I've summarised the 60+ year journey to arrive at this DAC so its appraisal can be put into context. If you want the review itself, then skip the preamble.
The Early Road to High Quality Analog
Love of recorded music started way back in the attic where, as a pre teen youngster I played cylinders on a wind up Edison player. Progression over the years was to 78's and then microgroove vinyl with signals being fed into the back of radiograms.
Higher quality audio started with a Garrard table, Ortofon cartridge, Leak amps and Wharefedale speakers, first mono, then stereo via a Decca FFRR arm and cartridge. Over the next 30 years there were numerous changes, many of them sideways, using all sorts of gear including Linn, Koetsu, Luxman, Crown, Levinson, B&W, Stax, LS3/5a, Celestion, Plinius, Meridian ....
And then came DIGITAL
For years I was a digital Luddite, hating the harsh sound resulting from CDs so I stuck religiously to vinyl. But then a strange twist of fate led me down the digital path. In 1989 my wife and I attended an London Albert Hall concert of the Berlioz "Damnation of Faust" performed by Solti with the Chicago Orchestra & chorus. A couple of years later there is was on laserdisc! Must have. So began the journey though Pioneer and then Theta players & DACs, with a grim determination to tame the nasties in the audio.
Well after many years down the digital road of modifying players with better clocks I ended up with a used Esoteric UX-1 LE player coupled to a G-Os Masterclock and an Empirical Audio modded Benchmark DAC1. The Esoteric was ultimately sent to "The Upgrade Company" where the modification improved things to the extent the Masterclock made no improvement so was sold. Playing CDs, SACDs & DVD-As via Halcro amps and Sound Labs full range electrostatic speaks was producing VERY nice sound - particularly in the context of the pentagonally shaped lounge/entertainment room built as the focus of this house 20 years ago. You can see more about the set up in diagrams and pictures at http://gallery.audioasylum.com/cgi/view.mpl?UserImages=3758
In 2010 the move to Headphones and Meridian Sooloos
A Stereophile article by Sam Tellig sponsored an interest in headphones, an item which had never had much appeal despite the excellent results from a pair of Stax some years ago. Net research soon revealed a lot of praise for the Sennheiser HD800s so I bit the bullet and purchased a pair.
The setup used for them was a lengthy balanced digital line from the Esoteric (via a Neutric transformer) to the modded Benchmark DAC1 to the HD800's. Wow, what great sounding audio! For the first time I appreciated just how good were the mods Steve Nugent did on the Benchmark. With fewer electronics in the way, the music was coming through with unsurpassed resolution and musicality.
Another Stereophile article on the Meridian Sooloos system by Cordesman inspired research on this with the result a few weeks later there was a Control 10, an MS600 and two twinstores, each with twin 2 TB enterprise drives inside, integrated into the system. What followed in the next 6 months was a very tedious burning in of over 8000 CDs & SACDs at the rate of 10 per hour. So yes, over 800 hours were devoted to this, but not exclusively. One could attend to the PC, read, look at TV or even listen to music on Sooloos during the process so it was not quite as horrific as might be imagined. I was also able to persuade my wife to help when other tasks required my attention.
The audio quality from the Sooloos system was equal to that via the Esoteric so FLAC files are indeed lossless and as good as the originals. And that was using the modded Benchmark and Sennheiser headphones, a setup I was preferring to use to listen to the big, mainly classical, collection. Bliss, music could not sound better. Or could it?
Enter the NuForce DAC-9
For some time now I have read very positive comments about the gear being sold by NuForce, a company with only 20 staff and 7 years old, so indeed new to the A/V scene. This year came the announcement of their new whiz bang DAC-9 with yummie specs you can see at http://www.nuforce.com/hi/products/Dac-HPAmp/dac9/index.php
Curiosity got the better of me so I purchased one to see how well it stacked up against my beloved modded Benchmark DAC1. Well it has been here several days now and I am very taken aback. For many years I've been reading reviews on TAS, Stereophile, the net etc and observed the terms "inner detail", "musicality" "PRAT", "inner detail" "veil lifted" etc all with a degree of scepticism. Yes, I understood what the reviewers were getting at but using this sort of hyperbole has always seemed a bit over the top, that is up until now. But these are the terms I will apply to the NuForce DAC-9 as it has genuinely surprised me just how good the music from CDs via Sooloos and FLAC, can sound.
The first jolt of realisation about this came listening to the Reference recording of the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier playing Rimsky Korsakov's "Russian Easter Festival Overture". Full of contrasts this block buster piece came through with astonishing dynamics etc. The transients are processed by the DAC-9 with astounding clarity and PRAT.
Piano and harpsichord recording have an extra edge to the percussive sound I had previously been unaware of. It was probably always there but was not so obvious and hearing it gives an extra dimension to the artistry of the performer.
The sound of organ recordings can so easily dissolve into a bit of a mess when room acoustics are added to the massive acoustics of the church where they were recorded. This happens to a degree even in this otherwise excellent listening room. Those organ recordings sounded very good via the Benchmark and headphones, but inserting the DAC-9 also added a further dimension to the reproduction. The deep punchy bass reproduced on the Sennheiser headphones is awe inspiring.
Violins have the same sweetness I like so much using the Benchmark DAC1, but again there is more with a greater sense of that resin being scraped across the string to produce the sound. No, not unpleasant as might be imagined, but just a little extra to give a livelier sound. Brass is reproduced with more air and trumpets have a bite to them, illustrating just how well the DAC-9 handles transients. Cymbals sound like the real thing, not broken glass, and tympani have a wack with no hangover that make the hair on the back of the neck stand up.
Overall, great as the modded Benchmark DAC1 sounds (and Steve Nugent worked within some basic limitations in his excellent mods), it is laid back compared to the DAC-9. Note that my experience with the wealth of DACs now available is not vast so it would be foolish to claim it is the best available, so please read the above in the context of my long but nevertheless restricted, experience over the last 60+ years. But in its price range it does offer superb value.
So often I have claimed I've "finished" with upgrades and have achieved the "ultimate" (for me) audio quality. But I can say that the present audio quality Sooloos -> NuForce DAC-9 -> Sennheiser HD800 headphones IS the best I've ever experienced.
And it makes me appreciate the extremely challenging and difficult task reviewers face when investigating high end items. There are traps galore and one of the biggest is that the result can never be better than the weakest link in the chain. That is why I'm quite confident in the above appraisal of the DAC-9 because there are so few links in the chain used thus minimising the chance of mismatching.
Furthermore my experience differs from that of many reviewers of the Sennheiser HD800 headphones because I find none of the deficiencies in the sound of strings (even via the DAC1) and any bass deficiencies some reviewers have described. Maybe the Warren balanced leads to the phone are helping, but I draw the line at trying to determine their affect. The time lag which would occur between interchanging leads would depreciate auditory memory which I consider to be rather unreliable.
But I can clearly hear the improvement brought forward by the NuForce DAC-9, and that improvement, and the extent of it, was totally unexpected.
Have I come to the end of the road? Maybe. To be sure I should cancel subs to TAS & Stereophile and stop researching on the net. But this will not happen so who knows what the future holds. In the meantime I can sit back in my lounge chair with headphones on and lap up the magical world of music. And that folks, is what it is all about.