• Weiss Engineering DAC202 Review

    Over the last couple years Iíve listened to people utter the phrase, ďIím waiting to see how it all shakes out." Without context itís entirely appropriate to assume we were discussing the global economic meltdown. However these conversations revolved around music servers, interfaces, and differing computer audio technologies. People were frequently delaying the purchase of a new DAC because of their uncertainty about the future of the marketplace. Specifically uncertainty about interfaces such as USB, FireWire, Ethernet, AES/EBU, and S/PDIF. These interface options have caused serious hesitation from the same people who eagerly accepted Compact Disc technology as if it offered perfect sound forever. Equally hesitant are audiophiles feeling a bit burned by SACD and DVD-Audio. Audiophiles shouldnít let the past halt their potential heightened enjoyment of this wonderful hobby. Thereís no format war going on. Many different interfaces and technologies will flourish in the years to come. Falling victim to analysis paralysis or suffering from alligator arms are two easily curable conditions. Ambivalent audiophiles, Itís time to fish or cut bait.



     
    Whatís The Hold Up?

    Thereís little doubt that computer based audio is the future of high end playback. In a nod to Rusty and Audrey Griswold, the only remaining question is ďAre we there yet?" The answer to that question is yes, as long as the right combination of software and hardware are selected. The perpetual naysayers who wonít be satisfied until a music server is easier to operate than a toaster should also look at a traditional dCS system with three or four separate boxes and say the spinning disk isnít there yet because they canít operate the dCS system with these ease of a cassette player. Iíve never heard anyone suggest the latter and I donít see why the argument should hold true when it comes to music servers. Music servers, like most technology, can be placed on a continuum from simple to complex. Logical factors in the ďAre we there yet" analysis should be related to sound quality, sample rate support, feature sets, interface design, and bit transparency.

    What does all this have to do with the Weiss Engineering DAC202? The DAC202 could easily be the component to knock audiophiles off the fence and on to the next phase of high end audio. The DAC202 may be the best antidote for the aforementioned audiophiles suffering from alligator arms and analysis paralysis. The sound quality, sample rate support, feature set, interface design, and bit transparency testing built into the DAC202 should satisfy audiophiles from the most jaded old schooler to the early adopters looking to replace an existing DAC.
     
    Weiss Engineering DC202 Evolution And Lineage

    Computer audiophiles whoíve been using music servers for weeks, months, and years are likely familiar with the name Weiss Engineering and eponym Daniel Weiss. Professional engineers, even more familiar with Daniel Weiss, have used his components for decades. In fact a recent visit to Paul Stubblebine Mastering in San Francisco demonstrated Weiss Engineeringís penetration into the ďaudiophile" facilities where many of our favorite albums are mastered. Needless to say Daniel Weiss is one of the best engineers in the business at designing components that have made and played high quality music.
     

               

     

    In June 2008 I reviewed DAC202 predecessor the Minerva. It was a great component but at the time options for computer audiophiles were much more limited. The Minerva was a big fish swimming in a little pond. That certainly doesnít diminish the Minervaís performance but it places proper perspective on my assessment. In December of the same year I reviewed the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC and subsequently crowned it my favorite DAC. I placed the Alpha above the Minerva for a few reasons namely soundstage, volume control / preamp capability*, HDCD indicator**, and sample rate display.

    Nearly two years later Weiss Engineering has responded in true leapfrog fashion. The DAC202 was not built to equal the competition or as a minor tweak of the Minerva. The DAC202 was built to surpass the competition and previous Weiss DACs. After investing well over two hundred hours actively listening through the DAC202 in every sensible configuration I unequivocally state Weiss Engineering has handily surpassed the competition and all previous Weiss DACs in its class.

    * At the time of review the Minerva did not have volume control. Weiss Engineering did enable volume control in later releases of the Minerva, but the implementation was clearly an afterthought and awkward to use.
    ** The HDCD indicator on the Alpha DAC is a rudimentary indication of bit transparent audio reproduction. When playing an HDCD encoded file the indicator should illuminate. If the indicator remains dark this signifies playback is not bit transparent. However, there remains a slim chance that the indicator will illuminate without bit transparent playback. In other words, if the indicator is off and it should be on something is wrong. If the indicator is on there is a good chance playback is bit transparent, but bit transparency is not guaranteed. I have successfully played an HDCD encoded file that produced major distortion and short drop-outs yet consistently illuminated the HDCD indicator. Thus the rudimentary categorization of the HDCD indicator.
     
    Weiss Engineering DAC202 In Detail

    At $6,670 USD the Weiss DAC202 has increased in price as much as performance over its predecessors. Iíll leave judgements of value up to individual readers as each of our monetary decisions involve vastly different variables. I will say a significant percentage of audiophiles have spent many times the amount of the DAC202 price premium on ďupgrades" with far less overall impact.

    The fit and finish of the DAC202 has been improved nicely over previous Weiss DACs. The new headphone socket, volume control, and LCD display elevate the look of this unit to the audiophile standard. The Minerva and to a much greater extent the DAC2 look very utilitarian even though their lackluster form doesn't enable enhanced function. The rear of the DAC202, although very compact, is laid out ergonomically. I had no problems during the review period inserting and removing all types of cables. The addition of a gold headphone socket to the DAC202 raises the versatility of the unit to another level. Most manufacturers donít offer a headphone output on products at this price point. Weiss Engineering has wisely considered the continually growing high quality headphone market with the inclusion of a standard quarter-inch (Tip, Ring, and Sleeve connector) headphone output. The addition of a rotary encoder knob, referred to here as a volume control, was a must not only to improve upon previous designs but to enable menu navigation with ease. The knob itself is of high quality and spins in the overly obvious clockwise and counter-clockwise directions using detents for every half or full db adjustment. These detents, unlike the new Antelope Zodiac DAC controls, enable the listener to recall an exact volume level when desired. In addition the volume control is used to select menu items by pushing the knob inward. The DAC202ís three inch LCD display (measured diagonally) is somewhat easy to see from a nine to twelve foot listening position and a appropriately understated when when automatically dimmed. Significant information such as volume level, phase, and filter are easily visible while the active interface and sample rate may be more difficult for some listeners to read at a distance. The display is nicely recessed into the solid aluminium faceplate. This faceplate that will also be available in black once the second production run is underway. The DAC202 ships with a nicely built substantial but not over engineered remote control. After a few hours of use the important buttons such as volume and power can be memorized as they are not lost in a sea of useless buttons. The DAC202 remote offer ten buttons, all of them either discreet or toggle selectors with the exception of volume up and down. Itís very nice to select a specific interface instead of scrolling through the list of available interfaces.
     

     


     

    The feature set and technical capabilities of the Weiss DAC202 are extremely good. Directly addressing three of the four reasons I previously selected the Alpha over the Minerva are the new volume control, bit transparency check, and seemingly mundane sample rate display. In addition to these three features and capabilities the Weiss DAC202 offers a critically and consumer acclaimed asynchronous FireWire interface. The DAC is also capable of sending word clock out to an audio card in an asynchronous-like fashion. Either way the Weiss DAC202 retains the critical role of master clock.

    More and more audio systems consist of digital only sources and are less dependant on a traditional preamplifier. Digital to Analog converters with volume control have thus become increasingly popular. In 90% of audio systems this popularity (bypassing an analog preamp) serves the system well. Itís a rare occasion when inserting a preamp improves sound quality but it does happen. The volume control implemented in the Weiss DAC202 may increase that percentage to 99% because of its flexibility and superior design. The DAC202 features a coarse analog / fine digital volume control on both the main and headphone outputs. The DAC is capable of four selectable coarse settings via relay in the analog domain and fine level adjustments in the digital domain. Listeners who insist on using a preamp can defeat this level control on the main output only. One of the beauties of coarse analog level control is the capability to closely match the input sensitivity of an amplifier. My McIntosh MC275 has a sensitivity of 1.2 volts via unbalanced RCA inputs and 2.5 volts via balanced XLR inputs. Using the balanced XLR outputs of the DAC202 I set the coarse analog level to 2.12v With a closely matched voltage setting the digital volume attenuation does not have degrade the sound quality like it can with an unmatched pair of components. This matching allows use of the digital volume control over its entire range. The maximum bearable listening volume is reached at 0 db, not a level near -12 db of attenuation. For example a DAC with fixed output voltage of 6v feeding 2.5v MC275 power amplifiers will require either a preamp or major volume attenuation at the DAC to achieve proper listening levels. DACs with well implemented 32 bit or 24 bit digital only volume controls and proper dithering techniques can handle quite a bit of attenuation without deleterious effects to the sound quality [Digital Level Control PDF]. However a coarse analog / fine digital volume control allows the ideal balance of analog voltage matching with limited or no digital attenuation or sonic degradation. The 7.6 db difference between 6v and 2.5v may seem minimal at first blush, but consider the difference just 1 db can make during listening evaluations. The DAC202ís four selectable coarse analog settings are 1.06, 2.12, 4.15, and 8.15v. The fine digital level adjustments are full db steps from -60 db through -20 db and half db steps for levels between - 20 db and 0 db of attenuation. The coarse analog / fine digital volume control is by far my favorite feature of the Weiss DAC202.

    A very popular question on the Computer Audiophile forum is, ďHow do I check for bit transparent output?" Until recently a true test of bit transparency required very expensive and sophisticated engineering test equipment. Now this test can be accomplished with a couple mouse clicks and absolutely no engineering knowledge. The Weiss DAC202 features a built-in bit transparency check that works in conjunction with Weiss Engineering supplied test WAV files. This feature is easily the most underrated and most needed feature in all of computer based high end audio. If the source signal is not perfect thereís no way to make it perfect down the line. Sound quality can only get worse when starting with a sample rate converted or reduced bit depth digital signal. Bit transparency is akin to playing lossless files. Most people easily realize the sonic consequences of ripping, storing, and playing lossy MP3 files. But, many people donít realize when their bits are butchered because theyíve never heard their system produce bit transparent audio. Depending on the level of processing done to the digital signal by the computer operating system or playback application there may be no difference between the sound quality of a lossy MP3 and heavily processed non-transparent digital signal [bit opaque :~)] . Perhaps injured equally by the lack of bit transparency in userís systems are the DAC manufacturers. Countless times Iíve talked to people whoíve completely written off great sounding DACs because of perceived poor sound quality. Yet these same users had no way of knowing if playback was bit transparent. Judging the quality of a component further down the chain with irreversibly broken, terribly processed music is a disservice to the listener, the manufacture, and anyone who comes in contact with the userís opinion whether verbal or written online. The Alpha DAC has its HDCD indicator and as Iíve already mentioned itís far from infallible. The Weiss DAC202ís built-in bit transparency check works because Weiss Engineering supplies audiophiles with the test audio files. The DAC202 is programmed to look for the exact bit pattern delivered in these files only when playback is bit transparent. Running the bit transparency check is quite simple. All thatís required is setting the DAC to a specific sample rate, selecting Run from the Transparency Menu on the LCD, and playing one of the test files from a computer. When playback is bit transparent the DAC202 indicates the bit depth of the given test file either 16 or 24 bits. If something on the computer isnít configured correctly the DAC202 simply displays the word Fail. I tried to trick the DAC202 into displaying the bit transparent indicator, but I was unsuccessful after many attempts. Weiss Engineering supplies test files in both 16 and 24 bit word lengths at 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kHz sample rates.

    The third feature that formerly put the Alpha DAC over the top is a simple sample rate display. This seemingly mundane feature can actually help indicate software configuration problems on the fly. Displaying the sample rate of the current track is far from a perfect way to indicate bit transparency, but itís a step in the belt and suspenders direction. This feature is mainly helpful when an audio output device such as the DAC202 is not configured for Exclusive Output Mode in Windows Vista or 7. As I recommended in my Windows 7 / J River Media Center article, itís wise to set the default Windows sample rate to something like 24 bit, 48000 Hz (Studio Quality). This default format is only used in Shared Output Mode as opposed to Exclusive Output Mode. Shared Output Mode equals compromised sound quality for audiophiles. Thus, when there is an output mode software misconfiguration the Weiss DAC202 clearly indicates 48kHz on the front LCD display no matter what sample rate is actually being played. Since there is virtually no content available at 24/48kHz this is a nice indication that something is wrong.

    In high end audio master clocking has traditionally been reserved for the extremely exclusive components from companies like dCS and Esoteric. Now that computer based audio continues to gain in popularity more audiophiles are able to experience and afford a properly master clocked system via asynchronous interfaces on D to A converters. The Weiss DAC202 FireWire interface, when used in conjunction with the internal DAC202 word clock, operates asynchronously. This means the DAC202 is the master clock when playing files from a computer. Currently asynchronous interfaces are all the rage and rightly so. Asynchronous transfer mode can reduce timing inaccuracies by a factor of 100 in well designed DACs. The sonic benefits of certain asynchronous interfaces are well documented by listeners the world over. These positive listening experiences are also backed by solid engineering principals. In the simplest terms timing is critical to the reproduction of recorded sound involving digital to analog conversion. More accurate timing can produce more accurate sound. As of this writing all DACs using FireWire interfaces require third party software to function. The Weiss DAC202 uses a Dice FireWire chip from TC Electronic. Weiss Engineering supplies the Dice software on a CD with the DAC202 and offers the newest versions of the Dice software via its website (password required). Installation of this software is simple frequently requiring a couple clicks and a restart. This software is completely independent of all playback applications like iTunes and J River Media Center, and doesnít require user intervention after installation. Itís also very important to note that not all devices with FireWire interfaces operate asynchronously like the Weiss DAC202.

    In addition to using the DAC202 via asynchronous FireWire in master clock mode itís possible to use the DAC202 as the master clock with high quality audio cards such as the Lynx AES16, RME HDSPe AES, and Merging Mykerinos. Many engineers that Iíve talked to about word clocking suggest the master clock should remain as close to the DAC as possible. Yet others are adamant about externally clocking all digital devices with a separate word clock. The DAC202 can accommodate either configuration as it offers word clock input and output. When using the word clock output the DAC202 is the master clock and sends a word clock signal to the audio card. These ďslaved" audio cards are simply configured to acquire clocking information from an external source instead of using an internal clock. This method keeps the word clock as close to the DAC as possible in an asynchronous-like fashion. Listening through the Weiss DAC202 for hundreds of hours I determined this configuration sounded nearly as good as using the FireWire interface. More on that later. Like all good DAC designs the Weiss DAC202ís audio interfaces are all galvanically isolated. The BNC word clock input is not galvanically isolated.

    Two additional differences between the Minerva and the DAC202 are the newly designed analog output stages and newly designed D to A converter. Peaking inside the DAC202 one can see the nicely segregated main analog output stage. The DAC202 offers separate output stages for the main and headphone outputs. Weiss elected to use very good operational amplifiers (opamps) with a high slew rate, and a low impedance topology. According to Daniel this makes the DAC202 even more impervious to cabling and impedance mismatches between DAC and amplifier. The new redesigned D to A converter uses two converters per channel as well as separate converters for the main and headphone outputs.
     
    Using The Weiss Engineering DAC202

    There are a number of DAC202 options available via the front LCD display. The DAC202 User Manual is very thorough and offers a detailed technical description of each of the following options. Here is a list of the options in order and some of my notes that correspond to each option.

    Main Screen

    • Volume: -60 db to 0 db
      Full or half db steps depending on attenuation level. Matching my MC275 input voltage allowed me to listen at or near 0 db.

    • Input Source: FireWire, AES (XLR), SPDIF (RCA), SPDIF (TOS)
      Changing the digital source is easily accomplished via the discrete remote commands, and is available via the front panel. This is done right on the main screen without any menu navigation. Software switching of the input source is not available.

    • Sample Rate Indicator: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kHz
      The sample rate cannot be changed as this is simply an indicator of the current sample rate.

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      Options Menu
    • Abs. Phase: + or -

    • Upsample Filt.: A or B

    • Sync Source: XLR, RCA, Toslink, WC BNC, 1394 Bus, Internal
      When using the FireWire input I use the Internal word clock exclusively. The 1394 Bus option is only used when multiple DAC202s are connected to the same computer via FireWire. One DAC would be set to Internal and the other would be slaved by setting its sync source to 1394 Bus. Using Lynx AES16 and AES16e audio cards I used both the Internal and WC BNC sync sources. Using the Lynx to send clock to the DAC202 (WC BNC) is not recommended when other options are available. The reverse, sending clock to the Lynx from the DAC is very good sounding. I also set the sync source to XLR but the auto sample rate adjustments by the DAC202 necessitate a one to two second mute while the DAC changes rates. Missing the first couple second of a track can get annoying.
    • Sync Rate: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kHz
      This option switches the sample rate of the DAC. Manually navigating the menu is the slowest way to accomplish these changes when not running in an auto sample rate switching mode. The simplest method of changing the sample rate is via the Weiss software interface. Simply click the drop-down menu and select the desired rate. The software interface requires a FireWire connection operate although the FireWire interface doesnít have to be used for audio. During my listening sessions with the Lynx cards running into the DAC202 via AES I always used the Weiss software interface to change the sample rate. It really made no sense to have an XLR connection if a FireWire connection is already present, but this shows the ease of which the software interface works.

    • LCD Bright: 0-30 (15)
      I used the 15 setting as it was just bright enough to read in my rather dark listening room. This setting is only active while the LCD is in use for menu navigation or when a setting on the panel (Volume, Sample Rate) is changed. The LCD switches to the LCD Dim Level after around ten seconds.

    • LCD Dim Lev.: 0-15 (0)
      I used this setting at 0 as I had no need to continually read the display. During settings changes the LCD illuminates so there is no need, other than aesthetic, to keep the Dim Level above 0.

    • Dual WIre: Enabled or Disabled
      Not used for this review. The DAC202 handles all sample rates via single wire.

    • DW WCLK: Halfrate or Audiorate
      Set to Audiorate during this review.

    • Insert Mode: Disabled, ret. XLR, ret. RCA, ret. TOS
      This is a anti-audiophile option more likely to be used by professionals. It enabled the insertion of external devices like equalizers between the source and the DAC.

    • Main Out Att.: Engaged or Bypassed
      I used the Engaged setting exclusively as I had no need to use a preamp between the DAC202 and amp. When set to bypassed the main volume attenuation does not work.

    • XLR Out Lev.: 1.06, 2.12, 4.15, 8.15
      This is the very nice coarse analog setting for the main output. As I stated earlier the MC275 sensitivity is 2.5v so I set this level to 2.12.

    • Phones Lev.: 0.2, 0.9, 5.2
      This is the coarse analog setting for the headphone output. The default is 0.2v. I used Sennheiser HD600 headphones during the review. these headphones required the 2.7v setting for comfortable listening levels while keeping full use of the fine digital volume control.

    • Transparency: Run or Stop
      This is where the built-in transparency check is run. Selecting the Run setting and playing a Weiss supplied file is all thatís required. Itís very easy to use, but was not extremely intuitive. I did have to read the manual.

    •  
      System Info
    • Firmware ver: 1.0.0.3

    • SDK Version: 3.5.3.8786

    • Model DAC_202 (0x7)

    • Weiss OUID: 23


     
    Music Servers, Storage, And Source Material

    During the review period I used three main music servers and three types of storage. Two Windows 7 machines, one Mac OS X computer, a NAS drive, external bus powered drive, and internal SSD.

    1. The Computer Audiophile Pocket Server (C.A.P.S.) [Details] Since the C.A.P.S. machine does not have a FireWire port I purchased an internal PCI FireWire card to connect to the DAC202. Some CA readers have reported issues using certain FireWire chipsets. The card I purchased uses the VIA 6307 PCI to FireWire IEEE1394a controller chip and worked flawless. There was no software installation required under Windows 7. The card is manufactured by SYBA, model number SD-VIA-FW1E1H. The best part about this card is the $7.99 price from NewEgg [Link]. This card offers a single external FireWire 400 port and a single internal FireWire 400 header to connect a FireWire port to the computer case if necessary.
    2. MacBook Pro 13" [Model Identifier: MacBookPro5,5] running Mac OS X 10.6.3 and 10.6.4 Snow Leopard. An Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 2.26 GHz and 4 GB of RAM. The internal Solid State Drive (SSD) is a 120 GB OCZ Vertex Turbo (MLC). Amarra version 2.0, iTunes 9.2 (61), and Songbird 1.7.3 Build 1700. To connect the DAC202 I started by using a noname FireWire 800 to 400 converter and a Monster Cable FireWire 400 to 400 (6 pin to 6 pin) cable. Most of my listening through this MacBook was done on battery power only and wired Ethernet or no network connection at all.

    3. MacBook Pro 13" [Model Identifier: MacBookPro5,5] running Windows 7 Ultimate 32 Bit. An Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 2.26 GHz and 4 GB of RAM. The internal Solid State Drive (SSD) is a 120 GB OCZ Vertex Turbo (MLC). J River Media Center v14 and v15. Started using a noname FireWire 800 to 400 converter. After a few issues where the DAC202 disappeared from the computer I switched to a single FireWire 800 to 400 cable. This did not resolve the issue 100% but I am currently unable to reproduce the issue at the time of this writing. The issue was only present under Windows 7. According the Weiss FireWire software the following informatioin is available about the drivers and FireWire chipset in my MacBook Pro. Drivers - Microsoft 1394ohci.sys [6.1.7600.16385], Microsoft ohci1394.sys [6.1.7600.16385] (legacy), Microsoft 1394bus.sys [6.1.7600.16385] (legacy). I tried all three even though they look awfully similar. OHCI 1394 Host Controller - Vendor : (11C1) LSI (Agere, Lucent), Chipset: (5901) FW643, Revision: 07, Status : Active, Details: Subsysten VendorId: 11c1, Subsystem DeviceId: 5900, Max # isoch Rx contexts: 8, Max # isoch Tx contexts: 8, Max 1394 Speed Capability: S800, Support: Compatible, no known issues. Most of my listening through this MacBook was done on battery power only and wired Ethernet or no network connection at all.

    4. I used three different NAS drives during this review. A. Thecus N5200B Pro, B. QNAP TS-559 Turbo NAS Pro, and C. Synology DS710+.

    5. The external drive used was an Oyen Digital MiniPro 750GB 5400RPM External 2.5-in FireWire 800/400, USB Portable Hard Drive [Link]. This drive is powered from the USB or FireWire bus and uses the Oxford 934 chipset (OXUF934SSA). A switching power supply is available but not recommended for high end audio applications. I had success using the daisy chain capability of FireWire when connecting this FireWire 800 drive directly to the MacBook Pro and connecting the DAC202 via FireWire 400 to 800 cable to the drive. Note the faster FireWire devices should be connected closer to the computer when daisy chaining with devices of differing speeds.



    Much of the source material used during this review was either 16/44.1 kHz or 24/96 kHz, with a small dusting of 24/176.4 kHz HRx material. 90% of the files were encoded in FLAC and copied to memory before playback in J River Media Center. The main Windows audio output method used was WASAPI. ASIO and Kernel Streaming both worked just as good as WASAPI through JRMC v15. I was unable to discern a sonic difference during the review period between either of the three output methods.

    During the course of the review I up the firmware and Weiss software once. The process was simple. A rare software bug that only manifest itself under a twisted concoction of configuration changes was fixed and there was no change in sound quality.
     

                 

     

    Weiss DAC202 Sound Quality

    During the several weeks I spent listening to the DAC202 there was nothing more I wanted to talk about then its sound quality. I enjoyed being contacted by Weiss dealers, who had yet to receive their DAC202s, to discuss how good this DAC sounds. The DAC202 actually takes the cake for the component Iíve spent the most time listening through. Even after removing my reviewerís hat for the evening I often felt compelled to listen to more music. Iíve had other components in here that enabled me to listen to a lot of music, but nothing like the DAC202 that compelled me to listen. Listening critically to more music that sounds fabulous elevates the whole experience to another level. It seems like every time I listened it was critical and in a good way. I was sucked into the music, yet I could explain the detail that I was hearing in every instrument. At no time did I listen to the DAC202 and get sidetracked by lifeís daily distractions. After listening to several other components over the years I clearly remember not being able to answer sound quality questions until I sat down with a notebook and scratched a few words on paper. The music definitely leaves an imprint on oneís mind when listening through the DAC202.

    The two sonic characteristics that wonít leave my mind for a long time are full, vibrant, and cohesive soundstage, and fabulous, full, nonbloated, midrange thatís to die for. The aforementioned adjectives are what the music sounds through the DAC202, not what the DAC202 sounds like. It just doesnít seem right to discuss the sound of a component when the music is all I could thinnk about. I wonít even suggest the DAC202 is without a sonic signature. In fact all of this describes its sonic signature. Itís just that the music is what sticks in my head. The DAC202 has a way of presenting the music instead of presenting itself. Listening to the 24/96 download of Ella and Louis over and over again caused me to chuckle a bit in my listening chair. When something sounds good itís hard not to get giddy. The coherency and illusionary image presented when listening to this album was astounding. Shelby Lynneís new album Tears, Lies, and Alibis, mixed by Al Schmitt at Capitol Studios in Hollywood and mastered by Doug Sax & Sonny Nam at the Mastering Lab in Ojai, California, sounded superb through the DAC202. I felt as though I could hear everything. Like nothing was really between me and the music. The midrange detail that came through reminded me of the Shelby Lynne concert I attended May 2nd, 2010 at the small Dakota Bar and Grill in Minneapolis. In no way was my system producing sound as real as the concert, but the thought to compare live v. recorded Shelby Lynne entered my mind several times.

    Since the DAC202 supports all reasonable sample rates including 176.4 and 192 I could listen to my Reference Recordings HRx material in its native resolution. My go-to album Crown Imperial by the Dallas Wind Symphony (HR-112) revealed a bit more about the Weiss DAC202. The higher frequencies are smooth yet accurate as far as I can tell. This smoothness is possibly rounding the leading edge of transients. I say possibly because my McIntosh MC275 tube amplifier isnít known for tack sharp transients and ear piercing pings. The bottom and mid to lower frequencies appeared to be right-on. I didnít notice any annoying bass exaggeration or emphasis. Iím guessing the low jitter FireWire interface has a lot to do with this low end clarity and appropriate punch. Listening to Marcus Millerís Silver Rain album, specifically track one, through the Weiss DAC202 is enough to solidify anyoneís opinion that this DAC has great control in the bottom end.

    The best sounding interface to listen through was FireWire. Using a Lynx AES16 card into the DAC202ís AES/EBU input and slaved to the DAC202ís word clock was a close second place. The externally clocked Lynx configuration just wasnít as cohesive as listening through the FireWire interface. The Lynx was a bit sloppy sounding. Plus, the FireWire interface is incredibly convenient compared to a Lynx card and only requires a computer with a FireWire port not a PCI slot.

    The fourth factor I considered back in December 2008 that sunk the Minerva in my mythical rankings was its soundstage. In the Alpha DAC review I said, ďIn my opinion the major sonic difference between the two [Alpha and Minerva] is soundstage...The Minerva has a much more focused soundstage that may be narrow to some listeners. On the other hand this focussed and tight soundstage is exactly what some listeners are seeking. In a way the Minerva is like plugging into the soundboard to make a live recording and the Alpha DAC is like placing microphones elsewhere in the venue. ď Comparing the soundstage of the Alpha to that of the DAC202 was almost painful for me. The Alpha has been my old faithful for a couple years. Itís always been an overachiever. After listening to the DAC202 for long enough it was time to face the music. The DAC202 has a much more cohesive soundstage than the Alpha and has lost any overly narrow characteristics present in the Minerva. Comparing recording after recording revealed the same results. The appropriately sized and high cohesivity of the DAC202ís soundstage and its superior imaging schooled the Alpha DAC.
     
    Are We There Yet?

    CASH-ListBack to the hovering question. Are we there yet? The combination of a good Windows 7 or Mac server and the Weiss Engineering DAC202 is enough to transport anyone into the world of high end computer audio. The DAC202ís support of all reasonable sample rates via a ubiquitous and low jitter asynchronous FireWire interface, impeccably implemented coarse analog / fine digital volume control, built-in transparency checking, sample rate display, and sound quality to plan this yearís bonus around make it the vehicle that gets anyone ďThere" and well beyond the capabilities of traditional transports. The DAC202 not only offers all the features required for the foreseeable future itís the sound quality valedictorian of its class and the latest entrant to the C.A.S.H. List. Now that weíve answered the ďare we there yet" question itís time to ask, What are you waiting for?



     





     


     





    Product Information

    • Price - $6,670

    • DAC202 Product Page - Link

    • DAC202 Product Brochure - Link

    • DAC202 Manual - Link


     

    Associated Equipment:

    Verity Audio Fidelio loudspeakers, McIntosh MC275 amplification, Richard Gray's Power Company High Tension Wires, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC, Wavelength Audio Proton, Ayre AX-7e Integrated Amp, C.A.P.S. server, Bel Canto USB Link, Halide Design Bridge, dCS Debussy DAC, dCS Puccini U-Clock, Kimber USB Cu, Kimber USB Ag, Benchmark DAC1 PRE, Kimber Select KS1011 Analog Cables, Kimber Select KS2020 Digital Cable, Kimber Monocle X Loudspeaker Cable, ASUS Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim, Apple iPad, Sonic Studio's Amarra, M2Tech hiFace, Weiss Engineering DAC202, Lynx Studio AES16 Digital I/O Card.

     

     

     

     
    Comments 598 Comments
    1. Nyal Mellor's Avatar
      Nyal Mellor -
      Nice review, well written, good job!<br />
      <br />
      A lot of your comparison with the Minerva/DAC2 is based on the earlier model without the added functionality of the new updates (i.e. digital volume control, the 4 way switch for setting ouput level on the back, the bit perfect test in the latest firmware update). Apart from the obvious remote control, what would you say the sound quality differences are between the two, given the 3k difference between the DAC2 and 202?
    1. Forehaven's Avatar
      Forehaven -
      Chris, will that firewire pci card work on my older pci G5? <br />
      <br />
      The Weiss DAC202 sounds like a wonderful piece. $8 for a high quality sound output vs. $700 for the Lynx AES card,( along with a Berkeley combo I was going for.) And the Weiss isn't that much more. (Got to hear the Berkeley dac about 2 wks ago and was much impressed, so to here this beats it, is well, almost unbelievable )<br />
      <br />
      But anyway, just curious about that card with a pci G5. <br />
      <br />
      Great review Chris too.
    1. Audio_ELF's Avatar
      Audio_ELF -
      Chris said... <em>"Comparing the soundstage of the Alpha to that of the DAC202 was almost painful for me. The Alpha has been my old faithful for a couple years. Itís always been an overachiever. After listening to the DAC202 for long enough it was time to face the music. The DAC202 has a much more cohesive soundstage than the Alpha and has lost any overly narrow characteristics present in the Minerva. Comparing recording after recording revealed the same results. The appropriately sized and high cohesivity of the DAC202ís soundstage and its superior imaging schooled the Alpha DAC."</em><br />
      <br />
      So has the DAC202 knocked the Alpha off it's spot as your "reference" DAC? How does it compare to the dCS stack you tested previously?<br />
      <br />
      Eloise
    1. peeradonn's Avatar
      peeradonn -
      Dear Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Great Review! thanks for your comment about the DAC202<br />
      <br />
      I got mine already and agreed to all of your comment.<br />
      <br />
      Cheers!<br />
      <br />
      Kim
    1. Tipper's Avatar
      Tipper -
      Interesting review and product.<br />
      Having the DAC report accurately the received bitrate and frequency is a great feature and something all high end DACs should be looking to have as a feature.<br />
      I see they're still offering that terrible RCA output connection option <br />
      Independent clock sync ability also seems a smart idea.<br />
      I was thinking about the price; way out of my league unfortunately but not unreasonably priced given, I assume, the headphone stage matches the overall performance. One could easily spend £3500 ($5250) on a top range CD player and a further £500 on a decent headphone amp.<br />
      I just wondered about being able to hear a 1db difference, especially in the 300Hz to 3Khz range (?)<br />
    1. matthias's Avatar
      matthias -
      Dear Chris,<br />
      <br />
      thank you for your great review.<br />
      <br />
      I would like to give some informations from Asia Weiss concerning firewire cables for the 202:<br />
      <br />
      http://www.asiaweiss.com/main/?p=1649<br />
      <br />
      Kind regards<br />
      <br />
      matthias
    1. FranklinLG's Avatar
      FranklinLG -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      I appreciate the insight you've provided, as your reviews frequently buck the stereotypical fluff and stuff in so many rags, I mean mags... <br />
      <br />
      And your input into the DAC202 certainly gives me pause about some upcoming purchases. But, candidly, I have to wonder if there is more shaking out to come. As it stands, the vast majority of music that might appeal to me is either (currently) only available via CD or vinyl. I can't help but to wonder how long before music mastered over the past 20 or so years to CD will get redone at higher sampling and bit rates. But until it does, then aren't we still limited to the inherent issues within the CD? Does the DAC202 really draw out that perceivable missing mid-range? Does it find the missing element to CD that was patently obvious to a vinyl lover? Does it eliminate or significantly reduce the compressed sound? These are, arguably, my biggest complaints about digital today. I'm longing for the fullness that comes with the introduction of vinyl and tubes. <br />
      <br />
      Having said that, I'm not unmindful of your comments about endless listening. I just wonder if at the end of the day this product is not ahead of its time. It's almost like buying a plasma tv back in 2002. Do you go for HD or ED. Since at the time HD was still up in the air, and there was not a lot of content, I chose ED, and saved a bunch of money. Good thing, too. 1080p wasn't even on the scene for another 3 years, or so. And blu-ray is only now finding its stride. I have since upgraded to a beautiful 1080p, and will similarly sit tight while 3d works its kinks out. The point being is that it still seems to me that we're all waiting for the source material to become more available. It is telling, though, that remasters of classics, like Analogue Productions' Nat King Cole series are being remastered by Steve Hoffman to vinyl and SACD. Again, time will tell, but I'd be curious if you feel that this product REALLY makes a difference for the 90%, or so, of us that have the vast majority of the digital music in either CD or ripped lossless CD form. Or are we a few years away.<br />
      <br />
      Jonathan<br />
      <br />
      PS This is NOT intended to take anything away from this DAC by Weiss. It sounds AMAZING. And at the end of the day, I may actually buy it. Or I may chose something that's a little lighter on the budget and wait for this field to settled down more. I would just welcome some input on whether we're going to be getting ahead of ourselves, like we might if we bought a hydrogen fueled car. Just my 2 cents!
    1. Kristian Hansen's Avatar
      Kristian Hansen -
      Jonathan i think you have a point there. My own thoughts about this subject is the same as your's. At this point i'm in the middle of testing Amarra and you don't get all the benifits of different high-end DAC's playing digital music with 44.1/16 material as if you play high-res files, now i am from Denmark and we don't have any access to high-res download in Europe legally!:-) <br />
      Because of that i will hold my horses regarding exspensive players.<br />
      I'm sure that we within some years will see more and more ways of playing hi-res files and hopefully more artist will go the same way..<br />
      <br />
      There is also some technical difs and hard work to go complete digital<br />
      but that's the way being pioneers.<br />
      <br />
      NB: Thanks to Chris for a always deep and investigated review<br />
      <br />
      Kristian from<br />
      Copenhagen/DK<br />
    1. FranklinLG's Avatar
      FranklinLG -
      Kristian,<br />
      <br />
      Exactly, and thanks for getting my point (and not flaming me here). I'm not trying to be heretical.<br />
      <br />
      But I do think all of us who have invested in music servers, initial equipment, and the like, are still on the frontier of this. Take, for example, those of us who have used Apple's Apple TV. With the new Mac Mini, that is now going to go by the wayside. And what of the transfer of music via HDMI cables? PS Audio uses a variant to separate the signal out in its newer products. I think it is called i2s2 or something like that. <br />
      <br />
      It's really freaky to me how similar this all seems to HD and HDTV. Most of us have our CD collections, just like many have their DVD collections. Now, nearly 10 years later, or so, manufacturers are looking at moving more and more material to Blu-ray. Old classics are getting restored into Blu-Ray, and there is so much more HD content everywhere you turn. Also, TV's are now HDMI standard, and HD is common place. Yet the codec for HDMI is still a mess. And then there is the introduction of 3D.<br />
      <br />
      Still, for me, that seems more settled. Yet in the music field, we're still dealing with 16 bit, 24 bit, and possibly 32 bit. Sampling rates run the gambit, too. Yet most of the content out there is 16 bit, 44.1. Hz. I can't help but to wonder when we will start to see releases by organizations like Mobile Fidelity (www.Mofi.com) releasing material in a higher bit-sampling rate or in digital file format with "ultra high resolution" that blows this all out of the water. Their vinyl is incredible, as are their CD and SACD's. <br />
      <br />
      So, as good as the Weiss DAC is, I have to ask, is it worth being out there on what I believe is still the frontier with this product, purchasing what might, arguably, be the current 720p of HD for audio? Clearly, it is vastly superior to 480p DVD, but there's room for improvement and the source material is still lacking. So I do wonder if the entry cost into this level may not yet justify the substantial cost differential in my book from products out there that are at a fraction of the cost. And by fraction, I mean the solid products in the $1-2K range.<br />
      <br />
      Then again, what do I know, I have Rega P9 turn table... And I think vinyl rocks. You know, FWIW, ask yourself this, why did Pearl Jam release their latest album on vinyl! Or why is Steve Hoffman remastering so much on vinyl (and yes I know, SACD, too). I'd submit that it's because digital is not quite there yet. But give it time!
    1. Lars's Avatar
      Lars -
      Thanks for a well written review Chris.
    1. 4est's Avatar
      4est -
      There truly is a big difference in redbook performance, but you cannot shine a turd. Redbook has lower resolution than vinyl, and will probably never be as good due to that. That doesn't mean that one shouldn't look to get the best of it. A lot of modern vinyl starts life digitally. One needs to discover for themselves whether higher res digital converted into vinyl and played back is better than a digital down conversion to redbook played on a state of the art DAC. My loose observations are to play it in the medium it was recorded in the first place. It gets fuzzy when one looks at remastered reissues.
    1. Purite Audio's Avatar
      Purite Audio -
      Lower resolution than redbook! How are you measuring that, dynamic range, distortion?<br />
      Keith.
    1. Matias's Avatar
      Matias -
      Great DAC. If it only costed 1/3 of what they charge...
    1. 4est's Avatar
      4est -
      ...and yet I stand by my opinion- and it is just that. Are you saying that you think/know that 16/44 has as much or more information in it than vinyl does in a groove? If I understand the math, at 14-15 k there are only three points to describe the wave form, the rest is shaped. Please educate me if I am wrong<br />
      <br />
      Is there not a push towards hi resolution digital? Why would that be if redbook sufficed? I am not attempting to put down digital, nor promote vinyl. Even the name "compact disc" speaks of compromise. Why is it then that the picture you associate with your account is that of a turntable and not a transport? MY Weiss DAC2 was a big step toward the organic-ness of vinyl and better at some things, but it cannot draw me into the music in the same manner as a good vinyl rig. Maybe his DAC202 does? <br />
      <br />
      Really that is the makings of another thread. The gist of my post was to not make digital analog or vice versa, but to use both when appropriate.<br />
      <br />
      My question to you Keith, is how does the DAC202 compare to MH LIO/ULN 8 (Sonic Studio 4) as a stand alone DAC? I value your opinion as you seem to be thoughtful and reasonable, but also realize that you have a business to run.
    1. Kristian Hansen's Avatar
      Kristian Hansen -
      And talking about vinyl, there is no doubt in my mind that vinyl is far beyond digital it dosen't work in 0 and 1's and has a greater bandwith so my way of getting Hi-res files in Denmark is to play my vinyls in to computer thru riaa with usb etc..<br />
      But as a hi-fi importer i am allways in the seek of new ways to do things better, that's why Computeraudiophile is a good place to hang around. And digital music as files on servers/mediaplayers and so on is the future no one uses CD's in 10-15 years or less, the thing has not evolved since birth in "82-83" still compressed and bad jitter, that what makes Hi-res audio interresting. <br />
      What we need is just a more user friendly/interactive way of getting our music into the system in those 192/64 and i don't think Steve Jobs is planing on that at the moment, they all thinking about new player gadget and gismos instead of making the music sound better...YEAH it's getting religious now, but my point is that we need to get more music available in Hi-res and for the industry it's all about money and copyright so it could be a long one..but of course i'll be ready.<br />
      Sorry for spelling mistakes i'm not a native:-)<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      Best regards<br />
      <br />
      Kristian<br />
      Copenhagen/DK
    1. rjplummer's Avatar
      rjplummer -
      In the past, you've defended the cost of audiophile equipment by computing the cost per year, saying that one can use great equipment for literally decades.<br />
      <br />
      I don't think that's true in this case. I think it will be fewer than five years before you'll be able to get dramatic improvements for less money. For instance, vinyl can still provide a better experience than 192/24. So it's reasonable to expect we'll increase sampling rate and depth over time.<br />
      <br />
      So this may be a great DAC, but it's only for those who don't mind spending a lot and replacing as frequently as they replace cars.<br />
      <br />
    1. Purite Audio's Avatar
      Purite Audio -
      4est Hi, I am not sure you can measure resolution, but CD has much greater dynamic range, better channel seperation less distortion, etc etc, anyhoo back to the thread,<br />
      VB Keith.
    1. 4est's Avatar
      4est -
      I agree with those assessments, but what about comparing MH/SS with the DAC202 as DACs? Contrary to what one might think from my last post, I LOVE my Weiss DAC2. It is the first digital that I really thought gave analog a run for its money. The MH 8s/SS 4 or the DAC202 appear to be the kingpins in computer audio, at least on the firewire front. One of which is likely to be my next digital purchase. You are one of the few, that I am aware of, that has both. Do tell!
    1. 4est's Avatar
      4est -
      Yours may not be a fair assessment. With all do respect, I have at least double into my vinyl rig vs digital if you tally the parts, including the phono section that you will not need with most top end DACs. Furthermore, the phono cartridge is expendable with a life of say 1000-2000 hrs. I'd have to think that in the aforementioned 5 year period you would use up at least one, if not two cartidges. Rhetorically, what are you using and what is it's value? Do you re tip, or replace etc...<br />
      <br />
      I will agree that digital is still evolving, whereas analog is pretty mature.
    1. efstro's Avatar
      efstro -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Nice detailed review as we expect.<br />
      <br />
      I have to say the value proposition of the Weiss DAC 202 is not complelling for me personally given the price and the industrial design relative to other alternatives for the discriminating audiophile.<br />
      <br />
      Let me be frank here; the Weiss DAC 202 is butt ugly (I say this in the most respectfully way possible) and looks like a recording engineer designed the outside as well as the insides. <br />
      <br />
      Given your review it appears that serious attention was paid to the technical details to leap-frog the Alpha DAC. However, No attention was paid to the industrial design. Given the $64XX price tag the value proposition has to be questioned on looks alone.<br />
      <br />
      As an aerospace engineer the technical aspects are complelling, but as an audiophile the looks and industrial design are a real turn-off. I would not consider putting this unit in my living room unless I could cover it up with a lot of lipstick. Lets face it audiophiles are picky, detail people (ok, anal is the other word).<br />
      <br />
      At $6400.00 for a DAC (volume control) only, I would strongly consider the Classe SSP-800 ( http://www.classeaudio.com/delta/detail-ssp-800.htm) which has a re-clocking DAC, pre / processor, ....etc as a better alternative and a nice living room worthy industrial design for $7K. <br />
      <br />
      If Weiss Engineering target customer is the audiophile (Anal and otherwise) they should consult a industrial designer for a visually and Aesthetically pleasing facelift. I would advise the following for starters:<br />
      <br />
      1. Make it audio component or rack size (Like the Alpha DAC, Perfect Wave DAC....Classe SSP-800....etc.)<br />
      2. Consider another color....like black or silver<br />
      3. Think living room component design. at $6k, I want something that I can be proud to look at and show off to friends and to help justify the price. For this price I expect the complete package...nothing missing.<br />
      <br />
      In my opinion it appears Weiss has provided a technically great design with a lack luster look. It's simply not enough to have the best technical design (for the moment). I would suggest that the value proposition and therefore sales would improve with a reconstructive make-over. <br />
      <br />
      <br />
      Ed