Follow Up: Ideon 3R Master Time Black Star w/totaldac d1-tube DAC

I had to know.

The Ideon 3R Master Time Black Star re-clocker worked well with the matching Ideon DAC, offering clear improvements as you can read in that review. But I kept wondering — how would the Black Star work with the totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer (review)? Curiosity got the better of me.

Re-Clockers are nothing new. As a very knowledgeable friend recently reminded me, the Genesis Technologies Digital Lens came out in 1996 (!) and acted as a jitter eliminator according to the company. In short, the Lens briefly buffered the incoming data from a CD Transport, sending out a more perfectly in-time and jitter-free digital signal to the attached DAC (the Lens had other tricks up its sleeve, which you can read about in Robert Harley’s review for Stereophile). The Meridian 518 Digital Audio Processor, pre-dating the Lens by a year, had a similar jitter elimination goal in mind, employing a dual PLL (Phase-Locked Loop) circuit and crystal oscillator (the 518 had other tricks up its sleeve, which you can read about in John Atkinson’s review for Stereophile).

From my review of the Ideon stack:

The “3R”s in the Black Star’s name refers to re-generating, re-clocking, re-driving the USB source signal which is accomplished in part by using ultra-low jitter femto clocks and ultra-low noise oscillators to ensure phase correct restitution & drive. The Black Star also houses a proprietary triple (3x) ultra-stabilized, low-noise linear power supply to keep noise at bay.

The Black Star offers USB in and out, which is the new ‘computer audio’ twist on an old theme.

Digital Plumbing

We live in a rural-for-NJ area where our water comes from a well out back. It just so happens that this water is acidic, with levels of acid content that will rot copper pipes and turn faucets, sinks, shower tiles, basins, and tubs green if left untreated, so our water treatment system employs a tank filled with calcite to neutralize the acid. This is a different problem from our last home which also used well water. There, we had to deal with hard water, water with high levels of minerals, so the treatment system used a tank filled with salt to soften the water. If our current home still used the original (old) copper pipes, further filtering may have been necessary at the faucets to keep copper, from corroding copper pipes, out of our water. Thankfully, the previous owner replaced most of the copper pipes with PEX (a polyethylene) that’s immune to corrosion.

Of course some people will tell you that waters are waters, which is the case if you’re using water for ballast not ingestion, just as bits are bits as long as they remain data not analog waves to be soaked in by ears.

This digital plumbing analogy works well for me if we think of things like electrical noise and jitter as being akin to impurities in water, and devices like re-clockers and digital-to-digital converters as water treatment systems. Digital plumbing. Just like water, the specifics of the digital audio environment varies from place to place when it comes to electrical noise and jitter, and if we add in the fact that all DACs are not created equal when it comes to noise and jitter rejection, it becomes easy to understand why one-size does not fit all when it comes to digital audio plumbing.

Synology DS412+ NAS (music library), DJM Electronics GigaFOILv4, “Fight Club” promo Chuck Palahniuk signed severed arm

My approach, at present, to the overall digital audio budget is to put the bulk of my overall spend into the DAC. The totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer accounts for 80% of my digital audio budget which includes a router, switch, NAS, backup USB drive, server, in-line filter, and cables (details). The inline filter, a DJM Electronics GigaFOILv4 – INLINE Ethernet filter ($550), sits between the Ethernet switch and totaldac, providing optical isolation and filtering to prevent electrical noise from the noisy network stuff from getting into my DAC.

Listening to the Black Star totaldac Combo

Employing the Ideon 3R Master Time Black Star re-clocker was a two step process that involved putting my Raspberry Pi 4 into action as Roon Endpoint and using its USB output to feed the Black Star’s USB input, with its USB output going to the totaldac’s USB input. If you’ve read my review of the Raspberry Pi, you know I think it makes a pretty crappy sounding streamer, so the perfect partner to test the effectiveness of the Black Star. Or so my thinking goes.

In no uncertain terms, the Ideon/totaldac combo offered improvements over the totaldac’s internal streamer in apparent resolution, spatial specificity, and clarity. Acoustic guitar strings sounded brighter with more sparkle, complex layered music was presented with greater clarity making it easier to follow the parts that make up the whole, and there was a general sense of a more relaxed yet natural presentation. Taking a few more steps back, music sounded more fully resolved, as if the totaldac’s built in streamer was a tad abbreviated in terms of harmonic development and ultimate resolution. I would say these improvements were more than subtle, but not as dramatic as changing DACs.

While these improvements were easy to hear in my system, I cannot say with any degree of certainty how the Black Star will interact in other systems with other DACs. This is simply the nature of digital audio systems and hifi’s in general, where no single component is 100% responsible for the music coming out of our speakers.

When approaching a networked digital audio system, there are about 10 million options (I counted) in today’s marketplace. Audiophile servers, Audiophile Ethernet switches, Audiophile Ethernet cables, re-clockers, digital-to-digital converters, filters, and more. You can easily spend $10k+ before even thinking about a DAC. It’s enough to make your head spin. Mine has spun on many an occasion.

In the end, I’m going to stick to the approach that recommends spending the lion’s share of a digital audio system’s budget on the DAC, around 80% or so. You just have to decide if an external re-clocker or DDC is an essential part of a DAC, which can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.