dCS • Vivaldi 2.0 Digital Playback System

". . . the most versatile digital system I’ve used and also -- by far -- the most sonically complete."

by Marc Mickelson | January 20, 2017

igital audio used to be so simple. That was part of its charm. For the first twenty years, hearing digital music was as easy as inserting a disc in a CD player or transport (the latter tethered to a digital-to-analog converter) and pushing Play. Even with the advent of SACD and DVD-A, digital audio’s two high-resolution physical formats, the process remained the same, even if new hardware that could read and decode the new high-resolution discs was necessary.

Prices: DAC, $35,999; Transport, $41,999; Upsampler, $21,999, Master Clock, $14,999.

Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Data Conversion Systems, Ltd.
Unit 1,
Buckingway Business Park
Swavesey, Cambridgeshire
CB24 4AE, United Kingdom
+44 (0)1954 233950
www.dcsltd.co.uk

But then things began to change and increase in complexity. Digital music had always been data, but it took until the middle of the first decade of the new millennium for computer hard drives to offer enough space to store them. Computers became audiophile source components, and along with them came the need to understand new software and cabling necessary for playback. Concurrently, the optical disc began a slow creep toward becoming an anachronism for many audiophiles -- although not for everyone. Perhaps it's our unifying principle, but so many of the writers here at The Audio Beat, Roy Gregory and myself included, have not wholeheartedly embraced file playback as a primary source -- or even a secondary one. For us, spinning discs, both digital and analog, continue to earn their keep in our systems because they simply sound best -- more singular and varied from recording to recording. None of us is willing to trade sound quality for convenience.

The engineers at Data Conversion Systems, best known as dCS, seem to be of like mind. While the company’s assault on digital preeminence, the Vivaldi 2.0 system, is perhaps the most technologically advanced and functionally complete digital playback system currently available, it doesn’t merely blind with science. The Vivaldi 2.0 can spin an optical disc, decode files from USB or NAS drives, play music from thumb drives, even take the place of an analog preamp in an all-digital system. It offers support for Spotify, Tidal and Roon streaming services, and MQA support is in the works. Its modular architecture means that incorporating hardware updates was part of its initial design. Software updates are even easier -- a matter of inserting a CD-R and pressing Play. It was meant to be truly future-proof, as one would expect given its six-figure price tag.

But Vivaldi was conceived of and designed with a higher purpose in mind: to provide sonic performance without compromise, no matter the digital format: CD or SACD; MP3, PCM or DSD file. It can upsample PCM data, convert it to DSD data, and apply two different methods during playback to tailor the sound to suit listener preference.

When you write about audio equipment, it’s imperative to settle on a level of detail to discuss in each review, mostly because trying to divulge everything about a product leads to tedious reading, even for the most technically inclined. This is even more important for a complete digital system like the Vivaldi 2.0, not only because of its four separate parts but the abundance of engineering and manufacturing prowess on display. It would literally be possible to write thousands of words on any of these products and still not reveal all of the broad and fine strokes that went into creating it.

No matter the focus, it is important to discuss a couple of tenets of dCS’s approach, both because they are consequential and unique in high-end audio. Central to the Vivaldi system, and indeed all of the dCS’s products, are the company’s proprietary Ring DAC and DSP platform, which pioneered the use of field-programmable gate arrays -- user-configurable integrated circuits that take the place of monolithic hardware. dCS calls the Vivaldi’s fifth-generation implementation of the Ring DAC "enhanced" due to its complete redesign and improved jitter and dynamic performance, both of which dCS has measured. The Vivaldi 2.0's DSP platform operates at a higher speed than earlier iterations and continues to run proprietary code that dCS has written.

The Vivaldi system, which we’ve referred to as "the Vivaldi stack" in show reports, consists of a DAC, a CD/SACD Transport, a digital-to-digital converter called the Upsampler, and a system Master Clock, each housed in a very handsome, very heavy and very rigid chassis that is seemingly hermetically sealed, so tight are its joints. The DAC and Transport are straightforward in terms of their functions: the DAC is the final stop for data coming into the system and turns all digital data from various sources into an analog signal, while the Transport provides data stored on physical media -- CDs and SACDs only -- to the DAC. Both have far more features than most of the DACs and transports on the market today, however, including some that give the user flexibility over the sound produced. The point of the Upsampler may seem obvious -- it can increase the bit depth and sampling frequency of digital data to help match the incoming data to the Ring DAC's data rate -- but in the Vivaldi system it also acts as a bridge to a networked music system, adding the ability to play music from computers or thumb drives via its USB-A and USB-B ports, and in dCS's version of this all-out reference system, it also acts as a hub that helps keep noise away from the critical digital-to-analog conversion and clocking stages. In theory, the Master Clock synchronizes all components in the Vivaldi system, as well as computer and other clockable sources, to ensure that digital samples are devoid of timing errors -- jitter -- before the signal is converted to analog. While the Vivaldi Master Clock is wholly optional -- the system will operate without it -- once you add it you will immediately hear what you’re paying for, including greater focus, improved spatial specificity and stronger imaging. It won’t seem optional at all.

John Quick, manager of dCS Americas and a music omnivore, initially set up the then-current Vivaldi 1.2 system and returned a couple of months later. The hardware John hauled to my house included a router along with USB and NAS drives loaded with choice music, both of which dCS’s elegant iPad app made easy work of accessing. All together, a dozen cables were used, including AES/EBU and BNC-terminated S/PDIF digital cables, a USB cable and a pair of Ethernet cables. At first, looking at the back of the four Vivaldi units caused a sense of overload, but once I used the system and understood how the data flowed, it all made sense. dCS dealers will do the initial setup, including the network configuration, which is the trickiest part. Using the Vivaldi 2.0 is simplicity itself, even for the computer illiterate.

On his second visit, John did some light surgery to the system, upgrading it to 2.0 status. This involved installing new software for the Vivaldi Transport and DAC, and new network and USB boards (and new software) for the Upsampler. Because dCS envisioned the Vivaldi system to be a reference-level platform for an extended period of time -- many years, if not decades -- it was imperative for each product to be modular, so circuit boards could be easily swapped.

The board installation presented a golden opportunity to not only get a look inside a couple of the products but also see what upgrading entailed and ask questions along the way. Interestingly, at one point in between John's visits, the DAC wasn’t responding and looked to my untrained eyes like it needed service. When audio equipment doesn’t appear to be working, it almost always isn’t working. John quickly diagnosed the problem, connected the DAC to his laptop, reloaded its operating system, and it was back to making music. The Vivaldi system’s hardware is completely controlled and configurable via software, something that John wasn’t planning to demonstrate but did anyway. I had never encountered such an in-home fix -- more akin to service on a computer than an audio component.

Of course, each of the Vivaldi 2.0 parts can be used separately. You can buy the DAC and use it solely with a computer or with a transport from another maker. You can add the Master Clock later or not at all, and the same is true of the Upsampler. The Vivaldi Transport uses an Esoteric VRDS mechanism and dual AES digital connection, which the DAC accepts. The advantages to this interface are the passing of higher-resolution data and better jitter rejection, so while you might have the urge to use with Vivaldi DAC with a lesser transport, you will be essentially taking this sports car to church on Sunday by using it via the ubiquitous single S/PDIF connection.

Even before Vivaldi 2.0 makes a sound, it's easy to admire the extreme care with which it was designed and manufactured. So often writing about audio equipment involves calling attention to slight variations on broad technological themes, but that was not the case with the Vivaldi 2.0 system. Nothing about it is customary or perfunctory, and dCS has examined every possible part, circuit and line of code to wring the last bits of performance from them. This is, in fact, at the center of high-end audio -- its beating heart -- and it's hard to imagine a more comprehensive manifestation of it than the Vivaldi 2.0 system. It ticks all of the boxes as we currently know them, including (and especially) the one for sonic realism.

hen John Quick first contacted me about reviewing the Vivaldi system, I didn’t have to search my memory banks very deeply for general impressions of it. I had heard it several times at CES, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and THE Show Newport Beach, and in each case it was part of the best-sounding system at each show. I can recall more than once playing cut after cut from my CD-Rs of demo material, at first to understand and assess what I was hearing, but in short order simply to kick back, relax and let the sound wash over me. Covering shows is always work, sometimes a great deal of it, but any room with a Vivaldi system in it became an oasis, a predictably pleasing spot in which to relax and remember what it was like to be an audiophile.

But even with all of this experience, I still wasn’t ready for the full-on experience of hearing Vivaldi 2.0 in my own system, where I could not only compare it to my many show experiences but also push it to its limits with all kinds of music in every format, from CDs to high-resolution DSD rips, with stops at SACDs and PCM files of various resolutions in between. Throughout it all, the Vivaldi 2.0 system revealed new facets of the music, and itself, with nearly every recording I played. I was bowled over by it, in fact, and the more I listened, to both new and well-known recordings, the more impressed, and covetous, I became.

What was so special about the Vivaldi 2.0 was the way in which it turned digital sound on its head, displaying a combination of sonic traits that, with so many other products, including very good ones, simply don’t exist together. I’ve reviewed much of the best digital equipment available, and it generally makes its case for being considered among the best in one of two ways: either by sounding fundamentally poised and natural -- tonally full, somewhat soft and forgiving overall -- or by maximizing the inherent strengths of digital, including transient speed, bass power and large-scale dynamics. Playback from the Vivaldi 2.0 system embodied both of these sonic sets. It could sound easygoing and gentle, broadly similar to analog, or positively growl, its speed and image density giving music driving force and power. Great digital sound was no longer an either/or proposition; with the Vivaldi 2.0, I could have it both ways.

Of course, each recording was the defining factor here; no one will mistake "Words of Wonder" from Keith Richards’ Main Offender [Virgin V2-86499] with the lithe, atmospheric jazz on the ECM label. But Vivaldi 2.0 dug more deeply into each, readily and effortlessly getting to the heart of a recording’s unique personality.

What this ultimately revealed was that Vivaldi 2.0 uncovered immense amounts of musical detail; it was the equal of top-flight analog in this regard. Even spare recordings, like Suzanne Vega’s Close-Up Series [Amanuensis 2507] sounded especially well resolved, the music awash in the atmosphere of the sonic thumbprint of the recording venue to a degree I had not heard previously, then impressing with the speed of a plucked guitar string or the muscularity of a bass line. "This is digital?" I wondered early on in my listening notes, not fully grasping this chameleon-like ability.

Symphonic music, both grand and quaint, was well served too. My demo staple, "Fanfare for the Common Man" from the Telarc SACD of Copland and Hindemith compositions [Telarc SACD-60648], was appropriately crisp and impactful, especially the prominent bass-drum and tam-tam strikes, but it was another Telarc SACD, of Stravinky's The Rite of Spring [Telarc SACD-60563], that proved the Vivaldi's ability as an all-around player. On this recording, the pensive opening gives way to the busy-ness of what follows, the sense of space dominating and giving this recording its audiophile cred. The Vivaldi 2.0 presented it all, always keeping the music in proper proportion to the venue (Cleveland's Masonic Auditorium), the extreme detail never parsing the music into mere data. I have the LP as well [Telarc DG-10054] and it has never sounded better than this, which is quite an accomplishment for the Vivaldi 2.0.

I mentioned earlier a couple of ways to tailor the sound of the Vivaldi system. I was referring to the digital filters and mapper settings from which listeners can choose. The custom-developed filters range from bandwidth-limiting filters for DSD, to traditional linear-phase and minimum-phase filters for PCM. The mappers determine the pattern of the code that gets applied to the Ring DAC's 48 current sources per channel. The differences in the mappers' math produce a different balance of second- and third-order harmonic distortion. To use an analogy, the mappers are like the recipe from which a cake is baked, while the filters are like the choice of frosting. You eat cake, but the frosting influences the flavor. With Vivaldi 2.0, applying a new mapper or filter may not produce a profoundly different base sound -- it’s still cake, to keep with the analogy -- but one combination will likely become your favorite, even as you have so many possible combinations to choose from. For me, filter 1 and mapper 1 or 2 sounded most like what I describe above with a wide array of music. However, because I didn't much more than scratch the surface of the Vivaldi’s rich capabilities, I wouldn’t be surprised if after another month of listening I preferred a different combination.

As I described in the opening to this review, I’ve not been an enthusiastic adopter of file playback; on the contrary, I still listen almost exclusively to CDs and SACDs, not to mention DVD-As and some music Blu-rays. I’m still a physical-media kind of guy, but I will admit that the sound quality of high-resolution media is sometimes indistinguishable from that of CD and this is often due to a player not having the resolving power to make differences plain. I find the biggest sonic differences in the treble, with SACDs in particular displaying greater transient dynamics -- the light touch of a brushed cymbal, say, sounding "whooshy" as opposed to more "tingy." The Vivaldi 2.0 system will reveal immediately if differences exist, and it does this better than any multi-format digital player I’ve heard. After a certain point, with the end of my time with the system nearing, I played SACDs almost exclusively, just to hear what they really sounded like. Whether it was the discs or the playback hardware, the filigreed highs were gorgeous, trailing off like smoke in the wind.

Perhaps as an adjunct to this, file playback, especially high-resolution PCM and DSD files, was just as gorgeous. The USB and NAS drives that John Quick supplied were packed with interesting music, much of it in resolution beyond CD, and accessing it was so easy with the iPad he also left that I listened to quite a bit of it. As with SACDs, it was easy to discern in most cases the pedigree of the material and the value of higher bit and sample rates. I briefly compared some ripped CD cuts, played from my laptop, to spinning the disc itself in the Vivaldi Transport, and found the two to sound nearly identical, with the ripped cuts sounding a bit more synthetic and less individual. The difference could be just as easily written off as the artifacts of my laptop (running foobar2000) as of file playback itself. I would never play a CD I owned this way, so it was an academic exercise, but it once again underscored the Vivaldi 2.0’s resolving powers.

I also found the Vivaldi system to be unfussy of partnering equipment; in fact, it was something more than that: it elevated equipment that was well below its cost. I talked about using it in my review of the Ayre KX-5 Twenty preamplifier and VX-5 Twenty power amp, remarking that in a system along with Wilson Sabrina speakers, the sound was in some ways the best I had ever heard in my room. Once the Sabrinas left and the Wilson Alexxes took their place, the difference in bandwidth and dynamic prowess simply extended that assessment further. The Vivaldi DAC has the best-implemented volume control I’ve used, better than those from Wadia (which is also in the digital domain) and Mark Levinson. While I could have used those products without a preamp, I wouldn't have wanted to. While a very good preamp like the VTL TL-7.5 III or Audio Research Reference 6, was certainly never a liability with the Vivaldi DAC, I would definitely research analog-to-digital phono stages to pair with the DAC, no matter how wrong-headed the idea sounds even as I type it. The DAC's volume control was that transparent -- neither adding to nor taking away from the performance of the entire Vivaldi system.

Often when I’m writing a review I try to think about the person who might audition and then buy the product at hand. How would his or her wants and needs inform the buying decision? For much of my time with the Vivaldi 2.0, I was too preoccupied with my own wants and needs, greedily shuffling through my CDs and SACDs and raiding John Quick’s USB and NAS drives, to consider anything beyond the simple pleasure of listening to music. While it’s staggering how many ways you can integrate a Vivaldi 2.0 system into your audio system and home network, I personally would keep it simple (so to speak) and use it primarily for playing discs, relegating file replay to what could be copied to thumb drives. But the beauty of it is that while I could have this idea in mind as I initially set up the system, if I changed my mind, I’d be able to add massive amounts of storage and have the iPad for easy access of it all. In this way, Vivaldi 2.0 has a strong lifestyle aspect to it; spouses and even children can use it, making an audiophile's system less of a fetish object.

he dCS Vivaldi 2.0 is the most versatile digital system I’ve used and also -- by far -- the most sonically complete. It gave me newfound respect for file replay while revealing more about the physical media I played, always sounding resolutely pleasing in the process. It doesn’t achieve this by softening digital sound in an attempt to obscure its very nature, making it more forgiving and, at the same time, less involving. Instead it offers up a level of detail that is unmatched and presents it in a way that rivals the best analog -- and with some digital material outright betters analog. That last part will be sacrilege to some audiophiles, including ones like me, who consider the LP to be the undisputed format of choice, but I have to call it as I hear it. What I heard with the Vivaldi 2.0 in my system was deserving of all the accolades I’ve heaped on it at shows and the gushing I’m doing now. It’s the end of the digital road today and, I’m confident, tomorrow as well, and in that way an investment in your enjoyment of music for years to come. It may require you to liquidate an investment or two to own it, but that’s the price that must be paid for such digital splendor here and now.

When you write audio reviews, it's never easy to remove great equipment from your system, but the feeling is diminished by the realization that a product of equal excellence will eventually replace it. I don't have that feeling with the Vivaldi 2.0. It's not just the best digital source I’ve heard; it’s in league with the two or three best audio products I’ve ever reviewed. Packing up the Vivaldi 2.0 hurt.

Associated Equipment

Analog: TW-Acustic Raven AC turntables; Graham B-44 Phantom Series II Supreme and Tri-Planar Ultimate U12 tonearms; Denon DL-103R and Dynavector XV-1s (stereo and mono) cartridges; Nordost Odin 2 and Valhalla 2 phono cables; Audio Research Reference Phono 2 SE and Lamm Industries LP2.1 phono stages.

Digital: Ayre Acoustics DX-5 DSD "A/V Engine"; CEC TL1 CD transport; Timbre Technology TT-1 digital-to-analog converter; Genesis Digital Lens; Toshiba Satellite laptop.

Preamplifiers: Audio Research Reference 6, Ayre Acoustics KX-5 Twenty, VTL TL-7.5 Series III Reference.

Amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 75 SE and Ayre Acoustics VX-5 Twenty stereo amps; Kenwood L-07M and Lamm M1.2 Reference monoblocks.

Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia, Alexx and Sabrina.

Interconnects: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Nordost Odin 2, Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Cobra and Anaconda.

Speaker cables: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Nordost Odin 2, Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Cobra and Anaconda.

Digital cables: AudioQuest Diamond USB cable; Nordost Valhalla 2 S/PDIF, AES/EBU and USB cables.

Ethernet cable: Nordost Heimdall 2.

Power conditioners: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Quantum QB4 and QB8, Quantum Qx4, Shunyata Research Hydra Triton.

Power cords: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference and MusicCord-Pro ES, Nordost Odin 2 and Valhalla 2, Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Cobra.

Equipment rack and platforms: Paradigm J-29 speaker stands, Silent Running Audio Craz² 8 equipment rack and Ohio Class XL Plus² platforms (under Lamm M1.2 amps), Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation bases.

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