A Neverending Story: PBM Monitoring

There are no such things as the perfect converter, perfect amplification, and perfect monitors. There is a certain high level of accuracy required in the whole mastering monitoring situation – which includes the room as much as the equipment in it – but beyond that a great deal hangs on taste and preference, perhaps on dominant genre too, and certainly on expectations.

As I noted in a previous post, in the very early days of the business the monitoring chain was my Hong Kong hi-fi: Mark Levinson DAC, Mark Levinson or VTL amplification, and Wilson-Benesch speakers. By the time of the move back to the UK this had changed a bit, e.g. with the addition of dCS conversion and a Nagra pre-amp; and by the time PBM came fully into being this had changed even further with ATC SCM 50A active speakers instead of the WB and external amplification. The final change, which brought us to the present set-up, was replacing the tiny-tubed Swiss Nagra pre-amp with the large tubed Italian Viva LF1.

The motivation for each change was the felt need for a more accurate presentation of the kind demanded by the nature of the music we were working with. Given the extended tonal and timbral and dynamic range of classical music, we then assumed that if it worked for classical, then it would work for most other genres, and we’ve rarely been given any cause to question this. In that regard, the ATC were a definite step-up from the Wilson-Benesch; the internal ATC amps a definite step-up from the external Mark Levinson; and the Viva a definite set-up from the Nagra. Each change brought the overall presentation closer to what we needed, and the move to the new room seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle: allowing us to hear much more of what the equipment was providing, which was more of what we wanted to hear than any previous incarnation of the chain.

In fact though, the final piece of the puzzle has yet to be decided: the question of the monitoring DAC. Until two years ago the AD and DAC which fed and then reconverted the analogue chain were both dCS. The monitoring DAC had variously been a short-stay Avocet, a Benchmark DAC and the Crookwood converter internal to our custom monitoring console. For our purposes – that is, for our particular purposes – we found the Cranesong Avocet and Benchmark DAC1 different in presentation of detail, but otherwise on a par, and we thought both were bested by the Crookwood. So: dCS on either end of the analogue chain, Crookwood in the monitoring position. But then we had a wobble with the dCS DAC – nothing audible, but a failing memory. And so dCS – who offered excellent support even though they no longer make, or officially support, a pro-line – took it in and replaced the main parts and gave it a new analogue board. In its absence (a few weeks) we decided to get a Forssell MADA-2 to take over the work with the analogue chain and keep the dCS pair for back-up. The Forssell is excellent – not quite as transparent as its boosters sometimes claim, but the divergence is quite nice – a very slight presence lift, very slightly accentuated transients – and works exceedingly well in its place in the overall chain.

The trouble (such as it is) started when the newly refurbished dCS dac was returned. As as it was no longer required in its old role returning the analogue processing to digital, we tried in in the monitoring position instead of the Crookwood. It was immediately obvious that it took us another step closer to the long-standing goal – there’s no doubt that Crookwood is an excellent, and still under-rated, digital to analogue converter, but the dCS told us rather more of what we wanted to hear.

To make all of these decisions concerning the monitoring DAC, I use a Sequoia project which I run every morning to `calibrate’ my ears: it has some classical, some modern jazz – the opening tracks of Bill Frissell’s *Nashville*; Joshua Redman’s *Freedom in the Groove*; Carla Bley’s *Fleure Carnivore* – and a very loud Snow Patrol track and a pretty harsh track from Elbow. Tracks as diverse as these help – we hope – to be more objective and not, for example, to mistake genuinely increased detail for greater brightness or a slightly scooped mid.

So what’s the problem? Well the dCS 974 is a decade old now, and although it has been refurbished and re-fitted it doesn’t really make sense for a busy pro facility not to have newer equipment, and to retire the current favourite to a back-up role. A new dCS – now that the only line they produce is for audiophiles – costs too much to be justified as a business purchase, and so we have been on the look-out for a replacement at least as good as the 974. We’ve tried a few of the newer more moderately priced favourites – I’m not going to mention names as I don’t want to get into a pissing contest – but haven’t yet found anything suitable.

But the search continues – time and availability constraints means that we’ve yet to try the real big-hitters – Weiss, Prism, DAAD, Meitner or Dave Collins new piece – but we do plan to, and we’ll be updating this post to let you know how it’s all going.

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