Pros: Smooth and sweet, yet not glossy. Detailed, but laidback. Many inputs, manual oversampling control. Build quality.
Cons: Lacks aggressiveness, USB input is noticeably worse, Sweet to a fault.
The V800 shares it's impressive build quality I mentioned in the V181/V200 comparison. Every switch feels smooth and sure in it's operation, every plug smooth but tight fitting, no hangups in operation. This is a completely trouble free unit. I won't bore you with all the details mentioned in previous reviews as this unit has been around for quite some time and Project86's review does this better than I could. Suffice it to say, this unit is flexible and reliable.
My take on the sound began with forgetfulness. I initially got the V800, the new M-Stage and the new pair of Matrix Mini-I units (yet to be reviewed) and plugged them all in to get some initial impressions. What I failed to remember was that the V800 is long in the tooth and it's USB is pretty far behind. The first night I used the V800 I was disappointed to say the least. Treble was rolled off, detail was smeared everywhere, textures.. don't get me started. I was really down on the V800 after having used the V181 and V200 with some of the other DACs I had on hand. Towards the end of the night, I realized my error and checked up on the USB of the V800 and sure enough, I was hearing what I should be with that sort of USB connection. I grabbed my best CD player, the Rotel RDD-980 transport, and hooked up the V800 with coaxial, pressed play and it was as if I had a completely different DAC. It opened up and cleaned up into a DAC that had potential. I now consider the V800 to not have a USB connection as it is not truly representative of the V800's potential sound quality. There is a new Violectric DAC on the horizon, the V820 that will feature XMOS USB connectivity and support at least 24/192 if not also DSD and DXD (not confirmed). Expect the V820 to compete from any input equally, unlike the V800.
Before I go any further I need to mention the setup for this review. With the M-Stage HPA-2 being only USB, I connected it to my computer, and used my Rotel CD transport for both the V800 and the X-Sabre using coaxial. This is not entirely ideal, but with the V800's USB limitation, it was the best solution. I played only retail pressed CDs in the Rotel and those same CDs I ripped to FLAC from my computer via JRiver MC19. I briefly compared the Rotel output to the USB output using the X-Sabre, since I knew both USB and coaxial were excellent, and found no difference. I left the V800 in it's default state regarding oversampling; Best.
So after switching to coaxial I started from scratch again with the V800. The first thing I noticed was that everything was ultra smooth, refined, pristine. Smooth yet it wasn't from masking detail to make it more forgiving. I later decided this treble reminded me of sweetness in sound, a pure clearness that was inviting and inoffensive. This wasn't a slow syrupy sweetness, either. The sound is laidback in it's presentation, which combined with the HD800 was too much for most tracks. It tended to push things too far back, which caused some imaging issues, especially with center vocals. Center vocals have to be at the right plane, or they either sound split from being too close, or if they are too far back, the sound is small and tends to be diffuse making voices sound as if coming from a cloud of origin points. This is how the V800 can be detailed yet sweet at the same time. The detail isn't masked, but it can be hard to nail down. The soundstage is smaller than the X-Sabre, but larger than the M-Stage. Layering is superior on the X-Sabre. Layering between the V800 and M-Stage is sort of a tie, but they do it in different ways. The V800 is nebulous while the M-Stage lacks depth leading to a feeling of squished layers. I'm not sure which I would choose if I had to. Luckily I don't have to make that decision. I feel that dynamic contrast on the V800 is good, but that sweetness also gives it a feeling of being softer on impacts and large fast dynamic shifts. This overarching sweetness affects the V800 so completely that it ends up being a hindrance. I don't really see a situation where the V800 could be recommended. The lack of USB limits it's value. The sound signature limits to those who prefer that softer sweeter sound. With the V820 around the corner I can't call the V800 a good value at all. Wait and see what comes next from Violectric, IMO.
Comparing presentation, the M-Stage is more in your face with some slight roughness and sibilance is somewhat exaggerated. It's direct, less 3D, approach is commendable at times, and a welcome change from the V800, especially on large scale orchestral or choral works where the V800 begins to sound lost. Do understand I'm comparing a $40 addon DAC with a $1300 standalone DAC. There are some obvious differences in resolution, but I find myself more forgiving of the M-Stage's faults and preferring it's presentation. What's interesting is that these two DACs sound so different (within the small variance DACs can sound different) yet share the same DAC chip. One aggressive, rough, and unrefined, one passive, ultra refined and sweet. The M-Stage's DAC is saddled with losses you would expect from an added on DAC. Only one input and no dedicated outputs. Surely it's supporting circuitry is not as good as it could be. However for a $40 option on a $280 amp, it blows my mind with it's performance. The fact that it is even being compared here is a testament to how amazing it actually is. With the lack of connectivity I think the M-Stage HPA-2 DAC does fall behind the V800 in overall usefulness, though most people are using USB based rigs now, so with the V800 lacking that input, the shoe is on the other foot. The 'just the essentials' approach works extremely well for those who need a great K701 or HD800 amp that happens to have an astonishing DAC for practically no extra cost.
The X-Sabre is on a level above the V800 and I believe most will say the V800 is a level above the M-Stage DAC, though my personal preference finds them on equal ground trading pros and cons. The X-Sabre wins in almost every category. Soundstage size, separation, dynamic contrast, texture, detail, timbre, and others are all in its favor. One aspect in particular that it far exceeds the other two is in layering. I happened to come across some tracks that had effects where the initial sound, be it vocals or a sound effect/instrument, would be in the near ground, then it would echo behind, then again and again further back each time. With the X-Sabre each step back was clearly mentally measurable. I could tell that each step back was going further back. With the M-Stage these effects felt like the source was merely standing in place or moving backwards very slightly. The V800 made this sound as if the source was already fairly far back and went backwards, but at hard to pinpoint increments. This layering advantage gave the X-Sabre a richness that the others lacked and was immediately noticeable on almost any track. The X-Sabre wins the battle of features as well with all the common inputs performing at equal level, support for all current formats including DSD and DXD and while the build quality of the V800 is surely excellent, the milled solid aluminum block that makes up the X-Sabre is basically insanity at it's price point of $1100.
In summary I can't recommend the purchase of a V800, especially if pairing with an HD800. The M-Stage HPA-2 with USB is a shocking eye opener with regard to value. The top of the heap remains the X-Sabre. I had previously thought the X-Sabre to be slightly bad on value (compared to Concero @ $600), now I think it is potentially worse on value with the discovery of the M-Stage HPA-2's optional DAC. Then I hear the V800 at $1300 and think, perhaps they cancel each other out...? I then consider the V820 will likely be at a similar price point as the V800, and should be a better value. I then relent that the X-Sabre has indeed lost some value. Diminishing returns is an ever changing metric.
Thanks for reading and thanks to Violectric (German) and Arthur of Violectric USA (English) for the opportunity to try these items I'd long been curious about. I can only hope the next generation of Violectric DAC will be more competitive and less sweet!