Product Review - McCormack Audio Digital Drive SST-1 and DAC-1 - October, 1995

By John E. Johnson, Jr.


McCormack ST-1 and DAC-1

McCormack Audio Digital Drive SST-1. CD Transport, top loading with magnetic puck to hold CD, standard outputs - coaxial (RCA and BNC), optional balanced XLR output, size 3 3/4"H x 19"W x 12"D, weight 12 pounds. $1,495. McCormack Audio Corporation, 5421 Avenida Encinas, Suite J, Carlsbad, California 92008; Phone (619) 930-9550; Fax 619-930-9555.

McCormack Audio Digital Drive DAC-1. Digital-to-Analog Converter, 18 bit, 8X/64X oversampling, standard inputs - coaxial (RCA and BNC), optional balanced XLR input, size 2 5/8"H x 19"W x 11 3/4"D, weight 12 pounds. $995 Standard Edition, $1,220 (at the time of DAC-1 purchase) Deluxe Edition. McCormack Audio Corporation, 5421 Avenida Encinas, Suite J, Carlsbad, California 92008; Phone (619) 930-9550; Fax 619-930-9555.

McCormack Audio Wonder Link I Digital Cable. Cable for connecting SST-1 to DAC-1, comes with adapters for connections to RCA and BNC jacks. $225 - 1 meter length. Also available as balanced cable. McCormack Audio Corporation, 5421 Avenida Encinas, Suite J, Carlsbad, California 92008; Phone (619) 930-9550; Fax 619-930-9555.

When one buys a CD player for two or three hundred dollars, the player is often selected on the basis of looks, features, ease of using the remote control, etc. The quality of sound? Well, that is usually discovered when the player is unpacked at home and hooked up to the hi-fi system. Most of the players in this price range sound OK. But, when you start talking about spending ten times that much - then we focus on tonal accuracy , sound staging, construction quality, and so on. Looks, features, and the remote control are shifted to the back seat. And rightly so!

Therefore, the first questions to be asked about an expensive player are, "How good does it sound, and is it really worth that kind of money for any noticeable improvement over the $300 unit?" The answers to these questions - in reference to the McCormack SST-1, DAC-1, and Wonder Link Digital Cable, are, "Terrific, and Yes."

We tested these three pieces of equipment as a package because it would be unfair to test the SST-1 transport with a different brand DAC, or the DAC-1 with a different transport, or not to use the digital cable that McCormack recommends with these units.

The SST-1 transport (see photo) uses a top loading approach. A cover slides open (manually) to reveal the transport mechanism (Philips CDM-12) which is suspended from the side. It looks delicate, and it has some vertical play, but after using it for some time, it is obvious that the mechanism is sturdy. Front-to-back play is less, and the user has to be careful here. After a CD is placed on the mechanism, a magnetic puck is then put on top of the CD. It weighs several ounces, is the same diameter as a CD (5") with some holes, and serves to add stability to the spinning disc, lowering the jitter rate. A certain amount of jitter, which reflects timing errors in the handling of the data bitstream, is present in all CD players. The lower the jitter rate - expressed in picoseconds - the better.

As soon as the cover is closed, the transport examines the disc and presents a readout of the tracks. Pressing "Play" starts the transport. There are the usual "Pause", "Stop" "Track" (jumps to next or previous track), and "Search" (moves forward or backward on the current track) buttons, which are of the concave recessed variety. The remaining time on the track, or disc, or track being played, are displayed with appropriate button pushing as well. The first few seconds of each track can be played, a track can be repeated, and tracks can be played in random order ("Shuffle"). A disc can be programmed to play only the tracks that you want. (On many of my CDs, this number is only 1 - the hit pop tune that I heard on the radio and assumed the whole disc would be just as good. Not! Sound like a familiar problem?) Some of the features are accessible only from the remote control and some only from the transport front panel. I like this because it limits the remote control to a less than mind boggling confusion.

The DAC-1 (see photo) is simple and straightforward. Switches on the front are for coaxial/optical input (I feel this should be on the back), power on/locked (indicates signal from transport is locked in), and normal/invert for the absolute polarity from the recording (not the electrical polarity). The rear panel has the digital input jacks (RCA and BNC), analog outputs (RCA), and the AC connector. There are no on/off switches for either the SST-1 or DAC-1. They are meant to be left on all the time. (I know, I know . . . it makes me nervous too, but that is the trend in component design, and it is better for the electronics not to have the on/off surge hitting the circuitry everyday.) The chassis is copper plated steel. Separate digital and analog boards - each with its own transformer - are used, along with five voltage regulators. A Crystal Semiconductor CS8412 "E" Version receiver and CS4328 DAC are used in the DAC-1. The CS4328 is an 18 bit system, which includes 8X oversampling digital interpolation followed by 64X oversampling, one-bit, delta-sigma modulation - a lot of technobabble that translates to killer sound. For $250, the standard DAC-1 can be sent back to McCormack Audio and upgraded to the Deluxe Edition which has Cardas Jacks, Caddock and Vishay resistors, some high speed, soft recovery diodes, different op-amps, and some FET current sources to push then further into Class-A operation. Our unit had these upgrades (installed before the unit was initially shipped to us), and we feel it was worth the expense.

The Wonder Link cable can be connected using RCA or BNC plugs (adapters supplied). This cable uses an air core insulator for the inner conductor so there is no dielectric absorption of the signal, maintaining purity of the bitstream. The tips of the connectors are funnel shaped to provide a smooth impedance transition between the cable connector and the transport/DAC jacks.

The SST-1, DAC-1, and Wonder Link cable, when used as a package, resulted in some of the most breathtaking CD sound we have ever heard. The upper registers were crisp, but without harshness of any kind. Steel string guitars are a good test for this, and the McCormack blazed through unscathed. Our planar-magnetic speakers just sang. The deep end was - well - as deep and tight as any we have heard, and better than most. We were expecting the great top end, but the improved low end surprised us (this was in comparison to our reference unit and several other expensive transport/DAC combinations found at High End stores, as well as a $400 and an $800 integrated transport/DAC readily available at many hi-fi chain stores). The SST-1 transport operated smooth as proverbial silk, and the DAC-1 locked in without a hitch. We tried the DAC-1 polarity normal/invert switch with several CDs. On some, there was no change, but on others . . . . . WOW! What a difference in the sound stage. Consider it a gadget or whatever. It works on many recordings. Although polarity switching was noticeable using all of our reference amps, including types with MOSFET or bipolar output devices, the effect was particularly obvious when we connected the package to a single ended triode tube amp, where the mid-range stands out so well. Perhaps this is an indication of the frequency areas where the polarity switch concentrates its actions.

At an open lab session, I invited 36 business executives (about half were men, and half were women) to listen to our reference system with the McCormack SST-1, DAC-1, and Wonder Link cable as the front end. I did not tell them I was soliciting an opinion. The results? Applause! Need I say more?

Bottom line here: A good transport, cable, and separate DAC can, and do, make a significant difference in the sound that emerges from the speakers. Obviously, if you have only spent $500 on a receiver and two speakers, spending three grand on a transport, digital cable, and DAC is not appropriate, but if you are an audio fanatic - well, then, the line forms at the rear.


John E. Johnson Jr.

Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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