Recommended Components: 2019 Fall Edition Digital Processors

Digital Processors

Editor's Note: The sound of any particular CD transport/digital processor combination will be dependent on the datalink used-see "Bits is Bits?" by Christopher Dunn and Malcolm Omar Hawksford, Stereophile, March 1996, Vol. 19 No.3 (WWW). Unless mentioned, processors are limited to 32/44.1/48kHz sample rates. To be included in Class A+, a digital processor must be capable of handling DSD or 24/96 LPCM data.

We strongly recommend those interested in using a computer as a true high-end digital audio source visit our sister website www.AudioStream.com, which is edited by Rafe Arnott.

A+

Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty: $9950
Ayre may not be the only consumer-audio manufacturer whose digital processors have found success in pro-audio settings, but their QX-R Twenty—a DAC whose 100-step digital-domain volume control and 11-strong phalanx of digital inputs make it suitable for use as the hub of an all-digital domestic system—distinguished itself by creating the analog master for the LP version of Stereophile's most recent commercial recording project (Sasha Matson's Tight Lines). The Ethernet-friendly, Roon-Ready QX-5 Twenty has at its core ESS's new ES9038PRO chip, supplemented with proprietary Ayre filters running on a Xilinx FPGA chip. Used in his own domestic system, the Ayre at first impressed JA with its "[D]etail. And more detail," and although the Ayre never overstepped its bounds in that respect, the combination of QX-5 Twenty plus MBL Corona C15 amps and Rockport Avior II speakers "resulted in a slightly relentless quality," compelling him to play music "at a lower level than I'd been used to." Adding to his system the Ayre KX-5 Twenty preamp and disabling the Ayre DAC's digital volume control ameliorated the forwardness, and contributed to JA's conclusion that "feeding audio data over my network to the QX-5 with Roon . . . rather than USB connections, is the way forward." Writing from his fortress of testitude, JA declared that "Ayre's QX-R Twenty digital hub offers superb measured performance." (Vol.40 No.9 WWW)

Benchmark Media Systems DAC3 HGC: $2199
Benchmark's DAC3 HGC—the last three letters designate this as the audiophile version, with a headphone amp and two analog inputs—supports files up to 24/192 and DSD64, the latter as DoP (via USB). Bearing in mind the manufacturer's suggestion that there should be no audible difference between their DAC1 and DAC3, JCA wrote, "In fact, I found the sounds of the two DACs quite different. The DAC1 was brighter . . . the DAC3 was all about depths, in several respects . . . I heard deeper into the music." The concise conclusion to JA's Measurements sidebar: "All I can say is 'Wow!'" In a Follow-Up, JCA wrote of using the Benchmark processor with the same company's AHB2 power amp—a combination of high source output voltage and modest amplifier gain that he describes as "optimal for minimizing noise and distortion"—and reported hearing "richer and more interesting" reproduction of very subtle details. (Vol.40 No.11, Vol.41 No.10)

Bryston BDA-3: $3795
The first Bryston DAC to offer DSD compatibility, the BDA-3 supports the SACD format via its four HDMI inputs, and DSD128 to DSD256 via USB. (PCM performance, including user-selectable upsampling in multiples of 44.1 and 48kHz, extends to 384kHz; DoP is also supported.) Twin AKM DAC chips are used, as are completely separate paths for PCM and DSD data. Using an Oppo BDP-103 universal BD player to listen to SACDs through the Bryston BDA-3, LG remarked that "spatial performance was sensational, with wider, deeper soundstages than heard from my SACD player on its own," and praised the Bryston's overall performance for delivering "superbly effortless, delicate, subtly revealing, tube-like analog output from a variety of digital file formats and sample rates." Writing from his test bench, JA singled out for praise the BDA-3's extremely low levels of noise and distortion and "superb" resolution—close to 21 bits—and concluded that it "offers measured performance that is as good as digital can get." Remote control adds $250. (Vol.39 No.12 WWW)

Chord Electronics DAVE: $11,500
The DAVE—an acronym for Digital to Analog Veritas in Extremis—derives from the work of Chord designer Rob Watts, whose Watts Transient Aligned (WTA) filter is claimed to eliminate the timing uncertainty associated with conventional DACs of comparatively limited processing power. And the DAVE's processing power is prodigious: As JA explains, "Watts ended up with a 17th-order noise shaper (!) with 350dB dynamic range (!!) in the audioband, equivalent to 50 bits resolution (!!!)." In his system, the DAVE, which is compatible with PCM up to 32 bits/768kHz and DSD up to DSD512, sounded so good that it tore editor JA away from editing: "Darned if I didn't have to go sit in the listening chair, so compelling was the sound produced by the DAVE." In particular, he praised the DAVE's "superb re-creation of soundstage depth, its sense of musical drive, and the clarity with which it presented recorded detail." Reporting from his test bench, JA wrote: "Even if I hadn't auditioned Chord's DAVE, I would have been impressed by this DAC. Its measured performance is beyond reproach." (Vol.40 No.6 WWW)

dCS Bartok: $15,000 w/headphone amp
See JCA's review in this issue.

dCS Network Bridge: $4750
Designed for use both with the company's top-of-the-line Vivaldi DAC and other DACs, the dCS Network Bridge is a Roon-ready, one-box network player that can serve as a bridge between the user's NAS (or other such file source) and DAC, and can also stream content from Tidal, Spotify, and other services. Ethernet, AirPlay, and USB inputs are offered, as well as BNC inputs for an external clock; outputs are a pair of dCS-compatible AES/EBU XLR sockets and a single S/PDIF RCA jack. Supported formats are PCM to 24/384 and up to double DSD, either native or DoP. (WiFi performance is limited to 24/96.) JVS found that even before the Network Bridge was fully warmed up, it delivered "instrumental textures [that] were far more palpable than before," compared to his own dCS Rossini DAC/player. After extended listening, JVS declared that the dCS's sound was "demonstrably superior to conventional computer-audio playback via USB," and described the Network Bridge as "an invaluable—I'd say indispensable—asset for owners of a Vivaldi or older dCS DAC." (Vol.40 No.12 WWW)

dCS Rossini DAC: $23,999
Were you to discard or disable the disc transport in your dCS Rossini Player, you would essentially have a Rossini D/A processor—which, like the Rossini Player, upsamples to PCM 352.8kHz or 384kHz and supports both DoP and native DSD up to DSD128. That said, if you wish to use the Rossini DAC to enjoy SACDs, you'll need a separate dCS transport, such as the dCS Vivaldi ($41,999). In the January 2017 Stereophile, JVS described using the Rossini DAC in place of his dCS Puccini player: "The Rossini seemed to dive into the center of the music and bring it home in ways the Puccini could not." In the May 2018 Stereophile, Jason reported on using a Rossini DAC that had been upgraded with full MQA compatibility: "The improved sound the Rossini drew from [my] MQA tracks was easily audible, and took recorded sound to another level, viscerally and emotionally." In the June 2019 issue, JVS reported on dCS's Rossini software v2.0, which applies to both this product and the Rossini Player. (Vol.40 No.1, Vol.41 No.5, Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

EMM Labs DV2: $30,000
EMM Labs' newest product is the first D/A processor to make use of the company's new VControl, a high-resolution volume-control system. Of its seven digital inputs, the DV2's USB Type B input is its most versatile, enabling PCM conversion up to DXD, DSD up to DSD128, and full MQA unfolding. Also provided are two coaxial (RCA) S/PDIF inputs, two optical (TosLink) S/PDIF inputs, one AES/EBU (XLR) input, and one proprietary EMM Optilink for SACD and CD playback. In his listening tests, JVS tried using the DV2 in a variety of configuration; he noted that, by the time he'd done so, "it had become clear that the DV2 is one of the finest-sounding DACs with volume control that I've ever heard in my reference system." Indeed, Jason praised the DV2 for delivering, compared to other processors he's enjoyed in that setting, "the smoothest, most naturally warm, most consistently engaging and non-fatiguing reproduction of music." Writing from his test bench, JA noted that the DV2 offers resolution that's "close to the state of the art." (Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

exaSound e38 MkII: $3999
The e38 was introduced in 2017 as the third-generation version of exaSound's multichannel DAC, preceded by the e18 and the e28. In 2019, exaSound introduced the e38 MkII, which replaced the ESS ES9028PRO chip of the original e38 with ESS's new ES9038PRO DAC, said to have four times as many internal paralleled DAC channels. There are also redesigned reference voltage sources and master clock power circuits as well as redesigned mainboard and output stages. Reviewing a sample of the e38 MkII equipped with balanced mini-XLR outputs—an all-single-ended-output version can be had for $3999—KR found that the MkII "was somewhat more detailed and open compared to the original." Kal's conclusion: "By today's standards, this one is pretty much beyond criticism." (Vol.40 No.7, Vol.42 No.9 WWW)

Meridian Audio Ultra DAC: $23,000
The MQA-compatible Ultra DAC offers both balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) outputs, virtually every kind of digital input you can imagine, and at least one you might not: a SpeakerLink connection, for use with Meridian's digital active loudspeakers. The Ultra DAC boasts a presumably futureproof card-frame construction, with separate dual-mono DAC cards, a high-current clock card, and a first-in, first-out (FIFO) buffer card, intended to minimize jitter. The power supply is linear as opposed to switch-mode. Alongside MQA, Meridian's flagship is compatible with PCM up to 24/384, as well as DXD files and DSD64 and 128. Signal-polarity inversion and EQ are available via the DAC's menu system, and the user has a choice of Long, Medium, and Short reconstruction filters. Used with PCM files, JA's first impressions of the Ultra DAC were of "a smooth sound with superb transparency and soundstage depth," and he praised its low-frequency performance as "powerful and extended." While listening to an MQA file of pianist Robert Silverman JA noted that "the MQA recording presented the width and depth of the Steinway in an uncannily realistic manner." Taking over from JA the listener, JA the measurer praised the Meridian's low distortion and good rejection of word-clock jitter. Both JAs agreed that the Ultra DAC joins dCS's Rossini and Vivaldi DACs in offering "the best sound I have enjoyed from digital recordings." (Vol.40 Nos.5 & 6 WWW)

Moon by Simaudio 780D: $15,000
Compared with Simaudio's Moon 650D and 750D transport-converters, the new 780D does away with physical media altogether, forcing those who desire real-time CD playback to use an external transport or a CD player with digital outputs. That said, also in comparison with the company's previous processors, the 780D adds both processing power—it can handle PCM files up to 384kHz and DSD up to 11.2896MHz, and its femtosecond clock is claimed to produce lower jitter—and power power: the 780D features the company's Moon Hybrid Power (MHP) power supply, with conductive polymer capacitors and other refinements. The 780D also includes Simaudio's Moon intelligent Network Device (MiND), a music-streaming application accessible via Ethernet or built-in WiFi. MF described the new Moon's improvements over the 650D as sounding "evolutionary rather than revolutionary"; however, when used with the best recordings at hand, "the 780D's transparency and graceful yet superbly detailed transient performance combined with an absence of . . . digital artifacts to produce what was among the most transparent, if not the most transparent digital sound I've heard." MF also observed that the 780D's manual is insufficiently helpful, especially regarding the MiND application, and that the product lacks, at least for now, support for Roon or MQA. JA uncovered nothing but "superb measured performance." (Vol.39 No.8 WWW)

Mytek Manhattan DAC II: $5995
Offering MQA, DXD, DSD256, and PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz, the Mytek Manhattan II is, in HR's words, "a complete digital and analog service provider." Add Mytek's optional phono card ($1495) and it becomes a phono preamp; add its Roon-ready WiFi card ($995) and it becomes a network streamer with maximum throughput of 24/192 and DSD64. Also on tap in the base model are a discrete, high-current headphone amp, and a user-selectable choice of seven different filters for CDs and PCM files. After sampling some of his favorite MQA files through the Manhattan II, HR asked: "If you were contemplating the purchase of a new DAC, why would you not want it to include MQA processing?" As for its performance with CDs, he wrote, "the Mytek let my mind rise and then look down on the musical stream, to observe the matrix of its notes and silences." Overall, he praised the "uniquely non-digital"–sounding Mytek Manhattan II for "[reproducing] recordings in a manner that seemed devoid of mechanicalness or electronic artificiality. Class A all the way." JA summed up the results of his lab tests in one short sentence: "Mytek's Manhattan II offers superb measured performance." (Vol.40 No.9 WWW)

Playback Designs Sonoma Merlot: $6500
Designed and released at the same time as Playback Designs' Sonoma Syrah music server (see elsewhere in this edition of "Recommended Components"), and housed in a similar-looking enclosure 12" wide by 3.25" high by 9" deep, the Sonoma Merlot stereo DAC offers the usual USB, S/PDIF, and AES/EBU inputs, plus Playback's proprietary PLink, for connection to their USB-XIII Digital Interface ($2500), which acts as a master clock in multichannel systems. On its USB and PLink inputs, the Sonoma Merlot provides up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM resolution, and does DSD up to DSD256; the remaining inputs are limited to 24/192 and DSD64. A headphone amp with a front-panel ¼" jack is also provided. After borrowing and using three (!) Sonoma Merlots—the extra two were required for surround sound—with the above-mentioned server and digital interface, KR praised the system's "beautiful sound." Using the Sonoma Merlot with his Baetis Prodigy X server and comparing that combo with his exaSound e38 multichannel DAC, KR found that "soundstage detail was equal" between the two, but that "the exaSound was a bit more forward," and the trio of Merlots "more naturally arrayed." (Vol.40 No.9 WWW)

PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream DAC: $5999 ★
Instead of an off-the-shelf chipset, PS Audio's first DSD processor uses original code written into a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), the result being a system that converts all incoming data to double-rate DSD. In addition to asynchronous USB, the digital inputs include RCA, TosLink, and HDMI, and single-ended and true balanced analog outputs are provided. The DirectStream is built on a cast-alloy chassis with a glossy MDF top and a touchscreen from which all user controls can be worked. Firmware is user-updatable, as AD discovered while reviewing the DirectStream. He noted the DAC's "excellent pacing, flow, correctness of pitch relationships, and the like, as well as a consistently smooth and slightly laid-back sound." With some files, AD found the DirectStream just a little too laid-back—a condition mitigated in part by an early firmware update—but found its musicality beyond reproach. JA observed that the DirectStream "measures superbly well" in many ways, but was troubled by its poor linearity at low frequencies and its "ultimate lack of resolution" with hi-rez files. In a Follow-Up, RD tried the DirectStream DAC with PS Audio's PerfectWave Memory Player transport ($3995) and observed, "listening to familiar recordings . . . I heard more musical detail from them than I previously had." Subsequent to that audition, RD received and installed in the DirectStream DAC a new firmware upgrade, bringing his unit to v.1.2.1; he liked it. Following the firmware update to v.1.2.1, JA re-tested the DirectStream DAC and found evidence of a lower noise floor, increased low-level linearity, and a dramatic reduction in low-frequency distortion. Said JA: "Kudos to PS Audio for designing a product so that its performance can so easily be upgraded by its customers." There have followed three additional, successive firmware upgrades; in 2017, the most recent of these, named Huron, impressed JCA as "a clear improvement over [its immediate predecessor], which was already very good." (Vol.37 No.9; Vol.38 Nos. 2, 3, 5, 11; Vol.39 No.11; Vol.40 No.10 WWW)

T+A DAC8 DSD: $3995
The German-built T+A Elektroakustik DAC 8 DSD incorporates two distinct sets of D/A converters: DSD signals are treated to 1-bit conversion and are never converted to PCM, while PCM signals are treated to four DACs per channel in a double-differentiation configuration that, according to JI, is claimed to "perfectly cancel out converter errors and nonlinearities while increasing dynamic range by 6dB." Also on tap are four user-selectable digital filter options, independently adjustable volume for line and headphone outputs, and separate, user-selectable analog filters for DSD and PCM, the former intended to protect the rest of the user's system from ultrasonic noise. JI praised the DAC 8 DSD for "approach[ing] the performance of cost-no-object designs" and "represent[ing] good relative value." JA gave the DAC 8 DSC a clean bill of health, with particular regard to its "superb rejection of word-clock jitter via its PCM inputs," while noting that "its measured behavior and sound quality [are] so dependent on which of its four digital filters is in use." (Vol.39 No.10 WWW)

TotalDAC d1-tube-mk2: €9100
In a design field where cats are skinned in any number of ways, Vincent Brient of the French company TotalDAC takes a distinctive approach: for his D/A converters, he uses a discrete R2R ladder comprising some 200 hand-selected, very-high-quality discrete resistors per channel. The nonoversampling d1-tube-mk2 supplements this circuitry with an FPGA for various digital chores, an XMOS USB receiver (S/PDIF, TosLink, and AES/EBU digital inputs are also provided), and a tubed output stage. DSD (DoP) compatibility is a €320 option. All inputs support 24-bit/192kHz resolution except TosLink, which maxes out at 24/96. In the experience of ML, to whom digital recorded sound manifests itself as a sheet of glass between himself and the performers, "listening to music through the TotalDAC d1-tube-mk2, there was no glass; I could listen to my music as deeply as I wanted to go." Which pretty much says it all. (Vol.39 No.1 WWW)

A

CanEver Audio ZeroUno: $8495
While digital processors with tubed output sections aren't new, the Italian CanEver Audio ZeroUno breaks with convention by looking less like a DAC than a 2A3-fueled power amp, its two Coke-bottle–style CV181 dual-triode tubes enjoying pride of place atop a distinctly attractive case. Under its skin is an ESS Sabre32 ES9018S chip, its eight internal differential DACs used in a quad-sum configuration. Supplementing the ESS chip are multiple PCM and DSD filters of CanEver's own design, selectable via a menu system that also provides a switchable jitter filter, signal-polarity inversion, channel balance, and other niceties. The ZeroUno supports PCM to 384kHz and DSD64 and 128 as DoP; newer versions of the CanEver DAC are said to provide MQA compatibility, though that was not available at the time of our review. AD noted shortcomings in the ZeroUno's manual, especially when it came to navigating its software menu—we're told that this, too, has been refined in current production—but forgot those complaints after noting that the Italian DAC made his favorite files sound more colorful and "less hi-fi" than what he's used to hearing from digital playback. Art's conclusion: "I've heard no other digital product that succeeds quite so well . . . at letting music sound like music." Writing from his testing lair, JA noted the ZeroUno's "respectable measured performance," but cautioned users to keep its jitter and oversampling filters switched on. (Vol.40 No.5 WWW)

Chord Electronics Qutest: $1895
JA, who regards Chord Electronics' upmarket DAVE ($12,488) as "one of the best-sounding DACs I've had in my system," jumped at the chance to review Chord's far less expensive Qutest, which draws from the same well: It's based on the company's proprietary 10-element Pulse Array Design processor, designed by Rob Watts and implemented in a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chip. Via its USB port, the compact (6.3" wide by 1.6" high by 2.85" deep) Qutest handles DSD256 (as DoP) and PCM up to 768kHz, but lacks MQA decoding. In his listening observations, JA praised the Qutest for "the excellent sense of motion" it lent to a favored piano-concerto recording, from which he also heard "stably and clearly positioned" stereo images, if not quite the soundstage depth he'd hoped for. JA the measurer uncovered, among other things, the fact that the Chord Qutest "offers almost 21 bits' worth of resolution, which is close to the state of the art." JA the reviewer concluded: "strongly recommended." In a Follow-Up, HR described his own experiences with the Chord Qutest, in which he noted that this DAC "might be doing something unusually right in the time domain." His conclusion: "a must-audition for every serious audiophile." (Vol.42 Nos. 1 & 3 WWW)

Chord Hugo TT: $4795
Chord's Hugo TT (for Table Top) combines a DSD-friendly USB DAC, headphone amplifier, and Bluetooth receiver in one distinctly styled and unambiguously chunky aluminum case. The user interface is distinguished by a volume control that uses not a knob or a pair of buttons but rather a captured glass marble that changes color as the loudness level changes, and a top-panel lens that gives the user a clear view of the color-coded sample-rate indicators inside. Key to the Hugo's performance are an internal chargeable battery—for power-supply isolation, not portability—and a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) running Chord's proprietary filter algorithms. Both on its own and in comparison with other DACs of his acquaintance, JI identified the Hugo's strengths as "detail, definition, and depth, with no distracting artifacts." He also declared: "The Chord Hugo TT sounded wonderful with headphones." In a dispatch from his test bench, JA said the Hugo "performed superbly well" on his jitter tests and was, all around, "an extraordinarily well-engineered component." (Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

HoloAudio Spring Kitsuné Tuned Edition Level 3: $2698 $$$
Ladder DACs are difficult to build and tend to be expensive, and so the comparatively affordable Spring, which sells for just $1499 in its basic, entry-level version, stands out. Its USB input handles PCM to 32/768, and, perhaps uniquely, the HoloAudio Spring also has a separate, discrete resistor network to handle DSD data (to DSD512). In the Kitsune etc. version of the Spring, all copper wiring is replaced with silver, the IEC inlet cap is replaced with a silver-foil Mundorf oil cap, and the fuse is upgraded. This DAC impressed HR, who wrote of its sound, "More open. More relaxed. The Spring let me feel rhythm changes with my head and rocking shoulders." After hearing through it a particular favorite track, he declared it "the most deeply pleasurable digital experience I have ever had." Writing from the testing trenches, JA noted that "error was negligible down to 60dBFS," and wrote that "HoloAudio's Spring DAC offers mainly excellent measured performance." In his Follow-Up, AD praised the Spring's sound as "a revelation in every sense." (Vol.41 Nos. 5 & 7)

Mytek Brooklyn Bridge: $2995
In creating the Brooklyn Bridge, Mytek essentially took their Class A Brooklyn DAC+ ($2195)—a high-resolution processor that supports 32/384 PCM, DSD to DSDS256, and full MQA unfolding, and also includes a headphone amp and a line-level and phono preamp—and updated it with streaming and network server capabilities, via wireless or Ethernet connections. Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer, vTuner, and Spotify are supported. As JCA wrote, "The Brooklyn Bridge aspires to and approaches sonic neutrality. I hear a rich, detailed sound with fullness and depth but without exaggerated lows, and with a crystalline quality in the highs," and noted that, as the only streamer he's aware of "that incorporates a DAC used in studios," it is in a class by itself. (Vol.42 No.9 WWW)

Mytek HiFi Brooklyn DAC+: $2195
Mytek, which has its roots in the pro-audio industry, took aim at the consumer-audio marketplace with their original Brooklyn-made Brooklyn DAC ($1995), which also functions as a line-level preamplifier, a two-output headphone amplifier, and MM/MC phono preamp. The compact (8.5" wide) Brooklyn offers 32-bit performance via USB, 384kHz PCM resolution, and can handle up to DSD 11.2896MHz as well as unfold MQA files. Selectable digital filters are offered, as are controls for volume (the user's choice of analog or digital), balance, mono, and signal-polarity (phase) inversion. JCA, who preferred the Mytek's sound with its volume control set for analog, reported having a hard time getting a handle on the Brooklyn's sound, but once he did, he heard "bass instruments reproduced fully and cleanly," a soundstage that was "deep and layered," with images "precisely positioned in space," and a sound that was, with all but the lousiest recordings, "very open." Writing from his test bench, JA praised the Brooklyn's "very low" noise, "superb" rejection of word-clock jitter, and an "excellent" signal/noise ratio—among other things—from its phono stage, concluding, "the Mytek Brooklyn's measured performance is superb . . . color me impressed." In the May 2017 Stereophile, KR described using three Mytek Brooklyns to play multichannel MQA recordings from 2L Recordings, prompting from Kal this reference to JCA's Brooklyn review: "I can echo his sentiments about its revelation of soundstage and texture." In the same issue, Brooklynite HR summed up his own experiences with the Mytek, through which he enjoyed streaming MQA-encoded Tidal Masters files: "I'm happily addicted to MQA, Tidal Masters, and the Mytek Brooklyn." In the April 2017 Stereophile, JCA reported on this product's latest incarnation, the Brooklyn DAC+ ($2195), which is built around the new ESS Sabre 9028 Pro DAC chip, and offers an improved analog attenuator circuit and other refinements. In a side-by-side comparison of the two Brooklyns, JCA heard little difference: "There may have been a slight increase in transparency in the upper midrange/lower treble with the DAC+," he said, but at the end of the day JCA got "superb [sound] from both Brooklyns." (Vol.39 No.11, Vol.40 No.5, Vol.41 No.4 WWW)

Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital: $399 $$$
This combination D/A processor and headphone amp measures just 4.1" square and 1.4" high and uses dual ESS Sabre Pro ES9038 chips to offer up to 32-bit/768kHz PCM and DSD up to DSD512, plus eight user-selectable PCM reconstruction filters and full unfolding of MQA files. In using the Pre Box S2 Digital to compare MQA files to their non-MQA versions, KM wrote that "the soundstage seemed to grow and surround my head," describing the Pro-Ject DAC's MQA performance as "a revelation." Ken praised the DAC's user-friendliness and concluded, "I can think of no other mini-machine that does so much so well." Writing from his test bench, JA observed very low noise—"extraordinarily good, considering that the Pre Box S2 Digital is powered by a tiny wall-wart supply. Someone at Pro-Ject knows how to optimize a printed-circuit-board layout!" In a Follow-Up report, HR wrote that the Pre Box S2 Digital "preferred sensitive, easy-to-drive headphones" such as his own AudioQuest NightHawks, judging that combination "lively, smooth, and very musical." (Vol.42 Nos. 4 & 5)

Schiit Audio Yggdrasil: $2399
Is high-end audio ready for a company whose all-out statement DAC costs only $2299? Ready or not, Schiit Audio's Yggdrasil is here, offering what Schiit describes as a true "21 bits of resolution" and proprietary digital filtering, implemented on an Analog Devices processor, that retains rather than destroys "all the original samples." Also featured is a hefty regulated power-supply section built around twin transformers: one for the digital supplies, the other for analog. Input signals of resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz are accepted. According to HR, in contrast with the "grainlessness" of the Mytek Brooklyn DAC, "the Schiit's sound was slightly textured, and dynamic contrasts were less evident." That said, Herb also observed that "the Yggdrasil exposed melodic lines . . . and human voices—also better than any DAC I've heard costing less than five grand." JA's measurements comprised a mixed report, with praise for the Schiit's "superbly well designed" analog circuitry set against his impression of "digital circuitry [that] is not fully optimized." In 2018, Schiit introduced their Analog 2 upgrade—two new output cards and a firmware update for the DSP board—available to owners of older Yggdrasils for $550. HR wrote in a Follow-Up that the upgrade, which must be performed by Schiit or by an authorized service center, allowed his Yggdrasil to sound "quieter, more refined, more transparent, more silky, more tactile." (Vol.40 No.2, Vol.41 No.9 WWW)

B

Auralic Altair: $1899
The Altair combines the functions of a DAC, a wireless streamer, and a headphone amp with a volume control. Available with an optional solid-state or hard-disk drive, the Altair offers no fewer than 15 digital inputs, and supports up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM as well as DSD256. Roon software is supported, as is Auralic's own Lightning app, but the Altair does not decode MQA files. After encountering a few hurdles in setting it up as a streamer, JI praised the Altair's good if somewhat "shy" sound. Writing from his test bench, JA reported resolution close to 22 bits, a noise floor free from power-supply–related spuriae, and very low levels of harmonic distortion: "superb audio engineering." (Vol.40 No.3 WWW)

DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4 Preamplifier-DAC: $4250
The Anti-Mode X4 is a full-featured two-channel line-level preamplifier plus DAC with multiple inputs—single-ended and balanced analog inputs, plus USB, S/PDIF, and TosLink digital—multiple outputs, and, as KR describes it, "a head-spinning array of digital-signal-processing (DSP) tools." It also comes with a calibrated microphone and stand, for use with its many DSP functions—including room/speaker EQ for full-range speakers and for subwoofers; subwoofer level control; bass and treble tilt controls; infrasonic filtering; and a L–R balance control. A promised EQ function for four subwoofer channels has yet to materialize—but even so, KR found the Anti-Mode X4 in its present state to be useful, effective, and altogether "great just as it is." (Vol.42 No.5 WWW)

iFi Audio Pro iDSD 4.4: $2499
Built around four Burr-Brown DSD DAC chips operated in what iFi calls an "interleaved" array, the Pro iDSD offers up to DSD1024 and 32-bit/768kHz PCM—and more controls and performance options than can be fully described in a review of reasonable length, let alone a little blurb like this. Suffice it to say the iFi contains a three-output, selectable-gain headphone amplifier, has built-in support for streaming from Qobuz and Tidal, performs full unfolding of MQA files, has balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) outputs, offers defeatable upsampling with a variety of user-selectable filters, and, among its many other output options, contains a user-selectable tubed output circuit. HR said of its performance on an especially beloved Sun Ra recording, "the Pro iDSD's DAC did a sterling job of sorting out the countless spatial layerings of this track," and added the iFi to his "short list of DACs that recover an enjoyable illusion of dense bodies playing music." Measuring the iFi proved to be a mammoth task—"With so many output options and operating modes, it's easy to become confused about the iFi Pro iDSD's performance," JA noted—but in the end, despite a couple of puzzling idiosyncrasies, he found "much to admire in its measured performance." (Vol.42 No.1 WWW)

Mytek Liberty: $995 $$$
More than one Stereophile scribe has sung the praises of Mytek's original Brooklyn DAC, known as much for its extras—an onboard line-level preamp with analog volume control, an MM/MC phono stage, and a two-output headphone amp—as for being a great-sounding D/A processor. Now comes the Mytek Liberty, a stripped-down model said to be the sonic equal of the original Brooklyn (which has since been replaced by the even better-performing Brooklyn DAC+: see elsewhere in "Recommended Components"). Built around a 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC chip, the Liberty offers, via its USB input, PCM performance up to 24/384 and DSD up to DSD256. Gone are the preamp, the phono stage, and one of the two headphone outputs; retained is full MQA compatibility. The Mytek Liberty impressed AD with its musical capabilities, including good senses of momentum and touch, and by sounding appropriately crisp while "never [becoming] gritty." In measuring the Liberty, JA noted resolution to almost 19 bits, which is quite good, and said that the DAC's measured performance "indicates excellent digital and analog engineering, especially considering its affordable price." Quoth AD: "Very highly recommended." (Vol.41 No.11 WWW)

Prism Sound Callia: $1899
The first domestic product from UK-based pro-audio specialists Prism Sound, the Callia D/A converter–headphone amplifier is based on a dual-mono pair of Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chips, and accepts DSD data up to DSD128 and PCM to 384kHz, though the former is converted to PCM and the latter is downsampled to 192kHz. Its front panel is graced with two separate volume controls: one for the Callia's line outputs, the other for its front-mounted ¼" headphone jack, further enhanced with a three-position DIP for optimizing the output for low-, medium-, and high-impedance 'phones. When JA used the Callia to drive his Audeze LCD-X headphones, he described the sound as "richer than I expected," while in his Big Rig—without a preamplifier, and with the Callia's own volume control doing the honors—the sound was "drier," with less soundstage depth than JA gets from his PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream DAC, but no loss of power from drums and electric bass. JA praised the "excellent-sounding" Callia, but described the Mytek Brooklyn's sound as "slightly better"—and noted that the then less expensive Mytek adds MQA compatibility. Apart from some surprising jitter-related (as opposed to power-supply–related) sidebands, the Callia performed respectably on JA's test bench. Significant price reduction as of July 2018. (Vol.41 No.4 WWW)

C

Arcam irDAC-II: $749 $$$
Fresh from flings with four-and five-figure DACs, JA reconnected with the hoi polloi via Arcam's affordable irDAC-II, introduced in 2016 to celebrate the British company's 40th anniversary. Built around the ESS ES9016 K2M DAC chip, the Arcam combines five digital inputs—two RCA, two TosLink, one USB—with Bluetooth connectivity and a headphone amplifier, and supports files up to DSD128. After using an AudioQuest Cheetah interconnect to wire the irDAC-II directly to his power amps—the former has its own volume control, thus eliminating the need for a preamp—JA was impressed by the Arcam's cleanness, clarity, and definition with a variety of tracks, though he noted a shallower-than-expected soundstage with some material, and felt its balance was a little lightweight—also a characteristic of the irDAC-II's headphone output. That said, via his AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, the Arcam outperformed the Meridian Explorer DAC: with one recording in particular, the irDAC-II "opened up a somewhat cleaner, clearer view into the recorded acoustic." As for the Arcam's Bluetooth performance, JA described it as "always listenable, if not completely involving." Writing from his lab, JA praised the irDAC-II as "a conventional but well-engineered D/A processor." (Vol.40 No.7 WWW)

BorderPatrol Digital to Analogue Converter SE: $995–$1850
In BorderPatrol's Digital to Analogue Converter SE the processor of choice is the same Philips TDA1543 16-bit chip found in playback gear from the 1980s and '90s, implemented without a digital reconstruction filter, energized by analog power supply with twin mains transformers and a tube rectifier. It has two inputs—USB and S/PDIF—and is built with a copper chassis, upgraded signal and power-supply capacitors; non-SE versions with a single input, more modest caps, and no rectifier tube are also available. HR wrote that the DAC SE "delivers refined, human-sounding musical pleasures—at a very reasonable price." Writing from his testing lab, JA noted a severe channel imbalance with data sampled at rates higher than 96kHz, channel-specific anomalies in linearity error, a higher-than-expected noise floor, and disappointing performance in its rejection or word-clock jitter. In a Follow-Up that proved controversial, JI described comparing the Border Patrol DAC SE with his Benchmark DAC2 HGC, concluding that the BorderPatrol "purred like a sweet, sultry voice . . . even as it lied to me." (Vol.41 Nos. 9 & 11)

K

Denafrips Ares R2R DAC.

Deletions
Aqua Acoustic Quality xHD, replaced by model not yet reviewed. Rega Research DAC R, Luxman DA-06, not auditioned in a long time.

COMMENTS
Charles E Flynn's picture

From https://cdn.stereophile.com/content/recommended-components-2018-edition-how-use-listings :

Class K

"Keep your eye on this product." Class K is for components that we have not reviewed (or have not finished testing), but that we have reason to believe may be excellent performers. We are not actually recommending these components, only suggesting you give them a listen. Though the report has yet to be published in certain cases, the reviewer and editor sometimes feel confident enough that the reviewer's opinion is sufficiently well formed to include what otherwise would be an entry in one of the other classes, marked (NR).

Enrique Marlborough's picture

Could you add the year of entry to these lists.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It's there.

prerich45's picture

When did the Pulsars go up from $7k/7.7k to $9k?!!!!!!!!! That's a huge increase!!!!!!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The new Pulsar2 Graphene are $9k :-) ..........

brians's picture

I always found it really odd that Stereophile never links the recommended component to its referenced review(s). Really odd, and kind of charming.

AaronGarrett's picture

Are the headphones pictured Sennheiser 800s? Is this a secret recommendation since they aren't on the list?

stereoGoodness's picture

How in the world can the TotalDac still be listed as a Class A+ digital processor? The device's proponent on the Stereophile staff was Michael Lavorgna, who has since been let go by the magazine.

The TotalDac was never properly reviewed by Stereophile, likely because the device's creator knew that it would measure horrendously. Audio Science Review confirmed its terrible engineering, and TotalDac is now closely associated with how audiophilia can go badly wrong.

https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-totaldac-d1-six-dac.8192/

John Atkinson's picture
stereoGoodness wrote:
The TotalDac was never properly reviewed by Stereophile, likely because the device's creator knew that it would measure horrendously.

I don't routinely measure the products reviewed in the magazine's columns, but in hindsight I wish I had have done so with the Total DAC. Even so, back in the day I spent a very pleasant afternoon listening to Michael Lavorgna's system with this DAC.

stereoGoodness wrote:
Audio Science Review confirmed its terrible engineering, and TotalDac is now closely associated with how audiophilia can go badly wrong. https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-totaldac-d1-six-dac.8192/

Oh my!

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Ne casse pas le verre :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'We (at, Stereophile) choose truth over facts' :-) .........

JRT's picture

"TotalDAC" was a wrong-headed approach in engineering, is grossly overpriced for its performance, is grossly over-hyped in its niche market, and it objectively measures very much worse than lower priced DACs. It is a poor solution, and represents poor value.

However, I also think that there is another larger consideration in this that was missed.
No small of number of people like the sound, people who critically listen to their system and to changes in their system.

So a key take-away is that "TotalDAC" provides a good example of the importance of better perceptual weighting in objective measurements. The simple fact that so many seem to like the sound of this "TotalDAC" regardless that it measures so poorly shows that a large body of critical listeners are highly tolerant of its imperfections that show up clearly in objective measurements.

Note that Amir Majidimehr gave it a bad review because of poor objective measurements resulting from poor choices in engineering, but he did not find the resulting sound highly objectionable in his listening tests. Similarly, John Atkinson and Michael Lavorgna were not displeased with the sound in Lavorgna's system. And there seems to be many others.

Since so many critical listeners are highly tolerant of the imperfections of "TotalDAC", and since there are many inexpensive DACs that outperform it, I would suggest that the DACs should receive a rather low weighting in budget allocation. The opportunity cost on this expensive DAC is far too high, could be better spent in something that matters very much more in perceptual weighting such as loudspeakers, a bespoke low frequency (sub-Schroeder) subsystem, improvements in room acoustics, etc.

JRT's picture

Wasting budget resources on expensive esoteric cable assemblies brings little if any performance improvement, and in comparison to moderate cost well engineered solutions the esoteric cable assembles can sometimes degrade system performance.

https://www.stereophile.com/content/adcom-gfa-7805-five-channel-power-amplifier-cable-issues

https://sound-au.com/cable-z.htm

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Regarding sound quality ........ See Stereophile review and measurements of BorderPatrol DAC SE $995 to $1,850 ........ Somewhat similar suboptimal measurements as the TotalDAC ....... Costs lot less ....... Several reviewers liked that BorderPatrol DAC's sound :-) ........

JRT's picture

You get a good DAC and also a good headphone amplifier, plus can be utilized for making objective measurements.

https://www.rme-audio.de/en/products/adi_2-pro.php

Maybe add an inexpensive 2x2 AES/EBU Dante bridge such as the one at the following link.

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1417856-REG/audinate_adp_aes3_au_2x2_2x2_dante_avio_aes3.html

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The Chord Mojo ($570, reviewed by Stereophile) and the Chord Hugo2 ($2,695, reviewed by Hi-Fi News), also are, good quality DACs and headphone amplifiers :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Benchmark DAC3 HGC ($2,199, reviewed by Stereophile, Class-A+) is a DAC, pre-amp and headphone amp :-) ...........

JRT's picture

Those lack AD converters.

Seems like a lot of money to spend for simple DA conversion and an output buffer to drive headphones.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

How many Stereophile readers use/want a AD converter? :-) .........

Benchmark also sells a headphone amp/ pre-amp HPA-4 ($3,000, reviewed by Hi-Fi News) :-) ..........

JRT's picture

For one example group, I suspect some need AD converters to capture the output of their phono preamp to FLAC files.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

How many Stereophile readers want/use AD converters? ......... may be 5% to 10% .......... Which means 90% to 95% Stereophile readers don't want/use and are not interested in AD converters :-) ..........

Stereophile reviewed Ayre Acoustics QA-9 AD converter ....... I think JA1 and MF still sometimes use that Ayre AD converter :-) ........

Stereophile has also reviewed USB output turntables from Sony and Music Hall, which obviously have built-in AD converters :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

BTW ....... Don't post any comments about AD converters on AnalogPlanet ....... Stereophile readers are more tolerant people :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Seems like MF is currently using one of the Lynx Hilo AD/DA converters ......... Some of these Lynx products are available at Sweetwater ........ May be JA1 could review one of these AD/DA converters currently available :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Benchmark also sells just a DAC ..... DAC3-B for $1,699 :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

There are other less expensive DA converters/headphone amps ........ Pro-Ject Pre-Box S2 ($399, reviewed by Stereophile), AudioQuest DragonFly Black and Red ($99 and $199, reviewed by Stereophile) and DragonFly Cobalt ($299, Stereophile review may be forthcoming) :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Schiit Audio makes several headphone-amps/DACs, from $99 to $499 :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The new iBasso DC01 and DC02, DAC/headphone-amps $75 to $79 :-) ..........

Charles E Flynn's picture

You are now officially on your own when it comes to the purchase of a table radio.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Get a Naim Mu-so2 or Qb2 ....... EISA award winner .......Kinda table radio ....... See, S&V review on their website :-) .........

listentomusic's picture

does someone know why is simaudio 340i is gone from the list.it was there is last 2-3 lists

Jim Austin's picture

By long tradition and with some exceptions, components are removed from the list when they have not been auditioned for more than 3 years. The tradition arose from print, and the limited space it allows; this practice could be relaxed online, but then we would have two different lists. (The exceptions, usually, are cases in which a Stereophile reviewer has continuing experience with the product, as when it is part of a reviewing system, and so can continue to vouch for it.)

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Jim Austin is the perfect reviewer for the new Revel Performa top-model, F328BE ($15,000/pair), and compare them to the Revel Ultima Salon2 :-) ............

dial's picture

There's a lack of cheap tonearms with detachable headshell like the ones on dj turntables, some are really excellent.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Guitar Center sells some of those DJ turntables ........ They also sell some Technics TTs, which come with tonearms with detachable head-shells, including some used ones ......... You could check with them :-) ..........

dial's picture

Thanks a lot for your advice, I sold my Stanton DD, the tonearm wasn't removable (I speak about the straight model, a little short, can only use an Ortofon Arkiv on it).
I still miss someone here who wants to review a ZYX cartridge, even a "budget" model. I think it's imported here.

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