Legend Audio Design Music Reference DAC
|Legend Audio Design Music Reference DAC|
13 August 2001
Digital to Analog Converter
Sampling rate: up to 96 kHz.
Low- Jitter, on-chip clock recovery 256 x FS out-put clock.
High performance stereo 24 bit DAC.
24 bit 8 times digital filter.
128-x over sampling.
Ripple: +/- 0.005 db.
Second order SC Filter with high tolerance to clock jitter.
Low distortion unbalanced out-puts.
Digital de-emphasis for 32, 44.1, 48 & 96 kHz.
Dynamic range: 110 db.
THD: 0.003 %.
Separate mono modules for left and right channel.
Separate module for digital section.
Weight: 30 Ibs.
Chassis Dimensions:19.5"W × 11"D × 4.25"H
Peak experiences don’t happen that often, right? Perhaps audiophiles have them more frequently than ordinary mortals. At any rate, great gear has been steadily coming through my doorway these last few months, and it’s my pleasure to report about them to you.
One day UPS delivered two boxes, one containing the Legend Audio Design Music Reference D to A converter (MR). As I was already engaged in a product evaluation, I merely wanted to make sure the unit was not damaged before re-boxing and putting it back in the loading dock (my front hallway). So I unpacked the MR, placed it on an open area on my crowded shelf, and wired it up. I would have flipped the power switch except there was none. No switches at all. I remember my wife was behind the speakers by the front windows. I was standing at the rack. My right hand engaged the pre-amp volume control. We became immobilized for maybe ten seconds after I turned up the volume, and looked at each other, startled. No, it wasn’t a romantic moment. It was a case of expectations being completely off the mark. After all, this was just another DAC, cold out of the box, right? But what came out of the speakers sounded so true and convincing compared to the well-regarded DAC we were listening to a minute ago, that we realized we were in a wholly different ball court.
As time passed, I kept noticing that CDs I was familiar with sounded better with the MR. Not only had the discs sound improved, but the musicians also seemed to be giving better performances. Melodies and phrasings made more sense. Of course I was hearing individual notes, but I was also hearing more clearly how they combined to shape a phrase. My enjoyment from listening increased dramatically. What was going on here? Was the music more accessible because the MR is euphonic? It didn’t sound rolled off, congested, or lacking detail. Since then, I’ve been educated through acquaintance with the unit. I understand now that it’s doing several key things right that account for its exceptional musicality: 1) overtones and other sympathetic resonances are fully reproduced, 2) all frequencies arrive at the listener at the same time, and 3) the frequency spectrum is balanced and in proportion. More about all this later. First, the particulars.
Typically for Legend, the MR arrived without any manual or literature—the veritable black box. The MR uses the same chassis as the Legend pre-amps and other line level components, but the faceplate on this latest product has a new look. It is a thicker metal of bluish-grey color. That and the dim blue power indicator light are all you see. The look is utilitarian and functional, stylish in a low-key kind of way. You attach a coax digital input and a pair of single ended outputs, and plug the power cord into the IEC jack. That’s it. There are no switches or other options. Legend suggests that the MR be left turned on once installed. The unit stays cool to the touch.
As far as what’s inside the box, Ray Leung of Legend Audio says it uses solid-state circuitry, and is compatible with 24/96. It does not upsample. It detects the input word length and sampling rate and processes it unchanged up to 24/96, if that’s what is coming in. The analog section is dual mono, each channel contained in separate sub-enclosures. Digital circuitry is also in a separate sub-enclosure. Oh, and there’s something called a digital de-emphasis filter.
The sound is somewhat laid back, recessive in the way that a passive pre-amp would be, but not to the same extent. This is welcomed as one of the cardinal sins of digital music is that it’s always IN YOUR FACE. By contrast, the sound of the MR is delicate, subtle and refined. Dynamics, both micro and macro, are as good as any I’ve heard. The quality of the soundstage is above reproach: width, depth and image height is all rendered convincingly. Likewise, the recorded acoustic is more completely realized. Massed strings sound like just that, instead of one huge instrument. Put these characteristics together and you can see that classical fare and acoustic jazz are sublimely served up, which is the diet I subsisted on for this review.
Treble frequencies are wonderfully nuanced and delineated. The MR will extend up as high as you let it, with no strain or stridency. The treble is uncompressed and sweet. The midrange is the MR’s strong suit. It has supple warmth, like good analog, with lots of body. The bass is punchy and a little loose, but that’s not what is noteworthy here. Most digital rigs tend to slice off the overtones above the fundamental bass note, so it sounds like a thud. With the MR, acoustic bass is rendered in all its complexity. This leads to the first of my three insights into the MR’s special sound.
1. Thought Piece on Overtones
Accurate tone reproduction has at least three parts. 1) The FUNDAMENTAL: This is the principle note struck, for example, C. 2) SYMPATHETIC RESONANCES and UNDERTONES: These are the resonances equal to and below the pitch of the fundamental note. Sometimes these are called "the organ effect". When these resonances are excited they give you that feeling of a solid body or foundation supporting the tone. Without them, the note sounds thin and unsupported. 3) OVERTONES: These are the resonances above the fundamental.
I remember coming back from Carnegie Hall one day and turning on the system. Pretty good, I thought, but there’s no sense of buoyancy or sparkle. Acoustic instruments have a bright finish at the end of their sound. When a violin produces a G note, it naturally excites the other strings at precisely determined intervals, i.e., the lower fifths, the octaves, etc.
When the note is played, everything is resonating. When the note ends, the resonances continue. As the sound decays the sympathetic resonances and undertones die off faster, so you’re left with a trail of treble overtones. This is the sparkle or lift after the note. Now, this is precisely what most audiophiles studiously filter out of their systems, because it’s very difficult to get the upper treble to sound natural. Most of the time this band comes out as strident or grating. Sometimes it carries artifacts. The easiest thing to do is to remove the offending high treble. And there goes that sense of lift or sparkle. The treble overtones produced by the lower register instruments, like the acoustic bass, are usually missing with digital sound. In this case, the failure is in the component’s design.
2. Proportional / Balanced Sound
Some components and wires emphasize one frequency band or another. Often, system mismatching causes this. However, I think some products are designed this way. I’ve heard certain wires produce this result when inserted into wholly different systems. This can have its attractions. For example, wires that emphasize the frequency extremes can sound spectacular, with muscular bass and extended highs. But this comes at the cost of a dip in the mid-range. Another version of this is a peak in the upper mid-range, low treble area, with a corresponding dip in the mid and upper bass. Yes, you’ll have tons of air and presence, but instruments will sound lean and under-nourished. All frequencies must be present in proper proportion. No single band should be exaggerated, just as no part of the spectrum should be missing. The result is that a full-spectrum sound reaches your ears.
The third ingredient, and just as important, is the arrival time. The timing of individual frequencies must be in sync with the whole. You don’t want the treble to arrive first, with the bass trailing after it. Symptomatic of this kind of problem is that the pace seems slow and recordings seem uninvolving, recording after recording. You don’t look forward to listening and you don’t turn on the system. When you have balanced frequency response and the timing right, you have COHERENT SOUND.
In all these areas the MR is right on the money.
I don’t know about that. You may want to skip this course. This DAC is voiced so well that anything you do is liable to take away more than add. You can experiment with weights over the DAC, or Shakti Stones and the like, to fine-tune. But I found that, like most Legend gear, the unit is fairly untweakable. It sounded best unadorned, except for possibly some PolyCrystal ISO feet under it. Most tweaks had the effect of reducing complexity and realism. Putting a Townshend Little Rock over the DAC impeded realistic dynamic ebb and flow, and resulted in more abrupt transitions. Putting a VPI brick on top of the MR made the sound dull and less lively, albeit more controlled and focussed.
Listening to the MR, I don’t feel there’s any lack of detail. However, in direct comparison to the best DACs there is less "detail". Some visitors have remarked upon this. The MR can be tweaked to give you more of this info, if that’s what you want. Just put some Shakti Onlines on the power cord, or maybe a VPI brick on top. However, as mentioned above, I found this always had the price of reduced musicality.
Normally I’m a fan of all these esoteric tweaks. But in the case of the MR, I would guess that if you need to use these third party devices, you probably have to address problems elsewhere in the system. To my ear, the Legend MR gets 95% of the sound right straight out of the box, with minimal setup time. The remaining 5% percent come from careful choice of wires and feet. This is an important point: the MR should sound terrific "as tuned at the factory." If it doesn’t, look first to your other gear.
Try doing the old knuckle-rap test. Gently rap your knuckle on the chassis of most high-end gear made today. Typically you will barely hear a dull thud. When that happens most audiophiles stand up and cheer in unison. The popular notion is that "deader is better", as far as resonance goes. Well, when you try that rap on the MR, you’ll hear a metallic ringing (shudder, gasp). Indeed, you can try it on any Legend component with the same result. This flies in the face of current design trends. So what is the right approach? Legend designers believe a damped box will impart deadness to the sound. If you accept that chassis resonance becomes an integral part of the component’s voice, then you can see the logic of letting the chassis ring. So they experimented with tuning the chassis using different types and gauges of metal. You can definitely hear this. The reproduced sound with the unadorned MR is open and lively, with a free flowing, agile, and unrestricted dynamic.
I tried an assortment of coax digital wires with the MR. Here’s the best of the lot.
Illuminations/Kimber Studio D-60 Datastream Digital Link
The Kimber is powerful, dynamic and full bodied with heightened frequency extremes, yet it is still warm sounding. It’s clear and noticeably without grain. It’s more forward, like having a seat in the first row. The soundstage was wider and very focused, but instruments sounded a little fat. The acoustic was credible and sounds decayed naturally. This forward, dynamic sound, with good rhythm and pace, is what some guys call the "Boogie Factor". This cable is a must-have for rock and jazz fans.
Legend Master Digital Reference
With this wire in place, you’ll notice something uncommon. You have moved your seat from front row to mid-orchestra. You’ve also gotten further away from the impression that you’re listening to a sound system. If, like me, you believe that analog is still the gold standard, then I say this cable makes the sound more like vinyl. It is somewhat laid back and less dynamic compared to the Kimber, but superbly balanced tonally. The other wires tested produced sound that you would hear in many good systems, but the character of the Legend Master distinguishes itself in the same ways as the Legend MR DAC.
Midway thru the audition period I received the Jubileum CD player. The name is not well known in the east, yet. This manufacturer is based in Singapore and, furthermore, Xanden Audio of Japan modified this CD player. The Jubileum used as a transport warmed things up a lot and defined the acoustic space better. Grain and stridency were banished. In its place you got Carnegie Hall type sound.
Still later on, I got a Philips CD960. This model was discontinued about 4 or 5 years ago. Legend bought up a bunch of them. Basically, they like the CD platter mechanism but do a complete overhaul on everything else. I was not surprised to find that the Legend modified Philips used as a transport mated best with the MR. Instruments seemed to gain weight. They certainly sounded richer, and presented themselves more forcefully. You know, similar to the way some people can be tentative in their response, and others are more self-assured. At the same time, images gained in focus due to the increases in the kind of coherency I described above. Very musical and very authoritative in it’s presentation.
As you might have surmised, there is a synergy among the various offerings from this manufacturer.
For this review, I listened a lot to Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, with Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra [Harmonia Mundi HMP3903017 CD]. Fischer has a clear vision of what he wants to say and takes his orchestra there with minimal sidebars and distractions. This is an idiosyncratic performance that, nevertheless, smacks of authenticity, with tasteful, appropriate accents and detailing, unlike most of the excellent but cookie-cutter performances one usually hears. The sound is very good while not quite up to TAS list standards. Keep an eye out for these Fischer disks. I believe he is recording now for the Philips label.
A second disc, which I consider a real find, is Divertissements, Airs et Concerts, a compilation of pieces by the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, performed by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants [Erato 3984-25485-2]. Conductor Christie and his corps are in their usual top form and the tunes are interesting entertainment. Charpentier doesn’t follow the sometimes predictable Baroque compositional formulas, and he never sounds as good with anyone else. For what it’s worth, Christie and Les Arts Florissants are my favorite Baroque ensemble. Enjoy track one, "La Pierre Philosophale", with the full orchestra and chorus. Then listen very carefully to track two as Sophie Daneman ascends to the nether regions of her soprano range. This is a favorite test of treble extension. She should sound sweet, ethereal and articulate. With some components she sounds like she’s beyond her range. Her voice gets a hard quality and sounds constricted. It loses its sweetness and inner detail. This even happened when I swapped isolation cones, or used Shakti Onlines. More goose bumps are to be had on track seven, where counter-tenor Paul Agnew sings "Tristes diserts, sombre retraite" like it’s his dying breath. It’s so expressive and emotion laden, it can make a grown man cry. I forgot to mention the disc is recorded using 20 bits and the sound is great. Highly recommended for sound and performance.
The MR is an exceptional product. I find it difficult to criticize this unit. It may not be the last word in detail, or have the tightest bass, but it’s more than adequate in those areas. Is it the best there is, overall? Let’s put it this way. In the $5000 and up arena, there are many well-respected contenders. The Legend MR sounds different from the others I’ve auditioned. This DAC excels in those subtleties that tell you a person is making music. The Music Reference has the ability to reveal the musical and emotional content buried in the digital bit stream, and make you feel you’re in the presence of live events. This rare ability is enhanced when the MR is used with the Legend digital and power cables and the Legend modified Philips CD960.
If you got into this hobby in order to maximize enjoyment of your music collection, you will recognize the MR’s sound as fundamentally correct. If this voice speaks to you, then trust your heart. You’ll be glad you did for years to come.
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