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Audio-gd Master 7

Posted

Pros: Excellent detail and soundstage precision while also having an organic, natural sound. Well-made. Plenty of input options. USB32 input sounds great.

Cons: Big, heavy and uses 45W of power.

Having known Kingwa for years and owned a number of his products, I have followed as, over the years, he developed his designed, steadily improving them and impressing people along with the way with his affordable high-end gear. Likewise, with each improvement, a number of us were tempted to upgrade and Kingwa would always tell us that the improvements were small. Bit by bit he developed his skill in the realm of digital, especially in the area of digital input. He took a networking DSP, had someone program it for him into an audio digital processor. With a huge reduction in the production of the famous PCM1704UK digital to analogue converter, he worked his way tirelessly through making good DACs with the WM8741 and ES9018.
 
But despite vast price increases which correspondingly resulted in higher prices for his top-end DACs Kingwa didn't give up on the PCM1704UK for his top-of-the-line DACs, though they had been joined with models using the ES9018 and WM8741, each having a very slightly different "flavour" of sound. However, recently there came a new DAC, the Master 7. Unlike previous descriptions, Kingwa wrote the following about it (edited to fix grammar):

 

Quote:
[The] Master 7 is the ultimate design using the PCM1704 chips [...] it brings the detail, transparency and dynamics to another level compared to all the other Audio-gd DACs.

 

In an email to a Head-Fi member who owns a Reference 7.1, he wrote:
 
Quote:
The Master 7 has a different sound from the Reference 7.1. We picked up on the advance of the ES9018, the qualities of the PCM1704, and redesigned the new DSP software to process data. The M7 overall is better than the ES9018 DAC while it retains the neutral sound of the PCM1704.
 
I can't be sure if you would like the sound. It's much more transparent and dynamic than the Reference 7.1, but still has a rich (not dry or thin sound). But again, a very different sound.
 
The Master 7's upgrades over the Ref7.1 are not just limited to the USB input, but both BNC and other inputs as well. The new DSP software makes the gear more able to accurately process the data to improve all inputs. However, now the USB32 has very high performance as well, so in most cases, one won't need the extra conversion from a transport as much as the Ref7.1.

 

This was, for Kingwa's standards, unusually bold words. For someone who often recommended people not buy products because the improvement would be too little, to suggest something be a significant improvement was unexpected.
 
While the Reference 7.1 had improvements over the Reference 7, most noticeably in the analogue section where the ACSS modules were now longer removable but soldered into the boards, the Master 7 was penultimate result of Kingwa's research into digital to analogue conversion. What had started with the Reference 1 using the DSP instead of a PMD100 seems to have now come to a final conclusion with I2S inputs and an optional new 32-bit USB implementation. 
 
Since all that has changed is the digital board and back plate essentially, to save on the huge cost of a new DAC, I ordered just the board and parts required to upgrade my Reference 7.1.
 
Upgrades can be like a drug habit. Knowing there is better out there, one is continually tempted to try new things to get a more profound musical reproduction in one's home. Every change seems to have compromises. Just when one finds the perfectly matching component, some other change ruins the synergy. One seems to be chasing both higher resolution (lower distortion and greater linearity of performance) as well as synergy. 
 
In the case of DACs, the one thing I've learned is that the desire for higher resolution seems to have ruined everything. I have a Parasound DAC1600HD here that uses the old and very famous PMD100 and PCM63 chips. it is much like the Master 7 in design -- very heavily filtered power supplied by 3 transformers and completely balanced throughout both the digital and analogue sections. It is one of the few DACs I've owned that seems to actually reproduce music that sounds like real instruments and not an artificial, digital-sounding attempt at such. However, its input is limited to 48k or CD resolution at 44.1k. No high-res files.
 
The pursuit of high-res is no better exemplified than by my Calyx DAC 192/24. While an excellent performer on its own -- very detailed with a wide soundstage, the sound out of it when using the USB input doesn't sound like real music. While remarkable that it can achieve this using only USB from a computer (including for power) in this manner it is not pleasant to listen with. I can understand why reviewers of the ~$70,000 dCS stack say that it approaches the sound of vinyl -- because so many of the lower-end high-res DACs have been compromised in one way or another in comparison.
 
The Calyx uses an XMOS chipset for USB input and other digital functions. When someone recommended this chip to Kingwa, he tried it, but said it doesn't sound good. Funny that! I came to the same conclusion! It validates my feelings about the Calyx. When I use the Audiophilleo USB to S/PDIF converter (along with its Pure Power upgrade option) the result is radically different. While the level of detail retrieval seems only slightly greater, I actually feel like I"m listening to real music and real instruments.  It works well in my system with the non-feedback Audio-gd amps and mellow Stax tube amps. It doesn't sound so great with other solid state gear, being too "hi-fi"-sounding (as some people tend to describe the sound of modern DACs).
 
My Reference 7.1 was subtly different, being "darker" sounding than the Calyx, which, for example, typical of ES9018 implementations, makes singers sound a little younger. It may as much be OPAMPs versus ACSS as anything.  The DACs I've liked which produce real-sounding music have mostly been ones to use the AK chips, such as my Fostex HP-P1 and Metric Halo, as well as the Parasound mentioned above. However they aren't nearly as detailed as the Calyx or Reference 7.1. The Metrum Octave I owned was beautiful and organic-sounding even with less than perfect recordings, but only had SE output (I use balanced most often) and was a little weak in the bass with a narrower soundstage. It seemed whatever I chose there were compromises.
 
So when I played music through the Master 7 for the first time, via my Audiophilleo and Pure Power set-up I was shocked. I can only relate the experience to one of Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame, when he drove the Lotus track car. He said that he'd driven a car with that much power before, a car with that amazing handling before, and a car with that much acceleration before, but never a car with all those things together. With the Master 7/AP1/PP combination, I feel as if I have the ultra detail of a top-of-the-line brand-name DAC with the organic presentation of Parasound, the forgiving nature of the Metrum Octave and the liveliness and openness of the Calyx, but all together at the same time.
 
As I wrote this, I stopped the music a few times because I had been hearing murmuring, quiet voices or other noises in the background which I thought were coming from other people in my apartment. They weren't -- they were sound on the recording I had not ever heard before. Yes, cliché central, but after going through more DACs for little difference it was great to feel that I'd actually made a proper upgrade. Listening to Cannonball Adderley's Radio Nights, for example, not only can you hear people speaking in the background, it's possible to make out what they are saying very clearly.  I'm used to those kinds of significant differences when I move from listening in my car to listening at home or going to a local hi-fi store and listening to their most expensive components. Not from a digital upgrade, even an expensive one.
 
It's at this point I have trouble describing what I'm hearing. It rather reminds me of what the Metrum Octave sounded like when it was new. Before it settled down and became more mellow, it seemed to highlight absolutely everything, even the smallest sounds so they were all clear. The Master 7 is almost this way and I hope it doesn't mellow at all, because the sound is so alive and addictive.
 
Something that I had noticed with the predecessors to the Master 7 was that the imaging wasn't as good as it could have been, despite there having been plenty of detail. Instrument placement with the Master 7 is now precise.  Listening with the Stax SR-009s or Adam Artist 3 monitors to Red Lorry Yellow Lorry by Jex Saarelaht (from Metaxas Audio) as the drummer tapped on different cymbals, the spacial position of each one, slightly different, could be easily made out. As well, it was easy to make out the subtleties between each hit from the drummer on each of his instruments, such as how far towards the centre or edge the cymbal was hit.
 

The USB 32-bit input.

 
Back when I first ordered a Reference 1 from Kingwa, it only had a S/PDIF input. No other inputs were available. When I asked about adding an optical input (since I was using a MacBook Pro) Kingwa refused, as he didn't want to compromise the sound quality on his top-of-the-line DAC. 
 
Now, however, we have 6 inputs to choose from, all added by demand from customers. I2S has been the last to come, but it is significant not because of itself alone, but because Kingwa's latest USB chip, a 32-bit asynchronous model from VIA, outputs to one of two I2S inputs on the digital board, not to S/PDIF as other chips do. This negates the need for double conversation.  
 
I connected up one of my computers to the USB 32 input and my other computer to the Audiophilleo 1 + Pure Power rig which feeds an S/PDIF signal into input 1 or 3 which are BNC and RCA S/PDIF inputs respectively. Input one uses the DIR9001 for best sonic results and is limited to 96kHz. Input 3 uses the WM8804 and goes up to 192k, but results in the sound being slightly more mellow. I set both computers to play music at the same time via Amarra and used the front panel switch on the DAC to switch between the inputs.
 
The result between them was very hard to tell apart, even with my best recordings. I doubt I'd be able to do it blind. After some time listening, I felt that, possibly, the very finest nuances of instrument decay were more present with the Audiophilleo rig and there seemed to be more a feeling of the air around them, but the difference was only very slight. On a high-end stereo system, it might be more apparent.  I recall that Kingwa's idea when he first introduced the DSP was to reduce the difference in sound quality with different transports. While I don't feel he did so much early on, he certainly has come much closer to that goal now, if not effectively nailed it. 
 
2013/01 Edit: With the latest #4 update to the firmware of the USB32 chip I've switched to using the USB32 exclusively over the Audiphilleo + Pure Power set-up, however, with some experimentation, my iPad streaming audio to the Audiophilleo/PP rig via the CCK and a Vaunix hub (the iPad refuses to connect directly) I think is superior to the USB32, but only very slightly so.
 
If I was to find a niggle, it's that I reckon he should put it in a nicer box! The only other potential issues I can think of are: The power input is directly below the digital inputs, so when I had the Audiophilleo hanging directly off one of the inputs, it was touching the power plug (an Oyaide). The other is that the outputs are on either side at the back, which may not suit people whom, for whatever reason, want or need them close together.  It's also a big, heavy (15kg/33lb) unit and uses 45W of power.
 
Overall though, for me, he has nailed what I have wanted in a DAC -- the feeling that I'm not missing anything or that what I'm listening to is not real and does this via USB to boot.

 

Audio-gd Master 7
Description:

Dedicated Discrete Fully Balanced DAC DSP-1 inside Built in 8 Pieces PCM1704UK Support up to 192KHz 32bit / 384K Asynchronous Transfer USB-32 Chip OCC wires applied What's new in the Master 7: Since the Reference 7.1 release , already have more than 20 months ago . We have been spending more than 10 months testing. We now release the Master 7 . Master 7 is the ultimate design of the PCM1704 chips. The full new design DSP processor solder on the main board direct for best signal transfer and faster process data and clock , it bring the detail transparency and dynamic to another field than all other audio-gd DACs , it is allow users adjudgement the flaws or how beautiful of the source and records if match with a revealing amp . It support up to 32bit / 192KHz through USB and I2S input, 24bit / 192KHz through SPDIF inputs ( NOS, 2X , 4X and 8X oversampling support . ). This is a no compromise build , we have no parts on offer for upgrade , all-built in all audio grade parts , OCC wires, TCXO , etc are standard. It is a full new design concept . The SPDIF inputs have applied specialty interface process the data, this is allow the best parameter design for different type SPDIF inputs.

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