My Digital Journey:
Hot Audio DAC WOW impressions, rankings and mega-shootout with eight other budget DACs
Since I joined Head-fi, I have been trying out many budget, mid-fi, and low-end hi fi solutions to learn from and enhance my listening pleasure. I am a sucker for gadgets, and as I am on a limited budget I am always looking for the point of perfection regarding the price/performance ratio. Since I want to stay on topic, I will limit this discussion to DAC comparisons. Hopefully this will help others navigate these products; I know this was beneficial for me to get my own thoughts on the subject organized.
I mainly listen with my HiFiMAN HE-5 through their matching EF5 amplifier, but the HE-5 is out for exchange. I also have a pair of AKG K701s as backup on that system, but they are at Moon Audio to get their dual-terminated Silver Dragon cable modified for balanced use. My other rig is comprised of my HD600 through the AV123 x-head, with the Grado SRSR325is as backup. Right now the HD600 is upstairs with the EF5, and the SR325is is plugged into the x-head. Of the four headphones, the HE-5 and HD600 get the most headtime by far. But no matter, as this is a cumulative overview.
I like many kinds of music, but for comparison's sake I like to use the better Cowboy Junkies' recordings. Their music could be described as kind of a country-rock/blues/jazz fusion with a bit of a dark attitude. I find them to have good dynamic range with great female vocals, and their better recordings are also are also consistently well-mastered.
Here are the DACs I have owned, ranked according to my subjective preference, without regard for price but with regard for utility as well as sound quality:
1) Matrix Mini-i balanced DAC/headphone amp tied for first with the Devilsound 2.1 DAC cable
2) Hot Audio DAC WOW tied for second with the Fubar I-O USB DAC/ADC w/Supplier PSU
3) Maverick D1 DAC/preamp w/NOS tube upgrade
4) Nuforce uDac and S/PDIF converter
5) Penguin/Headphonia USB/RCA DAC Cable tied for fifth with the Hot Audio USB STRAIGHT
6) Hot Audio USB1
I started with the Devilsound 2.1 DAC cable, and returned it after enjoying it for the most part because frankly it was making my home theater setup clip, although the Devilsound was not really at fault as it was clearly exposing some of the limitations of my receiver in biamped stereo speaker mode. I also didn't really have a reference headphone/amp setup at the time, but it was very good with what I was using at the time. I would love to hear it with my HiFiMAN rig, which I believe would do it more justice. The resolution and dynamics were simply spectacular on the Devilsound, and I would like to try it again now that I have upgraded my headphone system, just not with my receiver. It featured an extremely high quality build including the quality of the cables themselves, and had a very enjoyable if not quite neutral sound signature. My HiFiMAN EF5/HE-5 combo needs a good level coming into it, especially when playing back a recording that has a low volume level so I have a feeling it would work well there.
Next I went to the Maverick D1, a very different creature that is quite versatile if somewhat quirky, and it really sounded great for the money. The gain was a little to much with some of my headphones, but I really dug it with my K701. It has a capable and dynamic DAC that can decode information from a variety of sources, and the headphone amp section was able to drive my HE-5, albeit barely. Like the Devilsound, the added dynamics also caused clipping with my home theater receiver when using the tube output, but only when it wasn't fully warmed up. I have since sold it as I have changed my setup around and no longer needed the versatility of the D1. The Maverick did spoil me with a high line output level which was handy with my current rig, the HiFiMAN EF5/HE-5 combo mentioned above.
I bought a Nuforce uDac on impulse during the height of it's FOTM status, and found that it is an amazingly versatile unit, and quite portable for what it does. It has good detail, will go line out or headphone out, and can also be used as a USB to S/PDIF converter. I would prefer it if the volume pot was defeatable when using the line out feature, but I am quite happy with it as a portable laptop/iPad DAC. The uDac does have a bit of flavor, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I would say its sound signature resembles the Maverick's, or even the Devilsound's, but just a bit. I will try its S/PDIF converter with my Matrix Mini-i one of these days, just to see how it sounds as I have read that is the most transparent use for it. I do quite enjoy listening to my ATH-ESW9 through the headphone out of the uDac when traveling (or when the power goes out) with my old Powerbook, and am looking forward to trying it with my iPad and USB camera adapter kit when I receive them.
Later I ordered the Penguin/Headphonia USB/RCA DAC Cable, and while it has the same form factor as the Devilsound, it does not sound the same. While it is very transparent and sounds fine, the detail and dynamics were noticeably better with the Devilsound. I would hope so as the Devilsound costs like five times as much! I was not able to do a direct comparison though, and the Headphonia cable is certainly very good for the money with a great form factor. I have the current version of the Headphonia cable, which uses the Wolfson WM8740 DAC chip. I am looking forward to comparing it with the two lesser Hot Audio offerings when I get my eMac listening station set up again with my Indeed hybrid amp and K701, which have good synergy together.
For my surround/bi-amped speaker setup I ended up going with the Fubar I-O USB DAC/ADC with their upgraded Supplier PSU; it behaves much better with my receiver/speakers, (no clipping), and I am looking forward to digitizing my vinyl with it when I get my turntable back up to snuff. It is very clean sounding with no added warmth, and I highly recommend it for anyone wanting a transparent, stable DAC/ADC, as it really has no weaknesses and is quite solid in its build quality.
My best DAC for now is the Matrix Mini-i, which I use on a totally different computer setup with a different amp and speakers and headphones. It is fantastic, with a very smooth and detailed sound, a choice of 4 digital inputs, and both balanced and unbalanced outputs. I like it a lot with my basement office rig, as I can switch between two computers, and defeat the built-in headphone amplifier if I want. I use it single-ended with my x-head SS amp, which is a fantastic SE amp for the money, IMHO. I use the balanced outputs for some JBL near-field powered monitors, but am looking forward to upgrading to a balanced tube amp in that setup.
Now for the Hot Audio offerings, which is the point of this essay as there were no hits here at Head-fi when searching for the DAC WOW and I am quite happy with it. I had already tried their USB1 DAC, which technically is also an headphone amp with it's mini-jack out. But it behaves more like their DAC STRAIGHT as its output level is quite low. Both the USB1 and the DAC STRAIGHT are pretty good for the price, very smooth and clean-sounding. The DAC STRAIGHT is slightly more resolving and transparent than the USB1, but neither one has any real weaknesses, and are good bargains. I would say that the sound signature of the DAC STRAIGHT moslty resembles the Headphonia DAC cable's, being very transparent and accurate but lacking a bit in overall dynamics.
Hot Audio's DAC STRAIGHT, which uses the Burr-Brown PCM2702 chip, was acceptable to me SQ-wise, but like the Headphonia cable, it just didn't have the output level I desire with my HiFiMAN EF5/HE-5 rig. This made me miss my Devilsound quite a bit, and I was thinking of ordering it again until I spent the cash on an iPad, so my budget was limited. The uDac didn't sound quite right with the EF5 for some reason, it might have been the redundancy of having two mechanical volume pots inline next to each other; the synergy just wasn't there for me. I had read some good things about Hot Audio's DAC EXTASY's high output levels and SQ; it is based on a Wolfson WM8501 DAC chip but it also included a headphone amp. I started a dialog with Dave at Hot Audio to see if he had a "STRAIGHT" version of it, which he had mentioned he might implement in the past.
I must say that Dave, who deigns and builds the Hot Audio DACs, is very good about communicating with his customers before and after the sale and is quite passionate about his products and hifi audio in general. He told me that he had actually "detuned" the DAC ECSTASY a bit as the feedback was good but there were safety concerns about plugging efficient headphones into it, and that it was no longer his "best" DAC anyways. As a repeat customer, he gave me a great deal on his new top of the line: the USB-powered version of his new DAC WOW, which is also available with an optical input and external AC power adapter.
The DAC WOW is as pleasant to listen to as anything else I have tried, and bests them all to my ears in sound quality save the Devilsound and the Matrix. I am also very pleased with its output level compared to the than the USB-1 and DAC STRAIGHT, as it is not lacking at all in that category. When I first plugged it in to my EF5/HE-5, I had to tear myself away from listening to it all day in fact. It is based on the Wolfson WM8524, which Dave said was a newer DAC chip that "doesn't need coupling capacitors and has a better noise floor, THD, and pretty much every other spec". I wasn't sure about all that, but it sounded good to me so I decided to give it a try.
Boy am I glad that I did; the DAC WOW offers exceptional clarity, dynamic range, depth, and texture, and I would say it sounds as good to my ears as the Matrix does single-ended. The Matrix may be a tiny bit more transparent but the bass dynamics in particular of the WOW stand out for me, and I would love to A/B it with the Devilsound sometime to see how close it comes. It is definitely the best Hot Audio product I have tried, and and the difference was not that subtle to my ears. I prefer the DAC WOW's SQ (regardless of output level) to that of the Fubar I/O, Maverick D1, Nuforce uDac, and the Headphonia cable, which are all good products in their own right.
I believe that a thorough review of the Hot Audio DAC WOW is needed, but I thought a comparative impression/perspective was needed more, both to introduce it to the Head-fi community, and to sort out my own thoughts a bit. I have tried a fair sampling of DACs in the last seven months, and I hope that my experience can help others on this journey. The form factor is very simple, a small black aluminum box with USB in and stereo RCA out. I though that mine actually looks better than the stock photo on his website, so I took a couple of snapshots:
Dave at Hot Audio may be a bit more open to "offers" on the USB version than the Toslink/AC-powered version of his DAC WOW. No disclaimer is necessary, as I never promised to write a review in exchange for anything; I just decided to write something because nothing had been written yet, and I really thought it deserved a mention here at Head-fi. Highly recommended as a budget DAC for the EF5/HE-5 combo in particular.
Edited by grokit - 9/29/10 at 1:33pm