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Some DAC/preamp comparisons (long)

post #1 of 3
Thread Starter 

Over the last several months, I have auditioned a number of DACs, seeking to establish a baseline for my Emotiva DC-1, with which I’ve been very pleased and believe it is very clearly a value leader.  My requirements include preamp capabilities, so a sampling of DAC/preamps were evaluated.

 

The PS Audio PWD II is the only contender that I feel bests the DC-1, and that’s at a sale price of $2K, 4x the Emo’s price of $500.  I’m keeping both!

 

I’ve posted some of this in pieces before, but have pulled this all together in one place  for those interested in my observations.  YMMV, IMHO, and other disclaimers apply.

 

Compared below are the DC-1, Oppo BDP-105, BMC Puredac, Cambridge Audio StreamMagic, the NAD M51 and the PS Audio PWD Mk II.

 

The components I used for these comparisons  include the Emotiva XPA-1’s (Gen 1 -  1,000 watts RMS into 4 ohms), run fully internally balanced, to Magneplanar 1.7’s setup with great care for optimal tonal balance and imaging.  Listening levels were about 80db at my listening spot in all cases.

 

Oppo BDP-105

 

I got the 105 thinking to upgrade my video experience and add DSD, 3D, 4K and Blu Ray Pure Audio capabilities, and thought using it as a DAC/preamp as well may be a reasonable solution for my system.  The 105 was run balanced.

 

My observations are a distillation of four pages of detailed listening notes, which taken together reflect my impressions.

 

I tried streaming MOG, redbook CD’s, 24/96 and 24/192 hi res downloads and Patricia Barber’s “Modern Cool” Pure Audio Blu Ray disc for my listening. And, while the degree of resolution was different in each of these cases, the differences between the 105 and the DC-1 seemed consistent on my listening samples, primarily acoustic jazz.

 

For USB, I checked the Audio Midi settings on my MacBook Air for each sample, which was run on battery for this evaluation to minimize electronic noise. Used this way, the MacBook Air, with an attached Thunderbolt drive makes for a very flexible media server – highly recommended!

 

Literally out of the cold box, the 105 sounded less transparent and “thicker” through the mids than the DC-1, with more bass and less extended highs. Thinking some warm-up was needed, I let the 105 spin a blu-ray pure audio disc for 24 hours. I’ve heard the 105 needs a break-in period of 200-500 hours, but felt that excessive.

 

Returning to my evaluation after this warm up period, I found the character of the 105 to be dramatically different. Now, my notes said very spacious, good depth, detailed, extended highs, good harmonics on guitar strings, more sibilance, more recessed upper mids.

 

Returning the DC-1 to my system, I was immediately struck by the difference in sound, and used these terms in my notes:

 Sweeter, more lifelike, less “sheen” around vocal edges, more presence, less sibilance on Diana Krall’s “Walk On By” at 24/96 via USB, less fatiguing, more transparent with a jaw dropping 3D quality, each instrument firmly placed in space, less diffuse, more of an emotional connection to the music, female voices rounder, more timbre to drums, more articulate bass with harmonics clearly audible, more palpable.

 

After these comparisons, I enlisted my wife’s help in listening to these differences – she was a piano major with an excellent ear. Her remarks were that the 105 was more “trebly”, and noted that everything had an electronic “sheen” compared to the DC-1. She felt that while the 105 sounded “exciting”, the DC-1 sounded like real musicians were in the room.

 

In summary, it’s as if the 105 emphasizes highs at the expense of upper mids, where the all-important female vocals reside. My wife agrees with this characterization as well.

 

Some other notes:

 

-On the BDP-105, there was a loud “snap” through the system when changing tunes on the computer through USB – very disturbing at 1,000 watts into my 4 ohm Maggies, and not observed using the DC-1.

 

-I missed the volume control and analog inputs on the DC-1 – no easy way to connect my turntable!

 

-The USB input on the 105 sounded much better than its Toslink input, while both were equally great on the DC-1.

 

-While both units use the LM4562 IC for audio output, they use different DAC chips. I understand that the 105 has changed their implementation of their Sabre 32 bit DAC chips so they are no longer run quad differential like the DC-1 and the older Oppo BDP-95.  

-I didn’t notice any issues with the 105’s 32-bit volume control, but prefer the thought of the DC-1’s  digitally controlled stepped analog control.

 

-The included wireless adapter with the 105 runs on the G band, outdated for my N-band wireless environment.

 

-I did like the full-size look of the BDP-105, but sound quality is my first priority.

 

BMC Puredac:

 

Very similar in character to the Oppo 105; both use Sabre dac chips.  As others have reported, there is a sheen with these chips that’s very noticeable and irritating to me in my system.  With the same loud pops when changing sample rates as the 105, immediately sent back.  The BMC CEO concurred with snapping issue………and conveyed it would be rectified.

 

Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6:

 

Sounded very similar to the DC-1, yet not quite as refined.

 

It added bluetooth, internet radio and wireless access to my audio files via Plex, but I already hard all that functionality via iTunes, Apple TV and Airport Express.  It uses dual Wolfson 8740’s, run in a differential configuration.

 

I concluded that $799 for looks alone wasn't so rational.  But great if you’re not in the Apple ecosystem and want to add these capabilities.

 

It is a superb buy at $799 compared to their new 851D digital preamp that, for $1500 does the same things except for the internet radio.

 

 

NAD M51:

In my experience, the M51 and Emo DC-1 have an essentially similar character - say, for example compared to the Sabres or Metrum Octave as extreme cases.

 

The M51 seems to extend the highs and lows a bit over the DC-1, but nothing excessive.  Also slightly wider but not as deep soundstage.

 

Bass on the DC-1 is more articulate but a little less powerful....more harmonics heard on string bass on the DC-1.

 

The M51 had a bit more air and sibilance, but less metallic cymbal shimmer than the DC1.  More sandpapery on the M51. Not excessive, but definitely there.

 

The DC1 is more "present" and less congested in the all important midrange.....not necessarily more forward, but clearer if that makes sense.  The M51 is a little "softer".

 

Features tradeoffs - HDMI vs analog inputs, full size chassis for the M51 and programmable display titles, headphone out and front panel volume control on the DC-1, great remote on the DC-1.

 

Each is easy to listen to and non-fatiguing, but I felt the DC-1 somehow conveyed the emotional content of music better.  Many moments where my head snapped up to pay attention to the music rather than drift off.....

 

For the 4x price differential, I think the DC-1 is the clear winner here, and this really says something given the uniformly excellent reviews for the M51.

 

Sent back the NAD for this value reason.

 

PS Audio PWD MK II

Sonic impressions

 

Extended, tight, articulate bass – string plucks and harmonics on string bass very apparent

 

Great leading edge attack on piano keys

 

Has at least the midrange clarity of Emo DC-1

 

Very wide and deep soundstage left me in wonder as I stared beyond the sides of the speakers as I listened.  Jaw dropping.

 

Extended highs w/o harshness – no sibilance like Sabre dacs, plenty of air.

 

Depth of detail amazing – many new details heard on recordings I’ve listened to hundreds of times over the past 20 + years.  For example, Ron Carter breathing/humming on Golden Striker album; damper pedals on Diana Krall albums.

 

No snaps or pops, occasional slight clicks when changing inputs

 

Neutral, extremely well balanced frequency response

 

Operating flexibility – Phase, Sample rate, and Filter choices all adjustable to fine tune sonics for different recordings.

 

Great dynamics – plenty of power when called for, yet subtle as sin.

 

Volume levels – 62 for 80db at listening position 11’ back.  PS Audio says bit truncation may begin at volume settings below 50, so no issues here for me.

 

User factors & Value drivers

 

User upgradeable firmware on SD card- V 2.4.3 installed at receipt.

 

Beautiful, full size case – elegance and heft.  20 lbs!

 

Made in USA

 

Programmable titles

 

Touch Screen

 

Autodimmer or off

 

White gloves and cotton bag– polished top

 

Can add PWD bridge for DLNA server streaming

 

Directstream ready (PS Audio’s new DSD DAC initiative )

 

Great value at this time- From $4K, reduced to $2K new for limited time, same as trade-in credit toward Directstream.

 

Overall – The PS Audio PWD Mk II retains Emo DC-1’s midrange clarity while extending highs and lows and increasing soundstage and dynamics – very, very impressive!

 

 

post #2 of 3

Very nice and insightful comparison, thanks

post #3 of 3

A great read. Thanks for taking the time. The PWD Mk II looks like a steal at the moment. Can't wait for reviews of the Directstream!

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