YBA Design WD202 D/A headphone amplifier Page 3

For a USB source, I turned to a new MacBook Pro (2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 320GB HDD). Using Sonic Studio's Amarra Computer Music Player software (highly recommended) with its USB dongle, I created a playlist of several early-'70s tracks ripped from CDs to iTunes as uncompressed AIFF files.

A note about comparing DACs: Using my preamp to switch back and forth between DACs during a single playing of a song never seems to work for me. I've found that it takes at least five or six comparisons using a single track, played all the way through each time, to lock on to what each DAC was doing. Sometimes I needed to do this a dozen times back and forth, or play the same track several times in a row through one DAC, then try it with the next. (By this point, usually, our cats had left the room.)

If, by this time, nothing had popped out at me, I'd then pick another track and start over—some tracks highlighted differences (if they exist) better than others. Some tracks sounded so close on all of the converters that I couldn't reliably pick one over another. Of the dozen or so tracks I used, the two below made it easier to hear what was going on. This was all tedious work, but I found that if I took the time, I eventually could confidently identify the character of each product—even if I sometimes concluded that those differences were so minor as to not matter at all.

Starting with the title track of Roxy Music's 1973 release, For Your Pleasure (Virgin 8 47449 2), I quickly gave the edge to the Ayre for midrange control, and that sense of real space and detail that you hear with analog tape. As the drums roll around in the intro and then the electric-guitar washes enter, the Ayre had just that extra touch of seductive clarity. Bryan Ferry's voice, in particular, just sounded more real and easy to listen to.

In fact, I've heard analog master tapes played through this system, and the Ayre gets remarkably close to the immediate sound of a good analog recording. I can hear into the mix and focus on any of its parts. This is not the same as the sound of live music—what the Ayre excels at reproducing is what is on the tape. Credit to the recording and digital mastering as well, but Wow. The Ayre does it right.

The Benchmark trailed the Ayre with this track, sounding closer to but very slightly bettering the YBA WD202. It was quite close, though. Both the YBA and Benchmark sounded great, letting me hear into the soundstage as the Ayre did, but to lesser degrees. I'm not looking for some euphonic enhancement of the recording, but an honest representation of it, and all of these DACs could do that—the Ayre just did it better. At this point the Cambridge Azur DacMagic, and especially the Musical Fidelity V-DAC, were trailing by enough that I unplugged and retired them.

I also tried "For Your Pleasure" through the YBA's USB and S/PDIF inputs, respectively sourced from the computer and the Sooloos, to see if that might reveal a variable. Nothing, nada—could not hear a difference. I later learned from my YBA contact that "Schonfeld informs me that the USB is converted directly to S/PDIF and then converted like the others." So maybe that explains it. He also added that "they only use the data transfer pins from [USB], and not any of the other functions, like analog conversion, which is of very poor quality. Also, the WD202 uses a proprietary dedicated power supply and not the feed from the PC, thus substantially reducing the SNR and improving performance overall."

I also used the Roxy track to compare the Benchmark and YBA with my trusty Grado Labs HP1000 headphones. Using the YBA's remote, I switched it back to variable-output mode and set both DACs at the same volume. Here was where the Benchmark's analog volume knob was an advantage: it helps you quickly find a level. The YBA uses the four source LEDs on its front panel as a kind of volume indicator when you push the Volume Up or Down button—a bit awkward, and much slower. But once the levels were matched, I found the Benchmark to sound more natural and precise.

Back to the USB shoot-out: Next I cued up "Guajira," from Santana III (Columbia/Legacy 82796 90270 2), released in 1971. This tune's abundance of high-frequency percussion instruments proved a torture test for all the DACs. Through the Ayre, I could clearly hear each of the percussion textures: shakers, guiro, Vibra-Slap, cymbals, cowbell, timbale. By comparison, these complicated transients were smeared a bit through the YBA and Benchmark, reducing the apparent resolution of the top end. Once again, the Benchmark and YBA were almost tied, but I give the edge to the Benchmark.

A pattern was beginning to emerge. I now understood what all the fuss was about last year, when the Ayre QB-9 was named Stereophile's 2009 Product of the Year. While the overall tonality, bottom end, and dynamic impact of all three DACs were very similar via USB, the Ayre made it easier to differentiate each part of the ensemble, had more spatial detail, depth, and width, and removed a slight glaze around instruments, and especially voices.

To be fair, the Ayre has no digital inputs other than USB, no headphone jack, and no volume control—all of which are found on the YBA and Benchmark—and sells for almost three times as much as the WD202. But credit where credit is due: Judging the sound quality via USB, the Ayre easily held its ground, and reminded me of what I liked last year about the T+A Music Player when I used it as a DAC via S/PDIF. If you can afford it, and plan on running only a USB source, the Ayre QB-9 is the one.

What about the Benchmark and YBA? Via USB, these two were the closest-sounding of the bunch so I moved my focus back to the Sooloos, and the S/PDIF inputs on both DACs, for another comparison. My copy of Come On, Get Happy! The Very Best of the Partridge Family (CD, Arista/Legacy 82876 68199 2) showed up just in time to provide my next test track, the brilliant "I Think I Love You." Say what you will about this type of TV "band" (footnote 1), this song is one of the better pop tracks of 1970, and was deployed to great sardonic effect at the end of the Korean horror film The Quiet Family (1998).

But no matter how many times I switched back and forth with "I Think I Love You," I couldn't pick a clear winner, so I retreated to the handful of tracks I'd used at the outset. Over time, I sensed that the YBA was a trifle less precise and rounded around the edges, the Benchmark just a touch more forward. But don't hold me to it—every time I thought I'd gotten a firm grasp on a difference, it would slip away with the very next track. Although these two DACs consistently stumped me, in the end I give the nod to the Benchmark for what I felt was a marginally more honest sound.

Which is to say that, for $879, YBA Design has really accomplished something in the WD202. The Benchmark DAC1 USB has been around a while and has stood the test of time, consistently impressing many Stereophile reviewers with its great build quality and clean sound. But by virtue of its (to my ear) similar sound and lower price, the WD202 deserves to be heard. In the meantime, Benchmark has not been idle—their new, remote-controlled DAC1 HDR ($1895) may move the sonic ball forward even further. [Erick Lichte is working on a review.—Ed.] But if you want something for less than a grand that has more than just USB, and/or if you want a headphone jack, the YBA Design WD202 should be on your short list.

Footnote 1: According to Wikipedia, "The only cast members of the television show to actually participate in the recording of the song were David Cassidy and Shirley Jones. The music on the song was played by veteran studio musicians such as Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborne, Louie Shelton, Tommy Tedesco, and others."
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