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Thread: DAC Shootout
08-22-2011, 06:27 AM #1
- Join Date
- Sep 2010
The following is the result of a DAC shootout held over two days - Saturday August 20 and Sunday 21st - at my place. Saturday was with two other guys and Sunday was me with another guy. The DAC's were WFS DAC2, Burson HD-160, Tranquility, Tranquility SE, and a Level 2 PDX. The Burson and WFS were tried both with its USB input and via a Off-Ramp 4 with Turboclocks using a SPDIF cable.
Source 2010 4gb Mac Mini with software optimizations such as shutting down spotlight. Pure music was used as the player. Music stored on Oyen Digital Drive connected by firewire. Essential Signature USB cable, Lenehan Dtek SPDIF cable, Lenehan Ribbontek interconnects, Patek amp, Lenehan Ribbontek speaker cable, Lenehan ML3 Reference Speakers with Duelund VSF Copper capacitors throughout. Where possible DAC's were directly connected to the Patek and the dithered volume contol in Pure Music was used - but for the Tranquility DAC's the Truth pre amp was used.
First one thing that needs to be got out of the way is none of these DAC's is really up to the standard of the PDX. It was a lopsided shootout - every single person preferred the PDX. I want to do it again with some DAC's that will be tougher competition. I am thinking of a four way shootout between the PDX, Steve Nugent Overdrive, and Killer DAC plus a new DAC I heard Clay the designer of the PDX is working on. That new DAC is still in the planning stage but Clay mentioned it may be battery powered with some sort of solid state output stage and will likely be a lot cheaper than the PDX. Everyone felt a DAC that could get close to the sort of performance the PDX had but at a cheaper price would better suit those on a more limited budget. It won't happen for a while though because I will need to sell some of my DAC's to finance getting the Killer and Overdrive.
I will give my impressions of the DAC's and what I recall others saying in the order of how I thought they ranked.
WFS DAC 2
Via its USB it had a cold top end, a bit glarey, a bit thin and maybe some sibilance issues. I actually don't like it much and quite a few of the people I demoed it to felt the same way. But at least one person didn't mind it. However when fed with the Off-Ramp it was an entirely different beast and I, and everyone who heard it, liked it a lot - with one caveat as mentioned later - its detail could be overpowering. Gone was the glare etc and detail was even better. On a Sam Cook Live at the Copa recording the audience noise, clapping etc was very prominent to the point it distracted from the performance. Other DAC's did not do this and it really was an eye opener hearing such a difference. Most of the time it was not this great but you could hear characteristics in voices etc other DAC's did not reveal as clearly. When listening to the PDX you could actually hear more detail but you had to think about it. The detail however of the WFS was more defined than any other DAC - the way I express it is the WFS is in your face - a real excitement machine - when fed with the Off-Ramp.
Through its internal USB it sounded quite warm - not as warm as I recall the 160D having and it seemed to have greater detail. I preferred the WFS to the 160D but this DAC I thought was better. It also allowed direct connection to amps and is the way I used it. The person that came over Sunday liked it so much he left with it to try in his system. He really liked the vocals even more than the Tranquility DAC's which is its strength. Detail retrieval was also good but a slurriness was mentioned by some - I thought so as well. Personally though I preferred the Tranquility's and most people I have demonstrated it to did as well. Via the Off-Ramp it experienced an appreciable lift - not as much as the WFS - but still very noticeable. The warmth was gone, it was bit brighter, detail increased, the slurriness disappeared and it flowed very well. But I thought it sounded exactly what it was - a solid state output stage - although one person thought it was tight. It only had a few hours on it and may improve with burn in.
This is a 16 bit NOS DAC so did not really allow direct connection to amps. I tried it and did not like it that way but that may have been due to its output capacitor not being suited to the input impedance of my amp rather than bit dropping issues - it certainly was a bit more detailed but the bass was lacking. Because of that I used my Truth per-amp. The first thing you notice is the excellent midrange and fairly good detail for a nos DAC. Bass is a bit lacking. Vocals really shine through this DAC. However it did have a bit of hardness that may not appeal although I didn't mind it too much. It had only a few hours on it and that hardness will likely go with time. I had a Tranquility in my system for quite a while and recall it was more liquid and fluid. No glare and sibilance issues but due to that slight hardness sounded a touch bland - again I suspect that will go with break-in - it sounded anything but that from recollection. Just about everyone who heard it liked it - the guy who took away the Burson was an exception. The real problem with this DAC is the Tranquility SE is a lot better and once you hear it it's the one you want.
John Kenny Saber DAC
This DAC definitely sounded better direct connected to amps. However it tended to polarize somewhat - some did not like it (the guy that came over didn't) while others found it a bit ho hum. However some others seem to go ga ga over it. It is also somewhat system dependent - not sounding good at all in a dry bright system. In my system a person preferred it to the Tranquility SE but did say he had a dry sounding system which made it sound more like he was used to. But when put in his system the dryness added up and it was not good at all. I personally preferred the Tranquility DAC's but that's because I listen to predominantly vocalists that really shine through those DAC's. However I tried to put that aside and judge it in a Hi Fi sense and on that basis thought it was a bit better than the Tranquility, but the Tranquility SE was a lot better. I have had some private emails about this DAC and one I thought nailed it exactly so will paraphrase what he said. It'd be a giant killer if not for a dry quality which seems quite noticeable in the upper mid-range. If that does not worry you it is a giant killer - especially for the price. It's clear, detailed, spacious, airy, delicate, ephemeral, and with a very impressive bass performance - but perhaps a smidgen loose compared to say the WFS which does not sound as extended but a bit more musical and tight. Except for the dryness it lacks saturation and weight - it sounds gentle and doesn't have the 'scale' of other DAC's. If you like it then at the price its a no brainer - but listening to it first is advised.
Tranquility SE DAC
Ok no use hiding it - this is one of my favorite DAC's. It is a 16 bit DAC and everything mentioned about the Tranquility applies to this as well. Everyone picked it as being immediately and significantly better than the Tranquility. Better bass, treble a lot sweeter with no trace of hardness. Excellent detail for a nos DAC. It makes vocals sound amazing - a euphonic delight. Very liquid and fluid that is often described as like mercury. It makes Dianna Krall etc sound simply lovely. At the last Rocky Mountain Audio Fest along with Steve Nugents Overdrive it was voted as the best DAC of the show even against some much more expensive competition. However I will not let my enthusiasm blind me to the fact even on material that really made the DAC shine such as Dianna Krall the PDX was preferred by everyone. That said the usual reaction after hearing the PDX is I could still live with it.
Level 2 PDX
Really it was unfair having this in the shoot-out since it is over twice the price of the next most expensive DAC the Tranquility SE. Yes it was the preferred DAC by everyone - sounding more realistic and natural. It was fuller sounding than any other DAC's. It did not have detail as well defined as the Off-Ramp enabled WFS but it when you listened a bit more carefully you realized there was more detail present. For example listening to the first track of Tom Jones Praise and Blame - What Good Am I - through the WFS you can clearly hear all the intonations in Tom Jones deep and mature voice - it sounded very - WOW. Not clinical etc but definitely impressive in a Hi Fi sense although perhaps not emotionally the last word. However when you hear it via the PDX it is more enticing, sounding more natural and realistic and inviting you to delve into appreciating the performance rather than be wowed by its Hi Fi prowess. The interesting thing is once you start to actually appreciate the performance you begin to notice there is more detail present - its not as obvious - but it is there. When I demoed the Off-Ramp infused WFS to the maker of the PDX he was impressed - very impressed. But he immediately got up and put the PDX on and closed his eyes and said I can here more stuff. At the time I chalked it up to the PDX being his baby. But more careful listening, and hearing what others who heard it were saying, I now realize he was correct - but its not as obvious. This may have something to do with its valve output stage. This is not the euphonic valve sound of yore - dripping in honey and sluggish. No - this is very transparent - very realistic. I suspect the Duelund VSF capacitors on its output have something to do with it but I am not sure a Transistor output stage could sound this good. But my rational side tells me its really all in the implementation and I suspect a designer that knows what they are doing can produce equally impressive results with either.