Korg DS-DAC-10R Vinyl Dig­i­tizer

Take your vinyl on the road. by Michael Trei

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - By Michael Trei

PRICE $500

TEN YEARS AGO, WHO WOULD have fig­ured that al­most ev­ery ma­jor new mu­sic re­lease would also get is­sued on vinyl? Ev­ery day, more and more peo­ple are learn­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate the ap­peal of vinyl records—but sadly, the lack of porta­bil­ity means that for most of us, it’s a stay-at-home lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. That can be frus­trat­ing in a world where we’ve be­come so ac­cus­tomed to digest­ing our mu­sic on the go; con­se­quently, lots of new vinyl records come bun­dled with a lossy-com­pressed dig­i­tal copy as a free down­load. Of course, lis­ten­ing to such down­loads means that we’re no longer get­ting the vinyl ex­pe­ri­ence at all—so re­ally, what’s the point?

What if, in­stead of those crappy MP3 files we’ve had to en­dure for so long, we could cap­ture some of vinyl’s ana­log good­ness in a por­ta­ble hi-res au­dio ver­sion? That’s the idea be­hind the DS-DAC-10R, a handy lit­tle box de­vel­oped by the pro-au­dio mavens at Korg and dis­trib­uted by Essence.

De­spite in­cor­po­rat­ing a Swiss Army knife–like com­bi­na­tion of an ana­log-to-dig­i­tal con­verter (ADC), a dig­i­tal-to-ana­log con­verter (DAC), a phono pream­pli­fier, and a head­phone amp, the DS-DAC-10R looks de­cep­tively sim­ple. Korg achieved this by de­sign­ing it to work in tan­dem with their Au­dioGate 4 soft­ware pack­age, and it is there that most of the con­trol func­tions live. Housed in a beau­ti­fully fin­ished alu­minum-and­cop­per chas­sis, the chunky Korg (sim­i­lar in size to a hard­cover book) will look right at home in a sys­tem of high-end au­dio­philia. Con­nec­tions are un­com­pli­cated, with a sin­gle pair of RCA jacks that can be switched be­tween phono and line-level in­puts, a USB Type B jack to con­nect it to your com­puter and pro­vide all op­er­at­ing power, and a pair of line-level RCA out­puts for play­ing back the recorded files through your au­dio sys­tem. A quar­ter-inch head­phone jack, with its own vol­ume con­trol, is also pro­vided for pri­vate lis­ten­ing. The only dis­play is an il­lu­mi­nated ring sur­round­ing the vol­ume knob, which changes color de­pend­ing on the sam­pling rate and dig­i­tal for­mat be­ing used.

On the hard­ware side, the DS-DAC-10R uses the same Texas In­stru­ments PCM4202 ADC and Cir­rus Logic CS4390 DAC as in Korg’s highly re­garded MR-2000S pro­fes­sional recorder. The phono preamp is built around the Texas In­stru­ments OPA1662 op amp, al­though with no hard­ware-based RIAA EQ in­cluded, the rest of the cir­cuit can be fairly ba­sic.

Setup

Get­ting the Korg up and run­ning is pretty straight­for­ward. First, you down­load the Au­dioGate 4 soft­ware from Korg’s web­site (I used my Len­ovo ThinkPad run­ning Win­dows 10 Pro 64-bit), then you en­ter a li­cense key from the DS-DAC-10R to un­lock the full-func­tion ver­sion. With a Win­dows PC, you’ll also need to in­stall a sep­a­rate driver, while Mac users should find that it’s plug and play. Once you have the soft­ware in­stalled, you just con­nect the Korg’s dig­i­tal out­put to an open USB 2.0 port and start the soft­ware, and ev­ery­thing will con­fig­ure it­self au­to­mat­i­cally.

I found Au­dioGate 4 to be quite easy and in­tu­itive, with slid­ers to con­trol the record­ing level and drop-down menus to con­fig­ure the record­ing for­mat and res­o­lu­tion. There’s also a high-pass fil­ter to get rid of ul­tra-low-fre­quency rum­ble from warped vinyl on your turntable, which could throw off your record­ing lev­els (and make the woofers in vented loud­speak­ers threaten to launch their cones into the room).

Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to ar­chiv­ists is the soft­ware’s multiple pho­noe­qual­iza­tion set­tings. This is use­ful when dig­i­tiz­ing records from the late 1940s and early ’50s, al­low­ing you to ap­ply al­ter­na­tive equal­iza­tions, such as NAB, AES, Columbia, and Decca ffrr. There is some de­bate about when RIAA be­came the de facto

world­wide stan­dard for phono EQ. But cer­tainly prior to 1954, there was a lot of vari­abil­ity among the dif­fer­ent record la­bels. Be­cause of this con­fu­sion, the DS-DAC-10R gives you the op­tion of record­ing the sig­nal flat and ap­ply­ing the re­quired EQ later dur­ing play­back or ex­port.

That’s a neat fea­ture if you have an old press­ing and want the abil­ity to ex­per­i­ment with EQ op­tions af­ter tran­scrib­ing the disc.

The phono in­put’s sen­si­tiv­ity and load­ing are op­ti­mized for a typ­i­cal mov­ing-mag­net or high-out­put mov­ing-coil car­tridge. That’s fine for the vast ma­jor­ity of users, but if you want to use an ex­otic low-out­put mov­ing-coil car­tridge, you could al­ways con­nect the out­put of a sep­a­rate mov­ing-coil-ca­pa­ble phono preamp to the Korg’s line-level in­put. Of course, by do­ing this, you’ll give up the Korg’s abil­ity to ap­ply al­ter­na­tive EQ curves. I in­stalled an Orto­fon 2M Black mov­ing-mag­net car­tridge in my VPI Scout turntable to work di­rectly with the Korg’s na­tive phono in­put.

Record­ing for­mats in­clude DSD at both 2.8 mega­hertz (DSD64) and 5.6 MHz (DSD128) and PCM cov­er­ing the range from 44.1-kilo­hertz/16-bit CD-qual­ity sound to 192-kHz/24-bit high res­o­lu­tion. The unit won’t record in any lossy-com­pressed for­mats like MP3 or WMA. Once you’ve made a record­ing, it gets stored as a WAV file (for PCM) or a DFF file (for DSD), which is a for­mat pro­pri­etary to Korg’s own in­fra­struc­ture and edit­ing soft­ware. You can play DFF files di­rectly through the DS-DAC-10R, but for more ver­sa­til­ity, the Au­dioGate 4 soft­ware can con­vert the files into more fa­mil­iar for­mats for ex­port to other de­vices.

The edit­ing fea­tures within the Au­dioGate app are fairly lim­ited, in­clud­ing track join and split, fade in and out, and vol­ume nor­mal­iza­tion, but those are enough to get the job done. One func­tion I missed was any type of declicker or de­crack­ler to re­duce vinyl noise, but you can al­ways ex­port the files to an­other edit­ing app (such as Au­dac­ity) if you need that fea­ture. Of course, clean­ing the LP and sty­lus thor­oughly with a de­cent record cleaner be­fore each cap­ture can help min­i­mize vinyl noise in the first place.

Once you’ve com­pleted your record­ings, edited the files, and as­sem­bled a playlist, you can burn it to a CD or trans­fer it to an­other de­vice.

DSD record­ings can also be burned to op­ti­cal disc, us­ing record­able DVDs for­mat­ted as DSD discs. One big lim­i­ta­tion of DSD is that edit­ing in its na­tive for­mat is ba­si­cally im­pos­si­ble, so as with all DSD edit­ing plat­forms, the DS-DAC-10R con­verts the file to PCM to per­form edit­ing func­tions. Korg makes the point that their DSD edit­ing sys­tem keeps the con­verted PCM sig­nal at the same sam­pling rate as the orig­i­nal DSD stream (2.8 MHz or 5.6 MHz) to main­tain the high­est pos­si­ble fidelity.

The head­phone amp is rated to de­liver up to 70 mil­li­watts peak per chan­nel at 32 ohms. That’s fine for the ma­jor­ity of head­phones but might fall a lit­tle short with some of the tougher-to-drive mod­els. I used it mostly with my Sennheiser HD 650s, which the Korg had no dif­fi­culty han­dling.

Lis­ten­ing

As with any au­dio record­ing de­vice, my goal with the DS-DAC-10R was to see how son­i­cally trans­par­ent it was to the source—in this case, a vinyl record.

I started by tran­scrib­ing that old hi-fi demo ch­est­nut from decades past, “More Than This” from Roxy Mu­sic’s fi­nal stu­dio al­bum, Avalon. For those of us who grew up record­ing to ana­log tape, there’s al­ways a temp­ta­tion to push lev­els up into the red. But with a dig­i­tal record­ing sys­tem like the DS-DAC10R, you’ll quickly dis­cover that this is strictly ver­boten. The dy­nam­ics on many record­ings can catch you out, so it’s im­por­tant to be pretty con­ser­va­tive with your set­tings if you want to avoid some nasty dig­i­tal clip­ping that will send you back to square one.

With the Roxy Mu­sic track, I used four dif­fer­ent set­tings: DSD at each of the two sam­pling fre­quen­cies and PCM at the high­est- and low­estres­o­lu­tion set­ting avail­able. The Korg will al­low you to mon­i­tor the sig­nal from the source as you record through ei­ther the head­phone jack or the line out­put, but be­cause the phono stage al­ways con­verts the sig­nal to dig­i­tal, this re­ally doesn’t give you a true com­par­i­son to the pure ana­log orig­i­nal. There­fore, to make a fair com­par­i­son, I re­con­nected the turntable to the phono in­put of my Croft preamp and hooked up the Korg’s line out­put to a line in­put on the same preamp. Us­ing a test tone I had recorded ear­lier from a test LP, I was able to match the lev­els of the di­rect turntable sig­nal and its record­ing within a frac­tion of a deci­bel, mak­ing the com­par­i­son as fair as pos­si­ble.

The first thing that struck me was just how much all of the dig­i­tal copies sounded like the di­rect ana­log sig­nal. There was no short­age of the kind of breath­ing space around in­stru­ments and broad spec­trum of tonal colors that nor­mally sets ana­log apart. If you had blind­folded me and asked me to guess whether I was hear­ing the vinyl or a dig­i­tal copy, I prob­a­bly would have said it was the vinyl most of the time. Closer lis­ten­ing re­vealed clear if rather sub­tle dif­fer­ences, but most of

them were likely caused by the dif­fer­ent phono preamps be­ing used.

More in­ter­est­ing was the com­par­i­son be­tween the dif­fer­ent dig­i­tal for­mats. There were slight but def­i­nite im­prove­ments in fine de­tails, such as the shim­mer of the cym­bals and the re­verb tails on the drums, when I switched to the higher PCM sam­pling-rate and bit-depth set­tings. High-res­o­lu­tion PCM re­ally ex­celled at cap­tur­ing fine low-level de­tails, such as the sense of space on a 1973 live record­ing of the Con­cen­tus Mu­si­cus Wien play­ing Vi­valdi’s Flute Con­certo No. 2. The en­sem­ble was recorded from an un­com­fort­ably close po­si­tion, but the am­bi­ent cues make it clear that the venue was an enor­mous church. Some­times, this type of de­tail could be heard even at CD-level (44.1/16) PCM, but the higher-res­o­lu­tion set­tings sim­ply brought ev­ery­thing into even finer fo­cus, mak­ing the sub­tleties more ap­par­ent and eas­ier to pick out.

Switch­ing to DSD re­sulted in an­other small but def­i­nite click up­wards in re­al­ism—al­though at times, it took very fo­cused lis­ten­ing to hear a re­peat­able dif­fer­ence. One de­cid­ing fac­tor when pick­ing your

record­ing for­mat could be the amount of hard­drive space you have, be­cause DSD has a vo­ra­cious ap­petite for bits and bytes. One full al­bum will eat up about 4 gi­ga­bytes, so you may want to save DSD for your most pre­cious al­bums.

Con­clu­sion

With more than 10,000 records lin­ing my walls, I guess it’s fair to say that I love my vinyl. But tak­ing

it with me when I travel is clearly not an op­tion. I have re­viewed sev­eral other ways to dig­i­tize vinyl, but none of them in­cluded the abil­ity to record us­ing my own care­fully op­ti­mized turntable, along with the abil­ity to record us­ing DSD. The Korg DSDAC-10R gives me those fea­tures at a price that seems em­i­nently rea­son­able by au­dio­phile stan­dards. Once you get the hang of it, mak­ing record­ings is pretty easy, and the re­sults are def­i­nitely worth the ef­fort.

The Korg’s front panel of­fers a quar­ter-inch head­phone jack with its own vol­ume con­trol.

The vol­ume knob’s il­lu­mi­na­tion changes color to in­di­cate sam­pling rate and dig­i­tal for­mat.

The sim­ple suite of back­panel con­nec­tions in­cludes RCA jacks and a USB port.

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