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Hot Audio DAC WOW vs. eight other budget DACs, with NEW rankings!

post #1 of 12
Thread Starter 

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:

Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)

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:

SANY0049.JPG

SANY0050.JPG

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
post #2 of 12

I'm a recent purchaser of the DAC-WOW s/pdif version. I only have a dozen hours or so logged on the device, but I'm mightily pleased with my purchase. I fall into the mid-fi category of audio enthusiast and this device far exceeded my expectations based on my other recent experience with a DAC in the same price range.

 

For lack of a better expression, I think it does a great job of getting out of the way of the music. It hasn't yet stumbled on any of the music that I listen to (jazz, funk, roots, pop). Neutral enough for endless casual/background listening. Detailed enough for critical listening -- it doesn't sound that any one instrument is shouldering out another, either from a soundstage or a frequency response point of view. My acid test is the CD 19 by Adele. Her voice is a mix of toffee, grit and silver and, with the DAC-WOW online, it sounded as good as it ever has from my system.

 

My setup: MacBook Pro => hotaudio DAC-WOW => Musical Paradise MP-301 amp => JVC HA-DX3 phones

 

(Grokit, thanks for the review. With so little personal experience with DACs, I wasn't sure what I was hearing was really as good as I thought it was!)


Edited by micmacmo - 6/12/10 at 10:15pm
post #3 of 12

As good as the matrix single ended? Now that's impressive for its size. I wouldn't buy a DAC WOW, but it does seem like a great deal.

post #4 of 12
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by stang View Post

As good as the matrix single ended? Now that's impressive for its size. I wouldn't buy a DAC WOW, but it does seem like a great deal.


It's an amazing little box. The only one that actually bested it for pure SQ was the Devilsound (I really miss that little Devil), and to be fair I haven't tried the Matrix with an S/PDIF converter yet so it could still pull back ahead. But the DAC WOW is a very good USB DAC, that's for sure. I would put it up there with my all-time best audio purchases.


Edited by grokit - 6/13/10 at 11:19am
post #5 of 12

It would be very interesting to see a comparison of the DAC WOW vs HRT Music Streamer+ http://www.musicdirect.com/product/85279

That little thing intrigues me. I still think that saving for a Matrix Mini-i or a Gamma 2 would be much more worthwhile. We will see...

post #6 of 12

Nuforce Icon HDP would be invaluable to this list! Someone send the man a review unit!

post #7 of 12
Thread Starter 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by stang View Post

It would be very interesting to see a comparison of the DAC WOW vs HRT Music Streamer+ http://www.musicdirect.com/product/85279

That little thing intrigues me. I still think that saving for a Matrix Mini-i or a Gamma 2 would be much more worthwhile. We will see...

 

Quote:

Originally Posted by Mayzei View Post

Nuforce Icon HDP would be invaluable to this list! Someone send the man a review unit!

 

Well the Matrix has the ability to switch between inputs, and also has a balanced out so its functionality is definitely a step up. From what I have read the HDP has a pretty decent amp section like the Maverick, and has been well received. I would certainly welcome any loaners to review and add to this list, especially that HRT. I took a good look at the Streamers and the + looks quite interesting, as well as its siblings. At its new "on sale" price point I'm sure it would be a worthy contender.
 


Edited by grokit - 6/14/10 at 3:04pm
post #8 of 12

*bump*

 

I also have a Hotaudio DAC-WOW, I think I was one of the first who got one when Dave was done building the first batch (received mine on June 2). Really impressive sound quality coming out of such a small device, it was more than night and day difference when compared with my old sound card, Creative X-fi extreme gamer. I'm using it with a Shanling PH100 amplifier and beyerdynamic DT770pro/80Ω headphone.

 2z3vzut.jpg

If I understood the opening post correctly, you're saying that the output level of the DAC-WOW is quite low? That definitely is not the case for mine, as you can hopefully see on the blurry photo I took, I set my amplifier's volume control on 1 out of its 12 scale. And for me it's loud enough for most applications. When I contacted Dave about this he said that "had to tame it down quite a bit" :-)

post #9 of 12
Thread Starter 

Glad you have been enjoying your DAC WOW as well, RazorJack.

 

I found the DAC WOW to have a much better output level than the USB-1 and DAC STRAIGHT, which didn't have enough gain for my setup. That had led me to look into the DAC ECSTASY, but I really wanted a "STRAIGHT" version. Dave assured me that the output level of the WOW, his newest flagship, would be more than sufficient and he was correct; the level is perfect for my needs.

 

Sorry my OP was not very clear in that regard, I have edited it a bit now. Thanks for pointing that out!


Edited by grokit - 9/29/10 at 1:37pm
post #10 of 12

I got the DacDestroyer from HotAudio last year sometime and have been very happy with it. Dave's products are highly underrated and a fantastic value, though his passion/zealousness does come off as a bit grating at times. I was able to do a comparison a few months ago and found the DacDestroyer (which I think is his "lowest" model) to be better than the uDac and at least equal to the iBasso D2+.

post #11 of 12

I picked up the Hotaudio DAC Wow SPDIF to pair with my Little Dot MKIII. But right now I have it hooked up to my Audiotailor Jade. Normally, my Jade is paired with a Little Dot DAC_01. I must say that the Wow is looking more like an extremely good purchase. In comparison to the DAC Wow SPDIF, the LD DAC_01 has a wider soundstage, and is more resolving and smooth in the high frequencies. Plus it has slightly better high end reach, or sparkle if-you-will. My initial impressions of the Wow are that the bass and mid range are slightly more detailed and resolving than the DAC_01. The lower frequencies seem to have more detailed punch. And the mids benefit as well with slightly more detailing too. The vocals are just a little clearer on the Wow, and they have nice positioning because of that added clarity. Not that the LD DAC_01 wasn't giving my amps great detail here either. It's just that the DAC Wow is just a little more resolving, punchy, and with more weight.

 

Considering what I believe is an improvement in the lower and mid register, I'm surprised that the high frequencies aren't as good as the LD DAC_01 though. The upper frequencies, although very clean and good as well, aren't as defined and refined as they are on the DAC_01. But this isn't a big problem because the Wow's treatment of the upper frequencies is fine. Here, it just doesn't quite have the reach and smooth detail of the DAC_01. The Hotaudio DAC is about two-thirds the price of the Little Dot Dac. But the Hotaudio doesn't have the flexibility of the LD DAC_01. Plus the DAC_01 is a balanced DAC. But jeepers the DAC Wow handles the bass and midrange particularly well. I'm liking the instrument detailing here. It wasn't really apparent to me that the LD DAC_01 was somewhat lacking in bass and midrange resolution until I'd gotten the DAC Wow. Now if only I could merge the two sounds it would be almost heaven.

 

I haven't gone through a lot of my collection yet. But, although the DAC Wow has good clarity, punch and imaging in the bass and midrange, I think it sounds best with slower, more instrumental music. Simply because the high frequencies aren't as resolving as the LD DAC. You don't really hear the clarity of the DAC Wow in the higher frequencies until you listen to recordings that are less aggressive in this area. Then there is a wonderful mellow, but crystal clear detail that comes through. However, I should reserve my judgement on the type of music it sounds best with until I've gotten a some more hours on it. My experience with DACs is limited. I've only owned the iBasso D2 Boa, the Little Dot DAC_01, and now the Hotaudio DAC Wow SPDIF. However, being a portable amp/DAC, I don't think that the iBasso can come close to the Hotaudio or Little Dot DACs though. The iBasso is meant for IEMs, so I suppose a comparison would be an apples and oranges comparison really. I listen with Sennheiser HD650s and HD600s and the Audiotailor Jade had an RCA 6AS7G with a Raytheon 5751. As well, I used the DAC Wow with the iBasso D2 Boa as the amp with some Westone 3 and Phonak iems. And this combo mirrored my experience with the full sized set up.The Hotaudio DAC Wow SPDIF is really a great little DAC. I'll update my impressions once I've finished my Little Dot MKIII modding and sampled the DAC Wow paired with the MKIII.


Edited by KMASCII - 9/23/10 at 11:24pm
post #12 of 12
Thread Starter 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by KMASCII View Post

Now if only I could merge the two sounds it would be almost heaven.

 

LOL, that is the story of everything here @ Head-fi 

 

Thanks for the added perspective.

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