Wavelength Audio Crimson HS USB DAC
Input: USB 2.0
Output: (1) Pair Unbalanced (RCA)
Dimensions: 10" wide by 12.75" deep, by 3.5" high chassis, with tubes 7~8" high; Power supply is 4" wide by 4.5" deep, by 2.5" high
Weight: DAC is 20 pounds; Power supply is 3 pounds
Availability: Authorized Dealers
Price: $7,500.00 with Numerator Module; Denominator Module is an additional $1,500. Silver Transformers add approximately $10,500 (actual price is determined on request). Volume Control is $750
Price As Reviewed: $19,500.00
A Crimson Introduction
Back in 2006, I remember J. Gordon Rankin posting a thread in one of the audio forums announcing his plans for a new USB DAC called the Crimson. Over the next six months, I exchanged weekly e-mails with Gordon that described the designing and building challenges he faced when trying to come up with a final design of the Crimson. I realized at that time that Gordon Rankin was one obsessed audiophile when it came to a design that would carry the Wavelength Audio name. He would not release the Crimson until he was satisfied that it was the best he could build.
The Crimson released in November 2006 was quite different from the HS (High Speed) model being discussed here. It lacked the Wavelength Streamlength Asynchronous Code and was based on a Phillips TDA1543A NOS dac chip that was limited to 48/16. The improvements in audio quality and performance made over the last 6 years have been considerable and I speak from experience as I've owned the Wavelength Crimson since 2006 (I've included the upgrade history below).
The Wavelength Audio Crimson HS is the flagship of the Wavelength line of USB DACs with an output that is totally tube driven. The HS series of Wavelength Audio DACs has introduced playback of sample rates of up to 192/24. Other enhancements include isolation of the DAC from the computer with high speed optical isolators. The Crimson HS that I will be reviewing has the upgraded Denominator ESS Sabre dac module, and the Silver Transformer upgrade.
The Wavelength Crimson HS has to be one of the most unique looking DACs manufactured today. In fact, given a quick glance, one would think you are looking at an amplifier. Projecting from the top of the main unit are 3 tubes; 2 71A directly heated triodes, and a 6V4 rectifier. There are 3 white LEDs on a gorgeous aluminum top. A wood panel graces the front of the DAC with a metal Wavelength oval name plate. Three Black Diamond Racing Cones are used for the feet. Looking at the back of the unit there are two single ended outputs, a USB input, and a large input for the outboard power supply connector. Speaking of the outboard power supply, this is a nicely finished aluminum box also fitted with a Wavelength metal name plate. One has to look quite carefully to see the Crimson USB DAC stamped into the aluminum top plate of the main unit to know this is a DAC.
Opening the main unit exposes a sealed lead acid battery. The DAC module, in this case the 32 bit ESS Sabre, is plugged into the main board. The design is modular allowing different Wavelength DAC modules to be used and for future upgrades. There are 4 large silver wound transformers, something quite unusual in an audio component. The workmanship is meticulous with high quality parts mounted on the boards.
Why would anyone use a 71A DHT tube in a modern DAC? The 71A tube has origins from the 1920’s and was used in radios as an amplifier tube. This brings us to the man; J. Gordon Rankin, the owner and chief designer of the 30 year-old Wavelength Audio, Ltd. Gordon, an engineer by training and amateur musician of numerous instruments, started Wavelength Audio after working in the computer industry for a large company. His early passion has been designing SET tube amplifiers and preamps. His amplifiers have been very well received over the years by reviewers and owners alike.
I asked Gordon to supply us some background information of why he decided to use the 71A tube in the Crimson:
When I was in college, I made a bunch of Solid State and Push Pull Tube amplifiers. I preferred the sound of tubes, so when I got out, I had two commercial Push Pull Amplifiers. A stereo EL34 amplifier and a mono block KT88/6550 amp. It wasn’t until I met Mike LaFevre from MagneQuest, designer of custom transformers, that I even considered Directly Heated Triodes (DHT). Then I met Joe Roberts of Sound Practices / Silbaton) who convinced me to seriously look at DHT’s.I also asked Gordon why he decided to use a rechargeable SLA battery for the dac module:
Directly Heated Triodes I think make music better because they distort and react more like natural instruments. When I design something, it is usually easier to design from the output to the input. With the Crimson, I first thought about really obscure tubes like the Telefunken RE134 or the Western Electric 101, but really I had my eye on the 71A. This tube was used for many things, but works great as a line output tube. With the selection of a DHT you also need a Tube Rectifier for slow turn on. The 6V4 was an easy choice because there were many of these made and it uses a common 9 pin socket. It's also good for a lot more current than is required for the Crimson.
I wanted to isolate the DAC board power supply. I decided to use a large SLA battery for the dac module. Next I needed to find a good recharging circuit. All the ones I found used Ground to determine the current in the charge load. This looked pretty stupid to me so I came up with my own design. There is a microcontroller on the motherboard which monitors the voltage while in active mode while engaging the charging circuit if the voltage falls below the regulation and will remain on while active. The Crimson will follow the computer as far as active and sleep. When asleep, the dac will power down the high voltage section and turn on the charge circuit until active again.
Using the Crimson is very direct and easy. Plug the DAC in, and the DAC will move into standby allowing the tubes to stabilize. Then after 30 seconds, a relay will click and the amp will go into active mode. Turn the computer off or unplug the USB cable, and the Crimson reverts to Standby-Battery Charge mode.
The Crimson uses Gordon’s well known Wavelength Streamlength Asynchronous USB interface that supports up to 192/24. Native drivers are used for OSX. For Windows, a Thesycon USB Class 2 driver is provided. The Wavelength Streamlength USB interface has proven to be stable and reliable. Many manufacturers now license this code from Wavelength Audio.
I originally purchased the Wavelength Crimson in November 2006 from Don Better Audio in Cleveland, Ohio. I think this was the very first Crimson ever released so at that time there was no way to audition one in California. Six months later I upgraded the DAC to the Silver Transformer version, again through Don Better Audio. Gordon sent me the first asynchronous chip in 2007. I then updated modules to the Numerator, then the Denominator, and finally my Crimson was updated to HS (High Speed) status in June 2011.
There has been a great resurgence in analog-vinyl reproduction among audiophiles. Some analog aficionados claim that digital reproduction lacks the natural richness and ease that one hears in live music. They feel digital is thin with an over-etched sound. These folks should listen to the Crimson.
The best way to describe the Crimson is a transparency from top to bottom that reproduces the harmonic richness of real acoustic instruments and voices. There is an abundance of detail with great ease and smoothness. Transients are well reproduced without hardness. A finger plucking a nylon guitar string displays the attack and resonance of the guitar. Some DACs get the initial attack, but the natural resonance of the instrument is lost. The percussive properties of the piano sound real with a natural decay of the sound. Acoustic instruments sound real with a liquidity and focus that is a joy to listen to. When the Crimson is pushed hard in great crescendos, it does not overload or become hard sounding. Other DACs will limit the crescendo and essentially compress the dynamics robbing the music of what makes it sound real.
The reproduction of the acoustic space of a recording is another sonic strength of the Crimson HS. The Crimson can reproduce an amazing soundstage that that while being exceptionally wide, is also very deep. Many fine DACs have difficulty reproducing depth adequately. If the recording is good, the Crimson will redefine your definition of soundstage. Fine orchestral recordings will allow you to hear the instruments and voices portrayed with their acoustic space preserved. Studio recordings of vocalists will have great focus and a sense of body to the sound without the thinness that I hear from other DACs. Focus and resolution is uncanny. You will hear little details in recordings that you previously missed with other DACs. Bass is fast and dynamic sounding. I would say that the Crimson plays bass with a sonic realism that emphasizes the richness of the bass with no sense of overhang. I have heard greater initial slam from other DACs, but the Crimson just sounds more like the real thing.
Some of the Musical Examples Used In Evaluation
Cantatrix Contrasts 192/24 (Aliud/Linn). A recording of a chamber choir in a large acoustic space. The Crimson allows one to clearly hear the reverberation of the hall with excellent resolution of the choir’s voices. There is absolutely no hardness of the sound when the choir reaches crescendos.
Ella Fitzgerald Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie! 192/24 (HDtracks) A studio recording from 1961 joined by pianist Lou Levy, guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Joe Mondragon, and drummer Stan Levey. A closely miked recording of Ella’s voice beautifully highlighted. The Crimson allowed Ella’s voice to bloom with a harmonic richness that one normally attributes to analog reproduction.
The Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau Espana 192/24 Acousence Classics. (Linn) This wonderful orchestral recording has an enormous three dimensional soundstage. There is considerable high end detail that is revealed without hardness or glare. The whacks of the bass drum were well controlled and quite dynamic in quality.
Artur Pizzaro Albeniz and Granados 192/24 (Linn) A superb example of reproduction of the piano and one of my favorites. This recording is a good test of the dynamic range of a piano with the natural decay of sound. The Crimson played it effortlessly without strain.
Ottmar Liebert and Luna Negra Dune 88.2/24 (HDtracks) Do you remember the guitar strings I previously mentioned? This is a beautiful recording with consdierable bloom of the instruments in a holographic space.
Keb Mo Just Like You 176.4/24 (Ripped SACD) The cut "That’s Not Love" has a strong bass line that the Crimson rendered tight and with great impact. Keb Mo’s voice was never overshadowed by the bass.
The Denominator is Gordon’s unique design built around the ESS Sabre dac chip. Discrete power supplies were used for all of the analog supplies and Master Clocks. Is the Denominator worth the extra $1,500 over the standard Numerator Wolfson chip? I have both modules and I must say that the Denominator is superior. The Denominator is simply more revealing than the Numerator. It has so little grain or edginess to the sound that it sounds like a tube design. The focus and detail is superior to the Numerator. If you can afford it, go for it!
The Silver Transformers
The price of these transformers has really shot through the roof in the last several years. The Crimson HS with Denominator is $9,000 and the Silver transformers over $10K. The one element to the sound that has really struck me after prolonged listening has been the purity or increased naturalness to the sound. The detail of voices and instruments are better revealed with a greater purity and emotional content. I know this is starting to sound like my Tranquility Base review, but the Silver transformers are simply more transparent.
There is a balanced version of the Crimson which is the same price as the standard version, and the stock 71A tube can be replaced with a Western Electric 101M/L or Telefunken RE134 (both require a custom circuit, price upon request). Also, Crimson’s can be ordered with their own volume control for an additional $750.
The Wavelength Crimson HS Denominator/Silver is a unique audio product that deserves your consideration if one is purchasing at the high end of DACs. The best long term test of an audio component is if you want to listen to it daily and for extended periods. The Crimson fulfills this test with ease. In closing, I will stick my neck out and say that the Crimson HS is the most musical audio component I have ever heard in my system.