Wednesday, August 12, 2020

That USBe Perfect from Core Power Technologies

 

So, after sharing the press release on this little USB add-on, I was sent a sample to try. Thank you Mark and Walter at CorePower, that was a nice touch. The trouble for me at least is I am not a huge USB/computer user in my audio pursuits as I like to spin material objects rather than files.  That said, I do work at a desk with a decent set up for office duties: a MacBook Pro feeding an Audient ID4 that doubles as a guitar input, sending music to my current speakers, a pair of active Audioengine 5+. This rig actually gets more hours of use in these pandemic times than my main rig, so naturally the UBBe got slotted in there. 

So what does this little mysterious block of USB-ness do?  The manufacturers claim  it is designed to "minimize signal degradation effects such as crosstalk and inter-symbol interference (ISI) that limits the interconnect distance between two devices".  You will read there that "the differential outputs provide selectable de-emphasis to compensate for the anticipated distortion USB 3.0 signal experiences" (I have no idea what the selectable aspect refers to, this is a plug and play device).  The website give you graphs of input/output transmissions which mean little to me as presented so I can't offer any real commentary on what is doing at the signal level. So, I just put it in and listened, the most fundamental approach to answering the 'what does this do?' question. 

Let me keep this simple - you put it in, listen, you take it out, listen, you put it in again. It really is that simple. Many people will likely stop there.  Some people may even skip the 'take it out' middle step, being convinced on first listen, but I'm an empiricist. I put the connector between the Mac and Audient and thought, 'hum...that's better sounding'. I gave it a few days and took it out. It did not take me a further few days to put it back in again. I've done this a few times now, just to be sure...and yes, I'm pretty sure. I leave it in a lot more than I take it out. The music with the USBe Perfect in the chain always sounds better.

Ok, so is that a sufficient review? Well, in one sense it is. What more do you really need to know? I'm not shading the nuances, suggesting on some tracks it highlighted the cymbals, allowed me to better hear the breath of a singer, resolved the guitar line cleanly, smoothed the bass a little etc.  Sure -- it did ALL those things if you wanted to listen for them and dissect the changes.  More importantly, what this little add-on does in making the music flow better on everything does not require you to strain your ears to hear it. So if your real concern is 'will I hear a difference?' then the answer is likely 'yes'.   

I've been sampling the new Deep Purple album, Whoosh, that has garnered some unusual positive reviews for the old dinosaurs (21 albums in over 50 years as a band). On Spotify, it sounded a bit thick and compressed but even with this signal, the USBe Perfect cleaned things up.  I could tell within 10 seconds of listening to 'Throw my Bones' that I preferred the sound with the USBe in the chain than out of it. Better resolution, clearer instrumental lines, a greater sense of space and yes, a sense of swing that was otherwise lost, all came through.  

Push me and I'll tell you that I always thought this computer set up tended to smooth everything over a bit much for my ultimate taste. I used to think this is a characteristic of Audioengine speakers, a nice but occasionally overdone warmth in the mid-bass, with a softening of the upper frequencies.  However,  the addition of the USBe Perfect confirmed there's a very good desktop or even small room set up here just waiting to be enjoyed. Space, detail, clarity, and ultimately my enjoyment of the music,  all improved once I added this device to my set up. Overall, it  made me want to crank the music up, which I almost never do at my desktop, but on more than few evenings over the last month, as the working duties faded, I'd listen for pleasure rather than background and in such hours, the volume tended to increase in proportion to my enjoyment.

Ok, so much for a desktop set up. What about its ability in a more serious rig where for digital I play discs in a PS Audio PWT/ PWDII combo through my SMcAudio VRE1 pre feeding PS Audio BHK300 monos and Von Schweikert 5 Anniversary 2 speakers.  This rig sounds excellent. I've not doubt a Directstream DAC would be even better but I also don't have $4k to spare to make that move.  I have dabbled with computer audio on and off in this set up (mostly off, if truth be told), and remember well my disappointment with the sound of computer files playing through the PWD USB input, to the point that I sort of gave up and stuck with CDs.  I tested trial versions of Audiovarna Amarra and the like, and while I wrung slight improvements out of the set up, the results never sounded good enough for me to persist with any enthusiasm. Yes, I know everyone's gone Roon and Tidal but I'm just biding my time for when it all becomes simpler to set up or I can appreciate streams over material for my serious listening. For now, I still worship at the altar of grooves and pits.   Because questioning minds want to know,  I tried the USBe Perfect here,  taking a USB feed from a Mac to the PWD to see if it helps. 

With no special cable, and an external HD of AIFF tracks ripped from my own collection playing through iTunes on a MacAir, I conducted some A/B comparisons over a few evenings. I listened to Alabama by Ronnie Earl again and again, with the USBe and without, as this track is so familiar to me from my constant listening over 20 years.   Throw in some Towner and Peacock, a little Coltrane and even some Shostakovitch. Could I live with this?  Interestingly, while one can do some fairly rapid changes with the USBe Perfect, a Mac, and the PS Audio PWD in order to compare presentations closely,  the real differences are ones requiring a few minutes, preferably longer, to appreciate. In the desktop system I could distinguish faster; with the main rig it was slower, the differences less obvious in the immediate comparison but actually more impressive over a few hours. What changes? The bass. No doubt about it, the USBe Perfect cleaned it up and if you listen mainly to music where the bass is prominent, you will appreciate the improvements quickly.  So yes, the USBe does something. But more importantly, after getting the bass improved, you start to hear that other instruments are less cluttered, there's a little more detail across the range, the sound seems to breath a little more openly, making the reproduction a just a little more enjoyable all round. 

Let's put this in proportion. I am not convinced I could walk into the room, stone cold,  and know in a few seconds if the USBe Perfect was in or out of the main set up. But I am convinced that if I sat down to listen to familiar music, it would not take me very long to wish it were there if it were not. There's just something more relaxed and coherent, of a whole if you like,  about music when the USBe Perfect was connected. Towner's acoustic guitar was more resonant, notes decayed a little more cleanly. The bass line in Alabama offered clearer counterpoint to Earls licks and arpeggios. The small things that matter for musical enjoyment seemed a tad more present, more real, and more available with the USBe Perfect in the rig than not. I would characterize this as less of an  'of course I hear it' and more of  a 'I think this is better sounding' type of reaction.  So consider this a vote for The USBe's positive contribution to enjoyment,  one that you will likely appreciate more over time than perceive immediately it as a major shift in sonic presentation.

So, value for money? Interesting question. $500 is hardly chump change but I'm not sure what you can get for that price which will obviously improve an audio rig that is already enjoyable.Certainly I've heard less improvement from some higher priced add-ons and accessories. Could the USBe show even greater improvements if I had a better cable to connect it to the DAC than the cheap one I used? Am sure many people would say so and the good folks at Underwood have a recommended model for just this purpose, their Conduit series ($199 and up, with special pricing on combined packages).  Is the USBe worth that price for the improvement in my desktop set up? That is not a simple question, I suppose, as one could put that same money toward better speakers or an improved DAC but we're not all starting from scratch, and improving a carefully chosen existing set up is very different challenge than building from a blank slate.  However, if I were to commit to using a laptop in my main rig, where I do my serious listening,  I would not hesitate to add this permanently because I know I'd miss the musical benefits it provided in that system over the long term.  If you envisage USB interfaces forming some part of your system no matter the configuration going forward, then this little device would have value over the long-haul for you, which is something to keep in mind when thinking of cost.  In conclusion, while I don't think of it as perfect, the CorePower USBe is certainly good enough to warrant your attention. Give one a try and let me know.

For pricing and further details see: https://www.underwoodhifi.com/products/conduit 

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Products like this do not need to exist. This is snake oil.

PatrickD said...

Thanks 'Anonymous' for sharing your experience.