The Apogee Electronics Big Ben Master Clock
|The Apogee Electronics Big Ben Master Clock|
A Digital Ginsu
Clement Perry & Key Kim
Seemed like only yesterday the Audio Alchemy DTI-Pro 32 was the hot ticket. You could have even upgraded to the Meridian 518 or Genesis Digital Lens. More recently there was the Perpetual Technologies P1A/P3A digital dynamo. In their day these glorified gizmos helped to keep jitter, a sort of mysterious digital disease (roughly equivalent to distortion in an analog signal), at bay. But with the advent of new formats—SACD, DVD-A and hi-rez CD’s—have made these products—and jitter issues—all but disappear. What lies behind it, I believe, is that these new-fangled players have all but eliminated jitter from our playback systems. Considering how futuristic some of these new players look and how much they cost, plus, how hard it is to get one’s hand on say an old Meridian 518, makes this argument almost believable…that is, until you hear the Apogee Electronics Big Ben.
One quiet afternoon, while doing my daily perusing of TacT Audio’s Users Group (TAUG) chat room, I noticed a growing thread on the merits of the Big Ben digital word clock and jitter attenuator. I paid close attention due to the seriousness of the responses. And I admit they did pique my interest. So much in fact that I contacted Apogee and asked for a review sample.
Apogee Electronics Corporation, not to be confused with the now-defunct loudspeaker manufacturer Apogee Acoustics, has long existed on the professional side of music playback and has served as a leading maker of professional-grade recording equipment. Founded in 1985, they’ve remained on a steady course of fulfilling the needs of pro engineers and recording buffs alike, but did make some stir among audiophiles with their uniquely affordable digital cable called the Apogee Wyde Eye. Because of this I was only vaguely aware of them. You can bet I did a lot of background research and I got the chance to see up close and personal what a serious product Apogee designed in the Big Ben.
At first glance , one notices the Big Ben’s a pro-audio product: its sleek, low profile and rack mounts are dead giveaways. In addition, its intimidating features, eg., ADAT, S/Mux, Pull Up/Down, will give an audiophile a real time with the accompanying owner’s manual. I found the small display screen just the right size; its bright red sample-rate LED is neither too large or too small for quick inspection from ten-feet away. This, of course, is perfect when you’ve got visitors over for a listening session because the first thing they ask is “What’s that?” I love that. Located beneath the LED display is a green arrow that commences to blink until an incoming signal is locked and stable (a blinking arrow indicates less than ideal clock sync’ing). A blue dot located underneath the green arrow displays what Apogee calls their Surelock mode which ensures that Big Ben remains engaged even if the signal drops.
Big Ben is quite a flexible machine, allowing options like S/PDIF to AES/EBU, AES/EBU to ADAT, or ADAT to S/PDIF. Another interesting one is Double-Wide, which has been talked about at length on the Tact Audio’s Users Group and serves as a unique digital approach. Double-Dipping (as we at TAUG describe it), is achieved by going through the Big Ben twice via its dual AES/EBU inputs using two (different) separate devices. Apogee designed dual AES/EBU inputs for hi-rez transfer using each for dedicated left and right channel. The Big Ben accepts clock signals from 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176 and 192 kHz data. What I achieved seemed unusual to the Apogee engineers because I used the hi-rez “Double-Wide” mode with two separate AES/EBU inputs, but I sent the 44.1kHz signal from two different sources: the digital out of the Gryphon Mikado, and the digital out from the Tact 2.2X preamp. Setup was a little tricky since I wanted to run everything through the Big Ben, and this meant more digital cables. I began to wonder if this would be more trouble than it was worth.
What I hoped the Big Ben would accomplish in my all digital rig was very simple: lower jitter with its ugly discordant artifacts.
The Big Ben is said to accomplish this task by taking the external clock data from any digital input and optimize it using Apogee’s internal C777 Clock Technology. Apogee’s website discusses this unique feature: “At the heart of any word clock regeneration is a Phase Lock Loop (PLL). The PLL is a combination of analogue and digital elements without the ability to dynamically adapt to the nature of the external clocks. In other words, the better the clock performance, the less flexibility it has. And conversely, the more flexibility there is in the PLL, the less effective it is at jitter reduction. Apogee’s new C777 is built to address these inadequacies.”
To better understand the operation of a clock (and the phase locked loop that is its heart, I’d like to share with you an analogy told me by Roger Robindore of Apogee’s tech support.
"First, I find it useful to review the function of a PLL; to accept a reference clock input, and output a clock signal which is as closely matched to the input while reducing variations in the frequency (or jitter) of that input. Without the PLL, jitter would accumulate as a digital audio signal passed through the various stages from A-D (or CD transport) to D-A, and audio quality would be greatly degraded.
When driving on the highway, we actually perform the operations of a PLL ourselves! We accept a reference input (the speed limit) and we vary the speed of our vehicle to match as closely as possible that speed limit, while maintaining as steady a speed as possible (for a smooth ride). Now, imagine we had to control our vehicles with Cruise Control: we'd note the speed limit, enter it into our Cruise Control, and the car would change its engine speed until it attained the reference speed. Cruise Control on a Cadillac might slowly and smoothly adjust vehicle speed, while Cruise Control on a Ford Pinto might make speed adjustments more quickly but abruptly. Likewise, some PLLs adjust slowly but smoothly (that is, with a lower intrinsic jitter output) while lower quality clocks are able to match the reference input more quickly, but with more jittery output. It would be great to just simply make all PLLs as low jitter as possible, but this just isn't workable in the real world; all PLLs must compromise lower jitter in order to more quickly match the reference input.
Because Big Ben's PLL is a mix of analog and DSP, it is able to analyze the reference input and adjust its characteristic appropriately, with the aim of always adjusting itself for the lowest jitter possible. As no compromise is necessary, Big Ben can operate
at a lower jitter than conventional PLLs.”
Well, the first thing I desperately needed to do after getting the BB setup was read the owner’s manual. I got a brain cramp trying to get the Big Ben to lock on the signal. Reading the owner’s manual helped me to fully understand how to manipulate the toggle buttons. Once I got the feel for what I was doing, setting the preferred inputs (Double-Wide) for example, I was ready to roll.
The first benefit I noticed with the Apogee Big Ben engaged was a reduction in high-frequency edge and digital glare. I got the immediate sensation that metal instruments, cymbals, bells, triangles, and horns, sounded much more natural with a greater sense of “there”. Ditto violins and massed strings. The sense that instruments possessed greater separation, thus appearing clearer and better defined in their own space, was illuminating. This also included an improvement in bass speed and articulation. Fingering techniques, slaps, noises coming off the body and neck of Christian McBride’s upright bass were revealed with a sense of rightness I could not say I’d heard prior to the Big Ben’s installation.
My usual first impulse is one of denial. “My setup was doing this already” was the first thing I told myself. But disc after disc told me different. There was a side of me that didn’t want to accept this level of improvement. That’s my lot in life I guess; to fight the truth, then attempt to figure it out as some sort of trick, before accepting it with open arms. The truth here is the Big Ben improved the overall quality of my system to a level I did not think could exist after many months of evaluation. That, in and of itself, is no trick.
Anyone accusing my system of possessing digital artifacts, or sounding out of focus, or even a little hard on top, previous to the introduction of the Big Ben, probably would have gotten strong arguments to the contrary from me. I know the system isn’t perfect (what is?), yet I thought with the Gryphon and Tact leading the way, the sound was certainly possessed less digital noise than any other configuration I’d heard to date. Yet, once again, I discovered only after installation of the Big Ben that digital etch and glare were insidiously present.
Big Ben improved the signal of virtually every transport I tried, no matter the expense: Sony's DVD player, the inexpensive Sony carousel player, or my cherished JubiLaeum player that is nothing more than a Zanden Audio modified Audio Note. Upstairs in the all Tact setup, or downstairs running with the George Mark Audio DAC/pre and the deHavilland monoblocks, the Big Ben did not favor one transport over the other. It appeared to improve each to varying degrees with no ill side-effects that I could detect.
The JubiLaeum is an outstanding transport and, as one would guess, sounded its best going through the Big Ben. What I found most interesting is the JubiLaeum signal improved the least. It simply didn’t require the amount of help the Sonys did. My four-year old Sony DVP-S7700 sounded like it was one of the big boys when playing through the Big Ben. I had a very hard time trying to find the sonic benefits of the more expensive JubiLaeum and Gryphon Mikado. However, after some long hours A-B’ing, I found both the JubiLaeum, and especially the Gryphon, imbued more life into the music than the lesser players—even when strapped to the Big Ben.
But I will admit that it was very hard to tell them apart on certain test CD’s.
The most recent addition was the $14,000.00 Teac Esoteric P70 transport and D70 DAC. With all the technical wizardry up the P70’s sleeve, one would think the benefits of passing it through the Big Ben would be minimal. Well, I’m here to state that (used upstairs solely as a transport), the effects of passing a 44.1 kHz signal from the Esoteric P70 through the Big Ben improved its high frequency extension among other things. There was also improvement of string tone (smoothness?) such as I heard with the Gryphon Mikado.
But only passing a 44.1 kHz signal would be like reading half a great novel, when you consider the Esoteric P70’s capability and the Big Ben’s inherit versatility. Using Double-Wide mode in the way Apogee originally designed its dual AES/EBU (88.2 kHz) ins and outs, and syncing the world clock to the Esoteric’s D70 DAC, took this already dynamite combo to another level.
Conclusions: Sonically, the Big Ben more than impressed this all-digital connoisseur. It improved the sound of some of the best digital products I’ve heard. The Apogee Big Ben will allow for a multitude of setup possibilities along with high-rez input capability. This much I know: if this product was released as a high-end product with the usual high-end badge, I could easily see it costing twice the asking price. At $1500, I would nominate the Big Ben as a bargain. Apogee has a hit on its hands with the Big Ben. Highly recommended!
Key Kim follow-up
At last, Apogee’s Big Ben has arrived! The Big Ben is intended to be the last word in digital clocks. For years audio professionals have been requesting that Apogee make their legendary clocking technology available in a stand-alone master clock. What does this Big Ben have to do with hi-end audio? Well read on!
In professional audio the Big Ben is already making noises, astonishing users with its ability to create crystal clear clarity and natural quality in recordings while providing flexibility and features like no other clock had done to date. In the web based Tact Audio users group, the buzz was “Big Ben.” I myself, being a Tact Audio owner just had to experience what this buzz was all about.
Actually, a few months ago Clement Perry called me up in the middle of the night regarding the Big Ben. He sent a review sample through the usual paces and was so excited by its virtues that he had stayed up all night listening. This let me know it was time to venture across the state border, from Manhattan to New Jersey armed withmy usual cache of reference CDs. Peer Gynt’s Solveig, featuring Elly Ameling, sang like a canary, delicately and effortlessly with a natural sound I’ve not encountered before, or anywhere else for that matter. Incredibly, the Big Ben improved the remarkable sound of this track via Perry’s already superb system. I have been using Gynt as my reference CD in his system for a long time, making the trip to New Jersey on the average of at least once a week. Perry’s sound was much closer to what we describe as analogue with Apogee’s Big Ben. In a word: Natural.
A couple of weeks later, after my first listening impression a second Big Ben arrived for a follow-up review. Needless to say, I was anticipating what changes would occur in my system. Physically, the Big Ben is sleek looking and because of its low profile and was a cinch to get in my ever-diminishing rack space.
I used the all Analysis Plus Golden Oval digital cables with AES connections coupled to the Big Ben’s dual AES/EBU connections. The Big Ben was placed between my Electrocompaniet transport and the Tact Audio 2.2X and, again, between the Big Ben and the Tact M2150 amplifiers. Immediately, with the Big Ben engaged, the sound opened up both in terms if image height, depth and presented less grain in and around the treble region (something I detected in Perry’s setup but never expected here). Most importantly however, is that each and every performance improved by sounding more natural and free-flowing thus less aggressive. This analogue feeling I heard at Perry’s isn’t some cheap euphonic coloration because I hear it here in my own listening room and now know what makes this possible. The Big Ben actually appears to create a better atmosphere for detail and image specificity. I hear more instrument separation, overtones, as well as harmonic cues. This level of presentation offers a much more relaxed and inviting listening experience. Listening to I’m In The Mood For Love“Jacintha Is Her Name” [Groove Note GRV1014-2], was immediately more enriching an experience. The roundness in Jacintha’s voice, the trailing harmonics and overtones coming through unlike before was, well intoxicating. This type of improvement doesn’t come easy for I’ve been searching for this quality playback for a very long time. This immediate improvement made me understand that the buzz that was created in the Tact Audio Users Group was no joke.
I was somewhat mystified after hearing the improvements Big Ben had introduced into my system. How could a master clock like Big Ben do what it did, especially since I use a reference caliber CD player in the Electrocompaniet ECM-1 and Tact Audio 2.2X. I was getting improvements not unlike what I have heard in Perry’s system. It amazed me that it actually improves the sound of the Electrocompaniet CD player and Tact 2.2X as well.
I was curious to find out how the Big Ben would sound with a lesser CD player. I used a Marantz DV6200 DVD player. I used the same CD’s and the improvements were astounding—if not more. I assume that this was because the Marantz has lower quality digital clock and it’s an inferior compared to Electrocompaniet player. Now, I actually could use my Marantz DVD player to listen to music! I don’t mean that the Marantz with the Big Ben sounds better than the Electrocompaniet CD player. It’s just that the Marantz player sounds much smoother and more refined and musical with the Big Ben. The Big Ben took the Marantz to another level by re-clocking it -- greatly reducing its internally high jitter for an improved one.
Apogee’s Big Ben is not just for audio professionals, it’s also for lovers of music playback. The Big Ben is a must for all Digital system owners, especially users of Tact Audio equipment. Audiophiles who have an analog system can still take the advantage of the Big Ben to improve the clock performance of their CD players and DAC to create a more natural musical experience. Finally, this Big Ben is not going anywhere it is now a part of my reference system.
Features: AES, S/PDIF, Optical I/O - Word Clock/Video In - 6 Word Clock Outs
Optional X-FireWire expansion card to facilitate clocking and format conversion with other FireWire devices
Optional X-Video expansion card to provide master video sync generator
Realtime format conversion between all digital formats
Direct Digital Synthesis (DDS) using Apogee´s C777 Clock Technology up to 192kHz
Adaptive Loop Filtering (ALF) to optimize clock performance and minimize jitter
Three stage Termination Sensing for each word clock output
2 x AES-EBU on XLR 44.1k-192k single-wide and 88.2 k–192k double-wide.
S/PDIF optical on TOS-LINK 44.1-48k
S/PDIF coaxial on RCA 44.1-192k
ADAT/SMUX II for 88.2-96k
ADAT/SMUX IV for 176.4-192k
Word Clock BNC 44.1 –192k
Optional FireWire (X-FireWire card)
Optional video sync (X-Video card)
2 x AES-EBU on XLR single or double wide 44.1-192k
S/PDIF coaxial 44.1-192k
S/PDIF optical on TOS-LINK 44.1-48k
6 x BNC Word Clock 44.1-192k (of which 2 can output 256fs at low sample rates)
Optional FireWire (X-FireWire card)
Optional video sync (X-Video card)
Sample rates: 44.1/48-88.2-96-176-192 . All +/- 10%
Pull up/down 0.1% and 4% from any sample rate
Apogee´s new Ultra Low Jitter C777 clock
Three stage termination indicator (under/correct/over) on each
Word Clock output:
"SureLock" technology for drop out prevention
4 digit numeric true sample rate indication
Universal power: 15 W 90-250 VAC 50-60 HZ
Apogee Electronics Corp.
3145 Donald Douglas Loop South
Santa Monica,CA 90405-3210, USA
Tel: +1 310.915.1000
Fax: +1 310.391.6262
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