Recommended Components: Fall 2017 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 Michael Lavorgna.

A+

Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum Bundle: $5295 (with Voltikus power supply) ★
From the makers of the Class A–rated Zodiac Gold comes the Zodiac Platinum, which bundles a D/A processor, headphone amp, and preamp into a small but chunky (6.5" W by 4.4" H by 7.6" D) enclosure. (The similarly chunky Voltikus power supply is slightly less wide.) Like the Gold, the Zodiac Platinum offers PCM performance through 384kHz, but adds DSD64 and 128 via USB (DoP), which it upsamples to DSD256, Antelope Audio claiming direct DSD-to-analog conversion. Technical highlights include FPGA processing for some functions and "Oven-Controlled Clocking," in which jitter is kept low through thermal stabilization of the word clock's crystal oscillator. User controls appear on both the front panel and the remote handset, the former distinguished by a hefty, nice-feeling volume knob—although JI noted that it "produced a bit of a raggedy zipper sound" through his system when he adjusted the volume. With some musical selections JI noted the Platinum's "slightly thicker bottom end" compared with another premium processor, and with other tracks a thicker sound overall, adding that "both [processors] excelled at creating a transparent path to my power amps." As for the Zodiac's headphone amp, "I'd never heard better sound from my Grado HP1s," JI declared. JA wrapped up: "Overall, the very good measurements of Antelope Audio's Zodiac Platinum indicate excellent digital and analog engineering." (Vol.37 Nos.9 & 10 WWW)

Auralic Vega: $2790 ★
The elegant-looking Vega D/A processor is housed in a slim, brushed-aluminum enclosure and has a front panel dominated by a wide, rectangular, yellow-on-black OLED display. The rear panel offers single-ended and balanced outputs, and five digital inputs: transformer-coupled AES/EBU on an XLR, two transformer-coupled coaxial S/PDIFs on RCAs, one optical S/PDIF on TosLink, and a high-speed USB2.0 port. The AES/EBU and S/PDIF inputs handle 16- and 24-bit data with sample rates up to 192kHz; the USB port also operates with sample rates of 352.8 and 384kHz, and will accept DSD64 and DSD128 data. A Sanctuary audio processor upsamples PCM input data to approximately 1.5MHz and 32-bit depth, and implements four reconstruction filters for PCM data and two choices of low-pass filter for DSD data. Though it required several hours from cold before sounding its best, the Vega combined outstanding low-end weight and high-frequency extension with an exceptional sense of space, said JA, who also noted measured performance that was beyond reproach. "It's DSD and digital done right!" he exclaimed. (Vol.37 No.2, Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty: $8950
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 DAC2 HGC: $1995 $$$ ★
Although similar in appearance to previous Benchmark models, with a front-panel volume control and two ¼" headphone jacks, the new DAC2 HGC uses four 32-bit ESS Sabre DACs, run in balanced configuration, for a significantly lower noise floor; has a new Hybrid Gain Control (HGC) for volume attenuation, which combines active analog gain control and passive low-impedance attenuators in the analog realm with a 32-bit digital DSP gain control for digital signals; and provides front-panel displays for both sample rate and word length. Though it lacks a balanced AES/EBU input, the DAC2 HGC offers two analog inputs and five digital inputs: two optical, two RCA coaxial, and one asynchronous USB that handles resolutions up to 192kHz as well as DSD64. It had a pleasantly forward sound, with smooth highs, a solid bottom end, and excellent image separation, said EL. Compared to the Auralic Vega, the Benchmark had a similarly smooth top end, but lacked the Vega's sweet midrange and outstanding portrayal of space, said JA. JI noted the DAC2's good scale and sense of ambient space, but found it lacked focus compared to the considerably more expensive MSB Analog DAC. (Vol.37 No.2, Vol.38 No.11, Vol.39 No.10 WWW)

Bricasti Design M1 DAC: $8995 ★
With first-class fit'n'finish and uncluttered exterior design, the dual-mono M1 DAC measures a rack-friendly 17" W by 2" H by 12" D and weighs 12 lbs. It offers four digital inputs (S/PDIF, AES/EBU, BNC, optical), accepts sampling rates up to 192kHz, and, as of 2013, adds a USB input, volume control, remote control, and DSD decoding. The Bricasti's fast, detailed, powerful sound made the much less expensive Musical Fidelity M1DAC seem veiled, muffled, and slow, said JM. "The best digital playback I have heard," he concluded. Compared with the Weiss DAC202, the Bricasti was less forgiving of poorly recorded material, but had bigger, deeper, better-defined low frequencies; compared with the dCS Debussy, the Bricasti sounded very slightly warmer and was very slightly more transparent, said JA, who also praised the M1's state-of-the-art measured behavior. A firmware update (free to registered owners) adds minimum-phase digital filter options, digital phase inversion, and a digital volume control. Compared to its previous filter set, the Bricasti's minimum-phase sound was much richer, with more body, more coherence, and less grain, said JM. Used as a line source in place of Parasound's Halo JC 2 preamp, the Bricasti produced a more coherent sound, with deeper, tighter, more powerful bass. "My personal best just got better," JM concluded. Now ships with asynchronous USB input (not yet auditioned), and will decode DSD data. Production in 2013 replaces the switch-mode power supply of the M1's digital-routing section with a linear supply based on a custom-wound transformer. With the new power supply in place, JM heard improved bass extension and greater overall clarity. Owners of original M1s (made prior to March 2013) can have their units updated for $200. In 2014, Bricasti offered to M1 owners even more additional refinements: a remote-control kit, involving a separate infrared receiver that plugs into the rear panel ($500 for M1s presently in service; included in the price of new units); a changeover, performed at the factory, from multiple glass-and-wire fuses to a master circuit breaker ($150); and an upgrade, also done at the factory, to DXD and DSD64/DSD128 capabilities ($400). As impressed as he was by the last, JM remained philosophical: "the fact that Bricasti's M1 can now play DSD and DXD files is less important than the fact that its playback of plain old 'Red Book' 16-bit/44.1kHz audio is so compelling that I, for one, don't feel shortchanged when a good recording is not 'high-resolution.'" He observed that, yet again, his personal best in digital playback just got better. (Vol.34 No.8; Vol.35 Nos. 2, 3 & 9; Vol.36 No.7; Vol.37 No.12 WWW)

Bryston BDA-3: $3495
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: $11,288
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)

exaSound e38: $3849
This third generation of exaSound Audio's multichannel DAC (it was preceded by the e18 and e28) uses ESS's ES9028PRO chip, claimed to optimize performance at DSD128, DSD526, and PCM above 192kHz, and to permit faster, more stable switching of sampling rates. According to KR, "Like the e18 and e28, the e38 was silent in operation and absolutely stable. Unlike with them, I heard a newfound delicacy in the treble, unaccompanied by any added noise or brightness." Kal also reported his impression that the e38 offers "a greater dynamic range, especially with massed plucked strings." His conclusion: "The exaSound e38 is . . . an expression of the applicable state-of-the-art and a valid and valuable enhancement of my favorite DAC." (Vol.40 No.7 WWW)

Luxman DA-06: $4995
Among the earliest and most notable products to emerge from the burgeoning world of DSD streaming, the Luxman DA-06 is a full-size D/A processor built around a Burr-Brown PCM 1792A 32-bit converter chip. The DA-06 supports 2.8224 and 5.6448MHz DSD files and, via its USB input, PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz. Front-panel controls include the ability to select among three different PCM filters and between two sets of DSD rolloff characteristics, as well as to invert absolute signal polarity on the fly. AD, who acknowledges "DSD's prowess at communicating the subtleties of musical flow," observed that the Luxman sounded "generously explicit, [with] musical and sonic details in abundance and . . . a soundfield notable for its openness and general lack of murk. Still, the DA-06 had good substance, with a tonal character that was slightly—almost imperceptibly—warm and round." In his measurements, JA noted that the Luxman's low levels of harmonic and intermodulation distortion are offset somewhat by marginally poorer-than-expected jitter and noise-floor numbers—yet he declared that, overall, "the DA-06's measured performance is simply superb." AD's conclusion: "a damn fine-sounding D/A converter with virtually all music." (Vol.37 No.7, Vol.38 No.11 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)

MSB Analog DAC: $6995 ★
The MSB Analog DAC combines a high-tech chassis machined from a solid billet of aluminum—it stands less than 1" tall yet weighs nearly 30 lbs!—with a circuit architecture that allows the buyer to select among five digital-input options, two power supply options, a WiFi option, and more—combinations of which can bring the price to just under $12,000. (For $6995, you get one digital input and the stock power supply.) The Analog DAC supports PCM and DSD up to 384kHz, employs a custom-designed, linear-phase apodizing digital filter, and offers single-ended and balanced analog outputs. JI was impressed with the MSB's "thereness," observing that, "With a DAC like the MSB, you get a sense of someone hitting Play on a big reel of wide-track analog tape, after being fed by live mikes in a room." Notwithstanding a couple of performance glitches, both solved by in-the-field firmware updates, JI found it difficult to part with his review sample: "It notched my system up to a place where almost all digital sources had an organic, natural presence without sacrificing the accuracy and detail present in the best recordings." JA noted that high-level signals produced some low-level distortion products, but otherwise found the MSB rare in being "so well thought out and so well engineered." Optional Volume Control: $995. Optional Analog Power Base: $2995. UMT Plus: $5995. Optional Dual Signature Power Base: $4995. (Vol.37 No.4 WWW)

Mytek HiFi Manhattan 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: $5999
Instead of an off-the-shelf chipset, PS Audio's first DSD processor uses original code written by hand 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, digital inputs include RCA, TosLink, and HDMI, and both 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—during which time he noted its "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 that 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. But he admits that its sound quality is still very satisfying. In a Follow-Up, RD—who listens more to discs than downloads—tried the DirectStream DAC with PSAudio's PerfectWave Memory Player transport ($3995): "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, which he liked. Following the firmware update to v.1.2.1, JA re-tested the DirectStream DAC and measured 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." Four months after the upgrade to v.1.2.1, PS Audio updated the DirectStream DAC's operating system to a version referred to as Pike's Peak—which, in RD's estimation, "seemed to transform the . . . sound." In a subsequent Follow-Up, RD reported on PS Audio's more recent Yale software upgrade, which is claimed to include more accurate filters and to represent a different approach to jitter reduction. In comparison with Pike's Peak, he wrote, Yale offered slightly softer trebles and was "more subtly detailed." He concluded that Yale is the superior operating system—or was, until PS Audio's Torreys upgrade, available as a free download. Said RD: "I would take Torreys . . . over Yale." Latest Huron firmware is even better, finds JCA and JA. (Vol.37 No.9, Vol.38 Nos. 2, 3, 5 & 11, Vol.39 No.11, Vol.40 Nos.2 & 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

Audio Note DAC 2.1x Signature: $4400
In common with other Audio Note D/A converters and CD players, the DAC 2.1x Signature is built around a rather old-school 18-bit Analog Devices 1865 chip, said to be hand selected. Neither oversampling nor digital filtering is used, nor does the DAC 2.1x Signature contain an analog filter; according to Audio Note, the converter's use of a transformer as an I/V stage confers on the output signal sufficient treble rolloff. The tubed output stage is built with Audio Note's own copper-foil-in-oil signal capacitors, and signal output is handled by Audio Note Silver interconnect cable. Digital inputs are limited to S/PDIF (RCA) and AES/EBU (XLR); a USB input is not offered. After using it with Audio Note's own CDT One/II disc transport, AD praised the DAC 2.1x Signature for its sonic heft and substance, its analog-like momentum and flow, and, overall, a knack for "bringing out the goodness of good recordings, [although it] also had a knack for accentuating the badness of certain types of bad recordings." While testing the DAC 2.1x Signature, JA discovered distortion products, noise, jitter, and data truncation (24 to 18 bits), leading him to describe the Audio Note as "broken." (Vol.39 No.1 WWW)

CanEver Audio ZeroUno: $7995
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 Hugo TT: $3995
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)

Lector Strumenti Digitube S-192: $3195 ★
The full-width (16.9") Lector Strumenti Digitube S-192, which AD described as well built and well styled "without silly excess," is a D/A converter whose only user control, apart from its power switch, is a pushbutton that selects among its five digital inputs: RCA, BNC, TosLink, XLR (for AES/EBU), and USB. Its Japanese AK4397 DAC chip provides 32-bit performance at up to 192kHz, and it has an analog (non-switching) power supply and, in its analog output section, a pair of ECC81 dual-triode tubes. Using the Digitube primarily as a USD processor with his iMac and his decidedly tube-friendly music system, AD found that it offered "a near-analog portrayal of . . . colors and textures" and excellent impact and detail resolution, although its sense of scale was bested by the far less expensive Halide DAC HD. Yet in measuring the Digitube, JA noted "truly dreadful measured performance in the digital domain, along with [a] disappointing showing in the analog domain"—in light of which, greater-than-usual buyer circumspection seems appropriate. "Class A, for special tastes only," sums up AD. (Vol.37 No.6 WWW)

Mytek Brooklyn: $1995 $$$
Mytek Hifi, which has its roots in the pro-audio industry, takes aim at the consumer-audio marketplace with their Brooklyn-made Brooklyn DAC, which also functions as a line-level preamplifier, a two-output headphone amplifier, and—remarkably—an MM/MC phono preamp. No less remarkable are the compact (8.5" wide) Brooklyn's 32-bit performance via USB, its 384kHz PCM resolution, and its ability to handle up to DSD 11.2896MHz, not to mention its MQA compatibility. 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 Brooklyn's sound with its analog volume control, nonetheless reported having a hard time getting a handle on that sound—something that might be considered good in and of itself. But when 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 "excellent" signal/noise ratio, among other things, from its phono stage, and concluded: "the Mytek Brooklyn's measured performance is superb . . . color me impressed." In the May 2017 Stereophile, KR described using three Mytek Brooklyns—connected, via an active USB hub, as a single DAC—to play multichannel MQA recordings from 2L Recordings. It worked, and the experience prompted from Kal this reference to JCA's review of the Brooklyn: "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 Brooklyn, through which he enjoyed streaming MQA-encoded Tidal Masters files: "I'm happily addicted to MQA, Tidal Masters, and the Mytek Brooklyn." (Vol.39 No.11, Vol.40 No.5 WWW)

B

Auralic Altair: $1899
From the makers of the Aries streaming bridge (see elsewhere in this edition of "Recommended Components") comes the Altair, which 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)

Brinkmann Audio Nyquist: $18,000
One might expect analog-like sound from a D/A converter designed and manufactured by a maker of very-high-quality turntables and tonearms, and on that front, this MQA-compatible DAC—it also handles PCM to 384kHz and DSD128 (via DoP) and DSD256 (natively)—does not disappoint: As MF concluded, "The Nyquist would look and sound right at home next to a turntable." Built around a dual-mono pair of ESS ES9018S Sabre DAC chips, the Nyquist was designed to be future-proof; to that end, its digital module, which contains those chips and all other digital-processing hardware and software, can be easily removed from the rest of the Nyquist by undoing a few fasteners and pulling it out of the enclosure via the rear panel, thus facilitating updates, upgrades, upeverything. At the other end of the timeline, the Brinkmann's output stage includes two Telefunken PCF803 triode/pentode tubes per channel. After listening to the Nyquist in his system, Mikey described its sound as "smoother and more liquid overall, and somewhat warmer in the midbass" than a contemporary solid-state DAC of similar price. Summarizing the results of his lab tests, JA noted his disappointment with the Nyquist's "higher-than-usual levels of random noise," "[increased] distortion at low levels," and "[power]-supply–related sidebands," concluding that "you shouldn't have to make excuses for a DAC costing $18,000." (Vol.40 No.8 WWW)

Rega Research DAC-R: $1195
This new iteration of the plain-named Rega DAC (the original was reviewed in Vol.34 Nos.5 & 10 and Vol.35 No.2) contains changes both small—the DAC-R's longer case (for better power-supply layout), and improved firmware and power connectors—and large: Rega's digital processor now has an XMOS-based, 24-bit/192kHz asynchronous USB input. The internal DACs are twin Wolfson WM8742 chips implemented without upsampling, allied to an output section built with discrete transistors. A choice of three user-selectable filters is offered, though the still-compact case—8.4" wide by 3.1" high by 12.5" deep—lacks a headphone jack. Using the Rega as an adjunct to his home recording studio, JI found that, while listening to vocal feeds, the DAC-R added a little sugar—"a slight warmth or sweetening"—that he didn't hear through his trusted Benchmark DAC2 HGC. (JI: "I liked it. The singer preferred it.") He also found that the DAC-R "produced a wonderful soundstage, floating aural images in space where they should be, with plenty of detail and depth." Apart from some artifacts that appeared related to the chipset's less–than–Gulag Archipelago degree of isolation from the power supply, JA's measurements suggest that the DAC-R "offered measured performance that was beyond reproach." Borderline Class A. (Vol.38 No.8 WWW)

Schiit Audio Yggdrasil: $2299
Is high-end audio ready for a company whose all-out statement DAC costs just $2299? Ready or not, the Yggdrasil is here, offering what Schiit Audio 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 each for the digital and analog supplies. 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, his praise of the Schiit's "superbly well designed" analog circuitry set against his impression of "digital circuitry [that] is not fully optimized." (Vol.40 Nos.2 & 9 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)

K Benchmark DAC3 HGC, Lynx AES16 soundcard, Sonore ultraRendu, dCS Vivaldi 2.0 and Network Bridge.

Deletions
Ayre Acoustics QA-9 & QB9DSD, Cambridge Audio Azur 851D, no longer available; Arcam rBlink, Benchmark Media Systems ADC1 USB, Channel Islands Audio Transient Mk.II, Musical Fidelity V90-DAC, NAD M51 Direct Digital, all not auditioned in a long time.

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

Does anyone own any of these Recommended pieces?

If so,

Can you tell us about it?

Tony in Michigan

ps. I own the Sennheisers which are Superb *

chrisstu's picture

I did head to head comparisons versus Berkley, EMM, Ayre....for me in my system the Bricasti beat the Ayre and Berkley and tied with the EMM for far less money. Their support has been OUTSTANDING as well. I had an issue with one channel and they took it back and performed upgrades on it to make up for the inconvenience. As other new upgrades come out they are great about retrofitting to the latest. Great sounding device. Great support.

SpinMark3313's picture

VPI Classic Signature with SDS power box, SoundSmith MIMC (OK, not the "star" edition), EAR 834P phono pre. In all a lovely, lovely set-up - fast, musical, extended, glorious mid-range. I am officially off the analog upgrade train except for some possible upgrades to the EAR in the future (some vintage Telefunken tubes have already taken it to a whole new level).
Once you figure it out and get a few of the right tools, the VPI 3D arm is not that difficult to set up and the on-the-fly adjustable SRA is terrific.
Interestingly, the Classic Signature drew my attention due to years of mostly good VPI coverage in Stereophile, the EAR came by dealer recommendation and audition, and the SoundSmith was a shot in the dark based on my intrigue with the moving iron concept, and the speed of the "moving coil" version. Turned out to be a wonderful combination...

Briandrumzilla's picture

I know you guys hate digital but surely the Sony Play Station 1 has not been reviewed in a long time. It has been on the recommended list for what seems like forever. Other components are deleted after a few years. Get over it. Your precious analog won.

DougM's picture

It would be much easier to read the reviews of recommended components if there were links to them in the recommended listings, rather than having to scroll through past reviews to find them.

Tempo's picture

I thought the Pono Player was discontinued last Spring. It seems to be still available through some retailers, but shouldn't the company's decision to change directions at least be mentioned?

woodford's picture

there's a typo in the price, or at least an extra digit. it's not a $10k cart.

ivayvr's picture

I noticed that the price of NAD D3020 is still shown as $ 499. For the last two years or slightly longer, the actual price for the D3020 was $ 399.99.
At the same time, we were duly notified about the price drop for the very next entry, PS Audio Sprout to $ 499. That is creating a false impression that they cost the same.

syj's picture

"For the DragonFly Black, output voltage has now dropped from 1.8 to 1.2V, but in the DragonFly Red—which also has the distinction of an ESS Sabre 9016 DAC chip with 64-bit digital volume control—output voltage is bumped up to a healthy 2.1V, which AQ suggests better suits it to drive difficult headphone loads."

I think the DAC chip in the Dragon Red is ESS Sabre 9018 (9016 is in the Black).

Also, IMHO, the iFi Nano DSD LE is far far better than the Dragon Red
in terms of sound quality via the Amplifier (with Foobar2000 as the
source). I have both of them. So good that I bought another iFi Nano LE

to use with my other system. The problem of the Nano LE is that the
USB port isn't really secure when I accidentally move or touch the USB
chord it may stop playing. This happens with both units with either USB2.0 or USB3.0 cables.

icorem's picture

Compared the list to the last one + deletions and there is no trace to the Vivid Audio g3.

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