DISCLAIMER: My native language is Norwegian, so you WILL find a lot of spelling/grammar misstakes. And I won't be using any fancy words to describe what I'm hearing in this comparison/impression/what ever you want to call it, simply because I'm not sure about the meaning of all of them. So Concider yourself warned. This is head-fi for smarties, by a complete (tech-)retard. And these are my OPINIONS, not facts about the products.
MY MUSIC SOURCE is my old pc (LGA775 3ghz quad core) with windows 7 64bit, using an asus xonar essence stx soundcard hooked up to the dac's by coax, with output set to 24bit/96khz (as suggested in both the m-dac and zodiac manual). All music used is FLAC/192 or better mp3 files playing through foobar2000 (WASAPI). HEADPHONE AMP is the musical fidelity m1 hpa, and heaphones used are the hifiman he-500.
OTHER DACS I'VE OWNED BUT WON'T BE DOING A PROPPER COMPARISON OF HERE is the HEGEL HD2 - And it looses to all the dacs tested here, in every way. Given its price and beeing only usb powered, no one should be surprised. I havn't tried any other cheap dac's, so if it's good or bad for the price isn't something I know anything about. (yes, I know: why did I even mention it?)
After the HD2, I used the ABRAHAMSEN V6 dac, and it's a warm sounding "nice" dac. I liked it with my audio technica w1000x, but it got a bit too dark with my hifiman he-500. It costs less than half of what the audiolab m-dac does, and it's about 70% as good. It's also more forgiving with the source material and doesn't reveal faults as much as the m-dac. But that I suspect is only because the m-dac reveals more details in everything and is a bit brighter in tone.
BIG THANKS TO x3mhc.no for loaning me the zodiac gold with voltikus, soundgarden (lillestrom) for loaning me the hegel hd20, and audionorge.no for excellent serivce when buying the hifiman he-500 and loaning me an audeze LCD-3.
Now, on to the dac's...
FEEL & LOOKS.
The ANTELOPE ZODIAC GOLD WITH VOLTIKUS shines. You can study it and sit back and enjoy how it looks. It has a satin black finish that's dry to the touch, and all buttons (including the remote) are some kind of metal. It's what you'd expect of something costing this much, and it's what you're getting. Everything both feels and looks very well put together. The only negative thing is the bright white LED on the front. I want to put the zodiac where I can see it all the time, but that LED is too disturbing. A true shame. The remote control is all metal aswell, and feels great.
The AUDIOLAB M-DAC has a satin, almost flat black, and very dry finnish. Wash your hands before you touch it, or you're leaving fingerprints. The LCD is clear and bright, and I like it a lot, but I'd never place it in my line of sight as it would become too distracting. Buttons and volume control feels like they're hard plastic, but I'm not 100% sure. It's not on the level of the zodiac, but nothing to complain about either. The remote control is all plastic and feels a bit cheap.
The HEGEL HD20 looks and feels like a hard metal case with black paint. That's it. It doesn't look or feel anything even remotely close to what it costs. The remote control is a complete disaster as far as looks & feel. You'd expect a remote like this from some 5 dollar item on e-bay, not an expencive dac. Even the LCD display looks tacky. I don't think Hegel cares about looks at all. Both the zodiac and m-dac (and abrahamsen v6) are all dac's I'll display proudly, while the HD20 is something I'd put inside a cabinet so I wouldn't have to look at it.
HOW DID I COME TO MY CONCLUSIONS?
I listen to each song several times (atleast 3-5 times) on each dac and made notes while listening. The order in which I listen to the dacs is how it's presented below. Between each song (after having listened to all 3 dacs) I took a break to relax my ears before going on to the next track. I listened to more tracks than these, but I can't write about every single one.
** M-DAC set to the optimal transient XD filter and is running firmware 0.96. And about the filters: the changes in sound are so minimal that I can hardly tell the difference between them. I use the XD filter just because John Westlake said he thinks it makes instruments sound closest to the real thing (and he designed the damn thing, so he should know)
ON TO THE MUSIC.
(youtube links only to make following my notes easier, just in case you don't have these tracks)
Ellie Goulding "your song"
ANTELOPE ZODIAC GOLD
Excellent (micro) details and texture on everything. Every little move of her lips and every small breath she takes comes through clearly. She's placed in the center with instruments all around her, and all instruments can be placed quite easily. The zodiac brings you very close to the actual room where the recording was made. It's not warm, it's not cold, it just sounds real.
A more intimate presentation than the ZODIAC. Ellie is closer, singing more directly to you than to a whole room you're sitting in. Her voice has more body and weight. But at the same time the room is bigger, as there's a sense of more air around her, a bit more echo to everything. The chello or whatever the string instrument is, is hidden a bit more in the background than on the zodiac and instruments arn't as seperated either. You're in a big room with the hegel, with the artist and band playing just for you. But with the added air/size, it feels less real than the zodiac and makes you more aware you're listening to a recording. If you're addicted to a big soundstage the hegel will please you more than the zodiac. But if you want to feel like you're actually there, where the song is beeing recorded, the zodiac does it better. The zodiac sounds ever so slightly brighter and more detailed in everything. When the piano is beeing played, you get more a sense of the different pressure the piano player uses on each key with the zodiac. The hegel is more romantic in its sound, injecting a bit of warmth, and doesn't give you every single little micro detail.
Highs are more rounded than with both zodiac and hd20. The m-dac also creates a bigger room than the zodiac, but smaller than the HD20. Here she's singing to the whole room again - and not directly to you like on hd20. While the m-dac gives the impression of a bigger room than the zodiac, there's less echo than with the hd20. Out of the 3 dacs, I'd place Ellie and the instruments standing closest together on the m-dac. On both the zodiac and hd20 the piano felt very much like it was on your right, and the chello (or whatever it is) on the left. On the m-dac the piano bleeds more into the left channel, like the instruments are closer to eachother (with Ellie standing infront of them). The M-DAC also injects a bit of warmth to the recording, but less than the HD20, and that makes it also sound a bit more detailed than the HD20 - but not on the level of the zodiac.
QUICK NOTES: zodiac for realism and every little detail, HD20 for warmth & intimacy with a big room, and M-DAC for what I'd suspect would be the "mainstream" sound that would suit most people.
The streets "dry your eyes"
Guitar playing far out to left and right, singer in the middle with dry drum/snare hitting in the background. Guitar almost beeing the main element, vocals a very close second fighting for the number 1 spot, with drum/snare a 3rd and bass hidden deep in the background. Nothing really sparkling, nothing really wrong. Narrow but deep soundstage, like its recorded in a rectangular studio. Have to focus a bit to notice the bass deep in the background. Very little air in the recording. Lyrics sound like they've been recorded in a small studio, with the chorus sounding slightly larger.
Guitar sounds better, like there is more of it / more organic. Everything sounds like its in a bigger room, more like a small stage compared to the studio-esq presenation of the m-dac. The feeiling of it beeing a narrow/rectangular room is gone. Drum/snare sounds a bit more wet. Most elements have a bit more meat on its bones, but I'm guessing that comes from everything sounding a bit more dark. The bass in the background is a bit more pronounced. The singer is also pushed to the front with the hd20, he's no longer fighting with the guitars for center stage like on the m-dac.
ANTELOPE ZODIAC GOLD
Strings in the beginning sounds more real, like they're played live compared to the two other dacs where they sounded like a sample beeing played. Like on the previous track, everything sounds more real. The feeling of the vocals beeing recorded in a small studio and then played over the instrumental part is gone (m-dac beeing the biggest offender). It sounds like you're listening to a studio session with everyone in the same room. A good sized studio. Drum/snare sounds wet, with more details in the snare. The bass isn't hidden so far in the background. Overall everything sounds better balanced. Vocal and guitar plays well together, neither fighting or overpowering the other.
QUICK NOTES: Same as last.. ZODIAC for realism, HD20 for something a bit more intimate (singer is again singing more to you personally, than playing for a whole room) But unlike the previous track where the m-dac really just had a different flavour - here I'd place the m-dac dead last for beeing a bit dry and presenting the material a bit uninvolving.
Daft punk "recognizer" (TRON soundtrack)
ANTELOPE ZODIAC GOLD
Soundstage is a huge concert hall with full control. No echoing or anything that sounds like the soundstage is artificially enhanced. Everything sounds very organic, deep. Sub-bass really working, can clearly make out it playing deep deep in the background. Sounds like you're listening to a large orchestra. Instruments are easy to pick out, nothing sounds congested or blended with eachother. Everything gets very epic when strings hit in at around the 1:45 mark. I didn't quite understand when I read "wet" beeing mentioned as a description for sound in a review, but the zodiac and this track really explains it well to me.
Soundstage even bigger than on the zodiac, sounds very grand. Instruments isn't as easy to make out, a bit more blended together than on the zodiac. The deepest sub-bass that was so easy to make out on the zodiac is just mixed in with everything else and just dissapears. But the hegel owns this track. It's a track that wants to blow you away with sheer epicness, and the hd20 delivers, playing with a lot of heart.
The m-dac actually sounds like the most articulated dac on this track, really pushing the strings to the front. It's more detailed than the HD20, better seperation between the instruments, but with less of an impact and a smaller soundstage. But the deepest sub-bass that the zodiac brought out of the recording is also here blended inn with the dark background of the track. Less so than on he HD20, but no where near beeing able to clearly hear it like on the zodiac.
QUICK NOTES: The HD20 came alive and presented this like a thunderstorm. Very pleasing. The zodiac once again was the most detailed, and presented the track probably in the most correct way. The m-dac really brought out the strings in this track, building on a powerfull background. It gave the most "in your face" presentation of this track. Even with the zodiac beeing the most "correct" here, with the most detail and life like presentation, I would guess that most people would prefer the HD20 or m-dac because of the added drama they bring to the table on this track. Again, the HD20 owned this track with a powerfull epic presentation.
Katy Perry "the one that got away" (acoustic)
Instruments spread in the background, with katy placed infront of them. Sounds like a very small intimate stage. Instrument seperation isn't great.
ANTELOPE ZODIAC GOLD
Instruments in the background, katey placed right in the middle of them. Still sounds like a small intimate stage, but with a bit more air. Instrument seperation is better than on m-dac, and there are more details/texture. Sounds overall sweeter than the m-dac. Places you more in the room where it was recorded than the m-dac is able to.
Instruments in the background, katey placed infront of them and you're sitting right infront of her as she's singing to you instead of the whole room. Good instrument seperation and details, pretty much on the level of the zodiac (except for fine micro details which gets swallowed by the slightly darker tone to everything) - but with more meat on everything. Again, biggest soundstage - but still the most intimate presentation.
QUICK NOTES: M-DAC looses out and sounds a bit bland compared to the two other dacs on this track. Zodiac is mr.perfect, like beeing in the room katy sings to. While the hd20 puts you on the first row right infront of her while she's singing to you in a slightly larger room.
SO WHAT'S THE VERDICT ON SOUND?
In this crowd, it feels like the m-dac is trying to please everyone by taking a slightly "middle of the road" approach. It doesn't lean too much on anything. That doesn't mean it's transparant, it certainly has a signature. But it plays it safe: enhance everything a bit, and maybe give the mids a tiny boost. Plays well with everything. Recommended for some one who listen to a little bit of everything, and doesn't want to feel like one is done better than the other.
ANTELOPE ZODIAC GOLD
It takes anything I throw at it and improves it. It's transparant, doesn't give anything any warmth or becomes cold. It just takes the recording and places you closer to the room where the music was recorded in an analog way. Before I heard the zodiac I never thought of the m-dac as beeing a bit dry and digital in presentation. I do now (take note: compared to the zodiac! I never thought of the M-DAC in that way before hearing the zodiac). If you want every tiny little detail in every recording, and you don't want the dac to add any kind of signature to the sound - you'll want to hear the zodiac.
THe HD20 is "mr.fun" in this comparison. Biggest soundstage, the warmest sounding one, and has the most bass. And it's not afraid to become intimate, placing vocals in your face. It doesn't bring you the same level of detail as the zodiac, but that does not mean it's lacking in details. I highly suggest the HD20 for anyone not afraid of a bit of color to their sound.
John Westlake, who crated the sound of the m-dac, can be found on www.pinkfishmedia.net in the forums. There's are several threads there about the m-dac, and you can communicate directly with him. Firmware updates are posted there, and suggestions coming from the forum have actually made it into the firmware. It seems like mr. Westlake takes feedback from users seriously. Very cool.
ANTELOPE ZODIAC GOLD
For each notch on the wheel you adjust the volume with, there's an audible mechanical "click" coming from the zodiac. When I had it hooked up by USB, the same "click" was heard every time a song ended (and the unit didn't get any data), and every time a song started. Click, click, click IF this is how all zodiac's are, I'd never in a million years buy one if I was going to use it via USB. Would be nice to hear from other zodiac owners if theirs behave the same.
You're supposed to be able to update the dac and adjust features like how bright the light is from a software control panel (windows/mac/linux). On my windows 7 x64 pc the control panel does not work.
Spend some money on a nicer case Hegel, please. And there are no buttons on the DAC, it can only be controlled by the 0.02 cent plastic remote. So when that dies, you can't change source etc. Buttons would be nice, because the remote sure isn't.
CAN THEY DRIVE THE HE-500 OR LCD-3?
Not really. A dedicated headphone amp is recommended.
This is a comparison between 3 very good dacs. Please keep in mind that my impressions of each one is based on how I think it sounds in this very fine company only, NOT "this is how it sounds compared to everything else in the world". None of them are anywhere near bad. When I'm listening to any one of them over a period of time, none of them leaves me wanting anything. It's only when A/B'ing them the differences I've described above becomes apparant.