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Reimagining Digital

10/11/2014 10:49 GMT | Updated 08/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Some say the nineteen eighties only really started when Compact Disc was launched in 1982. This futuristic Philips and Sony-developed music format epitomised a decade of fast moving technological progress - its shiny lacquered aluminium discs read by a laser beam felt like the stuff of science fiction. Understandably it was snapped up by early adopters eager to embrace the shiny new technology, but as a way of actually listening to music it didn't fare quite so well.

Many music lovers thought it a little sterile sounding. Although the world was wowed by its inky-black inter-track silences, some felt it was still processed and artificial. There were all sorts of explanations, from conventional hi-fi systems not being 'digital-ready' to the fact that most discs were analogue mastered, and thus couldn't get the full benefit of the new technology. Most were wide of the mark; in truth the early CD players simply weren't quite up to the job.

Indeed, it took over a decade to really get the sound of digital discs right, and it was left to specialist manufacturers to do this, not the format's creators. Philips and Sony turned their corporate gaze to newer technologies, leaving the field open for specialist companies to wring the last ounce of fidelity from CD. The opportunity was seized by Data Conversion Systems of Cambridge, England. At the time this bleeding-edge technology company had only recently stopped making ultra high precision radar systems for the British military.

Former dCS executive Derek Fuller remembers the Yugoslav wars of the mid-nineteen nineties. "Royal Navy Sea Harrier FA2s flew, as I recall, 108 missions looking for Serb helicopters, while the US Air Force flew F-15s alongside. The Harriers - equipped with dCS technology - either picked up enemy helicopters before the F-15s could, or picked them up when the F-15s didn't..."

When the Cold War was won, Britain slashed defence spending, forcing many tech companies to turn to pastures new. Used to high speed, high precision number crunching, dCS saw an opportunity to move into the specialist audio market. Founder Mike Story had originally started out at Oxford reading Physics, then went on to Imperial College to do a PhD in electrochemistry, but soon realised "electronics was for me". He moved to Cambridge, assembled a team of serious mathematicians and electronics engineers, and started the company in 1987.

Story designed a black box that made the digital recording process sound dramatically better than it had previously. Many leading recording studio engineers adopted it, including Bert van der Wolf at Northstar Recording. He remembers, "I still believe these vintage units beat even the most recent products on the market, they were the only digital devices at the time which had a decent performance compared to the analogue recorders we were using."

Next, dCS made a digital-to-analogue converter that took people's breath away. You could plug a normal CD player into it and hear a profoundly better sound from your existing silver discs - more detail, more atmosphere, greater scale, better rhythms and dynamics. It removed digital audio's slightly mechanical feel, bringing new levels of realism to recorded music. The dCS950 was initially aimed at recording studios, but was so good that hi-fi buyers started using it too, especially in Japan. It put the company on the map, and it hasn't looked back.

"A key part of this success has been our technological edge", says managing director David Steven. "Our unique Ring DAC technology is part of a complex digital signal processing system developed by us and refined over two decades". Whereas most rivals simply use silicon chips bought in from other manufacturers to do the number crunching, dCS designs all its own hardware and software, and so isn't forced to rely on compromises made elsewhere by others. "It's an extremely expensive and 'first principles' way of making a product, but means our engineers can fine-tune the sound in a way that practically no others can."

It doesn't end with bespoke hardware and unique digital signal processing algorithms, because there's also the meticulous attention paid to the casework - inside and out. The metalwork has to be flawless, much to the chagrin of the company's long-suffering local suppliers, dCS Head of Design Ray Wing tells me. "Everything about our products - from the surfacing of the fascia which follows the changing natural light in your listening room, to the precise sourcing of the components inside - has been painstakingly thought through."

The company's flagship Vivaldi model costs a cool £70,000 - a long way from those £300 Philips CD players of the nineteen eighties. But here's a cost-no-object product aimed at a select few discriminating listeners. They can hear that it delivers exceptional performance and seem willing to pay for it. Peter McGrath from high end American loudspeaker manufacturer Wilson Audio says, "it breathed new life into the CDs that I bought over two or three decades, there's so much more to be enjoyed, it sounds perfectly marvellous and nothing touches it. I believe they are to hi-fi what Patek Philippe is to watches."

The cheapest Debussy DAC costs a more modest £8,500 however, and still has much of the magic of the flagship dCS digital source. Like all its siblings, it has special circuitry to minimise signal noise, timing errors and distortion. People can hear the difference, and seem prepared to pay for a sound as pure as CD was originally claimed to be. "We sell to discerning customers who tend to know what they want," says David Steven. "They're aware of the quality, provenance and performance of our products, and love music enough to think of dCS as an investment."

Many buyers are professional musicians or recording studio professionals, but other customers are simply enthusiasts in love with the sound of music played back in their home as realistically as possible. Interestingly, dCS products don't come up on the second-hand market often, and residual prices are high. This is partly because of the company's great reputation and also because people just don't feel the need to get rid of them.

Importantly, they are also firmware-upgradable. With everything from smartphones to Blu-ray players now offering this facility, it doesn't sound so special - but dCS products have had this since the nineteen nineties. Back then it was a remarkably prescient feature, and has breathed life into legacy dCS designs, while their rivals are now obsolete, gathering dust. As well as better sound, it brings ever new functionality and format compatibility.

This is key, because in the world of digital audio, standards change quickly. dCS has played a vital part in advancing this technology over the years; for example its 950 DAC was the first to offer high resolution, 24-bit, 96kS/s playback, the audio equivalent of moving from a standard DVD player to high definition Blu-ray. It sharpened the sound up, yet also sounded far more natural and enjoyable too. Two decades later, thousands of dCS converters continue to give sterling service, while their non-upgradable British, American and Japanese rivals of that time have long since been replaced.

This process of innovation continues. Not so long ago, the Debussy DAC brought the world asynchronous USB. This technology lets people play their music collections stored on computer out through a separate digital converter in very high quality, using a normal USB cable. Before this dCS, timing errors meant that computers weren't a credible digital music source, but now they are and the technology has trickled down to the mainstream. That £200 DAC/headphone amp you listen to Spotify through may well have some dCS technology inside.

If Compact Disc was the first golden age of digital audio, back in the nineteen eighties, it now looks like we're entering the second. Just as digital downloads replaced CD, now streaming is doing the same to downloads, and a range of new subscription services are springing up such as Tidal, offering affordable CD-quality music. Previous streamed music services had run at lower quality, but now they're finally giving the sort of sound we once enjoyed from Compact Disc. Whereas we once had to rush to the shops to buy those little laser discs, now our music comes piped over the internet. Now, as then, dCS digital sources are able to exploit this to the full. "It's music to our ears", says David Steven.

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