be perfectly evenhanded from top to bottom.

The only Wavelengths I have comparable experience with are the Brick and the Cosecant V2. The former is not in the right comparison class. The latter is. Comparisons are hard to make and I resist doing so whenever possible. The Spoiler configured as I reviewed it comes in at around $8500 and is sold direct. The Cosecant comes in at less than half the price and is supported by a dealer network.

The question cannot be, which is better. Rather, it must be, which makes most sense for you in your system. That is not a question I can answer. The Spoiler DAC represents a big step forward in USB DACs. When in the early days of digital, reviewers praised some digital products, they never imagined that digital would sound this good: this balanced, refined, sweet, listenable, and enjoyable. If these virtues appeal to you, and if the flexibility of computer based or Wi-Fi based audio appeals to you, then you owe it to yourself to give the Spoiler a serious audition. I think Nugent has a real winner here, and one that will appeal to the sonic preferences of many audiophiles and music lovers alike.

 

Specifications
Type: Vacuum tube USB digital to analog converter (DAC)

Inputs: USB and S/PDIF via coaxial (RCA)
Outputs: Stereo RCA
Output Level: 1.7VRMS 
Sample Rates Supported: 16-bit/44.1kHz, 24-bit/44.1kHz, 24-bit/48kHz,
                                      24-bit/88.2kHz and 24-bit/96kHz 
Tube compliment: Two Siemens CCA grey-plates 
USB Clock: Modified Superclock4
External Power: Jack for battery power USB converter (switchable)
Sorbothane feet
Ear Isodamp SD125 chassis resonance control
Furutech IEC
Display disable from front panel

Included:
Spoiler DAC with tubes 
Belkin Pro Gold 5m USB cable 
Optimum custom Power Cord ($1.5K retail) 
PC and MAC Software: SRC plug-ins, Foobar, EAC, Directsound2 plug-in 
Wall-wart for powering USB interface

Price: Spoiler with Siemens cca grey-plate tubes: $5999, the unit tested retails at $8500

Spoiler with optional USB Pace-Car inside: $1650 One Superclock4, $2300 two Superclock4's

Optional I2S input, rear-panel switchable from USB: $300 (allows use of the Northstar I2S Transport)

Optional AES/EBU input: replaces S/PDIF input: $100

Optional BPS power supply and charger: $425

 

Company Information
Empirical Audio
PO Box

Voice: (541) 595-1001
E-mail: support@empiricalaudio.com
Website: www.empiricalaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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