Decibel

Hardware Review

Decibel
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Software Player
Jason Kennedy

The world of software players for the Mac is an ever expanding one and there isn’t time to try them all, so my system is to wait for someone with a good ear to recommend interesting options. This happened at CES in January when I met Steve Silberman of AudioQuest, he was keen to demonstrate some new and relatively affordable cables for use with Apple products of the portable and stationary variety. I noticed that he was using a player on his Macbook that I’d not seen or heard before and discovered that this was Decibel, a player that was developed by a chap called Stephen Booth who was wise and or lucky enough to get a pair of industry luminaries to help him in the process. These people included Steve Silberman’s ex boss Charlie Hansen at Ayre Acoustics and asynchronous DAC creator J Gordon Rankin, guys who know more about computer audio than most.

Despite or possibly because of this Decibel doesn’t tick all the fashionable boxes, for instance it is not a fully integer mode player but handles audio as floating point prior to sending an integer output. Neither does it integrate with the iTunes interface which makes using players like Audirvana Plus and Pure Music so much easier. The Decibel GUI is a straightforward list of title, album, artist, track number and duration. For album art you can open the ‘inspector’ panel which also details metadata, audio properties and replay gain if that’s used. Unless you have taken the trouble to add metadata to your WAV files it cannot display more than track title for this format, this is not exclusive to Decibel but the lack of the iTunes interface makes it more pertinent.

Features are minimal, the prefs box allows selection of the output device, usually an attached USB DAC, and has a number of tickbox features including memory play, exclusive access and a quality rate for the upsampler within the software if you choose to do this. One thing that perplexed me is that ‘adjust sample rate for best quality’ merely maintains the native sample rate of the file, I expected it to upsample to the highest rate that the DAC could accept. If I’d managed to hover the cursor over this option the explanation would have appeared!

You can also use plug-ins including Scrobbler which provides Last.fm integration and iTunes browser which makes it easy to pull in tracks from that source, you also have to tick IR remote if you have this basic but useful Apple handset.

 

The Decibel interface plus optional inspector panel

 

When installed in an iMac running Snow Leopard and connected to a Resolution Audio Cantata DAC with Vertere D-Fi USB cable the result is pretty impressive. Its strength is depth of image, a skill that brings with it numerous benefits to sound quality as the instruments in a mix have more room to work in. You can hear the acoustic character of the instruments and the spaces that they were recorded in very easily and this unravels complex mixes with ease. Putting on a favourite system busting track by Conjure which has a lot of percussion, brass and just too many things going on proved that Decibel cannot be flustered by density.

The only shortcoming compared to Audirvana Plus that I use as a reference seemed to be a slight softening of dynamics and leading edges. However Decibel can easily deliver top quality musical diversion of a sort that few digital sources can compete with. I was surprised at how much depth of sound it managed to pull out of Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy, one of the band’s finest musical moments but not an audiophile classic. But bring this this level of resolution to bear on it and you can hear so much more of what’s going on that it should be added to the roster of Gaucho and Aja. The tune Show Biz Kids is a particular favourite but I’ve never appreciated the sound of the percussion so well nor been able to comprehend the spoken word samples at the end. Both elements are exposed by the way this player manages to expand the space in the recording, giving each element more scope for expression. This is something that I recall hearing from particularly good turntables in the past, and not what one expects from a rip of a regular CD. Even a rip made with XLD which is pretty effective at draining every last nuance from a disc. I note that Stephen Booth has his own ripper in beta at the moment, simply called Rip it clearly warrants investigation if Decibel is anything to go by.

I was using Bowers & Wilkins PM1 loudspeakers whilst assessing this player, a standmount that is rather good at reproducing the human voice when source quality is this high. The combination allowed both Robert Plant and Laura Marling to be rendered with a degree of presence that is very rare. Marling in particular, because her’s is a recent recording and there’s no band on the track The Beast, is almost spooky so palpable is the sense of someone in the room.

Decibel is the best sounding player for the Mac that I have heard so far which at $33 makes is remarkably good value. It doesn’t have the advantage of an iTunes GUI and the Apple Remote operability that goes with it but if you are looking to squeeze maximum performance from your Mac that is a small price to pay.

Specifications: 

Platform: Apple Mac Formats supported: FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, Musepack, WavPack, Monkey's Audio, Speex, True Audio, Apple Lossless, AAC, MP3, WAVE and AIFF

Gapless playback

64-bit floating point operation

Hog Mode

Memory play

Automatic sample rate adjustment

Price: 
$33
Manufacturer Details: