Category Archives: Product Reviews

L’audio excellence avec MyDAC de Micromega!

Micromega MyDACI had high expectations of the Micromega MyDAC as there has been a couple of glowing professional reviews and plenty of positive user comments flying around the internet forums. Namely, Robert Harley from The Absolute Sound proclaimed the proudly designed and manufactured in France MyDAC as a “Miracle DAC” – here’s an excerpt from his review:

I dropped the MyDAC into my reference system and was shocked by how good it sounded for the price. The Micromega gives you some sonic attributes usually reserved for much more expensive DACs—qualities like air around instruments, a sense of three-dimensional space, and a laid-back sense of ease. Through the Micromega, instruments don’t sound like flat cardboard cutouts; they are instead fully fleshed out three-dimensional images surrounded by a wonderful bloom. In these qualities, the Micromega’s sound would not be out of place in a $2000 DAC. Timbres are remarkably smooth and free from grain. The bass is solid and tight, although the very lowest bass lacks ultimate authority. This is, however, nit-picking; …the Micromega MyDAC offers so much performance that it’s practically free.

Why do I need a DAC?

Before I get into my thoughts on the MyDAC I’ll briefly explain what a DAC is and why you may find an improvement to your system if you added a standalone DAC. DAC stands for Digital-to-Analogue Converter. It does just that, it takes a digital signal (usually via USB, Coaxial, Optical/Toslink or a AES/EBU) and converts this signal to analogue for connecting to your amplifier.

Common types of digital inputs, as shown on the Wadia 121 DAC

So when does a person use a DAC? Well, every CD player has a DAC inside it, your computers sound card has a DAC, your Apple TV has a DAC inside it etc. The thing is, as with all electronic components they are designed to a price point, so as a result the DAC stage can be improved on most components as it often isn’t optimised for high fidelity audio. Certainly with computer based audio, the other advantage is taking the processing of these digital signals out of the noisy environment of the computer – think of it as an external sound card, free from interference of the computer’s other processing chips.

Back to the Micromega MyDAC

At home I run a Squeezebox Touch for streaming FLAC and Mp3 files off my computer, and I’ve always had the intention of buying a DAC to upgrade the sound from the Squeezebox as the bass isn’t the best and the overall sound is somewhat compressed using the on-board DAC/analogue outputs. I’ve had a number of DACs in my system, and to date while I’ve been able to beat the on-board DAC from the Squeezebox, I haven’t been able to beat the sound from my Shanling CD Player, so I hadn’t made a purchase.

First impressions

The MyDAC is a really nice size, and it is smaller than I had imagined, but has enough weight to it so cables don’t lift the front. The choice of case material may surprise some, it’s made from a textured ABS (read plastic) and as a result it doesn’t have the luxurious feel of the other DACs we sell. No doubt this is one of the reasons Micromega can do this unit anywhere near the price, but the main reason is because it has sonic advantages too. Being completely non-magnetic and non-conductive – it’s an ideal casing for cleanly processing high frequency digital signals and Micromega claims this gives the MyDAC a lower noise floor than using a metallic case.

The rotary dial on the front is very solid, and clicks from Standby (red LED) to USB, Coax, and Optical/Toslink. When out of standby the LEDs are white, and unlike so many other DACs and electronics the LEDs are a sensible brightness, i.e. not too bright!! My only quibble here is that when one input is selected there is light leakage so the other two inputs which aren’t in use light up dimly.

Listening

I let the unit warm up for half an hour before doing any critical listening, and as this is a demo unit and not new out of the box I couldn’t tell you if it benefited from any ‘burn in time’. I connected the Squeezebox via Optical (Wireworld Nova) and just switched my analog interconnects from the Squeezebox to the Micromega. A favourite album of mine is Gareth Thomas Band’s Lady Alien, and track 8 Out of Fashion is one that I often use for comparisons. Not only is this a great album musically, the recording is fantastic too – go NZ Music!

I first listened again just to the Squeezebox, reminding me of its sonic signature, then I switched the cables and started playing the MyDAC. In short, wow, it seemed like someone turned up the bass, added another 5hz or so in bass depth, and the overall presentation was spot on delivering an open and smooth sound.

One thing I’ve found really frustrating with some DACs is that you plug them in and the level is boosted. This makes it very hard to compare between units because without a SPL meter, its very hard to know you are doing a fair comparison, as the louder one will often tend to sound “better”. With the MyDAC to my ear at least (which I know could well be flawed!) there was no level boosting happening here.

So I mentioned the bass, this was the obvious area that can be improved on the Touch output, when compared to my CD player it was obvious how much more full, tuneful and deep the bass on the CD player was to the Touch. With the MyDAC connected, the bass was easily to the same quality of the CD player, and using the digital output of the Shanling connected to the MyDAC proved that in fact the MyDAC went slightly deeper and added a touch extra bass weight.

I have Paradigm Signature S2’s, and as with all metal dome tweeters they can be easy to excite, the thing that makes the MyDAC so special is its smoothness. There was less treble glare than that Shanling, and more air than the Touch. The sound of the MyDAC (or should that be lack of sound?) is open and natural through the midrange with excellent separation between instruments. I’ve had other DACs in the system that emphasize sibilance and whispery vocals, whereas the MyDAC gave a more natural sound and it was this that I kept thinking as I played a range of tracks from Mazzy Star, Radiohead, Lambchop, Ryan Adams, Air….

I guess the best thing I can say about the MyDAC is that I’m keeping it in my home system permanently. This is exactly what I have been looking for, and if you require a straight up DAC (no preamp/headphone amp) then the MyDAC comes with my highest recommendation.

Brendan

For more information and images of the Micromega MyDAC, visit the product page

 

Castle Conway 3 Speaker Review

The new Castle Conway 3 slots in the middle of the Castle Classic range, which is the top range of Castle speakers and the range that made Castle famous. Over the years I’ve owned the Stirling 3 and the range topping Howard S2 (now replaced by the upgraded S3). The Howard’s were one of my favorite Sunday afternoon speakers to listen to, with a relaxed big airy sound and deep slow ticking bass that delivered a big scale, full sound character.

I later bought a pair of Stirling 3’s which was a totally different sounding speaker and it was quite small (only 845mm high). The sound was quite warm and laid back but with a rich midrange. It became one of my favourite speakers to show off a vocal performance, especially male vocals which so many speakers on the market fail to deliver with life like realism.

When we picked up Castle last year we immediately jumped at the entire Knight range as these offer unheard of performance and build quality at their price points. Then when the Richmond Anniversary was announced we got really excited as we have a soft spot for a small bookshelf speakers that outshines its size, these keep impressing us and there’s a review to come.

One Castle speaker I never owned or heard was the Conway 3. So I got in touch with the great guys at Capisco and now sitting front and centre in my listening room are the Conway 3’s.

At Stereotype, the way we approach our business is that we choose the products we like, and these are the products we review and promote. So basically I do not bother reviewing or stocking a bad product. If it doesn’t get our trademark “4 x L’s” (Looks, Label, List price, and Listening test) then its out of the door.

CLICK TO ENLARGE IMAGES

So what did I expect from the Castle Conway 3’s?

Looks

Impeccably finished in real wood with beautifully finished round soft edges in a timeless design that does not draw attention to itself nor will your spouse’s eyes avoid it despite their physically big size.

Label

Its typical Castle. The detail starts in the packaging and the manual looks more like a brochure. The Conway’s feature some of the most advanced drivers in the industry. The woofer is made of carbon fiber and the tweeter is a proven soft dome design. These drivers are made by Castle themselves in the same factory that the cabinets are made. No off-the-shelf drivers here.

List price

I know you’ve heard this many times before in reviews, but I genuinely expected it to be more. If I had guessed I would have picked the Conway’s to be a $5000 speaker, and good value at that price too. If you are in the market looking at this price range then these are well worth an audition.

Listening Test

I expected them to sound a bit like the Stirling 3 – just bigger, better power handling and deeper bass – because they look alike, use the same driver technology and same cabinet design. What I heard was totally unexpected!

First the mid-range, always my first test.

The Castle Conway 3’s mid-range was shockingly real and filled my room in a forward, powerful almost ghost like manner that can only be beaten by my reference Jamo R909 and my Maggies. It reminded me of one of my all time favourites the Jamo 7.7 (now called d590 ~$4k). The Conway’s have full bodied rich mid range that bring immense scale to the voices like a much bigger speaker, and the imaging is perfect making the boxes completely disappear.

The Bass

I was not sure what to expect here, whether they would have the relaxed bass of the Howard’s or a similar sound to the Stirling. The Conway 3’s bass has all the characteristics of “good bass”. What is good bass? I will do a blog on that later but in short; no upper bass drone, its clean, its tight, it has speed, slam and attack. The Conway’s play loud too, when turned up a notch the listener is presented with a “hard” powerful sound. That is the word I wrote down in capital letters on my note pad, yes it hits HARD, very hard and it can go at insane levels without a hint of ever going into distortion. I had to stand up a few times to make sure the drivers were even moving at these high levels. The control from the carbon fibre woofers must be the key, paired with large magnets and a special cross over network that controls what is sent to the drivers. (At this point I must add how much respect I have again for my most popular demo amp the Myryad Z142 it claims only 50w RMS but boy oh boy can it deliver!).

Treble

I left the treble to last because there’s nothing really to say about it. When commenting on treble it is much easier to pick out the flaws. With the Conway’s they behave themselves in an elegant way no matter how loud you play these speakers. The treble always compliments what is going on in the music and never draws too much attention to itself. There is more openness and delicacy over the Knight series, without a hint of harshness.

What makes the Conway 3’s so good?

D’appolito driver configuration

In theory a d’appolito array increases the SPL (sound pressure level) in the forward direction while limiting the response in the other direction at 90 degrees. This results in less room reflections and thus less destructive interference with the direct sound waves to your ears. That is why you will hear an uncoloured sound that delivers real lifelike presence in vocals for instance.

Carbon fiber drivers

To add speed and impact to your sound you need light weight and rigid drivers and with very little resonance of their own to minimise distortion. Done right, Carbon fiber fits the bill perfectly. To control bass that does not oscillate you need huge magnets to control those movements on the voice coil and a perfect cross over network to guide the signals you send to each driver to make sure they stay in their designed limits. As I said before I could hardly see the driver move on the Conway 3 even when pushed loud… impressive stuff these drivers from Castle.

Solid cabinet

Cabinet vibration is the demise of many speakers. Your cabinet must not vibrate else it will muddy the mid-range and make bass sound hollow. This is why “box less” speakers like Maggies, electrostatics and our reference Jamo R909 sound so lifelike, there is no box to colour the sound. Most speaker manufacturers go for rectangular boxes because they want a slim front baffle for aesthetics. But the problem is that this is at the expense of longer side panels which become the weakest spots and they bulge under bass pressure inside the cabinet. What is the strongest box you can get? A square box, and that is why the best subwoofers are made in square boxes. Castle use a “square pillar” in the Conway’s, which is very rigid. No wonder the bass sounded so strong and tight! The Conway 3 also uses a down-firing split port onto a solid wooden plinth. The bass waves hit this plinth and can escape quickly in all directions. This also makes the Conway 3 less room placement dependent than a traditional bass reflex system and they can be placed closer to the back walls than a rear facing port design.

Conclusion

I’ve listened to many speakers over the last 40 years, and only a few I remembered as something truly special. It is some of these models that I owned and still have them today and probably will never sell them. I will remember the Conway 3 as one of the speakers that surprised me the most and I now feel a bit embarrassed that I did not expect much from it at first look on paper and specs. Now my regret is that I have missed all this time of not knowing how good these speakers are, I think the Conway’s maybe the answer for many who want something special. I can see a person buying the Conway’s and never needing another speaker to be happy, if you are one of those guys that are immune to the upgrade bug! This is good, so good that it completely took me by surprise.

Contact us to experience the amazing Conway 3, and for more information view the Castle Conway product page.

Welcome back the Knights in shining armour

At Stereotype we love music and we want you to get the best reproduction of that music in the price range that you can afford. We are not after your money; we only want you to be happy “to get more out of the music you love”.  I am semi-retired, and Brendan works on the site in his spare time, we aren’t all about the money, we do it because we are passionate about music and good sound. I want to tell you about our latest speaker brand we added to our growing list of great value for money products, they don’t cost the earth, they look fantastic with real wood veneers and they sound terrific too, that brand is Castle.

I have always been a fan of Castle speakers and I have personally owned all their top models and many others in their range over the years.  The four things I always like about them are also the four core things we consider before we even think of adding a brand to our range, we call it: the four L’s: Looks, Label, List price and Listening test.

So let’s look at how the new Castle Knight range fits the four L’s. There are five speakers in this range: Two stand mount models: Knight 1, Knight 2 and three floorstanding, the Knight 3, 4 and 5.

LOOKS

Of the components that make up a good music system, the speakers are the largest and will impose the most in your room. The modern popular way of room décor nowadays is minimalist and that is why in-ceiling, in-wall and sub/sat speakers are so popular. Unfortunately, the sound quality goes down as these sub/sat, in-wall, in-ceiling and sound bar speakers often can’t reproduce the full frequency spectrum naturally, and at various volumes. (For more on this, see my blog on “What is good sound“).

So what can we do?

Real wood!

Speaker designers have been working hard to make speakers like designer furniture: using glass, chrome or piano black finishes and different shapes from the conventional box (these types of speakers sometimes get referred to as having good WAF, or Wife Acceptance Factor). These are great for some but others like the warm and natural look of wood, this is where Castle comes in!

They are all made with REAL WOOD finishes unlike other Brands that use cheap vinyl or plastic finishes keeping the costs down. No wonder your other half doesn’t want them in the lounge! Currently two wood finishes are imported in the new Castle Knight range, Cherry and Mahogany. The finish is stunning, with the most beautiful deep-figured slices that are sourced from sustainable timber. Each speaker pair uses hand selected matched slices that are then sealed and waxed by hand in a process which takes over 5 days. It’s almost impossible not to run the back of your hand down the top and sides of these beautifully crafted speakers to feel their smoothness. Watching customers do the same when they first see them always brings a smile to my face.

Safely packed

The other appealing factor of this range is the size of three of these speakers, the Knight 1, 3 and 4 are small and slim line, and look the part in any room. The best way I can describe them is to use the words of most customers, “they are so cute”.  The Knight 2 and 5 are big and immediately you know they are serious speakers and I mean serious! The quality of finish does not stop with the real wood finish. Even the packaging is one of the best I have seen of any speakers, even at three times the price. The amount of care Castle went through to get the product safe and sound to you and to add to the experience of opening up your set is unseen and unheard of at this price level. You immediately know Castle is very proud to present you with your set. Even the manual is in a form of a glossy brochure, not a piece of copy paper with a few printed words.  You feel already proud to own this speakers long before you even heard them!  So the first L (Looks) gets a big fat tick!

LABEL

Gloves to keep that ‘oh so pretty’ real wood finish smudge free

The Castle Brand has a long pedigree in the UK. It was founded in 1973 and is one of the most respected brands in UK.  It’s considered by many as the poor man’s ProAc‘s and I think I have to agree with that. Not all of us have the means to afford a ProAc speaker but this Castle range is reachable for many budding music lovers. Castle has been a loudspeaker manufacturer in the truest possible sense with both design and manufacture of their speakers housed entirely in one factory. Castle is rare amongst loudspeaker manufacturers in that they not only manufacture the drive units and electronic components found in their speakers but also the beautifully hand crafted real wood veneered cabinets. Despite changing times Castle still retain this as the basis for the company even in the hands of their new owner IAG from China. So you can tick the 2nd L, Label.

LIST PRICE

Quality Spikes

Now here was my biggest surprise. Real wood finish speakers are expensive (like ProAc and the higher end B&W and Paradigm series speakers for instance).  So when we heard the RRP we thought it was for a single speaker but when we were told “No, it is for a pair!”   we immediately asked “where do we sign up?”. Unbelievable. The low cost is made possible by the fact that IAG bought the Brand and are now made in their own factory (no I must say resort… you must see this place it’s like a 5 star resort and I am sure it’s like that for all their workers too). So an even bigger tick on the 3rd L, List price!

LISTENING TESTS

Do we need this? After going through the looks, label and list price it was almost a forgone conclusion that we must have this! We know Castle and we knew they would deliver. And sure enough after going through the range we were even more impressed.

First up was the Knight 3 because this one intrigued me the most, simply because there aren’t many similar products like this out there in the market. It’s a very slim line (165mm wide), and stands only a petit 820mm high (760mm without spikes), with only two drivers, a 1” soft dome tweeter and a 5” bass driver. When I looked at the specs that state it can play down to 38hz I initially thought it was a bit optimistic… so unlike my normal routine of testing all things new first with a midrange test I decided to test the bass first.

Heavy Plinth

I was quickly put in my place, that claim is true!  Wow, how did Castle get that right in such a small floorstanding speaker?

Then I remembered why I always liked the Castle speaker’s bass so much. It’s the way they handle those bass waves inside the cabinet that is different to all other speakers and it now explains to me the angled wood plank I saw inside the box when I fitted the plinth. Castle owns Twin-pipe technology – a new type of transmission line implementation that vented through the speakers base onto its own plinth not towards the front or rear.

In most loudspeaker designs, room modes are easily excited by forward or rear-firing reflex ports, which can cause resonance and a resulting ‘boom’ at particular bass frequencies. Whilst giving an impression of good bass response, this boom frequency masks other frequencies making bass loose and slow. Using Twin-Pipe Technology inside the cabinet the bass response is extended without using unruly noisy reflex ports. This system couples the bass response within the cabinet enclosure using a twin-pipe quarter wave design to provide a smooth and even bass response which augments that from the main bass driver with clarity. Using a rigid yet light mixed-fibre cone material in the bass driver makes it fast enough to track the most complex score and its unique ‘TPT’ (Twin-Pipe Technology) extends the bass response of all its floor-standing models.

So there you have it and all I can add is: It works and it works amazingly in an almost unbelievable way. True it will never have the bass “volume” of say its bigger brother the Knight 5, but the Knight 3 ‘s bass is very pleasant to listen to and this is an ideal speaker for late night listening at a quieter volume  or perfect for small rooms.  Oh! I forgot to the mention the treble and midrange. The treble is nice and smooth which one would expect from a soft dome tweeter. The benefits are that the sound isn’t fatiguing, but they don’t have the sparkle of a say a Paradigm or B&W top end. So it’s a happy middle ground and it will please most except the extremists. That brings me to the midrange. Initially I thought it to be very rich and full bodied which accentuate the overall “big” sound I heard from these tiny floorstanders, but it was only after I listened to the “middle” brother the Knight 4 that I realised what I was missing, in comparison to the Knight 4 the midrange on the Knight 3 is set further back in the mix.

From left Knight 3, Knight 4 in Cherry and Knight 5 in Mahogany

Knight 4: Here I went my normal way of testing, starting with midrange first. I played the same track as on the Knight 3 and immediately I could hear more clarity, more presence in the voices and a more open sound compared to the Knight 3’s. So yes, a dedicated midrange driver makes a big difference.  The treble has the identical character of the 3’s and the bass I found almost identical to the 3 as well. I thought it would have a bit more bass due to the slight bigger cabinet… certainly it can play louder than the Knight 3 without sounding strained. So I concluded that this is the preferred speaker if you are into vocal music, Jazz or acoustic material.

Knight 5: This is a big speaker and I expected a big sound. I was not disappointed… it did all I expected it to do plus more. The mids are full, present and rich. The treble is clear and extended without any harshness and the bass is tight and deep. But to me the most satisfying character of  its sound was the fact that it has very little “boxiness” to its sound. I am over sensitive to most of the floorstanding speakers in the $2000 to $4000 range that has those dreaded drone-hollow sound in the upper bass and lower midrange. This makes them sound dull and mask the true complexity of natural sound.  Most of these defects are produced by cabinet resonance due to a cheap cabinet design, little or no bracing inside and poor decoupling of the drivers from the cabinet. This is the down fall of most big floorstanders under $4000. The Jamo D570 and D590 with their ellipse form cabinets were the first big floorstanding speakers I came across that nearly solved that problem completely. No wonder so many other modern speaker Brands have copied that curved body design.  To completely eliminate cabinet resonance you must have no cabinet at all, like the revolutionary Jamo R909 or the Magneplanar speakers. No wonder these are some of my favourite speakers. The Knight 5 has remarkably little cabinet resonance basically due to the extra internal bracing use to do the Twin-pipe bass loading. So I have to say this is a truly remarkable big floorstanding speaker and to me one of the best sounding floorstanding speakers under $3000 I have heard and its only $2299 a pair!

Knight 2 and Knight 1 (And the limited edition Richmond Anniversary model which I will review another time because it’s from… another world).

Knight 1: These are standmount speakers. The Knight 1 is a Medium sized standmount speaker.  What makes it special is the real wood finish! There are few standmount speakers finished in a real wood veneer and I am sure there are none at the price level of the Knight 1’s $699 or even the $999 price of the Knight 2. The Knight 1’s sound took me by surprise. I expected a thin weak sound but I was greeted with a rich warm full sound that asked for more when I turned up the power… If you are after a small standmount speaker in a real wood finish and are on a budget. This is it! There is nothing else, contact us for an audition today.

The Knight 2:  At first I almost thought the Castle Knight series didn’t need a big standmount speaker. The Knight 1 will cover most of the needs for a standmount speaker and can be used as rear speakers in a Home theatre set-up. However, I think a well designed and built big standmount speaker are in many ways the best way to go in a normal sized room. Big standmount speakers are in fact one of my favourite collectors speakers. They do not have that dreaded drone and hollow sound of so many floorstanders simply because you can make the cabinet so much stronger. The other plus factor is that you only have to get two drivers right to balance each other to get that critical coherence between the top, mid and bass right. My Jamo Concert 8 speakers are an excellent example of this. This EISA award winner was made by Jamo for nearly 15 years! True it was expensive at $4500, the Knight 2 is only $999 a pair… can it beat my Jamo Concert 8? …hell NO but it delivers a lot of performance for the money. It does not have the finesse at the top and the deep bass of the Concert 8’s but it has similarly exceptional midrange. Why do I compare this to my Concert 8? Because to me the Knight 2 does not have the same “family” sound as the rest of the Knight’s range. Ok they share the same drivers, they have the Knight 5’s width and depth but they have a tightness and authority to their sound that are really remarkable, so currently they are definitely my favourite Large standmount speaker under $1000.

So there you have it, the Castle Knight range has a speaker for everyone: Husband, wife, son or daughter… Rocker, easy listener or Jazz fan, no matter what your type of music you like, you will find a pair that will suit you. Even movie fans are most welcome; they have a matching centre and subwoofer to complete that picture as well.

Welcome back to New Zealand Castle, make yourself at home.

View the Castle range here, or contact us to arrange an audition.