Apogee PSX 100 24-bit/96 kHz A/D Converter 
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Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Monday, 01 January 2001

You may be thinking, "Jerry, why are you reviewing a DAC? Everyone knows that DACs are an integrated part of AV preamps these days." I must admit that, while I own a pretty badass AV preamp (Proceed AVP), when I merged my dedicated music system with my theater system, I suffered a number of musical maladies. At the time, I had also moved all of the equipment to an entirely new room with all sorts of acoustic problems, including but not limited to a glass front wall and a 20-foot by eight-foot-tall mirrored left side wall. The result was a room that sounded understandably bright.

You may consequently ask, "Hey, Jerry, why did you move to such a joint?" The answer is, the view, my man. Imaging is defined by being able to see from the Capitol Records Building to Catalina Island while jamming out to your system, but I had lots of work to do to get the music right.

I got Bob Hodas back in to do my placements, moved my gear out of the way and placed it into a custom rack. I installed a motorized set of blackout drapes that are four layers thick and very absorbent sonically. I had my new drop ceiling packed with over $1,000 worth of insulation – which is quite a bit for a 15 by 20-foot room with a six-inch drop ceiling. The Hodas setup really helped. Hodas took a lot of the zip or brightness out of the system in the room, but the addition of this Apogee professional DAC and A to D was an embarrassing reminder of how much I missed having a high-performance dedicated DAC in my digital loop.

I have my Apogee PSX 100 at the tail end of my digital rig, which starts with a Theta Data Basic ($2,400) CD transport, fed digitally via AES EBU to a z-systems RDQ-6 ($7,500) six-channel digital EQ and 24-bit upconverter. I also have a coax digital feed from my Pioneer Elite DV-05 ($1,000) DVD player running into the z-systems digital EQ for 24-bit DVD-V music, which also allows me to listen to CDs. From the rdq-6, I feed the Apogee PSX 100 via another AES EBU cable. From the Apogee PSX 100 DAC, I run an analog signal into the balanced input of my Proceed AVP, thus avoiding internal digital conversion.

Another hard lesson that I learned was that a $10,000 CD player costs $10,000 for a reason. If you sell off your DAC (as I did my Mark Levinson No. 36s), you can’t really expect the same sort of extreme digital performance from an integrated product, such as the $5,000 Proceed AVP preamp. This is not to say that the DACs in the AVP are bad. Indeed, they sound very good for all but the absolute best systems. In my case, my system has gotten so high end that, for music, the addition of a $2,995 DAC actually makes sense and delivers a quite significant sonic improvement. Additionally, the Proceed AVP won’t allow digital looping, which prevents you from hooking up a digital EQ like the z-systems. The addition of digital EQ and upconversion also helps the system dramatically by allowing room correction EQ and 24-bit re-dithering of your CDs. This is of specific importance when you consider that the Apogee PSX 100 is a 24-bit DAC that should be fed with something other than audiophile geek recordings.

The PSX 100 is a professional audio product. Priced at $2,999, it is a rack-mountable digital-to-analog and analog-to digital-converter. The meaning of this is different for the audio/video enthusiast than it is for the audio professional. The PSX 100 will play the role of host to slews of digital inputs, ranging from (2) AES EBU, SPDIF, TOSLink and more. The A to D section will take analog signals from, say, your VCR, PVR (TiVo or ReplayTV), or even your turntable, and convert them to a high-quality digital signal. In this way, the Apogee PSX 100 becomes a sort of switching device for some systems, although it is not controllable by RS232, which is needed to communicate with a modern control system like a Crestron or Phast.

Digitally, the PSX 100 is one of the most sophisticated D to A converters available. The analog section is of the highest importance in the PSX 100. Issues of board design and use of matched components make up the design mantra. Apogee also uses toroidal transformers to create DC to avoid RF noise and hash that pollute the analog signal.

The digital section is built around accurate clocking and reclocking of the digital word to avoid dreaded jitter. Jitter can be a nasty little bitch when it comes to your music. Most digital signals are heavily damaged by factors ranging from noise from AC or DC to bad cabling. Apogee binds an internal clock to the digital signal, so that the DAC’s timing is improved over the incoming signal. Apogee claims that their system improves the clarity of the high frequencies and the stereo image stability, while also achieving some tightening of the bass.

The Music
Most of my comparisons were done with the Apogee PSX 100 versus the internal DACs in my Proceed AVP, as well as some recollections of my Mark Levinson No. 36s 20-bit DAC. "What God Wants" from The Wall-like Roger Waters record Amused To Death (Columbia) was a real wake-up call for me. The large choir at the beginning of this orchestrated and highly produced track sounds delicate, soft and accurate, without the edgy harshness that I had blamed on my room’s acoustics for months. When the tune kicks in, Waters’ bass sounds round, low and tight. The song is a powerful experience that is musically engaging with the PSX 100.

"Wait Until Tomorrow" from Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 Axis Bold As Love (MCA Remaster) CD shows an incredible amount of musical energy coming from a traditional 16-bit (albeit upconverted to 24-bit) compact disc. Hendrix’s clean tone Strat comes at you in waves of insane R&B genius. With the PSX 100 in the loop, I kept turning the volume up until it was 10 percent higher than my usual extreme levels. It was as if I couldn’t get enough, because the sound wasn’t fatiguing or shrill. Best of all, there was a sense of energy with the PSX 100 in the loop that I hadn’t heard with my system since I had listened to my Mark Levinson No. 36s at my old place.

Barry White’s "Practice What You Preach" from 1994’s The Icon Is Love (A&M) is a great bass demo even without an Apogee PSX 100 in the loop. However, with the Apogee dialed in, you can hear the detail of the bass in Barry’s voice as well as the ultra-low-frequency Roland 808 synth, which goes that much lower even faster. The music gains a level of excitement that I have only heard in the best of playback systems and, more frequently, in studios with actual master tapes as source material.

The most demanding test I put to the Apogee PSX 100 was the Classic Records DVD-V 24-bit two-channel audio release of John Lee Hooker’s "Boom, Boom." True 24-bit sources are far superior to upconverted 16-bit CDs. Using the increased bandwidth of a DVD classic squeezes much more musical information onto a disc, thus creating a nearly master tape experience. My Proceed only has 20-bit internal DACs, so I can’t hear the full effect of John Lee’s "Boom Boom" on my AVP. However, with the PSX 100, you get all that the DVD-V format can provide for music playback in stereo and it is incredible. I had a dinner party for my friend Troy and his parents who are in their early 50s. They had never heard a system of this caliber before. However, they specifically and repeatedly noted how the DVD music sounded better than the CDs we heard. The contrast was obvious. The PSX 100 handled the task with the same great characteristics that it did for 16-bit upconverted music. It sounds quick, smooth and makes you want to turn the volume higher than you normally do.

The Downside
The PSX 100 is a professional product, which means that it has options and features not normally found on a consumer audio product. The most notable issue with the PSX 100 is the fact that it has very hot (high-level) outputs, designed to drive anything from mixing consoles to pro audio preamps. This can cause a problem with your audio or AV preamp, as they are not designed to take consumer-level inputs, which require far lower levels. The solution is very easy, however. On the faceplate of the PSX 100, there are two controls for output level that can be adjusted with a small screwdriver or tweaker. I backed my PSX 100 down quite a bit and used Metallica’s And Justice For All record to make sure that I wasn’t going to clip my Proceed AVP. The process isn’t as sexy as setting up an AV preamp, but once it was done, the problem is gone forever.

My system is fully rack-mounted. Therefore, the Apogee PSX 100 fits in quite nicely, especially considering its small size. The look and feel are very utilitarian, albeit based around a purple motif that reminds me of Barney. The PSX 100 is aesthetically not built to the same standards that you’ll find with a Mark Levinson, Meridian, Krell or Sonic Frontiers product. It is also far less expensive, but sounds as good if not better than these other items. For me, the PSX 100 is like my secret weapon and looks bitchin’ all lit up in my rack. However, if you are trying to make a statement with the gear you own, putting each component on a pedestal, you may end up using long digital cables and hiding the PSX 100 out of sight.

I preach the high art form of music and theater playback, along with the future trends of the industry as it relates to the gear we lust for and invest in, emotionally and financially. I had thought the DAC was simply dead as a consumer category. For many systems, this holds true, but for the true music enthusiast, you can’t beat having excellent digital to analog conversion. The latest cost-no-object AV preamps like Meridian’s 861 and Mark Levinson’s No 40 (not yet released) have excellent DAC sections built in. Other AV preamps and receivers range from better than average DACs to pure crap. For most of your inputs, the internal DACs are more than okay. However, for music playback in a very polished system, the idea of a high-performance digital product like the Apogee PSX 100 is not crazy. It should be considered with the better DACs you can purchase from Krell, Sonic Frontiers and Mark Levinson at twice or more the price. It takes some work to find an Apogee product at a consumer dealer, but most good music or pro audio stores have the PSX 100 in stock. If you think you may be a candidate for ownership of a PSX 100, I recommend that you track one down by calling Apogee and plugging a PSX into your digital loop. You are going to dig the improvement.
Manufacturer Apogee Digital
Model PSX 100 24-bit/96 kHz A/D Converter

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