Wavelength Audio Brick USB DAC v3

Facts:
Device Type: Asynchronous USB DAC
Input: 1 USB, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz (up to 24 bits)
Output: 2vrms, single-ended RCA
Options: Mortar power supply upgrade $250 (not reviewed)
Dimensions (l x w x h): 6 1/4 x 6 1/4 x 3 7/8”
Availability: through Authorized Dealers only. See website for listing
Price: $1,750
Manufacturer’s website: www.usbdacs.com

This NOS or That NOS?
J. Gordon Rankin is the Owner and Chief Scientist at Wavelength Audio. If you’re new to Wavelength Audio and you came to them through the usbdacs.com website, you may be surprised to learn that J. Gordon Rankin has been at this from way back before NOS stood for non-oversampling. Gordon has been designing and building Single-Ended Tube Amplifiers using NOS (new old stock) tubes since the early 1980s.

Prior to that Gordon worked in the computer industry and continued to do so until 1995 when his Wavelength Audio Cardinal amplifier received a Class A rating from Stereophile and Product of the Year from The Absolute Sound. Gordon clarified, “…figured at that point better get off my a*** and make some amplifiers. I still do contract work and design motherboards and small computer boards for some companies. Keeps me in the game.” You could say computer audio is Gordon’s resume.

The first Wavelength USB DAC to hit the streets was the Cosecant which made its debut at CES in 2004. The first Brick, v1, arrived roughly a year later. You can read Art Dudley’s review of this very DAC from Stereophile, September 2005 and also his review of the Wavelength Cosecant v3 where Art compares the NOS version (Transcendental D/A module) to the 24/96 upsampling version (Numerator D/A module).

If you took the time to read Art’s Brick review, you would have come across an interesting quote, “...Rankin opts for a zero-oversampling approach, suggesting that digital filters are an unnecessary evil in the first place, and that oversampling, in particular, creates more problems than it cures.” I asked Gordon what has changed since 2005 to explain his change of view on the NOS issue:

“Back when I designed the Brick, DAC chip companies had really fallen apart. They were generating all this crappy stuff because nobody seemed to care. Well just about then Apple really started sticking the guns on what Computer Audio could do and this light a fire under those companies to excel and they did.

I use current DACs instead of NOS or Zero DACs because they sound better. If you read Art's review of the Cosecant in June 2009 issue he had a chance to listen to both the 16/44.1 Transcendental and the 24/96 Numerator. There he choose the Numerator over the Transcendental as most people have with the Brick v3 over the v2 (Transcendental).”

So from one perspective a lot has changed since then, from another we’re still talking about a USB DAC. So what’s new with v3?

The Brick v3 Vitals
First and foremost the Brick v3 is an asynchronous USB DAC. It’s certainly worth sticking this stake in the ground—I think it’s safe to say that Gordon Rankin was the first person in Consumer Audio to implement and issue an asynchronous class USB audio device (the Wavelength Crimson DAC in 2008). Wavelength Audio was also among the first Consumer Audio companies to embrace the USB DAC concept, which started in Pro Audio circles c.2001 with products like the Edirol UA30.

The main advantage of asynchronous-mode USB audio in theory and in some practical implementations is its ability to reduce word-clock jitter as compared to adaptive-mode USB. It does so by putting the word clock in the DAC and in the DACs control as opposed to leaving it with and within the computer. I say this is a theoretical advantage because all asynchronous USB DACs are not created equal in terms of their practical implementation and their ability to reduce the jitter they pack into the USB Bus.

When I sent the preview of this review to Gordon for a fact check, here’s how he cleaned up my attempt at user-friendly shorthand:

“Actually it puts the Master Clock in the DAC and then that clock is feed both to the DAC chip and the USB controller. The USB controller runs my custom Streamlength code and then creates the I2S feed going to the DAC chip from the fixed Master Clock. Adaptive USB and most forms of Firewire on the other hand use a moving Master Clock which moves up and down in frequency to match the computer. This in it self creates jitter, but an even larger problem is the frequency synthesizers that make these clocks have to derive the frequencies based on poor terms. Basically all Adaptive and Firewire devices use some sort of jitter correction, like upsampling. Ones that don't would have extensive jitter in the 5000ps range.”
The takeaway in simple terms is the asynchronous-mode USB implementation as seen in the Brick v3 can hand off data with very low levels of jitter to your hi-fi (footnote 1). That’s not to say that all adaptive-mode USB DACs will sound worse than their less jittery cousins. It is to say that in terms of moving along with the tides of technology and the improvements it has to offer, asynchronous-mode USB will most likely turn out to be the evolutionary survivor. If you believe in that sort of thing.

The second thing of note with the Brick v3 is its ability to play high-resolution audio files with word lengths from 16 to 24-bits and sample rates up to 96kHz (which a USB Prober utility confirmed) thanks to the addition of a Wolfson WM8501 DAC chip. The third thing of note is hidden inside the Brick’s black box - a lone 12AU7A twin triode vacuum tube used in the “Reactor Follower output stage”. I asked Gordon to explain:

“A reactor follower is basically a tube buffer with a gain of 1. It has high input impedance and really low output impedance. Most people would call this a cathode follower. These are typically bad sounding devices unless really designed well. By using a reactor (very large inductor or BAC "big ass choke") instead of a resistor we accomplished near 1 gain with very good sonics.

Tubes are great with digital. Solid state will pass all kinds of high frequency energy into the music which makes it sound sterile. Also with solid state it takes a ton of transistors to make it work. I can do the same thing with one tube and either a transformer or a reactor. Sure it costs more but it sounds incredible.”

The Brick stands at a un-brick-like 4” high x 6 1/8” x 6 1/8”. I've included a picture of the Brick with the Eiffel Tower to give you a sense of scale akin in some respects to Gordon's last sentence above. To my way of seeing, the Brick is handsome in an understated way and the Wavelength logo has a nice chunky retro-feel. Overall think solid. Like a brick. The Brick v3 outputs a CD-standard 2vrms, and connecting the Brick from your computer to your hi-fi is a breeze—one USB cable, one set of single-ended interconnects and a wall-wart power cord.

For the software setup, I’ll stick to the basics and refer you to the Wavelength usbdacs.com website where Gordon provides detailed setup instructions for Mac and PC users. You’ll need to point your Output to the Brick v3 which will show up as an option as long as its connected and plugged in (Mac: System Preferences>Sound>Brick v3, PC: Start>Control Panel>Sound and Audio Devices). The next step depends on the software you use to manage and play your music but generally you need to go to Preferences and select the Brick v3 as the output device.

It’s important to note that iTunes does not provide auto sample rate conversion. Since the Brick v3 offers playback of high-definition files, I’ll assume that this feature is of interest to any potential buyer. While you can manually change the resolution to match the track you’re playing, I don’t view this as a realistic option since you have to close and re-open iTunes each time you change this setting. This is why I recommend upgrading to any one of the media players (see our Media Player Overview page for a list) that handle auto sample rate conversion. Some are free and all of them sound better than iTunes.

I used the Brick v3 with the following media players – iTunes, Pure Music, Decibel, Audirvana, Fidelio and Foobar2000. Since this is not a review of media player software, I’ll just say that in my experience "Memory Play” is always an improvement, “Hog mode” less so and upsampling versus NOS is a matter of taste. Since all of these options are user-selectable with the click of a mouse, I encourage experimentation since these kinds of preferences are largely personal and system-dependent.

Opinions: How Does It Sound?
The Wavelength Brick v3 is fluent in presenting even the most complex music with all its requisite parts and voices intact. Yet there is never a sense of hyper-detail or over-hyped transient attack, which gives some digital setups their unnatural edginess and emphasis on pace, typically referred to as being bright. If you’ve experienced a demo that uses nothing but flamenco guitar and it sounds unbelievably present and supernaturally lively I recommend putting off a purchase decision until you can listen to something with more weight and texture than catgut and fingernails.

If I were to describe the overall sonic character of the Brick v3’s presentation in a word I’d say—nuanced, delicate and oh-so-smooth. OK, it took more than a word. Someone like Mississippi John Hurt—whose presentation is also nuanced, delicate and oh-so-smooth—is given all the attention his subtle twists and turns demand where even a sly smile-inflected line comes across loud and clear. The Brick v3 seems to emphasize music’s sweet spot paying extra-attention to the midrange and its wealth of timbral flavors.

The area where the Brick v3’s presentation may trigger a sonic-ideal alert is in the frequency extremes. One way to put it is music has a subtle soft burnished glow through the Brick v3. Nothing sparkles too brightly and bass doesn’t provide the last word in weight, slam or womp! This voicing lends the music an ethereal quality and how large this looms for you as a negative (or a positive!) will largely depend on your tastes, system and room.

And no, I’m not talking about “tube sound” which is an audiophile myth that needs to go the way of the dodo along with vinyl critics and their persistent pops and ticks. Tubes do not have a sound, circuits and systems in rooms do. Vacuum tubes can sound however the circuit designer chooses. They can even mimic the worst aspects of solid state! But getting back to the business at hand, the Brick v3 sounds musically balanced; nothing stands out and apart from the music’s flow, and it certainty allows you to get completely submersed without distraction.

I also tried the Brick v3 in my “Library System”. This makes sense both in terms of seeing which sonic characteristics travel with the Brick v3 and based on Wavelength’s pedigree and dealer base, there’s a likelihood the Brick will end up in similar setups. It’s also worth noting that Gordon listens through a custom pair of Cain & Cain single-driver speakers, which he designed and the late Terry Cain built.


Photo Credit and comment Gordon Rankin: “That's the right one, the guitar is a Fano custom made for Andy Partridge of XTC and given to the Verve Pipe whose bank reposed their instruments and sold them on eBay for which I got a great deal. Love P90 pickups and wraparound bridges, needless to say my obsession with XTC.”

Here, the largest difference I noted was between BitPerfect and Pure Music where I greatly preferred the later—it was simply more refined. In terms of the Brick’s sonic traits, I would say that my impressions remained unchanged—superb timbre-richness, tons of finesse and overall a pleasure to listen to. The softening at the frequency extremes, which is obviously less of an issue with a single-driver speaker that begins to roll off around 40Hz and 12kHz, was less pronounced yet there was still a sense of that burnished glow and a lessening of contrasts between sparkle and slam.

I Want To Take You Higher
How did the Brick v3 fare with 24/96 tracks? Marvelously well from large-scale on down. No matter the music played—from full-blown orchestra to a lone voice or better yet a lovely pair like Ella and Louis—the Brick v3 makes music feel intimate. As if you can listen into any level of detail you desire without finding fault or fatigue. I will say that the difference in terms of musical involvement between a 24/96 track and a good (or bad depending on your point of view) old 16/44 is not necessarily night and day, or day and night. What matters more is the quality of the original recording and what matters most is the quality of the original music.

That's not to say I'm anti-progress or anti-evolution. I remember fully embracing early CD playback and its user-friendly feature that allowed me to walk away while the music was still playing and I didn't even need to be concerned with getting back in time to make it stop.

The point, and the point to take away is the Wavelength Brick v3 intelligently incorporates some of our latest technological advances and it is a pleasure to listen to. My sense is if you favor an intimate view into your music’s rich and varied voices, the Brick v3 will keep you satisfied.



Footnote 1: The Wavelength Cosecant v3 USB DAC provided the best jitter performance John Atkinson has measured to date from a DAC fed USB audio data. See the Measurements page on the Wavelength Cosecant review for more information. — Michael Lavorgna