My first opportunity to listen to the Birdland Audio Odéon-lite appeared at the CES 2000 in Las Vegas. I walked into the Birdland Audio/Silver Audio listening room and was greeted by the enthusiastic Gilles Gameiro, founder and chief designer of Birdland Audio products. He spoke softly and purposefully about his upcoming Tower Series, an ingenious group of products that dock on top of one another, thus eliminating the need for expensive interconnect cables and allowing bi-directional communication between units via proprietary connections. I found the concept to be appealing and quite revolutionary but couldn't help taking my eyes away from the tiny box sitting on the stack of Tower components. I asked Gilles what it was and he gleamed that it was his new digital-to-analog converter, positioned to replace the older Odeon-m1. He claimed that the Odeon-lite surpassed the over three times more expensive Odeon-m1 in all aspects of sound quality. Better at 1/3 the price? As the resident Planet HiFi audiophile bargain hunter, I felt it was my duty to sit down and give it a listen. Suffice it to say, the system sounded good enough for me to request a review sample. After exchanging contact information, I left to cover some more rooms at the Show. But after a full day of listening to audiophile-approved music, I retreated to the womb of my Sony MiniDisc player, Third Eye Blind, and the rummage bins at the Classic Records booth. Happily waiting my turn to audition some new 24/96 DAD releases, I noticed that the auditioning system consisted of a California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD player driving both the Bel Canto DAC-1 and the Birdland Audio Odeon-lite. How convenient! I adjusted the Grado RS-2 headphones on my ears, adjusted the volume on the Grado HPA-1 Headphone Amp, and pushed play. I was definitely impressed and intrigued, especially considering that it retailed for only $980.00. And when compared to the Bel Canto DAC-1 on the exact same system, I preferred the Odeon-lite. I felt the sound from the Bel Canto unit to be a bit muffled in the midrange and lacked the cleanliness and refinement of the Odeon-lite during this short impromptu audition. But first impressions do not always hold up during full review sessions in a controlled environment. So, I kept my mind open and returned home to make room for the Odeon-lite on my equipment stand.
The Birdland Audio Odeon-lite is a 24 bit / 96kHz capable digital-to-analog converter with a built-in analog volume control. The first thing I noticed about the Odeon-lite was the miniscule size of the chassis. At just 1.6"x8.9"x6.5", this DAC is tiny and similar in size to the old Audio Alchemy gear. On the front faceplate, the user will find a push-button power switch, toggle input selector for the three sets of digital inputs, LED indicators for sampling frequency and de-emphasis, and lastly, a volume control knob. The chassis of the Odeon-lite consists of an inexpensive snap-together plastic housing. I found this to be a little disappointing because it conveyed a cheaper feeling about the unit. The plastic 'thumps' unappealingly like Tupperware against your knuckles and doesn't have the satisfying 'thud' of an aluminum chassis. Birdland Audio argues that the plastic housing helps keep the cost down. In addition, aluminum cases only shield the sensitive guts from the electrical vector of high frequency noises. Also, in its defense, the Odeon-lite does have shielding in the way of a solid copper plane that covers half the double-sided PCB and is connected to the analog ground (the other half is also a solid copper plane connected to the digital ground). Birdland Audio feels that these two planes act as an electrical shield similar to an aluminum box.
Gilles and his team obviously did not spare any expense on the number or quality of digital connections. The rear of the Odeon-lite exposes no less than five digital connections on three digital inputs. Not only can the unit accept coaxial RCA plugs, but AES/EBU, BNC, and Toslink plastic fiber optic as well. All the RCA connectors, including the pair of analog outs, are very beefy Teflon insulated types. Owners will not have to worry about their overly snug Monster Cable connectors ripping the plugs off the back of the panel. These gold-plated connectors look and should sound great.
Inside, the Odeon-lite sports dual toroidal power supplies (one for digital, one for analog), a separate digital power supply and local voltage controlled oscillator, supply capacitors for the analog stages (2 x 2000uF), a Crystal 24 bit DAC, a proprietary digital filter (that will not decode HDCD), and a passive potentiometer. All these components sit on a dual layer printed circuit board. The Odeon-lite incorporates Solid-Tube technology into the analog output stages. From their Web site, Birdland Audio describes Solid-Tube as, "a new and clever combination of JFET, MOSFET and Bipolar transistors where each technology works at hiding the shortcomings of the others while extracting only the most desirable linear characteristics of each. Such an assembly provides extremely linear stages which exhibit outstanding characteristics yet slightly reminds us of the sound of tube components."
The Odeon-lite is one of the first D/A converters to provide upsampling technology to improve the sound of ordinary 16 bit/44.1 kHz CD's. Many audiophiles have heard the benefits that 24 bit / 96 kHz recordings can provide to the listener. But very few recordings exist in this superior format. If you have an ordinary DVD player, Chesky Records and Classic Records produce 24/96 audio DVD's called DAD's that can be enjoyed right now. If you have a DVD-Audio or SACD player, you also have a very limited selection of recordings and the risk of buying into a format that may go the way of Betamax. Another alternative, and one that I feel is presently the most viable, is the use of a D/A converter that can upsample or convert existing 16/44.1 CD's into a signal with greater bit depth and higher levels of sampling. In this case, more is better because the 16 bits used in the sampling of current CD's allows the representation of only 65,535 different levels of an analog signal (the optimum level would be infinity). 24 bits will allow the digital signal to represent over 16 million levels, a vast improvement. In addition, at the sampling rate frequency of 96 kHz, the converter can achieve over twice as many samples per second than at 44.1 kHz. As a result, 24/96 can more accurately represent an analog signal than previous formats. In theory, using the Odeon-lite should be equivalent to having all of your current CD collection upgraded to a higher density 24/96 format, without having to go out and buy duplicate higher quality discs to replace your current 16/44.1 collection. Like I said, in theory.
I reviewed the Odeon-lite using my reference system consisting of the Meridian 586 CD/DVD player as both a digital transport and, in CD player mode using the internal DAC's, as a point of reference. This configuration allowed me to compare the internal Meridian DAC's to the Odeon-lite. The rest of the system consisted of a Jeff Rowland Design Group Concentra integrated amplifier, Energy Veritas v1.8 loudspeakers and Cardas Neutral Reference cabling all around. Digital signals were carried along a one-meter run of Monster Cable M-1000D 75 ohm digital cable. All components sat on a spiked and sand-filled Vantage equipment stand.
The sound of the Birdland Audio Odeon-lite is both immediately distinctive and obviously impressive. Switching from the internal DAC's of the Meridian 586 to the outboard Odeon-lite delivered jaw-dropping improvements to almost every aspect of the sound. What I had once believed to be high-quality digital to analog conversion was now in question.
Cueing up the excellent JVC XRCD2 Sampler (JVCXR-0201-2), I let "On Green Dolphin Street " play for a few minutes until I finally gave in and scribbled a slew of accolades onto my notepad. From the very first note, it was brutally clear that the Odeon-lite represented workmanship and technology that was far superior to my present digital conversion. With the Odeon-lite in line, the introductory piano bars were thankfully free from glare and rough leading edges. Padded hammers hit steel strings with precision and fullness, never sounding thin or washed out. When I switched back to the internal DAC's of the Meridian 586, I was affronted by a much more analytical sound that is typified by a dearth of body, richness and smoothness in the upper registers. The harsh glare returned to the high frequencies and the midrange had retreated a bit back into the soundstage. Further along into the song, the bassist eases into a rhythm that sounds rushed, almost off tempo when compared to the same passage using the Odeon-lite. With the Birdland unit in play, string bass is prominent and swells forth with the ebb and flow of the melody. Each pluck from the musician's calloused fingers and the subsequent snap of the steel string onto the wooden fret board can be clearly heard. There is no lack of information here. Resolution appears in spades and helps paint an extremely realistic picture of the musical performance.
The Odeon-lite chiseled more definitive edges to each note, especially noticeable when the tempo increased and the complexity of the piece elevated in magnitude. But what was most interesting to me was the DAC's ability to present a smoother sound without loosing any of the wonderful presence that I enjoy. This reminds me of the time DH sat me down and played a song off an ordinary 16 bit 44.1 kHz recording and followed it up with the same song on SACD. The biggest improvement to my ears was the increase in audible information while maintaining a smooth and even overall sonic presentation. There was no hocus pocus going on here. He didn't increase the treble or turn up the sharpness setting to provide a perceived jump in resolution. There really was more stuff there. And the same holds true for me when using the Odeon-lite -- just more of everything.
Again, using the JVC XRCD2 Sampler as a measuring tool, soundstaging increased in all three dimensions and imaging became more focused. On "Just One More Chance", Carmen Lundy soothes the listener from a dead center position within the soundfield. Positioned around her are tenor sax player Frank Foster, stage left and slightly behind the wonderful vocalist, drummer Winston Clifford, shadowed directly behind Lundy but apparently lower in height, and bassist Santi Debriano, grooving a few feet right of the drum kit. Pianist Billy Childs also plays back up but is less concretely discernible from the recording. All members of the group, with the exception of Childs, help flesh out a wonderfully wide and deep soundstage. With the increase in resolution and smoother overall character, the Odeon-lite paints a remarkably three-dimensional picture using forceful, but at times delicate brushstrokes. Whatever the medium requires, this little DAC delivers.
I am a sucker for resolution. I just love to hear more information but never at the expense of tipped up treble or a lean and recessed midrange. In my experience, this always results in a more irritating, analytical, and less involving sound. So, when I was mailed a copy of Ingrid Matthews, Baroque Violin (CRC 2472/73) by the wonderful folks over at Centaur Records, I was eager to test the resolute properties of the Odeon-lite on this compilation of Sonatas and Partitas composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. On the very first track, "Adagio, Sonata No.1 in G Minor", I could hear the most intimate details of the performance. Throughout the introduction, Matthews' delicate fingers can be easily heard tapping the fret board before each up and down stroke of her rosin saturated bow. In addition, her subdued yet controlled breathing and the reverberations from the boundaries of the recording venue provide the audiophile with a plethora of exciting sounds with which to invigorate the soul. All this was enveloped in smooth analog-like seduction. I heard barely a trace of digital glare and very little hardness or roughness if at all.
Just this past year, I was able to take advantage of the New York Philharmonic's Young Subscriber's rate and purchased tickets for four performances at about $15 a seat. One of the many things I have enjoyed about attending the New York Philharmonic is the wealth of interesting sounds and cues that emanate not just from the music, but also from the performers themselves as well as the audience. There is so much more to hear inside Avery-Fisher Hall than just the notes from the throats and instruments of the musicians. With high-quality equipment such as the Odeon-lite, I feel as though I can hear much of the barely audible nuances that help shape a musical performance and that are usually masked or lost beneath the noise floor on lesser equipment.
Centaur Records' impeccable recording also highlighted the Odeon-lite's ability to pull all the major aspects of reproduced sound into one well-wrapped coherent package. Usually, I would jot down sporadic notes as the music played on. But in this instance, with the Odeon-lite in place and Bach released into the air, I found myself mesmerized by both the quality of the recording and the technical prowess of Matthews who attacks each Sonata and Partita with impressive interpretation and flamboyancy. I listened to the two-disc set straight through, without pause or break. Everything just comes together with this package.
Jacques Duphly: Pieces of Clavecin (CRC 2421) shows off the Odeon-lite's ability to match the immediacy and light speed attack of Joseph Payne's harpsichord on "Allemande, d." There is unusual airiness to the notes; they rise and fall into decay with great ease, lending a natural complexity or completeness to the piece. After switching out the Odeon-lite and letting the 586's internal DAC's perform the conversion, each note appeared to be unnaturally truncated or clipped. Notes sounded as if they were decaying prematurely and somewhat abruptly, before they had a chance to add their full weight and extension to the total composition. Compared to the Odeon-lite, the Meridian 586's internal D/A converters sound "off."
Back to the Odeon-lite, bass sounds snappy on Filter's latest Title of Record and easily keeps pace with the rest of the band. Even on this compressed pop recording, the benefits of the Odeon-lite shines clear through to the listener. On "Welcome To The Fold", the authoritative pop and mystifying rumble of the rhythm worked like the Gen-X Pied Piper, beckoning me to rise up and slam around inside my listening room. If I had a guitar handy, I would have smashed it a la Steve Jones. This DAC can rock and shows it by maintaining its composure in the face of hard driving rhythms and never giving in to the unrelenting pace of the music. Bass is very good but not the best I've heard, I'll leave that honor to the mega-buck DAC's from Wadia and dCS. Birdland Audio appears to have tuned this unit for speed and flexibility and less so for power. At under $1,000, you have to expect some compromise. It still pounds the heck out of my Meridian 586's DAC's and I would be hard pressed to find another similarly priced DAC with greater bass extension.
At some point, Diana Krall is bound to creep into your music collection. On her Grammy nominated When I Look Into Your Eyes, the siren's alluring voice is sooo smooth and, well... analog. Her wonderfully throaty and sexy voice is fleshed out and quite lifelike on "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)." Midrange is very appealing on this recording and sounds right on. There is also plenty of three-dimensionality highlighted on this track. One can picture her sitting at the piano, flowing with the bass melody. On this song, guitar, bass, piano, and vocals come together rather successfully.
I hinted earlier about the Odeon-lite's soundstaging capabilities, but how about some more? I don't care about what audiophile purists think. I like soundstaging. And the Odeon-lite opens the doors to another dimension in my listening room. On "Autumn Leaves", from Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else (DAD 1022), the opening drum kit appears stage right and continues to play way back into the darkness of the rear of the soundstage. But the arrival of Miles Davis' trumpet from far stage left and the subsequent follow-on by Adderley is most impressive. Trumpet and alto sax play off one another in a glorious session like dueling Musketeers, providing not just illusions of width and depth, but height as well. Miles and Cannonball appear to be standing up high while Art Blakely's drum kit sounds like it is positioned much lower to the floor. Obviously, you say? In my experience, the illusion of height is not always apparent and can be an important detractor to the successful reproduction of a live performance. Using the combination of the Odeon-lite and Classic Records' 24/96 DAD, I've got this one licked.
Wow! I am amazed at the quality of products becoming available to the ordinary audiophile. At just $980.00, Birdland Audio allows a consumer to significantly improve his/her audio system by purchasing the Odeon-lite digital-to-analog converter. At most, this unit can serve as the brains for an all-digital front-end system by using the internal analog potentiometer in addition to the DAC's. In this respect, the Odeon-lite provides signal gain as well as digital upsampling and conversion. In the least, the Odeon-lite can provide multiple digital sources with some of the most impressive digital gymnastics I have heard to date. I do not see how anybody could live with such a wonderful product and not feel secure that they are receiving truly excellent sound quality.
Have we raised the barrier? Birdland Audio has thrown down the gauntlet in what will prove to be a very challenging fight for market share in the ever-evolving D/A converter arena. There are a slew of converters that have just arrived or intend to hit the market in the next six months. Each of these will sport upsampling technology and high-quality 24/96 DAC's to boot. I believe that Birdland Audio's Odeon-lite will be difficult to dethrone in the sub-thousand category and seriously competes with units costing at least twice as much. At first, I thought that the Odeon-lite would make a great addition to my secondary system. Now, I want one for my reference system. Should I get two?