North Star Design Model 192 Transport and DAC - The Agony or the Ectasy? - Todd Warnke
Ferrari or Fiat?
Like any good Italian product, the visuals of the North Star Designs are unique, sleek, useful and engaging.
In all, I was very impressed by the clean, organized look of the North Star Design products, and positively elated at the options they offer - multiple inputs, their own version of the I2S bus, and upsampling. Not the mention that the fit and finish of each of them is absolutely first rate. In all, a fantastic package that promised good sound to follow.
There are some things, that despite being obvious, I cannot resist.
The Pines of Rome. The opening "Pines of the Villa Borghese" with its antic depiction of children at play positively leapt out of the speakers, in a good way. Full of sparkle, the brass and percussion that power this section were clean and detailed, vivid but without stepping over into the over-done crispness that all too often passes for detail.
The transition from the boisterousness of the first movement into the solemn low drone of the "Pines near a Catacomb" was handled with ease. The reverb was delicate even as the bass gently throbbed, showing superb detail at both ends of the spectrum. And, as the movement slowly adds instrumentation and volume, the North Star Designs components receded into background and let the music flow to its peak and then into its quiet ebb. Likewise, the gentle clarinet that opens the third movement, "Pines of the Janiculum" was presented in a clean, dance-like manner and without any intrusion from the gear at all. As you can guess by now, the remainder of the piece, from the soft segue into the "Pines of the Apian Way" and the following procession down that road, ending in a great glory of brass, drums and tympani, is captured with full-blooded clarity.
And Now for Something Completely...
So what of good old American Rock and Roll ...
Chris Whitley's Living With The Law. From the snare taps that open the title track to the fading toms that conclude Bordertown, the North Star twins delivered a visceral, dynamic, richly detailed and completely believable sonic document. Take, for example, the spooky "Phone Call From Leavenworth". The spare musical accompaniment mirrors the dark despair of lyrics that tell the story of man in for life ("I'm down in Leavenworth prison now and I do not count no days"). National Steel guitar, footboard and haunted vocals almost literally leapt from the speakers, and I swear my blood ran cold listening to it. The subtle micro-harmonics and micro-dynamics of Whitley's voice, in particular, were so spot on, so detailed and so accurate that the amount of belief required to make the jump from recording to live in my room was nearly non-existent. But as good as that was, it is only when you contrast this with the reverb laden electric guitar freakout of Long Way Around, that the full range of the North Star duo starts to become apparent. Why, because this track is in many ways the yang to the Leavenworth's yin. To make this song work the CD player must revel in dense, fuzz-tone mystical voodoo harmonics while also keeping clear rhythm and drive. And this the North Star gear did as beautifully as it had laid out the clear-eyed precisions of Leavenworth.
The North Star implementation of the I2S bus runs at 192 kHz from transport to DAC and so makes the best use of the chipset in the DAC without requiring oversampling to do so. The result is 100 percent good, 95percent of the time.
When using the I2S connection the bog-stock average recording gives up finer and more nuanced detail across the frequency range. Highs have a touch more texture and are slightly more open as well. Mids, vocals in particular, gain in harmonic detail and so become more natural and believable. And the bass takes on a more forceful quality, with added punch, detail and harmonic decay. The soundscape, when it exists in the recording, also expands and thereby gains in all dimensions. Overall, I'd place these gains in the area of 5 to 10 percent, enough that they are obvious and valuable, though not enough to make turn a sow's ear recording into a silk purse.
But the real joy comes when you feed the North Star system a great disk, and by great disk I mean a well recorded disk of great music. So (and I know you can see this one coming) I loaded up the recording of I Fiamminghi doing variations of the Arvo Part composition Fratres [Telarc 80387]. The result was staggering. The new detail in the strings, for example, made it both easier to pick out individual players and their locations, as well as to feel their joined mass as they carved out their joint musical line. And the air they floated on! Boy, there was not a bit of harshness, nor artificial bite, but instead my entire listening room was filled with great and glorious harmonic overtones. And that's before taking the percussion into account!
Ok, I better cool off before I lose all credibility... but I can't.
Ok, this is where the rubber hits the road. After all this gushing, how does the North Star gear stack up against the other guys? First, and as noted above, in standard mode the Model 192 twins are every bit as good and perhaps even slightly better than the Cary CD-303/200 and a full step past the CEC CD-3300. Using either the oversampling mode or more especially the I2S bus, there was no contest ... when using the I2S bus the North Star twins are quite simply the best digital I've had in my house.
Alright, no one has to read between the lines to know that the North Star Design Model 192 twins are Ferraris and not Fiats. But the good news is the that unlike your typical Ferrari they do not require their own mechanic to drive, as you can simply use the standard input, with standard recordings and you can tool around town enjoying excellent sound. However, exactly like their Italian brothers of the Prancing Horse, if you give them the gas and shift into oversampling, you can get either a real increase in performance or a quick slide off the track and into the Armco. But unlike any Ferrari, they have a secret safe, high performance mode - I2S. During my audition of the North Star gear and while in I2S, they never failed to raise my pulse to Formula 1 levels. You should try them to see if you have what it takes to handle that level of performance too.