High-priced equipment is a normal sight in our testing rooms, but even we raised an eyebrow at dCS's entry-level disc player, which weighs in at over £11,000 – not to mention an extra £3,100 for the optional system clock?
Wait… a system clock? We're used to seeing outboard digital-to-analogue converters and even separate power supplies, but an external clock is rare in domestic hi-fi systems. Maybe it shouldn't be, considering just how much of an improvement it makes to this player's sound.
Apart from improving the accuracy with which data is handled, the U-Clock also adds a USB input to the pair of coaxials on the main machine. However, this is USB with a twist: it works asynchronously, rather than the usual adaptive method. Stick with us…
A clever clock
When a computer is linked to an external DAC, the computer's internal clock runs things. This is not a good arrangement, as the clock used in most computers isn't nearly as accurate as it needs to be to get top-class sound.
Asynchronous operation puts the DAC's (usually) superior clock in charge: it decides when and how much data the computer should send down the USB lead, which gives better sonic results. Have no doubt, asynchronous DAC designs will become big news.
The Puccini's hefty price tag, two-box configuration and intriguingly sculptured styling suggest it's going to be out of the ordinary, and that's exactly how things turn out.
With over 20 years of experience in high-end hi-fi, dCS understands its market well, and knows that its customers like to tweak. It's duly obliged with user adjustments that cover a range of filter and upsampling settings.
These change the presentation slightly, and the final decision will come down to personal taste in the context of the overall system; none of these tweaks will make or break the final sound of the player.
For the record, we settled on upsampling to DSD (2.822MHz) and liked Filter 1 best.
In a purist set-up, the Puccini can be connected directly to a power amp or active speakers through balanced XLR or single-ended RCA connections. It has a high-quality built-in volume control, and works wonderfully when plugged straight into our reference Bryston 4B SST power amp and Aesthetix's utterly addictive Atlas monoblocs.
Even the very best preamps take something away from the signal, so this is a worthwhile option if you want to hear this dCS pair purr at its best.
Utterly magnificent sound
And its best is utterly magnificent. It's everything we'd hoped for, given the jaw-dropping price tag and engineering.
It's the sense of neutrality that struck us first. Instruments and voices sound authentic and convincing, making the efforts of most other top-end rivals sound a little ham-fisted in comparison.
Detail resolution across all formats is pure state of the art, and all that information results in wonderfully layered harmonics with tricky instruments such as pianos, and the sort of subtlety only the best analogue kit seems able to manage.
There's a lovely fluidity to the way this player shades the growth of sounds as they change from quiet to loud, too. It sounds natural, and that's something rarely said about digital equipment, regardless of price.
Amazing timing and detail
The dCS's way with timing is equally persuasive. Players such as our reference Naim CDS3/555PS sound more upbeat, and are all the more likeable for it.
But the Puccini has an addictive, surefooted sound that gives music as varied as Jay-Z's hard-charging D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune) to Chopin's Funeral March a tight rhythmic structure. Every instrument, voice and noise has a place, and is precisely defined in the way it stops and starts.
The player's presentation stays the same regardless of source, but is wholly transparent to it.
Well-produced SACDs invariably sound gorgeous, making us more than a little sad the format wasn't marketed better. CDs don't quite hit the same heights, though well recorded samples such as Massive attack's Heligoland still sound great.
Switching to our MacBook and uncompressed files of Eric Bibb's Booker's Guitar, the results remain engaging, particularly when the laptop is locked to the U-Clock. Better than the CD original? Not quite, but close. The on-board DAC's upper limit is 24Bit/96kHz files.
Stunning build quality
Moving away from sound, build quality is as good as the price-tag suggests. The supplied remote handset feels like a top-drawer item, though its layout could be more intuitive. Bar slightly sluggish responses from the transport, there's little to complain about.
Some people will never come to terms with equipment at this price level, and there's nothing we can say to change that.
What we will say, however, is that if you want to hear digital files – be they on CD, SACD or off a computer – this two-box dCS is an absolutely wonderful way to hear them.
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