DAC Reviews

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Alex Halberstadt  |  Jun 28, 2017
"If it measures good and sounds bad—it’s bad. If it measures bad and sounds good, you’ve measured the wrong thing." —Daniel R. von Recklinghausen, Chief Engineer, H.H. Scott.

The main thing I’ve learned after an adulthood of listening to recorded music is that we still don’t really understand what makes it fun. What I mean is the factors that make music reproduction emotionally engaging (as opposed to accurate sounding) remain, to a significant extent, a mystery. This is especially true of digital. Which makes sense—the phonograph disk has been around since Emile Berliner introduced it in 1889. Digital encoding arrived nearly a century later, and after three-decades-and-change we’re still getting our heads around how to make it sound like music.

Ola Björling  |  May 04, 2017
photo credits: Aqua Hifi unless otherwise noted

In my day job I interact with people holding PHD's in various tech fields, including audio. Any faith these folks have in my cognitive faculties has a tendency to ebb quickly when they find out I prefer music on vinyl, even if—and, perhaps, especially if—it's mastered digitally at 16/44.1. My response is to regurgitate a spiel on how music exists for the purpose of pleasure, and I simply tend to receive more of that through vinyl, measurements be damned. Depending on the degree of hostility I might also opt to say that signal to noise ratio is not a genre I care for, and try to change the topic.

Michael Lavorgna  |  Mar 16, 2017
R2R, NOS/Or Not
The discrete R2R HoloAudio Spring DAC offers two main operating modes; non-oversmapling (NOS) and a chip-based oversampler (AKM AK4137). You can switch between these modes of operation by simply pushing the front panel "OVER SAMPLING" button. This button offers 4 choices; "NOS" mode which bypasses that AKM chip, "OS Mode" where PCM and DSD are each upsampled to higher rates but remain PCM and DSD, "OS PCM" where all data is "oversampled to PCM", and "OS DSD" where all data is "oversampled to DSD". If you are anything like me, you'll leave the Spring DAC in "NOS" mode, avoiding that Asahi Kasei Microdevices chip like the plague.
Steven Plaskin  |  Feb 23, 2017
When I recently heard that exaSound Audio Design had released a new model replacement for their e22 DAC, I immediately contacted George Klissarov, President of exaSound Audio Design, to see if I could get a review sample of the new e32 DAC for an AudioStream review. I was very enthusiastic about the e32’s predecessor when I reviewed the e22 in 2014. At that time, I found the e22 to be an excellent sounding DAC and one that did a first-class job playing DSD files. The e22 was built around the ES9018S Sabre32 reference DAC chip and utilized exaSound’s custom ASIO drivers that allowed native DSD256 support for both OSX and Windows.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Dec 29, 2016
Skip The Bits
"Hey, you put DSD in my DAC! You put DAC in my DSD!" The buzz surrounding the T+A DAC 8 DSD is all about octuple-rate DSD; DSD512 (512 times that of CD)/22.5792 MHz. The idea being you use Signalyst's HQPlayer software to convert all of your music to DSD512 before sending it to the DAC 8 so that the latter's "True One Bit DSD Converter" can work its magic. Yea, magic.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Sep 22, 2016
Brooklyn
The new Mytek Brooklyn DAC does not sport a slicked back undercut, big beard, skinny jeans, a plaid shirt, and tattoos. Wrong neighborhood. What this Brooklyn sports is a preamplifier, a DSD256- and MQA-capable DAC, two headphone jacks which can be paired with a 4 pin XLR to 2 1/4 inch jacks for balanced headphones, a freakin' phono input (MM/MC), and a sculpted aluminum front panel in black (for a touch of Brooklyn) or "frosty silver".
Michael Lavorgna  |  Sep 01, 2016
A DragonFly Tale
[Parental Advisory Warning] I had an email exchange with my friend Joe about music and movies, as is our wont, and asked—
Me "What are listening through?"
Joe "I have two pairs of Shure 580 in-ear headphones, which are very good headphones and also sit in the ear and cut out 90% of outside noise. About as fidelity as I get."
Me "I like those Shure in-ears too. So you plug them into your computer?"
Joe "Yeah, I just plug them into one Apple product or another."
At the time, I was rich in Dragonflys, having my original and the V.1 version. So I sent Joe the original. Here's the first email I received from Joe after the DragonFly landed at his place:
Subject: Damn!

Fuck Me! Dragonfly!

Steven Plaskin  |  Jun 16, 2016
Andreas Koch, Founder, CEO, and Engineer along with Bert Gerlach, Engineer have recently released the new Playback Designs Sonoma Series that includes the Syrah Server, Merlot DAC, and OpBox conversion kit for the Oppo103 Blu-ray Disc Player. Another component in the Sonoma series is also slated for release called the Pinot that is an Analog Digital Convertor. I’m sure a number of you have noticed that the Sonoma Series has named the products after fine wines. Andreas previously worked for Sony developing the first native DSD recorder and workstation. Sony’s chairman at that time felt that DSD’s potential and performance was similar to a good wine; hence the name Sonoma for the workstation. Andreas’ view of musical experiences and fine wine:
Michael Lavorgna  |  Feb 11, 2016
Engineering Cred
Ed Meitner, the man behind EMM Labs, has some serious engineering credentials. These include a number of patents and a few decades' worth of product design and innovation including preampfification, amplification, and all things digital (like the Meitner Intelligent Digital Audio Translator (IDAT) digital processor from 1993). I owned and enjoyed the Museatex Meitner STR55 Stereo Amp back in the '90s when I was living the life of an IT guy by day and loft-living painter by night in NYC. I can still remember loving the ST55's design and sound, a nice change from the behemoths populating the floors of high-end shops like immovable metal heat generating odes to speaker design gone awry.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Dec 24, 2015
Extreme NOS
The Metrum Acoustics Pavane is the company's flagship DAC. Like the recently reviewed and well loved Musette (see review), the Pavane relies on Metrum's own Transient R2R ladder DAC One modules to convert Ds to As. While the Musette uses two, the Pavane employs a total of eight DAC modules, four per channel. Unlike the Musette, the digital data feeding those DAC chips passes through the company's FPGA-resident "forward correction module". What's it correcting?
Michael Lavorgna  |  Dec 17, 2015
There's More Than One Way To Skin A DAC
PS Audio's new NuWave DSD DAC has taken some engineering cues from the company's much-loved DirectStream DAC (see review). While the NuWave does not house the same FPGA-based processing as found in its larger and more costly sibling, it does house a complex programmable logic device (CPLD), a device that sits between a programmable logic device (PAL) and a field programmable gate array (FPGA) in terms of complexity. The CPLD in the NuWave is tasked with one important job; take the incoming bits from the XMOS-based USB receiver and other digital inputs and pass it along to the 32-bit ESS Hyperstream DAC corrected; "discovers sample rate and format, reclocks all incoming data, reduces jitter, waveshapes data output to the DAC chip, and utilizes high speed/low gate count logic to reduce propagation delay for faster throughput". The CLPD accomplishes this in what the company calls "Native Mode" meaning there's no sample rate conversion employed. After the DAC, a passive filter is applied in the analog output stage.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Dec 10, 2015
Getting A NOS DAC
Let's agree up front that many Non-Oversampling (NOS) DACs do not perform well under certain test parameters. Aperture effect, which amounts to less than linear frequency response at the extremes, and less than ideal jitter performance (as typically measured) being the more egregious problems, on paper. We have to ask ourselves, why would anyone bother making a NOS DAC? The answer is some people really enjoy the way they sound.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Oct 30, 2015
A Rega Story
Back in the early '90s, I was on the hunt for a new CD player. I was intrigued by the Rega Planet for the same reason everyone else was; Rega built turntables and they waited years before entering the CD market with a player they felt sounded analog. Since CDs never really scratched my musical itch very well, this was music to my ears.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Oct 15, 2015
Data in, Analog out. What could be simpler.
Our phones have DACs. Our computers have DACs. Digital to Analog converts are a dime a dozen (literally in some cases) so why the hell would we want to spend around $10k on a DAC? The answer—quality of life.
Michael Lavorgna  |  Sep 10, 2015
"But Grandmother! What big tubes you have," said Little Red Riding Hood
Warsaw Poland's LamizatOr (What is LAMPIZATOR? It is a play on Polish Lampa (vacuum tube) and Terminator) is the brain child of Lukasz Fikus and his DACs have been causing a buzz in the computer audio world for years. What's the buzz? They sound really good. The Lite 7 DSD DAC is a pared down version of LamitzatOr's Big 7 DAC. The Big 7's tube rectifier and chokes are gone and super premium parts like the Big 7's Jupiter Copper Wax output capacitors are replaced with the less costly Jupiter AM series. The idea with the Lite 7 is to deliver The Big 7's directly heated triode sound for roughly half the price of admission.

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