Weiss DAC202 FireWire D/A converter Page 2
Which brings me to the DAC202's shortcomings. While it succeeded at presenting music with no trace of traditional "digital" sound, the Weiss lacked a bit of jump factor, excitement, and involvement. Sure, a component can sound "exciting" because of a tipped-up treble or harmonic dryness, but that's not what I'm talking about.
Part of what makes music involving and exciting for me is the dynamic behavior at the micro levelthe subtle nuances that give each sound its own texture and lifeand at the macro levelthe ability to render large transients and dynamic swings with swiftness and ease. The Weiss gave up some of that excitement for a sound that valued smoothness and liquidity. The DAC202 also lacked the last word in low-bass extension and articulationnor did it offer the greatest lateral separation between instruments in the stereo image, or project instruments into the room in front of the plane described by the speakers' front baffles.
However, I know many audiophiles who will prefer the DAC202's supple nature and be willing to give up a little excitement for a sound that lacks any hint of its digital origins. For those audiophiles, the DAC202 may be a perfect match.
I also used the DAC202 for an extended period as a headphone amplifier, using my computer as a source. The Weiss was an almost perfect match for my Sennheiser HD600s. The liquidity and unforced musicality of the DAC202, paired with the directness and immediacy of headphone listening, made for a gratifying experience. Whereas I can usually pick apart the sound of a DAC through headphones, hearing some of its grain and electronic quality, the DAC202 stood up to the microscopic scrutiny that's possible with my Sennheisers. The lack of separation and the smoothing over of transients I heard through my big rig weren't at all apparent through my 'phones. The DAC202 offered one of the finest headphone experiences I've ever heard.
I found that I had on hand three DACs that, in my and a few others' opinions, represent the best digital audio reproduction in their respective price classes: the Bel Canto Design e.One DAC3.5VB ($5440 as reviewed), the Weiss DAC202 ($7737), and the dCS Debussy ($10,999). Each represents a major advance in the handling of digital conversion, and each is based on a completely different design paradigm in its manufacturer's quest to wrest the best from all those zeros and ones. Unsurprisingly, each also has a completely different sonic signature.
First up was the dCS Debussy. In his review (January 2011), Michael Fremer commented on the Debussy's lean sound, startling transients, and deep yet taut bass. That's what I heard, too. The Debussy has an uncanny ability to pick apart recordings with surgical precision. For the first few weeks, I was entranced by the dCS's sheer resolution, and the solidity and immediacy of every sound it played. However, after a few weeksand after comparing it with some of the other DACs I had on handI grew slightly weary of the sound's ultra-honest but slightly threadbare quality. It's no surprise that less-than-stellar recordings were not treated kindly by the Debussy, which picked out their flaws instead of accentuating their merits. But even with great-sounding recordings, I missed some fullness in the midbass and sweetness in the treble. I also felt as if the Debussy were downplaying the ambience and reverberation around each instrument, in favor of a solid yet dry picture of each sound. Though I certainly respected the Debussy, ultimately it was not the best match for me.
I then listened again to the Weiss DAC202, which sounded as different as could be. The Weiss's sonic signature was full, round, supple, and sweet. All of the organic qualities I found lacking in the Debussy's sound were there in spades in the DAC202's. But again, this ease and grace of musicmaking came at the cost of transient snap, low-bass weight and speed, and the separation of instruments in the mix, both laterally and from front to back.
The Goldilocks DAC in this shoot-out was Bel Canto's e.One DAC3.5VB. It combined the honesty and resolution of the dCS Debussy with the soul of the Weiss DAC202. In terms of dynamics, the Bel Canto was as gripping as the dCS, though it lacked the Debussy's crazy-great bass. The Bel Canto, in my opinion, bested the dCS in terms of my involvement in the stereo image: through the DAC3.5VB, backgrounds were blacker, and instruments hung in greater 3D relief in the soundstage. I found the Bel Canto's tonal balance and slightly warmer sound to be a tad more musically rewarding than the Debussy's. And while the Weiss's tonal balance was sweeter still, the Bel Canto made up for it with grain-free clarity and impeccable delineation in the treble. I was shocked and happy that, of these three DACs, I liked the cheapest best. Though the Debussy and Weiss have received many accolades in the audio press, the Bel Canto e.One DAC3.5VB remains a relatively unsung hero.
I truly enjoyed my time with Weiss Engineering's DAC202. Its ease of use for both disc-based and computer audio makes it easy to recommend for those who want a digital system that doesn't sound "digital." The Weiss also offers a sound that will be very pleasing to many audiophiles tired of fatiguing hi-fi sound. And I found its headphone performance absolutely superlative. I think the Weiss DAC202 can easily offer Class A performance, especially for the audiophile who prizes its graceful, organic musicmaking.