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M-DAC vs. MH 25.3 vs. W4S DAC-2?

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 

Listening at home through the active system listed in the signature below. Digital coax only, phono output not tested...

Highly customized Arch Linux desktop void of extraneous services including network, Syslog, CUPS, NTP, X Windows, et. al...

ALSA driver built into custom kernel 2.3.9, dmix disabled via exclusion from the '--with-pcm-plugins' array in alsa-lib...

Will submit additional observations when I versus again in a more traditional, passive system (with the W4S ST 250)... 

Will submit additional observations when I versus again via USB from my MacBook Pro running Amarra 2.3 (4344)... 





Initial Impressions:


  • DAC-2 RCA and RCA-type (input) connectors are far superior to those of the M-DAC and MH 25.3...


  • DAC-2 sounds very much like the M-DAC (Sharp Rolloff + D3E Unmodified)...Clear, detailed all around (slightly bright up top)


  • MH 25.3 loses instrument and vocal separation much earlier than the other two once gain is increased...


  • MH 25.3 is quite bright in comparsion to the other two up top, annoyingly noticeable when you near the point of clipping...


  • M-DAC (Optimal Transient + D3E Full) is slightly darker sounding (eliciting the sense of a fuller body) with a seemingly smoother midrange (Optimal DD + D3E Full) than the DAC-2...


  • M-DAC (Optimal XD + D3E Full) has an interesting reverb/decay effect (whether due to the inclusion of second order harmonics, post ringing, or both) that neither the MH 25.3, nor the DAC-2 offer. This effect introduces a concert hall feel (with its secondary reflections and subtle time domain responses) which suits classical, jazz and live recordings in general. 


  • M-DAC (any filter less Sharp/Slow + D3E Full) emotes the deepest bass of the three, though the DAC-2 is very clean (tight when the recoding is mastered as such, relaxed and controlled otherwise). Verified by powering off sats and playing through sub only (150 Hz). Which of the two produces more accurate bass? Reserving judgement until I am able to FuzzMeasure/ECM8000 frequency responses at 1m...


  • DAC-2 sounds to be the most neutral of the three (neutral in relation to the two). Or it could be said that the W4S DAC-2 seems to lacks the overall extension of the M-DAC (any filter less Sharp/Slow + D3E Full) and the brightness of the MH 25.3 (which can be confused as additional detail to the unwary). This can also be interpreted as the DAC-2 sounding slightly thinner than the M-DAC. Thinner? More neutral? Take your pick.


  • Source media focused on MFSL/AFZ/DCC/HDtracks/Analogue Productions releases (16-24 and 44.1-192), DVD-A (24/96) and TrueHD/DTS/AC3 to PCM...


  • MH 25.3 sounds the most like the Xonar ST (analog out with stock opamps)...


  • Case tooling and general build quality goes to the DAC-2 > M-DAC > MH 25.3....


  • M-DAC display wins hands down in terms of source feedback and legibility...



Additional Notes:


1. W4S DAC-2 roll-off set to fast, phase 0 across all tests

2. M-DAC passed both 16/44.1 and 24/96 Bitperfect tests 

3. MH 25.3 tested with JJ E88CC Gold + HAL UltraSonic 9 

4. MH 25.3 tested with stock OPA2134 I/V + LME49720HA buffer

5. MH 25.3 tested in non-upsampling (NOS) fashion across all tests

6. Radio Shack Digital Sound Level Meter 2055 used for gain matching

7. Bel Canto DAC2.5 (auditioned elsewhere) sounded closest to the MH 25.3

8. Units tested with and without HAL Supersonic Stabilizers 

9. ARTIST 5 tweeter level and shelving filters set to 0







Initial Conclusions:


I am going to discount the MH 25.3 this time around for its lack of a display and a remote control. Otherwise, it performed admirably with well mastered sources until pushed and compared to its ESS 9018 counterparts. The W4S DAC-2 might be the DAC I would go as a plug-and-play (outside of driver installation) solution with its balanced sound, independant source control (surprisingly useful) and outstanding build quality. But the M-DAC with its superior ergonomics (suspect RCA-type inputs notwithstanding), greater dynamic extension and selectable filters remains my preference for the time being, if only because the choice of filters allow one to tailor the sound output on a per track basis to a desired empathy (particularly applicable to PCM streams decoded from TrueHD/DTS/AC3). Add in the prospect of an upgradeable PSU in the form of the tentatively forthcoming M-PAX and the lead widens (albeit at a higher cumulative cost than that of the DAC-2 alone). Had the W4S DAC-2 included additional selectable filters outside of fast/slow slopes and provided that the M-PAX remains vaporware, or does little to impact the sound quality of the M-DAC, the DAC-2 may very well have taken the initial preference lead. 



Edited by adamlau - 3/8/12 at 11:28pm
post #2 of 11

Much appreciation for this comparison.  Thanks!

post #3 of 11

All three you have there once very interested me.  Subscribed!

post #4 of 11

Sigh, this is the kind of review that is gonna make me lose my patience and get a M-DAC or W4S Dac 2 instead of following my plan and waiting for the Schiit balanced DACs

post #5 of 11
Thread Starter 

I might wait it out, else you may never know what you might have missed out on. I was considering one of the upcoming Shiit balanced products as well, but the lack of an impending volume control was the deciding factor against the allocation of resources towards one. I would much rather stage my gain after the soundcard and steadfastly refuse to add an additional preamp component into the chain. YMMV. Then again, I may eventually go with a balanced Schiit (particularly if a battery powered supply is released as an accessory) and move the M-DAC over to the HTC. I am still holding out hope that Westlake will be offering a dual mono upgrade for the M-DAC sometime towards the end of the year. W4S is also set to release a new series of DACs in the near future as well.

Edited by adamlau - 3/5/12 at 3:22am
post #6 of 11
Originally Posted by adamlau View Post W4S is also set to release a new series of DACs in the near future as well.


Is this true? What do we know about new W4S DACs? Features? Release dates?


post #7 of 11
Thread Starter 

New case tooling showcasing a new exterior design is about all the information I have been privy to. The current lineup will remain as base models (current list prices will remain unaffected) with the new series serving as their standard reference models.

Edited by adamlau - 3/5/12 at 10:39am
post #8 of 11

Silly comparisons.  $500/900/1500 - you get what you pay for. Btw - MH will release new dac/preamp soon in the 1.5K range - summer 2012.  W4S is dac/pre with 'real' power supply (not the greatest) for 1500.  Mdac is dac/pre (900) and would likely benefit from external psu.  If you got little extra to blow then buy the Antelope.  If you afford antelope w/ upgraded psu - then you should consider the berkely.  If you want to go pure usb dac w/ excellent SQ in 1500 range - go tranquility.  If you want to tranquility's SQ and looks to match - Calyx Dac.       


post #9 of 11

How much is the Audiolab M-DAC?

post #10 of 11
Thread Starter 


Originally Posted by sillyaudio View Post

...you get what you pay for.


A transient look at differences in feature sets and comparative sound quality (less phono output) is what this versus was meant to achieve. You get what you pay for? It depends. Here I recommend the MH 25.3 as a workaround for additional attack and sparkle (at the expense of fatigue) over the M-DAC and the DAC-2 using non-conventional reasoning. For better, or for worse, the response certainly better suits the question posed than directing the OP to an Alpha DAC Series 2. Another example? The DAC-2 suits my HTC better than it does my workstation and vice-versa with the M-DAC. The forgiving midrange qualities of the Focus 380 coupled with a Fathom f112 gives the system + DAC-2 a sense of body on par with the M-DAC. But the ARTist 5 (being a much smaller monitor) sounds somewhat richer with the tonal characteristics of the M-DAC and its associated filters. Even so, the M-DAC (owing to its selection of filters) can match the DAC-2 within the HTC, but the DAC-2 cannot compete with the M-DAC when integrated as part of the workstation. Then again, the DAC-2 does not exhibit the DPLL locking issues found in the M-DAC (until a software update is released). As such, the DAC-2 remains part of the HTC. Monitors with an explicit midrange hump (e.g. Audioengine 5) may benefit greater from either the MH 25.3, or DAC-2 than the M-DAC. 


Originally Posted by Mauricio View Post

How much is the Audiolab M-DAC?

$899 USD (Retail) + $63 S&H to CONUS = $962 OTD. M-PAX upgrade should hover around $705 USD (Retail) not including S&H out of either HK, or Europe. 

Edited by adamlau - 3/8/12 at 11:35pm
post #11 of 11

Here is an excellent review W4S Dac 2 vs Antelope Zodiac




Two of the best all in one dac out there - can't go wrong. 

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