Head-Fi.org › Articles › 2013 Head Fi Summer Buying Guide Desktop Amps Dacs

2013 Head-Fi Summer Buying Guide (Desktop Amps & DACs)

Over-Ear Headphones Over-Ear Headphones In-Ear Headphones Wireless Headphones
Gaming Headphones Exercise Headphones Cables & Accessories /
Desktop Amps & DACs Portable Amps, DACs & Music Players
Ultra-High-End Headphones (Summit-Fi) Desktop & Portable Speakers
Head-Fi Meets Music

Desktop Amps and DACs

 
There is a lot of other gear discussed by Head-Fi'ers other than headphones, including amps to power those headphones, digital-to-analog converters (DACs), other source components to feed the amps that power those headphones, other audio accessories, and occasionally even loudspeakers for when we don't feel like listening to headphones.

ALO Audio Pan Am

 

TYPE: Headphone amp, power supply, and rechargeable battery

PRICE: $599, $149, and $199, respectively

URL: www.aloaudio.com

I picked up a new amp from ALO Audio called the ALO Audio Pan Am (starting at $599), and, truth be told, I wasn't sure which category it belonged to. On the one hand, it's a small desktop amp, especially if you buy its optional power supply upgrade called The Gateway ($149). However, if you buy The Passport ($199), which is an optional rechargeable battery power supply for the Pan Am, then it becomes portable, or at least transportable, with 10 hours of battery life per charge.

But wait! The category confusion doesn't end there, because the hybrid (tube and solid state) Pan Am also has within it a very nice little 24/96-capable USB DAC--I kid you not.

So it's a tube/solid state desktop amp with a DAC that, with an optional battery supply, becomes portable. And it brings exactly what you'd expect from a good hybrid circuit headphone amp, which is versatility, and--if you tube it right (try the Siemens tube upgrade option--you'll thank me) you'll tilt its sound a bit more toward its tube side, with improved harmonic richness and warmth. Which headphone to plug into it? Pretty much anything. I've been enjoying it with the Sennheiser HD 598, Audeze LCD-2 and HiFiMAN HE-500, just to name a few.

"This is a great all-in-one desktop AND portable system for users who are not satisfied using portable-only systems near their desks or in their HiFi systems."

-shigzeo
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Schiit Audio Valhalla

 

TYPE: Desktop headphone amplifier

PRICE: $349

URL: www.schiit.com

Another affordable desktop amp I use and recommend is the Schiit Audio Valhalla, which is a Class-A, single-ended triode amp. It's an affordable trip into beautiful tube sound, and with good flexibility, supporting headphones with nominal impedance of 32-600 ohms.

"Here is what the Valhalla is: an outstanding sounding headphone amp for the money.  It’s dynamic, essentially transparent, and essentially neutral."

-Skylab
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies

 

TYPE: USB DAC / tube headphone amplifier

PRICE: $999.00

URL: www.wooaudio.com

If we nominated Head-Fi products of the year, the Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies would certainly be one of my nominees. I first saw the WA7 Fireflies at last year's CanJam @ RMAF, and assumed the diminutive component was a mini system that was more flash than dash. At best, I thought it might be a good system for something so small, designed as an ultra-stylish compromise piece for those who simply didn't have room for a more serious rig. Others at the meet listened to it before I did, and many whose opinions I respect were coming up to me saying things like "Did you hear that thing at Woo's exhibit?" and "Man, you have got to hear that little Woo amp!"

Packed into that little five-inch cube is a 32-bit/192kHz DAC (with one async USB input, and one set of analog stereo RCA inputs that also serve as the DAC's analog output, selectable with a switch). Also packed into that five-inch cube is a vacuum tube headphone amplifier that is a pure tube design--no semiconductors used in the entire signal path.

Okay, this is the part where I reveal the wee bit of Woo sleight of hand: The WA7 Fireflies comes with a largish linear external power supply to provide clean power to the WA7. The power supply is in a simple black chassis, and comes with enough cable to hide it away. Still, there's a lot going on in the WA7, and a lot of power coming out of it. With the two 6C45 driver/power tubes, the WA7's class-A, single-ended tube amp outputs up to one full watt at 32Ω. When it comes to headphones, the WA7 can drive just about anything, its transformer-coupled outputs switchable to accommodate both low-impedance and high-impedance headphones (for headphones of nominal impedances ranging from 8Ω to 600Ω).

Its ability to drive the big, tough headphones is fantastic; but what impresses me even more than that is the pure tube WA7's ability to drive sensitive IEMs, and to do so against one of the lowest noise floors I've heard (or not heard) in any tube amp. Even with IEMs, turning the volume knob way up when no music's playing shows you just how quiet a tube circuit the WA7 Fireflies has.

Whether driving a sensitive IEM or a planar magnetic toughie, the WA7 is perfectly comfortable--from delicate to explosive, and everything in between. Given how much detail I'm hearing, I have the utmost confidence in the WA7 DAC stage's ability to impressively feed that little wonder of a tube amp.

I couldn't have been more wrong with my initial assumptions. The Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies is a giant performer, not just for its size, but even compared to components of similar functionality of any size.

"It gives vocals the kind of warmth that wants to seduce you with the music more than point out every little detail and makes listening very relaxing."

-Currawong
Head-Fi Adminstrator/Member/Reviewer

Sennheiser HDVA 600 and HDVD 800

 

TYPE: Headphone amplifier, and USB DAC / headphone amplifier, respectively

PRICE: $1599.95 and $1995.00, respectively

URL: www.sennheiser.com

Since its release in 2009, one of the rites of passage for new Sennheiser HD 800 owners is finding an amp that can synergize well with the phenomenal--but very picky--HD 800. It's a scene I've seen played out at many meets: The HD 800 owner toting his silver, ring-drivered wonder of a headphone around the room, the HD 800's cable coiled around his hand, his eyes scanning the amps brought by other attendees, plugging his HD 800 in, pondering, unplugging, moving on to the next amp. I went through the same thing, and found that only a few of the many amps I have were able to truly satisfy me and my HD 800. What we hear when the match is bad is most commonly a brighter, colder sound; and if it's real bad, it can be downright harsh. What we hear when the match is great is organic, ridiculously detailed, big sweeping vistas of sound so satisfying that most who get there will tell you it was worth the effort.

But what if Sennheiser themselves provided the answer? I think Sennheiser understood their flagship headphone to be a picky one, and decided to craft their own pairing for it--an amp designed, engineered, and manufactured by the HD 800's home team. Yes, Axel Grell was involved. And his team came up with not just one mate for the HD 800, but two: The Sennheiser HDVA 600, and the Sennheiser HDVD 800. The HDVA 600 and HDVD 800 are essentially the same, their amp sections identical to one another. The only difference--a big difference, really--is that the HDVD 800 adds a very nice 24-bit/192kHz DAC to the package (which we'll get to in just a minute).

The headphone amplifier in the HDVA 600 and HDVD 800 is a fully balanced design, necessitating four separate amplifier sections--two amp sections for the left channel, two amps sections for the right. That is, for each channel, one of the amp sections is driving the signal, and the other driving the inverted signal. Given the fully balanced design (again, necessitating four total amp channels), volume is controlled with a high-end ALPS quad potentiometer. And, even though it's a fully balanced design, Sennheiser did include provisions for unbalanced inputs, too.

Other details include a metal chassis to help protect against signal scatter and vibration. The chassis, by the way, is beautifully finished--the entire surface of the HDVD 800 we have is absolutely flawless. The control knobs are turned from solid metal, with buttery smooth mechanisms behind them. Also, Sennheiser is so proud of the work they've done inside that they include a glass window on the top of the chassis through which to admire the well-turned-out internals, subtly lit by an LED.

The HDVD 600 has one set each of balanced and unbalanced analog inputs (XLR and RCA, respectively), and one set of balanced analog outputs (XLR). The HDVD has the same inputs/output, but adds the following digital inputs for the DAC: Toslink (optical), coaxial (RCA), AES/EBU (XLR), and USB. With both the HDVA 600 and HDVD 800, gain of the unbalanced input (RCA) can be adjusted.

 

Late last year, Sennheiser sent me a very pre-production prototype of the HDVA 600, and it was a bit rough around the edges--looked like it had been around the block...several times. Its chassis finish was good, but not great. Its control knobs weren't anything like the production units' controls are now. And the sound with the Sennheiser HD 800 was very good, but not spectacular. Then, a little while ago, Sennheiser sent me a production-version HDVD 800, and, in every possible way--from the refinement of finish and control feel to the sound--it was (and is) spectacular.

The production Sennheiser HDVD 800 I have here elevates the performance of the HD 800, and inspired me to take the photo accompanying this piece. The results are a sort of combination of the sweetness of some OTL (output transformerless) tube amps I've tried with the HD 800, and the electrostatic-like microscopy the HD 800 is capable of, but without any hint of edginess as a penalty for the detail. It's certainly not the only great companion for the HD 800, but it is a great companion for the HD 800.

Remember, the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 have the same amp design, so, assuming you have a good source feeding the HDVA 600, you can likely expect similar results. Which brings me to the HDVD 800's DAC. So far, I've only used the HDVD 800's DAC as a source for its own amp section--that is, I haven't yet tried to assess its performance with other amps. What I have done, though, is plugged other DACs into the HDVD 800, and the HDVD 800's internal DAC compares very favorably. I haven't used an external DAC with the HDVD 800 yet that compels me to give up the all-in-one solution the HDVD 800 is.

If you're wondering how the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 will do driving other headphones, the answer is very good, especially with other high-impedance headphones. I've had great results with the Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650, and also with my vintage 400Ω AKG K 340, which is just about as picky as the HD 800. That said, here's what I'll say: The amps in the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 were built for one thing, as far as I'm concerned, and that's the Sennheiser HD 800.

Again, the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 beautifully elevate the performance of Sennheiser's flagship HD 800. And the Sennheiser HD 800 rite of passage has been simplified.

Schiit Audio Mjolnir

 

TYPE: Fully balanced headphone amplifier

PRICE: $749

URL: www.schiit.com

Last year, I picked up this amplifier from Schiit that's named after Thor's hammer--a great name for an amp with eight times the output power, eight times lower distortion, and less noise than their entry-level Asgard amp. Using a circuit design I admittedly know nothing about called a Circlotron-type topology, with high-voltage JFET inputs and MOSFET outputs, the Mjolnir is balanced only--so do not buy this amp unless you have headphones wired for balanced, or have plans to wire some headphones for balanced operation.

The Mjolnir is awesome. It's very powerful, yet exceptionally quiet (in terms of background noise). With 8W RMS per channel, it'll drive pretty much any headphone (not including electrostats, of course). Though it'll drive just about anything, what I have plugged into it pretty much all the time are a variety of planar magnetic headphones. My favorite headphone to pair with the Mjolnir so far is the Audeze LCD-3, the pair of them making for a forceful, highly resolving, world-class powerhouse of a system.

Ray Samuels Audio Raptor

 

TYPE: OTL (output transformerless) tube headphone amplifier

PRICE: $1175.00

URL: www.raysamuelsaudio.com

In the context of the Sennheiser HD 800 (which itself is priced at around $1500), we have to adjust the definition of "affordable" a bit. With that in mind, one of the best affordable tube amps I've used with the HD 800 happens to be the Ray Samuels Audio Raptor ($1175), www.raysamuelsaudio.com. This is a glorious pairing, and I've brought it with me to several meets (including two CanJam @ RMAF's) to let others hear it, too.

As many other HD 800 aficionados have found, the HD 800 can be tricky headphones to matchmake for. Bad pairings can sound overly bright, with leanness down low. The Raptor, especially with a good set of tubes, presents the HD 800 in full-bodied, smooth-trebled splendor.

Fortunately, in addition to the HD 800, the Raptor also drives many other headphones well. As might be expected with an OTL headphone amp, I've found the Raptor particularly well suited for driving other high-impedance headphones, including the Sennheiser HD 600/650, beyerdynamic T1, and others.

McIntosh D100

 

TYPE: DAC, digital preamplifier, headphone amplifier

PRICE: $2500.00

URL: www.mcintoshlabs.com

What seasoned audio enthusiast hasn't either owned McIntosh gear or wanted to own McIntosh gear. I'd owned old Fisher, Zenith and Marantz gear, but never did pick up any McIntosh stuff. Then I went to CES 2013, ambled into the McIntosh exhibit, and saw the D100. No, it didn't have the big blue meters, but, with its black glass front panel with thick metal edging, it still looked every bit the McIntosh piece that it is. That was it, I knew it--my first McIntosh was going to be the first piece they made that was largely about serving up good headphone audio.

The McIntosh D100 has five digital inputs: two coaxial, two optical, and one USB. Switching between these inputs is easy, using either the remote, or the control knob on the front of the D100. The only input I've used so far on the D100 is USB; and the USB implementation on the D100 is asynchronous mode. The D100 uses an ESS Sabre 8-channel, 32-bit/192kHz DAC.

The D100 comes with both fixed and variable analog outputs. The fixed outputs include one stereo RCA pair, and one balanced XLR pair; the variable outputs also include one stereo RCA pair, and one balanced XLR pair, and also the 1/4" (6.3mm) single-ended headphone output on the front panel, which is powered by its own independent headphone amp circuitry.

The D100's headphone amp circuit has an output impedance of 47Ω, which is high, but hasn't been a problem for me, as the headphones I use with it most are the Sennheiser HD 600/650 (300Ω), Sennheiser HD 800 (300Ω), AKG K 340 (400Ω), and the Koss ESP950, which is an electrostatic headphone that comes with its own energizer/amp that I plug into the RCA outputs on the back of the D100.

Whether driving my dynamic headphones using its own headphone amp, or the Koss ESP950 from its rear, the D100 is a beautiful sounding piece, with fantastic resolution delivered edge-free, smooth. Compared to the Benchmark DAC2 HGC--another favorite of mine, and one of my most detailed source components--the McIntosh D100 sounds sweeter, more velvety, more forgiving.

Given my focus on headphone audio, I don't know if I'll ever pick up another McIntosh piece, but I'm absolutely thrilled with the one I've got in the McIntosh D100.

Woo Audio WA 5 LE

 

TYPE: Desktop headphone amp

PRICE: Starting at $2500

URL: www.wooaudio.com

One of the best tube amps I've heard, in a variety of rigs, is the Woo Audio WA 5 LE, a two-chassis, single-ended triode, transformer-coupled, Class-A headphone amp that uses the venerable 300B tube. I personally love the sound of a great 300B amp, and the WA 5 LE is a great 300B amp. Though I don't have one yet, that may have to change. As is customary with Woo, the WA 5 LE uses point-to-point wiring.

"It generates an alternate place. A place with grand authority. A place you can visit and stay if you want. There is no ear fatigue even after long 4-5 hour listening runs. Just a big place where the sound stage goes off into infinity."

-Redcarmoose
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Eddie Current Balancing Act

 

TYPE: Desktop headphone amp

PRICE: $3950

URL: www.eddiecurrent.com

One of the most acclaimed cost-no-object high-end amps on Head-Fi has been the Eddie Current Balancing Act, a fully-balanced tube headphone amp and preamp that also uses 300B tubes. Many seasoned Head-Fi'ers consider the Balancing Act one of the best amps available at any price, and my experience with it (at shows) makes it obvious why. At the 2011 CanJam at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I heard the Balancing Act paired with the Audeze LCD-2 for the first time, and that rig was simply out of this world.

The Balancing Act is also one of the most beautiful headphone amps on the market, and wouldn't be fairly described as simply retro. The chassis lines, the old-fashioned control knobs and indicator lamp--combined with the prominently placed vacuum tubes--result in a look that is very completely from another era. Simply using "retro" doesn't fully capture just how much of a visual trip back in time the Balancing Act is. Simply gorgeous.

Sound Performance Lab Phonitor

 

TYPE: Desktop headphone amp

PRICE: Around $2150

URL: spl.info

While we're on the subject of gorgeous amps--and returning to solid state--the SPL (Sound Performance Lab) Phonitor, might very well be the best-looking solid state headphone amplifier on the market. Fortunately, it has the performance to match, being one of only a couple of solid state amplifiers I've used that I feel matches well with the HD 800.

The Phonitor also has the best, most comprehensive, tonally neutral crossfeed I've yet used. Its crossfeed flexibility puts the Phonitor at the forefront of headphone imaging coherence and accuracy, and it's an amp I may have to add to one of my reference systems. (We discussed the SPL Phonitor in Episode 009 of Head-Fi TV.)

Ray Samuels Audio Apache

 

TYPE: Data/Information

PRICE: $2995

URL: www.raysamuelsaudio.com

Another fantastic solid state headphone amp--and my current personal reference amp to use with the HiFiMAN HE-500, Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3--is the fully balanced Ray Samuels Audio Apache ($2995), www.raysamuelsaudio.com. (The Apache is also a preamp.) Though it works well with a great number of headphones, driving those particular planar magnetic models seems to be the Apache's forte--like it was made especially for them.

"The Apache is, as I define it, completely transparent, to a degree I have not heard before in a headphone amp. No grain, no noise, no haze – just a completely wide open window to the music."

-Skylab
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

E.A.R.(Esoteric Audio Research) HP4

 

TYPE: Tube headphone amplifier

PRICE: $5999.00

URL: www.ear-usa.com

From Michael Mercer:

Tim DeParavicini has been building high quality tube electronics for over 30 years. He made his mark modifying high end multi-track tape machines for studio and home use. He would rebuild the machines (from Technics to Revox) entirely. A few of the legendary bands that have used his gear in the studio (and some also in their homes) include The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Ry Cooder. He also works with everything from microphones to record lathes. He's worked with such labels as Island Records, Chesky Records, and Musical Fidelity, to help improve their sound, quality control, and their record pressing facilities. E.A.R is Mr. DeParavicini's high-end audio company dedicated to making state-of-the-art tube electronics for audiophiles, as well as the pro market. He designs and builds his products in England, and personally tests all the tubes, in order to meet his rigorous standards.

The E.A.R. HP4 is DeParavicini's statement headphone audio piece. Utilizing four 6SL7 tubes, the amp is a tube roller's paradise. The HP4 also has some relatively unique features: The HP4 can drive two low impedance and two high impedance cans simultaneously. It has balanced and single-ended inputs and outputs, and an amp bypass switch. So if you only have a line-stage and an amp, you can put the HP4 in the signal path and cut off the loudspeakers when you need to. This also makes it a fantastic reviewer's tool, as you can feed a source into the HP4, and then output that source to another headphone amplifier for side-by-side comparisons.

As for its sound, the E.A.R HP4 is an amp that's so musically engaging I find it almost impossible to pull myself away from it! My wife dubbed herself “the headphone widow” the moment I plugged my Audeze LCD-3's into the amplifier. The HP4 also sounds terrific with the Sennheiser HD 800. The HD 800 already outstanding spatial reproduction gets even better with the HP4. The soundstage is so wide it's easy to forget you're listening to your headphones!

The HP4 handled everything from Burial to James Blake, Elbow, Jason Mraz, Radiohead, the Yeahs Yeahs Yeahs. All the 80's music I pumped through it sounded more alive than it did during the 80's!

Even though this amp design is more than ten years old, it sounds more seductive, immediate, and captivating than any other headphone amp I've tried! I'm glad I saved up my pennies for the HP4, because I've used no other headphone amp that cuts straight to the heart of the music like it.

--Michael Mercer--

Micromega MyZIC

 

TYPE: Headphone amplifier

PRICE: $269.00

URL: www.micromega-hifi.com

The MyZIC by Micromega is a small footprint, affordable desktop headphone amplifier from a respected name in audio. Devoid of traditional knobs and switches, the French-designed, French-made MyZIC's 6.3mm (1/4") headphone jack is the only clear signal as to its purpose. The volume control is a very unique, large, horizontal rotary dial with a super-smooth, damped feel. I was a bit surprised to find the MyZIC's outer casing to be made of plastic--given its Frenchness, I would've expected something a bit fancier. That said, it feels to me like high quality plastic, and the MyZIC is still a very attractive, dashing amp.

Given that Micromega is a company with its roots in the traditional two-channel world, the MyZIC was designed to easily fit into existing hi-fi systems, with analog passthrough output. Input (and the passthrough output) is via RCA jacks.

Straight away, I was impressed by the MyZIC, for its very good drive and low noise floor. I've been using the MyZIC to drive Audeze's LCD-3, and even HiFiMAN's HE-6 (at moderate volume levels), with good results, the MyZIC's smooth treble being a nice foil for the HE-6's tendency to be treble-spotlit with some amps. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, I did try some of my high-sensitivity IEMs with the MyZIC, and though its noise floor is low, it wouldn't be my first choice for IEM listening, as the MyZIC's volume's taper is rather quick with super-sensitive IEMs (but still workable in a pinch). The breadth of headphone types that the MyZIC can drive well makes it a wonderfully versatile amp. As for its tonal balance, the MyZIC is quite neutral and revealing, though smooth enough that I can't imagine it being described by anyone as analytical.

As nice as the MyZIC is, I hope one day Micromega offers an all-in-one (DAC and amp) in the same size chassis. Right now, they do make a companion-size USB DAC called the MyDAC ($399.00), but I haven't yet tried it.

I'm glad to see Micromega entering our space, and even happier that they've done so with such a nice, reasonably priced headphone amp. Vive la France!

Schiit Modi and Magni

 

TYPE: USB DAC and headphone amplifier, respectively

PRICE: $99.00 each

URL: www.schiit.com

At less than $200 for the pair of them, each essentially built for the other--and performing as well as they do as a system--I couldn't bring myself to separate the Schiit Modi and Magni for this guide.

The Modi is a bus-powered USB DAC, so no additional power adapter is needed. With asynchronous USB and support up to 24-bit/96kHz (using the AKM4396 DAC)--and tremendous attention paid to its measured performance as well as its sound--the Modi reads like something that couldn't possibly be a buck under a hundred.

The Magni might be even more ridiculous (and I mean that entirely as a compliment). For 99 bucks, one expects a simple opamp-based design (not that there's anything wrong with such amps), but the Magni is fully discrete. As described by its makers, the Schiit Audio Magni "uses a discrete gain stage design, with low-noise JFET inputs, fast VAS transistors, and massive output power transistors. The result is greater current capability for higher power output. We’ve also used a DC servo to eliminate coupling caps from the signal path."

What does the Magni drive? So far, everything I've thrown at it. Rated at a conservative 1.2W into 32 ohms--and with a very low noise floor--I've driven several headphones, from my most sensitive IEMs to the hard-to-drive HiFiMAN HE-6 planars.

Because I only recently picked up the Modi and Magni, I haven't yet had a chance to compare each separately to other DACs and amps, but I can say emphatically that together they're a DAC/amp combo that has me giddy about the insane value for the buck it represents. In early listening, it has proven such a resolving, authoritative system, that it will likely be my first recommendation for those looking for an affordable desktop system with high-end performance.

Schiit Audio has been one of the coolest stories in our community in the last few years, and the Modi and Magni will only strengthen our enthusiasm for this young company founded by a couple of wily audio industry veterans. Since Schiit's launch, it's been hit after hit from them, and these tiniest of their creations may be their biggest crowd-pleasers yet.

Lavry Engineering LavryBlack DA11

 

TYPE: DAC/headphone amp

PRICE: $1480

URL: www.lavryengineering.com

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.
Schiit Audio Bifrost

 

TYPE: DAC

PRICE: $349, or $449 with USB input

URL: www.schiit.com

Another nice DAC to consider is the Schiit Audio Bifrost, which, according to Schiit, is "a fully upgradable DAC, featuring 32-bit D/A conversion, a fully discrete analog section, and a sophisticated bit-perfect clock management system, together with one of the most advanced asynchronous USB 2.0 input sections available, as well as SPDIF coaxial and optical inputs, all with 24/192 capability." With USB input, the Bifrost is $449, without USB it's $349.
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."

-Skylab
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Antelope Audio Zodiac line

 

TYPE: DAC/headphone amps

PRICE: $1700 to $3995

URL: www.antelopeaudio.com

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.

"I've not found a fault in its performance yet; it's perfectly transparent and stunningly detailed. It has no coloration at all, it's dead neutral, and all the headphones I've tried with it have benefited from this. It completely steps out of the way and, for good or ill, lets the material and transducers perform the way they're intended."

-Magick Man
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

KingRex UD384

 

TYPE: USB DAC and USB-to-S/PDIF interface

PRICE: $499

URL: www.moon-audio.com (KingRex U.S. distributor)

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.)
Woo Audio WTP-1 and Woo Audio WDS-1

 

TYPE: CD transport and DAC, respectively

PRICE: $1199

URL: www.wooaudio.com

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 Xonar Essence One and ASUS Xonar Essence One MUSES Edition

 

TYPE: DAC/headphone amps

PRICE: $599 and $899, respectively

URL: www.asus.com

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 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.

NuForce DAC-100

 

TYPE: DAC/headphone amp

PRICE: $1095

URL: www.nuforce.com

Last 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.

"Dynamics are a strong suit - if you dig listening to stuff like Holst, Dvorak, Rachmaninov, or other really dynamic classical, the DAC-100 is excellent."

- John Grandberg (project86)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Sonic Studio Amarra

 

TYPE: Professional-quality music player software for Mac OS

PRICE: $49.99 to $189

URL: www.sonicstudio.com

Though Amarra is neither a hardware DAC or headphone amp, I currently consider it indispensable in my Mac-based computer audio rigs, and so included it in this section.

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 now have several 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. Before Amarra, 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. Sonic Studio has been great about keeping it updated, for both bug fixes and continued refinement of the product.

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.

 

Because I don't have a lot of experience with Cavalli Audio's amps--but loved what I've heard so far--I asked someone with a lot of experience with Cavalli's products to contribute to the guide. dBel84 (real name Donald) was kind enough to write the following guide entries for three of Cavalli Audio's amps. Thank you, dBel84! --Jude--

Cavalli Audio Liquid Glass (LG)

 

TYPE: Hybrid (tube / solid state) headphone amplifier

PRICE: Around $3750.00

URL: www.cavalliaudio.com

The LG is a single ended hybrid headphone amplifier that can be used as a preamp for convenience. It has two inputs, a loop out and a preamp output. It is the ultimate tube rollers dream amplifier.

To best describe the sound of this amplifier is to describe the sound emanating from the tube itself. I think of it like the ultimate non feedback DHT tube amp. DHT amps are expensive, as they are designed to extract every last bit of detail out of a huge triode like the 2A3. The Liquid Glass achieves this same high level of excellence without these rare tubes because in this circuit, the tube is operating at its linear best in the audio band and it does not "see" the headphones it is driving. The reason for this is the ingenious buffer design which fools the tube into thinking there is no load and handles all the voltage swing and current demand of whatever headphone you plug into the amp.

The tube circuit auto-biases which allows many tubes to operate optimally, truly allowing you to hear subtle nuanced differences among various tubes. It can roll approximately 45 various types of tubes, the options are stupendous when you factor in manufacturers and tube dates. Hence my thinking of it as a tube rollers dream amp.

The sound is detailed with all the subtle microdynamics and air with a good solid bass heft that doesn't smear in the typical "tubey" fashion. This amp is not for those who want a warm and musical experience, rather if you want to experience what true high end tube audio sounds like, this is the amp to try. It is not overly clinical sounding because tubes do have their own sound characteristics, and it is these sound characteristics which purists strive to find. It is my personal favorite.

Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold (LAu)

 

TYPE: Fully balanced headphone amplifier

PRICE: $6450.00

URL: www.cavalliaudio.com

I will be honest, I really didn't want this amplifier to sound as good as it does. Why? I didn't want any Cavalli product to be better than the one I had chosen as a personal reference, the Liquid Glass. It really pained me to admit to the man that he had managed to achieve what he set out to achieve, the best sounding dynamic amp I had yet heard.

The Liquid Gold is a solid state design and a true differential balanced amplifier. It has single ended inputs but these are converted through a buffered circuit into a balanced signal. This option is really for convenience as I would not recommend running this amp as either single ended input or single ended output. It works and extremely well in that mode, but to extract that ultimate performance, running it balanced will provide you with staggering accuracy, detail and a palpable sense of the music which makes for a very self-contained and intimate experience. The definition within the bass layers is further teased out, the sense of space within the music is sharp and the organic tones of both male and female vocals can raise goose bumps on your skin. The music is never fatiguing, it just immerses you in the moment.

When I initially got the amp I listened to all genres just to get a sense of what its signature was like, it really didn’t have one. The music just flowed naturally and with such detail and authority that I was occasionally pulled out of my listening coma. When I came to wanting to compare it to other amps, I found myself losing track of time. I know this is a little clichéd, but it really was that involving. Not many people have had an opportunity to hear this amp but those that have, have voiced similar experiences to mine.

Cavalli Audio Liquid Lightning MK II (LL)

 

TYPE: Electrostatic headphone amplifier

PRICE: $4850.00

URL: www.cavalliaudio.com

Now in its MKII form, the Liquid Lightning is Cavalli Audio’s offering for the niche market of TOTL electrostatic amplifiers. It has been heralded by many people as having ultimate synergy with the Stax SR009. I have listened to this combination on many occasions and have been fortunate to have them in my own system for an extended time. During this time I arranged to meet up with a friend and compare some of the other top tier amplifiers and other top end Stax headphones including the SR007 MKI/II.

I thought the original LL sounded incredible with the SR009 but it was not optimal with the SR007. The LL MKII achieves the same level of excellence with both of these electrostatic headphones. If I had to use a single descriptor, I would say effortless. In a way that only electrostatic headphones can, music just emerges and surrounds you with an incredible soundstage and precise placement within the sound field. Bass can really dig deep without blunting the edges, no upper bass emphasis which is not uncommon in both headphones and monitor speakers, highs are sparkly clean without being bright . A very memorable listening experience and highly recommended if you enjoy the presentation offered by electrostatic headphones.

If my descriptions of these amplifiers seem to blend into one another, it is because Cavalli Audio products have a distinct naturalness to their sound. The LG and LAu vary slightly in that the LAu offers greater accuracy while the tube in the LG imparts its own delicate nuance to the sound. The amplifiers in general offer an extreme level of resolution that transcends the dynamic and electrostatic media, offering an audiophile experience that only a few manufacturers can lay claim to. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to experience all of the products Cavalli Audio has to offer and for the friendship that Alex has extended over the past decade.

 

DSD (DIRECT STREAM DIGITAL) CAPABLE DACS

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 HP-A8C

 

TYPE: DAC/headphone amp

PRICE: Around $2000

URL: www.fostexinternational.com

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.
Mytek STEREO192-DSD

 

TYPE: DAC/headphone amp

PRICE: $1595

URL: www.mytekdigital.com

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.
Benchmark DAC2 HGC

 

TYPE: DAC/headphone amp

PRICE: $1995

URL: www.benchmarkmedia.com

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.
Audirvana Plus and Channel D Pure Music

 

TYPE: High-end audiophile player for Mac OS, and high resolution music server software for Mac OS

PRICE: $49 and around $129, respectively

URL: www.audirvana.com and www.channld.com

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.

 

Comments (6)

I concur wholeheartedly with the inclusion of the Woo WA7 Fireflies and the E.A.R. HP-4.
When I consider balancing a host of requirements (functionality, versatility, style, footprint - and of course sound), I am hard pressed to think of a better desktop tube amp than the WA7. It also makes an excellent centerpiece for a bedroom rig. The WA7 is a true standout, not only from its Woo brethren, but also from a great deal of its competitors.
The E.A.R. HP-4 is without a doubt the most engaging, engrossing, and musically-intimate headphone amp I've ever heard. I know you're probably looking at the pricetag with a healthy amount of "WTF" in mind... but here's the thing, it's performance justifies its price IMO. It's so good it's scary.
Too bad the Matrix X-Sabre and Yulong DA8 didn't make it in time.
and Audio-gd ??
I am wondering how one decides? I am particularly interested in a DAC/Headphone amp combo and one that I can audition where I live. I find it very difficult to purchase something without hearing it first. There are so few 'stores' dedicated to this set up. My choices at the moment include McIntosh D100, Fostex AP-A8C, and maybe even the Sennheiser DAC/Amp. Any thoughts on this? How would these rate against the Woo WA7, for example?
How about musical fidelity? I feel the M1 is a really good one especially considering its price.
Wow is all I got...
Head-Fi.org › Articles › 2013 Head Fi Summer Buying Guide Desktop Amps Dacs