Empirical Audio Synchro-Mesh Reclocker Review 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Andre Marc   
Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Empirical Audio, based in the Pacific Northwest, has a reputation for making excellent digital source components and accessories. They were early pioneers of USB and computer audio as well. Their USB to SPDIF converters and USB DACs are often cited as being among the very best. The flagship Overdrive USB DAC/preamp is considered state of the art by many.

Industry veteran Steve Nugent heads up Empirical and has very definite views on high performance audio. I've had the pleasure of communicating with Nugent on occasion, and he is a great believer in computer optimization with USB DACs. He thinks an active preamp is a system's weakest link (I strongly agree).

Nugent also believes sound quality, for most digital devices, revolves around the digital clocks, which are crucial for accuracy. Nugent developed a rather unique product called the Synchro-Mesh Reclocker to address this weakness in many source components. Jitter is the issue. This refers to timing inaccuracies, and virtually all experts agree, these timing variations can be audible. The accuracy of data timing depends upon an oscillator, or master clock.

Empirical says "Audio quality is improved by reclocking or logically replacing the source clock with the clock inside the Synchro-Mesh. The Synchro-Mesh provides a method to improve the sound quality of virtually any 2-channel digital audio source without needing modifications to the source device. It inserts between the source device and the DAC, SS processor or SS Receiver."

Devices that can benefit include:

  • Squeezebox, all versions
  • Sonos
  • CD Transports
  • Apple TV
  • Music Servers
  • AirPort Express
  • Mac computers with Toslink output
  • PCs with S/PDIF or Toslink output
  • iPod/Wadia iTransport
  • PC PCI cards

I certainly don’t have technical qualifications to understand much about digital audio under the chassis, but I do know external clocks are often used in critical applications in professional settings. Empirical further explains, "in order for the Synchro-Mesh to reclock these digital devices, it performs what is called Asynchronous Sample-Rate Conversion or “ASRC”. This means that the Synchro-Mesh re-samples the data-stream and outputs only one sample-rate. This output sample-rate can be specified at the time of ordering to be either 44.1 or 96. If you input 192 or 44.1 files to the SM, and it is set for 96, then it will always output 96, either down-sampling or up-sampling.

If you input 96 to the same SM, it will output 96, but it will not be bit-perfect since it is resampled. Typically, we recommend 96 output because most DAC digital filters for 96 sound better than the filter for 44.1. If you have an older NOS DAC that only takes 16-bit data, then 44.1 output is more compatible. The Synchro-Mesh is essentially plug-and-play, however you can set the bit depth to 16-bit or 24-bit using a front-panel toggle. 24-bit is generally better for most DACs, but older DACs may only be compatible with 16-bit data
."

As you can see, there are some interesting quirks in the Synchro-Mesh's design and application. My reference DAC, the Bryston BDA-1, accepts up to 192 Khz data, so Nugent supplied me with a unit that outputs 96 Khz.  He also supplied a transformerless unit, as the BDA-1 has transformer-coupled SPDIF. This is an important to item to note when ordering, as Nugent says two transformers in the signal path is sub optimal. 

Emperical Audio Synchro-Mesh Reclocker

Set Up & Listening

The Synchro-Mesh ships with its own 12 Volt AC power supply, but Nugent sent me an aftermarket Paul Hynes power supply, which he feels is excellent for computer audio. He also sent a very high quality BNC cable along with coaxial adaptors, which I did not need as the Bryston BDA-1 does indeed except BNC inputs. I ran a DH labs optical cable out of my Squeezebox Touch into the Synchro-Mesh, then the BNC cable into the DAC. I made sure that 24 bit output was selected via the front panel toggle switch. I also ran a coaxial cable from the Touch, straight into the Bryston so I could do real time comparisons. I decided to de-select upsampling on the Bryston as well, since the Synchro-Mesh was already going to output upsampled 96 Khz data. I felt this would minimize the amount of processing. Eighty percent of my digital music collection is in 44.1 khz, 16 bit Redbook CD format, and that is what I exclusively used with the unit. I do have a healthy collection of higher resolution material, but as Empirical notes, it will be downsampled if over 96 Khz.

Having no experience with outboard clocks or re-clockers, I was not sure what to expect with the Synchro-Mesh. However, it was readily apparent there was distinct, yet subtle presentation improvement with the Synrchro-Mesh in the signal chain. I say subtle because it does not provide an in your face, day and night difference, but it is very easy to ear the effects of high quality re-clocking. Specifically, there is a crystalline, silky quality to the high frequencies that appears and creates a gorgeous sparkle to the sound.  Acoustic guitars shimmer and well recorded, close mic'd vocals become even more present.

I purposely cued up some favorite albums from earlier in the digital/CD era, mostly 1990’s stuff initially, to see how the Synchro-Mesh could improve the sound. Albums made before the loudness wars by groups like The Seahorses, The Tragically Hip, and Super 8 were more dynamic and well recorded than I had previously known. Do It Yourself, by the Seahorses, was particularly surprising, as I had always believed it was decently recorded, but a bit brittle. Not the case. The Synchro-Mesh revealed nuances and a smooth top end I had not previously realized. The opening track, "I Want You To Know", propels out of the speakers with a huge electric bass line, cracking drums, and classic guitar riffing. Impossible not to be impressed here.

Moving on to CD rips of a more recent vintage, U.K. singer songwriter Ben Howard's debut album, Every Kingdom, is well recorded and chock full of great songs. The foundation of the album is Howard’s smooth voice and acoustic guitar. Comparing the album stream with and without the Synchro-Mesh in the signal path, was interesting and crystallized the improvements the Synchro-Mesh was providing. With the Synchro-Mesh in tow, the sound was a lusher, better rounded, and more relaxed.

In the next phase of my evaluation, I inserted the Synchro-Mesh, via coax, between the recently reviewed Music Fidelity M1 CDT CD transport and the Bryston. I heard the same improvements as noted with the Squeezebox Touch. Every disc I played sounded smoother, earthier, and easier to listen to. Robert Randolph & The Family Band’s high energy CD, Colorblind, sounded bigger and more organic with the Synchro-Mesh.  

Clearly, using the Synchro-Mesh with a CD player or transport is a great application. There is no doubt that Redbook CD sound will be improved. Of course it goes without saying that you would not mate the Synchro-Mesh with a state of the art disc player, but for more modest units, I can easily suggest trying this setup with an external DAC.

Emperical Audio Synchro-Mesh Reclocker

Conclusion

The Empirical Audio Synchro-Mesh reclocker is an easy recommendation for those looking to maximize the performance of their legacy digital source components. It is a no brainer if you have a device like an older CD player, a Sonos, an Olive, a Squeezebox Classic, or Touch.  Interestingly, Nugent says that the Synchro-Mesh can improve the sound even when coupled with DACS that upsample by default. By the way, the Synchro-Mesh can be ordered to output 44.1, 96, or 192 Khz. Empirical can advise you in what is best based on your system parameters (for example, whether or not your DAC has transformer coupled SPDIF inputs).

Aside from what is noted above, the Synchro-Mesh is really plug and play, and does exactly what it purports to do. That is, feed the DAC very low jitter information from the source. Results are clearly audible, but it will be up to every buyer whether the improvement is worth $599. Empirical has a generous 30 day in-home trial. For me, the Synchro-Mesh added a layer of refinement to my Squeezebox Touch and CD transport.

Specifications



Empirical Audio Synchro-Mesh Reclocker: $599
www.empiricalaudio.com

Inputs

  1. Toslink
  2. RCA
  3. BNC

(only one of RCA or BNC can be used at one time)

Outputs

  1. Toslink
  2. RCA
  3. BNC

(only one of RCA or BNC can be used at one time)

Controls

  1. Input select - Toslink or S/PDIF (BNC or RCA)
  2. Bit depth - 16 or 24-bit

Included

  1. Synchro-Mesh
  2. 12VDC AC Adapter

30-day money-back guarantee, less shipping and any fees.


Review System 1


CD Transport: Musical Fidelity M1 CDT
Server: Squeezebox Touch w/ CIA VDC-SB power supply
via Ethernet to MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate
external drives.
DAC: Bryston BDA-1
Headphone Amp: Pro-Ject Head Box II
Headphones: Grado SR60
Preamp: Audio Research SP16, Belles Soloist 3, C.I.A. PLC-1 MK III
Amplifier: Audio Research VS55, Bob Carver Black Magic
Speaker: Thiel CS2.4, Bogdan Audio Creations Art Deco
Cables:  Stager Silver Solids,  Darwin Ascension (IC), Transparent  MM2 Super (IC), Transparent Plus (Speaker) Acoustic Zen Tsunami II (AC),Transparent (AC).Shunyata Venom (AC) Element Cable Red Storm (Digital AC), DH Labs TosLink, DH Labs AES/EBU, Audioquest, Forest, WireWorld Ultraviolet, DH Labs USB(USB) DH Labs (USB)
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Audience Adept Response aR6 power conditioner,Salamander rack

Review System 2


CD Player: Onkyo C7000R
Music Server: Squeezebox Touch via Ethernet to
MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate external drives.
DAC: Musical Fidelity V-DAC II, MyTek Stereo 192 DAC, CIA Transient Mk II
Integrated Amplifier: McIntosh  MA6600, NuForce DDA-100
Tape Deck: Revox A77
Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3, MAD 1920S
Cables: Darwin Cables Silver IC, Kimber Hero HB,  DH Labs White Lightning (IC),QED Transparent MusicWave (Speaker),PS Audio (AC), Mojo Audio (AC), DH Labs TosLink, Audioquest Forest USB, Wireworld Ultraviolet USB
Accessories:Cable Pro Noisetrapper, Sound Anchors Stands, Wiremold, KECES XPS






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