AudioStreams #9 Page 2

In my experience, most DACs fall somewhere between sounding like digital and really good digital. Sounding like digital manifests itself as a sheet of glass inserted between me and the music. I can see through it, I can mostly ignore it, but it's always there to one degree or another, depending on the DAC.

Listening to music through the Totaldac d1-tube-mk2, there was no glass. I could listen into my music as deeply as I cared to go. Performer, time, space, silence—all were there for the taking. The biggest barrier to entry was the need to quiet my mind.

The systems I used were equally responsible for this uncanny connection, as was the listening space. The solid-state system comprised Ayre Acoustics' AX-5 Twenty integrated amp and DeVore Fidelity's Gibbon X speakers, connected with Auditorium 23 cables. Power-related products (yeah, they matter too) were from Shunyata Research. The tubed system included my Shindo Laboratory Monbrison preamplifier and Cortese power amp, tied to the same sensitive (90dB-plus) DeVores. My systems are in a barn, separate from our house, with a listening area that measures 35' long by 15' wide by 12' high. (As John Atkinson said as he entered, "Ah: big room, small problems.")

I listened through both systems because Vincent Brient feels that the d1-tube-mk2 DAC sounds best when paired with high-sensitivity speakers and tubed electronics (he considers his solid-state d1-dual DAC, which I reviewed in September 2013 for AudioStream, to be the better mate for solid-state). I hate to disagree, but I found that the d1-tube-mk2 worked equally well in both systems. Then again, just as the d1-tube-mk2 doesn't sound digital, the solid-state Ayre doesn't sound solid-state—but that's another story.

I also listened through the d1-tube-mk2's RCA and XLR outputs, and very much preferred the RCAs. Music had more clinical edges through the XLRs, though this was lessened by switching from Kimber Kable to Auditorium 23 interconnects—but I still preferred the RCAs' more organic sound. I imagine that some listeners might very well prefer the XLRs' more clinical sound. Horses for courses.

Listening to music through the d1-tube-mk2 also washed out to sea the silly arguments about high resolution, DSD, and CD quality—all sounded equally lovely. If you find yourself sorting your music library by sample rate, it's time for a major rethink. Of course, I'm not talking miracles here—the quality of the recording mattered—but what's more important is the quality of the music. I have never thought, Time for some DSD! Heaven forbid. Go back a few paragraphs to see where my mind goes when I think about what's next. (Hint: music.)

The d1-tube-mk2 excelled with its uncanny and unshakable clarity. Where lesser DACs turn difficult music into the equivalent of hardened mud, the d1-tube-mk2 unraveled with ease even the most complex, densely layered passages. This clarity also extended to the most minimal moments, in which every nuance is an integral aspect of the music's quivering life (to borrow from Jean-Marie Piel, co-editor of the French music and audio magazine Diapason). There was also a lovely dimensional quality to the sound that brought to life the space of the recording.

"The essence of an interpretation lies in working on the infinitely small . . .": Jean-Marie Piel again. I keep quoting him because his words echo my thoughts. In my experience, the d1-tube-mk2 got the infinitely small, the infinitely large, and everything in between pretty much right.

Is Totaldac's d1-tube-mk2 the perfect DAC? Does it deliver the absolute sound? Is it the best you can buy regardless of price? Is it a giant-killer among giants? Should you buy one today? Oh, pish-posh.

Music, or evidence of music, has been found in every culture, dating back as far as we humans go. You could say that the enjoyment of music feeds our humanness. Some of us are just hungrier for it than others. Listening to music as a dedicated activity is an important part of my life. Heck, we moved to a house with a separate building so that I'd have a good place to listen.

What each of us finds musically convincing is deeply personal. There is no "best" in hi-fi, and nothing is perfect. All I can tell you is how listening to music with the Totaldac d1-tube-mk2 in my system makes me feel: very happy. And when I say "happy," I mean—

Meaningfully delighted
Some years ago, I was hanging out in the depths of the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. I found myself alone in a cool, moist, dimly lit, vaulted, stone-walled room. In that monk-quiet space I thought, This is one of those moments. I could have been a monk. It could have been the eighth century. I was feeling at one with my Levi's when two couples wandered in and began to walk single file, very slowly, around and around the perimeter of the room, putting more and more distance between them as they circled. My first thought was, My moment is ruined. My second thought was, What the hell are they doing?

One of them began to chant. Another joined in, and then another, until all four were performing the most beautiful medieval melismas I had ever heard. As they continued to slowly circle, their voices bounced around the room, blurring the distinction between voices and echoes. I was swept away, out of that room, out of Mont Saint-Michel, out of France, out of time, out of my Levi's, out of myself.

There was nothing to know about that experience. There was only something felt. I can still recall that feeling deep down in my bones.


2600hz's picture

Hi Michael,

Can't agree more with your fellings about TotalDac dacs and especially the D1 dual but recently I also experienced another DAC called C8 from Metronome Technologie (also a French company).
Ok it's a tad more expensive, but ways more liquid and musical. The refinement bar has just been raised another notch !

michaelavorgna's picture

The C8+ is €18.200, while the totaldac is €9.900. Nearly twice the price is a tad more than a tad ;-)

Michael Lavorgna

mmeysaorsh's picture

While I find the TotalDAC pricing to be in line with cost associated with an R2R device and the challenge of maintaining linearity as bit depth increases, the Metronome provides an AKM4490EQ DAC chip and SRC converter. Which makes you wonder about the pricing as these are relatively inexpensive sigma delta parts. Granted very low production play a major part and including both tube and SS stages, but still quite a jump.

I'm also amused how the performance specs on their site are stated for individual parts and never as a complete system. In a third party test, the figures were far less enthusiastic with significant roll off at the treble, all withing the audible band. To me, it seems like a very tailored sounding product that might require appropriate system matching to sound its best.

The TotalDAC sounds impressive effort from an engineering standpoint. The DAC itself and its volume control which appears to be expressly designed to allow attenuation without any real truncation of the source file, a shortcoming of many digital pre-amps today. I'm certainly would like to see a set of measurements and take an opportunity to hear it sometime.

Ladokguy1's picture

Hi, I noticed you are using the Devore Gibbon X. I own the 0/96 and previously owned the Devore 9. The 9 actually worked better in my smallish room (15 by 19) and I'm thinking about going to the X because it is a slim, tower-type speaker like the 9. Have you had a chance to compare the X and 0/96? What is your impression of the X as far as ease of placement in the room and overall tonal balance? Thanks!

majnun70's picture

I too am very interested in the comparison (for my even smaller 17x9 room).