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Little Dot DAC_I Review and Comparo

post #1 of 51
Thread Starter 
I've noticed a distinct lack of reviews on Little Dot's relatively new DAC_I and decided it was time that I give something back to the Head-Fi community and attempt to remedy the situation. I'm a long-time music lover and bad guitar player, but something of a junior audiophile. As such, I can't claim to have done tons and tons of comparing different gear over the years, though I have been doing so increasingly in recent years. Take my comments with a grain of salt -- Listening for yourself is the only way to really know what *you* instead of the reviewer think about a piece of equipment!



I've had the DAC_I since early August and have really enjoyed using it in my work system, running into a Little Dot MKV headphone amplifier, feeding my HD-650's (with Blue Dragon cable) and AKG-701's. The USB input allowed me to ditch the crappy sound card in my computer and the sound quality took a serious step forward right away...

The DAC_I in general sounds smooth, full and very detailed to my ears. I don't have any previous experience in the lower end of modern DAC's (I wish I could say the same about crappy CD players over the years!), and I was very surprised by the quality on offer here. I have had a Benchmark Dac-1 in my home stereo rig for more than a year now -- I know it very well and am quite smitten with that one as well. But based on a seat-of-the-pants assessment, I started to wonder whether the LD might be just as good as the Benchmark. This led me to compose the following review...

I spent the last several days playing around with the Little Dot DAC_I, listening as critically as I'm able and including some extensive A/B testing with my Benchmark DAC 1. It was an interesting ride. I am happy to report that the LD DAC_1 sounds great, even by comparison to it's pricey competition for my affections.

Setup



I mostly ran CD's from my trusty old Arcam CD62 by coaxial to the LD DAC_1. From there, I connected to my Little Dot MKV with a pair of Synergistic Research interconnects. I also ran optical digital out of the CD62 to my Benchmark DAC1 and from there to the other input on the LD MKV (a handy feature for this comparo!) The MKV drove my HD-650's with Moon Audio's Blue Dragon cable, and sometimes my unmodified AKG-701's.

Overall Sound
This is very good digital sound. With well recorded uncompressed files this thing sounds spectacular. The bass is powerful, attack is crisp and detail retrieval is fantastic. Can it be bettered? Yes -- Definitely. How wide is the margin between your $85K dCS Scarlatti and the LD? I will never know. Please do let me know all about it if you can run the test (really!). But it's definitely in the same general league as the Benchmark, if perhaps a step behind. More on that later...

Warm or Cool?
I said in an earlier post that the DAC had seemed warm-ish to me. After playing around with a more complex setup, I'm becoming convinced that it's not really adding any warmth as I reported before. What I think I was hearing before seems to be a difference between the head-amp on the Benchmark and my LD MKV (more on that later). I suppose I feel that the balance is very "neutral". It's not warm like my Rega TT / Denon DL-103 / Linn phono stage. In fact it's pretty darn close to the Benchmark in this regard. Others seem to find the Benchmark on the cool side... If so, count the LD in the same camp. To me, it just sounds detailed at this point.

Filter Settings
I seem to prefer the Sharp filter setting to the Slow. I found that instruments had a little more space from one another on this setting. The leading edge seemed just a hair crisper than it did on Slow. Am I being led by the names of these settings, or did they simply accurately describe what they're doing for once? If the latter, who would want a slow setting anyway? Maybe this quality, which sometimes seemed like a slight smearing to me, would be interpreted as warmth by some? If some of your music sounds harsh and crappy this might make it hurt a little less, and that's something I suppose...

USB Input
This one surprised me a little bit. I have been reading a lot recently about the advantages of newer asynchronous mode USB dacs, and about the inherent weakness in the other variety. Honestly, I was happy with the sound over the USB connection. I played a few CD's matched up with FLAC rips playing through Winamp with ASIO4ALL. Switching between the two inputs on the LD yielded no massive or easily identifiable differences. I thought I heard some small differences, but I didn't fiddle with it long enough to be sure. I can comfortably say that the LD sounds good on all of its inputs -- I tried them all and found none of them stuck out much.

Build Quality / Casework / Etc.



I've had zero problems with the DAC_I in three months of operation. The ergonomics of the push button control selections aren't so stellar, but you mostly leave these alone anyway. Changing inputs caused a two second delay in the sound, which was slightly annoying when comparing the sound of different inputs, but otherwise not something I ever noticed before. The case is basically a match to the MKV for those who care about such things. It is slightly longer than the MKV, however, meaning that you have to put the DAC on the bottom if you've got them stacked (which they do quite well and pleasingly to my eye).



The DAC_I runs ever so slightly warm to the touch (way cooler than the Benchmark which gets almost a little hot on a warm day).

Comparing to the Benchmark DAC 1



The overall sound quality was pretty close really. I love both of these DAC's. I did occasionally get a sense of a bit more air and space around the instruments with the Benchmark when recordings allowed such things to be noticed. This quality was heightened when comparing the headphone amp on the Benchmark to the LD MKV driven by the LD DAC_I (volume matched as best I could with my Radio Shack decibel meter). There was perhaps a bit more heft to the tones on the LD rig which served it well with electronic or other bass-heavy music, but the airiness of the Benchmark would probably get my vote in most cases. The difference isn't stark, but it is noticeable at times with certain details. It was a lot harder to spot this difference when both DACS were feeding the MKV. Perhaps the Benchmark's amp section beats the MKV... I wish it were possible to run the LD into the Benchmark's amp, but since I don't have the Pre version this wasn't possible.

An Outstanding Value Proposition
Overall, I found the Little Dot DAC_1 to be competitive with, but generally a small margin behind, the Benchmark DAC1. But consider that the Little Dot costs just $304 delivered, compared to $1,022 for the Benchmark -- The LD is not a small margin behind in this respect. In fairness, the Benchmark has what appears to be a pretty good headamp built in with two outputs and also an integral volume control. In most other respects the two units are similar, but in my case the LD has a USB input missing from the basic DAC1. Add another $300 bucks if you want to play with computer audio on the Benchmark... That or buy the both the basic Benchmark and an LD DAC_1 for the same money. Then you can tell me that I'm crazy and that the difference between the two is way more drastic than I'm hearing right now.

An interesting proposition is to compare the MK V + DAC_1 setup from Little Dot to the Benchmark Pre. With the MKV, you've got two inputs, one for your phono stage or other analog source, and the other fed from the DAC_1. You've got USB inputs and a host of other connections on both setups. The LD setup costs $628 while the Benchmark comes in at $1,628... IF you're on a budget, my instincts say that plowing this kind of dough into small source differences, or cabling say, probably isn't the best way to go. Different headphones *definitely* sound vastly different from one another. I have yet to hear HD800's or other uber headphones, but I expect I wouldn't have to strain to hear the difference from my HD-650's. If you've already got amazing headphones and nice amplification, please feel free to chase that last 5-10% from the source. Myself, I'm not there yet.

I feel that Little Dot have done a great job with the DAC_1. You can get a long way towards audio nirvana with this humbly priced, direct sale, made in China, component. It's a brave new world out there...

A Final Note
A more interesting and fair comparison would undoubtedly be had with the Cambridge DAC Magic. Perhaps someone else can provide this perspective at some point. If others have different gear (perhaps better headphones or amplifier) and can run a similar test I'd love to hear your impressions. If not, well then perhaps I have an excuse to keep collecting new gear...
post #2 of 51
Great review! Thanks for taking the time to share such well-written and thoughtful impressions. The comparison with the Benchmark is really interesting - seems like the Little Dot really does keep up the company's trend towards excellent bang-for-buck products.
post #3 of 51
Thread Starter 
Thanks! It's my first attempt at this sort of thing, but it was satisfying. I definitely learned something...
post #4 of 51
Thanks for the very nice and informative review. It does fill a niche and I'm sure a lot of people are curious as to how the DAC_1 sounds like.
post #5 of 51
Good Review.
I'll be doing a comparison between the LD DAC 1 and the PS Audio DLIII using time synchronized level matched neutral bias recordings with double blind listening tests pretty soon...
post #6 of 51
A little suggestion...
Why you compare DAC1's build-in headphone amp with DAC_1 + MKV combo? For a DAC A/B test, you should use same digital output source (both from COAXIAL) and same amp end (LD MKV).
Hope this can help...
post #7 of 51
thanks for the review... i think a LD dac is in my future.
post #8 of 51
A wonderful review thank you for taking the time.


Quote:
Originally Posted by CapQ View Post
A little suggestion...
Why you compare DAC1's build-in headphone amp with DAC_1 + MKV combo? For a DAC A/B test, you should use same digital output source (both from COAXIAL) and same amp end (LD MKV).
Hope this can help...
I agree, this does throw a spanner in the works.
post #9 of 51
Thread Starter 
Thanks guys -- You make a good point. In fact, I did do extensive testing of both the LD and Benchmark DACs feeding the MKV headphone amp. I didn't talk about it much, but realize that I should have done so. Allow me to correct this oversight...

Feeding both dacs into the MKV, I was able to switch inputs instantaneously by hitting the input buttons on the front of the amp. I matched the input levels with my decibel meter using the volume controlled variable output on the Benchmark. The sound was much more similar between the two units in this setup.

I noticed, but to a much lesser degree, the same sonic differences I noted above, namely that the Benchmark occasionally had a sense of a little more air around the instruments, a tad bit more separation. But the degree of this difference was very small and hard to hear through the MKV. I looked for particular sounds in a host of cd's, from MFSL's reissue of the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, to solo acoustic guitar music, jazz, and electronic music (Health and Daft Punk!) The differences were very, perishingly small in this setup, but with certain sounds, on specific sections of specific songs they were noticable in A/B testing.

In the end, I was wondering if the MKV was resolving enough to allow the different DACS to show their relative merits. I suspect that it is not, and this is why I hoped someone with better headphones or amplification could weigh in about it. It might suffice to say that when using the MKV as an amplifier, the difference was absolutely not worth the extra money. Both sounded great and the differences between the LD on 'Sharp' and the Benchmark were very small.

I do wish that I had a been able to run the LD into the Benchmark's amp. I agree that it is difficult to tell how much of the difference I was hearing was coming from the amp section of the Benchmark. My suspicion is that it's amp is more resolving than the MKV. The only thing that led me to feel that I had correctly pegged the difference between the two DACs was that I had heard the same differences in both setups, ie. when both were driving the MKV and when each source fed a separate amp. The differences were definitely more apparent in that scenario, but this is not really surprising and must have been influenced also by the differences in amplification. Fair point.

On the issue of using the coax input on both DAC's, this wasn't possible for me since none of my transports have two coaxial digital outputs. I had to use one optical and one coaxial for these tests -- Fair warning. I did run for a couple of hours with the optical on the Benchmark and for a couple of hours with the optical into the LD. The differences in both cases were, yet again, very minor to my ears.
post #10 of 51
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by oatmeal769 View Post
Good Review.
I'll be doing a comparison between the LD DAC 1 and the PS Audio DLIII using time synchronized level matched neutral bias recordings with double blind listening tests pretty soon...
I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Please do write them up when you get a chance!!
post #11 of 51
Quote:
Originally Posted by mastertrash View Post
I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Please do write them up when you get a chance!!
It will be 'part two' of a comprehensive review series I'm going to do. The first part is HERE. I'll be using the PS Audio again, and hopefully a couple others...


.
post #12 of 51
Great review mastertrash...


I have been enjoying mine very much. I run mine balanced with the MKVII and single-ended with the Woo Audio WA2...I give it the solid state slam and the warm tube love.....

Great job...

post #13 of 51
Very good review.

Could not agree more with your verdict,run mine with MKV11 balanced all the way,great combination at a fantastic price.
post #14 of 51
Great review of a system I'm enjoying very much with my DF's.
It's good to see that this wonderful DAC is finally caching on.
post #15 of 51
Guys,
How long was the wait time between placing your order and receiving the unit? I hate waiting!
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