LSA DPH-1 Headphone Amplifier

I love discovering reasonably priced products, squarely aimed at bringing great sound to more people, and new people to our wacky world of audio.

Underwood HiFi scores big time with their new LSA DPH-1 headphone amplifier, which also has an onboard high-res (does DSD too) DAC featuring four inputs. LSA makes use of the AKM 4495 DAC chips and AK-4118 digital input receiver, for those wanting to know…  I say, “implementation,” and in this case, they’ve done a fantastic job.

Right now, in typical Underwood fashion, they are running an introductory special and moving these babies for the holiday season at $799, instead of the $999 they will be asking at some point. Even at $999, this would be a great deal – let’s investigate a little further.

If the DPH-1 were only a headphone amp at $999 it would still be great. The DAC is a true bonus, and it makes the DPH-1 fantastic for personal listening, desk side or bed side. It’s small (14” x 10” x 4”) footprint makes it easy to integrate anywhere.

Ins and outs

Around the back, there are four digital inputs – USB, optical, coax and BNC. Personally, I like the BNC as I have a vintage Wadia transport, which I pulled out of mothballs to give the DPH-1 a spin. Interestingly, you’ll notice a pair of RCA analog outputs marked “Tube” and “Solid-State.” This is really cool and gives you more options, should you decide to use your DPH-1 as a line preamplifier. And if you happen to be a digital only music lover, the DPH-1 is all you need.

The tube output runs the DAC’s output through a tube buffer, featuring a “NOS tube from GE.” Turns out this tube is an ex-military issue item that is very similar to the legendary Western Electric 396A tube. Those of you that aren’t tube geeks: plugging your power amplifier into the tube output will give you a slightly warmer, more tonally saturated presentation. This is super awesome option for those of you running a solid-state or class D amp, and it works miracles on budget amps too!  Consequently, the solid-state outputs add a little extra dynamic slam to your favorite tube amp.

You can even run both the tube and solid-state outputs into your integrated amp or preamp and switch sonic characteristics on the fly. It’s like having two separate DAC’s in one box. Or, as we do with our reference DAC here, if space allows, or you have systems in adjoining rooms, you can run both systems from the same DAC. Very versatile indeed.

That being said, mating the DPH-1 to a vintage (but tastefully rebuilt) Dynaco Stereo 70 and the LSA-10 Signature speakers was absolutely heavenly. Either way, the ability to fine tune your system to taste is cool, especially at this price.

Getting personal

Running through the gaggle of headphones on hand, from the $3,000 Focal Stellia to my Grado SR-60s, the DPH-1 delivers an excellent experience. The amplifier does a great job driving everything, and has particularly good control in the lower registers. Zooming through some vintage Little Feat tracks, particularly “Romance Dance,” from The Last Record Album, reveals the DPH-1s ability to control a pair of headphone drivers and deliver a convincing musical foundation. Next up, the Bell Biv Devoe classic, “Poison.” If I was listening on a 2-channel system, I’d be blowing the doors down with bass – and as it was, I caught myself turning the volume down, because the distortion free playback this amp provides might tempt you to turn it up too loud. So, watch the volume.

After a solid sampling of phones, the bulk of our test listening was done with the Focals, showing off just how good this amp is. Regardless of where you are on your headphone journey, you’ll be able to move up from wherever you are to some pretty premium phones without worry. That’s value.

Bass is not the only dimension at which the DPH-1 excels. Joni Mitchell just released her Archives – Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967), and this set handily shows the inner detail, definition and upper range smoothness this amplifier offers. Joni Mitchell’s voice is a tough one to nail down – almost like a violin, when it’s wrong, it’s harsh and shriek-y, but when it’s right, it’s dreamy. We’ll happily put the DPH-1 in the dreamy category here, and this lead us to some of the tracks on Lyle Mays self-titled debut album. Nailing the tonality of a piano is similar in degree of difficulty, and again the DPH-1 sails through.

There’s a sign on one of my neighbor’s lawns that says “Presidents come and go, but Wu-Tang is forever.” Point taken, so on the way back from my morning coffee, I had to fire up some Wu-Tang. In their honor, I cranked up “Method Man” as the six-shot mocha took hold. Good stuff.

The DAC section of the DPH-1 does its job without fanfare, as it should be. We tried all four inputs, and were pleased each time, using our Wadia transport for the BNC input, an OPPO 105 (yep, still got one) for the coax input, a MacBook Pro for the USB input and our faithful Sony ES changer from the garage system to evaluate the optical input. Suffice to say, whatever you have, the DPH-1 will accommodate it, and the higher resolution capabilities this DAC provides easily illuminates the additional resolution that high res formats have to offer. Good as it is with high res, the DPH-1 does not compromise 16/44 playback in any way.

Putting the DPH-1 in the context of a nice two-channel system makes for a great, compact music system, requiring minimal rack space to rock. Whether you buy a DPH-1 as a headphone amplifier, or as an anchor to a digital two channel system with a pair of speakers – you’ll be happy wherever your journey begins.

Simple elegance

LSA has followed the aesthetic vibe started with their other components, and the DPH-1 is nicely finished, but not overly ostentatious. It feels good when you unbox and pick it up, and it looks great on your rack. Its basic functionality (volume control, input selector, and headphone jack) makes it easy to use. Fortunately, the power supply is built in, so there’s no external power supply to lose or deal with. A big plus.

By using casework like other LSA products, they keep the cost down. When you’re investigating components in this price range, it’s nice to see a manufacturer stick to basics, striking a balance with a product that sounds great, and has the looks to back it up without going overboard.

Add it all up and LSAs DPH-1 is a fantastic DAC/Headphone amp. If I didn’t spin records, I could easily live with it as my main two-channel preamp and build a great system around it featuring speakers. It ticks all the boxes – easy to use, reasonable price, and sounds fantastic. What else do you need?

Exogal’s Comet Plus DAC

The driving bass line in Paul Weller’s “Peacock Suit” instantly convinces me that the Comet Plus is an excellent DAC. It renders music with cohesion, with a groove that is unmistakable. Best of all you won’t find yourself saying “pretty good for digital.”

There are multiple schools of thought when it comes to listening to any component run in, but if it sucks out of the box, it isn’t going to become magically great after a hundred or a zillion hours of burn in. Outstanding components offer compelling performances straight out of the box, only to improve with a bit of time. The Exogal Comet Plus delivers right from power up; and while they do suggest some burn in time, it opens up considerably after about 24 hours of continuous play and then a little more as you pile hours on the clock.

This DAC is equally beguiling switching to the sultry voice of Amy Winehouse, as she sings “F-Me Pumps.” The Quad/REL combination pumps out bass like nobody’s business; lot’s of weight, growl and sheer push. And Winehouse’s’ raspiness is preserved while offering a lot of body and fullness. No matter what the program, this is an exciting musical component.

Hundreds of albums later, whether listening to high-res digital files (the Comet Plus handles it all from 24/192 PCM files up to mega DSD) I remain fully engaged. Cool as the high res playback is, the Comet’s ability to provide exceptional playback quality with standard CD resolution files is what keeps me excited. You will not be the least bit disappointed with high res playback via the Comet and your favorite form of data transfer. Many DAC’ commanding the Comet Plus’ pricetag ($3,500 as the Plus version with higher capacity power supply) scrimp on one aspect of digital playback in hopes of gathering attention. Not here, this baby is pure American know-how through and through.

Call it what you will

As digital playback continues to improve, it becomes more natural, more organic, more lifelike. While some may say digital is starting to sound more like analog, I submit it just sounds more like music and freer of artifacts, noise, or whatever distortions trigger your brain to think it’s listening to reproduced music versus the real thing.

At first audition, you might even find the Comet Plus slightly warm or romantic. (And I mean slightly.) You might even want to take it apart and hunt for a vacuum tube or two inside, but I mean this in the best possible way. The best tube circuits have magic, a delicacy, that can present music in an easier way that comes across as tonally more inviting than transistors, and only the best solid state can achieve this sense of ease. This is what the Comet Plus provides in all three of my reference system. If it were a phono cartridge, it would be somewhere between the new Grado Statement 2 and the Koetsu Jade Platinum. If it were a preamplifier, it would split the difference between the tonality of the Conrad Johnson GAT 2 and the Audio Research REF 6. All the musical integrity is intact, but there’s something special going on here. If it were a leather jacket, it would be a John Varvatos piece – hip, cool, and looks like it cost a lot more than you paid for it. I hope that’s helping you out a bit, as this can be so tough to define.

Seriously, you should hear this little box, available in silver or black. Hailing from Minneapolis, where people tend to go about their business of getting stuff done without a lot of fanfare, this ethos is reflected in the Comet Plus. It has understated good looks, with a tasteful design and a modest footprint that will make it home in any system. The combination of a cool, roundy shape, top shelf materials, and the fact that you can get it in black too is very fashion forward.

Hooking up

Though other reviewers have either bypassed the analog input of the Comet Plus or groused about its quality and functionality, I found it to be quite good. It’s never wise to assume anything, especially when it comes to your music, system, and habits. Should you be the kind of music and audio lover that is looking for a high-performance digital solution, but then gets pulled into the analog world, you’re going to appreciate that analog input.

Plugging in the now upgraded (with an Ortofon 2M Bronze cartridge) Shinola Runwell turntable makes for a killer system with virtually no footprint, thanks to the Runwell’s built in phonostage. Spinning more of my share of LPs this way was proved a ton of fun. Mated to a Pass Labs XA30.8 power amplifier and the Graham LS5/9 speakers were incredibly musical and involving. Moving the Comet Plus to the new room three system with the PrimaLuna DialogueHP integrated and the Quad 2812/REL S2 combination even better.

And it’s got a nice headphone amp as well, though my experience with the phones at my disposal from Audeze, OPPO and AKG find the Comet a little bit lacking for ultimate punch, but easier to drive phones like the Grados, JBL, and Beats (I know, I know) are just fine. Bottom line, it’s a nice addition, but the Comet won’t be your ultimate headphone amplifier. As little as I listen to phones, this wouldn’t stop me from buying a Comet in the least.

Using the Comet Plus as a digital hub, inputs for USB, Toslink, SPDIF and AES/EBU should have you rocking, no matter what your sources. Most of my listening was done via Mac Book Pro, Mac Mini or the new Dell XPS 27 that we just reviewed. Mac users will have a plug and play experience, and Windows users will more than likely have to download the necessary drivers from the Exogal website. The HDMI EXONET connectors are strictly for use when connecting to other Exogal products, not as a digital input, so don’t expect to use this as an input source.

While many will probably use the Comet Plus with their computer of choice, excellent results were achieved with the dCS, Simaudio, PS Audio, and OPPO transports at my disposal, via USB and AES/EBU inputs. If you’ve got an older transport or are itching for an upgrade, the Comet Plus is a perfect step up that won’t require you abandoning the transport you already have. It proves a particularly engaging combination with the Simaudio MOON CD 260D.

Exogal has provided an excellent app to control the Comet Plus with your favorite smartphone, and they do provide a decent remote. You will need to connect the small antenna to make this all happen; be careful, as it is very small and easy to lose.

Around the block

Having quite a few DACs at our beck and call these days makes for some intriguing comparisons. Unfairly comparing the Comet Plus to the $40k dCS Rossini DAC/Clock, the $30k Gryphon Kalliope DAC and the $18k Simaudio MOON 780D still proves the big boys deliver the goods. There’s a level of refinement with the super mega DACs that isn’t here. But again, this is not a fair comparison. Comparing it to a handful of other DACs slightly more and slightly less expensive is where it really shines. The Comet Plus offers way more sonic refinement than anything I’ve heard anywhere near its price.

What I did come away with after putting the Comet Plus in the context of a $300k reference system and head to head with a few of the world’s finest DACs is that the Comet Plus certainly has the soul of a five-figure DAC. Five minutes of switching back to the Comet Plus, you won’t be looking around to plug the spendy DAC back in, with your ears in a panic. Think of the Comet Plus as an Audi A3 Sport or a new Miata. They offer so much fun and engagement, you don’t think about what lies beyond – and that’s what makes the Comet Plus such an awesome component. Listening to the decay at the beginning of Cheap Trick’s “Mandocello,” from their self-titled debut, the music just flows. Just as it does cruising through a whole pile of Ella Fitzgerald tracks. Yep, this is midrange magic at its best, yet there is plenty of extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum as well. The highest compliment I can pay the Comet Plus is that after the necessary amount of review dissection was complete, I forgot about it. That’s a winner in my book.

Sans preamp

Meant to work in tandem with Exogal’s matching ION powerDAC providing 100 watts per channel, (and we have a review of that on the tail of this review) a pair of balanced XLR outputs and single ended RCA’s assure compatibility with any power amplifier you might have at your disposal.

The digital volume control on board is excellent, lacking nothing in terms of low-level resolution, so when you aren’t rocking the house down, it retains all the sweetness you’ve become accustomed to. Unless you have a mega preamplifier or require all the control functionality, skip buying a linestage entirely. Putting the Comet Plus through its paces with both tube and solid-state power amplifiers proves highly rewarding, and both the balanced and non-balanced outputs had no problems driving 20 feet of interconnects. This makes the Comet Plus stealthy if you don’t want much gear in sight.

A unique destination

With a certain trend in digital pushing more towards opposite ends of the price spectrum, with exciting things going on in the five and six-figure range, as well as the next to nothing column. There isn’t much going on for the music lover that would like to step up from their OPPO but doesn’t want to take a second mortgage on the house or have a modded component. While I’ve had some intriguing experiences with modded components, at the end of the day, they remain Frankensteins. Personally, I’d rather plunk my hard-earned cash down on the original manufacturer.

There’s a lot of brain trust from Wadia at Exogal, and for those of you not familiar, Wadia was a groundbreaking digital company. Consequently, while the Comet Plus has some unique technology under the hood, it is incredibly user-friendly. Combining clean design, robust build quality and above all, fantastic sound makes the Exogal Comet Plus and Exceptional Value Award winner. I suggest spending a few bucks and just getting the Plus model with the bigger power supply because you know your inner tweakasaurus wants it anyway. Highly recommended; and just step up to the plate for the better power supply. It’s worth it and you know you’ll want it anyway.­­­

The Exogal Comet Plus DAC and power supply



Amplification              PrimaLuna HP Premium Integrated (KT 150 model)

Speakers                     Quad 2812 w/REL S2 subwoofer

Cable                           Cardas Clear

Oppo’s latest: Sonica

We’ve just received OPPO’s latest creation, the Sonica DAC.

At $799, this looks to be another killer, offering compatibility with all digital formats, streaming and multi-room audio capabilities. Featuring the latest ESS ES9038PRO chip, and synchronous transfer mode, the high precision clock inside the Sonica DAC drives the audio signal, not relying on the clock quality of the computer. The USB DAC input supports PCM up to 768 kHz 32-bit and DSD up to 22.5792 MHz (DSD512).

The Sonica offers variable, line level outputs, so it can be used as a preamplifier, like their award winning HA-1.

For more information, click here:

Benchmark DAC2 DX

Benchmark DAC2 review by Rob JohnsonBuilding upon the successes of their DAC1, Benchmark is not resting on their laurels. The release of the DAC2 series of products extends the capability and sonic performance of the product line with several different versions, offering a wide range of functionality to suit different owners’ needs.

While it might be easy to get confused by so many variations on the DAC2 theme, it’s important to note that all contain an improved digital engine. The primary differences are inputs and outputs, headphone capability and home theater pass-through. Two versions of the DAC2 come equiped with headphone outputs: DAC2 HGC and the DAC2 DX. DAC L and DAC HGC incorporate single-ended analog inputs for use as a preamplifier. The DX model we tested for this review includes an AES/EBU digital input, but no analog inputs.

Like its Benchmark ABH2 Amplifier we just reviewed, the DAC2 comes in a small enclosure with a lot packed inside. Measuring a scant 9.5 inches (249mm) wide, 9.33 inches (237mm) depth and a 1.725 inches (44.5mm) in height, the DAC2 is small enough to place anywhere easily, even on the most crowded audio racks. Plus, at a mere 3 pounds in weight, it’s easy to lift with one hand when placing it – a real joy after helping our publisher crate up the 274-pound Boulder 2160 the other day!

Internal Innovations

Under the hood, digital processing prowess is provided by SABRE DAC chips to decode 32-bit PCM and DSD files. Feeding these converters the best possible signal, Benchmark utilizes its new jitter-reduction technology via their UltraLock2™ system – a dramatic improvement over the original version in the DAC1. Focusing on lowering the noise floor and distortion level, the latest changes prove highly effective. The variable output makes the DAC2 more versatile than a DAC without, and makes it easy to become the cornerstone of a compact, yet high performance system, eliminating the need for a standalone linestage.

The back panel of the DAC2 reveals a plethora of connections fit to this tight space. Inputs include USB, two coaxial digital, and two optical connections. For analog output, the options depend on the DAC2 model chosen. All models have two pairs of single-ended outputs, and one pair of XLR balanced outputs. With the analog input equipped HGC and L models, the DAC2 features a HT pass through too.

You might not earn carbon offset points with your stereo system, but as a tree-hugging Oregonian, I appreciate that the DAC2 only draws half a watt at idle.

Snappy Setup

The DAC2 is extremely easy to set up. My Mac Mini instantly recognizes it, only requiring a few quick tweaks in the Mac OS sound settings to be ready to play music. Benchmark promises the same ease on the Windows side. While we did not have a Windows-based system on hand for testing, Benchmark has worked to make that experience just as seamless. For high resolution playback on Windows, an easily downloadable driver is needed.

Tight real estate on the rear panel is the only issue that has always plagued Benchmark DACs. As such a small unit, with so many input and output choices, the DAC2 rear panel is a bit crowded. If you have thick audio cables be aware that you may find it a bit of a stretch to get them connected. Lastly, those utilizing 24/192 or DSD files via USB will need to hold down the USB button on the remote for three seconds (a one-time setup operation) to engage USB 2.0 mode for the best performance.

Benchmark DAC2 review by Rob Johnson

Locked-in listening

When I’m anchored into my listening seat, the beefy aluminum Benchmark remote proves a couch potato’s dream come true. The ability to change inputs, volume, and mute leaves little need to get up.

After several days of burn-in, it’s exciting to give this DAC a chance to sing. From the first listen, DAC2 provides a treat for the senses with a highly resolving, yet forgiving nature. Regardless of music type, DAC2 performs as a sonic chameleon rocking and rolling when it needs to, but is equally at home with the delicate nuances of jazz and classical recordings.

Cat Power’s Jukebox illustrates how the DAC2 picks up every pluck of the guitar, keeping them appropriately separated from the vocals, which reside in a different vertical plane parallel to the first. The resonance and decay of acoustic guitar notes are easily discernible across several other recordings too, like Elliott Smith’s XO – his vocals retaining a smooth, organic quality. While DAC2 may not recreate quite the level of transparency reproduced by more expensive DACs I’ve heard, I really like the voice Benchmark engineered into the DAC2. Overly transparent and revealing equipment can tend toward stridency, sibilance and a wince-factor that takes away from the musical experience.

The DAC2, on the other hand, allows a listener to dissolve into the music and enjoy big, beautiful sound rather than getting bogged down in the minutia. For example, several songs on Portishead’s album Dummy have a glare that draws attention to those sharp edges rather than the rounded musical picture. With the DAC2, those sonic artifacts are not removed, but the entire album is much more listenable.

DAC2 also throws a huge soundstage and mines a lot of ambient detail from high-resolution recordings. The perceived stage width and depth easily exceeds the speaker boundaries in all directions. Also, DAC2 projects a sonic image that reaches from floor to ceiling. Many DACs I’ve heard do a good job of this, but so far, I have not heard one under $2,000 that does it so well.

Hearing Headphones

Rather than tossing a headphone amplifier into the unit as an afterthought, Benchmark took great care in delivering a high quality headphone amplifier in the DAC2. Those considering a Benchmark DAC for headphone listening should consider taking advantage of the company’s special pricing offer which bundles a reduced-cost set of Sennheiser HD-650 headphones with some versions of the DAC2 . Those headphones are among my own favorites, and a reduced-cost package through Benchmark is an added bonus for a DAC2 owner, not to mention a great place to start your headphone journey.

With a set of HD650s on hand, listening begins with the Benchmark-recommended cans. While very resolving, the Sennheisers are a bit to the warm side of neutral. As expected, the quality of the DAC2’s sound proves revelatory with any music being piped out. Especially enjoyable are the ease and naturalness of the sound. Electronica like Phantogram’s “Black Out Days” has plenty of punch and detail, but not at the expense of the bigger sonic picture. As an older recording, guitar on Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign can have some sting, but the DAC2 pulls the best from it.

When I switch to a set of Audeze LCD-X headphones, the DAC2 demonstrates plenty of power to drive them, delivering the bass punch these headphones are capable of producing with the right setup. Sonically, these headphones are like stepping forward several rows in an auditorium, getting up close and personal with every bit of the performance. For me, this action-packed delivery was perhaps too close and personal, and I found myself preferring the Sennheisers for the bulk of my listening. The HD-650s indeed seem a perfect match for this setup, and I can see why Benchmark recommends them.

In the end, excellent

$1,895 is not a small price tag, but in a hobby offering mega-buck DACs, it’s a modest sum for a component of this caliber. The DAC2 is a very easy component to live with sonically and aesthetically. Its versatility takes the value to another level, making me nominate this one for an Exceptional Value Award and give it an enthusiastic recommendation.  -Rob Johnson

Benchmark DAC2 review by Rob Johnson

Additional Listening

You have to go back almost seventy issues of TONE to our third issue for our first encounter with Benchmark. The original DAC1 was $995 and garnered our first Exceptional Value Award. It was a class leader then and it remains so today.

Staff member Jerold O’Brien still has his DAC1, so it was enlightening to compare it with the DAC2 alongside. Much like what we found comparing the Nagra PL-P to the current Jazz, the compact exteriors, as well as the overall sound, are very similar. Benchmark gear has always been very neutral, and like Nagra, because they supply so much equipment to the studio world, has little room for embellishment.

The trademark lack of sound that is Benchmark comes through instantly, but stepping up to the DAC2 immediately reveals more music and a deeper insight into recorded material, standard or high resolution. Remember, ten years ago we weren’t even talking about high resolution files, let alone DSD, so moving on to that realm is even more enlightening.

I’ve always loved using Benchmark DACs as a linestage and again, the DAC2 does not disappoint. Auditioning it with everything from a 35 watt per channel PrimaLuna ProLogue 4 up to the mighty Boulder 2160 reveals just how good this component truly is. The DAC2 is perfect for a primarily digital user who wants to put the preamp up on the shelf and run some interconnects to a power amplifier elsewhere in the room – the DAC2 drives long interconnects with ease.

So, ten years later, Benchmark continues to create an awesome DAC in a compact case. I’m guessing I’ll have to arm wrestle Mr. O’Brien for it again. -Jeff Dorgay

Benchmark DAC2 DX

MSRP: $1,895


Digital Sources Mac Mini with jRiver and Roon playback    dCS Debussy
Amplification Burmester 911 mk3
Preamplification Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley, and RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks    Coffman Labs Equipment Footers    AudioQuest Jitterbug

Simaudio MOON Nēo 260D CD Transport/DAC

With more and more audiophiles getting into digital music these days, it is no wonder that many manufacturers are releasing CD players that are also high-quality DACs. Canada’s MOON by Simaudio has joined the crowd with three models, the Evolution 650D (currently a reference component in our publisher’s system) and, for this review, the more-affordable Nēo 260D.

The unit is available as simply a CD transport ($1,999) or with a 32-bit DAC able to play files with resolutions as large as 24 bits/192 kHz ($2,999). Like the pricier Evolution series 650D, the Nēo 260D is a full-function CD player with four digital inputs: S/PDIF, RCA, TOSLINK and USB. In typical MOON fashion, technical and design elements of the Evolution line make their way down to the Nēo line—specifically, in this case, the four-point gel-based mounting system. Paired with power-supply and circuitry improvements and their rigid casework (all done in-house), this adds up to a digital player that all but eliminates mechanical and electrical noise.

Fit and finish are exceptional—no sharp edges, and screws are recessed to avoid catching—though, for some of the casework, the aluminum of the Evolution line is replaced by plastic in the Nēo line to save cost. But, most importantly, the company does not scrimp on the connections, which are level and tight.

The ergonomics of the Nēo 260D are first-rate, with all system and playback controls flanking the LED display, which has two brightness levels, and the lettering and symbols large but not distracting. Included is a plastic remote with well-defined controls, though I wish the color contrast were greater.

The transport spins and pulls up the track information very quickly. Even when spinning a badly scratched disc that no other CD player in my home can even read, the Nēo 260D pulls up the information and manages to play every track with only one skip.

What’s the Difference?

The one word that describes the sonic signature of all MOON products is natural. They offer a ton of resolution but don’t embellish. The Nēo 260D renders Jethro Tull’s classic track “Mother Goose with a richness in the upper-mids and treble that my less-expensive MOON series 300D DAC does not—and that’s the difference between an average transport and a really good one: how much it improves a poor-sounding disc and how much information it can extract from a phenomenal one.

Billy Joel’s album 52nd Street is my torture-test favorite. While the vinyl copy produces a three-dimensional soundstage, the original CD is flat and lifeless. While the Nēo 260D’s rendering of this disc doesn’t fool me into thinking it’s vinyl, it does manage to expand the soundstage enough that Joel’s voice during the fast-tempo ballad “Stiletto” offers up an improved sense of drama. The xylophone in the opening of “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” which normally sticks right at the grille of the speaker, is now a foot or so deeper into the soundstage, bringing some life to a previously sterile disc.

Recreating the recording environment is always a plus—and a more difficult task when the listener knows the venue. A live acoustic version of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “All I Want,” recorded at a local radio station’s annual compilation, benefits greatly from the Nēo 260D’s ability to recreate the small concert room, with vocals demonstrating the natural reflections of the intimate setting. From the same CD, Blitzen Trapper’s “Thirsty Man” provides plenty of air and space for the lead guitar. Again, the Nēo 260D creates greater separation than my current reference, drawing me further into this amateur but engaging recording. Simaudio’s Lionel Goodfield confirms that the Nēo 260D’s DNA comes from the top-of-the-line Evolution series 650D and 750D rather than the MOON 300D.

Going Deeper

The Bill Evans Trio’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay” exhibits tremendous clarity with an equal balance of musicality—particularly the resolution of the drum kit, the definition of the acoustic bass, and the richness of the rich piano. Even on recordings where the piano leans toward edgy, the MOON does an excellent job navigating through difficult sonic zones without losing musicality. The somewhat forward-tilted Alison Krauss album Forget About It further illustrates the Nēo 260D’s ability to retrieve maximum detail without sonic sacrifice.

But tremendous recordings illuminate the full beauty of the Nēo 260D, making it easy to forget you are listening to digital at all. Hans Zimmer’s melodic soundtrack to the film The Holiday is a real treat, with the MOON keeping traditional acoustic and electronic instruments defined during the pleasant overarching melody in the main theme, “Maestro.” The Nēo 260D’s natural sound stays true to the relaxed playing of each artist.

Not Just a CD Player

With four digital inputs on the optional DAC, the Nēo 260D can be the digital hub of any home system. During my review, I used a JVC SACD player, Wadia iTransport with iPod, Apple TV, and MacBook connected simultaneously. Counting the CD transport, I have five sources to choose from—a true digital dream. (With the MacBook, I find equal satisfaction running iTunes with Amarra and Pure Music.)

Playing digital files through the Nēo 260D is a treat, especially with high-resolution files. A 24/44.1 version of Barb Jungr’s raw track “Many Rivers To Cross” oozes with emotion, the Nēo 260D digging out the harmonies in the chorus and granting each voice a distinct place. Switching to a 24/192 file is a cinch, thanks to an easy-to-read display. Dougie MacLean’s “Caledonia,” with its simple acoustic guitar and strings, floats through the room, capturing the air, delicacy and pace of the tune, with MacLean’s gentle guitar and voice expanding and contracting effortlessly.

Final Score

The Nēo 260D once again reaffirms why MOON gear is so popular among the TONEAudio staff. Most audio companies do one type of equipment well—not so with Simaudio; each of its products is first-rate for its price point.

The Nēo 260D delivers tremendous resolution, an incredibly low noise floor and top-notch parts and construction, but most importantly, it offers a natural musical presentation. I thought my days of using a CD player were over—but the Nēo 260D CD Transport/DAC has me seriously rethinking my digital-equipment strategy.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Having used their flagship Evolution series 750D extensively and now using the Evolution series 650D as my reference digital player, I can easily see the lineage. Their engineering continues to refine the company’s products, giving the consumer a healthy dollop of cost-no-object products at workingman’s prices.

No, the Nēo 260D does not give you 88 percent of the Evolution series 650D for a third of the price, but it probably does give you 50 percent—or maybe even a bit more. And realistically, the Nēo 260D makes a ton of sense in a sub-$20,000 system, whereas the 650D, especially with the outboard Evolution series 820S power supply, will be right at home in even a stratospheric system.

You always get a bit more than you pay for with MOON by Simaudio products, and if you like the way the company does things, each product reveals more musical impact and nuance as you go up the product line. Much like with Porsche or BMW, you just get more of the brand’s essence as you spend more money.

As Simaudio’s Lionel Goodfield is quick to point out, the Nēo 260D “is first and foremost a transport; the drive mechanism and suspension are virtually identical to those in the 650D and 750D.” Like its more expensive stable mates, the Nēo 260D is built in-house and not supplied by an external manufacturer. And while I enjoy the DAC part of the equation, I concentrate during my review on using it solely as a transport, pairing it with a wide range of DACs—from the inexpensive Meridian Explorer all the way up to the $109,000 dCS Vivaldi stack.

If you need a great DAC and want the ability to play an actual disc now and then, the extra $1,000 for the Nēo 260D with onboard DAC is well worth the added cost. Those with a great DAC already installed in their system and wanting to either replace an aging (or dead) transport will be amazed by the Nēo 260D’s sound quality. Fifteen years ago a transport this good would have a $10,000 price tag attached; This MOON does it for just $3,000. Now that’s progress.

Simaudio MOON Nēo 260D CD Transport/DAC

MSRP: $1,999 ($2,999 with DAC)


Integrated Amps MOON Evolution series i-7    Vista Audio i34 Tube
Sources MacBook iTunes w/ Amarra or PureMusic    JVC SACD player    Wadia 170i Transport w/ iPod Classic    Apple TV
Speakers Harbeth Compact 7es3    Magnepan 1.6 w/Skiing Ninja x-overs    Penaudio Cenya

Gryphon Kalliope DAC – PREVIEW

Flemming Rassmussen builds some of the most technologically advanced audio components in the world and some of the most beautiful.  The casework, bathed in black with its fine extrusions only hint at the miracle inside. Able to accommodate every kind of digital file now available, the Kalliope takes no prisoners.

We’ve just finished the photos and begun critical listening, but it’s instantly apparent that the Kalliope is something special indeed, even at first blush it is one of the finest DACs we’ve had the pleasure to audition.  With effortless dynamics (thanks in part to 12 farads of reserve in the power supply) and a complete lack of graininess, the Kalliope makes you look at your turntable and think why bother?  Review in process.

Gryphon Kalliope DAC


Simaudio Neo 380D DAC

Simaudio is one of the elite companies in the high end audio industry today with over three decades of history. The Canadian company’s MOON brand products are among those that continually impress Tone reviewing staff. Simaudio’s MOON gear is hand-crafted in Quebec, Canada, and a recent factory tour by Tone made obvious the company’s obsessive attention to detail and the pride they take in every product that gets shipped. A ten year warranty on MOON components shows a level of confidence in their design and execution.

MOON is known for it’s powerhouse amplifiers, transparent preamplifiers, and their unique and rather stunning industrial design. They recently have been getting accolades for their cutting edge digital products, including disc players with digital inputs, DAC’s, and network streamers. In for review is the MOON Neo 380D Digital to Analog Convertor. The 380D is a unique product with a dizzying array of features and enough technology to make your head spin.

It would be impossible to cover all the techie notes about the Neo 380D, but we will try to summarize. First, the unit uses the ESS Technology SABRE32 Ultra DAC / Digital Filter (ES9016) “working in 32-bit Hyperstream™”.  Simaudio goes out of their way to stress their efforts to reduce jitter with what they call their “Dual Jitter Control System” that they say is responsible for producing a “virtually jitter-free digital signal below 1 picosecond for ultra-low distortion, and ensuring compatibility with virtually any connected digital device.”

There is an array of eight digital inputs including AES/EBU, USB, Coaxial, and TosLink.  The Neo 380D handles PCM signals up to 192 Khz. Interestingly there is also digital output and a digital monitor loop. There are separate digital and analog power supplies,  The design is fully balanced, and there is a pair of XLR and RCA outputs.  Care is taken in regards to chassis resonance. The Neo 380D is available in silver, black, and two tone, by the way.  A remote control is supplied to control virtually every function.  The front panel display is large and easy to read from the listening position, displaying input selection and sampling rate.

The review sample is supplied in black, which makes for a beautiful contrast with the silver function buttons and red LED readout on the front panel.  There is much more. The Neo 380D came equipped “fully loaded” with the optional volume control, and the MIND (MOON Intelligent Network Device) module which allows for network streaming. The volume control is the same circuit found in the reference level Evolution Series, knowns as M-eVOL.  The basic Neo 380D retails for $4400, with volume control costing $600, and the streaming module adding $1200.  The total cost of the review unit is $6200. The MIND module is also available as a stand alone purchase in it is own chassis.  It should be noted the 380D is firmware upgradeable via the network. A firmware upgrade did take place during the review period, and it was seamless.

The Neo 380D is tested in my system first with fixed outputs into a passive controller, then for the majority of the review period, driving a power amplifier directly using the variable outputs.  To get things started  Simaudio’s MiND iPad app is installed, with MiniMServer and Twonky server software running on my Mac Mini, where attached drives house the music library. Plugging in an Ethernet cable into unit and selecting the Network input gets you streamed music from a remote networked computer or NAS in seconds. There is also WiFi capability as well, however the unit defaults to Ethernet on startup if a network cable is attached.

From the first few albums streamed over the network, it is obvious the Neo 380D is an exceptional  digital source component.  Recordings are rendered with an ultra natural presentation with body and a sense of natural flow. The 380D seems to extract the maximum from great recordings but does not flatter less than stellar sounding albums. The 96 Khz, 24 bit remaster of the Velvet Underground’s seminal White Light/White Heat is raw, rough, and primitive in the best possible way. The 380D lets you hear how well mastering engineer Kevin Reaves preserved what was on the original master tapes. You can practically see the tape spinning.

Another catalog getting proper remastering is the Black Sabbath 1970’s output. The Neo 380D  unleashed the mayhem found on such classic albums as Paranoid, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Vol. 4.  The 96 Khz digital transfers are superb, and again the SIM creates more texture and immediacy than one would have thought possible on these thirty five year old recordings.

On more nuanced material, such as CD remaster of Miles Davis’ Seven Steps To Heaven, the 380D shines bright, presenting Davis’s horn, and the superb accompaniment from Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and others in a glorious light. The piano, bass, and drums fill the room with life like dimensionality one experiences rarely in a home system.

On large scale orchestral pieces, like the amazing Telarc CD of Stravinksy’s Rite Of Spring, the 380D creates an enormous soundstage and plumbs the depths. For fetishists who enjoy hearing the “recording space”, it was there is spades, with Telarc’s minimalist, natural recording technique paying dividends.

As a stand alone with other digital sources, the Neo 380D is beyond reproach.  Connecting my Squeezebox Touch optically yields excellent results.  The 380D also worked with the Squeezebox via USB (with Triode Applet installed).  A Jriver 19 loaded laptop also connected via USB sounds superb as well. To cover all bases,  I connected several disc transports via AES/EBU and coax and the 380D shows that all of it’s digital inputs are of a very high standard.

The Neo 380’s volume control proves to be the ace in the hole. It is utterly transparent to these ears with an excellent usable volume range and fine gradations in 1 dB steps.  This option is highly recommended if the 380D will be the only digital source in the system and you connect directly to a power amp, as is the case with our reference system.  The optional MIND module and SIM app were flawless, never failing to connect to the network. Browsing the library is a pleasure, especially one with properly tagged and with an organized folder structure.

Perhaps the only place to nit pick is the smallish, cluttered layout on the supplied remote control unit. It would be nice to have the volume control buttons somewhat enlarged. Aside from this minor complaint the Neo 380D integrated into the system without flaw, and provided endless hours of hassle free operation.

Simaudio has a real winner with the Neo 380D, especially in the “fully loaded” edition, with streamer and volume control on board. As a stand alone DAC it easily attains reference status. The 380D will remain a Tone staff reference for some time to come, and sets a benchmark at this price point. Highly, highly recommended.

Additional Listening

With so much excitement in the stratosphere of digital design, it’s easy to lose track of some of the more real world products that have benefited highly from recent technological advances.  Some might squeal that $4,400 is still a ton of money for a DAC, but in the realm of my $110,000 dCS Vivaldi, it is not.

Yes, there are a lot of great DACs in the $1,000 – $1,500 range, and they are getting better all the time, but there still is nothing we’ve heard for a grand that makes us want to forget about spinning records.  Simaudios Neo 380D, when placed in the context of a nice $20,000 system is so well implemented that all but the most hard core analog enthusiast just might want to think twice about all the vinyl bother.  If nothing else, when listening to well mastered files, you won’t be facing quiet desperation when you switch from analog to digital.  This one, like the AURALiC Vega that we’ve recently reviewed, raise the bar for musical reproduction at this price.  And they raise the bar pretty damn high.

Though I didn’t concentrate a ton on the MiND setup, I did stream a lot of files from my Sooloos Control 15 and Aurender S10 servers, with fantastic results.  While so much emphasis is put on the reproduction of high-resolution files (with good reason), what impressed me the most about the 380D is the stunning job it does with well recorded 16/44.1 files.  Let’s face it, if you have a massive music collection, I’m guessing that the majority of it is ripped at CD resolution.  And while tip-top high res performance is important, 16/44.1 performance is paramount, and this Simaudio DAC does not disappoint.  As a matter of fact, it delights.

One of the worst CDs I own has to be The Monkee’s Here and Now, The Best of the Monkees. Yet, through the Neo 380D, “Daydream Believer” makes a believer out of me.  Moving along to KISS Alive!, the same thing happens, I’m drawn into the music and my Japanese pressing of this rock classic sounds pretty damn good.  While the worst files in my collection sound great, the great ones sound sublime, and that’s what really turns my crank about the Simaudio Neo 380D.  Adding the MiND on board, just makes it so much easier to integrate your digital files into the mix, not having to add a digital cable, power cord, or take up more valuable shelf space.

This mix of sound, function and style, backed by a manufacturer known for high build quality means exceptional value, and we have awarded Sim thusly, with one of our 2014 Exceptional Value Awards.  -Jeff Dorgay

Simaudio Neo 380D

MSRP: $4400,  $6200 as tested.


Amplifier Audio Research VS55
Preamplifier Audio Research SP16L    CIAudio PLC-1 MkII
DAC/Streamer Marantz NA-11S1    Squeezebox Touch
Speakers Thiel CS2.4    KEF R700
Cables Stager Silver Solids    Darwin    Transparent    Acoustic Zen
Accessories Audience aDeptResponse ar6    Shakti Stone    Symposium Acoustics   Rollerblock Jr.

Bel Canto C7R DAC Integrated Amplifier

For audio fans who believe sonic reproduction should be heard but not seen, a large-scale component system just isn’t practical.  Many component systems require significant space and can be obtrusive in a main living area or in a small room. For those individuals, Bel Canto’s e.One series just may be your entrance ticket. The e.One series makes available components of substantial capability but petite form factor.

We had the opportunity to test the C7R. It’s a bit challenging to categorize this unit given its versatile combination of features and functionality. While Bel Canto’s website labels it a “DAC Integrated Amplifier,” the nomenclature proves understated since the unit offers quite a bit more functionality than the name summarizes. If “under-promise and over-deliver” represents the goal of the product name, Bel Canto has set itself up well to exceed user expectations.

Under the big top?

Well, perhaps a better descriptor for the C7R is the “small top.” Unboxing, examining, and reading the manual for this Bel Canto leaves a user with a degree of amazement. Like a multitude of circus clowns cascading forth from a Volkswagen Beetle, the capabilities of the C7R just keep emerging. How could such a small box host such an array of functionality?

The C7R measures a placement-friendly 8.5” (216mm) wide, 12” (305mm) deep, and 3.5” (88mm) high. The entire package weighs in at a mere 13 lbs (6.5 kg).  Inside, the Bel Canto’s amplifier offers 60 watts at 8 ohms, and double that into 4 ohms.

The C7R’s back panel is a marvel of space usage and planning, enabling a generous number of input options. For the digital realm, this Bel Canto packs five digital inputs into the back panel including two SPDIF and two TOSLINK connections supporting 24/192 resolution. Complementing those is a USB input enabling 24/96. All of these signals are converted with its built-in DAC.  An AES/EBU digital input option would be a welcome addition, but it’s not available on the C7R. Perhaps there just wasn’t space for it!

Analog fans will also appreciate how the Bel Canto delivers. The expected RCA input is flanked by an MM phono input. While an MC input is not included as part of the package, it’s still hard to fault the C7R too much considering all the versatility it does offer.  On top of this, somehow, the team at Bel Canto managed to squeeze in an FM tuner with 10 user-chosen presets.

In addition to the rear panel speaker outputs, the Bel Canto features an RCA line output which can be configured to enable home theater bypass capability. As a really nice bonus, C7R includes a quarter-inch headphone output on the front panel.

Three rings? No, just one!

Controls on the unit body are minimalistic. After power is connected, a short boot-up process leaves the C7R ready for action. A single wheel on the right side of the front panel, with a handy indentation for one-finger speed-spinning ease, controls both volume and input selection. An inward push on the wheel center brightens the left-side input selection display, and the subsequent wheel movement glides through the input options making selection a breeze. Another push of the wheel switches to the volume control, and that transition is acknowledged with a brightening of the digital volume readout. For such a small unit I applaud Bel Canto for making the display large enough to read from across the room.

The digital display assigns each input a default abbreviation for easy identification as a user toggles among them, but the C7R does allow the user to create personalized four-letter words – well, perhaps I should say ”abbreviations.”

The need for a large display becomes clear once the user examines and uses the remote control. Like the back panel of the C7R the remote has a well-executed layout which makes many options adjustable from a favorite listening chair. In addition to volume, mute, input selection, phase selection, and digital source controls, there’s an option of FM station scanning and a few extra buttons enabling balance adjustment.

Taming those lions

With so much functionality to choose from, it’s easy to assume the setup process for such an animal bears some sharp claws and pointy teeth. Therein lies the irony of the C7R.  The experience is mostly plug-and-play with intuitive labeling on the back panel.

Connecting a USB computer music server, a digital coax input from a CD player, a line-in from a Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC, and a Marantz TT-15 turntable with a Clearaudio Virtuoso MM cartridge, the back gets mighty crowded. With the addition of large, braided Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables, the C7R‘s rear panel transforms in appearance from a few-vined garden to something resembling wild shrubbery.

Impressively, unlike many DACs I’ve experienced, the Bel Canto’s DAC requires no special drivers to install. Once the USB connection is made from the computer to the C7R, Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center recognize it immediately. Once the C7R is selected in JRiver’s playback, music starts without delay.

It took some assistance from the user manual to become familiar with all the setup features and to get everything working. All things considered, though, the learning curve never feels steep. The trickiest elements are saving FM radio presets and custom labeling inputs. Once completed, though, the user isn’t likely to make too many changes. Consider it a tiny amount of pain resulting in a lot of pleasure.

The flying trapeze

Once hooked up and configured the Bel Canto is ready to swing. Starting with the analog output of Light Harmonic DAC connected to the C7R, in my initial impressions of the Bel Canto I noted its smooth, non-fatiguing and refined sonic signature. It would be a mistake to classify it as laid-back, though. The sonic portrayal is one of energy and drive when the music dictates. Even when pushed to maximum volume, C7R shows little strain or stridency.

Pink Martini’s song “Una Notte a Napoli” begins minimally with piano and spoken vocals, later exploding in crescendo adding more vocals, harp, horns, guitar and percussion. The Bel Canto allows all instruments to sing out from the mix, while keeping vocals very present and out front. China Forbes’s vocals render beautifully, preserving the recording’s detail and delicacy.  Compared with my reference, the soundstage width and depth truncated somewhat, and some detail like cymbal decay, or the subtle sound imparted by the recording space, are reduced. But then again the C7R is one-fifth the cost of my amp and preamp combination, demonstrating Bel Canto’s extremely good price–performance ratio.

My Piega P-10s are normally fed 500 watts into 4 ohms, so I reduced my expectations of bass punch, heft, and control with the C7R’s 120 watts swapped in. Even in this system’s context the Bel Canto performs admirably with deep, tuneful, and defined bass. With less power-hungry speakers like NHT Super One bookshelf model on hand the C7R offers quite a bit of punch. Albeit in this case, the Bel Canto reveals all the NHT speakers’ shortcomings. Clearly, the C7R can encourage and enable great sound from high quality loudspeakers and deserves to be paired with them.

Using the Bel Canto’s built-in DAC, the sound remains quite impressive. While 16/44.1 material piped in from a CD player’s coax output portrays some digital glare, better quality digital sources reward the listener. USB sound though the C7R emerges detailed, with a rich and pronounced presence.

When I listen to radio stations at home, it’s usually a digital stream from the computer and not a native FM broadcast. So it’s a lot of fun to fire up the Bel Canto’s tuner and listen to Portland’s KGON and KNRK as a radio station was first intended to be heard. With the included antenna, the C7R has no problems getting a solid lock on FM signals and filling the living room with opulent sound.

As Queen’s “We Will Rock You” started pouring forth from the radio, I ran for the Sennheiser HD-650s to give the C7R headphone output a test drive. The Bel Canto’s sound is very engaging and one I could listen to for many hours with minimal ear fatigue. It’s a fantastic bonus to the C7R’s great all-around package.

Spinning plates

The MM phono stage is another welcome surprise.  Listening to Eric Clapton Unplugged, or Beck’s Sea Change MoFi pressing, the Bel Canto demonstrates its ability to expand the soundstage beyond the speakers. Music retains a non-fatiguing quality with the preservation of detail. The C7R’s sonic rendering provides very good bass and highs, and a very satisfying overall musical experience. Green Day’s “Holiday” shows that the C7R can get up and go when pushed, transmitting the energy of the performers.

In absolute terms, compared with my reference phono stage, the Bel Canto has a few limitations. The overall sound is slightly veiled, and instruments are not separated as well across the soundstage. It just doesn’t sound as close to a live music experience. I need to keep reminding myself that the Bel Canto – of which the phono stage is just one facet – costs $2,995 in total. Especially if you listen to digital sources primarily, the included phono stage is a big bonus for those with a vinyl collection or those about to start one.

You pay for the whole seat, but need only the edge.

Mated with the right set of speakers and a good source, the Bel Canto is a stellar performer, especially from a price–performance point of view. For $2,995 the C7R gets you a high quality amp, linestage, DAC, FM tuner, MM phonostage, and a headphone amp. It’s a phenomenal value. The task of finding all those components, near this quality, for under that price tag would prove exceedingly difficult – if not impossible. On top of that, the C7R wraps everything in an attractive, compact, and user-friendly package. Given all its versatility and fantastic sound, for the price the Bel Canto C7R is easy to recommend.

Bel Canto C7R DAC Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $2,995


Speakers Piega P10    NHT Super One
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier/Phonostage Coffman Labs G1-A
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 Turntable with Clearaudio Virtuoso MM Cartridge
Digital Sources HP Desktop computer with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19   Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    EAD 9000 Professional Mk 3
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables    Cardas Clear USB cable
Headphones Sennheiser HD-650
Headphone Amplifiers ALO Rx Mk 2   Coffman Labs G1-A
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley    Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose Power Cords
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Gato Audio DIA-250 Integrated Amp/DAC

Part of the mission here at TONEAudio has always been to remain on the lookout for magnificent hi-fi gear that not only performs well but is also a piece of visual art able to blend into any décor. Gato’s amplifiers caught my eye at this year’s Munich show, where I met importer Michael Kelly (of Aerial Acoustics), who was very proud of Gato’s latest creations. And lovely they are.

Hailing from Denmark, the DIA-250 features a small form that is remarkably able to contain a 250-watt-per-channel Class D amplifier and a 24-bit/192-kHz DAC, doing so at a very reasonable price of $4,500. Those requiring more power can step up to the DIA-400, which offers 400 wpc and has an MSRP of $6,000.

With ease and precision, the DIA-250 implements Class D amplification and upsampling signal conversion—two technologies that are big personal preferences of mine. It also provides major input and output flexibility to allow your system to grow, should the need arise. With a pair of balanced and XLR analog inputs to go along with USB, TOSLINK and S/PDIF digital inputs, the DIA-250 is a fantastic system hub. It also includes balanced and RCA variable outputs for those requiring an additional power amplifier or amplified subwoofer. HT bypass is also included for those needing to make the DIA-250 part of a multichannel setup, a feature sometimes overlooked.

Its gentle, curved shape—which combines brushed aluminum extrusions and a highly polished wooden top panel—is stunning, with one main control in the center to adjust volume level and two tastefully small buttons to select inputs and switch the amplifier into standby mode. The slightly blue-tinted display is easy to read from across the room, and it can be dimmed via an adjustment on the rear panel, or set to switch off completely after a few seconds. For those unhappy with the font choice, I submit (perhaps from a 50-something’s perspective, guilty as charged) that this feature is handy beyond belief, especially when living with a component for a long time. Those tiny readouts on other components might look a bit more stylish at first, but if you can’t read them, then what’s the point?

Setup, Sources, Speakers

I utilize a plethora of digital sources to evaluate the DIA-250, from a modest OPPO BDP-103, all the way up to the $36,000 dCS Vivaldi transport, with a few music servers and a MacBook Pro thrown in for good measure. All sources perform flawlessly, regardless of the chosen input.

With all of the digital sources being upsampled to 24/192 and then decoded by the DIA-250’s Burr-Brown PCM1794 converters, the sound is decidedly old school—and, for these ears, it is highly musical. My former digital reference, the Naim CD555, uses this setup brilliantly, proving that it’s all about implementation when it comes to the digital world.

Along with a variety of digital sources, the latest vacuum-tube phonostage from Van Alstine ($1,295), combined with a Rega RP3 turntable and Exact MM cartridge, proves an excellent match, giving analog and digital sources an equal voice during playback. The smooth character of the DIA-250 proves a perfect fit when spinning the latest releases from Music Matters Jazz, which I find enthralling. Lee Morgan’s trumpet on The Gigolo solidifies the fact that analog remains king, even on a journeyman rig like this. As much as I enjoy the digital section of the DIA-250 and its convenience, I would still highly suggest adding an analog front end to a system built around it.

The only area that the DIA-250 falls slightly short of its higher priced, Class-A or vacuum-tube competitors is in the area of image depth, but this is still endemic of the breed to some extent. And the DIA-250 is delivering music to the $85,000 Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers, which are not likely what this amp would be paired with—though you could with good result. For its $4,500 price tag, this is indeed a rocking little amplifier with integral DAC. Pair it up with your favorite speakers in the $3,000-to-$10,000 range and your music server of choice and you’ve got all the ingredients of an incredible system on a relatively reasonable budget.

Moving a bit downstream with the $8,500-per-pair Paradigm Signature S8 speakers also proves highly synergistic. The DIA-250 controls these tower speakers with aplomb, providing a rock-solid bass response and smooth highs. Combined with the S8s 92-dB sensitivity, the DIA-250 never feels the least bit strained, even at concert-hall levels.

Those using a sat/sub system will appreciate the additional flexibility of the variable outputs. The DIA-250 handles the JL Audio Fathom in-wall subwoofer mated to a pair of KEF LS50s with ease, so any powered subwoofer on your wish list should match equally well. And those of you using a REL subwoofer will have no problems connecting through the speaker outputs.

Getting Better All the Time

Class D continues to not only get more natural in its ability to reproduce sound but also in its ability to drive complex speaker loads. Just a few years ago, many Class D amplifiers were as finicky as any SET amp, but they have since come a long way. Full-range ESL and Magnepans are equally easy to drive with the DIA-250, though if you really like to push your Maggies, I suggest spending a few extra bucks and going for the DIA-400 to have the extra headroom at your disposal.

Regardless of which Gato amplifier you choose, Magnepan owners will be impressed at the amount of grip and drive these amplifiers provide. All too often the Class D/Magnepan combination comes across with a lack of timbral engagement, sounding somewhat flat—but that is not the case here.

Spinning the Volume Control

When I crank Metallica’s classic self-titled black album in a 24/96 format, it becomes instantly apparent that the Paradigm/Gato combination can satisfy those craving high sound-pressure levels. The first drum thwacks in “Wherever I May Roam” are highly convincing, pushing me back in my listening chair like the Maxell man. Bowie’s Scary Monsters keeps the classic-rock groove rolling and exposes yet another facet of the DIA-250: its ability to effortlessly uncloak inner detail. Robert Fripp’s guitar work on “Teenage Wildlife” is reproduced brilliantly, easily occupying its own space in the far left of the soundstage, while Bowie is anchored dead center in the mix.

Leaning heavily on an old audiophile classic, Dave Grusin’s “Sun Song,” from the recently remastered XRCD, reveals just how smooth this Class D amplifier and DAC combination can be. The opening triangle clangs float in the air, gently filling the room with sound. It’s amazing how far this amplifier technology has come in the last few years—saying Class D and DAC in the same sentence is no longer an audiophile faux pas. The delicate brushwork on Dave Holland’s “Overtime” is equally enthralling, and the extremely low noise floor of the DIA-250 enhances this effect.

The Bottom Line

The Gato Audio DIA-250 ticks all the boxes: It’s compact and gorgeous, and it sounds great—and, best of all, it’s priced right. With a comparison review in process between the DIA-250 and its companion, the higher-powered DIA-400, we look forward to hearing more of what Gato Audio has to offer. Whatever your power needs, both of these amps are highly recommended.

DIA-250 Integrated Amp/DAC

MSRP:  $4,500 (factory) (US Importer)


Digital sources Meridian Control 15 server    Aurender S10 server    dCS Vivaldi transport    Oppo BDP-103    MacBook Pro
Analog source Rega RP3    Exact cartridge    AVA Phonostage
Speakers KEF LS-50    Magnepan 1.7    Paradigm S8 Signature    KEF Blade   Dynaudio Evidence Platinum
Cables Cardas Clear

PS Audio NuWave DAC

Working as a DJ for hire in the eighties, I was exposed to more than my share of New Wave songs, upturned collars, pastel colors, and hair gel. During those years the early CDs started taking hold. With them came forth the digital music revolution for the consumer, challenging the dominance of beloved records and cassettes. While analog will forever have a place in the hearts of audiophiles, the raw convenience of digitally stored files enables and maintains a solid grip. Digital-Analog Converters (DACs) today bring forth a great deal of musical pleasure from the latest high resolution digital files and also breathe new life into older standard CD-quality 16bit/44.1kHz material.

With all my fond memories of the New Wave era, the NuWave moniker on PS Audio’s latest budget DAC has a lot to live up to. Could it provide the same high level of musical enjoyment I associate with my past?

The Ghost in You

The NuWave carries high quality internals, though it serves as the entry level DAC in PS Audio’s product line. Its big brother, the $3,995 PerfectWave, has handed down one of its strengths – its low-jitter clocking circuitry – to its smaller sibling. The benefit of this capability is pulling from the source the best possible digital stream to be processed. From there it is sent to the analog section which is fueled by a very substantial power supply; then it’s translated into music.

Close to Me

On close inspection, the NuWave is a petite 14” long x 8” wide by 2.5” high. It weighs in at around 12 pounds. Once placed on a shelf the front profile is quite modest. The metal case of the test unit is coated in a matte black finish. Silver is also available from PS Audio. The front panel has aesthetically pleasing curved edges wrapping around to the sides.

Buttons on the front, and the PS Audio logo on the left side, glow blue. With some equipment I’ve experienced, LEDs have the potential to scorch a retina, but not with the NuWave. In this case, the overall appearance is both pleasant and subtle.

The package does not include a remote, which makes sense given the basic in-and-out philosophy of the NuWave’s build. There’s not a lot to adjust or control after a source is selected and a standard or up-sampled signal chosen. One additional LED indicator notes whether the PS Audio has a solid lock on the signal.

I was surprised that no USB cable comes with the NuWave. You’ll definitely want to have that on hand for setup. I found the Cardas Clear USB a good match. PS Audio does include a very basic power cord, but it’s likely one you will want to upgrade later to get the most from the unit.

One Thing Leads to Another

Physically connecting the NuWave to the rest of the audio system proves straightforward. The PS Audio offers three inputs for digital sources including USB, S/PDIF coax and TOSLINK. The USB connection provides the greatest flexibility for high resolution files and will serve most users as the best option for computer-based music. While there is not an AES/EBU digital input on this DAC, the RCA coax input serves well as a secondary input source from CD players and other devices with a stereo digital output.

Despite the small size of the unit, this DAC has both balanced XLR and RCA outputs giving it helpful flexibility in an audio system.

With all cables connected, it’s a simple matter to choose the input source from the front panel selector button. If only one source is connected, the NuWave defaults to it. If multiple sources are connected to the DAC and one is playing, NuWave’s autoscan feature will pick the input receiving a signal.

Once that’s done, the user has another toggle to select one of two modes. “Native” mode creates a straight pipe from the source so a 16 bit/44.1kHz signal remains exactly that.  Another option is 24bit/192Khz up-sample mode. PS Audio recommends that users try both and decide what sounds best to them. Most of my listening took place on the “native” setting.

Work for Love

Once physically connected to sources, the final step is configuring a bit of software. PS Audio claims the NuWave acts in a plug-and-play fashion with a Mac computer, but a bit more human intervention is required for Windows-based systems. First, a driver must be downloaded from PS Audio’s website and saved to the computer. Once that driver is installed, a quick visit to the Windows 7 control panel’s “Sound” settings offers the PS Audio DAC as an output option. A right-click of the mouse gives a user the option to make the NuWave the default recipient of the audio signal.

Once complete, JRiver needs a small adjustment too. Clicking on the Player menu, and selecting “Playback Options,” a window opens which allows the user to make a few more minor changes. The “Playback Device” pull-down menu allows a user to select the NuWave as the default for music output.  On the same window, I selected a larger buffer size than the default setting to encourage and maintain the best streaming quality. Accepting these changes and closing the configuration windows, the only remaining step is selecting what music to enjoy.

In total, the configuration process took no more than five minutes, with most of that time consisting of driver download and installation. PS Audio does a nice job here to make the setup process streamlined for the NuWave DAC owner.

PS Audio suggests leaving the DAC powered on all the time so that it maintains optimal readiness for the best sound.

We Got the Beat

Testing begins with CD-quality source files. In the spirit of this review’s theme, it seems only fair to begin with Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” which many consider the first true New Wave song. Given the age of the recording and the CD’s limitations of a 16bit/44.1kHz signal, the right-to-left soundstage exceeds my expectations by extending well beyond the speaker limits. Perceived front-to-back layering is reasonable; however, it’s not the NuWave’s strength. Debbie Harry’s voice is recessed into the mix and when blended with the guitars and drums the result remains largely two-dimensional. This characteristic seems consistent throughout my Redbook CD test tracks.

Rock This Town

Stray Cats frontman Brian Setzer and his Orchestra provide a good test for the sonic portrayal of guitars, drums, and horns. His remake of “Rock This Town” offers significantly more polished recording quality than the original, though still limited to CD-quality. The NuWave captures all the energy and excitement of the performance.

The NuWave’s decoding process leaves the music enjoyable and fatigue-free. However this characteristic exists at the expense of some detail. In comparison with other, more expensive DACs on hand, the woodiness in saxophones diminishes. Bass, while quite deep, is not as tight. Similarly, the complex sounds of cymbals are truncated to a significant degree in comparison with the impact, ring and decay I’m used to hearing. Vocals are a bit hot in the mix. But at the NuWave’s $995 price tag, these are relatively minor quibbles considering what you do get. Especially from a price-performance perspective the PS Audio does a mighty good job and has the finesse to hold a listener’s attention through hours of listening.

Dancing With Myself

As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out,” so playback shifted to test higher resolution material. Though the NuWave there’s a huge sonic improvement in virtually every attribute.

For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood” on 192kHz throws an impressively huge soundstage, both wide and tall. Vocals remain front and center where they should be, while drums step to the rear. The richness of the guitar on “Dirty Pool” reveals the level of emotion entrapped in the recording.

Similarly, Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” in 192kHz emerges with deep, plucky bass. Well-rendered, sonically convincing drum and tambourine pour forth. Background vocals complement and showcase the emotional undertones in Marley’s voice. This is especially evident during “Redemption Song.” While vocals remain a bit forward, individual strums of the guitar are almost tangible.

NuWave’s rendering of Norah Jones’s “I’ve Got to See You Again” layers vocals, piano, strings and percussion adeptly blended together in a cohesive and compelling sonic experience.

For those who have a lot of high resolution digital content, the NuWave will surprise you with its capability. If you don’t have high resolution content yet, you owe it to yourself to try it!

Make a Circuit With Me

After spending time with several DACs over the last couple months – the Chord Chordette Qute ($1,800), AUARALiC Vega ($3,500) and Light Harmonic DaVinci ($30,000) – some interesting comparisons emerge. Although a native 44.1kHz signal may not be a stellar source, each of these DACs takes what bits it’s given and outputs highly enjoyable, refined sound. At a cost multiple times more than the NuWave, a user should expect more from them.

When listening to high resolution content, the gap does shrink a bit and the NuWave showcases what it’s capable of resolving. It’s a big step up from CD-quality experience. The NuWave won’t unseat the other DACs, but it leaves a listener with a very satisfying musical experience for a small fraction of the price.

In essence, more money buys a user additional capabilities like DSD decoding, variable output, custom filters, and/or a remote. It also enables more natural sounding, three dimensional and nuanced portrayal of the music. In the case of the DaVinvi, opulently so, but at 30 times the price.

Take Me, I’m Yours

Caveats considered, the PS Audio offers a lot of value and does a very good job providing a no-fuss setup and usage experience. It offers all the basic functionality most users need a DAC to do, and the sound is mighty good for a component under a thousand dollars.

The Smiths made famous the New Wave classic song, “How Soon is Now?” How apropos for this review. For those seeking a high quality DAC under $1k, especially those who want to delve further into high resolution digital content, give the PS Audio NuWave DAC a try and you might find it in your home system sooner than you think.

PS Audio NuWave DAC

MSRP: $995


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources HP Desktop computer with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19   Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    EAD 9000 Mk3 DAC    Genesis Digital Lens    dCS Purcell
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables    Cardas Clear USB cable
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Rega DAC

Analog audio is similar to analog photography in the sense that there haven’t been many game-changing technological advances in the past 20 years.  Most of the improvements have been the result of refining existing technology, upgrading materials and paying careful attention to the smallest details in assembly. The big, high-dollar turntables still spin a platter with a motor (often with a belt between the two) and that’s about it.  Granted, the world’s best turntable manufacturers are masters at refining this process, and even in the year 2010, continue to produce better turntables. But in order to get $20,000 turntable performance, you still have to spend $20,000.

Digital audio is a completely different ballgame.  Just like your favorite personal computer, much of processing a digital signal is about computing horsepower and is directly related to the chipset under the hood. There are a few manufacturers such as Wadia and dCS that take care of decoding and filtration in software, but for the most part, it’s the DAC chips and whatever tweaks in the analog circuitry combined with the power supply that determine the sound.

As with high-dollar turntables, the world’s best digital sound is still expensive because of the amount of parts and labor required.  However, the $1,000 DAC category is improving by leaps and bounds – Rega’s $995 DAC is a perfect example of this.

A quick overview

Like every other Rega product, the Rega DAC is simple, functional and offers high performance in its price category.  Rega principal Roy Gandy is not a man to jump on the latest trend.  True to his engineering background, he studies a product and builds it the way he thinks it should be done.  Rega’s website proudly mentions that they are “the last hifi manufacturer to produce a CD player,” and they could very well be the last high-end company to produce a DAC as well.  But it is a damn good one.

Rega uses a straightforward approach with no upsampling. Terry Bateman, Rega’s digital designer, said, “I wanted to keep the signal path to a minimum.  We didn’t use upsampling with the Saturn or the ISIS, and I wanted to follow the same spirit of these units.  Those users with a high-quality sound card can upsample there if they prefer.  The Wolfson WM8805 and WM8742 chips running at the incoming sample rates do a great job on their own, along with a nice drop of  “old school audio mojo.” The Rega DAC also shares its buffer circuitry with the Rega CD players, which has been one of the aspects of their design that has been overbuilt from the beginning. Rega’s CD players have a much larger buffering capacity than most, adding to the natural sound.

Around back, there is just a simple three-prong IEC socket due to a lack of space for a standard IEC.  There is a high-quality power cord supplied, but an audiophile who wants  an upgraded power cord can purchase an adaptor from Music Direct.

This will allow you to use the aftermarket cord of your choice, and should you desire keeping your DAC all Rega, the power cord that is standard issue on their flagship Isis CD player is available from Rega dealers for an additional $175.

Following the trend of a few other manufacturers, Rega has chosen to ignore a high-resolution USB input, sticking with 16/48 as the maximum data rate their DAC will process. Bateman mentions that when they first started development on the DAC about two years ago, their vision for it was as more of an audiophile component, and they felt that the computer user was looking more for convenience. With computer audio gaining a lot of ground recently, this may be a deal breaker for some. But before you freak out, how many high-res files do you have on your computer?

Another unique feature of the Rega DAC is the choice between five filter characteristics for each of the sample frequencies.  Bateman mentioned that he considers the “standard” settings to be position No.1 for 32/44.1/48k sample rates and position No. 3 for the higher sample rates.  For those wanting a highly in-depth explanation of the filter characteristics,  the Wolfson site offers a downloadable PDF.

Spectacular sound

At turn on, the Rega DAC sounded a bit grainy and somewhat thin in the lower register, but after being powered for 48 hours, this deficit was gone.  None of the Rega components I’ve used over the past 10 years have ever required an extended break-in time, and though this unit arrived with some hours on the clock, I don’t suspect the DAC is any different than any of Rega’s other hardware.  After it’s been on for two days, the Rega DAC really grabs you – in a good way.

I tried the Rega DAC with a number of digital sources.  First, for the customer with an older CD player just looking for a better DAC, I took advantage of my stock Denon 3910.  A Mac Mini running iTunes was thrown into the mix for the average computer listener’s perspective, and on the high end, I ran a digital cable from the SPDIF output of the dCS Paganini PTT transport.  A fair amount of music was played through the SPDIF output of the Sooloos Control 10 as well.

The Rega DAC really excels at tone and timbre.  Acoustic instruments sound natural and quite honestly, way better than even a digital snob such as myself ever expected a $1,000 DAC to sound.  The recent HD Tracks 24/96 download of Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert, revealed a healthy dose of texture and hall ambience, with plenty of Mr. Jarrett’s signature groaning in the background.  One of my favorite 24/96 warhorses is that ’70s classic from Chicago, Chicago V. The cymbals at the beginning of “Hit by Varese” had a healthy decay. When switching back and forth between the 24/96 file ripped from DVD-a and the standard 16/44 file, it was instantly apparent that the high-res file had considerably more air between the notes.

Most of the 24/192 files on the Naim HDX music server have been digitized from LPs in my collection and a handful originated on the Rega P9/Shelter 501II combination through the Audio Research REF Phono 2. So it was interesting to compare playback at the DAC’s highest resolution.   Again, I was amazed at how much of the essence of what was essentially a $20k analog front end could be reproduced without serious compromise.  The Rega DAC is an excellent choice for anyone thinking about archiving vinyl, provided you have an excellent-quality analog setup with which to capture it.

Playing high-resolution files is not limited to the RCA inputs, but according to Bateman, “24/192 is pushing the limit of the Toslink interface.  A high-quality cable will be required.”  That in mind, I had no problem playing 24/96 files from my Power Book Pro, with a four-meter Monster optical cable. (About $50 at Radio Shack)

Though the Rega DAC did an excellent job with high-resolution files and provides a compelling reason for downloading them, I still couldn’t help thinking that this DAC was   something special with standard 16/44 files, whether played from USB or SPDIF.  If you are an audiophile who has merely ripped your CD’s to a computer and doesn’t see high-res files in your immediate future, the USB performance is very good at 16/44.

A few comparisons

With the internet boards abuzz about whether the Rega DAC “sounds better or worse” than the bloggers’ existing CD players, I don’t think it is really a fair comparison because the DAC offers the ability to play high-resolution files. I suspect that the CD player will appeal to one type of customer and the DAC will appeal more to the computer/music server audiophile. So comparing the two directly is a moot point.

On many levels, I found the sound of the Rega DAC more akin to that of their flagship turntable, the P9 (which has been a long-term component in my reference system).  It shares the P9’s quick and open presentation with a healthy dose of pace and timing.  If this is the kind of sound that appeals to you, I think you will enjoy auditioning this DAC.

My theory on the rapid advancement of digital technology was confirmed when I compared the sound of the Rega DAC to my original Meridian 808, purchased about four years ago.  When using the 808’s digital SPDIF input, the difference between what was a $15,000 player four years ago was minimal.  Of course, Meridian is up to the 808.3 now, but it is amazing to see this ramp up in performance for the dollar.  I guarantee that there are no $1,000 turntables today that sound like a $15,000 turntable from four years ago.

Forget about the “bits is bits” theory; there are still plenty of ways to handle filtering, digital processing, power supply design and the output stage. DAC’s are just like phono cartridges: each has its own unique sound.  Where the Benchmark and Ayre DAC’s tend to be slightly on the analytical side of neutral and the Neko Audio DAC ($1,195, and no USB input) is slightly on the romantic side of neutral, the Rega is very close to dead center.  Interestingly enough, the Rega is one of my favorite budget DAC’s, much like the Simaudio DAC300 that also forgoes a high-resolution USB port to maximize the audio performance on the SPDIF side.

In the end, digital can drive you just as crazy as analog if you let it.  However, the Rega DAC’s strengths far outweigh the lack of a high-res USB input for most users.

Musical to the core

While there are definitely some other DAC’s at this price point that offer more functionality, the Rega’s strength is offering truly great sound from its SPDIF input, regardless of resolution.  Personally, I’d still rather have outstanding 16/44 through the SPDIF input than multiple input options with mediocre performance.  If this is your philosophy as well, I think the Rega DAC would find a very good home on your equipment rack.

And digital audio is much like the weather here in the Pacific Northwest; if you don’t like it, it will change shortly.  Though the digital game is one that is constantly improving, the Rega DAC is certainly a great place to hang your hat for now and just enjoy your music collection.

The Rega DAC

MSRP:  $995 (US)


Digital Sources Denon 3910    Mac Mini    Naim HDX    Sooloos Control 10    dCS Paganini PTT
Preamplifier McIntosh C500
Power Amplifier McIntosh MC1.2KW’s
Speakers B&W 805D with JL Audio Gotham
Cable AudioQuest Wild Blue Yonder interconnects and speaker cables
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim    RSA Mongoose and Shunyata Python CX power cords

Cary Xciter DAC

At first glance, the Cary Xciter doesn’t seem so exciting. It’s a simple, silver or black, 3.5 x 11 x 13 inch box weighing 12 pounds. It has a single round dial in the middle of the front panel with a handful of LED indicators for power, input source and digital resolution.  This polished dial is nicely weighted with a smooth, notchless feel and functions as the input selector. Analog outputs are single-ended RCA only.  But a quick listen reveals that there is definitely some excitement under the hood.

The true excitement is how far digital has come in almost 30 years.  It seems like only yesterday, I was waiting to get into the Consumer Electronics Show, intent on seeing Sony’s latest development that was going to make my turntable obsolete – the Compact Disc.  This was Sony’s first generation CDP-101 player, which carried an MSRP of $1,000 at its introduction. According to one of the “inflation calculators” found on the internet, this is equivalent to $2,125 in 2010.  The Xciter DAC has an MSRP of $1,499.

While CD players were single-box components in the beginning, as digital technology ramped up in the ’90s, the transport and DAC became separate components; much like the way the phono preamplifier and line stage had become individual parts of your system.  Around 2000 or so, many high-end CD players started to become single-box components once again, but with the advent of so many people using their computers as a source, the standalone DAC has come full circle.

Enter the Cary Xciter

Part of Cary’s new compact Xciter series of components, consisting of an integrated amplifier (vacuum-tube powered, of course) and a music server, these components are geared towards the desktop user.  Though small in size, the Xciter DAC is a full-featured DAC with RCA and BNC SPDIF inputs, a TOSLINK optical input and a USB input.

All inputs, regardless of resolution, are upsampled to 32bit/192khz and passed on to the new AKM 4399 32-bit DAC chips along with new output devices from National Semiconductor that were designed specifically for Cary. As a photographer, I view the oversampling process as akin to taking an old black-and-white photo, scanning it, processing it in Photoshop, and printing out a copy that is better than the original.

System integration and comparison

The Xciter spent time in my main reference system, consisting of a McIntosh C2200 preamplifier, MC 275 power amplifier and a pair of MartinLogan CLS speakers.  The entire system features various cables from MIT.

I wanted to investigate the Xciter both as a potential upgrade for someone with an existing CD player and the audiophile starting to enter the world of music server or computer playback.  Initially, I used my vintage Krell KPS 20i player and the more current OPPO BDP-83 player, utilizing the SPDIF outputs of both.

I started my listening comparisons with some of my original issue 1987 Beatles’ CDs, and with a firm picture of both the OPPO and the Krell, brought the Xciter into play.  Using the Cary DAC reminded me of the difference between movies that have been shot digitally versus filmed. The harshness and compression present on the players by themselves was palatable, but not as good as when played through the Xciter, and the new, remastered CDs were even better.  The Cary presentation always sounded more lifelike, and while this DAC would not overcompensate for mediocre-sounding recordings, it did pull more detail and depth than I was getting from either of my other players.

Compared to my reference DAC, the PS Audio Perfect Wave, the Cary is somewhat on the warmer side of neutral, which seems to be a characteristic, albeit a pleasant one, of all their gear.  Again, this helped when listening to less-than-perfect digital files.  At times, my PS Audio DAC feels like an LCD TV that has the contrast and saturation cranked up; upon first glance it’s tremendous, but after a while it sinks in that it is not accurate.  But as most audiophiles know, “accuracy” is a relative term indeed.

Be aware though, that while the warmth in the Cary Xciter’s presentation can be a plus on certain recordings, it can be detrimental with others, especially in a system like mine that is already a touch on the warm side.  I found many of my favorite jazz female vocalists to sound slightly huskier and at times too deep.  This was an area that the Perfect Wave excels in my system.

I did appreciate the touch of warmth with most of the classical music in my collection, however. Symphonies with large string sections tend to sound strident and massed together in poor recordings or systems.  The Cary Xciter was able to separate the individual violins and give them a rich tone that was more akin to what I’ve experienced in a live performance.

Investigating HD playback

As a recent convert to high-resolution audio files, I was pleased to see that the Xciter had so many inputs and would work with 24/96 files through its USB input.  With more and more high-res music becoming available all the time, 24/96 seems to be emerging as the standard, at least for now.  I’ve been streaming some of my high-res files through the Squeezebox Touch, so I began my listening sessions with the SB’s analog outputs for a baseline comparison.

A quick trip to the HD Tracks music store added a few favorites from John Coltrane and Diana Krall, and I was ready to roll.  Again, the difference going from the analog outputs of the Squeezebox versus using its digital output to drive the Xciter was a big step up in fidelity.  While listening to Krall’s Quiet Nights disc, her breathing and tonal inflection were reproduced with much more realism.  The standard 16/44 tracks now sounded flat by comparison.  I had the same experience with Coltrane, his sax taking on a much more three-dimensional perspective in my listening space.  Even at this level of hardware, the difference between standard and high-res playback was clear.

I could easily notice another jump up in resolution and fidelity upon returning to my reference PS Audio DAC, but it costs twice as much as the Cary.


As music moves further away from disc-based physical media and to downloadable, hard-drive-based media, the DAC will continue to become the heart of your audio system. The Cary Xciter stands as a great option to dramatically improve any of these sources while allowing you the convenience of accessing your entire music library on a digital network.

For $1,500, the Cary Xciter offers solid value and performance. It will breathe life into an older CD player and point you in the right direction to start enjoying HD file playback. The Cary Xciter DAC is a component that is allowing CD digital media to finally realize and live up to its full potential that was touted in the ’80s – and that’s exciting.

Cary Xciter DAC

MSRP $1,499

Chord QBD76 DAC

The Chord company has always been well-known for highly advanced aesthetic design in addition to advanced circuitry, and their QBD76 is no different.  A small but densely packed box with a unique shape, one of the QBD76’s claims to fame is the myriad of inputs it puts at your disposal.  While it features a pair of coax SPDIF inputs and a pair of Toslink optical inputs, there is also a USB input and a pair of balanced AES inputs (so that you can use the QBD76 in Dual Data mode).  But perhaps the most intriguing feature of the QBD76 is its Bluetooth input – that antenna you see is not for a wifi connection.  It allows your smart phone to transmit its digital music stream straight to your system.

This diminutive DAC feels even heavier than its 15.5 pound (7kg) weight spec would suggest.  Made from a solid billet of aluminum, the QBD76 has the same high level of quality that all Chord products share.  It is available in a standard polished silver finish, black anodized and a “brilliant” finish as an extra-cost option.  Described on the Chord website as “Audiophile jewelry for the home,” this finish looks as if the DAC has been chrome plated.  Very attractive, if that’s your thing, but also very susceptible to fingerprints.  MSRP on a standard finish QBD76 is $6,295.

Chord, of course, claims that this is “the World’s most technically advanced DAC,”  pointing to their use of field-programmable gate arrays (as does dCS) to perform the digital processing via software and much higher processing power than a standard, off-the-shelf DAC chipset would provide. This is a great approach because as digital technology upgrades, the processor will only need a software upgrade, making it ultimately less prone to becoming outdated.  They also claim that this is the only DAC to offer eighth-order noise shaping, resulting in better dynamics and 2,608 times oversampling and digital filtering.


On a few levels, this piece of gear is almost too Zen for its own good, and as is typical with way too much expensive HiFi gear these days, the instruction manual is equally cryptic. I thought my dCS stack was a bit tough to get around with the small type on the front panel, but at least it has a large LCD panel on each of its four boxes.  This is not a piece of gear that you will be able to operate right out of the box without first reading the the manual.

Looking directly overhead at the top panel, there is a large, round window that lets you peer inside the QBD76, which has a very cool, blue glow.  There is another, smaller round window that lets you see the various functions as you choose them with the unmarked buttons.  Should you be the type of user who plugs in a source or two and forgets about it, you will get over these minor quirks easily.

The sheer number of digital inputs is a nice touch because as more audiophiles gravitate towards computer playback of some kind, the DAC is rapidly becoming the central hub of their system, much as the preamplifier used to be.  Also impressive is the QBD76’s ability to drive two systems, one through the XLR outputs and one through the RCA’s, so  you could use it as a source for two systems without issue.

All of the inputs automatically sense the bit depth and sample rate of the incoming signal and adjust accordingly.  There is no option to bypass the oversamping and just play the digital signal in its native form, so this may be somewhat off putting to some digital purists.

I made it a point to run the QBD76 through its paces with everything from my dCS Paganini transport all the way down to my iPhone and aging Denon 3910 universal player to get a feel for its performance with a wide range of digital sources.  At least half of my listening was done with the Sooloos and Naim music servers, with a variety of files from 16/44 all the way up to 24/196.  While on loan from dCS, I also made it a point to play some 24/192 files with the dual-channel configuration.  As with my reference Paganini, this provided the most lifelike digital reproduction.

Though I am not usually prone to much tweaky system tuning with cables, etc., the QBD responded more to this treatment than any other piece of digital hardware I’ve used in recent memory.  This one definitely responded to power conditioning and a good power cord, so consider at least upgrading the stock cord on this unit and you will be rewarded. Though I used Shunyata’s Python CX power cord for most of my listening, even upgrading the stock power cord to their $125 Venom 3 made a very worthwhile improvement in HF smoothness and timing.

A highly resolving component

Massive processing horsepower under the hood certainly made for an impressive amount of data retrieval.  Having quite a wide range of digital hardware at my disposal, I was instantly impressed at this aspect of the Chord’s performance.  If I were going to make an initial comparison to the analog world, the Naim CD 555 is more like a Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum, the dCS Paganini like a Dynavector XV-1s and the Chord like a Clearaudio DaVinci.

Especially when listening to high-resolution source files, I was intrigued with the tiny nuances available from the Chord, and I would highly suggest investigating the buffer options; I felt the maximum buffer made for the smoothest sound, but your mileage may vary.  “Still…You Turn Me On” from Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery had a degree of texture in the low bass that I’ve never heard in my system to this extent.   I noticed that extra bit of bass texture in a few of my favorite Naim 24/96 downloads and the Mickey Hart Planet Drum and At The Edge CDs.  Again, making a quick comparison with the analog world, the Chord DAC’s bass characteristic reminded me of the Continuum Criterion we reviewed in 2008; there was a level of texture in the bass response that was simply stunning.

In terms of comparing the Chord to a few of the world’s top digital players (all costing considerably more than the QBD76, but if you are going to claim you make the best box, it’s fair game to compare with the big boys), it still falls short in terms of the ultimate weight possessed by the top players from Naim, Wadia and dCS that I had on hand.  Think of the QBD76 as a hyper performance 600cc sport bike, not a 1-liter bike.  An experienced rider can get it around the track almost as fast as the big bikes, but you’re working the bike 100 percent all the time.  Listening to full-scale orchestral pieces from Mahler and Shostakovich, I was able to hear well into the hall and get a great read on its acoustics, but the big crescendos left me wanting a little more. But again to quantify more accurately, my GamuT S9’s are solid down to 17 hz.

In all fairness to the Chord, if I were merely comparing the WBD76 with other examples I’ve heard in the equivalent price range, it would be tops in class. But when compared with the five-figure players, I knew there was more “oomph” to be had.

The double edged sword of high resolution

The other aspect of the Chord’s performance that will either be a perfect fit or the straw that breaks the camel’s back is its ultimate tonality combined with all that resolution. I’ve been accused of liking a tonal balance that’s slightly on the warm side of neutral, so any potential buyer should take this into consideration when reading my evaluations.  Even in my second system, which currently consists of a vacuum-tube version of the McIntosh MC500 preamplifier and the MC1.2k power amplifiers, I still always felt like I was listening to a digital source.

Though I found the Chord visceral and exciting with excellent pace, in my reference system, I could never relax and forget that I was listening to digital, as I have been able to with a few other top players.  I didn’t really see this as a negative for the QBD76, as I’ve never experienced this level of playback in any digital player below the $12k range, so it was not a disappointment.

Where I did find the Chord to be a perfect match was when I swapped the solid-state MC1.2kw’s for the vacuum-tube MC275 power amplifier in my third system, which consists of all vintage CJ gear, and it definitely voiced on the warm side of the fence and actually somewhat romantic and lush, if  you will.  Where a lot of other digital players sounded veiled and grainy, the Chord was a nice match, with the extra helping of resolution a solid plus.  Two of my other staff reviewers who are predisposed to liking a bit more detail in their presentation were absolutely smitten by the QBD76.  One of them regularly referred to my Naim CD555 as “dark,” so the beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

Other features

I must admit that being able to mate my iPhone to my HiFi system without any wires and let my friends do the same is very cool, so the Bluetooth access of the QBD76 was very useful.  This feature is by far the perfect ice breaker at a party because friends always want to hear their own music when they drop by.  I would love to see this functionality in everyone’s HiFi system.

As I mentioned earlier, the multiple inputs on this DAC make it extremely easy to use the QBD76 as a digital hub and for comparing multiple sources.  Near the end of the review, I had one computer connected via USB, one via Toslink and two transports connected to the SPDIF inputs.  Those who have a modestly priced CD player will be instantly impressed at how much more performance they can get from their system should they not want to abandon physical media right away.  I was having a ton of fun using a Rega Planet CD player and a Mac Mini running Amarra through the QBD76.


As with any component at this price point, I would suggest a demo in your system to make sure the tonality is synergistic with your system.  Warm and romantic it isn’t, but it isn’t harsh or grainy either.  The Chord QBD76 will not embellish the more raggedy-sounding discs in your collection, but it will reveal some pleasant surprises in your best recordings.  Highly recommended.

The Chord QBD76 DAC

MSRP:  $6,295


North American Distributor:


Preamplifiers Burmester 011    McIntosh C500    Conrad Johnson ET3SE
Power Amplifiers Burmester 911 mk. 3    McIntosh MC275    McIntosh MC1.2kw Monoblocks   Conrad Johnson MV50-C1    Octave ME130 monoblocks
Speakers GamuT S9    MartinLogan CLX    Estelon EX    Harbeth Monitor 40.1    B&W 805D (w/Gotham Subwoofer)
Cable Shunyata Aurora I/C    Shunyata Stratos SP speaker cable    Cardas Clear I/C and speaker cable    Audioquest Wild Blue Yonder I/C and speaker cable
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim PLC’s    RSA and Shunyata power cords

Audioengine D2 Premium 24-bit Wireless DAC

Audioengine’s new D2 Wireless DAC provides an elegant solution for those wanting a higher-quality streaming solution than just a wireless transmitter, which the Hong Kong–based manufacturer offers with its highly successful W1 and W2 wireless analog transmitters.  The new W2 digital transmitter, priced at $599 for the set, is integrated with a two-piece DAC system that comprises separate sender and receiver units.  The system is capable of processing 24-bit/192-kHz music files, with the ability to stream 24-bit/96-kHz files.

The sender unit is connected (and powered, if desired) via USB connection, with an optical input also available.  The sender then transmits the digital signal to the receiver via a walled wireless 802.11g network.  The system removes output-level distortion from the equation with a separate signal.  The D2 system can work with up to three receiver units in different listening systems.

Highly versatile, the D2 DAC can be used as more than a standard computer-based wireless DAC:  It is equally at home acting as a PCM-to-home-stereo link and as a wireless USB-to-S/PDIF convertor.  The latter proves handy with my reference SimAudio 300D DAC, which features a USB limited input for 16-bit/44.1-kHz files.

Nuts and Bolts

The D2 DAC presents a clean and compact design aesthetic consisting of dark-grey brushed aluminum casework with thick plastic end caps.  The sender and receiver units each measure 4.75 inches wide, 5.5 inches deep, and 1 inch high—each unit is barely larger than three CD cases stacked on top of each other.

The faceplate of each unit has two grayish LED buttons—one for power and one for pair-sync status.  The sender has a silver output volume control knob, optical and USB inputs and a jack for the wall-wart power supply. The receiver has RCA output jacks occupying the same space as the knob and USB port on the sender.  An optical output and power jack receptacle finish off the receiver’s front.  The back panels of both units hold only the dual antennas.  A few may grumble about front-facing jacks, but small-stature equipment does require compromise on occasion.

Up and Running

Setting up both the D2 units to pair with either an Apple MacBook or Windows Vista desktop and main audio system took less time than unpacking and reading the brief but informative manual.  For Macintosh owners, simply open up the sound control in your computer’s system preferences and select “Audioengine D2”.  Windows users verify connection in the sound application of your control panel menu.  In either case, make sure to start with the sender unit’s output turned all the way up.  Typical of all Audioengine products, the D2 system comes with a full assortment of cables, so running to RadioShack won’t be necessary.

For owners of larger homes or those broadcasting to or from a studio or garage, the D2 transmission range easily exceeds 100 feet, according to Audioengine, and will transmit through one exterior and one interior wall without signal degradation.  I tested the transmission through an exterior wall and five interior walls at a distance of some 70 feet and the D2 yielded equally good results.

At just $599 with full wireless functionality, one might bet that the D2’s DAC section would be the weak link.  Here, the PCM1792A chip serves the DAC well.  Consistency across the spectrum with all components is a big thing with us here at TONEAudio, and the D2 DAC performed above expectations across the board.

Peak Performer

Listening to the D2 DAC, the one word that keeps coming to mind is “smooth.”  The D2 is a budget DAC that successfully avoids the dreaded listener fatigue.  When using the D2, bass guitar definition has a solid punch in The Burned’s toe-tapping “Hard Lesson,” along with a pleasant richness and depth.  On the top end of the frequency spectrum, the D2 delivers Kathleen Edwards’ clear vocals in “Change the Sheets” without the grain or irritation that plague most DACs at this price point.  The soul of music lives in the midrange and the xylophone in Steely Dan’s classic “Aja,” which comes across with the sweet warmth that many budget DACs miss.

The Audioengine D2 DAC offers convenience and high performance in a compact package that is reasonably priced.  Computer audiophiles take note.

Audioengine D2 Premium 24-bit Wireless DAC

MSRP: $599

Chord Electronics Chordette QuteHD DAC

“Open the pod bay door, Hal.” As I unbox the Chord Chordette QuteHD DAC, I cannot help but recall that famous quote from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The Cordette is indeed reminiscent of the HAL 9000 computer from the movie, complete with a large, round eye, which offers a view into the internal circuitry.  This window emits a variety of colors from the device’s internal LEDs, and the red glow, which appears when the DAC is converting a 44.1-kHz signal, is eerily HAL-like.  Other colors appear at higher bitrate conversions, and the Chordette is capable of handling a whopping 32-bit/384-kHz signal.


The Chordette measures only 6 inches wide, 3 inches deep and 1.75 inches tall, which allows placement on a shelf or next to an existing piece of equipment on your audio rack.  The anodized aluminum exterior has nicely rounded edges and is available in a variety of colors, including blue, black, and silver.  The DAC’s power arrives from a thin-wired wall wart.  For those seeking a minimalist audio solution, the Chordette provides a welcome form factor.

“It can only be attributable to human error.”

Setup proves very straightforward, with the Chordette offering one option for the analog output: a stereo pair of single-ended RCAs.  Users do have the option to connect it to digital sources via USB, optical or coaxial inputs.  It’s important to note that the coax input is in the form of a BNC connector, not the more common RCA variety, so those wishing to connect a source using this input will need the appropriate cable.  BNC connectors are great for their ability to transfer a signal and physically lock onto their receptacles, but I’d like the option to connect both types of coax inputs.  Luckily, I have a Stereovox XV2 digital cable on hand that offers BNC on one end and RCA coax on the other.

Installing the Chordette is simple and seamless, with the packaged CD containing drivers for the USB setup.  Once I place the disc in my PC, connect the USB cable and power up the Chordette, Windows 7 has no problems recognizing the DAC and activating the needed drivers.  Mac users need only go to their control panel and select the Chordette as their digital output device.

The Chordette is a black-box solution, meaning there are no buttons, switches or knobs to control it.  Simply connect your digital sources and the DAC takes care of everything else.  Without an input selector, the Chordette prioritizes incoming signals when multiple inputs are connected simultaneously.  For instance, if coaxial and USB cables are both connected to the unit the default priority is the USB input; optical is the lowest priority.  When I pause the USB source material from the computer, the Chordette begins its search for the next-ranked input source, which in my case is the coax connected to a CD player.  After about 20 seconds, it resumes playing the second source automatically.  For those with a single digital source this could not be simpler.  For those with multiple sources, it’s mostly a matter of stopping any source you don’t want to hear.  Even when unplugging the USB cable in the middle of a song, the DAC makes a quick search and, after a pause, it moves on to the next available connected source.

“I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.”

With the Chordette, joys are many and quibbles are very few.  It creates a supplemental “drive” to the music.  It doesn’t actually speed up a song, but it creates a subtle sense of urgency that pulls in (and holds) the listener.  Attack on guitar plucks and drum beats in Gipsy Kings’ Ritmo de la Noche commands attention, but it never overpowers the big-picture musical experience.  Yet, on smaller-scale solo performances, the Chordette still accentuates delicacy and nuance, making this DAC a great option for all types of music.

The Chordette provides a nicely balanced presentation across all frequencies.  Highs are realistically and enjoyably rendered; mids are smooth and lifelike; and bass presentation is punchy, full and deep.  One small experiential variance from my usual reference, in the form of “Otherwise” by Morcheeba, reveals low bass notes pushing upfront in the virtual stage and competing a bit with the vocals.  Admittedly, I enjoy a little extra heft in some recordings so this aspect will prove a non-issue for many listeners, especially those with smaller speakers.

This DAC also provides a stellar level of detail across all sample rates.  Even a 48-kHz translation demonstrates audible improvement over a standard 44.1-kHz CD.  A CD of the Connecticut Early Music Ensemble performing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons puts a shiver down my spine during a few passages—an experience I don’t have too often.  With ribbon tweeters, a small amount of perceivable sharpness emerges at times in lower-resolution digital recordings, which can detract from the musical experience.  But this DAC really draws me into the musicality of a song rather than simply evaluating the equipment producing it.

When I use the Chordette’s coax connection to a CD-quality source, the sound is marvelous.  However, the perceived width of the performance has some limits.  Air’s “Venus” provides a good test for this.  With some other DACs, the musical experience extends well beyond the speakers’ limits and remains there.  The Chordette is reined in a bit and does not exceed the physical speaker boundaries to the same degree.  I do find some improvement in this regard when using the USB connection, or when using a dCS Purcell to upsample to 96 kHz.

What the Chordette creates between the speakers is both dramatic and convincing.  Johnny Cash’s cover of “Danny Boy,” recorded late in career, reveals the age in Cash’s voice.  There’s an emotional undertone in it that transcends the song itself, especially when accompanied by the distant-sounding pipe organ.  For those wanting to experience every nuance up close, in a front-row seat, this DAC enables that experience.  Those who prefer to sit further back at a performance may find the detail a bit much.  But even for those listeners, I expect many will enjoy the change of seat location as the Chordette ushers them toward it.

“Road to Hell: Part I” by Chris Rea sonically simulates a person driving a car down the highway in the rain.  On this track, the Chordette does an incredible job recreating front-to-back depth and layering.  Windshield wipers scrape from side to side, the radio switches between various news stations and many cars drive by in the distance with a whoosh.  The portrayal of these elements though the Chordette is exciting:  The passing cars sound well behind the speakers, with their tires rolling over a wet road; the wiper blades appear ahead of the listener, as though clearing rain from a pane of glass between the speakers (you can hear that the driver needs to buy some new blades); and the simulated radio stations, with news updates panned left and right, have a sound one would expect from old car speakers.

“You guys have really come up with somethin’.”

When asked about its status, the HAL 9000 replied, “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”  While obviously not conscious, the Chordette QuteHD certainly puts its skills to the fullest possible use in a home audio system.  The team at Chord Electronics has done an outstanding job designing and voicing this amazing little DAC.  It offers flexible input options, a very small footprint and extreme ease of use, as well as adaptability for both low- and high-resolution digital sources.  Combining these attributes with wonderful sound, this DAC proves a marvelous addition to a stereo setup.  For those evaluating DAC options around the Chordette’s $1,700 price range and who enjoy feeling like they are in the front row at a musical performance, the Chordette is a fantastic option.

Chordette QuteHD DAC

MSRP: $1,700

Chord Electronics


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV

Digital audio doesn’t have a sound, per se. What we describe as digital sound is the sound of analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversions. There’s not much we can do about the A-to-Ds used when music you love is recorded, mixed, or mastered, but as for the D-to-A conversions, the MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV sound as good as digital gets.

Many analog lovers are certain that vinyl is more musical while digital devotees claim the zeroes and ones approach is by-the-numbers accurate. Vinyl’s sins are mostly additive: analog has higher levels of distortion, speed variability, and noise issues, but digital somehow loses the juicy richness we associate with the sound of the proverbial real thing. Each camp stakes its claim of sonic superiority and often dismisses the opposite side’s formats as non-musical garbage, and I swear the name-calling has been going on since analog was first converted to digital. That’s not to say there aren’t audiophiles that straddle the analog/digital gap. I include myself in that group.

MSB’s Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV narrow the analog-digital divide, and again remind me of the source’s role in determining the sound of my hi-fi. It really comes down to this: If musical information is “lost” at the source, it can’t ever be regained with better amps or speakers. The old garbage-in, garbage-out credo still stands, and improvements made at the beginning of the chain—the source—are huge.

Being Discrete

The $3,995 Platinum Data CD IV Transport and $17,489 Platinum Signature DAC IV are available in Matte White (a.k.a. silver) or Satin Black; heat sinks on the chassis sides come in silver, black, or blue. The DAC offers an extensive (and at times, bewildering) range of set-up options. Input switching modes, digital filters, and dither options via the remote. The US-made DAC IV is discrete. It doesn’t utilize Burr-Brown or any off-the-shelf chips to convert digital-to-analog, and that’s a really big deal. MSB rolls its own ultra-high resolution, up to 384-kHz/32-bit DAC modules in-house, achieved straight through with no complicated side operations. The DACs use high-precision aerospace grade resistors, specifically selected and matched for use in the Signature DAC. The modules can be upgraded down the road, so a Platinum can become a Signature and a Signaure can become a Diamond.  The front end of the DAC IV series uses the largest  blank SHARC chipsets available containing four digital filters, input receivers and two upsampler  algorithms  all written in-house. It was designed to be field upgradable with firmware downloads for new digital filters, future formats and many other  pre-conversion functions.  Analog and digital sections are completely isolated from each other.

You can configure your Platinum Signature DAC IV with a range of options, including the Signature volume attenuator for $2,295; the Signature USB 2 384 kHz board for $1,395; a remote control power on/off feature for $485; a second analog input for $995; and an integrated iLink (iPod dock) for $1,995.

After inserting a disc, the Transport starts reading and rereading the disc and puts the data in a memory, like a computer-disc transport would. MSB engineers listened to and tested dozens of drives before selecting the one employed in the Data CD IV. This drive performs just one function—it reads the data from the disc and the Data CD IV’s custom-designed electronics control the drive. This approach is what separates its performance from other transports. Jitter is reduced to the point that MSB had to develop its own measurement system to more accurately monitor the readings.

The Transport requires an outboard 12-volt power supply, and MSB offers two options: a small desktop supply ($595) or a MSB Platinum Power Base that comes with a MSB Platinum DAC. The Data CD IV’s performance is the same with either power supply. The Transport has AES-EBU, RCA coaxial, Toslink optical, and MSB’s proprietary Network digital outputs.

The DAC claims the same connectivity options as inputs, plus a 75-ohm BNC digital input an XLR or RCA analog input that passes through the purist volume attenuator, as well as RCA and XLR analog outputs.  Perhaps the highest resolution is available via MSB’s new Pro I2S MSB-Network connection, featuring ground isolation, higher bandwidth and markedly lower jitter.

Visually, the Data CD IV Transport and DAC IV are much prettier than any previous MSB Tech components I’ve seen. The deeply rounded front fascia and low-slung chassis are flanked by gently curved heat sinks. The underside of the chassis’ four corners are stocked with brass pointed feet, and the corresponding top corners are fitted with inserts to accept a stacked MSB component’s pointed feet.

Physically, the Data CD IV feels nice and solid, but the generic plastic disc-loading tray and tiny transport control buttons seem out of place on gear that pushes the state of the art. Granted, they don’t make a whit of difference to the sound, but I’d love to see a machined metal tray for this kind of money. The tray is the primary point of contact with the Transport, and it breaks the high-end spell. The Transport and DAC are also each shipped with a lightweight aluminum-faced remote control. Again, they’re nothing fancy, but the remote works well, and I prefer it to the massive devices that come with some high-end components.

Who Needs Surround?

I’ll quickly concede that higher-than-CD-resolution digital gets closer to analog’s musical nature, but there’s precious little new music coming out on Blu-ray, SACD, DVD-A, or high-resolution download these days. By far, the CD is still the best-sounding widely distributed digital format. I own around 3,000 CDs and buy on average two per week, and I want to hear them at their best. Presto: The MSB components made the little silver discs sound better than ever. So much so I didn’t shed a tear when I discovered the Platinum Data CD IV Transport doesn’t play SACD or DVD-A discs, but spins DVD-ROMs encoded with WAV files with up to 384 kHz sampling rates with 32-bit resolution. If you possess a large SACD/DVD-A collection, check out MSB’s $3,995 Universal Media Transport. (review in process)

Before starting a review of digital gear, I like to exclusively listen to LPs for a few days. The process clears my head. The MSBs acquitted themselves well during the first few plays—not so much that they sounded analog-like, but sounded good. Really good. As I played a stack of CDs, the MSBs connected the dots better than most digital gear I’ve heard.

I spent some time running the Platinum Signature DAC IV straight into my Pass Labs XA100.5 amps, and controlling the volume from the DAC. Sure, this approach is possible with some other DACs, but I’ve never actually preferred this method to using a preamp between DAC and amp. It makes a lot of sense to eliminate the preamp, but too often, dynamics go south and the sound loses too much of its essential mojo. Not this time. Straight-in, the DAC was a smidge more transparent, soundstaging more open, and focus better. Dynamics were better straight-in than with my Parasound JC-2 preamp in the chain. If you don’t have a lot of other analog sources (the DAC can be configured with up to two RCA and XLR analog inputs), you might want to forgo a preamp altogether.  For those already possessing a high quality linestage, the purist attenuator can be switched out completely.

While listening to 176.4 kHz/24-bit hi-res music from Reference Recordings’ HRx Sampler 2011 DVD-ROM disc, the sound was nothing less than astounding. To my ears, high resolution gets you closer to being in the venue as you hear more low-level atmospherics. The illusion of being in a concert hall ranks ahead of what I’ve heard from SACD or DVD-A surround discs. The soundstage on the Reference disc may be strictly two-channel, but it’s so huge, I felt no loss of surround. Uninhibited large-scale dynamics, like the big bass drum that opens Walton’s Crown Imperial finale, just about knocked me over and had me reassessing my Magnepan 3.7 speakers’ dynamic capabilities.

The small- and large-scale dynamics on the disc’s solo piano tracks were, again, the most lifelike I’ve heard at home. The studio-recorded jazz tracks’ more intimate soundstage perspective added a degree of presence that made returning to CD an unpleasant option. So I popped in a 96-kHz/24 DVD-ROM of Paul Simon’s recent So Beautiful or So What album. It’s not an audiophile recording and, compared to the Reference Recordings’ discs, it’s dynamically compressed and processed-sounding. But it’s not bad. It’s also Simon’s best effort in years, and the lovely acoustic guitar picking on the instrumental “Amulet” is awfully pretty.

The MSBs let me hear more low-level (quiet) sounds in my CDs. Reverb, whether natural or added in the mix, seemed newly apparent in recordings I’d heard hundreds of times. It’s always been there, but no digital playback system I’ve had at home boasted the resolution to reveal it. Having worked on a number of Chesky Records sessions, including dozens recorded at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in NYC, I can state for certain that the MSB Transport and DAC resurrected more of the 173-year-old building’s sound than I’ve ever heard from the CDs, SACDs, or DVD-As). The CDs never came close to this level of resolution. And, as you hear more deeply into a recording, soundstage focus and dimensionality are also enhanced.

Reconsidering the Analog-Digital Divide

In the great analog-digital divide, for me, engagement remains analog’s key advantage. I feel more connected and involved with music when listening to analog. And yet, the MSBs are distinctly more analog-like on these emotional fronts. Rhythm and pace are better than what I’ve come to expect. Imaging is another key strength: Instruments and voices project sound—if not in a complete 360-degree, omni-directional pattern, then something close to that experience. Of course, it’s rare to reproduce a combination of direct and reflected sound over a hi-fi system. The fact is that information isn’t found on most close mic’d recordings; the “space” is an effect added in the mix.

You’re much more likely to hear these details with so-called audiophile recordings since they take place in acoustically interesting places as opposed to acoustically dead studios. Howard Levy & Miroslav’s The Old Country CD on MA recordings equated to a full-blown, virtual-reality experience. Engineer Todd Garfinkel records with a pair of B&K mics placed above the musicians. Via the MSBs, his mic technique was crystal clear, the spatial relationships between musicians perfectly rendered. No other digital playback gear came close to revealing this kind of accuracy, including my long-standing reference, the Ayre C-5xe mp SACD/DVD-A player. The latter remains a great machine, but blurs the instruments’ outlines and flattens the soundstage. The MSB duo is a much sharper “lens.”

So it came as something of a shock when the MSB worked its magic on less-than-stellar recordings like Trio Beyond’s live Saudades CD. I’ve always enjoyed Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings, and John Scofield’s music, but it’s zippy, fuzzy, and nasty-sounding. Yet the MSB somehow toned down the negatives. My Japanese pressing of Jethro Tull’s Bursting Out is another live recording that was previously too aggressively bright and thin to really enjoy, and yet the MSBs fleshed out the sound. That’s good news, because hearing 1978-era Tull blast through “Cross-Eyed Mary,” “Aqualung,” and “Thick as a Brick” is freaking awesome.

Admittedly, the MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV are expensive, but the best stuff almost always costs. Then again, the components are also about as future-proof as digital gets, so it’s the sort of digital gear in which you can invest for the long haul. The analog-digital divide has never been smaller.

MSB Technology Data CD IV Transport

MSRP: $3,995

MSB Signature DAC IV with Signature Power Base

MSRP: $17,489


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with a van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources PS Audio PerfectWave DAC    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition
Electronics Parasound JC 2 preamp    Pass Labs XP-20    Whest 2.0 phono preamp   Bel Canto REF500S    Pass Labs XA100.5    First Watt J2 power amps
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Zu Essence    Mangepan 3.6    Magnepan 3.7
Cable XLO Signature 3 interconnects    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables    Audioquest Sky interconnects

dCS Debussy DAC

Computer audio has grown exponentially in the last few years, its orbit quickly accelerating over the past 18 months. Since they provide many ways to serve CD and high-res digital files, DACs have become the center of this universe. Once headed towards extinction, they’ve become a primary component in many systems, vinyl-centric or not.

An abundance of sub-$1,000 DACs currently exists, similar to the plethora of turntables in the same price range. But, just like in the analog world, if you want cutting-edge sound, there’s a price to be paid. While some argue that with so much evolution, the $11,495 price on the dCS Debussy is a bit much, I beg to differ.

Again, using analog as the benchmark, things become spellbinding as you hover around the $10-$15k mark. It’s where the distinction between the digital and analog worlds blurs—especially for those building a serious collection of high-resolution music files.  Even five years ago, there wasn’t much digital available at any price that sounded natural. Technology trickle-down is solid, albeit not at a level at which every audiophile can participate.

As a four-box dCS Paganini owner, to me the Debussy seems like a bargain, especially if you no longer spin silver discs. And even more so if you haven’t any need for an analog front end and use the Debussy as a control center, eschewing a line-level preamplifier. A prodigious system can be built around the Debussy, a pair of $10,000 speakers, and suitable power amplifier, which is precisely what I did.

The Debussy spent half of its evaluation in my reference system in direct comparison to the Paganini (with and without the Paganini Master Clock) to explore the ultimate limits of its performance. The other half of the review involved the Verity Audio Rienzi speakers ($10k/pair) and Conrad Johnson MV-50C1 power amplifier. Adding a pair of Cardas Clear Light interconnects, speaker cables, two Shunyata Venom 3 power cords, and a Running Springs Elgar power conditioner made for a highly impressive system that came in just under $25k.

Ins and Outs

The Debussy boasts five digital inputs:  an RCA SPDIF, BNC SPDIF, USB, and pair of balanced AES/EBU inputs. All accept 24/96, and the USB and Dual AES interfaces are 24/192 capable. (A single-wire 24/192 software-only update is in development.) The balanced AES inputs can be used in single or dual configuration. The FireWire input of the Paganini is absent but should not be an issue for most users.

Aesthetically, dCS forgoes the mirror finish of its two top line systems in favor of a matte silver finish with black writing that is far easier to read than the markings on the Paganini. After living with the mirrored-surface Paganini, I’d have picked the silver had it been an option. It shows off the Debussy’s smart, curved design, yet it’s more resistant to fingerprints.

The learning curve on the Debussy is less daunting than that on the Paganini, which has more buttons than Sebastian Vettel’s steering wheel. Here, we get power, input, mute, volume+/-, and two DSP filter choices—linear phase with pre-ringing or non-linear phase without pre-ringing. Which is optimum? Log onto an Internet forum and knock yourself out.

As in all dCS DACs, the Debussy uses its proprietary Ring DAC, ultimately oversampling all incoming data to 2.822 or 3.07MHz with a 5-bit depth. When touring the dCS factory, I learned all the DACs share a common “motherboard.” The basic chipset and layout are the same, with more functionality as you go up the range. Such a strategy keeps manufacturing streamlined and designs future-proofed. All updates can be executed via software, further ensuring the unit’s longevity.

These benefits were the paramount reasons I chose dCS for my reference system. With so much change in the digital world, knowing my DAC could stay current by merely downloading new software made it that much easier to write a big check.

Should you use the Debussy as a preamplifier/control center, the digital volume control works brilliantly, with no degradation to the sound even at low listening levels. A switch on the rear panel offers the choice of 2V or 6V output. I can’t imagine anyone needing 6V, and would prefer to see the choices as 1V or 2V, especially with today’s amplifiers having so much gain.

Touring the dCS Factory

Earlier this year, I visited dCS’ new factory in Cambridge. The bigger facility condenses all manufacturing to one level, greatly streamlining build and test processes.  Company principal David Steven and Sales Manager Rav Bawa were great hosts, showing off how much dCS grew since I toured the previous facility in 2010. Bawa explains that “assembly centers around a kit of parts, so that a box can be easily followed from beginning to end with one operator. In the old building, we had to go up and down stairs. You can imagine how nerve wracking that got, considering how heavy some of our components are.”

dCS sources mechanisms from Esoteric and keeps a substantial cache of spares on hand in the unlikely event one fails. Casework is machined and anodized nearby, with all engineering, assembly, and testing done in-house. dCS employs around 20 people and ships digital hardware to over 40 countries. When we walked through the shipping department, almost 100 boxes were on their way to dealers worldwide.

All dCS DACs use the same basic circuit board, with different software loaded for various iterations of the final product. Various assembly stations build and test, and the complete unit is tested yet again when complete. Ironically, because of the virtually nonexistent distortion and jitter in its products, dCS must design and build all of its test equipment.  Finished components are burned-in for 48 hours and run through rigorous tests before final packing and shipment.

Proof is in the Listening

Due to its popularity, I figured the new Bon Iver record a perfect place to begin listening.  “Holocene” possesses a wide soundstage with guitars panned to the left and right in the mix. Comparing the CD to the LP proved a close heat, with the Debussy doing an excellent job at keeping what little front-to-back dimension that exists intact. Black Country Communion’s first, self-titled album duplicates the experience. The vinyl sounds decent but not overwhelming, and much like when paired with the first Fleet Foxes record or Tom Jones’ Praise and Blame, the Debussy gets the nod in terms of providing a more liquid presentation, with more extension on the top and bottom ends of the tonal scale.

As with the Paganini, the big surprise arrives when listening to fairly dreadful digital recordings. The Debussy pulls tons of detail from recordings I believed completely lacking such information. Yes, my Japanese copy of Kiss’ Alive! sounds better than ever. Quite possibly the most highly compressed CD in my collection, the self-titled album from Glenn Hughes and Pat Thrall, now leaves me astonished that air actually lurks on the disc.

However good the Debussy is at untangling dense recordings, it does not embellish tonally to either side of neutral. If you’d like a bit of warmth added to the sound of digital files, look to one of the more popular players featuring vacuum tubes in the output stage. But my experience has been that these players give up resolution and transient clarity in return. The Debussy gives you the truth, like it or not.

Like the other players in dCS’ lineup, the Debussy is not harsh or clinical. The best  digital recordings in your collection will sound virtually indistinguishable, if not better, than favorite analog files. Charlie Haden’s The Private Collection (Naim) is excellent for comparison purposes since it is manufactured to an equally high level in analog and digital formats. And now, you can purchase it as a 24/96 download.

Comparing the high-res file played through the Paganini gives the advantage to the dCS stack in terms of sonic dynamics and overall cleanliness. The Debussy comes close, and with the addition of the dCS Paganini Master Clock (an additional $8,000), takes the lead in overall musicality. While I consider myself a devoted analog fan, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that a lot of records are poorly produced, no matter the generation.

Making similar comparisons between MoFi’s recent remaster of Beck’s Sea Change and the high-resolution files available from HD Tracks uncover revealingly indistinguishable results. The sources are even more similar in sound when I contrast a digital copy I made from the MoFi pressing, recorded to a 24/192 file via Nagra’s LB studio recorder. Even friends with canine-like hearing have a tough time determining the analog pressing from the high-resolution digital copy.

As it does in my Paganini stack, the Master Clock offers extra tonal ease and pace. An early British pressing of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road put against to the latest HD Tracks download shows the digital file again yields more music. The gulls in the background of “Sweet Painted Lady” possess a previously absent palpability, and the bass line stays firmly anchored compared to its somewhat nebulous position on LP.

dCS also offers nearly bottomless bass grip when playing my favorite Deadmau5 and Thievery Corporation tracks. The deep bass on these albums doesn’t come through well on LP, and if it does, no matter how good your turntable might be, at club-level volume, feedback intrudes on the party and greatly diminishes the effect.

I don’t plan on getting rid of my turntables anytime soon, but it is wonderful to know that this level of parity is attainable. Thanks to dCS and a few other great combinations I’ve heard, my analog agnosticism is put to rest. Granted, $10-20k is not a casual purchase for most carbon-based life forms. But a similar investment in the analog domain is necessary to get maximum performance. Digital has matured far beyond the point where your average turntable outperforms a high-dollar digital front end. As always, the recording quality will determine which source gets the nod, but you’ll never have to “settle” for digital with the Debussy.


The dCS Debussy equates to a triumph, bringing world- class digital performance to a price point previously out of most audiophiles’ reach. But don’t listen to the Master Clock unless you are ready to press the “buy now” button. Once you’ve had such insight, it’s tough to go back to listening without it.

If one could exchange their CD and LP collection for high-quality, high-resolution files, this would be an easy choice to make.  But it’s not that easy. Yet. For those that already have a substantial collection of 16/44 digital files, whether ripped on a hard drive or from CD, the Deb makes it easy to not only enjoy them like never before, but to obtain the necessary amount of air and warmth that you enjoy from analog sources. The experience allows you to listen for hours without fatigue. And I can’t give a source component a higher recommendation than that.

dCS Debussy $11,495

Data Conversion Systems, Ltd.

dCS North America, LLC


Preamplifier Audio Research REF 5
Power Amplifiers Audio Research REF 150    Conrad Johnson MV-50C1
Speakers GamuT S9    Verity Audio Rienzi
Cable Cardas Clear    Shunyata Aurora
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim    Elgar PLCs

Naim DAC and PS555 Power Supply

With the race on to build bigger, better, more powerful gear, Naim has entered the field with its first standalone DAC. In the past, the company took a closed-architecture approach to digital, with its players claiming neither a digital input nor output. One uses them the way they come from the factory; the only available upgrade is a larger power supply.

If you aren’t familiar with Naim, it certainly follows a different approach than other manufacturers. In the case of its $3,695 world-class DAC, performance upgrades come in the form of more robust, external power supplies. This strategy (also used with its SuperLine phonostage) works well in the sense that you buy the DAC once, getting digital decoding ability along with a top-range product’s input and output flexibility—and the same tonality—for a reasonable price.

When more performance is needed, an external power supply is easily added. Enter the $5,595 XPS and $9,345 555PS. While the uninitiated might pause at the concept of an external power supply costing more than an actual component, we’ve been to this dance with Naim before, and the proof is in the listening.

The Naim DAC provides a great digital experience in standard form, but if you can make the jump, opt for the PS555. Like every other Naim component into which we’ve plugged a massive power supply, it makes for a stunning experience. Once you hear it, you will never go back. For those that keep gear for long periods of time, it’s reassuring to buy the DAC and know the job is done. When you get the itch to upgrade, adding a power supply is a simple task.

Regardless of output or file resolution, the Naim DAC plays flawlessly with every digital source we throw at it. No matter your digital arsenal, the user-friendly nit will improve its sound While Naim would, of course, like to see you purchase one of its music servers, if you have someone else’s server in your system, integrating the Naim DAC with a current setup shouldn’t be an issue. In addition to the Naim HDX, we used the QSonix, Meridian Sooloos, Aurender, and Squeezebox servers with all file resolutions without a glitch.

The DAC proves equally compatible with a wide range of transports. The MSB universal transport works particularly well with the Naim DAC, allowing audiophiles invested in physical media of all types—SACD, DVD-Audio, or even Blu-ray—to play their files from one source.

Different Approach, Similar Sound

Even though the Naim DAC takes an alternative modus operandi to the digital decoding process, the company’s CD555 uses old-school, 16 bit/44.1k architecture. The Naim DAC upsamples incoming data to 768khz, using a SHARC 40-bit floating point processor, which also handles the digital filtering.  Audio data is then dumped into a RAM buffer before going to the actual DAC chips for D/A conversion. For a more in-depth overview of this process, download the Naim white paper here:

Such methodology is not necessary with the CD555 because it only plays 16 bit/44.1khz files from CD; remember, however, the Naim DAC is compatible with all high-resolution digital formats. Credit Naim’s engineering staff for making the DAC/PS555 combination sound nearly identical to the CD555. Under the hood, the models couldn’t be more different.

The Naim DAC employs a plethora of inputs: a pair of RCA SPDIF, a pair of 75-ohm BNC inputs, and four toslink inputs. A USB port rests on the back and front panels; however, these inputs are not intended for direct connection to a computer. And forget about balanced XLR/EBU or FireWire inputs. Naim believes that a computer via USB doesn’t constitute an optimal way to transfer data to its DAC, so the USB input is for an external drive or memory stick. We found this handy when a friend brought over a few albums for a listening session.

Since the DAC is Apple compliant, you can use an iPod, iPhone, or iPad to stream music (up to 48kHz sampling rate) without the need for an external high-performance dock. Merely connect your iPod via the standard USB cord that goes to your charger, and experience the upgraded sound the iPod possesses when you bypass the onboard DAC. Listeners with multiple iPods will find this method goes a long way towards enticing the rest of their family to share in the hi-fi system fun.

Standard and Super-Size

Listening sessions began with the Naim DAC by itself, and without the external power supply. The former exhibits the same character, or “house sound,” that we’ve experienced with the other Naim players. We experimented with an iPod Touch, vintage Denon 3910, MSB universal transport, Naim HDX, and Sooloos music server, as well as a dCS Paganini transport.

By itself, the DAC proves highly competent and exhibits a very natural tonality. Naim gear always excels in the areas of musical pace and timing. However, that PS555 is like connecting an afterburner to the DAC. While tonality remains the same, dynamics take a major jump with the extra power. The rim shots in Lee Morgan’s Riggarmortesfrom the Tom Cat XRCD are breathtaking. And when Morgan’s trumpet enters, it punches through the mix with authority and more texture, the tune now sounding like a high-resolution file.

Bass weight and control also soar with the PS555. Listening to the classic electronica album, Kruder and Dorfmeister, The K&D Sessions, confirms these findings. “Bomb the Bass—Bug Powder Dust” features a deep, loose bass track that can easily get away from a modest system and overwhelm the diaphanous mix. The Naim combination paints a massive sonic landscape, simultaneously offering potent bass that shakes the listening room but never loses control.

More Power

Aside from reproducing music in a natural way—acoustic instruments played back through the Naim DAC/PS555 possess the right amount of texture and decay to convince you you’re hearing the real thing—the PS555 produces a much larger soundstage. Cue up Frank Zappa’s “Penguin in Bondage” from the live Roxy & Elsewhere album. Listening to only the DAC, Ruth Underwood’s percussion effects are buried in the mix, and the CD feels somewhat compressed. Once the PS555 is engaged, room boundaries expand in all three dimensions, allowing Zappa and his cronies to reveal themselves in greater detail.

The additional dynamics that the PS555 brings to listening sessions are invaluable. As nicely as the Naim DAC/PS555 combination renders top-notch recordings, the additional detail and overall listenability it brings to average-sounding records separates the pairing from lesser DACs. Music lovers whose interests venture beyond the same old audiophile standards will be delighted.

Indeed, after swapping the power supply in and out only a few times, I became convinced the NAIM DAC makes such a quantum leap with the PS555. It’s not to be missed. Sure, there are a few excellent DACs in the $4,000 range, and while the Naim unit is highly capable on its own, the PS555 turns it into something special.

You Might Forget About Your Turntable

If we were comparing the two DACs to phono cartridges, the Naim boasts a sound similar to that of a Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum: robust bass response, great stereo image, and a dash of warmth thrown in for good measure—a characteristic that never hurts digital media. In direct comparison to the similarly priced dCS Debussy, the dCS sounds more like a Lyra Titan i, with a shade more resolution and slightly more forward presentation.

For music lovers that want a digital source that is musical in the manner of an analog source, the Naim DAC/PS555 is the way to roll. Also, if you are a CD555 owner that’s a bit late coming to music servers, this DAC and power supply will provide a seamless experience. For these reasons, the Naim DAC/PS555 combination receives our most enthusiastic recommendation.

The Naim DAC/PS555 Power Supply

MSRP:  Naim DAC, $3,695

PS555 Power supply, $9,345    (factory)    (US Importer)


Preamplifiers Conrad Johnson Act 2/Series 2     ARC REF 5SE    Burmester 011
Power Amplifiers McCormack DNA 750 monoblocks     Octave Jubilee Monoblocks    Pass XA200.5 monoblocks     ARC REF 150     Burmester 911 mk.3
Digital Sources Naim HDX-SSD     Sooloos Control 15    MSB Universal Transport    dCS Paganini Transport
Speakers Magnepan 20.1     GamuT S9    B&W 802D     Sonus Faber Ellipsa SE
Cable Cardas Clear    Furutech Reference

Wadia Intuition Power DAC

Thankfully, using the words “lifestyle” and “high fidelity” in the same sentence no longer makes you want to run for cover or the shower.

Great gear has been slowly getting more stylish: in part to attract the luxury goods consumer, and perhaps just because it’s cool.  Historically, big, clunky boxes have been banished from the main living space in all but the most tolerant of homes, so it’s wonderful to see manufacturers making products that are as enticing visually as they are sonically.

While Danish manufacturer Bang & Olufsen is certainly the pioneer of making audio products with a visual flair, it hasn’t been until just recently, when Devialet hit the scene with their D-Premier, that cutting edge audio performance is combined with sleek packaging.  It makes perfect sense that this fusion of style and performance would come from Europe, where living space tends to be at more of a premium.  Not as many of our European neighbors have the luxury of dedicated man caves.

Now Wadia, part of the Fine Sounds group, joins the party with the Intuition, and it’s a brilliant first effort.  A truly global product, the Intuition is designed and built in Italy.  Where the Devialet is square in form, the Intuition is softer in shape, looking much like an Apple MacBook Pro: inflated slightly, melted, and bent over a curved form.  Available in matte silver and black it was by far the most exciting product at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.  And the matte silver version, reviewed here, looks particularly Mac-like.

Power to spare

With 350 watts per channel at your fingertips (into 4 ohms, 190 WPC into 8) the Intuition can effortlessly drive anything.  It’s amazing how far switching amplification has come in the last few years, but the current design in the Wadia is fantastic, they refer to it as “Class D-Plus.”  Gone is the tinge of harshness and flat soundstage that used to plague these designs.

Because the current requirements from this type of design are very low, it’s easy to leave the Intuition on 24/7.  After a few days of continuous play, the Intuition opens up tremendously.  Interestingly, the Intuition is nowhere near as sensitive to speaker loads as the Class D amplifiers we’ve sampled.  Switching between Magnepans, electrostatic speakers and a plethora of cone speakers proves effortless.

Following Wadia’s John Schaffer’s suggestion, attention to power line conditioning and an upgraded power cord takes the Intuition to another level of performance entirely.  In this case, the Intuition is much like equipment with tubes under the hood, and once I install the Running Springs Dmitri and a Mongoose power cord, I’m rewarded with a dramatic increase in soundstage width, and a smoother high end as well.

Putting the pedal to the floor with a 45 r.p.m. single of AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” with the Intuition replaces about $200,000 worth of gear in my main system, driving the GamuT S9s.  The S9s go down to 18 Hz and reproduce the cannon shots at the end of the track with tons of weight and punch.  The Intuition proves equally adept with the cannon shots at the end of the Telarc 1812 Overture LP.  Having exhausted my repertoire of cannon shots, it’s time to venture into a wider range of music.

Great everywhere

Jumping in the wayback machine for a cursory listen of Neu!’s Neu!2 is fantastic; this ethereal electronic piece is properly rendered larger than life, with analog synthesizer bits, random drumming and tape-looped moans orbiting around my KEF Blades.  Granted, this won’t tell you anything about timbre, or tonal accuracy – this piece needs to sound grandiose in execution, and the Intuition nails it.

Ditto on the subtle reproduction of acoustic instruments.  The atonal piano riffs in David Bowie’s classic “Aladdin Sane” explode from between the speakers, with killer attack and expansive delay, fading into nothing ever so gently as the driving bass line stays perfectly intact.

The “Shelly Manne” track from The Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project further reveals the lightning speed the Intuition possesses.  Both of these master drummers interacting over a major bass line is phenomenal and reproduced with ease.  Anyone judging a system on PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing) will be in heaven.  More traditional, yet equally intriguing, is Kenny Burrell’s Soulero. The Intuition’s ability to keep all four musicians distinctly placed in the listening space is fantastic.

Nuance is the key with the Intuition.  Forget what you think you know about switching amplification – this baby is smooth and grain free.  After moving the Intuition out of the studio and into my new listening room in the house with a pair of KEF LS-50s, I am amazed at how easy it is to lapse into a groove with this combination, at times fooled into thinking perhaps I’m listening to the big system after all.  The overall musicality of the Intuition is impossible to ignore and tough to beat.

A magic DAC indeed

The Intuition has seven digital inputs, so it can become the center of your musical universe with ease.  Two line-level analog inputs are available as well, so those wanting to add a turntable, or other source with RCA outputs can do so, but be aware that the Intuition does convert the analog sources to high-resolution digital information and then processes everything in the digital domain.

Utilizing an SME 10 turntable and Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge, via the Audio Research REF Phono 2 phonostage, provides an excellent addition to the system, with barely any loss of spatial qualities and nuance, robbing analog of its charm.  Hard core analog purists may not want to roll this way, but considering the Intuition’s design ethos, this may be not the droid for you, should you want a pure analog experience anyway.  All but the most maniacal vinyl lovers will appreciate the analog inputs and the ability to enjoy this part of their music selection with the Intuition, should they so desire.

Schaffer also makes it a point to mention that the Intuition on many levels is “the latest generation DAC from Wadia,” incorporating everything they’ve done, up to and including their prestigious 9 series.  After having used both the 581 and 781 as reference players for years, we notice the resemblance instantly.  Bass is solid, tuneful and well controlled, with dynamics to match – amazing actually, in such a compact package.

Part of this continued innovation is the use of Wadia’s patented Digimaster algorithm, controlling level in the digital domain, and the Intuition features the latiest iteration.  Coax and AES inputs accommodate 24 bit/192 khz signals, with the USB input having 32bit/384khz and native DSD capability.  Wadia chose to forgo galvanic isolation with the Intuition, claiming better analog signal integrity, and the results certainly speak for themselves – this is one of the most natural sounding DACs we’ve encountered.

All of the sources at our disposal perform flawlessly, and the optical input’s performance is incredibly good, interfacing with the Meridian MS200 better than any other DAC at our disposal, including the dCS Vivaldi.  Impressive indeed.  We have not had the chance to fully exploit the 32/384 or DSD capabilities at this early date, but expect a follow-up on the TONEAudio website in the next 60 days.  As more mainstream material becomes available in the DSD world, we’ll be listening further.

Could be more intuitive

I love the sound and functionality of the Intuition, though it does take a little bit of getting used to.  Kudos to Wadia’s design team for making the display large enough to be easily seen from across the room; however the super stylish remote is another story.  Shaped exactly like the Intuition but bite sized, it features five buttons, with a larger button in the middle, sporting an engraved speaker symbol, which mutes the Intuition.  The top and bottom buttons select inputs, while the left and right buttons control volume, as they do on Wadia digital players.  You can determine top from bottom on this symmetrical remote by searching for the IR transmitter – that’s the top.

Legacy Wadia owners should feel right at home, but for the rest of us, this is highly cryptic.  Certainly not an epic fail, but something that should be considered for future versions of the Intuition, and perhaps other devices in the Intuition family that are no doubt on the horizon.  Schaffer maintains a poker face when I ask him about a matching Wadia transport to accompany the Intuition, but the pair of WadiaLink I2S inputs on the rear panel suggests something is indeed in the works.

Easily integrated

Very minor nits aside, the rest of the Intuition is as user friendly as an iPod, and this device is clearly what the world needs more of.  Steve Jobs once said at the Macworld Expo that “technology has to be as easy to use as putting a bagel in a toaster,” and I believe that extends to high-end audio.  Geeking out is fun for some of us but off-putting to most – and why miss out on enjoying great music in your home because you don’t want a rack full of square boxes connected by various lengths of garden hose?

After living with the Intuition for a while and sharing it with a few friends in their homes, it’s clear that Wadia has hit a home run, creating a product that should fly off the dealers’ shelves at an MSRP of $7,500.

The Intuition plays music at such a high degree of realism, it is the perfect building block for a system of any stature.  Whether you choose to pair it up with speakers costing $1,500 or $100,000 (and of course, anywhere in between), you will be amazed at the resulting sound quality.

Thanks to the small 15 x 15 inch footprint, and its ability to run cool, the Intuition will be comfortable anywhere in your home, but I suggest putting its sexy shape in a prominent place where it can become a conversation piece.  And a subtle nudge to the rest of the hifi industry: can we have more of this?  It’s definitely where we need to be headed.  Job well done, Wadia.

The Wadia Intuition

MSRP:  $7,500


Analog Source SME 10 Turntable w/Sumiko Palo Santos Cartridge
Digital Source Meridian Control 15, and MS200, Aurender S10
Phonostage Audio Research REF Phono 2SE
Speakers Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution,GamuT S9, KEF Blade, KEF LS-50
Cables Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri PLC, Mongoose Power Cord
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

Schiit Bifrost DAC

Cheaper DACs usually come with a slightly bitter spoonful of compromise. Manufacturer budget constraints mean less-effective jitter immunization or weaker power-supply regulation. Such shortcuts frequently tinge a DAC’s sound with a metallic edge, most easily heard on the decay of a cymbal strike or lilt of a piano. That natural shimmer present via more expensive models just isn’t there. In ultra-budget conversion boxes, soundstaging shrinks or inner-detail retrieval doesn’t plunge as deep. One must find the compromise with which they can live.

The Bifrost is the first of three DAC models coming from California’s Schiit Audio. Co-founders Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard already weathered heat in audio forums due to their DAC’s FAQ page, on which they opine that USB-fed digital audio is McDonald’s in a world of healthier burger choices.

That said, they’ve taken the time to create a unique USB board for the Bifrost. It offers asynchronous transfer and handles up to 24/192. USB connectivity on the $349 baseline Bifrost is a $100 option at time of ordering, or $150 at a later date. And Schiit’s modular design approach means that any forthcoming DAC board upgrades can be retroactively fitted.

Inside, there’s no sample-rate conversion in the conversion recipe, and the chip choice—AKM 4399—is none too common. As evidenced by its established range of headphone amplifiers, Schiit takes pride in doing things its own way. Mavericks that dig the humor in flippancy? Perhaps.

My experience with numerous budget DACs mirrors the duo’s mirth toward USB audio transmission. All other things being equal, a budget DAC’s USB implementation isn’t as nourishing as its S/PDIF neighbor. Given both choices on a rear panel, I’ll run with the latter every time, even if doing so means spending additional dollars on an alternative transport or DDC. USB connectivity is little more than a handy convenience.

The Bifrost shows an even temperament across the frequency range; nothing stands out. It leans towards warmer sonic climes. Contrary to its tundra-evoking name, this new Schiit is more chili than chilly. Simple, clean cymbal strikes close each verse of The Rakes’ “Retreat,” but by way of the Bifrost, the music comes on as flavorful British indie-rock without the aluminum aftertaste. And a thicker mid-bass guitar and bass mulch keeps “Strasbourg” chugging, while Alan Donohoe’s boorish delivery never overbears during the shouty chorus.

Compared to my current king of the entry-level hill, the Audio-gd NFB2.1, Schiit’s debutant fares surprising well. It’s much easier to listen to for longer periods than its Chinese rival. The American contestant also wins on aesthetics and overall build quality—proving it’s possible to make something good, and for cheap, without having to off-shore the manufacturing process.

Under the Schiit’s command, pebbled smoothness underscores the languid seduction of Lana Del Rey’s debut EP. Indeed, the Bifrost is distinctly more laidback than the Audio-gd. On “Video Games,” the NFB-2.1 pushes a hint of caffeine into the upper registers of Del Rey’s mostly laconic delivery, translating into crisper transient definition of her inhale/exhale.

Schiit’s presentation also shows more connective tissue than the NFB-2.1; there are fewer spatial cues. If this DAC stand-off took place in the amplifier space, the Schiit would likely represent a tubular faction. Greater congeal means more forgiveness of poorer recordings and greater overall body. The thick synth lines underpinning Phones’ remix of The Rakes’ “Retreat” impact with more squelch than via the Chinese entry. The two units are pretty much matched for detail retrieval, with the Audio-gd stealing the lead with ambient decay.

Going back-to-back against the Schiit using Bjork’s “Hyperballad,” the NFB2.1 occasionally loses upper-mid composure. The Bifrost is kinder, warmer, softer. It also digs deeper into the lower bass notes. The Audio-gd box displays keener momentum, but is hampered by a tinge of brittle harshness when handling Bjork’s enthusiastic vocal turns. If the Audio-gd channels Jayne Mansfield, Schiit mainlines Marilyn Monroe. The former’s edginess is more arresting, the latter’s curvaceousness more seductive.

With a JKSPDIF MK3 turning USB into S/PDIF during these listening sessions, the latter still bests Schiit’s bespoke USB implementation. No shame in that. To their credit, Stoddard and Moffat narrow the quality gap between said input options. Performance disparity—transparency, tonal density, instrumental separation—between USB and S/PDIF (coaxial) isn’t as wide as with my other daily unit (a Rega DAC). The Rega’s sound connotes ectomorphic physique: lean, sharp, alert. The Schiit takes an endomorphic approach: rounded through the waist with a more obvious rear-end (ooh, matron!). The Bifrost’s treble errs more toward humid summer morning whilst the Rega’s cooler, damper autumn afternoon might be better suited to those already running tubes further down the line. The Rega works honeycomb crunch at its chocolate center, the Schiit yields praline and caramel.

For listeners that enjoy a warmer musical bath or whose setup is already (over)-enthusiastic at the top end, the Bifrost could well be the DAC to obtain. It doesn’t suffer the usual—and sometimes predictable—sonic compromises commonly found at its price point. Moreover, it isn’t better or worse than the Audio-gd; just different. And this distinction is a strong selling point.

As such, Schiit’s Bifrost concisely reveals there’s more than one route to happiness on the budget DAC trail. Additional applause goes to Stoddard and Moffat for making it all happen at a USA-based manufacturing facility. Excellent work, chaps.

You can read more insightful reviews from John Darko here:

The Schiit Bifrost DAC

MSRP:  Starting at $349

Rega Isis CD Player

Rega has established a solid reputation over the last thirty years now for building reasonably priced components packed with value beyond their price point. Rega turntables have always been a triumph of function and simplicity, with a legion of fans that span the globe. Founder Roy Gandy is a champion of giving his customers high performance without a high price tag, and didn’t even start building CD players until about ten years ago. His sense of humor is evident in their website, where it’s mentioned that Rega was “the last major high end company to build a CD player.”

About that same time Rega also introduced the P9 turntable. Then $4,000 and now $5,000, ten years later (with the tonearm upgraded from the RB900 to RB1000 status), this was Rega’s only entry into more expensive components. One of my reference turntables for the last few years, the P9 is a very special table, offering performance well beyond its pricetag, just like every other Rega product.

In 2008 that trend was continued with the introduction of the IOS phono stage and later on in the year, the Elicit integrated amplifier. Something was definitely up at Rega. Though still very reasonably priced in market terms, at about $3,000 each, these components were still a considerable step up from the Fono and Brio.

A visit to the Rega factory this year revealed a company more committed to performance and value than ever. Rega is a fantastic mix of 21’st century modernization and early 20th century craftsmanship, with their own spin applied. Towards the end of our tour of the plant, the group I was with was taken to an assembly room where something very different was going on.

A $9,000 CD player, from Rega?

That’s not a typo. Yes, that’s right, $9,000 for a Rega CD player. But it’s a very special CD player. In the past, Rega has always been fanatical about offering the highest value they feel that they can build. Because they only outsource a tiny percentage of their production, they have become very efficient and eliminate multiple sources of markup that eventually get passed on to the consumer.

They have not varied from their chosen path with the ISIS a single millimeter, however the focus has changed somewhat. The ISIS is the first product Rega has built that has not had a target cost attached to it; it’s simply the best player that Gandy and his staff feel they are capable of building, with cost no object. Coming full circle to Rega’s core values, the pricetag is only $9,000. The average Rega customer that’s been raised on P3 turntables and Apollo CD players ($800 and $1,000 respectively) is freaking out at the thought of a $9,000 CD player from their favorite British HiFi manufacturer. Has Roy Gandy gone mad?

If anyone should be freaking out, it should be the manufacturers of CD players in the $20 – $50k range. It’s definitely a contender and in typical Rega fashion, offers value way beyond its price point. Even if you haven’t had the chance to see them assembled at the factory, the minute you open the box, the attention to detail is apparent.Rega crate

The ISIS comes packaged in a very sturdy yet tasteful mini-crate with the ISIS logo cut in the high-density, closed cell foam internals. It gives you the feel that something special is inside, without being extravagant. When you remove the 55-pound (25kg) CD player from the box, you know it. The massive aluminum chassis reveals a look not unlike past Rega players, with their famous “spaceship” top loading door and red LED’s on the front panel, but seriously fortified all the way around.

In addition to the player, a substantial billet remote control is included that is on par with what you would expect with the world’s finest audio gear as well as a pair of high quality RCA interconnects and a substantial power cord. I would value both of these items in the $500 – $1,000 range if you bought them as aftermarket items. A very nice touch I’d say, but I’d love to see you being able to have the option of them being terminated with XLR’s.Rega remote

Which leads us to something else you’ve never seen from Rega, a pair of balanced XLR jacks on the back panel. This takes advantage of the ISIS having fully balanced, differential circuitry throughout. There are also standard RCA outputs for those requiring it. The DAC in the ISIS uses a pair of Burr Brown PCM 1794 D to A converters running in parallel dual mono mode. Analog and digital stages have their own separate power supply transformers and there are ten individual voltage regulator stages in the digital section along with another ten for the analog stage. This is indeed a very serious bit of digital hardware.

Those worried about the viability of the CD format and getting your player serviced in the future, fear not. Inside the owner’s manual, there is a signature from the technician that assembled your ISIS, another tech that QC’d the electrical and mechanical systems and the tech that tested and archived not one, but two spare laser units. I think it’s safe to say that the ISIS will last longer than most of its owners and I appreciate this attention to detail, with CD transport mechanisms getting scarcer all the time.Rega rear view

An outstanding DAC that happens to play CD’s, or the other way around?

As the market for high performance CD players is probably nearing its end, Rega gives you the option to use the ISIS as a USB DAC as well. Personally, I’d love to see an SPDIF input on this player, but considering the recent success of the Ayre USB DAC, I’m guessing this is not a deal breaker for the current crop of audiophiles that are more computer based.

While you might be clinging on to your shiny discs for now, the ISIS gives you the options to go both ways and that’s what makes the ISIS such a great value. The DAC performance of the ISIS was also outstanding when streaming files from my Mac Book Pro via the USB input, which is switchable from the front panel or the remote. The only serious drawback to the ISIS is it’s inability to read 24bit/96khz files and this may be the Achilles heel for someone wanting to make this player part of a more computer based system. With 24/96 files becoming the new standard, this will limit your music choices going forward. Personally, I see the ISIS in the same light that I do my Naim 555, a statement CD player for someone with a large collection of physical media.

Which $800 bottle of wine would you like with your dinner?

With the ISIS in short supply worldwide, the question everyone has been asking me is how does is stack up ultimately to the five figure players I have here as reference components? Damn good, I say. Comparing the ISIS to my reference Naim 555 was an interesting study in presentation. It was a big help that we had the ultra revealing YG Acoustics Anat II speakers around for the duration of the review. As part of a six-figure reference system, the 555 still had the ultimate edge in terms of overall analog-like smoothness, but not by a large amount.

Interestingly, the edge went slightly in favor of the ISIS in terms of tonal contrast and transient attack. When listening to the cymbals at the beginning of “Euthanasia Waltz” on Brand X’s Livestock CD, the Rega player offered slightly quicker attack on the leading edge, but didn’t decay as smoothly as the Naim. However, when comparing the playback of this track to the Wadia 781i, the ISIS had a definite edge in upper end refinement, though it did not have quite the subterranean bass slam of the Wadia. (Neither does the $32k Naim player)

But this level of tonal contrast is what I kept coming back to with the ISIS and I would say that is it’s shining virtue. It has more than enough extension at both ends of the frequency scale to keep the fussiest audiophile happy, with plenty of weight to the presentation, but much like the YG Acoustics Anats, the ISIS has a delicacy about it that few players at any price match. Acoustic instruments have a layer of texture that is unmistakable with the ISIS and makes the player a lot of fun to listen to. Spinning “Down On the Farm” from Guns N’Roses The Spaghetti Incident, you can really distinguish the difference between Izzy Stradlin’s guitar setup and Slash, better than I’ve ever heard on this disc. And of course your favorite female vocals will sound just fine.Rega lid open

Tonal accuracy is also a strong suit with the ISIS. Lovers of acoustic music will notice the extra layer of detail and tonal body that the ISIS provides. Going back through some of my favorite jazz standards from Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins underscored what a fantastic job this player does at nailing the tonality of acoustic instruments. Naysayers of high end digital will be taken back at how natural this player sounds with violin and piano.

Of course we’re splitting hairs here, but that’s the kind of things that people purchasing five figure CD players do. A bit of madness if you will, but all good fun. The ISIS is a player that allows you to make that last jump to where you become immersed in the music, instead of thinking “this is really good for digital.” Again, there are only a handful of players at any price that achieve this lofty goal.

Perhaps not for the typical Rega customer

The Rega ISIS is a digital audio player that is worthy of being on the top shelf with the world’s best components. I own a couple of those players myself, and after extensive listening and close comparison, this player delivers the goods. If you own one of these players, you probably won’t be trading in your Naim, Wadia or Meridian player for the ISIS, but that’s not who I feel this player is aimed at. If you are someone who has always lusted after one of those $20 – $50k players, but can’t or won’t write that check, the ISIS is the way to go. I’ve had the privilege of listening to most of the world’s best CD players, some with pricetags that you’d swear should be on the window of a Porsche instead of a CD player and I feel the ISIS will deliver 95% of the performance of the five figure players for nine grand. It’s well worth the asking price; If I had to start over, I’d buy an ISIS, pocket the other $20k and go shopping for a nice used Boxster.

With that in mind, the Rega ISIS has stayed true to their core values by offering a product that offers the best performance in its price class. This is why we chose this player as our Digital Product of the Year for 2009. It makes a stellar match to their new OSIRIS amplifier, that will be reviewed in the December issue of TONEAudio. And, yeah it’s that good too.

The Rega ISIS CD Player

MSRP: $8995.00 (USD)

Manufacturers Information: (US Distribution)


Preamplifier: Burmester 011 Preamplifier

Power Amplifier: Burmester 911mk. 3 Amplifier, Rega OSIRIS Amplifier

Speakers: YG Acoustics Anat II Studio

Cable: Shunyata Aurora Interconnect, Shunyata Stratos SP spkr. cable

Power: Running Springs Dmitri Power conditioner, RSA HZ power cords

Neko Audio D-100 DAC

Digital Excellence:
The Neko Audio D100 DAC

With the DAC making such a big comeback in the last year especially, the market is heating up again, much like the early 90’s when it seemed everyone had a DAC for sale.  But then, DAC chips took a leap up in quality and a big leap down in price; single box players started to rule the day.

Fast forward to 2009 and the DAC is back, but for a different reason.  Computers and portable music players have people wanting to integrate those sources into their systems, while many are replacing their CD players entirely in favor of using a laptop or computer based music server as a primary source component.

There are some old and new players back in the game, almost all with excellent results.  Of course, the extreme high end has latched onto this again with a handful of mega DAC’s in the five-figure range, but I believe the excitement is at the $1,000 price point.  We have had the good fortune to review quite a few different models in this range, but for now, one stands head and shoulders above the rest, the D100 from Neko Audio at $1,295.

Digital Direct to You

Like Benchmark and a few others, Neko gets the job done at a reasonable price point by going direct to the customer, avoiding the traditional dealer network.  Considering the added cost and time of establishing such a dealer network, this makes the D100 much more competitive.

Because the D100 is so small and relatively lightweight, it is easy and inexpensive to ship.  Adopting the current business model of a number of other high-end audio companies that sell direct, there is a 30-day money back guarantee for the D100.  I doubt there will be many asking for a refund.

The only caveat is that Neko Audio is a newcomer to the industry, so they do not enjoy the reputation and legacy product support that a company like Naim, Wadia or Meridian does.  But for this kind of money, I feel it’s worth gambling on the new guy in town.

A New approach

Where most DAC’s use a series of op amps or some form of active circuitry in their analog sections, the D100 is unique in the sense that it uses high quality passive components and a pair of Jensen transformers in the output stage.  Digital conversion is done with a pair of the ubiquitous Burr Brown PCM1794’s operating in mono.

The D100 keeps it simple, with a small case (10.5″ x 2.5″ x 6.5″) and minimal controls.  There is an on/off switch on the back, inputs for RCA SPDIF and Toslink with a selector switch on the front panel.  For now, designer Wesley Miaw has chosen to forgo a USB input, but says that this will be implemented in the next version at a higher cost.
Because of the output transformers, the output is balanced XLR on the D100.  You can use adaptors or purchase RCA to XLR interconnects directly from Neko Audio at a very reasonable cost.  My reference system is balanced today, so I plugged in a pair of Shunyata’s newest Aurora interconnects and got to work listening.  Having spent a lot of time recently with the PS Audio Digital Link III, the Benchmark DAC-1 and the Cambridge DAC Magic, I was very anxious to see how the D100 would stack up.  As always, my main references were the Naim CD555 and Wadia 781i SE, which can also be used as a DAC.

Natural Digital

It’s rare that these two words go together and even more rare at this price point, but the D100 is a stellar performer.  Long-term readers of TONEAudio know that I’m not a flavor of the month reviewer, and seldom gush about anything, but the Neko Audio D100 is damn good.

To sum it up in one word; natural.  When you are playing the digital game at the $1,000 price point, the words “it sounds really good for digital” usually end up falling out of your mouth, but the D100 is the first DAC at this level that I’ve found truly musical in the sense that I would a decent turntable.  Though I have a ton of megabuck digital hardware here, I started my audition of the D100 with my Wadia 170i, my iPod full of uncompressed music.

Vinyl resurgence notwithstanding, I could be just as happy with a Wadia 170i and this DAC as I would any turntable/arm/cartridge and phono preamplifier at this price point, so the D100 passes the ultimate test for me.

An unfair comparison

When I spoke with designer Wesley Miaw on the phone, he wanted to know what differences I found between the D100 and the more expensive digital components.  The real gap between the D100 and the money no object digital, is a lack of ultimate resolution and dynamics, but more often than not (and especially at this price point) this can be a good thing with digital.  Personally, I would always rather err on the side of musicality than go the other way with too much detail in all but the most transparent systems.

Listening to vocals and acoustic instruments was a treat on the D100 and even after day long listening and Photoshop sessions, I never walked away from this DAC feeling the slightest bit fatigued.  If I had to compare the sound of the D100 to something, it would be my Harbeth Monitor 40.1’s. They too lack a slight bit of ultimate detail, but do such a great job with the midrange and have such a natural sound, I find myself forgetting about the rest of the fine points and concentrating on the music instead.  It’s rare when any digital component can do this at any price.  Sure, when I drop a disc in the Naim CD555, I see what’s missing, but the D100 is great digital that you can live with that doesn’t cost a princely sum.

Sonic signature

I spent the majority of the review period using the D100 with my Sooloos music server.  With 5000 CD’s on tap, I was able to cover a lot of musical ground in a relatively short period of time.  I suspect eliminating the opamps from the circuit and going with the output transformers has a lot to do with the grain free, almost slightly warm presentation that the D100 achieves.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear there was a pair of 12AX7’s under the hood!  But the great news is that there isn’t and you won’t be at the mercy of the tube pirates to have this sound.

The overall tonality of the D100 is rich and engaging.  When listening to my favorite classic jazz cuts (Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, etc) I instantly keyed in on the portrayal of acoustic instruments in a real space.  Cymbals sound smooth, with a lot of air and the proper amount of decay, never crunchy.

Yet the D100 had enough punch and dynamic drive to keep me happy listening to Metallica, Tool and Mastodon.  This isn’t a wimpy sounding DAC at all.  Much like a Koetsu phono cartridge, the D100 embellishes slightly, but in a good way.  It allows great recordings to shine, but helps a bit with the less than stellar recordings.  For most of us with less than perfect music collections, I can’t see this ever being a problem.


Variables and other system synergies

I made it a point to use the D100 with a number of other transports, from my budget Pioneer 563 up to the Wadia 781SE.  Because this DAC does not have a USB input, computer audio fans are limited to using the Toslink input only, unless your computer has an SPDIF output like my HP TouchSmart does.  Music played from my MacBook Pro via Toslink was very good, but a step down from the SPDIF input; the presentation shrunk somewhat in all dimensions, but this is no fault of the D100, this is the sacrifice you pay with Toslink on any DAC.

Should you have an older CD player in your system, the D100 is definitely your ticket to ride.  Everything from the Pioneer 563 to a friend’s Rega Planet 2000 player was improved substantially by adding the D100 to the mix.

Top Gun, at least for now

As we all know, computer years are even shorter than dog years, so there could be a new contender in six months.  However, if your taste in sound at all mirrors mine, and you value tonal correctness and musicality above all other parameters, the Neko Audio D100 is the DAC to beat for reasonably priced digital excellence.  This DAC put on an admirable performance stacked up to the mega buck stuff and for those of you with a system in the $2,000 – $30,000 range; this may be all you ever need.
I am happy to award the Neko Audio D100 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2009 and hope that Mr. Miaw has continued success.  Keep an eye on this guy; he’s got some great ideas.

The Neko Audio D100 DAC

MSRP:  $1,295    Factory direct, 30-day return policy



Digital Sources Naim CD555, Wadia 781i SE, Sooloos Music Server, Pioneer 563, Rega Planet 2000, McIntosh MS300 music server

Electronics Burmester 011 Preamplifier, Burmester 911mk. 3 Power Amplifier

Speakers MartinLogan CLXw/pair of Descent i subwoofers

Cable Shunyata Aurora interconnects, Shunyata Orion Speaker cables, ALO Audio Digital cable

Power Running Springs Dmitri and Jaco Line conditioners, Shunyata Hydra 2 line conditioner, Running Springs Mongoose power cords, Shunyata Anaconda VX power cords

Accessories Burmester V1 and V3 racks, Finite Elemente Pagode signature racks, Manley Massive Passive Studio Mastering Equalizer, Manley Skipjack,  Shunyata Dark Field cable elevators

Benchmark DAC-1HDR


All the way back in issue three of TONEAudio, we gave the original Benchmark DAC-1 our first Exceptional Value Award. Through the years, they’ve continued improving this diminutive yet highly powerful piece of audio gear and even though it has gone up in price from $995 when we first reviewed it to $1,895 today it offers a lot more under the hood. Amazingly enough, Benchmark’s engineers have managed to squeeze it all into the original box, so on the outside it looks pretty much the same. For those of you just needing the basic DAC and headphone amplifier, you can still buy the original DAC-1 for the same price of $995. That’s pretty awesome, considering our wacky economic times.

What made the DAC-1 such a great value was the addition of an outstanding headphone amplifier to the package. You’d easily have to spend $400-600 to get this kind of performance with an outboard headphone amplifier and you’d need more cables, etc. The DAC-1 has always included the option of fixed or variable outputs, which has always made it very handy as a linestage in a pinch, or as the cornerstone of a compact, yet high performance audio system. Then, as now, I still can’t think of a product that does more in less space than the Benchmark DAC-1, no matter what version you choose.

A quick history refresher

If you’ve followed the progress of the DAC-1, it originally offered coaxial, XLR and optical digital inputs along with a pair of RCA and XLR outputs. But, we audiophiles always want more and as more people started to use laptops as music sources, Benchmark answered the call and provided the DAC-1 USB, with a USB input. I had mentioned in my review of the DAC-1 USB that this would be the perfect combination if it only had an analog input, so that this could truly be used as a front-end component for that music lover that enjoyed analog as well as digital sources and the DAC-1 PRE was born, featuring an analog input.

They’ve been reading my mind

As cool as the DAC-1 PRE was, I began thinking “now if it only had a remote control…” and before you know it, we now have the DAC-1 PRE. This unit includes the recent op amp upgrades to the last few rounds of the DAC-1, featuring high current LM4562 op amps in every step of the analog path. Comparing the current DAC-1 HDR to the original DAC-1 reveals slightly less grain than the already good original, when playing them side-by-side in my reference system.

However the big change, along with the remote control is the addition of a custom, motorized ALPS volume control. It offered very smooth operation from the remote and perhaps replacing the original volume pot with the ALPS version accounted for a little of that added smoothness. Now the DAC-1 HDR is the perfect compact linestage/headphone preamp/DAC combination. Hmmm, maybe they’ll add a couple of triode tubes to the output stage next? Or a phono preamp? Let’s see those guys at Benchmark squeeze that one in that tiny case!BenchmarkHRC_front

But seriously

All kidding about vacuum tubes aside, the DAC-1 HDR does a fantastic job with its core technologies. As I said, I made it a point to compare the original to the current model and there is definitely a slight advantage to the latest in regards to smoothness in the treble register.

The strength of the DAC-1 HDR is that it is such a great all around piece. If you are just looking for a DAC or don’t need the analog input, save the money and grab the original DAC-1 or DAC-1 USB.

The sound of the Benchmark as a DAC overall is very neutral and dynamic. While it lacks the bass slam or smoothness of my Wadia 781SE or the new Simaudio Moon 750 that I’ve spent a lot of time listening to, these units cost 7-10 times what the Benchmark does. Regardless of what the measurement geeks want to tell you, there’s more to the sound of a DAC than the bits and you won’t get a $10,000 DAC for a $1,000.

However, the Benchmark still stacks up very well against its similarly priced competitors, offering a neutral midrange, solid bass performance and some airiness to the presentation. What makes it outstanding is the other functions it performs without needing additional interconnects or power cords.

Another extremely cool feature of the DAC-1 HDR is the pair of balanced analog outputs. This allows you to keep the DAC 1-HDR up on a shelf, perhaps with a music server, etc and run a long pair of balanced cables to a power amplifier elsewhere in the room. Which is precisely what I did, pairing the DAC-1 HDR with a few different amplifiers; the McIntosh MC275 (tubes), the Nagra PSA (solid state) and the BAT VK-55SE (tubes). Equally impressive was the DAC-1 HDR’s ability to drive a pair of 20 foot RCA cables as well. This is certainly a very robust output stage!BenchmarkHRC_rear

A superb line stage

Making the DAC-1 HDR the hub of my test system worked well when I added my Technics SL-1200 with Sound HiFi mods and SME tonearm to the mix, along with the Simaudio Moon LP 5.3 phono preamplifier. Digital sources were a Sooloos music server via S/PDIF input and my MacBook Pro via USB.

The Benchmark had no problems playing high res files from either source and recognized the MacBook and a windows Netbook with no glitches whatsoever. I also made it a point to try the TOSLINK connection, with no problem. Gone from the original DAC-1 is the XLR digital input, so if you are one of the rare users that need this for your transport, you will be out of luck on the DAC-1 HDR

The sound of the line stage is just like the analog stage of the DAC; clean, dynamic and neutral. Similar to many of the op amp based preamplifiers I’ve heard, there is a similarity in the sense that an ultimate sense of “airiness” is not present. You can only cram so much into a tiny box and in the Benchmark’s defense, the $3,500 Classe preamplifier I auditioned last year that was full of op amps (and did not have a DAC or headphone amp inside) sounded no better, it’s just the nature of the beast.

Great news for headphone lovers

I’m not sure what I like better about the DAC-1 HDR, the DAC, or the headphone amplifier. Using the new Sennheiser HD-800’s as well as my HD650’s with Stefan Audio Art Cables and AKG 701’s with ALO Audio cabling, I always had a great time listening to my headphones. The DAC-1 HDR spent a fair amount of time in my bedroom system with the Wadia 170i and an iPod full of uncompressed files.

The stereo image provided by the DAC-1 was very wide and the bass performance with the HD650’s and HD800’s was very powerful. The DAC-1 also did a great job at driving the AKG 701’s, which is notoriously tough to drive. If you are primarily a headphone user that would like to build a system around one box (two if you have a turntable) the DAC-1 HDR will be a perfect match for the space limited audiophile that still wants great sound.

Much more than the sum of its parts

If you break it down, the Benchmark DAC-1 HDR is essentially a $700 linestage, a $700 DAC and a $500 headphone amplifier. The sound quality and resolution of each stage compares favorably, comparing each section of the DAC-1 HDR to individual components easily costing twice as much. Back $300-500 out of that price for even the least expensive interconnects and power cords, and this is a value that just can’t be beat.

Again, I am proud to give the latest version of Benchmark’s DAC-1 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2010. This is a fantastic anchor to a system in the $4,000 – $10,000 range and one that you will have to pay quite a bit more money to outgrow.

-Jeff Dorgay

The Benchmark DAC-1 HDR

MSRP: $1,895

Manufacturers website:


Analog source Technics SL-1200 w/Sound HiFi Mods, SME 309 Toneram, Simaudio Moon LP 5.3 preamplifier and Lyra Dorian cartridge

Digital sources Sooloos music server, Wadia 170i, McIntosh MCD500 (as transport)

Amplifiers McIntosh MC275, Nagra PSA, BAT VK-55SE, Moscode 402au

Cable Shunyata Aurora, Cardas Golden Reference

Power Running Springs Haley, RSA Mongoose power cord