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Weiss Medus DAC

Weiss Medus DAC

Weiss has long been at the forefront of digital audio technology. It was the first company I recall making a DAC equipped with a Firewire input for the Mac computers that were used as a source when the whole digital streaming thing got off the ground. There is a reason for this, which is that Weiss has been in studios for a long time. I went to Air studios recently and visited the vinyl cutting room. There in the console I saw two Weiss units; don’t ask me what they do, but assume they had something to do with digital audio in that situation. Studios were the first places that got to grips with digital, so companies that supplied them had a head start over the rest of the audio universe when it came to file streaming. The Medus is Weiss’ flagship digital to analogue converter and its input array can include a Firewire connection even now, but given that this connection has largely died out in domestic PCs the review sample was supplied with an alternative connection in the form of an RJ45 for Ethernet.

This isn’t the first DAC I’ve encountered with an Ethernet input, but they are few and far between. Sometimes called a network DAC, the idea is that you send data from a server or NAS drive directly to the converter without a streaming bridge in between. Given the increase in popularity of audio servers from Melco, Innuos, and the like that have direct Ethernet outputs, this seems like an eminently sensible idea, yet it is still pretty rare. In this converter, its only limitation is that it can’t cope with anything higher than DSD64 as far as one-bit signals are concerned, though it’s good for full 192kHz PCM.

The remaining inputs on the Medus are similarly unusual. They include double-wire connections on inputs 1 and 2: that is, the capability to receive each channel on a separate coaxial or AES/EBU XLR. This approach originates in the early days of high resolution files when the AES/EBU chips were not able to support higher data rates, and again harks back to studio practice. There are a few audio companies that include this option such as Esoteric and dCS, as well as Weiss itself – the Jason CD transport (great name!) includes double-wire outputs. But Weiss doesn’t claim that double-wire offers any advantages over single-wire connections now that the latter are capable of handling high resolution signals. One such being USB, which this DAC has on the same input (3) as Ethernet. This was a cause of some confusion at first, but then I realised that USB comes through on input 3 but Ethernet is selected when choosing input 4 with the front panel buttons or remote. The latter is a heavyweight example of the breed that adds a few useful functions to those accessible from the Medus’ front panel, these include absolute phase inversion, mute, brightness, filter choice, and volume. The latter can also be used to adjust maximum output. Weiss realises that in many systems a preamplifier will provide volume control and the DAC can be set to 0.0dB or full output for such set ups. Having some adjustment of what full output is means that the preamp can be used either in the same range as other sources or at its best sounding level setting. Weiss suggests going for an output level that corresponds with a preamp’s volume control at its midpoint.

The volume control on Medus is a digital type. These are usually quite distinctly compromised, but Weiss points out that theirs is not the usual bit reduction type but one that handles the requantization of a truncated digital signal with dithering. This adds a very small amount of noise but de-correlates the quantization error from the signal resulting in, “a level control with a 24 bit word-length [that] easily rivals the best analogue level controls”. It even has a white paper with sound files to demonstrate their point.

I have yet to find an on-board level control that clearly betters the Townshend Allegri passive preamp, so I made a point of comparing the Medus with its own volume adjustment versus full output via the Allegri. Playing ‘Hot Lips’ by the Hot Club of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Bounce [Reference Recordings 24/176.4], an early hi-res recording of Hot Club de Paris style ukuleles, guitars, and violin in a very big room. The Medus doesn’t manage to convey that scale as fully as the Allegri. There is a compression of depth and the sound sticks to the speakers. But the sound is very good indeed and it soon became clear that the Medus is a very fine converter – in fact, one of the best I have had the pleasure of using.

 

The presence of the Ethernet connection encouraged me to try this first. In all the comparisons I’ve made between USB and Ethernet, I have preferred the latter but in all previous instances it has not been a like for like comparison. To use Ethernet usually requires a ‘pull system’ where the DAC/streamer controls what comes out of the server. USB on the other hand is a ‘push system’ where the server or PC sends the stream to the converter. Here the Ethernet input works like that as well, I used the Audionet app to control a Melco N1Z server and connected its Ethernet direct output to the Medus. The result was stunning: high frequency detail in particular is on a par with a very good turntable, and the sense of openness you get with a good recording is just something else. This degree of transparency puts the onus on the recording to an even greater extent than usual, the first track I played was ‘Zawâj El Yamâm’ by Le Trio Joubran [As Fâr, Randana], which consists of three ouds playing Arabic jazz. Here the band is presented in 3D within an expansive and deep soundstage with scale that made for a very convincing replica of the live experience. The treble on the Medus is open and very clean, it allows all the harmonics to unfold and this gives instruments and voices a sense of realism that is rare with digital systems.

Another live piece, Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’ [Minimum Maximum, EMI], was inevitably not quite so clean in the high frequencies, very good for an electronic performance but with a small amount of grain. This didn’t stop the piece from being powerful and atmospheric, and I’ve not heard the reverb go on for so long before. At this point, I began to wonder about the price, it was clear that the Weiss is no ordinary high end DAC. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Haydn piano sonatas [Piano Sonatas Vol 1, Chandos] reinforced this opinion, the instrument sounding so open, smooth, and natural yet precise with none of the glassiness that pianos can expose in digital systems. The Medus invites you into the music by showing its charm and the brilliance of the playing, keeping itself very much in the background and letting the work shine. Another classical piece, Vivaldi’s Belleza Crudel [Tone Wik, Alexandra Opsahl, 2L], has become something of a staple because of the fabulous tone of the period instruments, but this was the first time I have encountered so much dynamic subtlety in the recording; the micro-dynamics are superbly resolved as is the scale of the recording venue. Once again, the Weiss brought out the size of the room perfectly and let the speakers disappear. It was around this point that I tried the on-board volume control and lost some of this scale, so the majority of listening was done without the luxury of remote level control.

Moving over to the USB input results in smoother high frequencies. I don’t have matching USB and Ethernet cables so this might be an explanation, but both are very good examples of their breeds. Ethernet is Chord Co Sarum Super ARAY and USB is Vertere Pulse HB, the latter being far more revealing at HF than any other cable of its ilk that I’ve tried. But this connection proved more forgiving of less than pristine recordings, I fell in love with Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution [Concord] whilst the Medus was in the system, but even the 24/96 version sounded a bit too forward via Ethernet. On USB the worst of the treble glare was ameliorated and it became very easy to enjoy this less-than-audiophile recording.

DSD is converted to PCM when using Ethernet but goes straight through on USB, and provides a smoother and more relaxed presentation than PCM. With a number of Norwegian label 2L’s excellent classical demo tracks (free from their site) the Medus produced effortlessly real and fully three-dimensional music. The Mozart Violin concerto in D major has depth and scale to run around in and none of the halo effect that you can get with DSD, a sort of exaggerated sense of ‘air’ that sounds like a colouration. String tone is also extremely good; high notes don’t sound thin, you can hear the body of the instruments, and all the string section’s woody timbre is revealed in full effect.

I was lured back to Ethernet and really enjoyed the vivid, spacious, and dynamic quality that input brings to the mix. The sense of musicality is pretty close to USB, but in energy terms, I felt strongly that it is the more effective conduit. I found that with a few cable changes I could ameliorate the problems that the extra openness reveals. USB does bring a focus to the proceedings that is aesthetically pleasing, so it will be up to the end user to find a link that works in their system and room. It’s nice to have the option to use this link. I asked Daniel Weiss which connection he preferred and got the politically neutral answer “Actually I do not have any favourite connection when it comes to sonic quality – as the Medus has the same performance with all input types.”

I also asked about the filter settings, of which there are two, but their characteristics are not explained in the otherwise fairly comprehensive manual. It turns out that filter A has the steeper slope while filter B is more relaxed. I found that filter B suited my music and tastes slightly better than A, but the difference between the two is quite subtle.

 

I also contrasted the Medus with my reference DAC, the CAD 1543 Mk2 – a converter that always sounds more relaxed and effortless than the competition. However when the competition comes in at three times the price it doesn’t seem quite as refined in comparison. The Weiss has greater ease and more subtlety thanks to clearer low level detail and lower noise. On Tom Waits’ ‘In Shades’ [Heart Attack & Vine, Ayslum], as featured on the recent BBC documentary, there is a lot of restaurant noise behind the instrumental performance, and with the Weiss the precise nature of this noise is far easier to identify. The clinking of cutlery and speech are better separated from the playing, and the leading edges of the notes being played are in what I can only call the premier league.

All this resolution would not be worth a jot if the Medus did not time properly. There are many high end digital components that seem to reveal everything but fail to make it hang together in a cohesive and musical fashion. You only have to play one familiar track to realise that this DAC has timing down, the more complex the rhythms and melodies the more obvious this becomes, and the harder it gets to turn it off. This is true whether it’s the percussive vibes of the Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble or the fluency of Bavouzier’s piano, in every instance you are captivated by the music. To do this at the same time as delivering so much detail is no mean feat. Clearly Weiss’ experience in the studio world has taught it what matters and how best to approach the thorny issues of digital to analogue conversion. Whichever way you look at it, the Weiss Medus is a DAC to die for.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Fully balanced, solid-state high-resolution PCM and DSD-capable digital-to-analogue converter/preamplifier

Digital Inputs: Two AES/EBU, three Coaxial, one Toslink, and one USB, one optional Ethernet/Firewire

Analogue Outputs: One stereo single‑ended (via RCA jacks), one balanced (via XLR connectors). Both outputs have variable level operation 

DAC Resolution/Supported Digital Formats: All PCM from 44.1KS/s to 192KS/s with word lengths up to 24‑bit, DSD64 (2.8224MHz) and DSD128 (5.6448MHz). The following format restrictions apply:
DSD128 is supported through USB only

Frequency Response: 0Hz–40kHz, ± 0.75dB @192KS/s

Distortion (THD + Noise): –115dB at 0dBFS (0dBFS = +27.0 dBU)

Output Voltage: variable XLR 0.49V–17.35V, RCA 0.245V–8.67V

User Interface: remote handset.

Dimensions (H×W×D): 740×620×300mm

Weight: not specified

Price: £21,000

Manufacturer: Weiss Engineering, Weiss Engineering Ltd, Weiss Engineering Lt

Tel: +41 44 290 20 06

URL: www.weiss.ch

UK Distributor: Padood

Tel: +44 (0) 1223 653199

URL: www.padood.com 

Tags: FEATURED

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