2012 Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide (Computer Audio)
Lavry Engineering sent me a LavryBlack DA11 years ago to demo, and I was so impressed I ended up buying it. When I finally tired of carrying it to my office and back, I picked up a second one.
Lavry gear is used in some of the most prestigious recording and mastering studios in the world, and using the DA11 reflects that, in terms of its no-frills aesthetics, utilitarian operation and, most importantly, in its transparency and sonic performance. The DA11 also has a very unique feature called PIC (Playback Image Control), which allows left-right manipulation of each stereo channel in the digital domain, with minimal to no effect on tonal balance. For headphone users, this means PIC can be used as digital crossfeed, and I use it frequently, especially when listening to stereo recordings with heavily exaggerated left-right panning.
The DA11's inputs include XLR, USB, RCA (coaxial) and optical (Toslink) digital inputs, and accepts input sample rates between 30kHz and 200kHz (though the USB input is limited to 96kHz). Analog output is fully balanced, but the DA11 comes with nice Neutrik adapters for those who need single-ended outputs. It also has a discrete headphone output, which is actually quite good.
My two Lavry DA11's--having served as my primary DACs for quite some time-- have finally taken back seats to the Fostex HP-A8C, Mytek Digital STEREO192-DSD, and Benchmark DAC2 HGC in my reference rigs. The Fostex, Mytek, and Benchmark are more future proof, all supporting up to 32-bit/192kHz via USB, and all also supporting DSD via USB (the Fostex's DSD-via-USB still only with beta firmware at the time of this writing).
Still, the DA11's PIC feature keeps the DA11 in the roster, though I do admit I'm hoping to see a DA11 successor from Lavry.
I've now had the Bifrost for a while, and am thrilled with its performance at the price.
I heard the Bifrost at the 2011 CanJam at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and was impressed enough to buy one. While it isn't as full-featured as the Lavry or Antelope DACs, the Bifrost has excellent resolution and performance, is American-made, and flaunts a chic, elegant chassis that looks like something Dieter Rams might have designed.
True to the Schiit Audio ethos, the Bifrost is a sonic contender well above its price."The Bifrost does a very good job of detail retrieval – better than I expected, in terms of what I have heard from other DACs in this price range."
-- Head-Fi member/reviewer Skylab
Antelope Audio is well-known in the pro audio world for its Isochrone 10M master clock, which has a Rubidium core--yes, it has a built-in atomic clock.
For Head-Fi'ers, Antelope's Zodiac DACs are getting a lot of attention. No, the Zodiacs don't have atomic clocks built in, but the Zodiacs do have oven-controlled clocks for thermal regulation and greater clock precision. The base Zodiac model has a 24/192 D/A converter, with USB support up to 96kHz. The Zodiac+ and Zodiac Gold models add a greater variety of inputs and outputs, with the Zodiac+ supporting USB up to 192kHz, and the Zodiac Gold supporting USB up to 384kHz. All three Zodiacs have dual headphone outputs on the front panel, and separate volume controls, one for the headphone outputs, and the other for the other analog outputs.
I used a relatively early prototype of the Zodiac+, and it was an impressive piece. I'll make sure to get some ear time with one of the production Zodiacs when I can.
If being able to play recordings up to 32-bit/384kHz interests you--but the $3995 Zodiac Gold is outside of your budget--then I know of no more economical way to do this than with the KingRex UD384 USB interface / USB DAC, priced at just $500. For 32/384 support at that price, the UD384 is (not surprisingly) a no-frills design, consisting of a very small, very simple (yet nicely finished) aluminum chassis, with no controls on it whatsoever--just three RCA jacks (one is an S/PDIF digital output, and the other two are the left and right analog outputs), a power supply input, and a USB input. That's all.
I currently do not have any 384kHz files, so I've so far only used the UD384 up to 24/192, and it has performed very impressively--sonically comparable, in my opinion, to any of the other DACs I've mentioned.
KingRex has made more of a name for itself in Asia so far, but, with a recent push to expand distribution, I expect they'll be making waves internationally soon-- especially with bargain-priced products like the UD384. (Moon Audio picked up U.S. distribution rights.)
When spinning CD's, it has increasingly been for the purpose of ripping them to my media drives. Still, though, my entire CD collection has yet to be ripped, so I'm still playing CD's on a regular basis. Few CD players have given me the pleasure of playing music that the Woo Audio WTP-1 (transport) / Woo Audio WDS-1 (DAC) combo provide. In some part, it's due to the kid in me who used to enjoy the very involved, very deliberate routines associated with spinning vinyl to hear his music--the WTP-1's CD swing-out CD cover arm and magnetic disc clamp hark back to the physical act of playing vinyl. Mostly, though, it's because this combo sounds wonderful.
Given my increasing transition to computer audio, though, it's the WDS-1 DAC that interests me the most in this combo (and the two can be purchased separately). With optical, coaxial, XLR, and USB digital inputs, the WDS-1 has me completely covered, as far as my digital input needs go--and it supports up to 24/192 from all of these inputs. The WDS-1 also has single-ended and balanced outputs, with digitally adjustable output level.
Both the WTP-1 and WDS-1 share the wonderful new layered-metal aesthetic established by the extreme flagship Woo Audio WA234 MONO dual-monoblock headphone amplifier. The WTP-1 and WDS-1 are priced at $1199 each; and if you do buy both, you'll need to spend another $25 for footstands and an umbilical cord that allow you to mate them properly.
ASUS is a well-recognized global brand, and manufacturer of computers of every type and form factor, graphic cards, sound cards, motherboards, networking hardware, mobile phones, Blu-ray players, and goodness knows what else. And here's what I love about ASUS: Huge though it is, it still has the capacity to think and move like a much smaller company--and it can still do niche stuff that no other company of its scale would consider.
Case in point is the ASUS Xonar Essence One DAC/headphone amp. Yes, it's a DAC/headphone amp, and we've obviously seen a bunch of those. But this one has features on it that make me wonder if ASUS has a team of Head-Fi'ers working in their product development team. The Xonar Essence One supports up to 24/192 from all of its inputs. As a nice touch for Head-Fi'ers, the Xonar Essence One has independent volume controls, one dedicated to its headphone output, and the other controls the RCA and XLR output levels. And check this out: It was deliberately designed to be user- customizable via opamp rolling. Yes, this multinational, globally recognized company actually designed an opamp-rollable DAC/amp, and even offers a separate user manual for it called the "Opamp Swap Guide"--can you believe it? It also has a lot of other nice features, and seems very well regarded in our community, and for good reason.
In the several months the Xonar Essence One's been here, it has proven itself a fantastic DAC/amp--so much so that I often have to walk across the hall to retrieve it from the Joe's office whenever I want to use it, as he's constantly poaching it. (Joe is one of Head-Fi's co-administrators, and the Xonar Essence One has become his preferred DAC/amp.)
ASUS also very recently announced a premium edition called the Xonar Essence One MUSES Edition. One minor difference between the MUSES Edition and the standard Xonar Essence One is the addition of a gain jumper to the MUSES Edition that allows gain to be lowered for use with sensitive in-ear monitors. The major difference between the two versions is the use of opamps in the MUSES Edition that I hadn't previously heard of called the MUSES01 (by New Japan Radio Company). In the MUSES Edition, six MUSES01 opamps replace the six stock NE5532 opamps found inside the standard Xonar Essence One. A search online for the MUSES01 opamp showed pricing of $50 each. Times six...there's your price difference.
Is the MUSES Edition worth it? We've only just upgraded the six opamps inside our Xonar Essence One to MUSES Edition specs, and an already awesome DAC/amp has improved, this MUSES Edition sounding more dynamic, more full-bodied. To my ears, the upgrade to the MUSES Edition puts the Xonar Essence One in league with the outstanding NuForce DAC-100, which I also enjoy for its touch of lushness and smoothness. So, on sonic merits alone, to my ears, it's worth it. In my opinion, though, at a 50% price premium over the standard Xonar Essence One, the MUSES Edition is a good value--just not as remarkable a value as the standard Xonar Essence One at only $599.
This year, NuForce released its DAC-100, and this one's a doozy for the price. As a DAC, it's equipped with four digital inputs, including two RCA, one optical, and USB (using asynchronous transfer), all inputs supporting up to 24/192 (including support for 88.2 and 176.4). (Illuminated indicators on the front panel indicate the current sample rate.)
Having mated it to several different amps (driving several different headphones), I've found the NuForce DAC-100, as a DAC, an extremely strong performer. I don't know if it's to do with the excessive attention given to minimizing jitter, their straight-wire-with- gain goal for the preamp output stage, or any number of other things NuForce considered in designing the DAC-100 (likely all of the above), but it is one of my favorites of all the sub-$1500 DACs I've had in my systems--on sound alone, perhaps my favorite. Compared to my long-time reference Lavry DA11, the DAC-100 sounds to me to be as detailed, as resolving, but with a touch more lushness, a little more air. And like the Lavry, the DAC-100 has adjustable output in very fine digitally-controlled steps (the DAC-100 uses a 32-bit digital volume control), which is tremendously helpful for me, with as many different amps as I use (and their many different gain settings).
For driving headphones directly, it's important to realize the DAC-100's rather specialist nature as a headphone amp, its single-ended Class A headphone output designed specifically to drive high-impedance headphones (the rated range being 120 to 600 ohms). If IEMs or other high-efficiency headphones are what you need to drive, and you're looking for an all-in-one, look elsewhere. For example, the Fostex TH-900 touches the DAC-100 headphone amp's noise floor.
As for my other reference full-size over-ears: Even though the HiFiMAN HE-6's impedance is only 50 ohms, its less sensitive nature avoids the amp's noise floor, and it's driven quite well by the DAC-100; the 50-ohm Audeze LCD-3 is also a good pairing. To my ears, though, the DAC-100 may be the best sounding DAC/amp I've used for driving the finicky Sennheiser HD 800, the fullness of the sound from that combo reminding me of the HD 800 driven by some good tube amp pairings I've heard it with. Given that the HD 800 is one of my favorite headphones, this is a big plus for me.
The DAC-100's performance as a DAC to pair with other headphone amps is enough for me to build one of my reference rigs around it. That it can also directly drive three of my four current reference full-size over-ear headphones as an all-in-one desktop setup is a very welcome bonus. The DAC-100 is a clear example of the higher end of NuForce, and I really dig it.
The DACport is an ultra-portable Class-A headphone amp and USB DAC, powered entirely by USB bus power. About the size of a partially smoked Double Toro cigar, the diminutive DACport yielded one of the lowest (if not the lowest) jitter measurement ever published in a Stereophile review (that I can recall anyway, and I've been reading Stereophile for a long time)--amazing. I've heard the DACport on many occasions, and it's fantastic, and is certainly unique in its form factor. And with the recently announced price drop to $299.95 (down from $399.95), my recommendation of the DACport only intensifies.
-- Head-Fi member/reviewer Larry Ganz (HeadphoneAddict)
Is it possible that something the size of a USB thumb drive can be mentioned in the company of the other DACs in this section? If it's the AudioQuest Dragonfly, then, yes, absolutely. That something so small checks off as many audiophile buzzwords as it does is pretty amazing. ESS Sabre DAC? Check. Supports up to 24/96? Check.
Asynchronous USB transfer? By Gordon Rankin, no less--so check. 64-step analog stepped volume control? Check. And it's quiet enough (in terms of noise floor) to drive most of my in-ear monitors silently, yet also has the oomph to drive many of my over- ears, too.
One thing that's not audiophile about the Dragonfly is its price. $249. This one's already shaken up the audiophile DAC scene since its release.
Of course, because it's so small, expect some limitations. The amp in it can't drive, say, a HiFiMAN HE-6 well. Its only input is USB. Its only output is via a mini jack (3.5mm). And though I think it keeps good company with the DACs in this section, it doesn't, to my ears, have the ultimate resolution that DACs like the DA11, HP-A8C, STEREO192-DSD or DAC-100 have.
One key thing to keep in mind is that the Dragonfly's form factor opens up use cases that no other DAC/amps do. For one, it's pocketable, so it's easy to take with you everywhere. Also, because it plugs right in like a USB thumb drive, no USB cable is needed to use it. It's USB bus-powered, so no power adapter is needed. Think of what this means when you're staring at that tiny tray table in coach class seating. It means you can use the Dragonfly even there. And I do.
-- Head-Fi member/reviewer Steve (Asr)
I'm a Mac user, I regularly buy high-res music tracks and albums (higher resolution than standard CD's 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution), and I have a few DACs capable of resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz, and one that goes to 32-bit/384kHz. I use iTunes. Some of the music I buy is in FLAC format. iTunes does not play FLAC natively, so I typically convert my FLAC files to AIFF format. Typically, to take full advantage of high-res music, I would have to go to Audio MIDI Setup in Mac OS to manually set the appropriate sample rate. Occasionally, I want a parametric equalizer to help custom-tailor my sound. In other words, I'm a perfect candidate for Sonic Studio's Amarra.
What does Amarra do? The most visible thing it does is automatically streams the playing track's native sample rate to your DAC. This prevents the necessity of having to do this manually in Audio MIDI Setup (which can be a pain by seriously disrupting the continuity of a music listening session). In short, Amarra assures bit-perfect streaming to your DAC.
When using Amarra, the audio actually goes through the Sonic Studio Engine, and, in my opinion (and the opinion of most I know who use it), it sounds better than Mac OS's native audio engine. You can easily switch between Amarra and iTunes at the press of a (virtual) button to hear the difference for yourself. A recent version (version 2.4.1) was a considerable refinement of past versions I've used, further improving resolution and imaging. It also eliminated the skipping issues I had with previous versions--it now feels like a polished product, not a beta. (As of this writing, Amarra was recently updated to version 2.4.3.)
Add to all of the above Amarra's outstanding Sonic Mastering EQ that I use to custom-tailor sound to my preferences, and it's no wonder why it has become an indispensable component of all of my Mac-based computer audio setups. So, my fellow high-res-music-buying high-res-DAC-owning Mac users, in my firm opinion, Amarra is an absolute must for us.
I won't debate the merits of DSD as a recording/playback format, and whether or not it's superior to PCM. I will say, beginning with SACD, I've been impressed with good DSD recordings, but assumed that I was done decoding DSD in my audio rigs the moment I shelved my SACD players and transitioned to computer audio.
Now, though, there are DACs that not only decode high-resolution PCM, but also Direct Stream Digital. I've been using three DSD-capable DACs, and downloading DSD recordings from places like Blue Coast Records and elsewhere. I've been having great fun hunting for--and most of all, being able to listen to--amazing DSD recordings through my computer rig.
I don't know what the future of DSD is, but I know I want the ability to play DSD in my systems. Not only do the following DAC/amps (below) all decode PCM up to 32- bit/192kHz, all decode DSD via USB (the Fostex with beta firmware)--and all have very good built-in headphone amp sections. For their wide format support, the following DAC/amps are about as future proof as you can reasonably hope for, for now.
Fostex took the high-end portable audio world by storm last year with their HP-P1 portable iDevice DAC/amp combo. Now they're coming after your home and office rigs, too, with a new high-end desktop DAC/amp combo called the Fostex HP-A8C. Whereas the HP-P1 sports a rather utilitarian appearance, Fostex--like they did with their new flagship TH-900 headphone--has gone for straight-up gorgeous aesthetics with the HP- A8C. This is their flagship audiophile component, and it looks the part. With its black front panel covered with glass, and its edge-trimmed buttons and knobs, the HP-A8C's look reminds me of a modernized take on the classic McIntosh Labs style.
The HP-A8C's digital inputs include USB, AES/EBU, coaxial, and optical (x2), as well as a set of analog (RCA) inputs. With its AKM AK4399 32-bit DAC chip, the HP-A8C can decode up to 32/192 from all inputs, and DSD via USB or an SD card (DSD via USB is currently only via beta firmware). There's also user-selectable 2X or 4X upsampling, and user-selectable sharp-roll-of or minimum-delay digital filter settings. The Fostex HP- A8C's analog output is single-ended only.
With its plethora of inputs, and its digital outputs, the HP-A8C can serve as a good control center in a system. As a system's main digital source component, the HP- A8C readily steps into the duty of a flexible high-end DAC, and is fantastic sounding in that role. The HP-A8C comes with a simple wireless remote control, which comes in handy for quickly accessing the HP-A8C's many options and features.
Of course, my main interest in the HP-A8C is as a DAC/amp--as both source and amp in a high-end headphone setup, and the Fostex is near perfect for this. The HP- A8C's built-in headphone amp is an all-discrete design, with 0.5dB-step adjustable gain to make it easy to pair the HP-A8C with headphones of just about any sensitivity. It's rated to drive headphone impedances ranging from 16 ohms to 600 ohms.
Versus the Benchmark DAC2 HGC, the Fostex HP-A8C sounds a bit smoother, with a bit more fullness in the bass and mids, and more airy imaging. I won't assert that the Fostex is more accurate than the DAC2 HGC, as "precise" is the first adjective that comes to my mind with the impressive new Benchmark; but, from the standpoint of general listening, the Fostex's touch more rhythm and air is more my speed.
In terms of their sound, to my ears, the Mytek and Fostex have more in common with each other than either of them do to the Benchmark. Both the Mytek and the Fostex have nice presence, and overall sound signatures that I'd call smoother than the Benchmark's. Again, for general listening, my tastes tend toward this. I also like how both the Fostex and Mytek allow me to separately control the levels of the rear output and the headphone output.
Simply put, the Fostex HP-A8C is designed to be as uncompromising and flexible as having two very full-featured separate components (DAC and headphone amp), but in one very reasonably sized, and thoroughly gorgeous, single chassis.
I am absolutely over the moon with this Fostex flagship DAC/amp. Yes, it drives most of the over-ear headphones I have here very nicely; but pairing with the Fostex TH900 is so good that the pair have been near constant companions. This Fostex flagship dyad may be the best sounding rig here at Head-Fi HQ--and there are a lot of rigs here.
My first experience with Mytek was at a Chesky recording session in New York, where I saw Mytek 8X192 ADDA's (among gobs of other racked gear) being used by the Chesky Records recording team. Later, when Mytek announced it was entering the home studio / audiophile market, they had my attention--hey, if Mytek's gear is good enough for the producers of some of the best sounding albums I've ever heard, I wanted to try Mytek for myself.
At CanJam @ RMAF, I met Michal Jurewicz, Mytek's founder and lead designer; and soon after that a Mytek STEREO192-DSD found its way into one of my reference systems at Head-Fi HQ. If you're a Head-Fi'er interested in DSD--not to mention PCM support up to 32/192--you should give this DAC a listen. It's a utilitarian beauty.
The STEREO192-DSD comes in three different versions, all priced the same ($1595), and all using a 32-bit Sabre chipset, using eight-mono to two-stereo configuration. One is a silver preamp version, one is a black preamp version with level meters on the front, and the third is a black mastering version that gives up the analog inputs (and preamp functionality) for SDIF DSD digital intputs. I opted for the black preamp version (the meters can be switched off, by the way, but I use them to confirm signal when I'm switching things around).
Inputs on the preamp version include Firewire 400/800, SPDIF, AES/EBU, Toslink, and async USB 2.0 (all of which support up to 192kHz). There's also a driverless USB 1.0 input that supports up to 96kHz. There's also wordclock BNC in/out. Analog outputs include both single-ended and balanced.
The Mytek offers analog or digital stepped volume control, with a bypass option. And, much to this Head-Fi'ers delight (and like the Fostex HP-A8C and ASUS Xonar Essence One), it also offers the ability to control the headphone output and rear output levels independently. There are options for remote control, and I chose to go with the Apple remote option.
The Mytek's headphone output is also very versatile, driving very nicely most of the headphones I'd consider plugging directly into it. The background noise level from its headphone output is even lower than the HP-A8C's (judged using some of my most sensitive in-ear monitors); and, like the Fostex, its fine volume control means perfect channel matching down to the quietest setting, and fine enough steps that I can always find a perfect volume setting, no matter my mood or preference.
I could go on and on about the options on the Mytek (which are as myriad as those on HP-A8C), but let's get to the sound, which is outstanding. Again, the Mytek has more in common with the Fostex HP-A8C, which I don't think too many would characterize as overly analytical. The Mytek images very well, but isn't quite as airy as the HP-A8C. It's not a warm DAC, per se, but it offers more warmth, more smoothness, than my Lavry DA11, or the Benchmark DAC2 HGC. At the same time, it's still a very detailed, very resolving DAC. As with the HP-A8C, this is more to my day-to-day listening preference.
The Mytek STEREO192-DSD will likely remain as one of my reference DACs for quite some time.
The brand new Benchmark DAC2 HGC only arrived a few days before the due date for me to submit its review, so my experience with it at the time of this writing has been very limited, so this is going to be brief. I'll try to include more information about it in a future guide update.
I've had a Benchmark DAC1 before (one of first-generation ones). I liked it. I certainly didn't love it. I felt it rather cold, sometimes harsh. I've got the Benchmark DAC1 PRE here now (which is a much more recent edition of the DAC1 than I had), and I feel it an improvement over the DAC1 one I had--while it's still more on the analytical side, to these ears, I haven't felt the inclination to call the DAC1 PRE harsh. I'm only bringing this up to erase any preconceived notions you may have if you similarly found the DAC1 not to your tastes.
The brand new DAC2 HGC sounds to these ears to be as darn near technically perfect as any DAC I've had in my systems, and it's so far been an absolute pleasure to listen to. It is so revealing of details that I sometimes feel distracted by it, and suspect it's something I should just get used to, and learn to appreciate. Is it analytical sounding? Well, yes, but not in the cold analytical sense. The DAC2 HGC is analytical, to my ears, only in the sense that I feel sometimes like information, details, nuances are being thrust at me more than I'm used to. What I'm hearing from the DAC2 HGC is very impressive, very attention-grabbing. I'm looking forward to spending more time with it, to further flesh out my feelings about it.
Using my most sensitive custom in-ears, I can also say that, in terms of background noise, it's one of the quietest headphone amps I have here (perhaps the quietest).
The DAC2 HGC has a nice feature set, including a digital volume control to control all digital inputs, and an analog volume control for the analog inputs. There are five total digital inputs (and its USB 2.0 input is async), two sets of analog inputs, three sets of analog outputs (the analog outputs are both single-ended and balanced), and two headphone outputs (the left one mutes the rear analog outputs).
Again, I've only just received it, so my time with it has been short. I can say for sure, though, that a DAC2 HGC will be a part of one my reference systems here.
With my recent interest in DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recordings and DACs that natively support DSD, I wanted to try alternatives to Amarra that support a more direct playback of DSD recordings (as opposed to converting them to AIFF first, as Amarra currently does).
My search led me to both Audirvana Plus and Channel D Pure Music. While I have been using both successfully to play DSD files via USB to the Fostex HP-A8C, Mytek STEREO192-DSD and Benchmark DAC2 HGC, my assessment of both, at the time of this guide's writing, was still at its beginning stages.
With the DSD-capable DACs here at Head-Fi HQ, both Audirvana Plus and Pure Music will be seeing a lot of use, and I hope to have more coverage of these applications in a future update of the guide.