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DAC comparison: Storm D02 vs Zhaolu vs Harmon Kardon HD970

post #1 of 226
Thread Starter 
Disclaimer: Everything here in is either "in my opinion", "in the opinion of present persons" or "your mileage may vary", but where possible, we like to think anything stated as fact was proven by experiment or prior knowledge.

My biggest comparo/review type post to date. I hope it's not too wordy, I figured more info is better than less. For some parts I get descriptive, for others (mostly direct comparisons between DACs) I try to be analytic.

Recently I purchased a Harmon Kardon CDP which can function as a standalone DAC (e.g. for a PC) as a stop-gap until my Storm D02 arrived (a couple of weeks after ordering). I got the D02 relatively soon because I got lucky with timing. I thought it would be a lot longer, but he'd just completed a batch and two black D02's were sitting on his desk. I asked him to put the upgraded black Clarity Caps in one of them and sent it pronto!

So I've owned it a coupla weeks now and think I'm familiar with the sound. My points of reference are the DAC built into my NAD T742 A/V receiver and the HK CDP.

And recently I made acquaintance with someone who owns the Zhaolu D2 with the CS4398 chips but not the headphone upgrade. Consequently, my comparison is mostly between these three products as DACs alone. So I organised to borrow the Zhaolu and last Friday night I collected it and settled down to a long listening session. I got home about 6pm and listened until 2am Saturday. This was all headphone listening using the following rig:

FLAC > Foobar (ASIO) > 0404 > COAX > * > Gilmore Lite > K701
Where I swapped out the * for Zhaolu/D02/HD970.

http://img159.imageshack.us/img159/8...1776qv5.th.jpg

On Saturday I listened another 9 hours to the Zhaolu/D02/HK before I had to go out. By this time I felt I was familiar with the sound signature and had my owned opinions. On Sunday I took the Zhaolu and the D02 (not the HK CDP, noone cares about it heheh) to a friends place, where 3 of us listened on a speaker setup for a few hours.

I am aware the Zhaolu has a headphone socket. I did listen to it for several hours. I will comment on that later.

Side note: I believe that in the listening/comparison process, if you have two products and listen to them in the same rig: If you go "huh!" and rewind in the first minute or less, to hear something your unfamiliar with, or didn't hear on the previous listen, then you've noticed an obvious difference. I suppose this is what most people call "night and day". If however you listen for hours on end and the best you can do is "X is a bit nicer than Y on the treble..." then maybe you're struggling to tell the difference in that rig.

"Get to the moooneeeey!" You all say. I will first list my opinions of the NAD, Harmon Kardon, D02 and Zhaolu, then the impressions from the group listen. I describe them chronologically by acquisition:

NAD T742: Before I'd heard anything else, I thought this was perfectly fine. But at this point, I didn't have anything to really compare to, as the analog line outs on my E-Mu 0404 died a while back (nfi why). Bass was nice enough, treble sounded good too. Soundstage hadn't even crossed my mind. Listening was done using the headphone jack of the NAD, so this possibly (/definitely) put it at a disadvantage.

Harmon Kardon HD970, (using coax input for the DAC functionality):
Note: I received the Gilmore Lite and Dedicated Power Supply about a week after buying this DAC. I first used this DAC by running it's output into the NAD and using it's headphone jack for listening. All listening after that point was done using the Gilmore, which was run for the next two weeks all day while I was at work. I think it currently has about 200 hours on it. Oh and the K701 have like 400 hours on them.

Using the HK CDP compared to the NAD's built in DAC: The very first thing I noticed about this DAC was that the lower midbass was slightly boosted. It made some stuff sound very nice, but I could tell pretty much immediately that this DAC was imparting it's own flavour. I hadn't heard an upsampling DAC before and thought maybe this was typical of their sound signature. Bass was deeper than the NAD, but highs definitely rolled off a bit. But that midbass hump was ever present. As far as soundstage, this made my K701 sound even "wider" from left to right than the NAD. I previously owned the HD650 and thought it had very wide soundstage. The K701 is wider using this DAC. Overall, I know the HK was an improvement over the NAD, and I thought maybe I'd made a mistake in still getting the D02. What if it was only as good as the HK CDP, or the same with just a slightly different sound signature? At this point I was still a bit sceptical of how a digital source could impart a sound signature, but wanted to hear for myself what was on offer.

Storm Digital D02: I hooked it up wondering how much better a DAC could be than the HK CDP. First up: A Perfect Circle's "The Hollow". At first, things weren't where I was used to them being on what I previously thought was the soundstage. The guitar were on either side like before and Maynard in front of me but now he was further BACK. Where I only heard left vs right before, there was now depth. drums actually sound like they are coming from behind the other band members. "Enter Sandman" by Metallica sprung to mind: I always felt that Lars was too full of himself and his cymbals and toms were way up in the mix (despite the Black album and Load/Reload being their most well-recorded work, IMO). Sweet relief! He's now behind James, Kirk and Jason. It sounds very natural, for want of a better word.

Next: Dire Straights' Money for Nothing. The fade-in starts earlier than before, and is warmer/softer. When Sting holds notes, he sounds a lot "breathier". I don't know if this is more true to the recording, but I like it. The little synth bass fills are also better defined and clearer. The drum panning is awesome. Like lightning from left to right. Nothing like through the NAD or HK.
The bass is very "solid" ( I really need to come up with better words...). It's very punchy and locks well with the now more realistically placed drums. When Sting chips in during the song proper, it's nearly like he's leaning in on Mark's mic.

The Police's "Message in a Bottle": I love the intricate drumming in song, but sometimes the cymbals were kinda bright. The snare is now still fairly prominent, but the cymbals are easier on the ears. This DAC really makes the song sound like a soloing background for Andy... Sting and the drummer sound like they are grooving along together closer to you while Andy stands "away" a bit and busts out licks in all the offbeat gaps. I have no idea if this is how it's meant to sound, but it sounds great to me and wouldn't have it any other way now. Oh, and Walking on the Moon has great decay too.

Side note: so far for me, better headphones (K701) has given a wider range of frequencies to hear, amps have given deeper bass and extended highs, and I didn't quite know what DAC would give. Now I know: More realistic L/R soundstage, but also (and just importantly, now that I've heard it), DEPTH!
EG, With each DAC upgrade drums went from right up front (NAD), to being a bit recessed but with great decay (HK CDP) to just sounding like they were naturally further away (D02).

Next, Air - Alone in Kyoto. The high pitched synths in the beginning now sound more like flowing water rather than just a bunch of random notes. I don't know if this song or the movie "Lost in Translation" came first, but this song matches it pefcetly for mood and no wonder it was used. Very calming and hypnotice/meditative. The guitar work is also very nice.

One of my favourite soundtracks is "A Beautiful Mind." This was one of the best (to coin a phrase) "OMGWTF" moments yet. Charlotte Church now gives me chills every time I hear track 1 and the bass and atmosphere of the string and wind sections just blows me away. The little bell chimes in the first 10 seconds have also never been so easy to place. It really brings out the ethereal element in Charlotte's voice and the music.

While on female vocals, I put on Madonna's Frozen. There's a noise at 0.05. I've never heard it before! Someone closes a door or moves a music stand in the studio hahaha. Crazy. I wonder if the video for this song was devised before or after the song was written, because it really sounds like she's on a desolate landscape singing to you. Very eirey (sp?) but also very personal. The drum hits (which simulate lightning) snap in from left and right - I could tell this was the intended effect with the HK, but the D02 pulls it off better. The strings also sound more like reverberating catgut (or whatever the modern equivalent is) than I've heard before.

Massive Attack - What Your Soul Sings: The sound effects in the first minute are very airy and flitting across the soundstage - they didn't before. The bass is very nice, deep and authoritative. Sinead sounds very sweet. You can hear her taking a breath occasionally, and she just sounds like she's wrapped up in the soundscape. Hard to decribe, but it's good. Doing my best not to use too many superlatives... having difficulty.

Infected Mushroom - The Shen: The bass in this song just dives and bounces like a rollercoaster, while trippy sound effects sweep all around. My girlfriend hates it in the car because the fast panning on my tweeters freak her out. She would hate it on this rig even more! It moves even faster and it's nearly like the room is full of insects buzzing around me.

Supertramp - The Logical Song: The vibrato in the singers voice stands out. The synthesizer lines stand out more, as do the hammond organ. I think it's a matter of the other instruments being separated out better than before. Everything's just got it's own room to move now. Common with all the music I listened to. The "normal" drum instruments like toms/snares/bass drums being pulled back also makes more interesting sounds like cowbells really stand out.

I could go on, but I've covered a range of musical styles, and we need to cover the Zhaolu D2.

OK so I took all my gear to my friend's place and we listened on the following:
FLAC > Foobar > M-Audio Delta 24/96 > COAX > (D02 or Zhaolu) > Rotel RA-01 > B&W ZMF 2001

We selected a range of songs that either all three of us, or at least two of us are familiar with. Listened to the first minute or so through the Zhaolu, then the D02. Same interconnects etc and with as short a possible gap between listens of the same song. In no particular order because I can't remember:

Neither of the other two people had heard a headphone amp or an external DAC before, hence the desicion to use speakers (a more common ground and slightly less affected by personal preference, IMO)

Ghost in the Shell 2 Soundtrack - Kugutsuuta Ura Mite Chiru (NFI what this means):
Zhaolu - The first words out of one person's mouth was "niiiice!" Good atmosphere agreed by all. The slow pounding drums really resounded throughout the room and gave good atmosphere. The female chanting vocals were good too.
D02 - Atmosphere as before, but the bass was deeper on each drum hit. Not a whole lot separating the DACs at this point.

AC/DC - You Shook Me All Night Long (yeah it's pub rock and yeah it's probably not the best recorded, but we're Aussies, leave us alone :P )
Zhaolu - OK. Nothing overly exciting here... We listened without anything really grabbing us. In one person's words "it was flat, nothing stood out."
D02 - The D02 rocked harder. Bass drums pounded better, guitars had more balls. It was agreed Brian Johnson sounds angier than we've ever heard him.

Pink Floyd Happiest Days of Our Lives / Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2
Zhaolu - Yep. This impressed us. Plenty of atmosphere, bass sounded good, the sound effects and voices certainly didn't sound like they were coming from the speakers directly.
D02 - Atmosphere as good or better: the sound effect voices now sounded like they were coming from outside a window in the room which simply wasn't there. Whereas the speakers were partly removed from the image before, now we simply forgot them. Knowing smiles (read: stupid grins) and nods exchanged during these two songs.

The Eagles - Hotel California (from Hell Freezes Over)
Zhaolu - Not bad, not bad at all. You could imagine the line of guitars that is up on stage in the DVD. The guitars sounded nice... but
D02 - we could tell each guitar from the other easier on the second listen. The one doing the soloing, the one doing the main long chords, the other 1 or 2 on the stage somewhere in between, the bassist was actually set back from the guitars, the percussionist not far from him (much like the separation I heard in my music). At this point someone said the D02 is better and we agreed. I purposefully asked if they meant personal preference "better" or really better regardless and they said regardless and pointed out the tighter bass we were hearing, the separation and atmosphere.

Massive Attack - Special Ones
Zhaolu - Nice overall.
D02 - Better bass and atmosphere again.

Dire Straits - Money For Nothing
Zhaolu - Decent overall. The dimensionality of the players sounded ok, left us wondering what the D02 would do.
D02 - This was a clincher. It was agreed by all the bass was much better. To my ears, the depth of soundstage comes out a bit better on speakers than headphones. This makes me want to get a nice speaker rig later on!!



The Zhaolu standard headphone amp:
to my ears, the headphone jack passes on the signature of the DAC, but adds a certain "tizz" on all the treble. I gave the HP jack several hours before I had to stop listening. The cymbals on many songs that I usally think are fine now sounded harsh by comparison. Message in a Bottle was unlistenable with the K701. My friend reckoned that his Alessandro MS1 with the Todd flatt pads sounded good (personally, I didn't like that combination). However he felt that with any other pads, they would be too bright. I've been trying to think of how to phrase this, but I don't think there is any alternative: Compared to the Gilmore Lite + DPS, the standard headphone jack of the Zhaolu sounds like a55. This was my firm opinion formed while testing myself, and the others agreed. I would say this is expected for the difference in price.

Points of interest:
- The D02 can occasionally make a "fizzling" sound when it is unplugged from the wall (wouldn't happen very often in normal use, I just noticed because I was moving it around a lot). The manufacturer tells me this is part of the DAC discharging and is perfectly normal.
- The Zhaolu doesn't play friendly at all with my E-Mu 0404 soundcard. Between every song I get big crackles and pops. Most annoying and bad enough to make me worry about those sounds passing through my headphones.
- The D02 battery acted crazy when I first got it: went to 100% after charging several hours, then when turned on said 100%, then dropped 20% in as many seconds and is all over the shop. But once it’s had a whole night’s proper charge, it behaves much better, ie 40 mins listening and 96% battery still left.
- I'm not sure how good the power supply filtering is on the Zhaolu: I had a bedside lamp and the Zhaolu on a power board and unplugged the lamp to plug in another component and got a pop through the Zhaolu's HP jack. The lamp wasn't on at the time.
- About three times during our listening session, the Zhaolu appeared to simply forget what it was doing. The signal lights were all correct, the mute light was off, the connections were all correct and the software setup correctly, but no sound. Turning the unit off and then back on seemed to slap it across the face and remind it of it's dutied, sound promptly returned. Nevertheless, this occurred no less than 3 times in as many hours.

DAC comparison summary:
The Zhaolu could be a good or bad purchase: If you don't listen to anything better before buying it, and dont hear anything better after, then you could be happy with it (especially if you like a forward sound or your amp or cans will compensate). If, however, you hear a better dac later down the road like the D02, you *will* regret not having listened to more DACs before making a decision (if budget allows). I know that if I bought the Zhaolu and then heard the D02, I'd be dropping the Zhaolu like a hot potato. That is just WRT the DAC. If I got the Zhaou and intended it to be my headphone amp (without any upgrades) then heard the Hornet, Gilmore Lite, or any amp regarded the same or better than these models, I would also be very annoyed and drop it and get a better amp. Seeing that the headphone upgrade of the Zhaolu is $50US, I really question how good it could make the sound considering where it is starting from. I wouldn't expect it to come even close to a proper standalone amp.

Pics:
The rather large black Clarity caps in my D02:


All the units:

I had more images but imageshack is screwing me around. I'll try adding them again later.

But anyway, back to the real point: insofar as DAC functionality, if I had to sum up the Zhaolu, HK and D02 in one word each, it would be:
Zhaolu: Passable
HK CDP (DAC section): Warm
D02: Natural
post #2 of 226
excellent review.

a few questions though. firstly, was the D2C you used modded with LT1057 on the analog out? any upgraded caps, or discrete outputs?

I have been seriously considering the Storm, but have been very interested in a modded Zhaolu like Ori's creation. He has been doing some amazing things to the Zhaolu D2C with the AD1852 chip and discrete output stage, power upgrades and i dont think many buy the Zhaolu with stock in mind if you know what I mean.

$375USD gets you a modded Ori Zhaolu which from all reports is stunning. Id love to see someone review at length one of these against a Storm D02, and perhaps a Stello DA220 for good measure

I have experienced the popping via the Coax with my NAD CDP coax out, but very rare popping through the av710+optical, and i tihnk this is a funciton of the amount of buffer in ASIO4ALL.

Thanks again.
post #3 of 226
Wondering if the coupling caps were by-passed in the Zhaolu? And what opamps were used? Eddie tends to ship with the LT1057 in the outer two position but I very much preferred the OPA2604 that was shipped in the optical cable container.

I wish I could take a listen to the Storm D02. I agree with alex_cs that it would be interesting to compare this to Ori's discrete output modded unit.
post #4 of 226
Thanks for your review. I was thinking about getting the Zhaolu but I think after the review I am inclined to check out the D02 instead. But perhaps an upgraded Zhaolu will be impressive so that will be a strong consideration.
post #5 of 226
Thanks for the interesting read. I would also like to know exactly what configuration the Zhaolu had, especially whether it had the cap bypass, but a couple of points:

1. In the picture, I see the Zhaolu sitting on a CDP and Storm sitting on wood shelf. Is this how the comparison was done? IME, shelf material for DAC's makes a huge difference in bass quantity/quality.

2. What power cord, power conditioning was used with Zhaolu? DAC's are VERY sensitive to power, which is why I applaude Storm for going the battery route, but one can't expect anything but average results without good power on a "normal" DAC like Zhaolu.

3. Were speakers used for evaluation at all? TDA15XX DAC chips are known for their (ehem) generous bass quantity, and this makes them sound very punchy and exciting for rock/pop, and I imagine will synergize well with midbass-lean headphones like K701 used. IME, bass is extremely essential(even more so than supertweeter) for creating the sense of atmosphere, venue, "separation," which you have cited as advantages of Storm.

4. I see the test tracks used are mostly rock/pop. Were there any complex, "acoustic" recordings used for eval?

One of these days, I hope to compare the Storm to (soon-to-arrive) Ori-modded Zhaolu in my own speaker setup (any SoCal Storm owners?). I'm actually pretty sure Storm sounds wonderful and will probably end up buying one in the future anyway b/c I like the SLA battery idea, but whatever happened to the "soon to come" USB input option that Storm was supposed to be developing???!!
post #6 of 226
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jon L
3. Were speakers used for evaluation at all? TDA15XX DAC chips are known for their (ehem) generous bass quantity, and this makes them sound very punchy and exciting for rock/pop, and I imagine will synergize well with midbass-lean headphones like K701 used. IME, bass is extremely essential(even more so than supertweeter) for creating the sense of atmosphere, venue, "separation," which you have cited as advantages of Storm.
Quote:
On Sunday I took the Zhaolu and the D02 (not the HK CDP, noone cares about it heheh) to a friends place, where 3 of us listened on a speaker setup for a few hours.
.
post #7 of 226
Quote:
Originally Posted by Filburt
.
What is "B&W ZMF 2001" speakers? Is it the 2-way bookshelf speaker shown here:
http://72.14.203.104/search?q=cache:...s&ct=clnk&cd=2
post #8 of 226
deleted
post #9 of 226
Thanks for the great review rincewind. Finally a proper comparison between these two.

At this point we all should know that if Zhaolu ends up sounding worse than some other DAC it's (obviously) only because there was wrong mods/DAC chip used.
post #10 of 226
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jon L
What is "B&W ZMF 2001" speakers? Is it the 2-way bookshelf speaker shown here:
http://72.14.203.104/search?q=cache:...s&ct=clnk&cd=2
You asked if he used speakers; he did. I was simply pointing this out. I don't know what kind of speakers they were.
post #11 of 226
the attraction of the zhaolu is that it is very easily/cheaply modded to sound a lot better. not that in stock form it flays everything 5 times its price.

noone is begrudging the D02, in fact i want to buy it. but a properly modded zhaolu has the potential to be so close to higher end DAC's that it will appeal to those with less fuinds to throw around.

no need to be so cynical
post #12 of 226
Nice write up, thanks!

Disclaimer: I have been accused of being a Zhaolu fanboy by Hungrych so feel free to ignore me. I'm only trying to constructively add to the discussion and frankly could give a rats ass if you liked the Zhaolu or not (although it seemed you did). Jon L makes a good point about using the Zhaolu with a good power cord and AC conditioning, I have noticed a nice improvement with this. Also, the simple mod of bypassing the DC blocking caps, as well as unplugging the headphone amp, makes a very nice improvement across the board. That's all, just a couple observations. Don't give two sh!ts if you care, just throwing that out.

I've got to hear the Storm Digital one of these days, I'd really like to hear that one!
post #13 of 226
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sean H
Nice write up, thanks!

Disclaimer: I have been accused of being a Zhaolu fanboy by Hungrych so feel free to ignore me. I'm only trying to constructively add to the discussion and frankly could give a rats ass if you liked the Zhaolu or not (although it seemed you did). Jon L makes a good point about using the Zhaolu with a good power cord and AC conditioning, I have noticed a nice improvement with this. Also, the simple mod of bypassing the DC blocking caps, as well as unplugging the headphone amp, makes a very nice improvement across the board. That's all, just a couple observations. Don't give two sh!ts if you care, just throwing that out.

I've got to hear the Storm Digital one of these days, I'd really like to hear that one!
Hungrych calls everybody a fanboy,
post #14 of 226
Quote:
Originally Posted by akwok
Are you.. serious?
Yeah, I gotta say, seems to greatly affect DAC's in my experience. I have limited space for my rig and if I have the Zhaolu on a solid shelf or not, and if I use Cardas Cuboid's or Vibrapods, it makes the most noticeable difference in the bass region with any DAC I have owned (especially Ack dAck).
post #15 of 226
Quote:
Originally Posted by akwok
Hungrych calls everybody a fanboy,
I know. I keep teasing him about this. Go read the Zhaolu threads I think I'm far from any fanboy in comparison. I have this thing where I demand justice when unjustly accused!
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