APL DSD-SR Mk 2 digital converter

Digital-to-analog converters

The ‘DSD’ part of the DSD-SR Mk 2 name is not simply due to its native DSD support; there is a proprietary PCM-DSD converter, and all PCM inputs – regardless of resolution – are converted to DSD prior to digital-to-analogue conversion. This can be DSD128 or DSD256, selectable from the remote. APL chooses not to disclose the make of DAC, but it’s academic because the paralleled design – which uses the flagship DAC chips as mono DSD-only designs running in Class A.

It’s very solidly built, too, in a case far heftier than most DACs. The rear panel is an exercise in simplicity, with twin coax and one Toslnk S/PDIF connectors, an AES/EBU balanced digital input and a USB-B connector. There is also what looks like a RJ45 Ethernet connection marked ‘DTR’; this is a proprietary connection for APL’s own digital transport and network streamer. The front panel with its clean and descriptive (if a bit small) three-line display is packed with detail. The curved sides contrast well with the elegantly finished front section too. Five buttons in total (one of which is a power button) doesn’t make for a festooned front panel but gives you pretty much all the access you need to navigate the settings and inputs on the DSD-SR Mk 2.

There is a long(ish) running in required with the DSD-SR Mk 2. The overall tonality and performance are good from the outset, and the basics of the presentation don’t change substantially over those warm-up hours, but the difference between APL fresh out of the box and APL a hundred or more hours later is marked, and the changes are all for the better. I used it with a variety of sources – sadly none with APL’s own connection – and found a really good front-end partner in the USB output of a Melco N10. While the APL’s own asynchronous USB input helps level the playing field between something like a Melco and a computer, the advantage of the dedicated server is immediately audible through the APL, showing its mettle. I used it in both balanced and single-ended into an Audio Research LS28/Ref 160S combination into Wilson Audio Duette Series Two loudspeakers, using Cardas Clear cables where possible. 

The APL is the kind of audio device that will be used with a lot of high-grade audio tracks and really doesn’t need that kind of gentle approach for its appraisal. Yes, it sounds magnificent when playing some late 1950s smoky jazz club ‘choons’, or even ‘Limehouse Blues’ from that audiophile benchmark (and well-known Spoonerism) Porn At The Jazzshop[Proprius]. In those settings, the APL DSD-SR Mk 2 has the sort of structure and soundstage dimensionality and solidity to make the music come to life. You are there in a Chicago dive in 1959 or in a Stockholm jazz club in 1976. But that’s just the start.

Where the APL really shows its worth is on less ‘polished’ recordings. I’m not proud of this one but try listening to the live version of ‘La Mer’ from Julio Iglesias En El Olympia album [Phillips, TIDAL]; while a good recording, it’s something that relies on the interplay of the musicians rather than stereo separation or imaging. Similarly, ‘Misty’ by Donnie Hathaway [Everything is Everything, Atco] is all about the performance (Hathaway arguably ‘owns’ this track as a result of his soaring vocal) and while that needs all the detail resolution and vocal articulation a digital device can throw at a track, there’s something almost always missing that the APL gets right from the outset; the harmonic structure and resonance of his voice. In fact, this is so notable on the APL and so commonly absent from other seemingly well-respected digital players that you might think the company is somehow ‘stacking the deck’. However, this isn’t a deliberately tailored sound or additional second-harmonic distortion filling out the presentation; it’s that the fullness of the sound is, for once, not overlooked.

It doesn’t really matter whether you move from this point to well-recorded albums, or thin and compressed tracks that sound like an angry chimpanzee was at the controls; the APL strives to present so much information in good order, it makes the best of each successive track played. 

This harmonic integrity could so easily push itself over into an over-rich, over-ripe mix, but even with some of the more lush and densely over-produced sounds of the 1980s, the DSD-SR Mk 2 always stays on the right side of ‘honest.’ Frankly, I’d almost given up on making mid-1980s ‘hair rock’ sound good (not a big loss); the vast wall of sound and over-resonant drum sound of tracks like ‘I Wanna Rock’ by Twisted Sister [Stay Hungry, Atlantic] is perhaps best left in 1984, but at least the APL doesn’t highlight everything about it that’s bad like most DACs. Instead, it brings out the dynamic and energetic performance exceptionally well. That ‘energetic’ performance is perhaps more geared to the quality of the playing than the pacing of the piece – and I suspect those who place a powerful rhythmic grip beyond all might look beyond the APL – but as a resolver of musical talent and intention, the APL DSD-SR Mk 2 sets a high bar.

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