When I first heard Sennheiser's HE-1 (which, like many, I call the "new Orpheus") it redefined for me what was possible from a headphone, in terms of fidelity, in terms of musicality. The term "paradigm shift" is so over-used that I loathe to draw on it, but that's what the HE-1 was for me. Perhaps a tad less dramatically -- but still very significantly -- the Chord Electronics DAVE has had a similar impact on me where digital audio is concerned, allowing me deeper into recordings than any digital component I'd used before it (or since, as of this writing).
DACs (digital-to-analog converters) have, over the last several years, gotten better and better. I think a large part of that is you guys -- the Head-Fi community -- and your increasing demand for DAC / headphone amplifier all-in-ones (as opposed to two separate components). We’re plugging extremely resolving (and often very sensitive) headphones into our systems, effectively putting system performance smack dab on top of (or even inside) our ears, laying bare system shortcomings and noise. The evolution of the DAC/amp form factor has gone from the desire for convenience/economy as the key driver, to the demand for no compromise (versus separates)--and even seeking performance advantages that can come with the deep integration of the two components.
The Chord Electronics DAVE is Chord Electronics' flagship DAC, and it does include an integrated headphone output. It can also serve as a digital preamp, with a slew of digital inputs, including 4 x 75Ω SPDIF BNC coax inputs that support 44.1 kHz to 384 kHz; AES XLR, supporting 44.1 kHz to 96 kHz; 2 x TOSLINK fiber optic inputs supporting 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz; and one USB input supporting 44.1 kHz to 768 kHz, as well as DSD. It outputs to a stereo pair of unbalanced RCA jacks, a stereo pair of balanced XLR jacks, and one 1/4" TRS headphone jack.
Like Chord's other DACs, the Chord DAVE does not use any off-the-shelf DAC chips, and instead is built around a Spartan 6 field programmable gate array (FPGA) with what Chord claims has "1000x the processing power of the traditional mass-produced chip DAC." That FPGA is loaded with over one million lines of bespoke code. DAVE also has a 164,000-tap digital filter. Filtering is 256 FS, a rate at which Chord claims no other DAC has ever FIR-filtered at. It employs parallel processing using 166 DSP cores, and further filtering to 2048 FS. The purpose of all of this -- the thing that Chord relentlessly drives home in their talks and posts about the DAVE -- is to more accurately retrieve the original continuous analog un-sampled signal than any other DAC.
The Chord DAVE's designer and engineer, Rob Watts from Chord Electronics, has not been bashful about sharing almost every technical detail behind the DAC with us on the forums (well, everything but his source code, of course). So confident and proud is he of the DAVE that -- because we both use the Audio Precision APx555 audio analyzer -- he's even shared some of his Audio Precision project files with me so that I could see for myself what he's done by measuring the DAVE we have at Head-Fi HQ on our analyzer.
Independently (using my own APx project file), I still marvel at one of the first measurements I made of the DAVE, my jaw hitting the floor when I saw the report output for the DAVE's harmonic distortion:
As you can see above, at full-scale (0 dBFS) from its balanced outputs outputting 6.18 volts, harmonic distortion from the DAVE is measured in nanovolts out to the 10th harmonic! The DAVE is the only DAC I've measured so far that has achieved that. Paul Miller from HiFi News also said DAVE's distortion is the lowest he'd measured from any DAC, stating (of its infinitesimally low levels of distortion) "This is an astonishing technical achievement by Chord." I agree. The DAVE's intermodulation distortion is also the lowest I've yet measured. (If you search Rob Watts' post history, you can see other impressive DAVE measurements, including FFT's showing no noise floor modulation and other APx555 test outputs.)
So, yes, the DAVE's measured performance is perhaps currently without peer, and that's an easy story to tell. An even better story to tell would be that it measures well and sounds great, because ultimately that's what matters most -- especially at the price the Chord DAVE demands. Thankfully, how DAVE sounds to me closes the loop on this story very tidily, as it is the best sounding digital source component I have ever heard.
I've now used the Chord Electronics DAVE with every premium headphone I could think to throw at it that it's ideally suited to drive -- and that'd be just about any non-electrostatic headphone that's not an Abyss AB-1266, HiFiMAN HE6 or SUSVARA (these listed headphones being ones the DAVE can drive, just not at their best, though). When I had a chance to hear the HiFiMAN Shangri-La system for the first time in Tokyo, I carried the DAVE to Tokyo in my backpack just for that purpose. After hearing their flagship headphone system fronted by DAVE, HiFiMAN borrowed it to source the Shangri-La for that season's Fujiya Avic Tokyo Headphone Festival.
All competent modern DACs can serve up excellent detail in a traditional sense, and the DAVE will truly give you a glimpse into the tiniest nuances of your recordings -- sorry to be trite, but, yes, I'm talking about things you haven't heard before in some recordings you've heard a zillion times prior. But what the DAVE does better than any other DAC I've yet heard is another kind of resolution -- another kind of detail that I didn't know was also contained in such amounts on many recordings, and I'm talking about imaging information. I've never heard a DAC that gives such a thorough grasp of where instruments and voices are in the recording -- a sort of sonic holography. These are cues and subtleties that aren't added by the DAVE, but extracted by the DAVE from the source material. It's uncanny at times, but, when evident, always in a way that I thrill to.
We currently have a Sennheiser HE-1 at Head-Fi HQ, and to have Chord's masterpiece DAC fronting Sennheiser's masterpiece headphone system is to be constantly amazed. I've never seen Joe tear up over music being played over hi-fi. We're both Beatles fans, so I asked him to come into my office and listen to something. He put the HE-1 on, and I cued up a remaster of "Golden Slumbers" (from Abbey Road) via the Chord DAVE, and he turned to me in awe -- his eyes big with shock, tears welling up. Why? Because he felt like George Martin, one room away from Paul singing, the boys playing. I called him into the room only after my eyes had dried. Somewhere on this old recording is something that this system -- like no other system we've heard -- can retrieve. Again, it's a different kind of detail, apart from what we normally call detail. Something temporal, perhaps. Whatever it is, it's the closest I've ever been to Paul McCartney singing me a lullaby. When he growls "Golden slumbers fill your eyes," it jars me every time though this system. Goosebumps always. Tears sometimes.
One other thing I want to mention is something the DAVE has that I'm a big fan of that I know a lot of you probably don't think to use, and that's a well-implemented crossfeed circuit. The Sennheiser HE-1 also has crossfeed, and it's good. The Chord DAVE has crossfeed, and to my ears it's definitely the superior circuit, the tonal balance being completely left alone, only the imaging being fixed when needed and called for -- like so many Beatles stereo recordings, where left is only on the left, and right is only on the right. Like Chord's Hugo products, DAVE has three levels of crossfeed (and, of course, you can turn it off). I love that I can pass it through the headphone outputs and the DAVE's rear outputs. I don't use it all the time, but when it's needed, it's needed, and for exaggerated panning (again, almost all Beatles stereo), I need it.
Do I need to listen through the Sennheiser HE-1 to benefit from this holography the DAVE projects? No. That combo is so far unparalleled to my ears, but even driving other wonderful headphones directly, DAVE does that...thing. That imaging thing. Today I was using it with the new final D8000 planar magnetic headphones (directly driven by DAVE, and soon to be in this Guide), and that sense of image object realism was still there, still thrilling. Audeze LCD-4. Focal Utopia. Sennheiser HD660S. These are all headphones I've recently plugged into DAVE, and, still, with them (and others) the DAVE does it's thing.
This is why the Chord Electronics DAVE is the reference DAC here at Head-Fi HQ. If you haven't yet auditioned the Chord DAVE, you absolutely should if you can find the opportunity to do so.
Where Schiit Audio is concerned, I would guess that most Modi DACs are probably sold with Magni amps, and I'd guess that most Bifrost DACs are sold paired with one of the similarly sized Schiit amps, too. As well as those paired-up Schiit separates sell, though, there are still many enthusiasts who opt for single-chassis DAC/amp combos, which, until recently, Schiit did not offer. In the world of personal audio over the last several years, enthusiasts have gravitated rather heavily (in both the portable and desktop worlds) to integrated DAC/amp combos.
This was a trend Schiit resisted. As far as I can recall, Schiit had made clear that they felt the idea of permanently marrying a DAC with an amp was a recipe for eventual obsolescence. They've also said that cramming a noisy DAC section into the same chassis (and sharing power supplies) with an amp could be something less than ideal. I knew if Schiit ever decided to do that--to integrate amp and DAC into a single chassis--it'd be unique, and on their terms. So while I was surprised when Schiit Audio's Jason Stoddard told me about the Jotunheim, I wasn't shocked, especially when he told me the specifics of their approach to the category.
Since the biggest gripes Schiit had with the concept of an all-in-one were eventual obsolescence--and the possible disadvantages that can come with cramming two separate components together into one chassis--they decided that doing something akin to an all-in-one would mean addressing these two concerns. To address obsolescence, the Jotunheim is actually--in its base form--a headphone amplifier and preamp with a single expansion slot to which can be optionally added a USB DAC module or a moving magnet phono input module. So if you add the phono module, you have a phono/amp combo. If you add the DAC module, you have a DAC/amp combo.
Now, since I'm almost certain far more Head-Fi'ers will be opting for the DAC module over the phono module, then, for all intents and purposes, the Jotunheim is Schiit's first desktop DAC/amp combo, however reluctantly they want to own up to their entrance into that category.
The Jotunheim's optional USB DAC module is a hardware-balanced DAC, using two AKM AK4490 DAC chips. According to Jason Stoddard, this module is Schiit's first DAC with passive filtering, which eliminates the typical active output stage (and a whole lot of circuitry). Long story short, to address their other concerns with DAC/amp integration, they designed a solid DAC in modular form.
However, perhaps most impressive to me is the Jotunheim's amp section, which is one of the most versatile high-powered headphone amps we've yet used. It's a new topology developed by Schiit called Schiit Pivot Point--a differential current-feedback design, with the ability to use one side of the topology as a single-ended output, to eliminate the need for summers. It is fully discrete, with no opamps (except the DC servo) and no integrated chip outputs--and it's completely DC-coupled from input to output.
Pivot Point makes for a remarkably flexible gain stage. While it can output up to 5000 milliwatts RMS per channel into 32 ohms from its balanced outputs--not to mention up to 900 milliwatts RMS per channel into 300 ohms from its balanced outputs--it's still also quiet and delicate enough to silently drive my most sensitive in-ear monitors. There's not a non-electrostatic headphone I have (and I have a lot of headphones) that the Jotunheim can't comfortably drive.
That the Jotunheim amp alone is priced at only $399 is remarkable. If you add the DAC module or phono module when ordering the Jotunheim, the price is still a very modest (and still remarkable) $499. That kind of performance for the price is market-disrupting, and will almost certainly upend even some of Schiit's own lines of products.
For more information, we shot an episode of Head-Fi TV about the Schiit Jotunheim, which you can see below:
I am very impressed with Schiit Audio’s Jotunheim. This black beast of a amp sounds great and can drive any IEM or headphone one should have, This solid stage amp is versatile and has plenty of inputs and outputs. I think the Jotunheim is a great sounding mid level amp, especially for the money.
The symbiotic combination of clarity and musicality have always been a hallmark of Grace Design products and the new Grace m920 High Resolution Monitoring System follows in this great tradition. Now in its fourth generation, the m920 comes on the heels of the highly popular m903 and adds some meaningful new features, most notably a new 32-bit/384kHz Sabre ES9018-2M DAC which supports DSD64 and DSD128 playback via DoP.
The m920 can be used as the central hub in a desktop headphone or combination headphone/studio monitor audiophile system. It is a high-resolution DAC, headphone amplifier, and preamp, but what really sets it apart from much of the competition is the spectacular user configurability of the unit. For example, outputs (headphone out, Line 1, Line 2) can be toggled--and volume independently controlled--via remote control. Additionally, the user can set the volume level upon powering up the device for each of the 3 outputs.
The m920 has fantastic build quality and ergonomics. It feels and handles like a premium product should, with a beautiful brushed aluminum that is similar to the all-familiar Apple products. All of the functions and LED readouts have clear labels indicating the status of the unit. And with this release, the user has multiple options for remote control, including the use of Logitech Harmony remotes, Apple's remote, and Grace’s own remote control unit.
The introduction of the Sabre ES9018 provides an increased level of resolution compared to the already highly resolving m903. The unit also has a useful digital filter response with three settings: fast, slow, and minimum phase. I found that different types of music (and recordings) might benefit from each of these settings, but for the most part the minimum phase setting provided the best overall tonal balance.
For $1895, the Grace m920 is an amazing piece of gear and should be on a very short list of components designed to offer this level of flexibility, ergonomics, and sound quality. It is equally a fantastic all-in-one solution with ideal synergy for low-impedance headphones, but can also serve as a state of the art DAC for use in other applications.
Say you're an audio designer and you want to offer a really high quality all-in-one device. You can't make it huge so you've got to pack everything in a reasonably sized enclosure. A superb DAC is an absolute must - you've already got a reference caliber DAC in your stable (Questyle CAS192D), so you end up using that as a reference and packing in as much of that technology as possible. Since this is Head-Fi, you're extremely concerned about the headphone amp quality as well. The usual simplistic opamp output or voltage divider from the speaker amp simply won't do. Luckily you already have an exceptional headphone amp in your lineup (Questyle CMA800R), so again you try to cram most of that design in this magical box as well. This leaves you with very little room for anything else. You make sure the preamp section is up to snuff, with analog volume control via motorized potentiometer so a remote can be included. You provide a reasonable amount of inputs and outputs - as many as will be allowed given your size constraints. And that's pretty much all we need right? (And maybe the ability to incorporate speakers, too.)
The product in question does exist. It's called the CMA800i from Questyle Audio Engineering. Maybe I'm just overly concerned with semantics, but for some reason I'm really intrigued with what Questyle has going on here. It's essentially a modern integrated amplifier with a focus on digital inputs rather than analog, but it swaps out the speaker amplification for a very potent headphone stage based on the highly regarded CMA800R headphone amp. The DAC stage is based on their CAS192D which again is known for being extremely high quality. The logic here is that most of us are primarily concerned with headphone amplification and wish to build a system around that aspect. And yet we may want to add speakers to the mix at some point as well. The CMA800i makes a fantastic preamp for dedicated amplifiers or active speaker systems, and fits right in at the heart of a semi-complex system in a way that most DACs can't - even those modern DACs with volume control on board.
The Questyle CMA800i is a very clever device. Whether we consider it a cutting edge integrated with a focus on digital inputs and headphone amplification, or just call it an all-in-one headphone amp/DAC/preamp device like so many others on the market, the end result is the same - a versatile device with exceptional sound that can take a central role in most any audio system. When I recall how much I like the individual Questyle flagship components, and then consider how close the CMA800i comes to that level of performance, for much less cash... it's an easy recommendation for anyone seeking extreme levels of accuracy and refinement. It even does some things better, like playing well with sensitive IEMs.
There's a lot of competition in this space. The BMC PureDAC is excellent and costs a bit less, and then there's the Benchmark DAC 2 and Grace Design M920, and probably others that I'm missing. Unfortunately I didn't have any of those here for direct comparisons. I will say the BMC falls on the warmer, smoother, more "analog" side of the spectrum, making it a very different animal than the CMA800i. Still, I don't recall any of these knocking me out in ways the Questyle does not. Most others tend to start as a DAC and then add a headphone out as a sort of bonus - Questyle starts with a genuine high-end amp, avoiding that "afterthought" syndrome.
Say "digital audio," and a few companies come to my mind immediately--Meridian is usually the first. You can imagine, then, why I was so excited when I found out earlier this year that Meridian was entering our space with the Meridian Explorer, their pocket-sized USB DAC and headphone amp. Their affordable little Explorer has become one of my favorite USB DAC/amps for on-the-go use. However, as well received as the Explorer has been, it might have seemed to some that perhaps Meridian was just dipping their toes in our water with it, as Meridian isn't exactly known for making components that most would consider affordable.
As it turns out, though, Meridian already had more planned, and recently launched something that is more in line with what the Meridian aficionados among us would probably have expected from Meridian entering the world of Head-Fi--something more high-end, something very Meridian, something called the Meridian Prime Headphone Amplifier. The Meridian Prime is certainly more than just a headphone amplifier--it's a Meridian DAC with a Meridian headphone amp, housed in an elegant, compact desktop chassis.
As with the immensely popular Chord Hugo, the Meridian Prime eschews use of just an off-the-shelf single-chip DAC solution in favor of more custom-developed technologies. The Meridian Prime uses custom-coded computationally-intensive, Meridian-developed DSP code for things like Apodising, upsampling, filtering, matched dither, etc. So much of what makes a Merician component a Meridian component are the custom-coded digital technologies they put into it.
The Meridian Prime is 24-bit / 192kHz capable, including 88.2 and 176.4, with its dual oscillators (based on those found in Meridian's flagship Reference Series components). The Prime's USB input (its only digital input) is async, and upsamples 44.1/48kHz sources to 88.2/96kHz prior to the DAC. The Prime also uses Meridian's Apodising filter, which, among other things, is designed to eliminate digital pre-ringing, for more natural sound. Their Apodising filter was first introduced in what was then their flagship 808.2, and is thought by many to be one of the key reasons for the many plaudits hurled in the direction of Meridian's flagship players.
The headphone outputs on the front panel consist of two 1/4" stereo outputs and one 3.5mm (mini plug) jack. Each of the 1/4" stereo jacks is rated for maximum output of 3V RMS off load, THD below 0.002%, power output 250mW up to 42Ω, with output impedance <100mΩ (or less than 0.1Ω). The 3.5mm jack is rated for maximum output of 3V RMS off load, THD below 0.002%, with output impedance of 2.2Ω. The 3.5mm jack is intended for use with in-ears and other sensitive headphones.
I've found its built-in headphone amp to have good driving power and very low noise floor, and suitable for most of my headphones, from my most sensitive in-ears to mildly challenging over-ears. My favorite headphone pairings with the Prime so far have been the Audeze LCD-X and the HiFiMAN HE-560, two phenomenal interpretations on neutral'ish sounding high-end heapdhones, and both of which sound fantastic with the Prime. As for harder-to-drive headphones like the Abyss AB-1266 and the HiFiMAN HE-6, the Prime can drive them in a pinch, but if either of those is your main headphone, consider pairing the Prime as a DAC with a monster-powerful separate headphone amp (that is, consider the Ray Samuels Audio Dark Star, HiFiMAN EF-6, Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold, or Schiit Audio Ragnarok, as a few good possibilities).
In terms of its sound signature--whether used as a DAC to drive other amps, or as a DAC/amp combo--the Prime is pure Meridian, which is to say it is, for my preferences, a wonderful combination of superb resolution that isn't at all compromised by the ease and smoothness that I've come to expect from Meridian since falling in love with the venerable Meridian 508.24 many years ago. Feed well-recorded high-resolution recordings to the Prime, and it only gets better, with fantastic inner detail and timbral richness.With the little Meridian, you won't think you're listening to your high-end turntable, but, true to Meridian high-end form, the Prime is digital that even diehard analog lovers can love.
If you want to elevate the performance of the Meridian Prime to something more approaching statement-level Meridian, give serious consideration to the optional reference-quality, high-current Meridian Prime Power Supply, the design of which is based on the linear power supplies developed for Meridian's flagship 800 Reference Series. It's a fantastic power supply that does its work on both the mains power andUSB. With the Meridian Prime Power Supply, you'll have the biggest taste of Meridian's flagship series you can get in under a square foot of desk space.
If you haven't figured it out by now, I am absolutely thrilled that there's a Meridian DAC/amp combo that sounds like a Meridian player in a compact chassis on my desk.
For those that are in the music production world, Rupert Neve is nothing short of a living legend. Mr. Neve’s designs have been at the forefront of recording technology for many decades now, with the famed Neve analogue mixing consoles being responsible for some of the finest sounding recordings from the likes of Steely Dan, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Quincy Jones, George Clinton, Chick Corea, and many others. Indeed, the legendary Neve console was the main storyline in Dave Grohl’s fantastic documentary "Sound City", a wonderful film which should be required viewing for every Head-Fier. So many of us were understandably excited, when the news of the Rupert Neve Designs RNHP Precision Headphone Amplifier came out.
The RNHP is a dedicated 24V reference-quality headphone amp based on the headphone output circuit of the 5060 Centerpiece Desktop Mixer. It has a calibrated +4dBu balanced line, unbalanced RCA and 3.5mm (1/8") inputs and a 1/4" single ended output housed in a no-nonsense, utilitarian VESA-mountable steel chassis. The unit features switchable inputs that are highlighted by a single green LED, as well as an absolutely lovely red volume knob that just feels fantastic and is silky smooth. Measuring 6.5" wide x 4.6" deep, and 1.9" tall, the RNHP is perfect for a desktop and is also small enough to be easily transportable.
I first got the opportunity to hear the RNHP at CanJam London 2016 and came away really impressed at the overall balance and musicality of this amp. Now that I have gotten to spend some more time with the RNHP in my own system, I’m even more impressed. With the the exception of the notoriously hard to drive Hifiman HE-6, the RNHP has done an admirable job with the Utopia, HD800, and Andromeda which were mostly used, and was also able to scale nicely depending on the source and DAC used. For most of my listening, I was using the AK380 as a source/DAC and occasionally switched to using an Auralic Vega DAC and Aurender N100H as source, which yielded even higher sonic results.
If I had to describe the sound of the RNHP, the first words that come to mind are "balanced", "clear", and "musical". The RNHP is able to get out of the way and lets you hear what’s on the recording and also what the individual characteristics of the headphones and source equipment you are using and that’s really what a headphone amp should do. While there are other headphone amps that have more output power, more features, and fancier chassis, the RNHP represents an incredible value at it’s retail price of $499. Enthusiastically recommended!
Early on in my Head-Fi journey, my first experience with an "R2R" type DAC convinced me that ownership of one was to be my future. With audio-quality R2R chips no longer made, manufacturers have turned, respectively to industrial chips, or building boards of resistor ladders instead.
The availability of powerful, programmable FPGAs has made it possible to build boards that have a degree of performance getting close to the old chip designs, and it is with this that Audio-gd has launched their latest flagship DAC, the R2R 7.
Over the years, Kingwa, the owner of Audio-gd, has strayed little in his flagship set-up. Three separate boards, with power supplies and transformers fill the very solid aluminium case. The two outer boards are primarily analog channels and the center board contains the digital components.
The DAC itself contains no less than 11 FPGAs, 4 on each resistor ladder board, two for digital intput, and one programmed for the digital filtering. The latter can be set by the customer in multiple modes by taking off the top cover and placing jumpers across pairs of pins. You can adjust the amount of over-sampling or even set the DAC in NOS mode.
Optionally the DAC can be re-programmed with different firmware. The stock R2R 7 comes with firmware that gives a typical, very slightly "musical" presentation, where the natural slight harmonics of resistor ladder DACs provides a highly musical sound that had me listening for hours in pleasure.
For those wishing, there is an "accurate" firmware that improves the accuracy of the FPGA output, resulting in a more lively and engaging presentation.
While the R2R 7 comes with Audio-gd’s latest high-quality USB input, it comes with no less than 6 inputs, including 2 I2S inputs, with custom options available, such as AES. If you have your preferred digital transport, then you can have it set up to use that instead. DSD input is also supported.
With Audio-gd’s ACSS outputs, it can be connected directly to Audio-gd’s amps, bypassing some of the amplification stages, and making two units "as one" with lower distortion.
After a long period of burn-in, and some back-and-forth between modes and firmwares, the R2R 7 has been providing a highly enjoyable listen, more engaging in some ways than my slightly more laid-back Yggdrasil, if the American DAC seems to have very slightly more nuanced detail.
Primarily it provides such a natural-sounding presentation with acoustic music that I can easily enjoy listening for a long time, and when precise bass is required, it distinctly does a better job than the older PCM1704UK-based DACs I’ve owned in the past. This made it a great DAC for listening with HiFiMan’s Susvaras, which are highly engaging in their own right.
If you’re after a highly flexible DAC with a natural, yet very engaging sound, put Audio-gd’s R2R 7 on your short-list.
I confess.... When I first saw the Chord Hugo TT at CES 2015, I got really excited. The Chord Hugo was my favorite product of 2014 and judging from the unprecedented success of the Hugo, it certainly seemed that many others shared the same sentiment. Chord Electronics managed to release a truly state of the art FPGA (field programmable gate array) DAC in the form of a portable dac/amp. And with its incredible engagement and musicality, the Chord Hugo was a pure home run, and arguably the finest sounding portable dac/amp on the market. But for those of us who loved the Hugo sound and did not need portability, the Hugo had some room for ergonomic improvement in desktop/home use applications. Enter the Chord Hugo TT.
The Chord Hugo TT (which stands for Table Top) is Chord’s desktop version of the Chord Hugo. It features the same FPGA DAC with a 26k tap-length filter, and follows a similar design philosophy of the Hugo with its topside component viewing portholes, its touch-sensitive volume control, along with its color-coded LEDs that indicate volume settings, sample rates, crossfeed selection, and input settings. Build quality is exceptional with the TT, weighing in at a stout 3 kg (6.6 lbs); and like the Hugo, the TT comes in silver and matte black.
I can answer the most pressing question right away. Running as a DAC only into my DNA Stratus/HD800 rig, the Hugo TT is a significant step up from the already excellent Chord Hugo. The TT sounds smoother, without any loss of detail or resolution and provides incredible texture, layering, and three-dimensionality to the musical canvas. The bass hits harder, and has more impact. The overall sound is more nuanced, more fleshed out, and the overall image is even more coherent and intoxicating than the little Hugo.
So, how did they do this? Despite identical FPGA specifications, including the same 26k tap-length filter, the Hugo TT has a few tricks up its sleeve which provide this significant jump in sound quality. New for the TT (as well as the recently released 2Qute) is galvanic isolation (up to 384k) on the HD USB port, which removes incoming noise from the computer. Like the Chord Hugo, the TT is battery powered but the addition of supercapacitators adds energy storage and maximizes battery and charging efficiency, and provides the increased dynamics and transient response. In addition to galvanic USB isolation and supercapacitators, the TT uses an all new and much larger circuit board, has upgraded I/O connections, as well as a new alphanumeric display and remote control.
The retail price of the Chord Hugo TT is $4795 which is commensurate with the upgrade in sound and ergonomics from the Chord Hugo. Anyone looking for an end game DAC in this price range owes it to themselves to seek out an audition of the Chord Hugo TT, which gets my highest recommendation.
If we nominated Head-Fi products of the year, the Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies would certainly be one of my nominees. I first saw the WA7 Fireflies at 2012's CanJam @ RMAF, and assumed the diminutive component was a mini system that was more flash than dash. At best, I thought it might be a good system for something so small, designed as an ultra-stylish compromise piece for those who simply didn't have room for a more serious rig. Others at the meet listened to it before I did, and many whose opinions I respect were coming up to me saying things like "Did you hear that thing at Woo's exhibit?" and "Man, you have got to hear that little Woo amp!"
Packed into that little five-inch cube is a 32-bit/192kHz DAC (with one async USB input, and one set of analog stereo RCA inputs that also serve as the DAC's analog output, selectable with a switch). Also packed into that five-inch cube is a vacuum tube headphone amplifier that is a pure tube design--no semiconductors used in the entire signal path.
Okay, this is the part where I reveal the wee bit of Woo sleight of hand: The WA7 Fireflies comes with a largish linear external power supply to provide clean power to the WA7. The power supply is in a simple black chassis, and comes with enough cable to hide it away. Still, there's a lot going on in the WA7, and a lot of power coming out of it. With the two 6C45 driver/power tubes, the WA7's class-A, single-ended tube amp outputs up to one full watt at 32Ω. When it comes to headphones, the WA7 can drive just about anything, its transformer-coupled outputs switchable to accommodate both low-impedance and high-impedance headphones (for headphones of nominal impedances ranging from 8Ω to 600Ω).
Its ability to drive the big, tough headphones is fantastic; but what impresses me even more than that is the pure tube WA7's ability to drive sensitive IEMs, and to do so against one of the lowest noise floors I've heard (or not heard) in any tube amp. Even with IEMs, turning the volume knob way up when no music's playing shows you just how quiet a tube circuit the WA7 Fireflies has.
Whether driving a sensitive IEM or a planar magnetic toughie, the WA7 is perfectly comfortable--from delicate to explosive, and everything in between. Given how much detail I'm hearing, I have the utmost confidence in the WA7 DAC stage's ability to impressively feed that little wonder of a tube amp. I couldn't have been more wrong with my initial assumptions. The Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies is a giant performer, not just for its size, but even compared to components of similar functionality of any size.
The WA7 has sounded exceptional with every headphone that I’ve plugged into it from low impedance headphones to high impedance headphones. The WA7 is a beautiful piece of machinery that should not be overlooked by those wanting a high-quality tube amp that works with low impedance headphones as well as it works with high impedance headphones.
If you're not using an equalizer, I'm guessing it's because you fancy yourself an audio purist. If that's not it, then maybe you just never thought to try one. In either case I do know something about you: You're missing out.
The esteemed Dr. Floyd Toole -- mentor and colleague to the likes of Paul Barton and Sean Olive -- said "Frequency response is the single most important aspect of the performance of any audio device. If it is wrong, nothing else matters." Of course there are other factors that contribute to total sound quality, but if the frequency response is not where you want it to be, it’ll be difficult to make up for that.
Schiit Audio recently launched what I think is an immensely important product called the Loki -- a new high-quality, hardware four-band equalizer. The music we listen to is often far from perfect. Our audio electronics, headphones, and speakers aren't perfect all the time either. And like Dr. Toole said, when it's wrong, nothing else matters.
We recently shot a Head-Fi TV episode about the Schiit Audio Loki -- including measurements showing the effects of each knob through its range -- so please watch it below, and find out how you can likely fix some of your most egregious system woes by judicious use of just four knobs. Seriously.