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Popping the lid on Mystery Box #1

  • NPC. NuWave Phono Converter. In this experiment, we sail past the PS Audio unit’s phono pre-amplifier to home in on the neighbouring A/D converter that can digitally encode signals spilling from third-party phono pre-amplifiers; or any other line-level signal. Getting the hook-up this time out is Pro-Ject’s T1 Phono SB turntable (€349) whose defeatable in-built phono stage – a black box on the plinth’s underside – is matched to a factory-fitted MM Ortofon OM5e cartridge. The counterweight is locked into place with a recessed screw for an out-of-the-box tracking force of 1.75g (which I confirmed to be spot on).

    Before I could get to digitising, I had to do some listening, not least to give the Ortofon cartridge some time to settle in. With cartridge and phono pre-amplifier already in place and ‘grounded’ analogue interconnect supplied in the box, I was up and running with music within ten minutes of the turntable’s unboxing, five of which I spent ensuring the ‘table was perfectly level. Newcomers to vinyl should not skip this step, no matter how annoying it seems.

    That Pro-Ject also puts a twin-RCA-to-3.5mm adapter in the box meant I didn’t have swap out the Bluesound Powernode 2i amplifier (review here and here) for another model. I could immediately hook the T1 Phono SB directly into the Bluesound’s 3.5mm-socketed analogue input.

    Fifty hours of vinyl spinning later, I moved the Pro-ject phono pre-amplifier’s output from the Bluesound to the PS Audio NPC in order to capture its ‘sound’ to a 16bit/44.1kHz PCM file. I chose four songs that varied in musical content and for which there exists only one master. This would form the basis of Mystery Box #1: a YouTube Community-based blind test and poll.

    That was file B, what was file A? I had no other similarly priced turntable in the house, let alone one with a manufacturer-fitted cartridge and phono pre-amplifier. In polls past, I’ve invited readers to compare a turntable’s sound, as digitised by the PS Audio NPC, to Tidal or Qobuz streams. Both my phono file and the comparative cloud streams would journey through the end user’s DAC. But then…

    How might one otherwise spend entry-level turntable money in the digital audio realm? The answer came back: the Bluesound Node 2i with a price-commensurate AudioQuest Evergreen (€35) analogue interconnect. (Highly unlikely that the typical Bluesound user would use the Pro-Ject interconnect here). I captured the same four songs from the Node 2i’s analogue output and called it file A. Bundled with file B, the -zip file went up online for 48 hours only for YouTubers to vote on their preference. Listeners were expected to do their own level matching.

    Here are the poll results:

    Was the 40% opting for ‘no clear winner’ suggesting that they could hear no difference between the two files? Unlikely. I could hear differences with a pair of US$99 IEMs plugged directly into my 16″ MacBook Pro. More probable is that the 40% heard A sound better with some songs and B with others.

    Almost equal in number to the undecided listeners were those preferring the sound of file A: the Bluesound Node 2i. Maybe these voters dug the Bluesound’s better detail retrieval, dynamics and bass reach? We can’t know for sure — I asked voters to refrain from commenting lest they influence other pollsters.

    Heard in isolation, file A sounds convincing enough – perhaps a little too steely at times, especially with the Radiohead and Moderat, but the deeper bass mining is undeniable. Contrast that with file B’s superior treble delicacy and finesse and we are reminded that even an entry-level turntable can infuse music with such (favourable) qualities to sound different to a streaming DAC.

    However, with the Pro-Ject deck and its US$69 Ortofon cartridge pulling only 22% of the poll group’s preferences, we’d be hard-pressed to call the turntable the better of the two. This mirrors my own findings with the T1 Phono SB as part of a standmount loudspeaker system: the Bluesound Powernode 2i, essentially a Hypex nCore amplifier added to a Node 2i – juicing a pair of Q Acoustics’ 3030i.

    The Powernode 2i digitises all incoming analogue signals before decoding and amplifying them but this ADC and DAC process is sufficiently transparent to expose clear audible differences between the Pro-Ject turntable and Bluesound streaming. The former gives us filigree and finesse but the latter greater presence – especially in the low end – and more robust dynamics. Each source device has preferable (to me) qualities that the other does not.

    We’ll dig further into these thoughts in an upcoming video but my lack of a preference for one or the other brings us to the biggest takeaway here: even though an A/D converter’s input stage and a D/A converter’s output stage can colour a source’s sound, per the Powernode 2i, putting an A/D converter (the PS Audio) and a D/A converter (yours) between two sources doesn’t homogenise their overall gestalt or run roughshod over the more granular differences.

    Further information: Pro-Ject | Bluesound

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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