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

Digital Amplifier Company Cherry Maraschino Monoblocks

The Digital Amplifier Company—founded in 1996 and located in Allentown, Penn.—solely produces hyper-engineered, audiophile-grade Class-D amplifiers. Its products output plenty of power from manageably sized and attractive packages. The company’s Cherry line comprises stereo and monoblock variants, which are available in standard or higher-output Ultra configurations.

The company says it does not use prefabricated modules and that it designs all vital components in-house, with everything built in the Unites States. Every amplifier comes built to user specifications, allowing customers to choose standard or Ultra configurations and the amp’s color. The company sells direct to end users.

The $4,000-per-pair Cherry Maraschino monoblock model is the newest brainchild of company designer Tommy O’Brien. The Maraschinos are mighty mites, with published output power of 250 watts into 4 ohms. The parts employed are very high quality and include Dayton binding posts, Neutrik XLR inputs, and high-tolerance metal oxide resistors.

The amps feature true balanced input and external power supplies with IEC receptacles. These power supplies are upgradeable, with an available power increase of up to 800 watts. The chassis sits on a granite block, with Sorbothane feet for resonance control. The Maraschinos are produced with a brilliant, high-quality red finish (which is fitting considering the amp’s name).

Setting up the Maraschinos is pretty straightforward, with some twists. The accompanying documentation asks that the user plug in the power supplies last, after all other connections are made, and with low-level music playing through the system. There is no power switch, as the amps automatically detect a signal and come out of standby mode; when no signal is present for a period of time, they return to standby. The amplifier sensitivity is on the high side, at 2.2 volts, but that should be no issue with most preamps and sources.

The Maraschinos accept only XLR inputs, but very nice RCA-to-XLR adaptors are supplied. The adaptors are put to good use, as a passive preamp is what we put ahead of the amps, driving a pair of Harbeth Compact 7 ES3s. Sources include a variety of DACs and disc players. Cabling comes courtesy of Transparent, Shunyata, and Stager Sound.

The amplifiers very much make their identity known from the get-go, with their wonderfully open, clear, transparent, and precise sound. There are no mechanical artifacts or spotlighting of any kind. There is a top-to-bottom, even keeled balance that becomes very quickly addicting such that even familiar recordings come alive with a fresh perspective. This may be due to the Maraschinos’ incredibly quiet background. Music seems to appear out of the ether. Recordings that seemed previously homogenized now appear spacious and wide.

The amps render the Punch Brothers’ Antifogmatic with startling dynamics, precise imaging, and stop-on-a-dime timing. Chris Thile’s well-recorded vocals and virtuoso mandolin playing take on very human qualities, and the groups clever arrangement of Radiohead’s “Kid A” through the Marachinos is worth the price of admission alone.

Peter Gabriel’s New Blood, featuring new interpretations of some of his classic songs, is a hair-raising showpiece through the Maraschinos. The recording is amazingly dynamic; the use of a live orchestra in lieu of rock instrumentation allows the amps to showcase their sound-staging chops. One listen to the new version of “San Jacinto” brings you as close to the recording as you could hope for.

The recent 96 kHz remaster of Nick Drake’s three sublime albums are ravishing through the Maraschinos. Having heard these albums in every format and through countless amplifiers, I find it rather impressive that they still sound fresh, with the amps unexpectedly lifting even more detail from the recordings. If you have a collection of high-resolution music, the Maraschinos will serve you well, as they reproduce what the mastering engineers intended.

After cycling through more genres of music, I discover that the Maraschinos greatest strength is coherence. Bass notes are deep and punchy yet speedy and nimble, with high frequencies sounding extended and smooth. Certainly, system matching is going to be important here. If your speakers edge toward the speedy side of things, that may be too much of a good thing with the Maraschinos. These amps will expose lean-sounding speakers and sources. If listening preferences trend toward mellow and rosy, there will be other amps to look at. However, if clarity, brilliance, and agility are your thing, then the Maraschinos will serve you well. A balanced tube preamplifier ahead of the Maraschinos may indeed provide a perfect balance of both worlds. Neutral, open-sounding cables will also pay dividends.

Perhaps the only quirk to nitpick is that one of the amps is slightly less sensitive than the other, so it takes a few extra seconds to come out of standby. This is not a deal breaker; just a minor annoyance. The fact that the amps save watts while still being ready for optimum performance when awakened is worth the trade-off. They also run cool as a cucumber—a very nice contrast to some of the space heaters usually in for review.

The Digital Amplifier Company has wonderful success on its hands with the Cherry Maraschino monoblocks. By the way, the company’s name does not reflect its design mission: It does not make digital amplifiers. These are analog amps all the way. They are amazingly refined with low distortion. Those accustomed to bogus mid-bass warmth may think the Maraschinos are a bit vivid, but in reality they provide a clean window and they have speed to spare.

If your system needs a kick in the pants, the Maraschinos will deliver. They make our reference system come alive. It is like cleaning a dirty windshield to get a better view of the road. At $4,000 per pair, the Maraschinos are not entry-level amps. They deliver all the real-world power you need, and they’re upgradeable, efficient, great looking, and terrific sounding. These amps give listeners a good look at what the very best amps do well, for a fraction of the cost. Pair them with high-quality sources and speakers and they will deliver the sonic goods.

Cherry Maraschino Monoblocks

MSRP: $4,000 per pair

Digital Amplifier Company


Speakers Harbeth Compact 7 ES3
Preamp Channel Islands Audio PLC-1  MKII
CD transport Musical Fidelity M1 CDT
DAC Denon DA-USB300    CLONES Audio Sheva
Music server Squeezebox Touch
Cables Transparent    Shunyata    Stager    DH Labs

dCS Vivaldi Digital Playback System

Spending four days with the Aston Martin DBS a few years ago was an enthralling experience to say the least—and beyond definition to say the most—but a brief time in the company of something outside of your means can often skew your perspective. When I return the silver beauty, a good friend who actually owns an Aston told me, “Yeah, she’s a beauty, but wait until the first oil change: $800. And let’s not even talk about the first major service…” Two years later, said friend ended up buying the Boxster S that I told him to buy in the first place—but that’s another story for another day.

Just like an Aston, Bentley or Ferrari, most mega-bucks hi-fi products have a way of seducing you that standard-issue gear does not. Unfortunately, the review process does not always make it feasible for a manufacturer to leave a six-figure component in someone’s hands for longer than a reasonable honeymoon, and this is why at times these reviews seem overly enthusiastic: The reviewer never gets a chance to move past the honeymoon phase.

So let’s talk about a $110,000 digital player—that’s not a typo. I thought I had lost my mind when I purchased the dCS Paganini four-box system a few years ago (and I felt equally crazy when buying the Naim CD555 a few years before that); yet, after even a few months it was very obvious that the Paganini performed well beyond anything I’d ever experienced. And it just got better the longer I listened to it with an even wider range of music. So how much better could a player costing almost twice as much as the Paganini be? As it turns out, quite a bit better.

A Brief Tech Brief

In the past year, much has been written about the Vivaldi’s technical prowess via Stereophile, The Absolute Sound and others, so if you’re looking for a more geeky perspective (and even if you aren’t), I suggest reading Michael Fremer’s and Robert Harley’s takes on this player. Should you be investing at this level, read everything you can and do some serious listening—one doesn’t want buyer’s remorse on a purchase like this.

Instead of focusing on the technical aspects, we’re going to concentrate more on the Vivaldi experience. What’s it like to truly live with a player like this for a whole year? Is it still exciting? Is it a fling or a long-term love affair?

To make an incredibly long story shorter for those not familiar with dCS, the British manufacturer takes a modular four-box approach to its top digital players, (separating the most critical parts of the playback chain as they see it: a CD/SACD Transport, DAC, system Master Clock, and what they see as the system hub, the Upsampler) with separate sections for the transport (which plays CDs and SACDs), DAC, master clock, and upsampler. This allows the user the ability to build a dCS stack one box at a time, starting with the DAC alone if you so desire, or to eliminate the transport entirely for those not using discs.

Where so many DACs rely on off-the-shelf hardware, the Vivaldi, like all other dCS products, utilize the company’s own “Ring DAC” technology, which is based around field-programmable gate array chips and the proprietary, discrete digital-to-analog converter circuit that runs dCS decoding software and gives the DAC its name. What does that really mean? On one level, it means that when dCS learns something new in the lab, your player can be reprogrammed with the latest software with ease, like having the software in your car’s ECU upgraded for more horsepower. Having gone through a couple of software upgrades with the Paganini, I can tell you that it is an exciting process. Each time, I felt as if I had purchased an entirely new component, with the updates providing a significant performance upgrade at no additional cost. I merely had to insert a disc, upload the data, and voila, I received a much better player than I had before.

Not only does the Vivaldi offer this same functionality, but because the gate array on the new digital main board only uses about 30 percent of its total processing power, there is plenty of room for whatever future upgrades the brainiacs at dCS come up with in the years to come. This future-proof approach goes a long way in terms of consumer confidence when writing a six-figure check.

The Vivaldi is capable of playing all file formats from 16 bit/44 kHz to full DSD, with the option of playing all files natively or upsampling to any higher data rate, as well as upsampling to DSD or DXD. Check the dCS website for all the fine details. Suffice it to say that the Vivaldi will play virtually any music format you throw at it with no issue, and as new formats become commercially relevant, upgrades are a snap.

Inputs, Outputs and Cables

As a four-(unit/box) system, the Vivaldi plays everything but Blu-ray Discs and DVD-A (however my MSB transport connected to the stack allows playback of these formats, giving me a fully functioning digital Death Star). The Vivaldi does play every known digital audio format, including DSD.  John Quick, of dCS North America, brought me a hard drive loaded with DSD files; however, comparing these files to the SACDs in the Vivaldi transport, the optical disc always comes out on top in terms of clarity and a natural presentation. For this reviewer, DSD files continues to be a major non-issue, but the Vivaldi is fully equipped to handle the format.

With a full bevy of every input you can think of, the Vivaldi accepts digital signals from every source imaginable, including iPods, iPhones, and iPads (because the Vivaldi is Apple approved). Even the 320-kbps feed from Spotify sounds amazing—never better, in fact—when played through the dCS stack, especially when upsampled to DSD.

The key to maximum performance is proper setup and connection, and making sure that all three boxes (transport, upsampler and DAC) are all properly set to talk to the master clock. If this is done incorrectly, the clock does not lock all four pieces of the stack together and playback suffers dramatically. On the subject of upsampling, many will argue that imaging and timbre suffer from this approach, but I will tell you that the dCS nails this without any sign of artifacts.

A total of 13 cables are required to connect the Vivaldi stack together, not counting four AC power cables. Like changing the spark-plug wires on a 12-cylinder car, do it one at a time, should you decide to upgrade the complete set of included stock cables (see sidebar). Better yet, have your dCS dealer, who will probably sell you the cables anyway, make a house call.

Are You Experienced?

The Vivaldi is not a plug-and-play device. After getting through the somewhat daunting process of connecting all the boxes together, and getting them all synchronized with the master clock, there are still choices. As all filtering is done via software, you have about six different digital filters to choose from. Like the Paganini, after months of driving myself crazy, I settled on the default settings. Those with ADD/OCD issues will go slightly mad here, because there are so many possible combinations—which leads us to the question of upsampling.

While I rarely hear much difference when upsampling high-resolution files to DSD, 16/44 files (especially MP3 files) benefit tremendously from upsampling, having more air and life overall. There are no instances where I prefer going straight 16/44 all the way through to output.

Should you be using a source like a Meridian digital-music server, which does not offer a word clock input, the proper adjustments will have to be made on the Vivaldi so that the system is not running unlocked, causing effects similar to tape dropout. When using my Meridian server, I go into its menu and disable internal upsampling (which normally yields a 24/88 output) and force it to output CDs at native resolution and let the Vivaldi do the rest.

Serving It Up

Instead of using an external server for delivering digital files, the way to really roll with the Vivaldi is using a NAS drive and the dCS application. You can also access files directly via an external USB drive (or thumb drive) plugged directly into the Vivaldi’s USB port. This provides the clearest, cleanest signal path and a major step up in reproduction quality over any of the servers I have on hand, which makes perfect sense. For my initial review of the Vivaldi, dCS had not fully sorted out the app, but now it is working rather nicely, and in addition to cataloging your music collection, it works as a giant remote control for the DAC and Upsampler, with the ability to control the entire stack in the works in an upcoming software upgrade.

As a music server, the dCS app gets a 7 for convenience (sorry, there still isn’t a server out there that can beat the Meridian for ease of use and speed), but an 11 for sound quality, so take your pick. Personally, I like the simplicity of having it all on one remote, but it is nice to know that if you purchase a Vivaldi, you won’t have to buy or configure an additional streamer—just plug an Ethernet cable into the Upsampler, find your NAS with the App, and roll.

All Digital? Forget the Preamp

While dCS’s digital volume control is excellent in the Paganini, it still sounded more lifelike going from the line-level outputs, with volume control set to its maximum level, to a great linestage. The Vivaldi closes this gap such that, if you are an all-digital music listener, you really don’t need a separate linestage, thanks to the increased low-level linearity of its volume control and the transparency of its output stage.

We put the Vivaldi through its paces with a wide variety of power amplifiers, from the $2,000 VanAlstine Ultravalve all the way up to the $88,000-per-pair Pass Xs 300 monoblocks, which are my current reference. Comparing playback with and without a linestage—including the ARC REF 5SE, Burmester 011 and Robert Koda K-10—we found that, while the Vivaldi doesn’t reveal more music without a linestage in the path, using one does not diminish the presentation either. So if you’re taking the “less-is-more” approach, I’d forget the linestage if you are going all digital. The Vivaldi can be set via its menu to deliver 2-volt or 6-volt output through balanced XLRs or standard RCAs and it will easily drive two systems.

In a Word: Natural

Granted, the price of digital perfection is not cheap, but the dCS Vivaldi achieves it. The Paganini was fantastic, but switching to analog playback via the AVID Acutus Reference SP (with either the Clearaudio Goldfinger or Lyra Atlas cartridges) still stole the day. This always left me thinking, “That’s damn good for digital,” but the Vivaldi offers playback on a completely different level. I don’t love analog any less than I used to, but 12 hour days listening to the Vivaldi instead of a turntable is never a problem. And after myriad comparisons of analog to digital files with various resolutions, not only can I easily live with the Vivaldi, half of the time the Vivaldi reveals more music than analog does in my system.

Listening to some high-resolution files of Neil Young’s Harvest, supplied by Quick, illustrates this succinctly, when compared to the recent Chris Bellman remaster (which is excellent). Young’s acoustic guitar intro is bigger and bolder and has more tonal richness. As the drums and piano enter the track, they have a more distinct space via high-resolution digital, and the sparse bass line and banjo are locked down into their own separate spaces in a way the LP just can’t match. Yet, on Peter Gabriel’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” via digital and the 45-rpm Classic Records box set, the vinyl takes the lead for all the same reasons, though the full digital recording is still quieter.

Time after time, it’s easy to fool analog-loyal friends by spinning the LP and playing the Vivaldi at the same time, claiming to be playing vinyl. They would all chime in proclaiming analog’s superiority. But when the truth was revealed, they were shocked that they were in fact listening to digital—oh, the horror.

For those with world-class analog front-ends, the digital part of your music collection no longer has to take a back seat to your analog collection. And that’s the highest compliment I can pay the Vivaldi. If you don’t have analog, you don’t need it with this player. I am keeping it as my new reference digital component—and now that I’m 55 years old, it may be my last.

Minor Nits

After a full year, the only complaint I have with the Vivaldi (and the Paganini suffered the same problem) is its human interface. While the new display screens on the Vivaldi are much easier to read, the writing above all of the buttons on the silver-faced units like mine are nearly impossible to read by anyone over 30. If I had to do this again, I would opt for the black version with the white type, only to be able to read the buttons better.

Fortunately, once you get used to the Vivaldi and get it configured the way you want it, you shouldn’t be doing much more in terms of fiddling. And controlling the stack via an iPad and the app does make it much easier.

Line in the Sand

Bottom line: If the office ever burns down, I’ll buy another Vivaldi and forget about rebuilding my record collection. It’s that good. After an entire year of 12- to 16-hour listening sessions daily, I’m still pinching myself over the level of performance this player achieves—and now even more so with the built-in app and server capability.

The dCS Vivaldi becomes more engaging the longer you listen to it and the more of your music collection you can experience with it. It is one of the precious few systems at any price that completely disappears and lets you fully enjoy the music.

Much like an Aston Martin DBS or Ferrari 458, the dCS Vivaldi delivers a level of elegance and performance that is unmatched by lesser players. But unlike with the four-wheeled toys, you can build a Vivaldi system one box at a time. And should you not require a disc spinner, the $68K price of a three-box Vivaldi is almost a steal for the performance it delivers, especially if you are an all-digital listener and can ditch your $10K-to-$40K linestage as part of the upgrade.

If you can afford a dCS Vivaldi, take it for a test drive; you won’t regret it. The most exciting part of adding this player to my reference system is that it remains enthralling after a year of intense listening and it definitely reveals substantially more music than the excellent dCS Paganini that it replaced. This is definitely a long-term love affair, not a fling.

The Vivaldi digital playback system


Transport: $39,999

Upsampler: $19,999

Master Clock: $13,499

DAC: $34,999


Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum
Cable Nordost Frey 2
Power IsoTek Super Titan

AURALiC VEGA Digital-Audio Processor

Vega is the name of one of the brightest stars visible from Earth. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s a very good chance that you regularly witnesses its vibrant twinkle. Sometimes called the Harp Star, Vega lies in the constellation Lyra, which resembles the harp used by the mythological Greek musician Orpheus. According to legend, nobody could turn away from the music once Orpheus started playing his harp. The Hong Kong–based manufacturer AUARALiC has set the bar sky high for its Vega DAC if the product is going to live up to its lofty name.

Preparing for Launch

Despite all the features under its hood, the Vega has modest dimensions. It measures 11 inches wide, 9 inches deep and 2.6 inches high, and it weighs just 7.5 pounds.

It’s easy to be impressed with the multitude of connection options this DAC offers. They include USB, AES/EBU, S/PDIF Toslink and S/PDIF coax. This array of options not only provides flexibility for use in virtually any audio system but it also helps future proof the Vega. Even if an audio system evolves with varying components, the Vega will always have a home somewhere in the chain.

It’s important to note that the USB input is capable of accommodating PCM 32-bit/384-kHz files, while DSD 64 steams at 2.8224 MHz and DSD 128 streams at 5.6448 MHz. The other inputs are limited to 24-bit/192-kHz files. Perhaps “limited” isn’t really the best descriptor since that resolution is certainly a huge step up from the 16-bit/44.1-kHz quality of standard CDs.

For outputs, the Vega offers both single-ended RCA and balanced connections. As a huge bonus, it also offers a variable output volume. For those who listen to music in the digital realm only, it’s possible to hook the Vega directly to the amp and effectively use it as a preamplifier. For users piecing together a new audio system around the Vega, it’s nice to have the option to get by without a preamp and associated cables, so you can put your hard-earned dollars to work elsewhere in the audio chain.

All Systems Go

While the star Vega is 25 light years away, the AURALiC Vega is a just a few feet away, connected to my computer via USB. I try all of the Vega’s connections, except the Toslink, and find that they each provide very good sound. However, the high-speed USB from my computer proves the best overall option, given its maximum sampling rate and its ability to stream a variety of formats including DSD, lossless and WAV. The stock USB cable that comes packed with the Vega puts forth good sound, but a reasonably priced aftermarket USB cable like the Cardas Clear provides a noticeable improvement.

AURALiC includes a driver disc for computer setup and a detailed set of instructions to get everything configured. Despite the manual, I encounter some trouble getting my computer to recognize the AURALiC. It takes quite a bit of finagling with the Windows 7 sound settings to get the computer to make the connection. I’m sure the experience varies depending on the computer, operating system and type of digital files being transmitted. But after 30 minutes of frustrated troubleshooting with everything connected, the Vega proves itself worth the wait.


As with other AURALiC products, the Vega has a sleek and futuristic appearance. Its front panel sports a single knob and a darkened screen from which all information is conveyed to the user. When the Vega is powered up and connected to a digital source, four amber indicators appear: power, selected input, signal type/bitrate, and volume level, the latter of which displays the numbers large enough so that they can be read from a listening position 10 feet away. When powered down, the Vega goes into standby mode to keep critical elements warm for optimal sound at the next power-up.

While the Vega’s operations menu is accessible by pushing and twisting the knob on the front panel, I find that the remote control is the most effective way to make changes. All the adjustments you’d expect from a remote are there at the ready, but two unique capabilities capture my attention.

The first offers access to four digital filters, which impart slight sonic variances to the analog outputs. If using DSD files, two additional filters appear. AURALiC offers recommendations for the type of music best suited to a particular filter, but I find that trial and error is the best way to determine the preferred setting.

The second noteworthy feature allows adjusting digital clock settings. The Vega defaults to Auto, with Course, Fine and Exact settings also available. The latter two are available on the menu only after the DAC has been warmed up for an hour or so. Experimenting with the higher clock settings on low-jitter signals, I notice a bit more smoothness, imaging depth and detail when using a USB source. Just as the Vega manual warns, when the Vega’s coax input receives a lower-quality jittered signal from my computer’s coax output, the AURALiC is not able to maintain the higher level of precision, which results in some skipping. Once again, the larger USB “pipe” proves itself the best source, so I recommend taking advantage of it.

One of the major technological highlights of the VEGA is its utilization of a Femto master clock, that features an aerospace grade crystal oscillator.  It does take an hour of warm-up time for the clock to fully settle and deliver optimum performance. While the VEGA sounds great upon power up, there is a marked improvement once stable, with soundstaging and imaging performance tightening up.  Because it uses so little power, we suggest leaving the unit powered at all times.

Identical to the Taurus headphone amplifier we reviewed recently, the VEGA uses the same Orfeo Class-A output stage modules.  These are patented by AURALiC and have an impressive open loop distortion figure of less than .001%, allowing the VEGA to output 4 volts RMS at a very low output impedance (4.7 ohms at the RCA output and 50 ohms at the balanced output), giving it the ability to drive any power amplifier to full volume with ease.

Achieving Orbit

All features aside, the Vegas delivers impressive sound.  Like Orpheus’s harp, the Vega proves difficult to turn away from once I start listening. Other than the $20,000 Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC, I’ve never wanted to permanently swap out my own digital front end for a piece of review equipment. Other, newer DACs offer some strengths over my pieces of reference gear, but not enough to wholly unseat them.

With setup complete, it seems apropos to test the Vega on some space-themed music, and so I start with Dark Side of the Moon. Any decent stereo equipment reveals the footstep sounds during “On the Run,” which move left and right in the soundstage. However, the sonically perceived front-to-back movement can get buried by some digital equipment. The Vega does a great job digging out those details. Air’s song “Venus” has the ability to throw a very wide soundstage, which the Vega portrays well. Perceived musical boundaries wrap around my listening area, enveloping the space with sound.

Using the Vega in DSD mode, I find that Norah Jones’s song “Lonestar” sounds better than I’ve heard it rendered digitally. The combination of high-resolution format and a great decoder provides some unexpected pleasure. I enjoy listening to the album Come Away With Me, but at a CD-level bitrate, vocal passages can expose some stridency. The AURALiC tames that down, rendering Jones’ voice in a smooth, lifelike and extended manner, and with a significant reduction in that “wince factor.”

When using the JRiver Media Center 19 to send a DSD stream to the Vega, I find it worthwhile to increase JRiver’s buffer settings via the pull-down playback menu. With the smaller default buffer setting, the recording interpreted through the AURALiC has a tendency to skip. Standard CD recordings, like the B52’s “Planet Claire” or Bill Laswell’s “Galactic Zone,” consistently get an audio makeover through the AURALiC. Especially when setting the JRiver software to output a 192-kHz signal, the Vega does a fantastic job coaxing out improved sound from the subterranean bass from Laswell’s guitar.

Willie Nelson’s voice on Stardust proves equally beguiling. Vocal presence remains at the front of the soundstage, extending forward into the room with an almost physical presence. Guitars and percussion retain a similar level of realism and palpability.

Listening to several hours of classical, jazz and blues recordings, I am never disappointed with the Vega. Regardless of the music thrown at it, the Vega consistently excels at bass retrieval and reproduction of high notes, while maintaining a generally neutral sound. In my setup, the Vega never seems to over emphasize any particular frequency. With this blank canvas to work from, the user has the opportunity to use the digital filter and clock settings to slightly tailor the sound to their liking—and experimentation proves a lot of fun.

While the Vega’s sound is not as smooth, refined, nuanced, and three-dimensional as the $20,000 Light Harmonic DaVinci, the AURALiC more than holds its own for its price, delivering great sound for its class. I could live with it happily.

Among the Stars

Can the AURALiC VEGA serve as a northern star in your home audio system? In short, the answer is yes. For all its versatility and raw audio prowess, the Vega is worth serious consideration if the $3,499 price is within your budget. With a future-proof design and variable volume output, the Vega is likely to remain in your audio system for years to come, which makes it a great investment for those who love the convenience and sonics of high-quality digital music. Like Orpheus’ audiences, I suspect that you will find it difficult to turn away from the Vega once you start listening.

VEGA digital-audio processor

MSRP: $3,499


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

AVA Media Maestro-50 Digital Amplifier

The Maestro-50 digital amplifier from AVA Media is about the size of a hefty paperback novel and is aimed at the computer- and desktop-audio worlds.  This diminutive amplifier takes the approach of keeping the audio signal in the digital domain until the last possible step before it crosses over into analog.

The simple configuration of the $359 Maestro-50 begs the user to power it up first and examine it later.  I begin by connecting the amp to my MacBook using the TOSLINK cable, with a Shunyata Venom 3 power cord delivering the juice and Cardas speaker cables connecting it to a pair of Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s.  The solo piano of a live version of Jamie Cullum’s “Wheels” pops forth with all the quickness one would expect from ICE-powered amplification.  Having listened to live music in the lounge where this recording was made, I’m impressed by how the Maestro-50 gets the basics of the room’s tonal quality correct right out of the box.

Revisiting this track after a week of burn-in reveals less edginess and a more open high end.  The rolling keystrokes accompanying this catchy tune rapidly move from calm to intense, with Cullum’s slightly hoarse vocals now more clearly dominating the track—a definite improvement.

Simple, but Not Too Simple

The Maestro-50 is a basic-looking but handsome piece of equipment, with an enclosure sculpted from aluminum and anodized in a brushed black finish.  The CNC millwork is hand-finished with rounded edges.  The box measures 7 inches wide, 4.6 inches deep and 1.75 inches tall, with the front panel showing only an off-white LED and a small push-button volume knob—the ultimate in simplicity.  The back panel is just the opposite.  AVA was able to maximize this tiny bit of real estate to include a horizontal power-toggle switch, three-prong power-cord receptacle, S/PDIF, TOSLINK, subwoofer RCA out inputs and left and right female banana connections for the speaker outputs.  A USB-to-S/PDIF convertor can be ordered for an additional $62.

The Maestro-50 produces 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms, doubling into 4 ohms, which is plenty of juice to give impressions via the relatively inefficient Harbeths.  I incorporate a pair of ACI Emerald XL speakers (86 dB/watt) for the remaining listening sessions via my desktop system, also with excellent results.

The Maestro-50 is designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom by AVA, which is careful to point out that there is no built-in DAC in the amp’s conversion process.  The company use a process similar to that used by Steinway Lyngdorf, NAD and a few others, demodulating the signal right before it goes to the speaker outputs.  A full technical explanation is available at the website of Pure Audio Stream, a division of AVA Media that provides direct supply of AVA Media’s digital amps:

The Maestro-50 is all about conveniently accessing music in a manner consistent with 21st-century convenience.  Users with an Apple AirPort Express can merely set up the Maestro-50 as a zone to be accessed with his or her iDevice, or even a Windows machine.  As with all digital amplifiers, electricity usage is minimal, so leaving it powered 24/7 will barely impact your electricity bill.

Further Listening

Sampling some Blue Note favorites, I find John Coltrane’s epic album Blue Train highly satisfying.  Coltrane’s signature sax sound is open, albeit slightly dry, but not enough to be a deal-breaker.  The Maestro-50’s quick transient response allows me to appreciate

Coltrane’s masterful finger work in the title track.  Lee Morgan’s trumpet is deliciously clear, making for foot-tapping fun.

The vocal harmonies of Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey” come through smooth and clear, with plenty of country twang.  The only place the Maestro falls short is with rich, resonant and more robust male vocalists like Johnny Cash.  The test speakers at my disposal all had a somewhat thin presentation here.

The amp’s lower bass output is respectable, with some punch, but those desiring a more robust bass response would do well to take advantage of the subwoofer output, adding the powered sub of their choice to the mix.  Our publisher reveals that the Maestro-50 does perform well with a more sensitive pair of speakers, like those from Zu Audio or Klipsch, so consider that as another option, should you really like to rock.

Final Score

The Maestro-50’s fresh design makes it an intriguing amplifier for the desktop and convenience-driven crowds.  By staying in the digital domain for inputs, it targets users who crave computer-based audio, and its sound quality makes for enjoyable all-day listening.

AVA Media Maestro-50 Digital Amplifier

MSRP: $359

Meitner MA-1 Digital to Analog Converter

Ed Meitner has a new DAC, the MA-1, and it’s a doozy. Over the past 30-odd years, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of high-end audio designers, but Meitner remains a special case. Our paths first crossed when I was working at a high-end store, Sound by Singer, in New York City. His mahogany-sheathed preamps and power amps were a good deal smaller than any other period electronics and sounded great with my Snell Type A speakers.

When I recently phoned him to catch up on old times and pepper him with questions about the MA-1, he was just as I remembered: A no-BS kind of guy. Most audio designers pay lip service to their love of music. He doesn’t. Doing so would, in his words, “cloud the judgment,” and, without hesitating, added, “Music is not my business. Sound is my business.”

He’s not lying. Meitner built an automated recording studio console in 1971 and designed 1-bit digital recording systems in the late 70s, a few years before the introduction of the CD. He also designed a fascinating velocity transducer speaker that rivaled the sound of the era’s electrostatics. He was always working on something new and different, like his AT-2 turntable. The platter-less design only supported the label while the grooved portion “floated” in free air. The turntable claimed a uni-pivot arm, and the whole contraption rested on three massive cones. Most high-end engineers stick with one thing or another, but Meitner played with them all.

Discrete and Unique Features

The MA-1 is the first product from Meitner Audio, a new company running parallel to Meitner’s EMM Labs, which continues to offer much more expensive components. EMM DACs all feature discrete converters fabricated from individual resistors, a remarkable feat given that most converters—including many competitors’ more expensive models—use DAC chipsets.

Hence, I assumed the $7,000 MA-1 would be built around a chip. Nope. Meitner steers clear of chips in all his DACs. He designs his own discrete DACs for myriad reasons, not the least of which is not having to worry about whether the chip manufacturer will stop making the part or change the spec.

In addition, most chip-based DACs are current-output devices. Meitner’s discrete 1-bit DACs are voltage-output affairs. He explains that when a DAC outputs current, you have to add a stage to convert current to voltage and add filters. The MA-1 needs no such converters or separate filters. Meitner designs the converter and filter in one, fully balanced stage. When you roll your own, you get exactly what you want.

The unit also features Meitner’s MDAT technology, which is similar to that in an upsampling DAC. Still, the latter can’t reproduce a music transient without digital pre- or post-“ringing.” Meitner’s MDAT doesn’t ring. Maybe that’s why his DACs reduce the digital nature of CD sound. Yes, the MA-1 possesses an unmistakable analog flavor. It’s highly resolved, but relaxed.

While other, more expensive DACs, like the $17,489 MSB Technology Platinum Signature DAC IV (a discrete, chip-free DAC reviewed in these pages last year), are more transparent, the MA-1 makes for a loveable match with music. If the recording is harsh or grating, the MA-1 won’t make it any less nasty. But when the recording is solid, you hear more of the good stuff.

Some credit for the presentation owes to the built-in Meitner Frequency Acquisition System, which instantly acquires the incoming signal, buffers it, and strips out jitter, whether or not the data stream is pure or anything but. From there, the signal runs through the Meitner Digital Audio Translator, which upsamples the zeros and ones to 5.6MHz—double the standard SACD sampling rate.

Visually, the MA-1’s brushed aluminum panel looks clean and simple, with a row of six input selectors and LEDs that indicate sampling rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192-kHz at word lengths up to 24 bits through all six inputs. Around back, you’ll find two Toslink optical, two RCA coax, one AES-EBU XLR, and one USB asynchronous digital input, along with RCA and XLR analog outputs. There’s also a RS-232 port for those with fancy home-automation systems, and another USB port for future software upgrades. The Canadian-made MA-1 comes with a small, credit-card-style remote that only changes inputs.

Easygoing, Analog Warmth

The MA-1 arrived when I was reviewing the Davone Ray speaker, and both had an easygoing character that doesn’t shout “high-resolution”— or, in other terms, a presentation that sounds to me like live, non-amplified music. I did the bulk of listening with my reference Magnepan 3.7 speakers.

The analog warmth of older CDs, like Etta James’ The Definitive Collection, comes through intact. In this sense, the MA-1 succeeds by doing less; it simply lets the music be. Yes, the richness in older recordings is hard to resist. It’s part of the music’s DNA, but not so easy to retrieve. The MA-1 does just that, however. I also compared the MA-1 with a $7,995 Bricasti M1 DAC. There’s not a huge difference, but the Meitner is a wee bit more relaxed, detailed, and transparent.

Great digital gear sounds less digital, meaning there’s less grain, glare, noise, and other assorted digital nasties. Vide: Kinks guitarist Dave Davies recorded a killer live solo show at New York City’s Bottom Line club in 1997, and the resulting CD, Rock Bottom, is a delight. I’ve seen more than a hundred shows at that club, and this disc captures the place’s vibe better than most. With the MA-1, I can close my eyes and feel it. What a trip! I always sat at the tables directly in front of the stage, and the MA-1 nails that close-up perspective.

The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You isn’t their worst-sounding recording, but it’s the band’s last great album. It hangs together better on the MA-1 than I would have thought possible. Where the overdone reverb usually puts me off, with the MA-1, it seamlessly envelops the group and sounds natural.

Playing back high-resolution 176-kHz/24-bit classical and jazz selections from the Reference Recordings HRx Sampler 2011 DVD, the MA-1 dramatically opens the soundstage. Instruments reveal more full-bodied presence when compared to what’s presented on CDs. Moreover, the DVD’s dynamic scale and low-level detailing are more fully developed.

There’s also more inner detail and nuance in the high-resolution version of Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What, which makes going back to the CD a letdown. I also have newfound respect for my Pass Labs electronics and Magnepan 3.7 speakers: they’re even better than I thought. Such revelations are signs of greatness in any component, and the MA-1 is no exception to this rule.

Meitner Audio

MSRP: $7,000


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with a van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources PS Audio PerfectWave Transport & DAC     Oppo BDP-95 Special Edition
Electronics Pass XP-20 preamp    Simaudio 310LP phono preamp    Bel Canto REF500s   Pass Labs XA100.5     First Watt J2 power amps
Speakers Davone Ray    Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan 3.7
Cable XLO Signature 3 interconnects     Audioquest Sky interconnects               Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables

From Mono & Stereo: LessLoss digital cable

Mono & Stereo’s Matej Isak has been very excited about the entire LessLoss line of cable products, but here
he focuses his energy on their digital cable.

You can follow his observations here…