Digging the Paganini

It may sound like an exotic Italian snack treat, but it’s even better than that.

The Paganini is DCS’ latest four box digital player that consists of a CD/SACD transport, Master Clock, Upsampler and DAC. Yeah, it’s expensive, but it’s awesome. The good news is that you can build the system module by module, and if you are using computer based playback, you might not even want the transport.

But I’ll give you a hint, even with a tricked out dedicated computer for music, with all the latest greatest goodies, running Amarra, the spinning disc is still superior.

I’m off to the DCS factory on Monday to meet the brains behind the technology and it should be exciting.

TONEAudio Magazine Issue 27


Old School: The Spica TC-50
By Jeff Dorgay

The Journeyman Audiophile: The PK-KI Amplifier: Another Rare Pearl From Marantz
By Jeff Dorgay

Budget Gear: The Naim Stageline: A Solid Performer
By Jerold O’Brien

Tone Style

The MartinLogan Custom Shop: A New Level Of Excellence

Hublot’s Depeche Mode Watches: Fight Teen Cancer, Buy a Watch!

From McDonalds to Mick Jagger: The Art of Jeff Ham

Cool Shooters from the House of Fred

The Waterfall Iguascu EVO: Transparent French Beauty

Hide Your Flat Screen With Help From Media Decor


Live Music: The TONEStaff Covers Guns N’Roses, Chris Botti, Steve Earle and City and Colour.

Current Releases:
Fresh Releases in the Pop/Rock World
By the TONE Staff

Audiophile Pressings Presented by Music Direct
The Bad Plus, Johnny Hartman, The Flaming Lips and more.

Four New Releases From ECM:
Selections From the Six Degrees Catalog
By Richard Colburn


Apple’s New iPad

YZX Omega X Phono Cartridge

MartinLogan’s Motion 4’s

The J-Corder Technics 1500


Headphone Planet: One to Keep, Two to Toss
By Jeff Dorgay

The Snell K-7’s
By Jerold O’Brien

YG Acoustics Anat II Studio
By Jeff Dorgay

KEF xQ-20
By By Jerold O’Brien

Mark& Daniel’s Maximus Diamond+
By Mark Marcantonio

Penaudio’s Rebel 3’s
By Steve Guttenberg

ERA Design 5
By Rich Kent

The Garrard Zero 100

Record Cleaning For Fanatics

Record cleaning 1Just drop by any internet forum and you can make enemies instantly by bringing up the subject of record cleaning. LIke every other aspect of the HiFi hobby/obsession, you can do this on a few different levels, and your budget can determine the results. I’ve seen plenty of DIY ways to clean records (with most of them ending in tears, or at least ruined records), but nothing that works consistently or convincingly.

After years of screwing around with this myself, here’s a method that works. You don’t necessarily need two record cleaning machines, but I admit I’m obsessed and it really makes the job move more quickly. If you don’t use two machines, at least try and use a machine like the VPI 16.5 or Clearaudio Smart Matrix that allows you to swap cleaning wands, so that you aren’t cleaning overly dirty records with the same surface that touches your brand new (or nearly new) records.
record cleaning_2
Here’s an extra step that will make the record cleaning machine’s job easier. Start with a carbon fiber brush like the Audioquest one shown here and go around your record in a circular motion, almost like sweeping the dust up on the floor to the center of the record.

crudSee that gigantic pile of dirt? Grab a handy can of compressed air and blow that right off the record. This will make it that much easier for your RCM to get right at the tough dirt and it cuts down on the crud that sticks to the cleaning pads.

Getting down to business

For now, we’re going to assume you are cleaning a record that is somewhere between brand new and moderately dirty. My favorite all around cleaner for records in this state is the MoFi Enzyme cleaner. The directions specify leaving this on your record for 60 seconds, but if you have a fairly dirty (and possibly fingerprinted) record, apply a heavy dose of fluid and let it soak for five minutes. Otherwise, if only moderately dirty, go with 60 seconds. Once done soaking, give your record cleaner a spin and vacuum up the grime. The reason I prefer the Clearaudio Smart Matrix RCM is its ability to clean in two directions, which is very helpful if you have a moderately to very dirty record. So, if you have an extremely dirty record or are just paranoid, apply the cleaner one more time and spin the record the other way, vacuuming as you go.

You’re almost home, but don’t let your excitement get the best of you. Even the best RCM’s leave a bit of cleaner residue on the record’s surface, which will eventually require a re-clean and will accumulate on your stylus. That’s not good in either case, so we’re going to take this one step further and use MoFi’s Pure Record Rinse, and vacuum our record one more time.


Home Stretch/Bonus Round

Once you’ve done all of this, take that compressed air and make one more pass, to make sure that record is completely dry before our next step. For most of you, this will be the point that you either put that super clean record in a fresh sleeve or take it for a spin to marvel at your cleaning prowess. But if you’re really a maniac, gently place that record on the Furutech DeMag and zap it for 45 seconds. Again, we can argue about this until the cows come home, but the bottom line is this gadget that looks like a prop from the first season of Lost In Space really works. It will take that last bit of grain and harshness from the presentation.

record cleaning_7

Now put the record on your turntable, relax and enjoy. If you’ve followed the steps carefully and the record has no surface damage, you should be enjoying analog playback that rivals a CD in quietness. No more of that “vintage sound, consisting of clicks and pops” that the mainstream press likes to go on and on about whenever they talk about the vinyl resurgence. This is the analog magic at it’s best.

While there are a number of different cleaning solutions, cleaners and brushes, I guarantee this process will work. And while I’m a fanatic, I’m lazy. I use this combination because I can get it all from one place (Music Direct) and they always have it in stock. Feel free to experiment as you get comfortable, there are a few more variations on the theme, but only if you are even more fanatical than I am.

And by the way, is that turntable level? Just checking!

Alan holdsworth show

Hardly, but I’ll get to that in a moment. It seems like the Publisher and I are starting a tradition. Either wait in bitter cold for a concert or wait in cold and rain. So we dutifully waited forty minutes in the rain for the door of the Aladdin Theater to open so that we could see the Bozzio, Holdsworth, Levin, Mastelotto band in action. For the record, it was a sellout and then some.

Looking as the resumes of the players and perusing their resumes, one would expect something in the jazz/art-rock/fusion vein from them. Moreover, once I saw the lineup, I expected some pretty excellent musical pyrotechnics and was really in the mood for a gigantic fusion slap on the side of my head. Instead, what we got was two thirty five minute sets of relatively tame meandering.
With Terry Bozzio and Pat Mastelotto in attendance, you get varied and intense percussion no matter what material is being played. And the complex rhythms and sinewy interaction between these two was superb. Tony Levin provided subterranean bass lines via his five string electric upright or Chapman Stick. Occasionally he’d climb the registers and do some spontaneous soloing, but otherwise it was bedrock bass. Allan Holdsworth was the perfect example of admirable restraint. Given the free-from nature of the two sets, he could have wandered into wretched excess, but on the whole he wove complex often mournful sounds into the fabric of the music.

holdsworth 4Even though the audience was a bit nonplussed by the performance, the musicians were strong enough to pull off the unexpected in a commanding fashion. I guess one could sum the evening up in Bozzio’s own words at the onset of intermission: “It’s obvious we don’t have any prepared material tonight. Think of what we are doing as though it were an instant soundtrack.”

Benchmark DAC-1HDR


All the way back in issue three of TONEAudio, we gave the original Benchmark DAC-1 our first Exceptional Value Award. Through the years, they’ve continued improving this diminutive yet highly powerful piece of audio gear and even though it has gone up in price from $995 when we first reviewed it to $1,895 today it offers a lot more under the hood. Amazingly enough, Benchmark’s engineers have managed to squeeze it all into the original box, so on the outside it looks pretty much the same. For those of you just needing the basic DAC and headphone amplifier, you can still buy the original DAC-1 for the same price of $995. That’s pretty awesome, considering our wacky economic times.

What made the DAC-1 such a great value was the addition of an outstanding headphone amplifier to the package. You’d easily have to spend $400-600 to get this kind of performance with an outboard headphone amplifier and you’d need more cables, etc. The DAC-1 has always included the option of fixed or variable outputs, which has always made it very handy as a linestage in a pinch, or as the cornerstone of a compact, yet high performance audio system. Then, as now, I still can’t think of a product that does more in less space than the Benchmark DAC-1, no matter what version you choose.

A quick history refresher

If you’ve followed the progress of the DAC-1, it originally offered coaxial, XLR and optical digital inputs along with a pair of RCA and XLR outputs. But, we audiophiles always want more and as more people started to use laptops as music sources, Benchmark answered the call and provided the DAC-1 USB, with a USB input. I had mentioned in my review of the DAC-1 USB that this would be the perfect combination if it only had an analog input, so that this could truly be used as a front-end component for that music lover that enjoyed analog as well as digital sources and the DAC-1 PRE was born, featuring an analog input.

They’ve been reading my mind

As cool as the DAC-1 PRE was, I began thinking “now if it only had a remote control…” and before you know it, we now have the DAC-1 PRE. This unit includes the recent op amp upgrades to the last few rounds of the DAC-1, featuring high current LM4562 op amps in every step of the analog path. Comparing the current DAC-1 HDR to the original DAC-1 reveals slightly less grain than the already good original, when playing them side-by-side in my reference system.

However the big change, along with the remote control is the addition of a custom, motorized ALPS volume control. It offered very smooth operation from the remote and perhaps replacing the original volume pot with the ALPS version accounted for a little of that added smoothness. Now the DAC-1 HDR is the perfect compact linestage/headphone preamp/DAC combination. Hmmm, maybe they’ll add a couple of triode tubes to the output stage next? Or a phono preamp? Let’s see those guys at Benchmark squeeze that one in that tiny case!BenchmarkHRC_front

But seriously

All kidding about vacuum tubes aside, the DAC-1 HDR does a fantastic job with its core technologies. As I said, I made it a point to compare the original to the current model and there is definitely a slight advantage to the latest in regards to smoothness in the treble register.

The strength of the DAC-1 HDR is that it is such a great all around piece. If you are just looking for a DAC or don’t need the analog input, save the money and grab the original DAC-1 or DAC-1 USB.

The sound of the Benchmark as a DAC overall is very neutral and dynamic. While it lacks the bass slam or smoothness of my Wadia 781SE or the new Simaudio Moon 750 that I’ve spent a lot of time listening to, these units cost 7-10 times what the Benchmark does. Regardless of what the measurement geeks want to tell you, there’s more to the sound of a DAC than the bits and you won’t get a $10,000 DAC for a $1,000.

However, the Benchmark still stacks up very well against its similarly priced competitors, offering a neutral midrange, solid bass performance and some airiness to the presentation. What makes it outstanding is the other functions it performs without needing additional interconnects or power cords.

Another extremely cool feature of the DAC-1 HDR is the pair of balanced analog outputs. This allows you to keep the DAC 1-HDR up on a shelf, perhaps with a music server, etc and run a long pair of balanced cables to a power amplifier elsewhere in the room. Which is precisely what I did, pairing the DAC-1 HDR with a few different amplifiers; the McIntosh MC275 (tubes), the Nagra PSA (solid state) and the BAT VK-55SE (tubes). Equally impressive was the DAC-1 HDR’s ability to drive a pair of 20 foot RCA cables as well. This is certainly a very robust output stage!BenchmarkHRC_rear

A superb line stage

Making the DAC-1 HDR the hub of my test system worked well when I added my Technics SL-1200 with Sound HiFi mods and SME tonearm to the mix, along with the Simaudio Moon LP 5.3 phono preamplifier. Digital sources were a Sooloos music server via S/PDIF input and my MacBook Pro via USB.

The Benchmark had no problems playing high res files from either source and recognized the MacBook and a windows Netbook with no glitches whatsoever. I also made it a point to try the TOSLINK connection, with no problem. Gone from the original DAC-1 is the XLR digital input, so if you are one of the rare users that need this for your transport, you will be out of luck on the DAC-1 HDR

The sound of the line stage is just like the analog stage of the DAC; clean, dynamic and neutral. Similar to many of the op amp based preamplifiers I’ve heard, there is a similarity in the sense that an ultimate sense of “airiness” is not present. You can only cram so much into a tiny box and in the Benchmark’s defense, the $3,500 Classe preamplifier I auditioned last year that was full of op amps (and did not have a DAC or headphone amp inside) sounded no better, it’s just the nature of the beast.

Great news for headphone lovers

I’m not sure what I like better about the DAC-1 HDR, the DAC, or the headphone amplifier. Using the new Sennheiser HD-800’s as well as my HD650’s with Stefan Audio Art Cables and AKG 701’s with ALO Audio cabling, I always had a great time listening to my headphones. The DAC-1 HDR spent a fair amount of time in my bedroom system with the Wadia 170i and an iPod full of uncompressed files.

The stereo image provided by the DAC-1 was very wide and the bass performance with the HD650’s and HD800’s was very powerful. The DAC-1 also did a great job at driving the AKG 701’s, which is notoriously tough to drive. If you are primarily a headphone user that would like to build a system around one box (two if you have a turntable) the DAC-1 HDR will be a perfect match for the space limited audiophile that still wants great sound.

Much more than the sum of its parts

If you break it down, the Benchmark DAC-1 HDR is essentially a $700 linestage, a $700 DAC and a $500 headphone amplifier. The sound quality and resolution of each stage compares favorably, comparing each section of the DAC-1 HDR to individual components easily costing twice as much. Back $300-500 out of that price for even the least expensive interconnects and power cords, and this is a value that just can’t be beat.

Again, I am proud to give the latest version of Benchmark’s DAC-1 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2010. This is a fantastic anchor to a system in the $4,000 – $10,000 range and one that you will have to pay quite a bit more money to outgrow.

-Jeff Dorgay

The Benchmark DAC-1 HDR

MSRP: $1,895

Manufacturers website:



Analog source Technics SL-1200 w/Sound HiFi Mods, SME 309 Toneram, Simaudio Moon LP 5.3 preamplifier and Lyra Dorian cartridge

Digital sources Sooloos music server, Wadia 170i, McIntosh MCD500 (as transport)

Amplifiers McIntosh MC275, Nagra PSA, BAT VK-55SE, Moscode 402au

Cable Shunyata Aurora, Cardas Golden Reference

Power Running Springs Haley, RSA Mongoose power cord

More TONEAudio Magazine in 2010!

That’s right folks, you keep asking us for more content and we deliver. Starting with the Feb. 10 issue of TONEAudio, #27, we will be going to a full 8 issue schedule, publishing every 6-7 weeks. We will also be changing our format from the square you’ve known for the last five years to a more standard, 8 1/2 x 11 inch vertical format.

Why you ask? With the proliferation of eBook readers, and most importantly, the Apple iPad, we’re formatting TONEAudio so that it’s an easier read for our mobile audience. Those of you reading TONEAudio on your laptop will now be able to have the issue fill the whole screen when you read it in two-page mode.

When the Issue #27 is released, it will be in our standard resolution and high resolution formats, with a third version in ePub format to follow shortly after. As soon as we can transfer them, we will also make our back issues available in ePub format, albeit still in their original square formats.

We hope you enjoy the new format and for those of you becoming early adopters of the iPad, will download it to your newest toy.