If you visit HeadFi on a semi-regular basis, you've likely encountered some reference to Yulong Audio and their high-value DAC and headphone amp products. They might not be a household name but they have grown substantially in the last few years, and to my mind they are an ideal representation for the quality of gear coming out of China these days. Many of the big name brands of audio gear have their stuff made in China anyway... perhaps more companies than would care to admit it. So there's really no reason why Yulong can't be just as good. I do recognize the dearth of no-name gear coming from the region - eBay DACs for $60, clone headphone amps using very obviously inferior parts, etc. Those things exist in a class by themselves and really don't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as brands like Yulong. Personally I don't care if gear comes from Germany, China, Texas, or wherever, as long as it has something to offer.
Over the years Yulong has ventured into higher-end territory. Their DA8 (which I reviewed HERE
) was a fantastic all-in-one device and was very competitive in its class. I'm using the past tense as Yulong recently discontinued that model, replacing it with the DA8 mkII
. I've been spending time with the mkII and I do find it worthy of discussion. Surpassing an already excellent product like the DA8 is no small feat. When the original already sounded great and supported pretty much any format one might throw at it, what could possibly be left to update? That's the situation Yulong seems to be in, and it explains why the DA8 mkII is more of an evolution than a revolution.
From an outside vantage point, the DA8 II appears nearly identical to its predecessor. The only thing I spot is the new DA8 II lettering along with a different volume knob. Aside from that, everything else carries over. Lest you think there was room for easy improvement, let's recap those features - we get balanced and single-ended outputs with defeatable volume control, the usual inputs including optical, coaxial, AES/EBU, and USB (DSD and DXD capable), a powerful headphone output, selectable filters, an OLED display... there's not a whole lot missing. The main thing that springs to mind is a remote control, which sadly is still not implemented here. This keeps it from being an option in some systems, mostly those based around speakers rather than headphones. I'm not quite sure why Yulong didn't feel this was worth doing. My particular review loaner, as an early model, has a labeling issue where the printing for "Filter" and "Phase" buttons are swapped. I don't know if this will be the case on production models or not - I assume it will be taken care of, though honestly I could deal with it as-is. EDIT: I've confirmed with Yulong this issue was fixed in the production run. So nothing to worry about.
Inside is where we find the biggest changes. Let's again recap the existing design: ES9018S DAC chip running in quad-mono mode. Amanero Combo384 USB solution customized by Yulong for complete power isolation from the USB line. Linear power supply featuring a nice Plitron toroidal transformer with multi-stage voltage regulation. Powerful headphone amplifier with discrete class A buffer. So far so familiar right? The major change in the new model is the swapping of the critical system clock. The original model already used a quality low phase noise clock, but the mkII upgrades to one of the best oscillators available: the Crystek CCHD-950. This pays dividends which I'll discuss shortly. Beyond that, Yulong also did some tweaking of the headphone stage, the power supply, and the low pass filter, for a cumulative result somewhat larger than one might initially think. Again, it's not a completely new sound, but rather builds on the already excellent performance of the original and takes it up another notch.
I have to pause for a quick word about the modified Amanero Combo384 USB board. This thing is absolutely rock solid, up there with the best XMOS-based implementations I've experienced. Due to Yulong's customization where it draws all power from the DA8 II power supply, it doesn't care about external power at all. Not only does this allow for power isolation by using special cables (Elijah Audio sells one, or just cut the power leg on any other USB cable), but it also seems far more agreeable to connect with a tablet or phone. I've tried a half dozen devices and had success with all, which is certainly not something I can say for most USB DACs. It also renders add-on USB power scrubbers completely unnecessary - I tried a Schiit Wyrd and an iFi iUSB, but got zero improvement either way. You'd think that by 2015 we'd have nothing but solid USB implementations across the board. But go talk to someone with a DAC using the VIA or Tenor or Cmedia solutions and you'll find out quirks abound. I often mention XMOS as probably the best on the market but I have to say the Amanero is an excellent alternative, and I wouldn't mind seeing more designers make use of it.
Believe it or not, I did a lot of my initial listening with the DA8 II being fed by an Android device. I've been messing with a big Acer all-in-one thingy with a nice 21.5 inch 1080p display, relatively powerful Celeron CPU, 2GB RAM, and 500GB hard drive. I know, it's ancient technology compared to the specs on the latest Samsung Galaxy S, but it's actually pretty solid for my needs. And unique too - the uncommonly large hard drive is perfect for storing tons of music. I run the free HibyMusic app which allows use of external DACs, as well as playback with nearly all formats including hi-res PCM and DSD. This makes for a killer "bedside" type rig, and also serves as a perfect test of DAC's ability to deal with what I can only assume is a sub-par source. As a reasonably priced all-in-one device, a clean power supply is not really on the menu. With all those components packed tightly together plus a traditional spinning platter (non-SSD) hard drive and a basic wall-wart power supply, jitter and USB noise are likely not pretty. Sort of a worst-case scenario compared to any other option I have available. I used an old Belkin Gold USB cable with the power leg removed, and took advantage of Yulong's integrated amp to drive my AKG K812.
The resulting sound was completely satisfying. I didn't know what to expect considering the transport being used, but this was something I could happily enjoy for hours on end. I've been really into jazz lately, so I started with the oddly-named but oh-so-well-recorded Sophisticated Lady jazz quartet from Yarlung Records. Their Native DSD Volume 1 was able to retain its "live" character, transporting this listener to a small jazz club for approximately 32 minutes. I particularly enjoyed JJ Kirkpatrick's trumpet solo on the opening track - this system presented it in stunning fashion, its brassy tone being very articulate. The original DA8 has a somewhat smooth, analog presentation, and while the new version continues in that same spirit I'd say it has superior extension. It better captures the brightness of the trumpet, without becoming so bright as to offend the ear. On direct comparison (or as close as I could get with switching cables back and forth) the original DA8 seemed a little muffled and closed in. I've always been quite satisfied with the first DA8 but I must admit the new model takes things a step further in terms of realism.
I used the DSD128 version of the album because that's what I happen to own - the DA8 II can supposedly handle DSD256 as well, but I have yet to test that. In this particular configuration I preferred the jitter eliminator feature active. Turning it off gave a softer sound that lacked clarity and didn't engage me quite as much. The filters are more suble - with DSD playback, it offers a choice of cutoff frequency at 50, 60, or 70kHz. To be perfectly honest I can't really notice a consistent difference between the three, so I stopped trying. PCM playback gets a choice of two filters which make a slight bit more difference, though still not huge. I found that I liked the "sharp" filter in this particular system, as it seemed to give better transient snap. The "slow" filter was slightly more laid back which might sometimes be preferable but not in this instance.
I listened to this system for a long time and was never less than impressed. It didn't matter if I played DSD, 24/192 PCM, or basic redbook quality files; the result was always pleasing. While not offering the same fidelity as my main system, it did a great job considering the rather basic, non-audio oriented transport. I swapped in Audeze LCD-2, Sennheiser HD800, Ultrasone Edition 12, and Grado PS500, all of which sounded quite good from the integrated headphone output. It won't drive my HE-6, but aside from that everything else is fair game. I noticed an increase in overall competency from the revamped amplification stage - slightly quicker, more transparent, though obviously it's hard to separate the improvement as being caused by the DAC or the amp improvements. For a compact, simplified system, I couldn't ask for much more.
Later I brought the DA8 II into my main system and fed it via coaxial connection from my YBA Design WM202 CD player. Obviously this system only allows for standard CD playback and omits any hi-res capabilities. Nonetheless I thought it did a slightly better job than the Android-based setup when given the same material. I love me some hi-res PCM but even "lowly" 16-bit/44.1kHz can sound absolutely stunning. See Cassandra Wilson's Belly of the Sun for a great sense of depth and clarity. See Breaking of the World, the latest from retro prog-rock masters Glass Hammer, for warmth and punch courtesy of mastering engineer Bob Katz. See New Favorite by Alison Krauss and Union Station for an ultra-natural presentation - recorded in "Pure DSD" and mastered by Doug Sax, this is a must have in any format. This time around I kept the jitter eliminator engaged but the filter switched to "sharp", as it seemed to bring out the most potential from the disc spinner.
I then threw together a little system to help me go back and forth between the YBA Design WM202 as transport feeding the Yulong, and the YBA alone using its analog ouputs. This $1,100 CD player sounds quite respectable all by itself, so I use it as a sort of gatekeeper to separate the good external DACs from the great ones. Unfortunately, I don't currently have a higher-end headphone amp on hand with multiple RCA inputs for quick A/B comparisons. So I ended up using the NuPrime DAC-10H (which does have multiple RCA inputs) as a preamp, then out to a Violectric V281 driving Sennheiser HD800 or HiFiMAN HE-1000. This kept things honest - I could have fed the Violectric directly via RCA from the CD player and then via XLR from the Yulong, but that's an unfair comparison which also makes level matching very difficult.
With the NuPrime in the mix I was able to go back and forth with ease. I discovered the Yulong had a more weighty presentation. It dug deeper and hit harder on the low end, while the YBA sounded a bit thin in comparison. I also noted some etch on female vocals which was all but eliminated on the DA8 II. Soundstage was bigger, more open and layered, with a very convincing sense of space. The YBA was more direct, which at times made for a pleasing alternative (particularly with intimate vocal performances) but generally wasn't as realistic. Overall I'd call this a fairly substantial upgrade, if not quite night and day. Pretty impressive considering the Yulong doesn't cost all that much more than the YBA.
Taking It Higher
Finally I went upscale by a significant jump, feeding the Yulong with a B.M.C. PureMedia via USB. PureMedia is a purpose-built media player with exceptional sound quality. It's among the best transports I've ever had in my system, allowing me to get a sense of just how high the DA8 II will scale. Even CD quality recordings mentioned earlier sounded that much better - more open, more airy, more "real" for lack of a better word. With the B.M.C. in place I was able to hear the largest improvement over the original Yulong DA8. I used XLR outputs to my custom made KGSShv electrostatic amp, powering Stax SR-007mkII or SR-4070. With this revealing setup, I could hear how the new model makes the original sound a bit slow, dull on top, less focused, and less precise. It holds together better during complex passages. And the midrange seems more cohesive where the original can sometimes become unbalanced in proportion to other frequencies. Again, the original was always pleasing to my ears, and I had zero complaints about it compared to the competition available in its price range at the time it launched. But on direct comparison using a highly resolving system the benefits of the new revision become clear.
Earlier I mentioned Alison Krauss - let's go back to her for a moment. I ripped the stereo DSD layer of her New Favorite SACD release and stored on my NAS, and did the same with her slightly more pop-oriented Forget About It. I also ripped the redbook layers of both albums, so I'm able to compare each version directly. To the best of my knowledge, each album uses the same master for the DSD and PCM versions. Any difference would chiefly be caused by the conversion from DSD to 16/44.1 PCM for the CD version, along with any small variations the B.M.C. and Yulong gear might have when handling these different formats. But for the most part we should be hearing what is essentially studio master quality, and comparing it to a really well done CD.
In this highly resolving system, the differences were clear to me. Not a night-and-day, jaw-dropping, immediate distinction - remember the CD layers do sound very pleasing on their own - but clear enough to where I think most people would notice after going back and forth for a while. The DSD versions are richer, with more detail, and a more "liquid" sound overall. This comes through clearly in Alison's vocals but also in the Dobro and guitar and other instruments, perhaps to a lesser degree. I do think it takes a top notch system to bring it out though, and I recognize the fact that excellent recording/mastering is far more important than format. I'd take a redbook release of this caliber any day over many hi-res albums in my library. Still, with all things being generally equal, I do think there are gains to be had from going beyond 16/44.1, and the DA8 II is good enough to let those improvements shine through.
As a reminder, Yulong uses a combination of tuning by ear and rigorous measurements. Listeners can take comfort in knowing the DA8 II performs exceptionally well in both regards - the scope likes it as much as my ears do. This remains an area where Yulong is far ahead of many Chinese contemporaries, and even many competitors based in the USA. Plenty of designers either can't or won't provide measurements of their gear, so it's always nice to see it done. Have a look for yourself:
Ultimately, as I said before, the mkII version of Yulong's DA8 is an evolution, not a revolution. The original being so well done and feature-laden makes substantial improvements a difficult task. Keep in mind, the device retains its same price of $1299, which I think is quite competitive considering what's on offer. Having rotated the DA8 II through various systems including entry-level, modestly nice, and full-blown high-end, I'm impressed with the results. It meets the listener where they are and offers room for growth as they move up the ladder. Which is exactly what I like to see in a device like this.
I do think it's nice that Yulong is not resting on prior accomplishments. Digital gear is a rapidly growing market segment and a lot has happened in the past 2 years since the original DA8 launched. Designers can't afford to sit still even if their gear is already quite good. This improved version has everything it takes to stay very competitive, and I heartily recommend it.