Pros: Tonally dense, Full bodied,
Cons: Connectors Feel Sketchy
Firestone Audio Spitfire Mark II
DAC reviews always seem a bit like a crap shoot to me.... At least like trying to draw broad stroke differences between two items with very minor changes in sound. However in regard to my last two DAC's the Firestone Audio people have put forth a product that I can draw some distinct and clear differences from.
The Spitfire MKII sells for anywhere from $200 to $260 USD. Right now there are a couple different vendors selling on Amazon for around $206.00 however most audio focused vendors seem to be selling them closer to the MSRP $260.00 price point. The Spitfire comes in a relatively decent package. The cardboard box is probably somewhere between retail and wholesale class. It's not exactly the type of packaging that is going to catch your eye at a retail outlet like say the ALO Audio amplifier packaging but then again I don't particularly care too much about the card board they wrap audio products in. I will concur that the ALO Audio National & Continental boxes that my portable rigs came in serve as cord storage for my desktop system because their Marshall Amp/ Retro aesthetic are nice enough looking that I will keep them out on the desktop, but the fact that Firestone didn't put more into their packaging is a far cry from a deal breaker. Opening the box you'll find a warranty card, a small quick start users manual, a small wall wart power supply, a USB 2.0 cable and a thick though cheap looking RCA cable.
The Spitfire MKII adds a USB 2.0 input, where the first run Spitfires were limited to optical and coaxial. The USB 2.0 input has to run through a USB 2.0 plug in your laptop or computer. If you plug it into a Super-Speed or power boost USB hub... you will be met with some nasty static and feedback in your signal chain that will not be so overt that it will be obvious... It'll will scratch and crack at the edge of transients... which drives deep fear into the music lover that their new piece of kit is either crappy or exposing their itunes library for a bunch of compressed junk... Take heart, simply move the cable into a proper USB 2.0 and you're all good. The Firestone USB 2.0 does not play well with USB 3.0 so make sure you're using the correct USB hub without "SS" markings or a lightning bolt.... Its one of those things that seems obvious, but could cause some unnecessary grief for people who aren't aware of the class of their USB inputs. It's also not a cut and dry thing since I can use my little laptop stalwart Fiio DAC through the SS and powered hub without a problem.... The Spitfire, for whatever reason, is not so forgiving.
The only real knock I have on this device is that the RCA jacks on the Spitfire do not inspire confidence. They seem very fragile and should I connect cable to brusquely or without taking care, are likely to snap of whatever connectors hold them in place. I cannot say for certain that they will fail, but seem likely to fail if one were to be pulling and re-connecting RCA lines constantly. Based on the uneasy feeling I got connecting it to my desktop amp, it is not the type of DAC you want to include in a semi portable set up that you are going to be breaking down each evening to throw in your bag. My own impression is that these jacks won't hold up. Rather than tempt fate, I've opted to just buy a pair of RCA cables specifically for the Spitfire so if I need to connect or disconnect another DAC or swap amps, I just pull the wires on the other side of the chain.
Intel of the Inside
The Spitfire uses a Burr Brown PCM 2704 USB Receiver chip to a DIR9001 digital audio interface on to a Burr Brown PCM 1793 DAC chip with 24/96hz capability. The PCM 1793 is a solid DAC chip though not quite a super desirable chip in view of the audiophile elite.... However implementations matter and I dare say Firestone has gotten as much out of this 1793 as most will get out of the much higher regarded 1794. Final output buffering is done by a socketed LM4562 opamp which can be rolled to affect the sound.
The USB input is limited to 16/44 but considering I won't be running anything other than iTunes through USB it's perfectly fine for me.... It won't be upsampling my music and to me that is all good. Many place a DAC's value in the so called resolution that it is capable of and see anything lower than 24/96 as primitive. I don't see (hear) much difference between 16/44 and 24/96 myself.... but I understand that I may be in the minority here.
For the sake of stirring the pot I'll just say that most if not all of the audible spectrum (key word there is audible!) can be captured in a 16/44 playback and certainly in 24/96... the freak or two out there that can hear beyond a -8db noise floor or wants to destroy their ears with 130 db onslaughts..... or happens to be able to hear beyond normal human range of 20khz well I guess they'll have to take exception to this rig. By all means they can spend more for 24 or even 32/192hz to capture sonic frequencies only a bat or dog can make out.
I understand. The fact that such resolutions are used by and called "studio master" quality is tantalizing... a mite bit misleading on its face but tantalizing nonetheless. Ultimately if it makes someone happy, I am all for that... happiness is a good thing.
But for my purposes. 16/44 will do fine.
Besides the big question mark I have regarding the durability of the RCA jacks, this really is a nicely executed device. I've done some more fiddling with the RCA jacks and though I see why I may have been initially pensive about their durability.... the more I look at them the more I am inclined to believe they are up to snuff. Because the overall build is somewhat dainty, I may have been expecting a bit too much.
The Spitfire is much smaller than I had envisioned as it measures a mere 4" long x 3" wide x 2" tall, however it is still a very nice looking little box. An array of LED lights along the front face display, power, signal lock, playback status, and USB connection status.... The black anodized aluminum face is roughly 10mm thick with a small grain blasted finish and the "SPITFIRE MKII" print on the face is printed with white paint.
The sides and back are anodized aluminum with a very fine grain blasted finish and ribbing along both sides. It's not exactly saying "LOOK AT ME" like some of the more handsome components in my collection, but it is a "cute" form factor. It doesn't scream high end, but it is well done for the price point it sits in. Also if I opted to build out my computer audio set up exclusively with Firestone Audio components, they are all shipped in identically sized enclosures so you can stack amps, PSU's and DAC's into a neat 4" x 3" tower without taking up much desktop space. I actually have the separate "Supplier" power unit coming so we'll see (A) if it adds anything to the sound and (B) just how cute these little boxes look stacked.
Mind you I don't have extensive experience with DAC's. I've used some older NOS Chinese cheapies with my Stereo setup but usually played these out of speakers. I assume my Krell dock system has an internal DAC but they are pretty tight lipped if not silent about conversion technology in the Krell Papa Dock/ Kid system.... hell they even go to the length of explaining that there is nothing of use or serviceable inside... with the understanding that there is No Reason to Open it. If it didn't cost a total of $5K I would pull out the wrenches/ screwdrivers right now, but I don't want to tempt fate.
That said after listening to the Firestone Audio DAC I don't see any need to upgrade or keep searching for my DAC. I have found it.
I did some switching from my Carver receiver, my Pioneer vintage rig my laptop staple Fiio E10 and the Firestone and the one thing that stood out with headphones (I did not test it through speakers) was the extra weight that Firestone brought to the fight. It sounds more dense, has more impact and is full bodied. I love the little Fiio E10 with iTunes using the little bass boost switch as it made a number of tracks pretty close to the tonal density I like and seemed to add some extra oomph and weight to the full spectrum of sound, but the Firestone out does it in every regard. The bass and mid range on the Firestone are strong, robust and hard hitting. But they are not overpowering even with bass heavy cans like my Denon D5000's. The bass is big and weight and thick but does not get boomy to where it starts impeding on the quality of mid range sound. I actually was so surprised when I heard it that I went scrolling through my settings on my computer to see if I had the bass enhancer on in the Sound settings or a weird EQ set up in my iTunes presets.... nope. The Firestone people have done good.
What is more is that the Spitfire is able to mine down deep into the lower frequencies to get all the meat out of the song without forgetting about the quality of the upper-mids and treble. Transients like cymbal crashes, and the constant snap of the high hat have a more analog quality... The Spitfire provides a clear and clean upper mid range and treble. Some of my "hotter" recordings are older punk albums recorded in small studios with likely some sub par gear. In the wrong setting, with the wrong cans and the wrong volume level I can hit a note or two every once in a while that will scorch my ears let alone my nerves with white hot treble.... kinda like that little knee buckling zinger you'll get every once in a while at your dentist. With the Spitfire in charge of laying everything down, there is none of the high harsh sibilance or brightness that moves beyond enjoyable.... The treble is there, but it sounds like a cymbal being hit on a drum kit not a screeching hiss coming out of my headphones to claw at my ear drums.
The treble is detailed and its is present but it has a very smoothed out quality to it, especially when I contrast it to my Fiio and older NOS Chinese Valab knock off with its 40 some odd 1543 Phillips chips (kidding).
I imagine it sounds how it did when the band played it.
I guess the best compliment I can give this little device is that it made me excited about my music library again. I haven't been spending a lot of time with my iTunes library recently. With this little device tethered to the laptop I am excited to go back through my library and enjoy tracks that I hadn't for a while. If Operation Ivy sounds this good, how is Jawbreaker going to sound?
The Spitfire isn't exactly audiophile grade device. If only because it's Chinese heritage and diminutive form factor make it a non-starter for many a stodgy audiophile. However for the more common folk like myself who are interested in getting big gains in sound quality without breaking the bank and who simply want to enjoy their music library with a set it and forget device, the Spitfire deserves consideration. It has earned big scores from big shots reviewers and in my experience, it deserves it. It will give you huge improvements over your on board computer and leaves the budget grade DAC's in the dust. It makes inherently hot iTunes music sound much more analog and live.
It's an awesome little DAC.
Try it, you'll like it.