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The Great Dac Search

post #1 of 76
Thread Starter 
The Great Dac search.

I welcome you all to post up your adventures with various sources and all that.

my story:
I spent about two months trying out different amps and settled on the might Zana Deux from Eddie Current. It’s been a good amp, powerful, fast, with a beautiful soundstage and perfect synergy with my beloved HD650. However, bringing the Zana Deux into my set up caused me to start looking for a new source.

I realize what I’m doing. I’m taking the best attributes of each dac and adding them onto what the “perfect” source would sound like to me. I know it’s asking for a lot, but I guess it does serve to compare where dacs stand. I also realize that I’m a negative reviewer... some try out things and tell you only the good side of it, or don’t’ give you information on the things they don’t’ like. I actually shut up about things I like and talk endlessly about what I don’t like, so manufactures probably won’t like me for this.

Also in listening, the Zhaolu/benchmark and brick overlapped, the brick and Dac 60 overlapped, the DA10, stello and the benchmark also overlapped. The VDA-2 has no overlapping ones, but will have a Benchmark and a stello. My memories are driving the differences between the VDA-2 and the benchmark at this moment… but I have a pretty clear picture right now of what my lavry sounded like.

The Zhaolu Dac. I absolutely loved this dac, I really did. It improved with every modification I made. I sent it into ori and got amazing results. For less than $400 I had a fast, clear, dac with a beautifully large soundstage and an amazing midrange. I thought I was smarter than those who went out and spend big $ on dacs and such, and that my dac was the best thing in the under 3K category. Well, two things happened. Mike brought his Lavry DA-10 over one day and shattered my perception. By comparison the Zhaolu was light, lacking in bass, and didn’t image as well. I came to covet the simple “authority” of instruments that the Lavry presented.

The Wavelenght brick- a wonderful dac. At first I thought it worse than the zhaolu since it wasn’t as clean, dynamic, fast and had a constrained soundstage in comparison. However, it did reveal to me how deep and impacting bass can go… and the zhaolu simply wasn’t able to match it on that count. Further, the dac had the best vocals that I’ve ever heard. Soon, however, it’s lack of treble and speed sent it out.

The Lite Dac 60 sonicraft modded- wow, it had the perfect soundstage, the perfect voicing, the deepest bass, and all that. However, it lacked in details, and got kind of “slurpy” in complicated orchestral pieces. Further the treble was recessed a bit. I didn’t buy it after trying it out.

The Lavry DA-10. the soundstage isn’t as wide as the Benchmark, Stello or Zhaolu. It is, however, clear, and layers string sections better than any other dac I heard. In fact, if it it wasn’t for the comparison with the Stello DP200, I wouldn’t have sold it. The dac’s images are so far the best I’ve heard, and so is it’s bass. I think the “problems” with it had to do with the “graininess,” width of soundstage, lack of treble brilliance (as in benchmark and stello), and a general “sawed-offness” that resembles the tone of the K701.

The Benchmark Dac-1. I heard this thing on several SS (Gilmore design) set ups in the past and had a strong prejudice against it (thinking it as edgy, light sounding, cold and sterile). Well, it actually had beautiful synergy with the Zana Deux. Now, there is a lot of prejudice against this dac on Head-fi, I myself have been part of that gang. There are things obvious problems that we can talk about till the cows come home, but it shouldn’t negate the things that this dac does right. First of all, it is clear, very clear. The soundstage is among the best I’ve ever heard, the speed is unmatched, and best of all, it is better detailed than any dac I’ve heard in this price range. Not only is it detail, but the sound of echos, the voices harmonizing in the treble, the cues from concert halls have never been so apparent as they have with this dac. I really do admire it. It wasn’t until I did an A/b with the lavry and realized that it doesn’t image as 3-D, or have the authority that the Lavry has… while the benchmark has more overall detail, it sounded veiled in comparison to the lavry.

The Stello DP200- I really wanted this thing to be perfect, I’ve always coveted the 220 line of dacs. And I actually think this is where I’m going, but I have to give you the reasons why I have concerns. First of all, it just doesn’t sound neutral, a little sweet I think. Secondly, it didn’t layer orchestras as well as the lavry, and finally it wasn’t as detailed as I would like. In fact, reading the forum, the detail of the Stello came as the biggest surprise, I never would have thought that this dac had any less detail than the lavry/benchmark. Oh, but there are good things- it has more impact, a wider soundstage, more vivacity/musicality, far better dynamics, and a beautifully clear treble.
post #2 of 76
Man that is a lot of DACs dude!

Hopefully you'll find the holy grail one of these days, and I'm glad I could help you by letting you listen to my stuff.
post #3 of 76
One point that I think Head-Fiers tend to miss with external DACs is that it's only as good as the transport that's feeding it. I know the DAC-1 and Lavry are supposed to be good about jitter, but I heard a difference switching from a cheaper CD player to a $1.5k CD player. The player's redbook isn't as good as when I've got it output to the my Benchmark. My philosophy on that is that the DAC is getting more of the correct 1s and 0s from the original CD, and not as many read errors. At least I don't have any complaints with the Benchmark now. It seems well neutral enough that it's a good source for all my headphones. I do believe it has a FR just like the one Stereophile measured:

post #4 of 76
Quote:
Originally Posted by Davesrose View Post
One point that I think Head-Fiers tend to miss with external DACs is that it's only as good as the transport that's feeding it. I know the DAC-1 and Lavry are supposed to be good about jitter, but I heard a difference switching from a cheaper CD player to a $1.5k CD player. The player's redbook isn't as good as when I've got it output to the my Benchmark. My philosophy on that is that the DAC is getting more of the correct 1s and 0s from the original CD, and not as many read errors. At least I don't have any complaints with the Benchmark now. It seems well neutral enough that it's a good source for all my headphones. I do believe it has a FR just like the one Stereophile measured:

Umm, see my sig for the transport: it's a modded Denon 3910 SACD player that more than hold its own against anything I've heard under $2k.
post #5 of 76
Quote:
Originally Posted by humanflyz View Post
Umm, see my sig for the transport: it's a modded Denon 3910 SACD player that more than hold its own against anything I've heard under $2k.
So are you using the Stello DAC for redbook with it? Did you find your DAC changed with a change in transport? My point is that DACs scale up with transports.
post #6 of 76
Quote:
Originally Posted by Davesrose View Post
So are you using the Stello DAC for redbook with it? Did you find your DAC changed with a change in transport? My point is that DACs scale up with transports.
Yeah, Stello for Redbook, Denon for SACD, but I feel that they are in the same level that it comes down to a matter of preference. As for transport upgrade; it made a little bit of a difference, but I wasn't sure if it's placebo or actual differences. I doubt it's the rest of my system either, because it is pretty revealing. Maybe it's just my ears.

But back to the OP's great Journey:
You should save up and just go for the TOPS, like an Esoteric or EMM Labs
post #7 of 76
Quote:
Originally Posted by humanflyz View Post
for transport upgrade; it made a little bit of a difference, but I wasn't sure if it's placebo or actual differences. I doubt it's the rest of my system either, because it is pretty revealing. Maybe it's just my ears.
Could have been greater for me because I was coming from a cheap Sony SCD-CE595 to the Music Hall....The Benchmark all of a sudden got more detail and extension as soon as I tried it out on the Maverick The Maverick seems fine for redbook itself, but the Benchmark seems to have a nicer output stage and gives some soundstage to CDs it seems.
post #8 of 76
thanks for the long writeup!!

making it harder for me to shop for a dac! i'm sort of leaning towards a modified dac-ah. and from what i understand the brick uses the same chip? (1543)
post #9 of 76
That was a very enjoyable read.
I like that monologue style!
Thanks granodemostasa.
post #10 of 76

Non-audiophile

David,

Sorry to hear that the Stello was not what you were hoping for. I can't remember who said it first, but I also think you should go straight to the EMM Labs stuff .

Here is my much shorter DAC journey:

Benchmark DAC1 - Initially loved the higher resolution/wider soundstage from the DAC1 compared to my Rotel DAC. It also helps to know all the tweaks that maximized the performance (ground pin loop, balanced outs, etc.).

Zhaolu D2.0 (CS Chip) - Stock version was OK for the price. Disconnecting the coupling caps brought it pretty close to the DAC1. Adding the Oritek Discrete Output stage put it ahead of the DAC1 for resolution, transparancy, focus of soundstage. But where was the bass. Ori's Nov2006 mod added some bass to make this more balanced. A good value for a $400+ DAC.

Electrocompaniet ECD1 - My issue with the Zhaolu though was that it didn't make me want to listen for long listening sessions. The ECD1 took care of this. Almost as detailed as the Zhaolu but more musical for my tastes. Also, much more expensive then the Zhaolu but what the heck . This is me now .

Good luck David in your search (EMM Labs, EMM Labs,.....EMM Labs)
post #11 of 76
Quote:
Originally Posted by utep10 View Post
David,

Sorry to hear that the Stello was not what you were hoping for. I can't remember who said it first, but I also think you should go straight to the EMM Labs stuff .

Here is my much shorter DAC journey:

Benchmark DAC1 - Initially loved the higher resolution/wider soundstage from the DAC1 compared to my Rotel DAC. It also helps to know all the tweaks that maximized the performance (ground pin loop, balanced outs, etc.).

Zhaolu D2.0 (CS Chip) - Stock version was OK for the price. Disconnecting the coupling caps brought it pretty close to the DAC1. Adding the Oritek Discrete Output stage put it ahead of the DAC1 for resolution, transparancy, focus of soundstage. But where was the bass. Ori's Nov2006 mod added some bass to make this more balanced. A good value for a $400+ DAC.

Electrocompaniet ECD1 - My issue with the Zhaolu though was that it didn't make me want to listen for long listening sessions. The ECD1 took care of this. Almost as detailed as the Zhaolu but more musical for my tastes. Also, much more expensive then the Zhaolu but what the heck . This is me now .

Good luck David in your search (EMM Labs, EMM Labs,.....EMM Labs)
Man, you never did get a hold of AD1852 board for the Ori Zhaolu? I've done even more comparisons between AD1852 and CS4398 since my last writeup, and I think I'd rather listen to my Lynx 2B than CS4398 Ori Zhaolu.

In audio, practically NOTHING, at any price, sounds just "perfect," and unless you have limitless funds, the trick is to buy something you despise the least and synergize the rest of cables/gear.

For example, Ori Zhaolu is not a bass-heavy DAC, so I was looking for a digital cable and interconnects that are warmer. When dust settled, I ended up with Stereovox XV2 digital cable and PS Audio Transcendent interconnect, both of which are NOT warm at all and likely a bit leaner and meaner than neutral, especially Stereovox. However, these both brought incredible resolution from the Ori Zhaolu, and I was able to dial in the "warmth" factor elsewhere in the system.

What David is looking for is in the realm of EMM Labs, Dodson 218, MBL, and Esoteric X03/01. But even these units are far from perfect IMO.
post #12 of 76
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jon L View Post

What David is looking for is in the realm of EMM Labs, Dodson 218, MBL, and Esoteric X03/01. But even these units are far from perfect IMO.
Hi
While it is probably impossible to get every single thing right in this price category, there is like an "overall" leader, and right now i think that it's the stello. i'll wait till my vda-2 gets burned in and then try to compare it to other things.

I always had the AD chip with my zhaolu dac, and had some very warm cables with it (chimera labs), while it did get some bass out.. so it didn't sound bright, that still doesn't fix the bass extension issue. it's basically making bad bass louder as oppose to making it good bass.

I know that the EMM labs stuff has people going crazy in the bay area, however I don't have the cash to go much beyond the 1K territory... although i'll definitely try to get a good listen to it during in the international meet.
post #13 of 76
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jon L View Post
Man, you never did get a hold of AD1852 board for the Ori Zhaolu? I've done even more comparisons between AD1852 and CS4398 since my last writeup, and I think I'd rather listen to my Lynx 2B than CS4398 Ori Zhaolu.
How much for a Lynx 2B?


Quote:
Originally Posted by Jon L View Post
What David is looking for is in the realm of EMM Labs, Dodson 218, MBL, and Esoteric X03/01. But even these units are far from perfect IMO.
Your last statement maybe true as I've only heard the EMM Labs stuff that Neil has but I certainly wouldn't kick any of these out of my bed.... I mean system.
post #14 of 76
:P E M M LABS DUDE! :P
post #15 of 76
The sonicraft DAC-60 you tried is the exact one I now own, correct? I love it.
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