Korg DS-DAC-10R Vinyl Digitizer
Take your vinyl on the road. by Michael Trei
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.
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.
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.
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.