Odéon-lite Review

I love the Odeon-Lite DAC. It is, without question, the most musically engaging D/A converter I have ever had sustained time with. It is, in addition, the most uninflected -- the most neutral and unobtrusive -- D/A I've yet heard. That experience includes units that cost more than ten times what this small, unassuming dragon-slayer box sells for. I am immensely impressed with the Odeon-lite. It has no "sound" of its own. It simply gets out of the way of digital signals fed in and transfers the digits (flawlessly, musically, and beautifully) into dynamic analog glory.

Perhaps a more coy approach to the sonic bottom line is preferable for some readers. Let me, therefore, build my case incrementally.

When acoustic designer Gilles Gameiro first allowed me hear this box in its first incarnation, more than a year ago, it was not situated in my own listening system. I was struck, at that initial hearing, by the hugeness and the "openness" of the sound stage it delivered. We were listening to a very revealing system and I had in my possession that day CDs that I had recently recorded. Very familiar source material, therefore, provided the digits for my first serious session with the Odeon-lite DAC.

I was so taken aback by the ability of the Odeon-lite to place instruments and voices in their precise locations, with a palpable sense of space between musicians, that I mumbled something on the order of "this is amazing! I'm having a hard time believing what I'm hearing."

Gilles Gameiro was amused at my amazement. He had not been at the live recording sessions where the music has been captured and so, of course, he could not know how stunning the replication of spatial information truly was to me.

Further experience with the Odeon-lite confirms my initial impressions. Not only does this DAC deliver precise imaging and dynamics, it has a tonal purity that is rare in any transfer between digital information and its analog reinvention as musical sound.

I have written at length about the vast musicality of the LINN CD-12. My praise for that one-box player was well earned. One of the secrets of the LINN player is its uncolored but gorgeous delivery of sound. The LINN CD-12 creates music and more music. It is never unmusical.

The Odeon-lite manifests a similar outcome. Regardless of what digital material you feed it, you receive in return an extraordinarily accurate transfer of sonic information and, also, an immensely satisfying (somewhat surprising) creation of musical precision. The more beautifully recorded the digital signal fed in, the more glorious the analog reproduction sent out.

I use the term "musical precision" because I've come to regard the Odeon-lite as a reviewer's friend: an accurate, unobtrusive analytic instrument. Unlike some amplifiers and speakers which are extremely faithful to the micro-dynamics of sound sources at the expense of the "musicality" (the beauty and emotional engagement that make music the most involving delivery of human messages ever created), however, the Odeon-lite does not sacrifice musical ease for the sake of analytic exactness.

I have come over the years to regard such "exactness" -- which usually manifests itself as an etched, sometimes harsh sonic quality ("dry" is another, gentler term to apply here) -- as less analytically revealing than I once took it to be.

"Before committing myself to this review, I have taken a great deal of time listening to, and working with, this unit. The Odeon-lite has been perfectly faithful to all of the master tape material that I have fed it."

In fact, if the musical source material that is delivered to (and through) a superior DAC is not rendered with its own inherent sonic contours -- which should carry "musical" qualities that beguile one's ears and heart -- then the so called "analytical" reproduction, depriving the music of ease and relaxation, has deformed or constricted the sonic truth. Musical delicacy and power have been compromised or corrupted.

In small ways, compromises are always at work from the moment a musical signal is captured by a microphone and sent along its somewhat circuitous path to the final CD or DVD that a listener enjoys. The trick for a recording professional, as for an electronic and acoustics engineer, is to minimize such compromises. This ambition is clearly Birdland Audio's objective. With the Odeon-lite DAC, it has succeeded spectacularly.

All of this no doubt puts the case for the Odeon-lite in a reduced frame. This is a marvelous musical companion that does not sacrifice musicality to any other attribute. It is one of the finest DACs I have ever heard and a bargain at its retail price point of $980.

Before committing myself to this review, I have taken a great deal of time listening to, and working with, this unit. The Odeon-lite has been perfectly faithful to all of the master tape material that I have fed it and I have been listening to this box for eight months. The Birdland DAC has allowed me to check original master tapes with unflagging accuracy. It has allowed me to closely examine the results of mastered material. It has never failed my needs as a recording engineer. It has never altered or confused the information I need to gain from listening carefully to all the countless hours of work that go into mastering a live recording for final production.

I am, in sum, not only impressed by the Odeon-lite. I admire it and I have come to feel a kind of professional intimacy with it. My work as a recording and mastering engineer would be poorer, less enjoyable, and more uncertain without its faithful, magical presence in my professional life.

I must conclude by underscoring that this is not an ordinary DAC. It features 24-bit, 96 kHz digital signal processing with on board re-clocking of the signal in order to reduce or eliminate jitter artifacts. So far, perhaps, fairly straight-forward. In addition, the Odeon-lite employs separate power supplies for the digital and analog domains, with both multiple power conditioners and multiple power regulators to suppress noise and maximize signal isolation. Such signal care and design redundancy is not a given with DACs.

Birdland Audio uses an analog output process that it dubs the "solid tube" design. Whatever the proprietary electronic protocols that such black magic may hide within, the outcome is gloriously available for all to hear. It is both subtle and not so subtle. Transients and all the fragile micro-dynamic traces of signals are subtle, whispy things. They are subtle. They are preserved wonderfully by the Odeon-lite. The unsubtle quality of this box is its mega-delivery of truthful sound reproduction.

Anyone clever enough to try this little beast will find a variety of hook up options. You can choose among standard coax/RCA, BNC, AES/EBU, and fiber optic inputs. The single-ended RCA analog outputs are soldered right to the PCB board, thereby avoiding another inch of wire, more solder, added glaze or haze or sonic diminution.

Everything about the Odeon-lite is designed for maximum sonic truthfulness. The result is stunning and genuinely inexpensive at $980. Good luck finding a better bargain in DACs.

One more thing. This box has a volume control built in, which allows it to be directly connected to an amplifier. It does not take a brain surgeon to tell the audio-hip cognoscenti that direct coupling from DAC-to-amp presents a cleaner, truer signal path than any which goes through even the best, most expensive pre-amplifier.

There is a problem here, though. If you first put this box into your sound system, say, at eight o'clock at night, an open bottle of good vino alongside your listening spot you may climb into bed mid-morning. This Birdland mini-monster is addictive. Your 16-bit CDs will sound different, Better.. more "there" there. Your DVDs will kill you. I recommend you to audition this exquisite unit on a weekend when you do not have to rise to join the world of work too early.

Jim Merod -

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