Mark Waldrep and I have been friends for many years through our mutual participation in the Los Angeles & Orange County Audio Society. I‘ve followed his recent debate with Michael Lavorgna over the Uptone USB Regen with some amusement. I had a chance to meet Michael at CES 2014 and I enjoy reading his Audiostream column. So when I saw Mark at the California Audio Show a few weeks ago, I suggested we get together at his AIX studio to listen to the Regen. Chip Moore, our mutual friend from the LAOCAS joined us for the listening session.
The Regen for our session was provided by my friend David Levinson (also a member of the LAOCAS). Since Mark and I own the Benchmark DAC2 HGC, we decided to set up two identical data/signal paths from computer to speaker. How often is that done when comparing gear? We used my music server (Sony VAIO laptop, 120Gb SSD, Daphile/LMS linux software) since it can control two USB DACs simultaneously. The USB connections from laptop to DACs were identical 1 meter LH Labs Lightspeed 1G USB cables. The balanced analog outputs from the two DACs went to a XLR stereo switch, then on to Mark’s Bryston power amp and B&W 801 speakers. All three of us listened to the system (without Regen), switching back and forth between DAC outputs and were satisfied that there was no difference in sound quality or level. I’m not sure what else we could have done to keep things equal.
Figure 1 – Russ in front of the Regen evaluation setup at AIX Studios.
At this point we inserted the Regen into the USB input of one of the DACs and played some tracks from Mark’s AIX recording library. We started with sighted switching between the Regen DAC and non-Regen DAC to get a feel for the change in sound between data/signal paths (if any). I’m speaking for myself, but I heard a difference. With the Regen in place, I heard denser textures, clearer harmonics, and increased soundstage height and depth. The difference was subtle, but it was there. This was confirmed when Mark conducted a blind test where Chip and I listened to the same track twice for two minutes but did not know which track was “regen’d” and which one wasn’t. I was pretty sure I could tell which one was regen’d, but knew I could very well be wrong. Like I said, the difference was subtle. Both Chip and I guessed correctly.
Now, that said, it’s important to note a couple things. First, Mark was a great host and he made every effort to set up a fair listening comparison. Mark made no attempt to influence what Chip and I heard (other than conduct the blind comparison), and he graciously accepted our observations. Second, the AIX tracks we used sounded amazing. The performances and recordings were so engaging that repeated listening simply brought us deeper into the music. There was no question that we were listening to a highly resolving, yet very musical playback system. Without the Regen, the system and recordings sounded great. With the Regen, the experience was enriched. Again, the difference was subtle, but it was there.