Recommended Components: Fall 2018 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+

Auralic Vega: $2799 ★
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 DAC3 HGC: $2195
"The [Benchmark] DAC1 was a tough act to follow. So, apparently, is the DAC2. Where would the DAC3 land?" Thus did JCA lay the groundwork for his review of Benchmark's DAC3 HGC—the last three letters designate it the audiophile version, with a headphone amp and two analog inputs—which supports files up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD64, the latter as DoP (via USB). The design of this most recent Benchmark DAC was motivated by the availability of a new chip from ESS Sabre, the ES9028PRO, claimed to offer superior filter choices as well as active harmonic compensation, itself intended to reduce even further the levels of second- and third-harmonic distortions when compared with the Benchmark DAC1 and DAC2. Bearing in mind statements from Benchmark's director of technology—who suggested that, in a general sense, there should be no audible difference between the 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: the sound was weightier, with a darker frequency balance; the soundstage was deeper—I heard deeper into the music." The more concise conclusion to JA's Measurements sidebar: "All I can say is 'Wow!'" (Vol.40 No.11, Vol.41 No.10 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: $12,488
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 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, disable, or simply ignore the disc transport in your dCS Rossini Player (see "Disc and File Players"), you'd essentially have a Rossini D/A converter—just the thing for hobbyists who want the performance of dCS's signature Ring DAC technology but already have a top-notch transport (or zero need for such a thing). Like the Rossini Player, the Rossini DAC 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) or Paganini (discontinued). 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 issue, Jason reported on using a Rossini DAC that had been upgraded with full MQA compatibility. This is accomplished by using the Rossini's iOS app when the DAC is connected, via Ethernet, to the Internet (as of this writing, the current MQA-compatible Rossini software version is v.1.10). That done, the Rossini's six user-selectable filters for non-MQA PCM and its four filters for DSD are joined by a single MQA filter, called M1. JVS's conclusion: "dCS's implementation of MQA in their Rossini D/A processor is 100% successful. The improved sound the Rossini drew from [my] MQA tracks was easily audible, and took recorded sound to another level, viscerally and emotionally." (Vol.40 No.1, Vol.41 No.5 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)

Mytek 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 DAC: $5999.95 ★
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

Aqua Acoustic Quality Formula xHD: $17,000
From Milan comes this resistor-ladder (R2R) DAC, which uses field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) instead of chips and internal opto-couplers between its digital and analog circuits, the latter reportedly endowing the Formula xHD with lower-than-average noise and conferring on it the additional trade name Optologic. The Aqua processor has no digital filter and thus performs no oversampling, and accepts datastreams up to 768kHz, DSD up to 256 (DoP) via USB, and PCM up to 192kHz via coaxial and AES/EBU inputs. After several hours of running in, JVS found the Formula xHD's sound to be "suffused with light and a beautiful, warm midrange." But in the days that followed, although he applauded the xHD's ability to "smooth over digital's rough edges," with some recordings he wished for more "natural treble ring" and color saturation. With the Aqua on his test bench, JA noted "negligible" levels of linearity error—a problem that plagues lesser ladder DACs—but also uncovered "poor" rejection of word-clock jitter, and "extremely high" and surely "very audible" harmonic distortion from its balanced outputs, the latter attributable to core saturation of the output transformer's core: an ill to which the single-ended outputs are immune. He is working on a Follow-Up with a sample that, it is claimed, solves this problem. (Vol.41 No.6 WWW)

Audio Note DAC 2.1x Signature: $4889
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: $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: $2649 $$$
About the name: HoloAudio is the manufacturer; Spring is the model name; "Kitsuné Tuned Edition" (Kitsuné is HoloAudio's US distributor) is the version of the model; and Level 3 is the level of the version of the model. [Sigh.] About the product: The Spring is a member of a nearly extinct subfamily of converters called ladder DACs, which use discrete resistors to convert pulsing bitstreams to continuous analog voltage. Difficult to build—to ensure playback linearity, every resistor must be painstakingly hand sorted—ladder DACs tend to be expensive, and so the comparatively affordable Spring, which sells for just $1499 in its basic, entry-level version, strands out. Its USB input handles PCM to 32-bit/768kHz, and, perhaps uniquely, the HoloAudio Spring also has a separate, discrete resistor network to handle DSD data (to DSD512). In the "Kitsuné," etc., version of the Spring, all copper wiring and circuit-board plugs are replaced with 1.5mm silver, the IEC inlet capacitor is replaced with a silver-foil Mundorf oil cap, and the fuse is replaced with an Audio Horizon Platinum Reference fuse. The Spring impressed the hell out of HR, who wrote of its sound: "More open. More relaxed. The Spring let me feel rhythm changes with my head and rocking shoulders." HR also praised the Spring's "astonishing transparency, which seemed to reach deeper into the digital quiet," and 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 addressed the matter of linearity by noting that "error was negligible down to 60dBFS," and wrote that "HoloAudio's Spring DAC offers mainly excellent measured performance." In his Follow-Up, AD wondered if it was a coincidence that the lack of oversampling characterizes some of his "all-time favorite digital source components"—and praised the Spring for putting across the size of a large piano, the "purr of its lowest strings," and the state of mind of the musician playing it. His verdict: "a revelation in every sense." (Vol.41 Nos. 5 & 7 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)

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 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)

Schiit Audio Yggdrasil: $2299
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
From the makers of the Vega DAC (see elsewhere in "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)

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)

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
BorderPatrol's Digital to Analogue Converter SE eschews the latest chip, filter, and power-supply technology in favor of a decidedly old-school approach to digital audio: the processor of choice is the same Philips TDA1543 16-bit chip found in inexpensive playback gear from the 1980s and '90s, implemented without a digital reconstruction filter, energized by an analog power supply with twin mains transformers and a tube rectifier. That said, the DAC SE's USB receiver accepts datastreams up to 32 bits and 384kHz (but see below). 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. Although with some recordings HR preferred other, more decidedly high-tech DACs for their greater apparent clarity, he thought the BorderPatrol provided truer, more saturated tonal colors, and concluded that the DAC SE "turns its back on digital-sounding digital and, instead, delivers refined, human-sounding musical pleasures—at a very reasonable price." Writing from his test lab, JA expressed far less enthusiasm for the DAC SE, noting 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 rejection of word-clock jitter. Jon Iverson is working on a Follow-Up and says the BorderPatrol DAC is "Like a sweet sultry voice, gently caressing your ear, nibbling it gently, while lying to you with every word." (Vol.41 No.9 WWW)

K Cambridge DACMagic Plus. Lynx AES16 soundcard, Mytek Liberty, Sonore ultraRendu.

Deletions
Brinkmann Audio Nyquist, MSB Analog DAC, no longer available.

COMMENTS
dalethorn's picture

I bought a AQ NightOwl Carbon when it was on sale, and I'm glad I did (get it on sale, that is). A weak bass and a weaker treble makes a very different headphone from the NightHawk. I wondered what Skylar was thinking when I purchased the NightHawk a couple years ago and broke them in. But as it turned out, a little bit of EQ and the NightHawk was a splendid performer. Not so the NightOwl - I gave it away - couldn't bear to take someone's money for it.

SimonK's picture

The NAD amps are in fact Class D's though they call them Hybrid Digital. They are power dacs with an output switching stage coupled to a DAC.

Axiom05's picture

When did this issue mail out? I'm still waiting for mine in Sarasota, USPS is so frustrating! It is not good when I can read the articles online before I receive my paper copy.

DougM's picture

With all the great budget CD players available from the likes of Marantz, NAD, Cambridge, and many others, you couldn't find one to recommend to your readers, but instead are still beating the dead horse of the PlayStation?, and grossly overpriced "portable players" and smartphones. The only actual CD player you could find that doesn't cost a small fortune is the Rega. You do a real disservice to your readers who aren't among the 1%. Another reason why I pay more attention to the British magazine What Hi-Fi 'cause they cover truly affordable electronics and speakers. Shame on you JA!

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