North Star Design – Model 192 DAC & Transport
|North Star Design – Model 192 DAC & Transport|
|Stylish Good Looks and Musical Sounds To Match|
When I received a call from my friendly editor Dave Thomas (DT) asking me about reviewing products from a new (to me) Italian high-end audio component company called North Star Design, I was all ears. After checking them out on the internet, I was happy to see that their components relatively modest size meant that I could physically handle them myself, and not require the assistance of several others as is the case with most of the other stuff I review. Bear in mind that I was fresh off of reviewing a couple “monster” speakers that weighed more than I do. So I called the very pleasant and easy to deal with, Anthony Perrotta of Perrotta Consulting, the importer for North Star’s products in the U.S.
Through discussions with Perrotta, I discovered that North Star had a full line of components but that he was most interested in having the company’s digital products reviewed. In this particular instance, the more affordable Model 192 DAC and Transport were offered to me. Naturally I was more interested in the top-of-the-line Extremo DAC ($3,995). But after a little discussion I agreed that starting with the lower-priced unit actually made more sense for the initial review.
Prior to the invitation to review the North Star digital gear, my life with digital playback was being served (very well thank you) by the superb, one-box, multi-format Bel Canto PL1-A digital player. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of new products hitting the market but in no way did I feel the need to move to something different. Again, the Bel Canto unit had been serving me well. But the North Star digital gear had really piqued my interest. Perhaps it was because of DT’s hearty recommendation.
Not long after our telephone conversations, two relatively modest sized boxes, including both the North Star DAC and transport were soon at my home. Anxiously opening both boxes – I was immediately impressed with each unit’s very solid and very attractive appearance. The remote was fairly understated but reliable. These units were sleek in design, had good fit-n-finish and sonically, were the perfect compliment to one another.
Overall, my initial impression was that at $2,500 retail (per unit), the cost did not appear to be out of line and actually seemed quite appropriate. Both units came in their company’s attractive silver satin finish. However, I’ve been around this business far too long and no better than to yield to the temptation created by visual deception. Good looks alone don’t automatically translate to good sound. Fortunately, this was not the case with the North Star products. Through continuous use and extended listening, these units proved to be very rewarding and sonically very impressive overall.
Direct comparison to my Bel Canto player also proved to be quite interesting. Initial impressions of the North Star units were favorable but I also wanted to make sure that before doing any really serious comparisons, I felt I should provide adequate burn-in time for these new arrivals. After several days of continuous running, I felt their overall performance had improved noticeably and generally speaking felt they were prepared for closer examination and comparison.
Initially, the most noticeable sonic characteristic of the North Star combo was a big, bold, full sound that was slightly forward, slightly etched, not quite as smooth nor as quiet overall compared to my reference player. The midrange was also a bit forward compared to my reference, and although the highs were nicely extended, they didn’t sound quite as open, sweet or delicate. To my ears the sound indicated that perhaps the pair would benefit from a bit more burn-in time for the units to fully form and settle in.
Having previously lived through extended break-in periods with various high-end audio products – particularly solid-state electronics – plus knowing digital playback units typically require significant amounts of time before sounding their very best, I quickly inserted a disc into the transport’s drawer, put the unit into Repeat Mode, hit play and left the room. Without giving you an hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week account of the overall sonic improvement – suffice it to say, that after considerably more burn-in, as well as experimenting with different digital cables, the sound had improved considerably.
The sound now was no longer nearly as forward as before and was noticeably smoother overall as well as more open and delicate in the upper midrange and into the higher frequencies. A more neutral sonic perspective was also now evident and my general impressions were becoming more and more positive. As I continued to use the North Star digital gear, the sound became even more refined. In this regard, the sound seemed to move to an even more natural perspective overall. I was becoming more familiar and much more pleased with the North Star units with the passage of time and increased listening.
According to information provided, North Star Design is a young Italian company that specializes in the design and production of high-end audio equipment. Early on, the company developed digital products to meet digital standards for that timeframe. In 2001, the company introduced the new Model 192, a DAC with built-in up sampler able to convert a digital input signal until 192kHz-24 bit. In 2002 the company developed the top loading CD transport based on a full metal CD-PRO2 Phillips mechanism, including an I2S standard connection between the DAC and CD Transport. This was to insure a very low jitter error in the digital signal path.
Beyond the standard features including an off/on power switch and standard power cord receptacle, the North Star DAC also includes a button for selecting the input frequency. The front panel display features both a lock indicator (synch with the transport) and an up-sampling indicator. Digital inputs include Coax, Optical, Balanced and I2S cable connections. Analog output were single ended RCA configurations.
As mentioned above, the transport is a top-loading mechanism. The unit features a solid sliding door that is opened manually by moving it to the left. This allows easy access directly to the CD tray where the disc is inserted. A small magnetic disc is provided to clamp down and lock the CD in position. Overall, the unit exhibits a smooth mechanical action. On the front panel are indicator lights letting you know when the door is closed and the unit is ready for play. On the back panel there are multiple digital outputs including S/PDIF, AES/EBU as well as single-ended RCA jacks.
As I mentioned, at the beginning of this review, I felt my world with digital playback had been blessed with a superb and highly musical multi-format, one box digital player in my reference system. Therefore, whatever new product(s) entered my world would come in under close scrutiny. Would the North Star have a chance of even coming remotely close to my reference player?
Much of my listening included a mixture of jazz (i.e., contemporary, traditional and straight-ahead), Rhythm & Blues along with some fusion. I also included a fair number of recordings featuring piano, saxophone, trumpet, acoustic bass, guitar, Hammond B3 organ and various other types of instruments. Beyond that – I listened closely to a number of my favorite recordings of vocalists so I was able to get a very good handle on the overall sonic capabilities of the North Star gear.
One of my long-time favorite recordings is Diana Krall’s early CD titled Only Trust Your Heart [GRP Records 9810]. Although Krall is the featured performer (i.e., vocal and piano), there are also some heavyweight jazz masters accompanying her – many of whom I’ve actually seen and heard in a live concert setting on several occasions. Beyond this, I am intimately familiar with this recording and have heard it many times and on many different audio systems.
This recording has a solid combination of Krall’s vocals backed by her own superb piano playing. Additionally, there are many instances of outstanding acoustic bass work by the late great Ray Brown and one of his contemporary successors Christian McBride. With Lewis Nash’s magical handling of percussion, as well as the late, great Stanley Turrentine wailing away on the saxophone, the North Star combo really brought this home nicely. The sound through these units portrayed the musical event as it should be: bold at times yet delicate and sweet at others.
The really good news is that the North Star units enabled me to enjoy the music and basically forget about reviewing them. In fact, before I knew it – the CD had played all the way through and I had simply listened about as intently as I could have imagined. Again – this is one of my favorite recordings and had the North Star not been up to the task, I’m sure I would have stopped listening well before completing the entire CD.
Another of my more recent favorites, and one that has often been a crowd pleaser whenever I’ve taken this with me to either CES, Rocky Mountain Audio Fest or other high-end audio shows is Regina Belle’s CD Lazy Afternoon [Peak Records]. This particular CD, definitely a contemporary R&B style recording, is loaded with solid singing throughout along with some really outstanding instrumental performances as well. Having George Duke as the Producer/Arranger and playing keyboards, Everette Harp on saxophone and Christian McBride on bass, this is for sure a good-time listen.
Loaded with a variety of musical subtleties and nuances galore, the North Star combo performed quite well and provided very good grunt and growl, mixed in with obvious delicate sounds, when called for on this recording. The pair also provided a realistically punchy mid bass that had excellent pitch, articulation and definition. All in all, listening to this recording through the North Star units was simply fun to do.
However, a more grueling test for these units was another of my all-time favorite recordings, this time by the late, great Shirley Horn titled Here’s To Life, is full of all kinds of musical treasures from beginning to end. Throughout this recording there is a sense of delicacy that is hard to capture realistically. By comparison to my much more expensive reference unit, while the North Star units provided an expansive soundstage it wasn’t quite a wide nor as deep. On the other hand, this wasn’t something that was distracting and very likely had I not done a critical comparison, I doubt if I would have really noticed this much. What the North Star units do in the area of soundstaging is quite good, if not outstanding, and at their price point I believe they are very competitive.
Switching to a much different type of recording, I pulled out Brian Bromberg’s CD titled Wood, [A440 Music Group]. This disc provides some pretty awesome sonics and really allows a high-end audio system to get moving. The North Star digital playback combo took this musical feast in stride and rendered Bromberg’s strong acoustic bass playing in fine fashion. The music came through these units in an exciting and very convincing manner and caused my feet to tap continuously throughout. Fortunately, the North Star similarly captured the piano and drums on this recording in a very solid way and the whole of the music simply came forth in a highly music fashion.
At this point, it was becoming hard to simply sit down to analyze the North Star units and nit-pick their performance. What I had realized over the time I had them in-house was how musical they were and it was easy for me to simply come downstairs – pop open a CD, drop it in the CD tray, hit play and just start listening. The North Star digital gear almost made me not want to do the important reviewing and spend my time listening. However, duty calls so back to checking out other recordings.
In this instance, one of the more challenging recordings I listen to from time to time is the outstanding recording titled A Tribute To Miles – A Celebration of the Life & Music of Miles Davis[Qwest/Reprise]. There are some very well known jazz musicians on this recording – including the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Wallace Roney and Tony Williams. The various tracks include some very complex, intricate playing with all kinds of dynamic hits, shifts and curves to the music. Listening through the North Star, I was struck by how realistic the dynamic nuances were produced making the music sound very appealing and natural. I’ve heard this recording many times before and anything less than a strong dynamic performance doesn’t really capture these outstanding artists, as they should be. In this instance, again – the North Star provided a highly musical event allowing me to enjoy the music immensely.
At this point, I’ve listened extensively to the North Star units and have found them to be quite competent and definitely worthy of consideration. Nicely packaged and well engineered – they represent the type of product that you expect when you spend this kind of money. More importantly, they produce a sound that I believe is very competitive in their price range and even slightly beyond. In my opinion, one of the trickier instruments to get right is the piano.
Again, another of my favorite recordings is by the very talented Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. His CD titled The Blessing [Blue Note], featuring Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette, is an excellent recording to test audio gear. There are lots of dynamic shifts to the music, with fine subtlety interwoven throughout. The North Star took to this music very comfortably and provided me with a very impressive sensation of dynamics shadings, tonally accurate portrayal of the piano and nicely open and delicate shading from the cymbals or acoustic bass when called for.
One area where I found I was able to improve the performance of the gear was to replace the standard power cords with those from the Richard Gray Power Company (RGPC). Although there are lots of other very pricey power cords out there and perhaps even greater performance gains can be had, the RGPC cords represent a solid price-to-performance consideration and seemed to be in line with the pricing for the North Star units. With these power cords in place, the overall performance improved slightly but in important ways. Overall, the sound was slightly quieter, smoother overall with ambient clues more evident and at lower listening levels.
By now, you should get the picture and understand that I found the North Star M 192 DAC/Transport combination quite a musical pair. Once broken in and outfitted with the proper digital cable, the performance level is very rewarding and every bit of what you would expect at this price point. At no time did I experience even the slightest hiccup operationally or musically throughout an extended review period and that in and of itself speaks highly for their design and construction. As such, I can easily recommend this pair of Italian beauties to anyone considering purchasing digital playback gear. Job very well done.
192 Transport Specifications
Type: CD-PRO2M Hi End Phillips mechanism, top loading with
magnetic disc clamp
Chassis Size: 43.3 cm W x 7.5 cm H x 17 cm D
Net Weight: 6.5 Kg
Outputs: 1 S/PDIF on RCA socket (75Ohm), 1 AES/EBU on XLR socket (110 Ohm), 1 I2S cable on RJ45 network plug (digital audio connection)
Dynamic Range: 100 db; DAC – 117 db
S/N Ratio: 100 db
Power Consumption: 230/115V 50/60Hz 30VA
Power Cord: 15 amp IEC connector
192 DAC Specifications
Chassis size Same as transport
Net Weight: 5.4 Kg/11.9 lbs.
Output Sockets: Gold plated RCA posts,
Inputs: 3 S/PDIF (2 RCA coax, 1 TOSLINK optical), 1 AES/EBU (XLR balanced), 1 I2S RJ45
Input Sampling Rates: 32Hz – 192 kHz
Resolution: 8, 16, 20, 24 bit
Upsampling Until: 192kHz
Clock Recovery: Double anti-jitter with reference clock
Dynamic Range: 117 dB
THD + Noise: -100dB
Max. Output Voltage: 2 Vrms
Power Cord: 15 amp IEC connector
Output Impedance: Output Sockets: Gold plated RCA posts
Power Consumption: 240/110V 50/60Hz 15VA
Optional Finishes: Silver satin, Black satin, Concerto and Classic nsd
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