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Semi-Customized DAC, Part V: Rollin', rollin', rollin'...

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.

Cap rollin', that is.

In this corner, ladies and gentlemen: The AudioCap Theta, a film and tinfoil capacitor very well thought of for its price (rated among the "Tier AA : Top Shelf Performers" in an extensive cap comparison at The Great Capacitor Shoot-Out ).

And in the other corner, the UpTone Audio MusiCap, another film and foil cap (not sure of the metal used). The MusiCap name was widely known as a product of Hovland Audio. Now that Hovland Audio is no more, Robert Hovland puts out SuperCaps, and the other former Hovland principal, Alex Crespi, offers audiophile capacitors under the MusiCap brand. If that Crespi name sounds familiar, it's because Alex posts at CA frequently as Superdad.

If you look at the photos from the last edition of this blog ( Semi-Customized DAC, Part IV: Photos and Filters - Blogs - Computer Audiophile ), you'll see that the DAC output board originally had four red caps, two per channel. They were each about 5/8 inch in diameter and about 1 and 1/4 inches long, with a value of 4.7uF. In comparison, the AudioCap Thetas are substantially bigger, an inch in diameter and about 1 and 3/4 inches long in the 4uF value I used. The MusiCaps, also 4uF, are quite a bit bigger: an inch in diameter by 3 inches long.

Looking at web sites about audio and caps, one of the things you see frequent reference to is that even though these particular caps don't have positive and negative polarity (caps for some applications do), many people feel there is still a particular orientation that provides the best sound. It has to do with "outer foil," which lead is to the "shield," better noise rejection.... For caps where the leads aren't marked, like the AudioCap Theta, testing involves hooking the cap up to a scope and seeing which orientation gives better noise behavior. Happily the MusiCaps are clearly marked: one lead is red, the other white. In my application, the preferred orientation is with the red leads toward the output.

To avoid having to rely on medium or long term auditory memory and repeatedly installing and uninstalling caps, I hooked up two MusiCaps for the left DAC channel, and two Thetas for the right. I have some good mono recordings, including a rip of the DCC Gold version of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, so getting identical signals to both channels was not a problem. And even with normal stereo, instruments or vocals in the center of the soundstage provided plenty of opportunities for direct comparison.

A substantial difference in sound was evident from the very first instant, but I wanted to allow for break-in, so my listening took place over several days.

For the sound of the Thetas, I think the author of The Great Capacitor Shoot-Out linked above nailed it: "[T]he Theta is a bit smoother. The down-side with the Theta is a slight loss of detail, but many listeners may prefer its more liquid (and forgiving) sound." Upper bass and midrange in particular sounded very musical to me.

But the MusiCaps provided an entire level of musical information and detail lacking with the Thetas. Music in general, and anything involving transients in particular - the thwack of a kick drum, the pluck of a guitar or bass string, the expressive details of vocal enunciation and phrasing - was far more realistic with the MusiCaps. For example, Ottmar Liebert's guitar playing on Dune (HDTracks 88.2/24 download, excellent sound) was beautiful and resonant with the Thetas, but with the MusiCaps it was beautiful, resonant playing of a nylon-stringed flamenco guitar. It just was not a close comparison, and this remained true throughout the several days of my listening. The difference was so marked that I got to the local electronics repair shop the minute it opened Monday morning so I could have MusiCaps installed on the right channel. I couldn't wait to listen to the DAC at its best. Also, frankly, listening to a DAC with two different-sounding channels got old very fast. I could never just settle back and enjoy music, because none of the auditory images were fully integrated. Every center stage vocalist was the audio equivalent of Two-Face from the Batman comic strip:


(By the way, this means I now have four spare AudioCap Theta capacitors - free to a good home for the cost of shipping. PM me if interested.)

A couple of interesting things regarding break-in, at least for capacitors: Yes, I did feel the sound of both sets of capacitors changed during my testing. And when I did have the remaining two MusiCaps installed, the new pair did sound different the first 24 hours or so from the old ones - slightly different, not nearly to the extent the MusiCaps differed from the Thetas. (I have my music collection playing on "shuffle" through the DAC 24/7 for break-in purposes.) But the most interesting aspect of all to me was that while over the first several days of listening to the MusiCaps, I thought there was a slight thinness to the sound in the bass and low midrange, last night when I sat down to listen, wham - a whole different system. All the bass you could want. I'm not talking sloppy and reverberant; it's just as controlled and rich in transient information as anything in the upper register. I'm now into the mode we all know and love, where everything that plays sounds new and remarkable. I didn't even bother to queue up anything in particular - just left it on shuffle, it was all good. And my wife danced and sang along (this latter not necessarily a good thing), except for the classical pieces.

I used my phone to take a couple of photos of the DAC board with MusiCaps last night, but in the cold light of day they're not up to snuff to show here. Hope to post a photo or two within the next day or so.

And here's the photo:


Updated 08-25-2013 at 06:22 PM by Jud



  1. Superdad's Avatar
    Nice review Jud, thanks! Glad you are enjoying the caps (and full disclosure, I never spoke to Jud after shipping him the caps, and he did pay for them in advance--okay, I gave him a good deal).

    Just for clarity, at Hovland Company (incorporated 1999-2009), there were originally four principals, including myself and Robert Hovland. My dear friend Jeffrey Tonkin was President and did all of the wonderful industrial design which never failed to land our preamps and amps on the covers of magazines worldwide (the sonic performance was the other factor of course). The fourth officer was Micheal Garges, and he oversaw production and service. Bob Hovland chose to leave the company for personal reasons near the end of 2004, and the very talented Peter Russell replaced him as Chief Engineer. The delightful and truly brilliant John Swenson had about a two year stint on a part time contract basis with us for an ambitious digital source product that we showed in prototype form at CES 2007 and 2008. Sadly, due to a combination of rising costs, the economic collapse in the US, and the thin margins from overseas sales (at that point overseas was almost 90% of Hovland business), we had no choice but to close our doors in 2009 (paid our 10 employees right to the end, but the 3 of us had not been taking more than a pittance for over a year). It was sad and gut wrenching, but there are still thousands of Hovland preamps and amps bringing joy in homes around the world (all models combined over the 10 years I would estimate close to 9,000 units--retail price range $5,000-$35,000).

    Anyway, with regards to MusiCaps, those pre-date Hovland Company's incorporation by about a dozen years. I have been selling them for 25 years now! Most of my clients are high-end loudspeaker and electronics OEMs, plus dealer/distributors around the world (here in the US, CE Distribution/Antique Electronic Supply is my exclusive agent).

    The four amigos of Hovland (Bob, Mike, Jeff, and me) started meeting weekly (in Los Angeles) way back in 1977--geesh, I was just 15, they are each about 12 years older--and we experimented with a LOT of things which today seem normal (as normal as obsessive high-end audio can be anyway). Things like custom potentiometers which we quickly abandoned for hand-made stepped attenuator switches (Caddock has told us we were the very first customer to use their parts for audio), dozens of different handmade wire schemes (Bill Lowe first discovered the difference cables make at Jeff's house and then started Audioquest), and every form, material, lead, and solder for capacitors you can think of. We drove the engineer at our local cap winding house nuts! Once the final recipe was set, we began using them in Bob's designs and in our speakers (and for the Speaker MusiCaps we use large-gauge, very finely-stranded, silver-plated copper wire (196 strands to be exact).

    In the 80's we were not selling much of anything, though Bob made a living restoring and modifying high-end tube and solid state gear that people (and a few recording studios) would bring to him from all over. American-made Marantz was a specialty for him (he used to work there, alongside some legends like Dick Sequerra, and was the project engineer for the monster Marantz 500 power amp), so people trusted him with their 7C preamps and 10B tuners (I own a 20B tuner that he must have spent 20 hours on; it is custom wired and specially tuned; it's serial #1002(!) and for sale as I don't get reception in the mountains). Mike was hand making interconnects, speaker wires, and what was to become the famous Hovland Music Groove 2 tonearm-to-preamp cable (still listed by Fremer in Stereophile as his reference TA cable; now called the Graham/Hovland MG2 since we sold the design to Bob Graham as Hovland Co. closed). Anyway, my enthusiastic young self wanted to sell something, so I persuaded my friends that we should share the custom capacitors with the world. I can't honestly remember which of us came up with the MusiCap name--I think it was me--and we went ahead and trademarked it around 1986. I toted around a heavy bag with samples and dangling caps at at least a dozen Vegas CES conventions, and it was easy to win designers over since the only competition was from metalized-film parts (like Solen and Siderial-now AuriCap). I estimate having sold close to $2 million worth of MusiCaps over the course of what shockingly is half my life.

    So when we closed the corporation of Hovland Company, I saved up to restart production of MusiCaps (same factory, same films, same foils--aluminum by the way--same silver-plated wire). I have not marketed much past my old clientele (some of whom, like Tannoy, I lost in the 18 month gap to other brands, some of whom came back), I have no web site, and do no advertising. But word of mouth has kept the MusiCap brand alive and well. The outer wrap is now a lovely blue instead of that hideous yellow we used to be stuck with, and my humble company is called UpTone Audio. My overhead is low, so I have been able to keep my prices very competitive (for a film-and-foil part--which is always physically larger and more expensive than average metalized-film caps, though the prices on a lot of boutique metalized brands shocks even me).

    My deep apology to you Jud for rambling about here on your blog. It's Friday afternoon, I was tickled by your kind words about the MusiCaps, and I figure that maybe whatever few CA folks stumble upon your blog might enjoy some background and ym trip down memory lane.

    P.S. Are you going to get your DAC project into a box soon?
  2. Jud's Avatar
    No apology necessary. I really enjoy learning about the history of the industry. It always amazes me how interconnected it all was and still is. Also, somewhere in there you did answer my question about the metal foil that's used in MusiCaps. :)

    And yes, one of these days in the not terribly distant future I do intend on putting this in a box. But I need to see what sort of rewiring can be done first.
  3. bobbmd's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Jud
    No apology necessary. I really enjoy learning about the history of the industry. It always amazes me how interconnected it all was and still is. Also, somewhere in there you did answer my question about the metal foil that's used in MusiCaps. :)

    And yes, one of these days in the not terribly distant future I do intend on putting this in a box. But I need to see what sort of rewiring can be done first.
    great piece jud
    how'd you do that??
    oh,by the way, do you(or anyone else) remember the rest of that friday night lineup and can you do the same thing for the next 3-4 shows following rawhide? and how about palladin bobbmd
  4. Superdad's Avatar
    Holy Toledo Jud! Now that I see the picture I can hardly believe you installed them. I guess I did not realize how small your DAC board is. While not all of the MusiCap values are physically as big as the 4.0uF/200V you mounted, I must admit that it is not uncommon for designers to pass on them for an existing product due to mechanical fit issues. But once I get them to try them, they either find a way to squeeze them in or they plan for them in their next board revision or next new product.
  5. Jud's Avatar
    Hey Bob. I know this is a downer, but I never liked Westerns. :)

    How "I" did that is to use the facility Chris has bestowed on all of us to paste video clips into our comments - see the little icon above the comment field that looks like a bit of film strip?

    Alex, good thing I wasn't the one who installed the caps. The guy at the electronics repair shop who actually did the work did allow himself a laconic "Well, obviously there's a mounting issue" beforehand.
  6. mav52's Avatar
    always like the Rawhide series , FYI Frankie Laine sung he song.