People in the pro audio world have likely dreamed of using Weiss components since the late '80s. Weiss equipment is recognized around the world as some of the best money can buy. In 2001 Weiss Engineering entered the world of High-End audio with the critically acclaimed Medea DAC and Jason CD Transport. These two components are certainly good but they don't fill the needs of the computer audiophile. The Medea DAC could definitely be part of a great sounding computer based system, but it lacks the desired inputs many music servers require. This is where the Minerva comes in with a bang. In addition to the traditional DAC inputsAES/EBU, coax, and Toslink the Minerva offers Firewire (IEEE 1394) inputs.
Weiss prefers FireWire over USB for several reasons. Similar to USB FireWire offers the asynchronous operating mode. Unlike USB, FireWire also offers isochronous mode that allows devices a dedicated amount of bandwidth. This insures the audio stream will keep flowing without interference from collisions or glitches. As most Computer Audiophile readers knowUSB DACs work great as long as there are no other devices on the USB bus that interfere with the DAC i.e. the keyboard and trackpad on MacBook Pro models. USB also puts more load on the CPU. Fortunately for many computers this load is negligible when audio is streaming to an external DAC. FireWire does seem like the way to guarantee a smooth audio stream to the DAC, but it is not without its detractors. Some in the industry preferUSB 1.1 because it allows a 24/96 audio stream without the need to install additional device drivers. Traditionally FireWire also has more jitter thanUSB interfaces. To handle this Weiss uses the Jitter Elimination Technologies (JET) PLL in the Minerva. This features state of the art jitter rejection and extremely low intrinsic jitter levels. Much more information about all of this is available in the very detailed Minerva manual.
The Minerva DAC comes with software and device drivers for Mac OS X and Windows based PCs. I conducted this full review using my MacBook Pro running OS X Leopard 10.5.3 connected via FireWire. The software installation is very simple. It is one of those next-next-finish installs that completes in under a minute. Once the installation is complete and the Minerva is connected, the Weiss FireWire IO app can be used to fine tune the performance of the DAC with the music server. This fine tuning is very simple because there is only a couple options to chose from. I'm pretty sure most Computer Audiophile readers can handle selecting the sampling rate at which their music will be played. In the case of the Reference Recordings HRx albums this is 176.4 kHz. The only other selection to make when connected via FireWire is the Isochronous Buffering machine type. The choices are Slow, Normal, and DAW for Digital Audio Workstation. According to Daniel Weiss, President & Founder of Weiss Engineering, these settings vary the kernel buffer size on a Mac. "On faster, more powerful machines, the user can choose a smaller kernel mode buffer size. "Slow" sets a larger buffer size, resulting in more stable streaming performance on slower machines. The larger the buffer, the higher the resulting latency." Said Weiss. Throughout my review I continually heard the best performance with the DAW setting. Since there are three choices it only takes one or two songs to decide which setting works best in a given system.
Mac users are likely familiar with the Audio Midi Setup application already, so I will only touch on it here. When the Minerva is connected the sampling rate can either be selected through the Weiss FireWire IO application or through Audio Midi Setup. The settings mirror each other so a change to one is a change to the other. Either way this selection is very simple. If you can turn your preamp knob to Phono, you can select 44.1, 88.2, 96, 176.4 or 192 etc...
As I mentioned previously I conducted this review using one of the FireWire interfaces on the Minerva. I also spent a small amount of time listening to th Toslink interface connected to my MacBook Pro optical port. In the limited time I had this connection running I noticed nothing wrong with the sound. If you don't have a FireWire port on your computer I strongly suggest using this S/PDIF interface until you can add a FireWire card or upgrade to a computer with an available FireWire port. Shortly after Daniel Weiss shipped the Minerva from Switzerland I began my hunt for a quality FireWire cable. I quickly ruled out the cheap-o five dollar cables and the expensive $1000 FireWire cable that I found. I settled on the Monster Digital® Firelink™ 6 pin to 6 pin cable. As an audiophile this was a gut wrenching purchase. Clicking "add to cart" for a Monster Cable product just didn't feel right. I guess I found one area in the audiophile world the entrepreneurial high-end cable vendors haven't cornered ... yet.
In order to really put the Minerva through its paces I had to have music in many different resolutions. Of course the 16/44.1 selections were covered and the new HRx 24/176.4 albums had recently arrived. So, I finally started to rip my DVD-Audio discs and quickly had a little 24/88.2, 24/96, and 24/192 music to go along with the other resolutions. I was finally ready to hear what the Minerva was all about.
In general I usually don't like to ask myself questions. As Adam Carolla would say this is a blow-hard move. But, I'll make an exception for this review. Was the Weiss Minerva really the best DAC and was it everything I had built it up to be? Yes and yes. Over the last few weeks I have been hinting in the forums and in other articles that the Minerva is really something special. I'm sure some of the forum regulars wondered if I would ever finish this review! Truth be told, I hated to complete the review because this meant the Minerva had to be sent on its way. Talk about a sad day in Computer Audiophile history. Anyway, I've had quite a few DACs here in my listening room and I've listened to many others at High-End shops and shows. I have yet to hear a DAC, connected to a computer based audio system, as good as the Minerva. The DLIII and the DAC1 PRE don't hold a candle to this thing. At a US retail price of $4950 the Minerva better be a superior product. Fortunately it is superior and the difference between the Minerva and its competition thus far is astounding.
By far and away the best music I've ever heard from a computer based audio system is the new Reference Recordings HRx material played through the Weiss Minerva. Played back at full 24 bit / 176.4 kHz resolution via FireWire there is no current competition. Listening to the Crown Imperial by the Dallas Wind Symphony is truly an awesome experience. The Minerva pulls every ounce of music from this recording and reproduces it with stunning detail. After spending far too much time listening to the HRx albums I had to move on to the other resolutions in my repertoire. All the 24/88.2 through 24/192 music sounded great as well. A favorite of mine is Stone Temple Pilots first album Core. Ripped at 24/96 from a DVD-Audio disc this album has new life! Equally important as the high resolution albums is the standard 16/44.1 material. Since the vast majority of our music is still in this resolution, the Best DAC must perform just as well with music that sounds far from perfect. As expected, the stunning detail reproduced during the HRx listening sessions was reproduced when playing back some harsh recordings. The compression Red Hot Chili Peppers'Californication was still very harsh and terrible sounding through the Minerva. This is a good thing in my opinion. I don't like those "Hi-Fi" sounding components that make everything sound good. The day Californication is remastered I will jump for joy. I really love the content on that one, but the sound quality limits my time with the recording to a minimum. The new Walter Becker album Circus Money has been spinning nonstop around Computer Audiophile (spinning as in hard drive spinning). I've become pretty familiar with the sound of the album through the DAC1 and the DLIII . When I played the album back through the Minerva I instantly notice a tighter and fuller sound that was absent in the other two DACs. Compared to the Minerva the DAC1 rounded the edges of the drums and greatbass-lines on Circus Money. DAC1 owners, myself included, please take this in the spirit in which it's intended. I suggest you don't listen to the Minerva unless you plan on purchasing the DAC. Once you try this DAC you'll never go back. Think about it this way. Any HDTV in your home usually looks fabulous. But, when you compare your model sitting directly next to the latestBravia XBR in your local dealer, your HD picture just doesn't cut it anymore.
Another 16/44.1 recording I spent some time with is Chris Isaak's Baja Sessions. I love the sound of his voice and acoustic guitar on this whole album. Two songs in particular that I frequently listen to are his cover of Roy Orbison's Only The Lonely, and I Wonder. Listening to Only The Lonely through the Minerva made me question all previous systems I've owned. Shortly after the guitar intro there is a little "touch" of a cymbal before the vocal begins. This cymbal has been very present in my other systems. With the Minerva the sound is a little more what I call appropriate. The sound fits in with everything else instead of standing out from everything else. Note to Daniel Weiss: Thanks for invalidating all previous audio components I've owned. Listening to I Wonder was really a treat with the Minerva. Chris Isaak's glossy voice and clear guitar sounded like we were both in the same coffee shop. Those of you who are familiar with my musical tastes and reviews know I have to crank up a little Pearl Jam to make sure every component is really up to snuff. This time I put in Pearl Jam's album Yield. The very first track, brain Of J, sealed the deal for me. Shortly after an expedited "1234 - 1234" the guitar started and then the drums completely filled my listening room. Jack Irons was the drummer on thisrecording and the sound of his drums is really a reason in itself to pick up this album. The rest of Yield went off without a hitch through the Minerva.
A common topic in many audiophile conversations these days is the so-called future proofing of an audio system. Many people are concerned about purchasing a DAC or music server that may not be compatible with all the current and forthcoming high resolution music. The Minerva from Weiss Engineering removes any doubts about compatibility with virtually all current high resolution content. Nobody can be sure of the future formats music will come in, but I am willing to bet nothing will edge over 24/192 any time soon. If this is true the Minerva is more than a wise investment for your audio system. It is a component designed to last with high build quality and high resolution.
After all of this listening it was "officially official" the Minerva was and is the best DAC I've heard in a computer based system. The musicality of my McIntosh tubes and Avalon Acoustics speakers in combination with the Minerva DAC was really an audio treat that everyone should experience.
If you're interested in reading the driver release notes from the install I've made them available here.