STAGEDAC Review. Part II
After the first results with “Take five” I was a little bit baffled because the DAC seemed to sound better than my valves. How could that be possible? Well, I know different valves change the “body” of the music (really what they do is introducing harmonic distortions that gives a different “flavour”). To truly compare components, you have to match their output levels. I did not have a sound meter handy so what I did was connecting the buffer valves amplifier to the variable output of the DAC and I moved to the maximum, so it would have the same level than the fixed output (2.2 Vrms). That seemed to me a fairier comparison between the Stagedac own sound and the effect of the valves (at the end of the day, all I was doing was “filtering” the Stagedac own sound and comparing it with itself through the buffer/valves. The Icon audio BA2 has zero gain so nothing is added in terms of gain).
Well, the sound was now slightly more pleasing with valves, but not by a big margin (the sound was still fuller with the Stagedac own sound and I could clearly feel the bass better). I changed the Sylvania for a pair of 1943's Ken Rad black tube and: voilà! The bass came back (as I was expecting. I have included a picture). Even when I lost some clarity, it was, to my ears, a more pleasing and round sound now with valves. I did various test with Miles Davis to convince myself that I was not exercising auto-suggestion and I was happy it was not the case. The famous muted trumpet does not pierce your brain when you filter it through valves. Even in position 2:2 (the more vinyl like for the stagedac) the trumpet was still a little bit harsh when listening to 'Round midnight (not unpleasant, but less natural). Being honest, I could very happily live with it if I did not have the valves. By the way, this was with the Grado GS1000i, with the HD650 I was pretty much as happy with or without valves. That is how good I think this DAC sounds.
Anyway, now I was happy to start the other tests. I will try to be brief, so you get an idea. Needless to say that I carried on trying different combinations with all the other tunes. I have to say that the filters do not seem to have the same effect with different songs and headphones! Great, another difficulty added. In a nutshell, after a lot of tweaking, I still think that, in general terms, my first impressions were about right (give or take). I still think that positions 2:2 (x4 oversampling with 2nd filter) and 3:1 (third filter -top- with x8 oversampling) are the nicest sounding ones. I concluded that, if no valves were to be used, position 2:2 is the best (you can listen to trumpet with no fatigue). If valves were to be used, 3:1 is my favourite.
Highs: listening to James Ehnes performance of Paganini's “Caprice No 24 in A minor” is a tour the force. The recording was recorded in 20 bits and he plays an Stradivarius, enough said. The piece is for virtuoso and it has devilish pizzicato. I used position 3:1 and the DAC captured not just the fast pace and piercing highs with control, but also the “woodiness” of the violin. Just fantastic. With position 2:2 you could listen to all 24 caprices with no fatigue, even with the Grados.
Mids: I could have selected literally hundreds of well recorded songs for this test but I went for Cat Powers' “Metal heart” for two reasons: first because her voice is so velvety and deep that push you to pay attention to her every word. Second, it has a piano and that is one the most difficult instrument to capture well in a recording. On top of that, the song is great. I can say it was a thrilling experience with the Grados and great with the Hd650. When the piano intro at 0:18 seconds gives way to Cat's wonderful voice, you could almost hear the air going through her lips, very sensual. The decay in her voice is clearly audible. At 0:52 the bass and drums come in and you just have one of the best indie songs of the last five years. The song progresses and it reaches an incredible climax at about 3:00 minutes or so. When she sings “Metal heart you're not worth a thing ” you feel you want to to kiss her and get her forgiveness. Pure joy.
Lows: that one was a difficult choice. I though that maybe I should use metal or hard rock but it would mask nuances of bass. Bass & drum or disco kind of music would deliver masses of bass but with very little control. I went for Esperanza's “I know you know” because of the perfect recording of the double bass. In the first 5-6 seconds, Esperanza introduce her song playing her double bass and it sounded like a double bass. This may sound obvious but it is not. The tone was right, the vibration of the strings was right and then, when she started singing, you just fall in love with her. You forget the DAC and concentrate in the music, that simple. This tune sounded very good with the HD650 but first price went for the Denons D7000 because they went down all the way to the lowest frequencies. I recommend any of you to go to YouTube and see her. She is gorgeous, sings beautifully and plays the double bass with no nonsense. A true artist.
Dynamic range: No surprises here with “The planets”. It is a hybrid SACD so well recorded that it will sound great in any rig. It sounded very good but still, miles away from the real thing. I went to listen to the planets in 2000 played by the Hallé Orchestra in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester and it was like discovering the piece again. They were also performing Pluto. It had been commissioned to Colin Matthews to complete the suite (Pluto had not been discovered yet when Holst composed The planets). So I was in the first ever live performance of Pluto! That did not moved me so much, but their rendition of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis made me cry, literally. Once again the DAC in position 3:1 delivered all the goods with no problem at all.
Well, that was it for the DAC. Very impressed. But, what about the crossfeed section?
I started testing the same CDs but the differences were not very significant and the changes so subtle that sometimes, I wondered if it made any difference at all. Especially, the delay switch, did not seem to change anything at all! I thought, well, let's see with “hard stereo” recordings. First, I gave way to Neil Young's fantastic “Old man” from his Greatest Hits (I think this song does not need presentation). Without crossfeed, the guitar is on your far right and the bass in your left. Not very good at all. I left the delay in the middle position and both, intensity and tonal balance in the minimum. I changed the switch from stereo to crossfeed and the “magic” started. A clear big difference. The guitar moved slightly to the centre of the stage, but the sound lost some “bite”. I changed the tonal balance to mid position. Better but not enough. I pushed it to maximum and it was quite good. The bass still felt a little bit toned down. It is not the case, but that is how it feels (Jan explains briefly the psycoacustics in the manual. That man is a treasure). The trade off is well worth, anyway. Next, I started playing with the crossfeed intensity switch and the sound was incredible with the maximum position. The stage was better defined, and you can hear Neil with his guitar almost the way he sounds live (well, he has lost some voice but the charisma is still there. If you do not believe you should have listen to him this year in Glastonbury Festival).
At this stage in the testing, I was delighted so I wanted to see what I could achieve with the delay control. Well, I could not hear any significant changes, none at all. I though that maybe it was not working! I went to the manual (as I said in my second post, I ended reading the whole thing!). It says you should try a mono recording, move the balance totally to either right or left channel and try then. I connected the USB, went to Winamp, moved the balance totally to the left and played a mono recording (The Blue Note Jazzmen, to be precise). Now I could see the difference but it was quite an strange effect. The delay suppose to mimic the angle of your speakers but it felt like it was moving the music upwards in diagonal, rather than horizontally. After playing for a while, my impression was that the middle position is probably the best.
Summarizing, the changes with crossfeed where dramatic in hard stereo, nothing subtle here: a very real change for better, far better in fact. I tried the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Wes Montgomery, Jethro Tull...
My favourite settings for the crossfeed are: max. for intensity and tonal balance and mid for delay. You can actually leave the crossfeed engaged all the time because it does not seem to affect well mixed CDs.
Do I think the Stagedac is worth the price? Hell I do. The DAC side of it is great and allows you to tailor the sound and the crossfeed section is just incredible. And I mean incredible.
If you have lots of CDs with soundstage too big and do not need another headamp I think this is a must.