New owner impressions. WARNING: word limit exceeded!
I received my MHDT Labs Paradisea+ yesterday, and I am really impressed! Before I provide more details on the sound, please bear with me while I describe my previous lack of experience and current listening environment.
I had not heard a dedicated stand-alone home DAC before this one. My previous DAC experience has been limited to CD player internal chips, various iPods, and my Predator via USB. Since I don’t have much of a background to draw comparisons, I can only comment on what I heard with this unit vs. my previous stone knives and tablets. Your mileage may vary.
In addition, I am using a Yamaha vintage integrated amp running in Class A mode rather than a headphone amp. That’s not so relevant for me, since my comparison is made using the same unit, but it is worth noting given all of the recent discussion about the quality of hi-fi component headphone jacks. It is a very low distortion unit that has recently been cleaned, and my personal feeling is that it drives high-impedance HD600’s quite well. But your amp might be much better and more demanding of a DAC. If you have nothing, I’d say mine is better.
Finally, for reference, here is the complete system that I am using on either side of the Paradisea+: Sony SCD-CE595 CD transport via a Monster optical cable or iTunes Apple Lossless files via the stock USB cable, and then analog out via Zu Oxyfuel interconnects to the Yamaha powering my HD600 headphones. I am using a Volex 17604 power cable on the DAC. The tube is the stock 5670. None of this equipment has any significant burn-in time yet… well, except for my 25-year old Yamaha amp. It’s pretty mature.
My primary purpose for this DAC was to bring my CD home system up to a level that would make me prefer it over my portable rig. Now that may not sound like a tall order to you, but my portable rig is pretty good and my home system was the remnants of a decent stereo without the speakers. My CD player/Yamaha did not sound as comfortable (read: musical and relaxing) as the iPod/Predator did driving my HD600’s, even with the latter rig being handicapped with compressed files. So I often found myself listening to the portable rig with my Westone UM2’s because the synergy was so good. I knew the HD600’s had much more to offer and I needed to upgrade at least the DAC to get there. I chose the NOS tube Paradisea+ because I wanted a more “musical” system. You can read “colored” or “distorted” if you wish, but I had heard enough digital irritation ™ and wanted to just sit back and enjoy the music. I was not disappointed.
I started out with a very familiar album, U2’s “Achtung Baby”. This CD is one of my favorites and also a prime candidate for improvement as the CD player’s DAC routinely distorted the guitar work or gave it an unnatural edge (no pun intended). As I listened to this selection, I had to keep reminding myself to make notes. The music was taking over and I couldn’t make myself listen to the equipment. The bass was very controlled and tight. The guitar tonal quality was exactly as I expected it to sound. The separation of the instruments was vastly improved. By the time I got to “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways”, the Paradisea's tube was probably sufficiently warmed up and the wow factor began to take over. The attack of the percussion and screaming of the guitar riffs were particularly well presented without a hint of the digital sound that plagued me in the past. Wonderful!
Next, I listened to The Beatles’ “Love”. I skipped through the early part of the CD but after a while I listened to every track because I was just so blown away by the clarity and precise way the instruments were presented. The acoustic version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was particularly revealing. I never realized that George and his guitar were featured in the center while the strings were below him and to the sides as if in an orchestra pit. It gave the selection a completely different feel for me – my notes said it was like comparing a live performance to an AM car radio but probably not quite that dramatic.
I moved on to David Gray’s “White Ladder”. This CD was pure torture on my Sony CE595’s internal DAC. Certain parts of this CD would actually vibrate my bad (read: old and deteriorated) left ear in a painful way, so I always chose to listen to this on my portable rig. The Paradisea+ gave me a new appreciation for this fine album, eliminating all of the distortion and poor resolution of my CD's DAC. David’s vocals sounded very natural and musical (there’s that word again). The guitar and percussion were crisp and bright, without being sharp and sibilant. The dynamic range was certainly better than my portable rig driving the HD600’s, and the music was more alive. (Perhaps I should credit the amp for this.) On “Sail Away”, I heard some bass under the main instruments that I had never noticed before. At this point, I was in a blissful trance (might have been the wine) and I had to fight the urge to stay up all night listening to the rest of my CD collection.
I listened to a couple of these selections via USB, and I didn’t find it to be as good as the CD. It sounded very similar to my Predator USB DAC, which is not to say bad but lacking the wow factor that I got from the optical CD input. I agree with s1rrah’s impression earlier in this thread – it sounded “bland” compared to the optical input. I used the Windows XP drivers (not ASIO) and a basic USB cable, so I might be able to improve on this performance. I wasn’t really focused on getting better sound from my PC at that moment, so I didn’t spend much time analyzing it.
So this is a lot of blabbering about this DAC… what does it all mean for you? It is certainly a high-quality product with a unique design and excellent construction. If you are looking for a non-oversampling DAC that provides a warm tube sound quality to mellow out the digital edge of your other components, the Paradisea+ certainly deserves your careful consideration.
From a newbie perspective, if you are listening to a sound card DAC or an entry-level product, I dare say that a whole new world awaits you if you can afford the investment to move to a better unit. I was amazed at just how much difference this component made over a “throw-in” DAC.
From a Head-Fi perspective, I am now wondering just how much better my system could sound with a headphone amp instead of my integrated, and which amp would synergize the best, and what different headphones could do for me, and what tube and/or op-amp rolling would do for the sound, and when my Zu Birth power cable will be delivered, and how much limit I have left on my credit cards before the next billing cycle.