So right to business...
I have recently been fortunate enough to be loaned a Stello DA100 by our very own Head-fier, Shellylh so as to write up a brief bit of commentary on how it might compare with my standard "go-to" DAC, an MHDT Labs Havana.
I have to say, knowing that both DACs are about as diametrically opposed as two DACs can be ... one the near pinnacle of 1000 dollarish, latest and greatest DAC technologies (Stello) and one being based on a rather antiquated, if not very well respected old school R2R DAC topology (Havana) ... I was *very* interested in doing some serious critical comparisons of the two.
And also, since I'm a huge fan (and owner) of the Stello HP100 headamp, I have always wanted to demo it's mating DAC.
I think the Stello stackable component series (HP100, DA100, etc.) are just as beautifully (aesthetics) designed as anything I've ever layed eyes on. They reek of quality and subdued grace and function and having listened to and loved the HP100 headamp for quite a while now ... I admit to the slightest bit of audio arousal upon pondering the chance to have a DA100 in my house for a couple weeks.
First a couple words on the design characteristics of both DACS...
Stello DA100 Technical/Design Specs:
Copied from Soundstage review of DA100:
"Inside, the DA100 uses an AKM4395 DAC chipset, sixth-order digital filter, and a fully discrete class-A analog output stage with "true 192kHz/24-bit upsampling" (this last bit according to the owner’s manual). Stello claims its ARSC (Asynchronous Sampling Rate Conversion), a specially designed clock circuit employing a PLL (phase locked loop), makes for "extremely low jitter."
MHDT Havana Technical/Design Specs:
The Havana is a rather classic interpretation of the long standing "R2R" DAC design which has been around for quite some time. It features zero digital filters and is 100% non oversampling. Also the Havana design utilizes a pair of well-regarded, 16 bit, Burr Brown PCM56PK monolithic DAC chips and features no OPAMPS in the signal path. The audio circuit incorporates a single 2C51 tube buffer stage which can be used to quite dramatically change the sonic signature of the DAC depending on tube choice. Also of note, throughout the DAC you will find a healthy dose of MHDT Labs custom made film/foil capacitors (along with a generous amount of Nichicon Fine Gold (FG) Muse capacitors).
Both DACs were demo'd with the same set of 7 .flacs. Both DACs were fed via digital coax (Zu Ash) and from a Prelude sound card. The Havana DAC was demo'd while utilizing a 1954 JW branded WE396A tube. The headphones used for the comparison are Grado GS1000's. Both DACs were demo'd using a pair of Audio Arts IC-3 copper/silver hybrid IC's connecting to a Stello HP100 Headphone amplifier.
I did not directly A/B each DAC simultaneously. I tried this running both via optical and from my CD player but I found it too difficult to really identify with each DAC's characteristics.
So in the end, I decided to simply listen to all seven tracks, in a "session" format and with each DAC ... taking notes along the way as to my personal impressions of each. This worked much better than a direct A/B, constantly switching sort of approach and I found myself much more able to identify each DACs differences.
The Demo Tracks
As with any review I do, I like to post an abbreviated clip of each song to my own FTP server so you readers might better understand the conditions under which I come to my conclusions regarding the hardware.
All linked snippets are hosted on my own domain and are pulled from albums I personally own; they are posted here for review/education as allowed under the Fair Use Act of 1976 (pardon the necessary legal verbage).
Do note, however ... the Janes Addiction track and the Street Sweeper track are available below in their entirety; these are open source, public domain recordings published as a part of a recent Nine Inch Nails compilation, ... so enjoy them; they are fantastic
1. Janes Addiction / "chip Away" : this is an amazing recording. The spatial qualities are outstanding and the bass drum (timpani?) is unbelievably powerful. The decaying drum tone, at the sudden stop around 0.49 secs is so fewking amazing! Listen for it and you'll find a good indicator of your rigs ability to resolve tonal decay.
2. Wind Soloists Of The Chamber Orchestra Of Europe/ "Lento (Leos Janacek): This is a fantastic track for gauging ambient detail and midrange. The spatial qualities of the room should be very apparent when listening. Medium sized and mostly empty (I'd guess). One of the best tracks I know of for sound stage demonstration.
3. Bonnie Prince Billy / "You Will Miss Me": I chose this track because of the studio like, very close and intimate profile. A low and delicate and lovely bit of music. Magically personal and tender. Piano, brush snare, pedal steel, ... wonderful.
4. Street Sweeper / "Clap for Them Killers": Another of the insanely good and totally free tracks from the recent NiN "Ninja" release. This is the former guitarist from Rage Against the Machine ... his new project. An insanely good groove.
5. The The / "Bluer than Midnight": Another of my favorite soundstage/3D imaging demo tracks (as well as one of my all time favorite bands. The siren that starts around 0:21 secs should sound like it's coming through an apartment window from about six city blocks away. The saxophone is sex incarnate. Matt Johnson's voice, also, happens to be one of the best mid range benchmarks I've heard.
6. Fu Manchu / "Written in Stone": No review is complete without the good old fashioned and blistering hot guitar tone that can only come from tube amps and Gibson Les Paul guitars. And no other band does it as patently well as Fu Manchu.
7. Brian Bromberg / "Chameleon": A wonderful demo track for the gauging of bass performance. Some of the best, most well resolved stand up bass music I've had the pleasure of hearing.
Havana: Sound Impressions
Since I already know that I vastly prefer the Havana over the DA100, I am simply going to discuss here what I find to be so enthralling about the Havana's sound and won't mention any comparisons to the DA100.
That said, in the DA100 sound impressions area, below, I will constantly refer back to the Havana so as to better describe where I found them to differ.
So on with the review...
The Havana is, in my estimation, perfectly detailed. There is not an ambient artifact lost on the listener and yet this clairty is perfectly natural sounding and not exaggerated in the least.
The bass is lovely and extended and amply represented, very natural and not overdone. It's just spot on in my estimation and without a hint of bloat or "wool" or otherwise. Those fat 2.0uf MHDT output caps really shine here.
The highs are absolutely perfect: very sweet with zero digital edge or overt crispness ... just real and lovely and genuine. Considering that my fav cans are the rather nit-picky Grado RS1's and Grado GS1000's ... I have to say that the highs with the Havana are better than any other that I've heard through those cans.
It is a very analogue sounding DAC that constantly reminds me of listening to my roommates fairly high end vinyl rig. The Havana exudes a warmth and ease that is almost the antithesis of the typical "digital" sound.
The Havana, to use a popular term, is utterly "musical" and seductive, it makes me want to NOT stop listening to the music. While listening to the review tracks, I constantly found myself forgetting that I was supposed to be listening critically or that I should be taking notes, etc.; I just wanted to cue the next track or listen to the entire album.
The sound stage is excellent but not exaggerated and nor is it "narrow" in the least; rooms/venues sound as they were recorded in; one gets an uncanny sense of the space surrounding the players and the particular extents of any given recording venue; the Havana does this beautifully and consistently from orchestral pieces to stoner rock.
The Havana imparts no signature sonic image to the music. Each track sounds as you'd expect it to sound and the DAC, as a piece of gear or a step in the electronics chain, simply disappears.
Although very detailed, more than the MHDT Paradisea, etc. ... the Havana would still not be the end-all-be-all DAC for detail freaks ... that is, folks who enjoy nitpicking over this or that sound effect or peculiarity of some track more so than they might simply enjoy listening to music.
Saxophones and stand up bass sound ungodly good on the Havana ... warm and fleshy, visceral with incredible tone and snap ... again ... an utterly seductive and enthralling musical performer with excellent separation of instruments but as with everything else the Havana does well ... not supernatural sounding, or as some DACs can be, *too* separated or "clinical" sounding.
In a real music listening scenario, a real live music listening venue ... all the instruments somewhat bleed into one another, remaining separate but undeniably being projected from a "group" of players. Where some DACs can seem near clinical in their ability to separate and isolate each individual instrument and in many cases sound "medicinal" because of this, the Havana is natural and organic. As the designer of the Havana claimed in an email dialogue a bit back: "The Havana sounds like real music, get a violinist or a cello player or a pianist to listen to music through the Havana and let them explain why it sounds like real music."
BTW, I'm not going to talk much here about the various demo tracks except to say that the Havana treated them all with equal poise and finesse.
But I will say that the winds track is positively disarming in it's beauty through the Havana; I could hear the flap of the valves on the clarinet ... the occasional stretching of a players leather seat; and the venue, the air in the hall, was almost visible in my minds eye ... great GREAT sound stage and imaging! Though I mention what might sound like ambient artifacts ... the flap of valves, the stretching sound of leather, etc. ... such sounds are presented in the same fashion as one might hear when attending a small venue chamber music performance. A beautiful track to be sure.
Also, the tube amps and Les Paul loveliness of the Fu Manchu track is just pure sex through the Havana. And the 3D spatial qualities apparent in the The The track are off the charts fine.
DA100: Sound Impressions
For the sake of comparison, I am going to speak mostly in regards to where the DA100 differs from the Havana.
First ... and surprisingly enough ... the DA100 is quite non-digital sounding for a oversampling/filtered DAC; but that said, it is still quite immediately more traditionally "digital" sounding than is the Havana.
The highs have a much sharper edge, almost becoming splashy or sharp here and there and depending on what track I was listening to.
In a most technical sense, the DA100 is a tad more detailed than the Havana. But again, to my ear and rig, this can occasionally translate into a ever so slightly fatiguing effect in the highs (mind you, I'm listening through GS1000's).
Sound stage is equally as good as the Havana although there was a certain and organic nuance that simply did not translate through the DA100 which the Havana was so so good at ... that knack of carrying the "flavor of the venue" or room I discussed above. This was wholly absent from the DA100 and instead tracks seemed a little more homogenized in their origin and unique recording circumstances.
The DA100's bass is outstanding, every bit the equal of the Havana. No complaints in the bass department.
The Stello DAC's highs are quite different than Havana ... more "tinkly" or "sparkly" in a way that doesn't sound nearly as natural and sweet as the Havana. In certain "splash" cymbal laden tracks (Fu Manchu, etc.), this resulted in a quite unnaturally "tinny" or "splashy" sound that just didn't sound like real splash cymbal rides.
Although for a filtered and oversampling DAC (though I'm listening with upsampling off, mind you) the Stello does indeed sound much more musical than other similarly designed DACS I've heard, but it nonetheless sounds more like a digital experience than does the Havana. That said, compared to, say, the much cheaper Musiland MD10, the Stello DAC is light years ahead and far less digital sounding.
And just speaking of "digital" sounding DACS ... although the DA100 is much much sweeter sounding than my Prelude sound card DAC, it still sounds related to it in family, if nothing else, simply due to it's treatment of high frequencies and the trademark digital edge that so many DACs can portray.
For instance, in the Fu Manchu track, the guitars don't sound as true to their tube amp origins as they do through the Havana ... there's an edge to them that just wouldn't be there if you were actually standing in front of a Marshall half stack. The Havana, however, nails that.
Also on the same Fu Manchu track, the cymbal work is what I would call too "splashy" sounding ... something, again, that the Havana does better and in a much more realistically musical fashion.
In rock music overall, the DA100 lacks a bit of the "meat" that the Havana imparts to similar tracks. The Janes Addiction song, though very nice through the DA100, still lacked the feel of the cavernous room that the bass drummer was pounding away in ... it sounds separated from the room in a way that's not nearly as engaging to me as the Havana's treatment of the same song is.
When all is said and done .... and though I think the DA100 is an outstanding DAC for it's price range ... it nevertheless failed to make me "fall hard" for the music and nor was it nearly as enthralling and seductive as the Havana.
When listening to the Brian Bromberg bit, "Chameleon" ... as with the mentioned Janes Track, I found it was simply not as devastating in it's visceral(ness) or sensuousness as it was with the Havana. Not just the tonality and delivery of the music ... but again ... it's like there was a disconnection from the room or something. I did not feel nearly as connected with the music as a real and genuinely sensuous "performance" as I did with the Havana.
The Wind Ensemble track was perhaps the most dramatically less enjoyable with the DA100 ... that uncanny sense of the players before you and the character of the room were just not there with the DA100; it got the notes right ... it sounded decent and all ... but there was a personal and magical timbre/tone to the delivery of the music that was not the equal of the Havana.
Overall, I think the DA100 is great in it's individual parts but that it fails to put them together as beautifully as the Havana. There's a certain organic, three dimensionality and musical ease that the Havana provides which is absent in the DA100.
Regarding the 192khz Upsample Feature: I did not like this. It increased the digital edge and sharpness that already sets the DA100 apart from the Havana ... and as mentioned by others, seemed to destroy the DA100's very nice bass performance.
This review is not intended to be a Havana fan boi bit of gush. Fact is ... it's not.
Rather, it's an honest take on two very different DAC designs which I gave a very objective and non-judgemental ear to.
Mind you though ...
This reviewer is a long time fan and producer of live music ... both rock and various other "low-fi" acoustic varieties.
I have spent countless hours at live music shows ... from the nastiest of stoner rock performances to the most nuanced and delicate of chamber and even operatic shows ... and I have as well spent many hours recording live music with other musicians in a variety of room/studio environments.
I'm a die hard fan of real music, live music and honestly made music. I know what such music sounds like and I always attempt to approximate that as a benchmark for my headphone listening. I'm also quite aware of the particular character any given performance venue can yield to a recorded work and I expect these spatial/material qualities to be communicated by my gear.
And so I may simply be biased towards the oldschool, NOS, "R2R" DAC design sound since it is indisputably recognized for it's warmth and non-digital sounding presentation.
But in the end, and to my own ear, the MHDT Havana is a far more engaging and wonderful bit of digital-to-analogue loveliness than is the similarly priced Stello DA100.
The Stello is a very good DAC, no doubt about it and I would unflinchingly recommend it to anyone looking for a DAC in it's price range ... but as per my more detailed comments above ... it simply lacks the dimensionality and depth that the Havana provides when rendering music. The DA100 sounds good, even what you might occasionally call "neat" or "interesting" ... but it is not the "musical" equal of the Havana DAC.
So hope that was informative for some of you folks ... and thanks again, Shelly, for loaning me your Stello DAC!
Do rock on...