I recently had the pleasure of listening to the Audio GD Reference 7 DAC through the excellent loaner program spearheaded by Currawong. I’m posting this in the loaner thread, so I assume everyone reading it is already aware of the design and specs of the unit (hereafter called the Ref 7). I’m not going to repeat what you already know, but rather focus on my impressions of it and how I liked it in my system.
Before I do, I feel the need to address an issue that I’ve observed. It has been my perception that Audio GD has an extreme legion of followers, and likewise a fairly large amount of detractors. All of these folks are very vocal about their opinions. When anything remotely negative is posted about an Audio GD product, invariably there will be multiple responders to try and account for it. Likewise, I see people badmouthing Audio GD when they have never owned or experienced any of their products. Neither of these reactions makes sense to me. If someone has a negative experience with something, it’s their right to express that (barring any user errors or other oddness). On the other side, if someone hasn’t heard a product, they probably shouldn’t comment on it except to discuss design theory, pricing, or things of that nature. But don’t weigh in on the sound unless you have put in the time listening.
All that being said I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Ref 7. This was my first Audio GD experience, and I walk away from it highly impressed and eager to try some of their other gear. The Phoenix looks awesome, as do their full size amps. If they are anything like the Ref 7 they are very nice indeed.
I used a wide variety of equipment to evaluate the Ref 7. Here is a list:
Source: custom music server fronted by a Squeezebox Touch, Lexicon RT-20 universal player, Marantz SA-1 player with Audiomod upgrades, Samsung BDP-1200 player, Theta Miles player, Rotel RDV-1092 player
DACs (for comparison): Yulong D100, Wavelength Cosine, Esoteric D70, Anedio D1, Gigiworks DAC (OEM version of the Decware ZDAC-1 depending on who you believe)
Amplification: Yulong A100, Luxman P-1u, DarkVoice 337SE, Violectric V181, Violectric V200, Matrix M-Stage
Headphones: Lawton Audio LA7000 Lite, Sennheiser HD800, AKG K701, custom Yamaha YH-1 based Orthos in an HD600 shell (with balanced recable), Ultrasone Edition 8, LiveWires Trips, JH Audio JH 13pro, 1964 Ears 1964-T, Westone AC2
All stock power cables connected to a Furman Elite 15 PFi conditioner. All cabling is Blue Jeans, Impact Acoustics SonicWave, or Monoprice. Balanced testing was done using the Violectric V181 to the custom Orthos since that is my only full balanced amp and headphones at the moment. The Esoteric D70 and Yulong D100 were also run balanced in this same configuration. Aside from that everything else was done in single ended mode. I made sure to “warm it up” for a while prior to listening, and eventually it became easier just to leave it on all the time. I only plugged in one input/output at a time to eliminate any potential problems. I made sure to level match everything, since the Ref 7 seemed to have a slightly hot output compared to most of my other DACs. I tried NOS and 8x oversampling and settled on the 8x mode as it sounded more clear in my opinion. I didn’t really care for the sound in NOS mode. I believe all other settings were “stock” but to clarify: PLL on, dithering enabled, 24 bit. Obviously these settings are the type that a long term owner would get a better feel for.
For music, I used lots of high quality tracks from a variety of sources: B&W Society of Sound, HD Tracks, 2L Records, Benchmark Masters From Their Day project, and a few others, as well as some of my favorite XRCD releases. It was a good mix of genres and roughly half was high resolution, the other half CD standard. I also have to note that I stayed far away from any posts that I thought might give a description of the Ref 7 sound. I wanted to wait and decide for myself.
Right off the bat I can see half a dozen excuses why someone will discount my impressions if they don’t fit with theirs. Not enough balanced operation. No ACCS connections. No exotic interconnects. Stock power cables. No vibration control. The list goes on. If someone feels that I have a glaring flaw in this setup, I won’t argue with that. I’m not interested in talking anyone in to agreeing with me. My setup is the way it is because I like it, not due to any monetary limitations. Despite that, I respect the right of the reader to judge my opinion based on how they identify with my perspective, or don’t as the case may be.
The only major issue that I actually see is the lack of time. I had the Ref 7 in my system for just less than 3 weeks before packing it up. I actually still have it boxed up at the time of this writing, awaiting direction as to where it will be shipped. 3 weeks is a good amount of time to get the general feel for something, but inadequate in my opinion for truly understanding the full capabilities. I did try to get as much listening in as I could though. Additionally, I took the Ref 7 to a friend’s house for an afternoon of listening with some buddies. His system is fairly high end, with a Krell S350 player, Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp, Odyssey Khartago Extreme SE monoblocks, and Salk Archos speakers, all in a dedicated listening room with good acoustics and DIY treatments. I’ll discuss that listening session later after I talk about my own headphone listening.
My first impressions of the Ref 7 had not to do with sound but size…. Man is this thing huge! It is heavy, although not ridiculously so like my Esoteric D70, but it is very awkward to handle. I think the fact that it is square (as deep as it is wide) that throws me off. It was almost too big to fit on a Salamander Archetype amp stand, hanging over the front and the back by about an inch. Plugging in cables obviously requires a certain amount of clearance, so I could see a situation where this DAC physically would not work in a setup. Width is fine though and height is actually on the lower side.
On build quality: I think it is pretty well done. All gaps are tight, the finish is nice (if a little industrial), and the only 2 interactive parts (power button and source selection knob) have a pleasing tactile feel. It doesn’t ooze sophistication but little touches like the curved corners give it enough character to at least fit in at its price segment if not stand out. It seems just nice enough not to call attention to itself from a build quality perspective, while practically calling out to you that the best parts are on the inside.
But enough about all that “unimportant” stuff….. How does it sound? The more I listened, the more I was impressed. As I mentioned, this was my first time with any Audio GD product so I had really no idea what to expect. I assumed that the Ref 7 would be at least on the level of my Yulong D100, and thus in the same league as the Grace M902, Lavry DA10, and Benchmark DAC-1. But as I listened I discovered that it was actually on a higher level altogether.
Bass performance was phenomenal. Deep extension, lots of control, and a great timbre that really seemed lifelike when playing acoustic bass. It never got loose or woolly, and it was certainly not shy. In fact if anything I’d say the lowest bass was ever so slightly boosted, but that could be my imagination. Or it could be an artifact of the extreme depth, which comes as a surprise when you have been listening to a lesser DAC. Either way, pairing the Ref 7 with the Violectric amps produced exceptional bass response.
Too often the term “audiophile” ends up meaning “exaggerated high end”. You see this in some of the “audiophile” CD releases such as Telarc (much but certainly not all of it). This lack of warmth or body just doesn’t do much for me, although I can certainly make do when the music is good enough such as many of the Van Gelder engineered Blue Note releases from the 50s and 60s (well done on so many levels but way too thin and bright!). The Ref 7 is the opposite of that, although of course when playing one of those discs it will reproduce it faithfully (unfortunately?). But throw on something with more oomph like “Give it Up to Love” by Mighty Sam McClain (XRCD) or “Fire” by The Ohio Players, and the fullness of the performance comes shining through. Funk and blues are two genres were you just can’t afford to skimp on bass realism, and the Ref 7 really delivered.
Midrange was very clear and transparent. I don’t mean the artificially clear type where an increase of upper midrange energy is often mistaken for greater detail. This was the real thing, coming at you as if it was there in front of you, and it was very convincing. As with other extremely high quality DACs, I felt like I was really listening to the amp, and even more so the headphones, rather than the DAC itself. This ability to “get out of the way” (as cliché as that sounds) and let you hear the rest of your audio chain is the mark of a very good source.
Highs were of similar quality. There was lots of “air” between the notes, and plenty of sparkle, yet not a trace of any harshness unless it was there in the recording. This clarity combined with smoothness brings to mind the difference between some of my entry level custom IEMs and my top tier models: Some of the lower models like the Ultimate Ears UE4pro seem to omit the highest highs all together. You lose the “air” but it is inoffensive. Others like the 1964 Ears 1964-T tend to smooth them over a bit; you get a decent amount of extension but it is down enough to hide some flaws. This is a good compromise. But if you move up to the JH Audio JH 13pro or the Unique Melody Miracle you seem to get all the airiness there could possibly be, sans grain. It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, and for portable or casual listening it really isn’t, but when you are actively focused on the music it tends to sound more realistic on the higher end IEMs. But no matter your headphones, it seems like the Ref 7 allows you to hear everything you were meant to hear.
When you have something that sounds as good as the Ref 7, it seems silly to break it down into lows/mids/highs. What you really end up noticing is the subtle things. One thing that I picked up on is the lack of any digital “hardness”. This is one thing that Currawong and I discussed via PM prior to me joining the loaner program, so maybe he planted that seed in my head and I’m just biased… But this is really not something that I’m generally very sensitive to. Yet it stood out when listening to the Ref 7. Compared to some of the usual suspects from Lavry and Benchmark, the Ref 7 does seem noticeably smoother up top, and not just from a pure frequency response perspective either. I’m not one to believe in magical properties in audio gear (no disrespect to those who do), and I believe it’s possible that this smoothness should somehow be measurable, but don’t ask me where to start.
Soundstage was another strong point of the Ref 7. I don’t necessarily agree with some folks who thing that bigger is always better. In my mind there is a predetermined space, and each recording dictates that size. Some gear seeks to stretch it even farther than that, which at times can sound good but is ultimately undesirable. My DarkVoice 337SE tube amp is guilty of this, as is my Wavelength Cosine DAC at times. The Ref 7 was not. In this case it didn’t necessarily seem “bigger” or “wider” than all of the competition, but more precise and accurate than many. Some gear will give you very defined far left and right edges of the stage, but the placement in between will be sort of murky. The Ref 7 does not suffer from that problem, being very distinct and 3 dimensional.
This was one area where I thought I heard a clear improvement between running single ended mode (which already sounded fantastic) and balanced. I thought I maybe heard minor improvements in other areas such as bass authority and leading edges of transients, but those were fleeting and could easily be attributed to my Violectric V181 delivering more power in balanced mode. But the soundstage improvement was clear enough where I’m confident I heard it, although again it could be caused by the amp rather than the DAC. In any case, in balanced mode there seemed to be yet another layer removed between my ears and the music. The term “open” applies here, again not necessarily larger but better defined and with more realism. It seemed clear that I was bumping against the limits of my semi-closed Orthos (which to their credit sound wonderfully open compared to a pair of Thunderpants I recently auditioned), and I longed for the AKG K1000 that I sold last year so I could really explore the potential. I did run balanced into my Luxman P-1u which features XLR inputs but only single ended headphone jacks, and couldn’t really tell the difference. I regret not having a larger selection of balanced amps along with more audition time to really get to the bottom of this phenomenon.
Since this thread is all about what the Ref 7 can or can’t do, I won’t spend too much time comparing it to every single DAC I’ve heard. What I will do is give a list of DACs and players that I’ve either owned or extensively auditioned, all of which could be considered reasonably high end, which I feel confident that the Ref 7 is superior to. Note that this list is based purely on sonics and doesn’t factor in things like features, value, build quality, appearance, etc. Also note that these are all very nice products in their own right and I’m not trashing them at all. I’m just saying I like the sound of the Ref 7 more.
Musical Fidelity X DAC v3 with X PSU
Benchmark DAC1 (older non pre, non USB version)
PS Audio Digital Link III
Musical Fidelity A3.24
Grace Design M902
Decware ZDAC (mine is a DIY Gigawork kit, which appears to be identical)
Audio Horizons DAC 2a
Musical fidelity M1 DAC
Neko Audio D100 Mk2
I’ve left off others like the Cambridge DacMagic because it is not even on the level of the list above much less the Ref 7. Again, these are all great sounding products, and some even have some very strong points that might compete with the Audio GD in that area, but taken as a whole the Ref 7 is superior. For example, my Wavelength Cosine has an extremely natural and accurate timbre. Things like string instruments are reproduced with startling accuracy. In that respect it is probably equal to the Ref 7. But it is also overly sweet and slightly forward in the midrange and has somewhat rolled off highs, so ultimately it is inferior. Examples like this abound but none on the above list perform as a total package like the Ref 7.
I do have a few special items which I feel deserve more in depth comparison. These are either very close to the Ref 7 or slightly better. I’ll attempt to explain why.
This thing reminds me of the Ref 7 in a lot of ways. It used the same PCM1704 DAC chips, but “only” has 4 instead of 8. It is build like a tank, weighing nearly double what the Ref 7 weighs. It has a similarly industrial look to it, with just a little bit more flare from the silver accent up front. More importantly it sounds a LOT like the Ref 7. In fact I doubt I could tell the 2 of them apart in a blind test. Both have extremely linear frequency response, both extend very deep on the bottom and very high on top, both have seemingly limitless control no matter how congested the music gets. They have the same accuracy when it comes to imaging, and they both sound extremely natural.
Both also claim to have an effective way to eliminate jitter: the Ref 7 through its DSP-1 module and the D70 through something it calls RAM Link. Both should theoretically be nearly immune to differences in transport quality. But in both cases, I found this not to be completely true. I’ll cover the Ref 7 more in a bit, but for now I’ll say that the D70 seems much more source dependent than the Ref 7. Simply put, it sounds clearly less realistic when you pair it with an average transport. I know Esoteric meant for it to pair with the very nice P70 matching transport, but I’ve found that other high end players/transports work just as well (I sold my P70 for that very reason). The Ref 7, while not perfect in this regard, does not demand an ultra high end source like the D70, so it is easier to deal with. I assume this is because the DSP-1 module takes advantage of processing technology that was not around or just way too expensive to implement back in 2003 when the D70 was released.
At the end of the day, the Ref 7 is every bit as good as the Esoteric, and better in at least one area as mentioned above. Keep in mind that the D70 was considered by many to be state of the art when it was released and sold for $6500 (which is probably more like $8000 in today’s dollars). I think this is a great accomplishment for Kingwa and Audio GD to pull off for less than a quarter of the price.
Marantz SA-1 with Audiomod upgrades:
For those unfamiliar, this was the first SACD player released by Marantz. It came out back in 2000 and was intended to be their reference quality player, as well as their answer to the highly regarded Sony SCD-1. It features quad TDA1547 DAC chips and some major build quality inside and out. Retail was somewhere north of $7000. My particular unit was purchased used and already had over $2000 worth of modifications done by a company called Audiomod (now defunct). As I understand it the mods consist of a completely new precision system clock, a reworked power supply, and a bunch of resistors/capacitors being swapped out for upgrades. I heard a stock unit once, which was good enough to make me decide to buy it. But I’ve never directly compared my unit to a stock model so I don’t know how much (if any) the mods improve things. All I know is that this player sounds amazing. I’ve heard complaints that it falls short of reference quality when playing standard redbook discs. Perhaps the mods on my unit fix that problem, because that’s not what I’m hearing at all.
Compared to the Ref 7, I feel like the Marantz has a very slight edge in terms of musicality, while falling a little short in clarity and inner detail. It ends up sounding like a more mature version of the Wavelength Cosine; very fun to listen to, very engaging, but still less accurate than the best I’ve heard, and that includes the Ref 7. I felt like the SA-1 couldn’t quite give me the same amount of micro-detail that the Ref 7 could, and although I didn’t directly compare them I’d say it falls short of the Esoteric in that area as well (since the Esoteric and Ref 7 are basically identical). Specifically I noticed this on a great XRCD release called Super Double-Bass: The Artistry of Gary Karr. The Marantz was no doubt more fun to listen to. It was punchy and dynamic and really grabbed my attention. But it just didn’t sound as real as the Ref 7. I believe Karr is playing his famous 1611 “Amati” which formerly belonged to Koussevitsky until his widow passed it to Karr (it has since been proven not to be a real Amati, but nonetheless sounds amazing). There is a certain “tone” that seems unique to Karr and this specific instrument, and the Ref 7 just projects it more accurately.
This is sort of like splitting hairs though…. The SA-1 is of course still extremely clear and detailed, and the Ref 7 is of course still extremely musical and engaging. I seriously doubt that I could articulate these differences without extensive head to head comparisons.
This is a comparison that many people seem to be interested in. They have somewhat different design philosophies, each taking their own route to arrive at roughly the same conclusion. Anedio is all about high tech solutions that maximize musical accuracy with the lowest price possible, but no lower. Lots of fat has been trimmed, lots of testing done to see what matters and what doesn’t, lots of “conventional audiophile wisdom” disregarded. I can absolutely understand why some people would be disinterested in their approach. But I also see humility and honesty there, and I think many folks would find their ideas sensible. See this article for example:
Audio GD doesn’t actually seem all that different in some ways. They also strive for high value but not at the cost of quality. They similarly shy away from many of the superfluous audiophile tricks like exotic boutique capacitors or overwrought casework. As the article above states though, each designer starts with a different set of assumptions as to what is most important. Audio GD seems to place a very high value on having an overbuilt power supply section, as well as nicely designed analog output stages. They also seem more willing to support some of the traditional audiophile stuff like fancy cables, recommending customers use “suitable power, digital, and analog interconnect cables”. I suppose this could be taken as simply suggesting use of appropriately rated cables, but the fact that their website links to a company selling $800 USB cables does not inspire confidence. I have my suspicions that they don’t really believe in that sort of thing but maybe feel they have to “play the game” to better their business, but that’s just my own theory.
Someone recently described Kingwa as “a superb analogue designer but his designs appear to apply those analogue solutions to digital problems.” I think that is a good way to describe it, and it doesn’t necessarily imply a judgment if this approach is positive or negative.
Those being the differences, the end result ends up being rather close. Both are excellent in so many ways, and both perform on a level much higher than their price would suggest. So which one do I prefer? Ultimately I like the Anedio by a small margin. I could easily afford to buy the Ref 7 if I found it superior, so that isn’t the issue either. I find that I prefer the Anedio D1 over the Ref 7 for the same reason I prefer it over the Esoteric D70; mainly a greater ability to delivery cohesive musical experience where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. It just sounds more real and alive to me. It’s kind of a vague thing to capture, and certainly can’t be expressed in terms as simple as “better bass” or the like. Allow me to quote myself from my Anedio review:
“…the D1 was superior to the D70 when it comes to serving up a focused presentation that allowed me to appreciate both the scale and grandeur of a performance as well as the individual minutiae contained therein. This superiority manifested itself mostly during late night listening sessions when the house was silent, and while using my most detail oriented headphones like the JH13pro, Unique Melody Miracle, and HD800. I also noticed this a bit more clearly when using the big system with the Linkwitz Orion speaker setup. It wasn’t a huge difference, but it was noticeable and it was consistent. I would find myself focused on one specific aspect of the music, perhaps an instrument or vocalist, and would really enjoy it. But as the song ended I would realize that I had not connected as much with the overall performance as I would have liked. An analogy would be missing the forest for the trees. With the D1 I felt an equally intimate connection with the individual parts, but with a more satisfying comprehension of the big picture. This small difference was enough to make me declare the Anedio D1 superior…”
Replace the D70 above with Ref 7, and replace the Orion setup with the Salk setup that I’ll soon discuss, and it applies perfectly. If pressed for more examples, I’d say that this was probably tied to the attack/decay of the notes having more control and accuracy. Musical examples: An amazing recording of piano performances, the Stuart & Sons demonstration disc “A New Voice” is great reference material. The notes for track 9, a selection from Bach, advise us to “Listen to the sustain of the pedal octave in the bass under the extended melodic line at the beginning of this track.” Track 2 advises us “This track is built on the harmonics and sustain that naturally occur in the Stuart & Sons piano. Listen for the purity and length of the sustain as it combines seamlessly with the rich bass and crystal clear treble. Use of the two soft pedals brings great sensitivity to this piece.” Track 6 “…builds through a multilayered soundscape that demonstrates the balance of the piano's response over the entire keyboard. The layering throughout is clear and cohesive with no blurring of individual parts.” The list goes on, but in general I felt that the Anedio D1 brought me deeper into that recording than the Ref 7. Another example is a recording of me playing drums. Recorded in a studio that my brother used to work at (using Lavry Gold ADC and other top shelf stuff), back when I played more regularly. It might not be the best drumming or the best recording in history but it is mine and I know it well. I recognize my Ludwig kit, with my Vic Firth Hickory 8a sticks, my Aquarian heads, my Spizzichino cymbals. I’ve spent countless hours playing with this equipment and I know the sound it makes inside and out, and the Anedio makes me feel closer to the real thing. The only other DAC I’ve heard that plays on the same level is my MBL 1511E, which I did not get a chance to compare directly to the Ref 7. But there is no need since the Anedio sounds identical to my ears.
I had a chance to listen to the Ref 7 at a close friend’s house using his very nice sounding system that I described earlier. He has been slowly upgrading for years and his latest acquisition was a Krell S350 CD player to replace an older Classe player (CDP .5 if I remember correctly). It’s a fully balanced system so the only change was adding the Ref 7, using the Krell as transport. There were a total of 4 of us there and we had a fun day of listening. It’s hard to go wrong with such a nice setup, but it became fairly clear to me that the Ref 7 was superior to the Krell in soundstage accuracy as well as really low bass performance. The Salk Archos open baffle speakers are wonderfully airy and capture an extreme amount of ambience, and the Ref 7 was able to produce more micro detail than the Krell. The owner of the system said that the Ref 7 improved on the Krell by about the same amount as the Krell had improved on the older Classe, and all 4 of us agreed that the Ref 7 was superior. We then switched the whole setup to single ended mode in order to accommodate the Anedio. Once again the Ref 7 bested the Krell. With the Anedio, I felt the same increase in focus and coherency compared to the Ref 7 that I had earlier noted when using headphones. 2 of my friends agreed with me, including the owner of the system. The other initially preferred the Ref 7, saying he felt it had “better drive and pace”, but then later changed his mind and said he couldn’t reliably tell the difference. We all agreed that both units sounded extremely good.
The Ref 7 claims to suppress jitter to minimal levels using the DSP-1 module (this loaner has the newest version, V5). So theoretically it should not matter what type of source you use. Despite trying to stay away from any mention of the Ref 7 until I finish this write-up, I happened to see several posts indicating that the Ref 7 is indeed very sensitive to source quality. That theoretically indicates the DPS-1 is not very good at what it does, but of course there could be more to it. As far as I could tell that sentiment was a bit overstated but still remained true. I felt that the Ref 7 was worth listening to regardless of what transport I used, but some of the nicer ones did in fact sound better. The Marantz SA-1 has extremely low jitter (if you trust Sterophile’s measurements….) and consequently made a spectacular transport. Another favorite of mine is the Squeezebox Touch. This might well blow any remaining credibility I might have with the reader, but in my defense the Touch is very low jitter too (as measured by Anedio, see their website). On a level slightly below that were some of my other fairly nice players, including the Lexicon RT-20 and Rotel RDV-1092. Next in quality was my old Theta Miles player. This was Theta’s first CD player from the late 90s (as opposed to transports which they had been making for years). It supposedly had some decent jitter suppression but not as much as their dedicated transports of the time like the Jade. It did well for being so old but was not quite as good as the others. Lastly my Samsung BRP-1200 Blu-Ray player just sounded acceptable, but not great. This makes sense since it is more concerned with video performance than audio. To keep things in perspective though I do generally like the analog outs on the Samsung, and the Ref 7 was still a bit better. It just didn’t live up to the potential I had heard with the others. In contrast, all of these players sound identical to me when I use the Anedio D1. The conclusion then is that the Ref 7 does in fact need a quality transport. Note that I said quality, not necessarily expensive.
At this point the reader is probably thinking “This guy must be crazy. He’s telling us that a $300 stock Squeezebox Touch makes a high end transport. He likes the 8 pound Anedio DAC over the 30 pound Audio GD DAC. He must have bad ears.” I’m just documenting my experiences; you can think of them what you will. I also realize that with small differences like this, it could go either way. If someone said they preferred the Ref 7 over the Anedio, I would not argue with them at all.
In the end, I feel that the Audio GD Reference 7 is an excellent DAC. I also feel that once you get to a high enough level, the differences between DACs become extremely small. Despite some minor differences, I can’t say for certain that I could tell the Marantz SA-1, the Ref 7, the Anedio D1, or the Esoteric D70 apart in a blind test. Think about that for a second: one of them uses 4 PCM1704 chips. Another uses 8 of them. Another uses 4 TDA1547 chips. Another uses a single 8 channel ESS Sabre Reference chip. These are all wildly different types of DACs, yet the results are not all that different. I think that says something about the skill of the designers of these devices, and the importance of other aspects besides the DAC chip alone. If I was forced to choose, I’d rank my higher end equipment like this:
1) Anedio D1/MBL 1511E (tie)
2) Audio GD Reference 7/Esoteric D70 (tie)
3) Marantz SA-1 with Audiomod upgrades
4) Wavelength Cosine
And then the list would go on from there. I think I would be content to have any one of them as my primary DAC though, especially if I stayed away from any A/B comparisons.
Sometimes I think we spend too much time worrying about DACs. Once you get to a high enough level, it makes sense to me that you should move on and focus on your speakers/headphones or some other aspect. Moving from one of the above DACs/players to another does not drastically change the sound, while moving from one headphone or speaker to another (even world class products) will certainly give you a different take on things. Another aspect to consider when using something like the Ref 7: depending on what music you listen to, there is a strong likelihood that the DAC you are using is more technically advanced than the studio equipment with which the music was recorded, particularly the analog to digital converter. In addition, we know that only a small amount of music is actually made with high end playback systems in mind; most is mixed for the masses of car stereos, boom boxes, and stock iPod headphones. So the differences between a good DAC and a great DAC can be difficult to hear depending on what you listen to.
So am I saying it is a waste of time to use a very high quality DAC like the Ref 7? Of course not. I guess I’m saying that for me, the Ref 7 or similar is about the limit of what I feel to be useful. Other people feel differently, and spend many thousands more in pursuit of what they feel is a worthy upgrade. That’s their right but it isn’t a direction I would personally go.
In any case, the Ref 7 is an excellent DAC. It seems well made, has plenty of functionality, and it should last for a long time. It also sounds better than the vast majority of DACs and players I’ve auditioned. While I still don’t think I’m a rabid Audio GD fan like some others seem to be, I can say that they have earned my respect, and if the Ref 7 is representative of their entire line then I have absolutely no hesitation about recommending them. I’d like to thank Kingwa and Currawong for making this loaner program possible, and also thank everyone who has participated in it. No matter if the Ref 7 blew your mind or you found it just so-so, your feedback is extremely helpful for our hobby. If companies will continue to offer similar programs (as Unique Melody, HiFiMan, and others are currently doing) or in home trial periods/100% money back guarantees (such as Anedio, Neko Audio, Ascend Acoustics, Ohm Speakers, Aperion Audio, etc) then we all benefit. I hope this post is beneficial as well and I look forward to reading other impressions of the Ref 7 to see how other people feel about it.