• Stello DA100 Signature DAC Review

    I've had my eye on the Stello DACs from April Music for some time now. When April released the Stello DA100 Signature DAC I knew it was time to get one in here for review. The Signature DAC is loaded with inputs. I love DACs that give audiophiles options via five different digital inputs. These options are critically important as people begin trying different methods of integrating computers into their audio systems. Along with the numerous input options, there is one feature that all the Computer Audiophile readers have been clamoring for, upsample bypass!
     


    Introduction

    The Stello DA100 Signature is a really good all around DAC that can accept almost any digital source. In addition the Signature can upsample to 24/96 or 24/192. As mentioned previously, and to be discussed later, the Signature offers the much requested upsample bypass feature. The analog output stage is fully discrete class A push-pull and the analog output offers Cardas single ended connectors and Neutrik balanced connectors. This DAC is certainly good size and feels quite substantial. Contributing to this is the large 25 VA Toroidal power transformer.

     

    April Music Stello DA100 Signature DAC
    click to enlarge

     

    The front panel interface of the D100 Signature is very simple to use with the exception of one minor item. The Upsample button requires to user to remember what sample rate the colors green and red equate to. Sure this is very minor, but the model below the Signature has a toggle switch that says BYP and 192. This label leaves no room for error or questions. I'm sure if the Signature was my only DAC I would have no problem memorizing the color scheme. I can hear many of you right now using your best Thurston Howell, III voice to say, "So many DACs so little time, what's a guy to do?" For those not familiar with the TV show Gilligan's Island this meant to be a very facetious statement reflecting on my shortcomings more than anything else. Back to the front panel of the Stello DA100 Signature DAC from April Music. As you can see in the photos the input selector is a nice big and round knob. There is substance to this knob and it leaves no doubt you've selected the input of your choice. Other knobs on similarly priced DACs do not offer this nice feature. The Benchmark DAC1 PRE for example has a knob that also spins to select the input. However it is simple to spin past your intended target as the DAC1 knob offers nothing more than a blue light to notify you that you've selected a specific input. Plus one for the DA100 Signature! The last feature on the front panel is the lock notification light. Some people love this feature, which is why many manufacturers have started including it in their new DACs. I can think of one very respected high-end manufacturer that made a last minute change to its new DAC to add a lock indicator based on input from different people. I guess the people have spoken!

     


    April Music Stello DA100 Signature DAC
    click to enlarge


     

    A few items that may or may not concern you are heat, lack of remote volume control, and input selection. The Stello DA100 Signature generates a lot of heat. If you plan on sitting near this unit you'll want to take this into consideration. Heck, you may even like this if your "man cave" gets a little chilly in the winter. While your wife is upstairs with the dog sitting by the fireplace you have your own little heat source. One item that would really make this Stello DAC stellar is a remote volume control and input selector. This would allow one to connect the DAC right to an amp bypassing any preamp sound signature and avoiding a pair of expensive interconnects. Since this DAC has five inputs and April Music touts the use of each one with a different source, it should have included a remote input selector. In addition to these items the Stello DA100 Signature does not support an ASIO driver. Windows XP users may see this as a show-stopper while others will say, "What's ASIO?" and move on to the next album. These are my only gripes for an otherwise very solid product. For less than $900 maybe I shouldn't ask for absolutely everything :-)

     

    Input Options

    The April Music marketing material hit the nail right on the head.

    "Try the DA100 Signature with any of your digital sources - computer, CD, DVD, cable or satellite TV receiver. You'll be amazed how digital sound can be transformed into something musically seductive and emotionally satisfying."

    If you can't find an input on this DAC that your computer can connect to, then it's time to upgrade that Apple II, Commodore 64, or Windows 3.11 operating system. There are no excuses for avoiding the music server subject with this DAC. One thing that I really like about this DAC is that I will soon be able to use three of the five inputs and decide which one I like best. I don't currently have coax or I2S output on my Mac Pro music server. As I've discussed many times before there is no black & white answer to the question of which input is best. It comes down to the manufacturer's implementation, the listener's personal taste, and convenience. I know many of the readers use laptops and Mac Minis that offer USB and optical outputs. It's not real convenient or prudent to convert one of those connections to AES, so I won't even go down that path. At the time of this review my Mac Pro has a Lynx Studio AES16e card, but the AES cable did not arrive on time so I could not test the AES/EBU input on the DA100 Signature. No worries though, I spent plenty of time listening via USB and optical.

     

    April Music Stello DA100 Signature DAC
    click to enlarge

     

    The Stello DA100 Signature natively supports up to 24/96 via all inputs except USB. The USB input natively accepts 16/44.1 material and will downsample anything above 16/44.1. April Music recommends upsampling all these signals to 192 kHz for most playback. After several long listening sessions I decided the Bypass mode via optical input sounded best in my system. This is just one of those things you'll have to try on your own. The cool thing is you have so many input options and possible combinations with Bypass, upsample to 24/96 or 24/192. You're bound to find a few that you really like.

    The majority of readers on Computer Audiophile seem to like DACs that do not upsample. There really is no right or wrong method it's only about what sounds good to you. When I reviewed the PS Audio DLIII DAC I much preferred the USB input upsampled to 24/192. With the Stello DA100 Signature I much preferred the optical input without any upsampling. I guess this is part of what makes our wonderful hobby interesting. If there was one correct method that sounded superior every time we would be stuck with only a couple of products to choose from. Anyway, the upsample bypass on the Signature DAC means the digital output is exactly the same as the digital input up to 24/96 (excluding USB). Some DACs that do upsample use the upsample process as a method of reducing jitter. April Music has found other ways to reduce jitter including Asynchronous Sampling Rate Conversion using a proprietary and specially designed clock circuitry. April Music says it's a jitter-free timing circuit, but statements like this are often marketing terms because eliminating jitter 100% is something I've never seen done at any price.

     

    Sound

    As I mentioned earlier I much preferred the optical input with the upsample bypass feature enabled. This is highly specific to my system, my ears, and my listening room. Please don't take this preference for optical as a statement about any other optical connection on another DAC or as a statement against the USB input on the Stello DA100 Signature.

    Blunt, forward, and unfiltered. This was my first impression of the Stello DA100 Signature DAC. I immediately noticed the Signature DAC's sense of in-your-face sound that was very blunt. What I mean is this DAC has a forward presentation and doesn't cover up for blemishes in the recording process. To paraphrase a slogan from EA Sports, "If it's in the song it's in the song." The Signature doesn't sound HiFi or smooth anything out. At times this DAC sounds a little unrefined compared to some of the best DACs I've heard in my system. The Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC and the Weiss Minerva come to mind as DACs with a more refined and transparent sound. But if you don't have an extra $4000 lying around the DA100 Signature is more than adequate. In fact the name Signature really doesn't help this DAC. There doesn't seem to be a sonic signature in the traditional sense of the word. The DAC doesn't have a mushy or dry or thin sound signature. The DA100 Signature doesn't imprint this type of signature rather it pushes out an unfiltered honest sound. I use the tern "push" because the DAC does have a very forward presentation. This will be a very good component for those of you with laid back systems who are looking to bring everything a little closer to your listening position. I can also see this DAC performing well in a desktop system where the user may play games and need that extra punch when throwing a grenade on the opponents. This DAC reminds me a lot of Klipsch speakers without the coloration of horns. (I'm actually a big fan of Klipsch as one of my first systems included Klipsch KG 5.5 speakers. Those KG 5.5 speakers made it to college with me and came very close to getting me several noise violation citations.)

    The majority of my listening sessions were conducted using the optical input of the DA100 Signature. I did give the USB input plenty of time, but found it a little less musical and didn't get me into the music as much as the optical input. I used the built-in optical output of my Mac Pro and used iTunes 7.7.1 (11) with uncompressed 24/96 AIFF files for much of the review. Using the optical connection I was able to take advantage of my newly ripped DVD-Audio discs in all their 24/96 glory. John Hiatt's Bring The family is one of my new favorite albums. John's unique voice and acoustic guitar on Learning To Love You sounded fabulous through the DA100 Signature in bypass mode. During every review I make time for a little Morph The Cat from Donald Fagen. The 24/96 version of this really had punch through the Signature DAC. When the volume was cranked high enough I could feel a visceral impact with each pluck of the bass. The DA100 Signature was certainly not holding any of this recording back!

    The vast majority of music available is still 16/44.1 so I made sure to spend enough time listening to the DA100 Signature with material of this resolution. I listened to many of my standard albums that I'm very familiar with. The Stello performed exactly as described above. The presentation was forward and unfiltered. What more could you want from a DAC than a predictable and stable performance. Whether it was 24/96 or 16/44.1 the Stello DA100 Signature did not change. There is nothing worse than a DAC that sounds good with one resolution and not another. If you're currently in that situation with your DAC the DA100 Signature model will be just the remedy you need.

     

    Conclusion

    Inputs, options, and impact. Three words that describe my experience with the Stello DA100 Signature from April Music. With five inputs and the ability to bypass or upsample to 24/96 or 24/192 my satisfaction was virtually guaranteed. The DA100 Signature is a DAC for almost anybody. Sure it runs a little hot and could use some enhancements, but the same can be said for every other DAC on the market regardless of price. The DA100 Signature should certainly be on your short-list if you're looking for a new DAC. Now that I've listened to the DA100 Signature I can honestly say you don't need to spend a grand to achieve high-end sound. The Stello DA100 Signature retails for $895 USD and is available via http://www.hifi500.com .


    More information available from April Music.

     

    Associated equipment:
    McIntosh tube amp
    Avalon Acoustics speakers
    Benchmark DAC1 PRE
    AVI ADM9 speakers
    Kimber Select cable
    Mac Pro w/ 10GB RAM, 8 CPU cores
    Thecus 5200B Pro NAS
    QNAP TS-409 NAS
    AIFF files (16/44.1, 24/96)
    MacBook Air & iPod Touch for remote control
    Dedicated 20 amp power circuits



     

     




    April Music Stello DA100 Signature DAC
    click to enlarge





    April Music Stello DA100 Signature DAC
    click to enlarge




    April Music Stello DA100 Signature DAC
    click to enlarge





    April Music Stello DA100 Signature DAC
    click to enlarge
    Comments 17 Comments
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      You did indeed!<br />
      <br />
      Thanks Joe :-)
    1. billyzand's Avatar
      billyzand -
      Hi Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Since this DAC has an I2S input, I wonder what your thoughts are on the offramp unit from Empirical? <br />
      <br />
      best<br />
      <br />
      billy
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      I did think about this combo when reviewing the DAC. I am willing to bet the sound is spectacular. I am waiting for the day I can get an I2S port on my MacBook Air.
    1. bbarr's Avatar
      bbarr -
      I wonder what drove their decision to use through-hole technology instead of surface mount. Seems a bit dated. I can't imagine there is any performance advantage.<br />
      <br />
      Bob
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Bob - While thru-hole may be a bit dated I think a lot of engineers still prefer it for reasons other than sound quality.<br />
      <br />
      Maybe someone from April Music will jump in and provide an answer for us.
    1. chilest's Avatar
      chilest -
      Chris, how does the Stello compare to the Benchmark DAC-1 USB? Still considering whether to purchase the Benchmark for $1250 or save a few $$ and go with something like the Stello or PS Audio DL-lll.<br />
      tom
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Tom - These three DACs really do have different sound and the right one for you will depend heavily on your taste and system synergy. <br />
      <br />
      I have all three in my listening room at the moment and have compared them back-to-back-to-back. The DAC1 is a little different because of its feature set. It has the built-in headphone amp and volume control, so it's more like a preamp. Very nice if you want to bypass a traditional preamp and go right to your amp from the DAC. The DLIII and the DA100 Signature are much closer in features, but have very different sounds. It would be really nice if you could demo each of them!
    1. hotrodaudiodotnet's Avatar
      hotrodaudiodotnet -
      Hi there, we are one of the main US importers of the Stello Line, and a manufacturer as well. Sometimes miniaturization can affect sound quality. Good ol through hole designs sound best in my opinion. We love these DAC's and have been selling them well. We offer package deals including free Verastarr silver SPDIF cables with every DA100. <br />
      For those of you that want a one box solution there is the Aura Note made by Stello that includes a USB DAC plus jump drive reader, Tuner, CD player AND 50W amplifier. I use it on my desk for my computer with the Aura one speakers.. It is an awesome nearfield setup..<br />
      <br />
      Happy Listening..<br />
      <br />
      Mike Powell -
    1. Thunktank's Avatar
      Thunktank -
      Thanks for the review Chris, very helpful for me as I live in an audiophile wasteland and getting to hear more than a couple of DAC's in one place is near impossible. The Stello line of products are sold here in the UK under the Russ Andrews label at what appear be inflated prices. They do not have the signature as yet but they sell the DA100 for £599 ($1110), so god knows what they will be asking for the DA100 Signature.
    1. minzyman's Avatar
      minzyman -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      In this article you mention ripping DVD-A. What software do you recommend using for this purpose? I currently use Max for CD's on my Mac.<br />
      <br />
      Is this process for DVD-A ripping the same as that for Ripping regular DVD's with video content on them?<br />
      <br />
      Thanks. I am a newbie to hirez audio.<br />
      <br />
      /Lee
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Lee - Try this thread http://www.computeraudiophile.com/node/580<br />
      <br />
      Let me know if the links are broken or you can't find the software. It is called DVDAExplorer and is vastly different from regular DVD ripping software. Don't be fooled by software that says DVD Audio ripping. This usually only rips the audio from DVDs.
    1. BTandKM's Avatar
      BTandKM -
      Works like a charm but im lost when trying to find a good way to tag the music, aside from doing it myself.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      So far it's a DIY experience :-(
    1. BTandKM's Avatar
      BTandKM -
      http://cgi.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/clt.pl?dgtlconv&1219023333<br />
      <br />
      NIB and shipped CONUS for 875 and all from an authorized Stello dealer!<br />
      <br />
      Mike Powell was great to deal with and I am loving my new Stello!
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Very nice! Thanks for the link.
    1. iansen's Avatar
      iansen -
      Hi Chris,<br />
      I agree with you that it's all about synergy and what sounds right in one's particular system.<br />
      <br />
      However, you have all three DACs - the Stello, the DAC1 and the PSWhest - and you have said they all sound different. I am not asking you to rank them: but could you give a brief description of these differences in sound?<br />
      <br />
      (apologies in advance if you have already elaborated on these differences in another section of your site...)
    1. One and a half's Avatar
      One and a half -
      I couldn't spend too much on a DAC, so the Stello fitted the bill quite nicely. Previously I used Sony STR-DA5400ES DAC inbuilt to the receiver from the notebook via optical cable. The longest optical I could find was a Monster THX since my PC is about 4m cabling distance away from the amp. The PC setup was XP SP3. I thought the system would be better off with an external DAC, so after reading the review on the Stello here I bought one.<br />
      <br />
      System<br />
      Asus notebook -> Stello DAC (USB/optical) -> Analog to Sony -> Sony Analog out LFE output to Subwoofer<br />
      -> Sony Analog out Front -> Accuphase Amp<br />
      <br />
      Players : iTunes 8.1.1.10, Foobar 0964 Direct to WASAPI, files are 24/96 ALAC & heaps of 44.1 ALAC. For the tests I used Foobar.<br />
      <br />
      During this time, I upgraded my notebook to Vista on a new hard drive and started experimenting with settings especially on USB. I was rather disappointed in that the maximum setting I could set in Vista was 44.1 48kHz for the USB part of the Stello input. In iTunes I could set all I liked, but reading the dcs report, you had to match settings of the equipment as seen by the OS to ensure distortion was kept to a minimum.<br />
      <br />
      I changed the Stello USB input to optical so I used the notebook's Realtek card again to achieve a higher bit rate. This I could set for 24bit 96kHz, as expected for the Stello in the sound Control panel in Vista, so I could properly playback 24/96 files. For fun, I changed the optical cable back to the Sony primarily to check that the playback settings were correct in the PC, since the Sony can display the sampling frequency.<br />
      <br />
      To my surprise, I liked the sound coming from the Sony rather than the Stello. Bass is tighter, the decay on cymbals like it should be, it was quite an eye opener. Imaging was much the same between the Sony and the Stello, pinpoint accuracy air and all that. I can now see Chris's description of blunt and forward being applied to the Stello. <br />
      <br />
      The issue here is that the analog input on the Sony may not quite the full bottle, adding to distortion, and my guess is, this is where the problem lies. So I connected the Stello's analog out to the Accuphase line in directly and the sound is *still* better from the Sony rather than the Stello. This is using the optical output from the Notebook with no up sampling from the Stello using Foobar. <br />
      <br />
      So the DACs in HT theatre setups may need a closer look. The specs on the Sony 5400 are that it can decode all the latest Blu-Ray codecs for audio (DTS master, Dolby True) so my guess is it's the same DAC responsible to decode audio data as well.<br />
      <br />