The Great DAC-Off!

On a lovely March evening, Herb Reichert, Alex Halberstadt, Stephen Mejias, and I met up at John DeVore's place for The Great DAC-Off!

The DACs

Border Patrol DAC SE ($1350)
Denafrips Terminator DAC ($3600)
totaldac d1-tube-mk2 DAC (€ 9,100)
totaldac d1-seven (€ 17,450)
The Mission

Compare and contrast.

the amplifier in use was a finely aged classic Pass Aleph 3

The Methodology

Each person in attendance selected two tracks for The Mission. Two tracks at a time were then played through each DAC.

The Order

d1-tube-mk2 > d1-seven > Terminator > Border Patrol. Once two tracks played through each DAC, two new tracks were selected and played back in reverse DAC Order.

the speakers were the DeVore Fidelity gibbon Super Nine

The Music

Amy Winehouse, Valerie
Billie Holiday, Willow Weep For Me
Tom Waits, I’m Still Here
Prince, One Nite Alone
Raime, Coax
Minoru Nojima, Liszt: Mephisto Waltz

The Results

  • DACs sound different from one another.
  • The music used to compare DACs can highlight these differences or lessen them.
  • A DAC can color the sound of music to such an extent that it changes one's perception of artistic merit and intent.
The Comparisons

I think it's safe to say that the totaldacs were the clear winners (surprise, surprise). And while we all heard the same thing, we did not all share the same preferences. The overall winner was a toss up, with some preferring the d1-tube-mk2 and others preferring the d1-seven. If you're into maths, that makes the d1-tube-mk2 the clear winner.

The little Border Patrol DAC was also well-enjoyed albeit for simpler music or for a simplified version of the real thing. The Border Patrol loved all of the singers but when it came time for Raime and Liszt, it gave up trying to recreate the recording, satisfied instead with a blurred, somewhat confused, and colored interpretation which seemed to think that the Liszt was not performed by Minoru Nojima and in his stead was a facsimile of Fats Waller and Keith Jarrett (to my ears).

The Denafrips won the award for the most confusing DAC as you never knew what you'd get from a recording when played through it! This ladder DAC was happy to hang on, white knuckle-style, to the top and bottom end of Nojima's keyboard but the middle fell out (off?). This DAC also fell apart on the Raime, turning the beautiful and highly specific sound place as presented by the totaldacs into a soupy cloud of unknowing.

The d1-tube-mk2 DAC offers up more grunt, color, and gravelly emotion compared to the d1-seven which clearly excels at offering uncanny clarity and nuance.

The Moral of the Story

There is no moral of the story, rather what we had was a great time among friends listening to music. I felt as if I walked away with a better understanding of how incredibly varied our gear can make our music sound, coupled with the affirmation of my belief that enjoyment guided by music is the only worthwhile goal.

"Remember that the signal reaching your consciousness is as much you as it is the music" Daphne Oram

COMMENTS
Doak's picture

...that there are comments (yet?) on this article.

Doak's picture

Comments

Empirical's picture

Since the devil is in them, what input was used on the DACs and what was the source?

Steve N.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...cables were used throughout.
Lars Rasmussen's picture

if your review copy of the Denafrips TERMINATOR was broken…? In Srajan Ebaen’s review at 6moons.com in september 2017 it came off with the award “A budget-priced true reference DAC”. At a DIY MANIA Meet Up Event in Seoul in february 2018, 16 people compared “Auqa’s La Scalar MK2 optologic”, “DENAFRIPS Terminator” and two versions of a “DIYMania Enigma” where the Denafrips Terminator came out with the best score….-just wondering?!

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Alex's review will get into more detailed listening impressions.
AllanMarcus's picture

No one wants to hear about 4 old guys DACing-off in the man cave!

:-)

Why is there a in one of the pictures?

harold's picture

You are reporting larger differences amongst dacs than I have hitherto encountered in reviews.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...what I heard.
Stephen Mejias's picture

...what I heard. As ML mentioned, we basically all heard the same differences, but only sometimes disagreed on the results of those differences. For instance, there were times when I preferred the sound of the tubed totaldac over the solid-state totaldac, while another listener preferred solid-state over tubed, but we nevertheless perceived the same characteristics between the two.

And, for the most part, the differences were fairly easy to hear (although this depended somewhat on our respective seating positions, which we also rotated throughout the evening).

I do think the Denafrips might've been at a disadvantage, not so much because it was outperformed, but rather that it was outnumbered. When comparing two products of any kind, it's easy to make judgements. Product A does this and Product B does that. With three products, there will almost always be two extremes between which the third will fall. Product A does this, Product B does that, and Product C falls somewhere in between. With four products, however, things become more difficult, and because there is a familial similarity between the totaldacs, and because the Border Patrol was in many ways far further removed from the other competitors, the Denafrips ended up being something of a wildcard or chameleon. I never knew what to expect from it, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It just deserves more time than any single evening holds.

listenfirst's picture

I appreciate you adding some balance to an article that read to me as a drive-by shooting of the Terminator. I assumed that was why the gun was placed atop the Terminator in the picture.

Stephen Mejias's picture

That's an interesting interpretation! Another interpretation might be that the Terminator is holding the gun, and therefore doing the shooting. Actually, ML took the photo before we did any listening at all. :)

ds's picture

at this year's New York Audio Show or at one or more of the dealers selected by DeVore's distributor. Of course it would need to be modified to allow for time constraints, etc.

Babbaïsta's picture

If the Denafrips Terminator DAC comes with a handgun. If not, what the heck?

Lonfident's picture

To symbolize a shoot out, I guess

HJC001's picture

to ensure ONE would win? ;)

Cyrus's picture

Michael, I take your findings at your word... long time fan of your site and your work.

I'm listening to my DENAFRIPS Terminator feeding a T+A PA 3100 HV at this moment and none of the music sounds "confused."

Goes to show how, as you put it: "how incredibly varied our gear can make our music sound."

Here is my recent in-depth evaluation of this DAC, should the additional feedback be helpful:

https://terminatorandyggdrasil.blogspot.com/

Looking forward to Alex's review.

Keep up the good work! - Cyrus

DH's picture

Interested to hear your comparison to the Gibbon X, especially what the difference is in bass response.

Mr Underhill's picture

I have been using the BP SE for about six months, it is a superb little DAC that I bought in preference to the Schitt Yggy and the Lampizator L4G5. It really communicates the joy and zest of music, and truly punches above its cost. Have I heard better? Yes, but not so much so that I feel the need to go and spend car sized amounts of money on a replacement.

Looking forward to the full report.

M

Doak's picture

I've been enjoying a L4G5 Lampi, with a couple of special tweeks courtesy Lukasz, for nearly 3 years now. About all I can say regarding your comparison of it with the BP SE is that the BP must be one helluva good sounding DAC & an incredible bargain to boot.

Mr Underhill's picture

It is a VERY good DAC, the Lampi, and if I mainly listened to Classical then it is the DAC I would have bought. I found it slightly euphonic with a slight upper bass lift, reminded me of my LP12.

One of the things I enjoy about L4 is that it is, I believe, a DS DAC; showing, yet again, that it is not the technology but how it is applied.

I could imagine people buying any one of the BP SE, L4G5 or Yggy; each has its own strong points.

For me the BP SE just had, and has, me listening to my system most avidly.

M

Doak's picture
funambulistic's picture

The comments are all wrong! You’re supposed to look at the pictures and judge the sound of the room. Obviously, the plywood walls make the room way too live and chippy. That ficus tree in between the speakers gives the presentation an overly leafy feel. The water jug distills a liquid aspect that is none too complimentary, especially if the recording is intended to be ‘dry’. The tennis shoes are overtly ‘locker room’ in their ambiance (as well as the added aromatherapy). Pro tip: Puma suede, not Nike. And don’t get me started on the reflections off of Stephen’s shiny pate!

HJC001's picture

be a professional gear reviewer. clearly ;)

funambulistic's picture

I just get a kick out of the readers telling ML he cannot possibly have good sound in his barn because the speakers are too far away (all based on a few photos) or the sound is too live (based on a YouTube video). The same for JA's and MF's rooms. You know, the "Experts"...

Dth31's picture

I’ve owned both the d1-six tube and d1-seven and in my system, for my tastes, the d1-seven is hands down preferred. But I could happily live with either one. In fact, I bought a d1-core totaldac for my 2nd system and I love it too. They all share that lovely totaldac DNA!

Empirical's picture

Were you using the S/PDIF or USB inputs on each DAC?

What source was driving them? Transport? Server?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...just not the one you were hoping for.
Wavelength's picture

All,

One thing to remember when you are comparing DACS is that they all should be plugged in for at least a beer or two before doing any serious listening or comparing.

I have a phase noise tester that tests the quality of audio clocks (well any oscillator). I did some interesting testing of oscillators that are cold vs ones at 1 hour, 2 hours and so forth to 24 hours.

The results were really interesting and some that JA now considers when testing digital products.

If the units were placed in the system all cold then some of these may not have as good of results than others because of this problem.

The crystals in these oscillators really need to warm up before they do their jobs to create stable, less jittery (got me couldn't think of a better term) output to the DAC chips and associated circuitry.

This would be a bigger problem for latter dacs because of their increased susceptibility to jitter.

Thanks,
Gordon

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Very good thoughts!

We plugged in all the 'visiting' DACs and let them warm up for a while before they were put into rotation. We started with John's totaldac which was toasty warm.

Wavelength's picture

Michael,
I know you would, my comment was made for others.
Thanks,
Gordon

Dweeby's picture

Hmmmmm.....not just any firearm it seems, But is that not a standard issue Blade Runner’s sidearm I see laying atop one of the review subjects? Inquiring minds and all that.......

Michael Lavorgna's picture
You are correct. That is a replicant Decker blaster.
andreyoniar's picture

audio stream please review a gustard x20pro...

bmichels's picture

Michael,

I read that you will compare the TotalDac Seven against the dcs ROSSINI. When can we expect it published ? ( I am looking forward reading it since I am going to buy a new DAC very soon ;-)

Can you provide some premiliary results of the comparaison please ?

sincerely

Rafe Arnott's picture
Unfortunately Michael has left AS and is thoroughly enjoying life elsewhere! (Miss you buddy!)

That said, I've had wonderful conversations with both Vincent Brient at totaldac and John Quick at dCS and can confirm that a d-1 seven is heading to me as is a dCS Rossini and Clock, so stay tuned.

bmichels's picture

A comparaison Rossini v/s Seven will be great. May be some other DACs in the same price range like the Brinkmann Nyquist could be added to the battle ? ;-)

Rafe Arnott's picture
Can be arranged.
bmichels's picture

I read that the Rossini support 3 streaming services: Tidal, Spotify & Deezer, but... I do not see Deezer mentioned on the Rossini's manual or webSite.

So I wonder if I can use Deezer ( with Deezer's iPAD app) with the Rossini, direct (not through AirPlay) ?

bmichels's picture

Now TotalDAC mention on it's site a variant of the Seven ( http://www.totaldac.com/D1-direct-en.htm ): the D1-Direct.

Same price than the Seven, but with direct outputs from the R2R ladders for highest transparency: like the D1-Twelve

I will be interested to read from someone who could compare the seven and the D-1 direct...

Rafe Arnott's picture
I have the d-1 direct here at AudioStream now, I'll be comparing it to several high-end DACs in the near future.

Thanks for the interest!

bmichels's picture

this is SUPER GOOD news. Thanks. I will be reading very carefuly your results when published. Indeed, I have now on my short list for next DAC: totalDAC Seven or D1-Direct, Brinkmann Nyquist Mk2, dCS Rossini + clock, and alternatively AURALIC Vega G2 + Auralic Leo Clock or may be LUMIN X1.

I hope to be able to read your finding soon.... I am waiting for it before final decision ;-)

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