Yulong audio has been steadily building up their portfolio. The D100 was a brilliant DAC that fared well at the time against competitors in the $1K range - but it sold for under $500. The D100 mkII took things up another notch, adding further refinement and helping the D100 stay current against an increasingly tough range of competition. The Sabre D18 was the initial reference DAC, packing the flagship ES9018 Sabre Reference chip at a price - just $699 - far lower than any competitors using that same chip. But the D18 wasn't for everyone; its lack of USB and warm, smooth presentation, while both deliberate, made it less than ideal for some users and their systems. I once heard someone describe it as "without a doubt the warmest sound I've heard out of a DAC", which they meant in a totally complimentary way. I personally wouldn't take it quite that far the but fact remains - Yulong could use a proper flagship, positioned above the D100 mkII and having a more broad appeal than the D18.
Enter the new DA8. This $1299 device aims to cover all the bases and indeed it seems to tick all the boxes one might expect: hi-res USB with DSD capabilities, ES9018 DAC in quad-mono configuration, beefy linear power supply, selectable digital filters, high quality integrated headphone amp, balanced outputs, preamp functionality (defeatable for pure DAC mode), informational LCD display.... pretty much every significant feature one can imagine, is found in the DA8.
As always, I recommend Grant Fidelity
for customers in the North American region. Not only are they authorized Yulong dealers for the area, but Rachel from Grant Fidelity is bilingual and can assist with translating questions directly to Yulong himself. We have her to thank for arranging this review as well as for translating my questions back and forth with the designer. Thanks Rachel!
Most prior Yulong equipment uses a similar enclosure, and the DA8 doesn't deviate from that design choice. In this case I think it's the exact same enclosure as the P18 power conditioner unit; or at least very close to it, with some side venting ports added. Which means it's slightly taller than the D18 or D100 enclosures, by just a small amount. I got my DA8 in black which is contrary to all the silver Yulong gear I own - it looks quite handsome in the dark color, though I'm sure silver is equally dashing. Weight is around 6 pounds and feel is quite substantial. We see attention to detail even in the small things - check out the vibration-reduction method used on the feet.
Browsing pics, one immediately notices the 2.4" display as being the centerpiece of the front panel. I was a bit concerned about how obtrusive it might be, but after spending time with it I actually quite like it. As this is a more complex DAC with more options, it requires some type of interface - the D18 could get by with a few LED lights but that wouldn't fly as well in this case. So the LCD makes sense. With it, I can track selected input and incoming sample rate, phase inversion, filter options, jitter attenuation, and volume. The order, top to bottom, corresponds with the neighboring buttons which change those very settings. One wonders if a touch screen display would be a better option, but after using the device I think that would require more real estate than the DA8 can spare. After 5 seconds the display gets dim and almost looks like printing on the panel rather than a lit display. I'll try to capture it in my pics, but this was a big concern of mine - would it be too bright, or behave strangely, or...... but not to worry, Yulong nailed it. Aside from the display, the volume knob is worthy of mention. It controls the integrated volume function which applies to the headphone section as well as XLR and RCA line-out. Volume is handled in the 32-bit domain in 80 linear steps, which means the DA8 can act as a legit preamp. Pressing the knob deactivates volume control and headphone out, transforming the device into a pure DAC. Conveniently, the DA8 remembers prior settings and starts back up just the way you left it.
The rear panel shows a bounty of connectivity options. We get 1 each of USB, coaxial, optical, and AES/EBU inputs. We get RCA and balanced XLR outputs. And we have an IEC cable socket with a switch for selection voltage, as the DA8 is a universal device. Yulong would probably recommend his D230 power cable
as an appropriate upgrade, which at $99 is priced low enough for cable agnostics to give it a try without breaking the bank.
Cabledyne Silver Reference cables (except for the NuForce Impulse USB)
Yulong is very kind to provide a handy diagram showing the layout of the DA8:
Let's analyze that a bit. The power supply features a Plitron toroidal transformer, using Linear Technology LT1129 low dropout voltage regulators and LT3021 very low dropout voltage regulators in a two phase design along with LM337T and LM317T.. These are mated with Wima MKS2 capacitors for smoothing and filtering. Over 13,000uF worth of Panasonic FC caps help stiffen thing up. Idle noise is very low, at a mere 1.5uV which is improved over the D18 (which was already quite good to begin with).
The USB input is separate board from Amanero Technologies, called the Combo384. This is a new board which is creating something of a stir in the DIY community due to its high performance and low price. Several knowledgeable DIY folks have mentioned to me that they get the best results using XMOS and Amanero USB solutions, with the latter being significantly less expensive than the former. I speculate this choice is part of the reason why Yulong could build a device of this caliber yet keep the price low. It can accept PCM signals as high as 32-bit/384kHz (DXD tracks). It can also do DSD including DSD64, DSD128, DSD256 and DSD512. A special ASIO driver is required to unlock some or all of these features. I use a Linux based server which connects to the DA8 without problems and plays "basic" DSD64 tracks without issue.
Worth mentioning - although the Amanero datasheet calls for power over USB, the DA8 instead uses its own power supply to power the board. Thus it will work with aftermarket or modified USB cables carrying data only, theoretically allowing for better sound. My music server uses a SOtM USB card with the option of disabling USB power, and I did so - the DA8 worked just fine, though I don't think I noticed any difference in sound. Perhaps if I was using a basic PC instead of a dedicated server, it might make a difference. Or not. Who knows.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that Yulong developed custom firmware for the Combo384 in order to make it play nicer with the ES9018. Yulong couldn't go into more detail about this as it's something of a trade secret, but suffice to say this goes beyond what a DIY designer would likely be able to accomplish.
The heart of the DA8 is the processing engine. Obviously it has the ES9018 Sabre DAC from ESS Technologies, used in a quad-mono configuration just like the Sabre D18. It uses a custom made, very low phase noise clock (-145dB). And it has a proprietary Yulong "digital signal buffer" which enhances and routes incoming digital signals. The ES9018 has a built-in DIR which has proven somewhat finicky, rejecting signals from mediocre sources. Some users reported issues with the Yulong D18 (and other DACs without an outboard digital receiver) so I'm sure that's what motivated Yulong to try something new. There may also be some additional jitter rejection involved in the process, to augment the onboard ESS jitter reduction.
ES9018 DAC and custom clock:
Digital Signal Buffer:
The analog output stage is built around five of the highly regarded Analog Devices AD797 opamps for I/V conversion and low-pass filtering, paired with dual OPA1632 used as a buffer. OPA1632 is not seen all that often, but found in a few well regarded designs like the Anedio as well as the Buffalo DACs. The headphone stage takes the signal from the OPA1632s and adds a discrete Class A diamond buffer based around transistors from ON Semiconductor. The preamp and headphone stages can be disabled, along with volume control, making the device a pure DAC only with a fixed output.
Headphone stage with ON Semi transistors in Class A:
Output stage with AD797, OPA1632, and more Panasonic FC caps:
Here are the complete specs as listed by Yulong:
- Inputs: Optical, Coaxial and AES support 16-24bit 44.1-192kHz
- USB input support PCM 16-32 bit, 44.1Khz 48Khz 88.2Khz 96Khz 176.4Khz 192Khz 352.8Khz 384Khz DSD64,DSD128 - On Windows DSD256,DSD512
- USB input support Mac OSX, Linux with UAC2 compliant kernel
- KS/Wasapi/WDM/ASIO Drivers for MS OS XP to Win8 32-64bit
- SNR: -135dB.
- Dynamic Range: 133dB.
- THD+N: <0.0002%
- Frequency Response: 20-30KHz - 0.2 dB
- Output voltage: RCA 2V; XLR 4.2V
- Left/right channel crosstalk: -135dB
- Power Consumption: <30W.
- Single ended heaphone output: 600 Ohm: 70mW; 300 Ohm 150mW, 150 Ohm: 280mW, 32 Ohm: 1W
- Dimensions: 250*180*55mm (10" W x 7" D x 2 1/2" H)
- Net Weight: 2.5kg / 5.5 lbs
- Color option: silver or black
So let's see.... extremely low THD+N, very high dynamic range, spectacular SNR and crosstalk numbers.... there's really not much out there that can match or surpass this device in terms of measurements. And we've had a peek into Yulong's workshop where he has extensive testing equipment
so it's not like he merely lists specs from the DAC chip itself (as many others are guilty of). He even provides some measurement charts:
As you can see, this device measures impeccably - as good or better than almost any DAC I've seen, regardless of price.
Folks looking for an all in one device will notice the headphone amp specs - output impedance is suitably low and it's plenty powerful for most headphones, doing especially well into lower impedance loads. Most planar headphones should see between 500mW and 1,000mW from the headphone amp, meaning they should be driven with plenty of authority.
This is the associated gear I used to evaluate the Yulong DA8:
Transport: Auraliti PK90 with NuForce LPS-1 power supply, Dell Inspiron 17R, Audiophilleo AP1+PurePower, MacBook Air, Denon DVD-2200
Amp: Violectric V200, Icon Audio HP8 mkII, Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, AURALiC Taurus, Firestone Audio Bobby, Yulong A100, NuForce HAP-100, Yulong A18
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, beyerdynamic T1, JH Audio JH13FP, Westone ES5, Stax SR-007mkII, Thunderpants, Audeze LCD-2, HiFiMAN HE-400 and HE-500, Heir Audio 8.A, Frogbeats C4
Speaker setup: NuForce STA-100 or Parasound Halo A23 driving Sjofn HiFi (the clue) monitors
Cables: Cabledyne Silver Reference for AC, SPDIF, RCA and XLR interconnects, Charleston Cable Company Auric USB, NuForce Impulse USB, lots of aftermarket headphone cables from Toxic Cables, Charleston Cable Company, Beat Audio, and 93 East
Power: APC S15 conditioner, Yulong P18
My first impression of the DA8 was that it combined the best qualities of the D100 mkII and the D18. Which is pretty much what I had hoped for, in a best possible scenario. It captures the warmth and richness of the D18 but has more of the airy presentation of the D100 mkII, while besting them both in most categories. Soundstage, low frequency texture, midrange clarity and refinement.... I could go on and on, but in summary - the DA8 is simply the best Yulong DAC yet. At that point I knew it would be tough competition for my other favorite DACs.
I connected it straight to my Auraliti PK90 server and was able to play hi-res PCM material as well as DSD64 tracks without issue. Great recordings, such as DSD titles from Channel Classics and Blue Coast Records, sounded spectacular. Clean and transparent but also very weighty and muscular, with a sound that could very accurately be described as "analog". Same with Reference Recordings HRx 24-bit/176.4kHz titles, and various other hi-res PCM tracks from a variety of sources. Even "mere" 16/44.1 recordings sound absolutely fantastic on this DAC - XRCD releases, MFSL remasters of Sinatra and U2, DDC Gold editions of Metallica, the list goes on and on. The DA8 handles these all with supreme competency - if you want a high-end DAC that does justice to your favorite "audiophile" recordings, this definitely a good choice.
With a lot of DACs, however, the flip side of that coin is poor recordings sounding pretty terrible. My Anedio D2 is like that to some degree, as is Yulong's own D100 to a lesser extent. Their revealing nature will clearly lay bare all the flaws inherent in a crappy, overly compressed modern track, or a highly "digital" sounding album from the 80s. The Yulong D18 earned somewhat of a reputation for being one of the more forgiving DACs in that area, which won it considerable acclaim from users looking for that type of performance. The one problem it seemed to have - some found it overly smooth on the top end. It made everything sound great, but at the expense of a little air and accuracy on better recordings. I recall a very enthusiastic HeadFier who had tried many DACs for his home studio. He was absolutely thrilled with the D18 at first, calling it one of the best he had ever heard. As time went on, however, he determined the D18 was making his mixes sound too good. It wasn't revealing enough of flaws. He loved the way it sounded but decided it wasn't suitable for his purposes, so it had to go. Despite that, he stated he recommended it highly for other people who just want to listen and enjoy.
I don't recall what that gentleman ended up with. I know it was more expensive than the D18 - maybe Violectric V800 but I'm not positive. If the DA8 had been available then, I suspect it would have made him extremely happy. It's got enough articulation and delicacy on the top end to really help show a good recording from a bad, while not quite slaying the bad ones as some other DACs would do. And there's also an improvement in other aspects too.
Soundstaging is simply phenomenal - among the absolute best I've heard. It has an actual "feel" to it, like being there in the performance venue. A lot of DACs can give the impression of some arbitrary width or depth, and it sounds great at first, but eventually you notice everything sounds about the same. That's not how it should be. The DA8 will showcase a large hall presentation when called for, or a tight, intimate setting if that's needed. It will clearly show the difference between, say, a studio album and a live performance of the same songs. And example of this would be one of my favorite bands - Dengue Fever. Their album "In The Ley Lines" was originally released as part of the B&W Society of Sound. It features several live performances of previously released songs, and the difference in quality is very obvious. Their first few albums were full of great music but with a low budget for studio time, they didn't sound all that great in terms of recording quality. With the involvement of B&W, these redone versions are quite good, showing a depth and spaciousness absent in the original versions. The DA8 makes the improvement very clear without sounding terrible when playing the older recordings. On a side note, "In the Ley Lines" recently returned to the market (Society of Sound titles often have limited to no availability once they expire from the catalog) as a general release that anyone can buy - and I highly recommend it! Bonus points for being available in FLAC as well as Apple Lossless format. Here's the link
Low frequency extension is a definite strength of the DA8. This thing has a certain "drive" that will probably cause people to break out the word "analog" again, just like they did with the D18. It's just an effortless presentation. All the detail in the world is great but if it doesn't move you, then what's the point? The DA8 succeeds wildly here, because it captures some of the best elements of both musical and analytical DACs. I've heard so many CD players and DACs which skew too far in one direction or the other. And I'm not talking about cheap DACs, or $800 devices, or even $1500 devices.
Go on Audiogon and look in the Digital section. Use the brand new stuff as a reference so you don't have to worry about depreciation. You'll quickly discover that triple digit pricing is the exception rather than the rule. $3,000 may sound like a lot of money for a DAC (and surely it is) but really that doesn't buy you anything that stands out as being expensive or super-high-end. You can drop $5,000, or even $10,000 and still have just an "upper-mid-range" DAC according to pricing. Boulder, Wadia, Soulution, MBL, Zanden, dCS, Acoustic Arts, Ayon, Metronome..... the list is endless. And the funny thing is, more than a few of these companies are not even true "specialists" in the digital realm. A lot of them simply use a decent OEM player or DAC design, with a massively overdone enclosure, and upgraded boutique capacitors etc. You can easily spend many thousands of dollars on a CD player or DAC that sounds truly mediocre by any reasonable definition of the word. I implore you not to do so.
With the Yulong DA8, we get the benefit of the designer having worked for many years as an engineer in the telecommunications industry. This is not some armchair audiophile tweaking things by ear - Yulong has a dedicated facility with six figures worth of equipment including a Prism Sound dScope Series III audio analyzer. Armed with the right experience and education, the right equipment, and what seems to be a good idea of what real music sounds like, Yulong has yet to disappoint. His designs always compete well at their respective prices and even above, and the DA8 is no different. For a neutral-yet-engaging sound, large and precise soundstage, spectacular texture, subtleties and microdetail, the DA8 is a real winner.
A few miscellaneous comments about the DA8 in action:
First, the USB implementation is top notch. I've never dealt with the Amanero board before but I really like the results it brings. Straight from a MacBook Air, nothing fancy, the DA8 sounds at least 8/10ths as good as it ever will. My dedicated Auraliti server brings it up to 9/10ths, I assume due to better power supply and regulation of the 5V line. Using $1500 worth of Audiophilleo AP1+PurePower driven by the Auraliti gets me the final 10/10, in a clear example of how costly it can be to chase that last bit of performance.
The other inputs are fine. They vary a little from one transport to the next, though not quite as much as the D18 did. I assume it's the proprietary buffer at play helping equalize things a bit, while the D18 used the built-in Sabre digital receiver alone. Toslink won't play higher than 96kHz reliably, which is pretty normal for most optical inputs.
Outputs sound mostly the same to me. The D18 was known for its variation between RCA and XLR outputs, almost giving the user two different sounding DACs from which to choose. The DA8 is far less variable, with both options being nearly identical. I think I prefer XLR due to a very slight perception of increased inner-detail, while RCA seems just a bit smoothed over in comparison. But this difference is so small that I could easily be imagining it. The rear panel XLR output impedance is less than 50 ohms which Yulong says makes cable choices less important. It also makes XLR suitable for driving higher impedance headphones directly, which I'll discuss later. Important note - Yulong says DO NOT use XLR to RCA adapters with this particular model. It won't properly ground the connection and thus degrade sound quality, and could even potentially damage the DA8. There's really no need to do so anyway since RCA sounds nearly identical, so just don't do it!
Filters have a very subtle effect. As the names imply, I find "sharp" to sound just a hair more crisp and detailed, while "slow" is the more laid back of the two. But the difference is very small. Even smaller is the distinction between the 50kHz, 60kHz, and 70kHz filter options for DSD playback. Supposedly the higher numbers make the resulting sound a little brighter but I honestly can't hear a difference either way. Perhaps in a different system it would be more useful. What is more obvious is the "Jitter Eliminator" option. Leaving it off with a basic source like a laptop will result in a somewhat unfocused sound - not terrible, but activating the jitter reduction sounds noticeably better. Same goes for SPDIF sources. I tried an old Denon DVD-2200 as transport which is getting pretty long in the tooth, and was never really anything special to begin with. It sounded just halfway decent with Jitter Eliminator turned off, but actually quite good with Jitter Eliminator on. With very good transports, however, I end up leaving Jitter Eliminator off. It seems like it maybe restricts transparency just a tad, when being fed an ultra-clean signal from my Audiophilleo combo or even just the SOtM output of the Auraliti PK90. But it's definitely beneficial when using a more basic (and likely higher jitter) source. Yulong says turning the Jitter Eliminator off makes everything "softer" while leaving it on is more "punchy" and I generally agree.... but maybe with a low jitter source the Eliminator does more harm than good? I don't know, but again I'm happy to have options.
The headphone amp is quite good. Yulong says it's better than his dedicated A100 amp ($360), but not as good as the flagship Sabre A18 amp ($899). I happen to have both of those and I'd say that's a completely accurate description. The integrated amp is clean and smooth, with plenty of detail and a great sense of coherence. It's powerful enough to drive the LCD-2 or HE-500 with very satisfying results. I'd say it's better at driving low impedance cans than high impedance models, though it does a competent job with HD800 and T1 too. The amp section is a little too noisy for most of my custom IEMs though. It shows some background hiss, and there's not lot of travel for volume control. So really sensitive models like Westone ES5 just don't work very well. Others, like the somewhat difficult to drive Cosmic Ears BA4, do better, despite a tiny bit of remaining background noise. There are a few in my collection that actually work quite well, including the 70 ohm Earproof Atom and the Lear LCM-5 with the Sound Tuned Adapter which raises impedance to roughly 180 ohms. Those both play nicely with the DA8 amp, and based on that I'd guess the Heir Audio Tzar models would be equally good. Back to full sized headphones - I would not hesitate to recommend the DA8 amp section, especially for lower impedance headphones and brighter models that need a little taming. The DA8 is a great match for Audio Technicas, and would probably do well with Ultrasones too (I no longer have any to try). I prefer the built-in amp over the Yulong A100 and the Matrix M-Stage, for example, and it comes very close to the Nuforce HAP-100 ($595). The DAC section is good enough to justify adding a really high end external amp at some point, but it's still nice to have a very capable integrated section available.
It's worth noting that the DA8 can drive balanced headphones straight from the rear XLR outputs. This maneuver has long been done by owners of Lavry and Benchmark DACs, with generally positive results, though I haven't tried it with those for myself. Obviously one will need a balanced cable terminating in dual 3-pin XLR connections - a style I don't really care for. Talk about bulky.... all my balanced headphones use a single 4-pin XLR connection, so I contacted Ted at CablePro
to build me a custom adapter made from his excellent "Freedom Series" cable - actually I needed the adapter for my upcoming review of the Firestone Audio Bobby balanced amp, but I figured it would work with this unit too.... I was wrong, as the DA8 required female to female adapters to get my CablePro adapter to fit. At that point it was even more bulky... but at least it worked.
I tried the HD800, LCD-2, HE-500, and HE-400 in this special balanced configuration. I actually preferred the planar models from the front panel 1/4" jack - they had more drive that way, more immediacy and zing. Through the XLR outputs they seemed a bit "soft" and syrupy. At the time, I didn't know the impedance involved, but know that I know it makes complete sense. Although planar headphones are less concerned with output impedance compared to dynamic designs, 50 ohms is still high enough to result in a low damping factor. The front panel jack has no such issue. Having said that, the HD800 sounded very nice in balanced mode - in fact I think I prefer it to the actual headphone out. It too is more laid back than the already somewhat relaxed integrated amp, but with HD800 is works marvelously. Aside from the smoothness, the balanced HD800 seems more spacious and alive, with a broad and very deep soundstage. It's definitely worth trying if you have a balanced headphone. I suspect it would be very nice with the T1 as well, but I don't have a balanced cable on mine so I can't be sure.
Turning off the pre-amp and headphone stage gives a very slight hint of better sound. But only when used with a highly resolving amp in the $1K+ range. Maybe it's my imagination or placebo in action, but whatever it is I'll take it. It's not like pushing the button is difficult to do... I'm very thankful for the preamp and headphone stage, yet also thankful that they can be disabled. Best of both worlds.
To switch things up a bit, I'm going to focus on how the DA8 stacks up against some tough competition. Most of these are DACs which I hold in very high regard, so the this is not an easy challenge in the least.
NuForce DAC-100 ($1,095): The DAC-100 has a more energetic, exciting sound signature, both as a DAC and in the (very enjoyable) built-in amp section. The presentation is less open and expansive, opting instead for a more lively, direct feel. Your preferences and music would determine which sound you like best, but I have a feeling more people would appreciate the DA8 as it would work better with a wide variety of music and gear. Even though the smoother DA8 seems like it would be a better pair for the somewhat bright HD800, the DAC-100 inexplicably ends up being the better match. Not sure how to explain that but there it is - though if I use the DA8 rear XLR option, it becomes more difficult to choose. The DA8 is very much the more refined sounding unit overall - it's got a more realistic treble presentation, more transparent mids, more layering and depth. Vocals especially come through more lifelike. The amp sections are quite different - Yulong sounds best with low impedance cans, and is smooth and inviting. NuForce is better with higher impedance models and is more lively. Generally, I think the DA8 amp is more useful. And yet, overall, the DAC-100 can be supremely fun to listen to. I'd call the Yulong a more mature sounding piece of audiophile gear, and not in a stodgy, boring, overly clinical way. In headphone terms it would be a HiFiMAN HE-500. The DAC-100 is more like a vintage Grado RS-1 where you absolutely love what it does in some cases, yet probably wouldn't prefer it to the HE-500 as an all around headphone for all types of music. I hope that analogy makes sense.
Firestone Audio Tobby ($1,099): These again are two very different sounding devices. The Firestone favors a more analytical, detailed approach, like an upgraded Yulong D100. As a fully balanced dual mono design it sounds best via the XLR outputs, and achieves best results via its very well done USB input. I'd say the DA8 is again the better DAC overall, with more features and better sound for a small price premium. And just like the Nuforce comparison, there will still be certain tastes or systems that do better with the Firestone despite the DA8 being generally superior.
Matrix X-Sabre ($1,099) and Anedio D2 ($1470): The X-Sabre is the real meat and potatoes of my comparisons. A lot of people have asked about which one I prefer. And it's a tough one to explain. Why? Because the Anedio throws a curve-ball into the comparison. It's like this: In my X-Sabre review, I stated the Anedio was on a higher level. That remains my firm opinion. And for the first time this side of a far higher price, I actually found something I (sometimes) enjoy more than the Anedio - the DA8. So it would logically follow that X-Sabre is inferior to the Yulong, right? Not so fast. I actually like the X-Sabre more. Weird, I know.
In an Escher-like situation, the DA8 is better than the Anedio which is better than the X-Sabre which is better than the DA8. In actuality all three are quite close in performance, and the differences were best noticed on my Stax setup. I like the Anedio better than the X-Sabre, at least in this particular system, because it captures more details, and has better transparency. The X-Sabre has a more "fun" sound but it just doesn't quite do as much for me in direct comparison. The X-Sabre is not all that different from the Yulong in general character, but they each have slightly different nuances which make them distinct. Compared to the Anedio, I find the DA8 to be just fun enough, yet still accurate enough, to be the preferred choice. This is somewhat shocking because the D2 has beat all comers until this point. I just find the DA8 to be a more musically satisfying with very little compromise in micro detail and no compromise at all in imaging or bass texture. It's very impressive. But this doesn't always apply to every system, and at times the Anedio is the best of all.
So why do I prefer the X-Sabre over the seemingly superior DA8? I'm not exactly sure why it goes that way - it just does. I ran all three simultaneously into my Stax SRA-12S and could switch back and forth on the fly, monitoring via the Stax SR-007mkII. Minor level matching was required to keep things fair. For the longest time I though I had a clear picture of the hierarchy: Yulong -> Anedio -> Matrix. But then I realized that I had mixed up my inputs, and I had to start over. After a lot of time spent, I determined that I do tend to favor the X-Sabre over the DA8.
The two are more similar than different. Both lean a bit towards the warm side, both have very expansive soundstaging, both are somewhat smooth. But I felt like the X-Sabre was a touch more involving. Yes, the DA8 may have been more organic and natural, but the X-Sabre was more exciting without going as far as being zingy up top. And I think that may be the answer - the Anedio is on the more analytical side in comparison, while the X-Sabre is more fun. DA8 is somewhat in the middle (though closer to the Matrix than the Anedio). For that reason, perhaps it stands out more as having a distinct, exciting sound signature. Call it more character... I really don't know. Eventually I had to move on - if I repeated this same test with a different amp and headphone, I may have obtained different results (and indeed when I casually use both models with the AURALiC Taurus and HD800, I think I like DA8 better, or when using the Violectric V200 and LCD-2 I like the Anedio best). So bottom line - the Matrix X-Sabre has potential to compete and even surpass the Yulong DA8 in some instances. Both are extremely nice and most people should be very satisfied with either. DA8 has more features and costs a bit more as a result. X-Sabre probably looks better, DA8 has more features, etc. The choice comes down more to system matching than individual competency. I'd love to proclaim my audiophile superiority in discerning the difference between any and all components, but in this case it's not so easy.
Yulong Sabre D18 ($699): The DA8 is sort of an upgrade to the D18, but also a bit different. As the D100 mkII was to the original D100, so the DA8 is to the D18. But it goes in the opposite direction for tone. D100 was a little on the brighter, more analytical side, and the mkII upgrade brought it down a notch while maintaining high levels of clarity. The DA8 takes the ultra-smooth feel of the D18 and fleshes out the upper midrange and highs a bit more, with improved air and sparkle. A hint of that smoothness still remains, but it's more of a neutral presentation this time around. Unlike the D100 where mkII completely replaced the original, I'd say D18 and DA8 are different enough in concept and execution that they can coexist in the lineup together without causing any confusion. If you want warmer, smoother sound at a great price due to minimalist execution, go D18. If you want a mostly neutral, top level performer with all the bells and whistles, go DA8.
Esoteric D-07x ($4,650): No contest. The DA8 is clearly superior. I repeat - at less than one third the price, the Yulong DA8 is blatantly superior to the Esoteric D-07x. I have to qualify this by saying I have very little regard for this DAC, so it's not as big of a compliment as it initially seems. But it makes for a good headline, doesn't it? I remain a fan of Esoteric in general, but this is strike two in my book (the first strike being the original D-07 which I also found disappointing).
PS Audio NuWave ($999): Again a DAC which I dislike, and again the DA8 is vastly superior in my humble opinion. If ever there was a night and day difference between two modern DACs in the same price range, this is it. The NuWave is just so bright, thin, and "digital" sounding in comparison to the far more refined DA8. Sorry to offend anyone who uses or loves the NuWave, but I just don't much care for it myself.
Gripes? Let me think about that.... I would have liked to see a BNC connection. It's a better interface than coaxial for a variety of reasons, and it's simple to convert BNC back to coax if needed. Also, I would have liked to hear dead silence when using sensitive IEMs with the integrated amp. Anedio and Resonessence Labs can do it, so the bar has been set. I realize the DA8 uses a discrete Class A topology which A) makes silence difficult, and B) makes full sized headphones sound great. But the fact remains the DA8 is not ideal as an all-in-one solution for IEM users. A remote control would have been nice too. Notice a trend here? All my gripes are petty and deal with features rather than sound.
I asked Yulong if there was anything "held back" on the DA8 - given a higher price, could he design a better device? He replied that no, the DA8 is as good as it can be, and is really only limited on the basis of size. A far larger enclosure would allow for a "marginal" increase in sound quality. The D8, which has been in development for a while, will be roughly 5 times the size of the DA8, and cost more too. As far we've been told thus far, the D8 will be a limited release, so the DA8 should still be considered the flagship Yulong DAC.
What else can I possibly say? This review has gone on way too long already. The Yulong DA8 is supremely capable, among the absolute best DACs I've yet heard, pricing be damned. The headphone amp is good enough to be a serious tool rather than a mere bonus feature, and all the other features add up to make it quite the compelling device. But don't be fooled - the heart of the DA8 is excellent sound quality, and all the features are just a bonus. It would stand on its own, and justify the price, even as a pure DAC with no extras. I'd happily put the DA8 up against any sanely priced DAC and expect it to have a good chance of coming out on top. Once again Yulong comes highly recommended.