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Amp/DACs item created by project86, Aug 26, 2013
Pros - Warm Sound, Sound Stage, Detail Retrieval
Cons - Popping issue, Built Quality
I've had the DAC for about three months and I feel like it's time to write a review. I got this off massdrop for around $310 shipped.
Let me say a little about myself. I haven't been in the audiophile world for super long, so some of the stuff I say/do might seem really dumb or weird. Bear with me, I'm still learning! Anyways, just a little less than a year ago I got my first "real" headphone setup. I had heard good headphones sometimes before, but I never decided to pull the trigger and go in. I'm pretty young so I don't think that my hearing is going bad quite yet. I listen to all kinds of music from pop to rap to classical (common practice period) and everything in-between. I listen to the DAC-80 with a DT880/600 run out of a Schiit Magni 2. My interconnects aren't some super insane high quality unobtanium wires, but they seem to work pretty well for me. Sorry if this invalidates this review for you. I'll try to write about some stuff that isn't already covered in other reviews just so that anybody that's reading through reviews can get the most thorough feel for this DAC absent actually buying it or demoing.
Let me start off with the explanation of the first con I mentioned as it may seem extremely worrisome to some. The popping issue was where I would occasionally hear pops of varying loudness during music playback. It drove me absolutely crazy. I tried several software fixes to no avail. Upsampling the native playback resolution in windows helped a little, but didn't seem to completely solve the issue (I upsampled to 24/192, but now I just keep it at 24/48). What did fix the problem was switching from a USB 3.0 input to a SPDIF optical from my motherboard. I read somewhere that the asynchronous USB 2.0 didn't play well with the USB 3.0 on my motherboard. I didn't dock too many points because I still partly believe that the software issue is just spaghetti coding by Microsoft or something. Also, I don't think that the popping issue was on the DAC-80 side. I think it was more of a software issue on my laptop's side. Hopefully this helps somebody, as this made me go absolutely mad trying to fix. Thankfully, all is good now.
Next I'll go to the physical aspects. If you need pictures there's another review on head-fi with beautiful pictures of this DAC's insides. The nuforce website has good images of the outside. The build quality is okay. I wouldn't give it full stars as if you tap on the DAC is makes sort of a weird cheap box ringing noise, but I'm not sure if this is true for all of the DAC-80s. Also this is sort of a non-issue as I don't tap my DAC all day or really ever. The texture of the finish on the DAC-80 is very nice and also looks nice. Just looking at the DAC, it's a fine piece. But really, it's just a silver box with some vent holes and pretty lights on the front. Nice minimalist look which some people enjoy and others don't. I'm one that does enjoy it. The physical footprint isn't too big, although if you're limited on desk space it might not be the best choice to buy.
The power cable is very thick and sturdy with a huge ferrite choke on it. It doesn't have any issue with coming loose, although this may change with age (a decade down the road). It kind of looks like the connector on the DAC-80 is falling out, but it juts sort of sits a little further outside compared to other electronics and isn't actually falling out. It's pretty firmly attached. There's also a provided USB A to USB B cord, but it's kind of bad and pretty short.
The source sample rate and bit depth labels are super hard to read, but again I don't really care since I know what the sample rate and bit depth is of my music and I don't need my DAC to tell me. The input source lights are pretty easy to see if your DAC isn't too far away. One sort of big thing that I like about the lights is that they're not ridiculously bright and that I don't need to cover them with electrical tape or something. Both the blue and white varieties of the sample rate/bit depth lights don't blind me and fill my room with light when the ceiling lights are off.
The remote is just a remote. I think that it could've been a little better designed but it's whatever. I just view it as something extra. It is somewhat useful though. To turn on the DAC-80 you just have to press the volume knob button. However once on, a short press of the volume knob button just switches the input source. To put the DAC-80 into standby mode (the DAC doesn't really turn off fully unless you switch the power on the back or unplug it) you have to hold down the volume knob button for five seconds. With the remote you can just press the "off" button which is nice I suppose.
Just few things about the remote, it has to be pointed at either the front of the DAC (where the lights and volume knob are) or from above towards the vent holes. To clarify, you have to be either standing in front of the DAC or be above the DAC and aim towards the front. For some reason, being in the plane of the DAC (horizontal to the DAC) and using the remote from the sides or back does not work. I never tested from below, but I think this is pretty impractical anyways. It was kind of hard to describe the directions, but I tried my best. Also, the remote seems to have a pretty decent range (at least two meters) as long as you're in a place where the signal can reach the receiver as mentioned above.
Also, the volume knob is not motorized so the physical position of the volume knob and the actual volume knob can be un-synchronized and if you move the volume knob physically it'll jump to that volume indicated by the volume knob regardless of how you changed it through the remote. Basically the danger here is that if you use the remote to lower the volume a ton and then you move the knob the volume will jump up and possibly damage something/someone. If that's confusing read the other reviews, they explain it better.
Just in case anybody is curious, the DAC-80 doesn't run very warm. It's never been hot to the touch although it definitely does generate some heat since it's warmer than plain room temperature. The Schiit Magni 2 definitely runs warmer (just as a reference point) which is to be expected. I have the volume knob on max if that matters at all.
Before I go any further I'll mention that I have my windows sound volume at 100%, my player software volume at 100% (to my knowledge is bit perfect without attenuation or gain), the DAC-80 at full volume (4V RMS through RCA I think), and my Schiit Magni 2 at around 9 o'clock which is kind of low. I have no idea if these are the optimal settings, but hey it sounds good so whatever. However, this might not work for everybody since the DT880/600 aren't the easiest headphones to run and even still I don't get too much leeway on the volume knob with the Schiit Magni 2. I get enough though without running my volume too far down into any channel imbalance issues.
As for the sound of the DAC, my impressions are pretty similar to what the other reviewers around the interwebs have said. The DAC-80 was definitely a pretty big upgrade leap for me though (I had an ELE EL-D02 before which by the way is a great DAC for the price). Anyways, the DAC-80 is an incredibly smooth, warm, and maybe analog sounding, in a very good way, type of DAC. I was originally thinking about getting a Schiit Modi Multibit (which I have never heard) but decided to get this DAC instead. What attracted me to the Modi was that it was R2R which is generally regarded as smoother and more natural. What made me end up getting the DAC-80 is it's looks and that it also offered a warm and natural sound. I can now say that, after listening to the DAC-80, there isn't any "digital harshness" with the DAC-80 that is associated with delta-sigma DACs. Almost every acoustic instrument sounds absolutely amazing and realistic through the DAC-80. I think that it adds a very nice natural touch without masking any details.
Despite some people being worried/complaining about the older chipset used in this DAC, I don't think it matters. If it sounds good then nothing else really matters that much to me. If you want a clean and detailed yet real sounding DAC I think that this fits the bill very well. The detail retrieval and soundstage is also great for a DAC of this price. With the DT880 600 ohm run out of a Schiit Magni 2 the DAC-80 does a great job taming the brightness of the two other components.
I would say that the DAC-80 is very strong in detail retrieval and soundstage which is what I value the most in a DAC. I've had several instances where I'm listening to a song I've listened to several times and I notice new details that I've never heard before. Even now i sit down and am sometimes amazed by the ability of this DAC to layer and make details more evident. The soundstage is pretty deep forwards and backwards with good imaging. Usually it's pretty easy to imagine where a sound is supposed to sound like it's coming from and where it is in relation to other instruments.
Overall, even if you don't need too much added warmth to your system, I think that the DAC-80 at this price point is one of the best DACs available. It just does it's job so well. However, keep in mind that I'm coming from the view of a cheap DAC. I've heard better DACs, but never owned one. The DAC-80 definitely holds it's own though. Definitely a worthwhile buy if you're looking for a good mid-fi DAC option.
Pros - Balanced, natural sound. Soundstage is large. Design is excellent and the subtle light indicators on front is beautiful
Cons - Volume knob wobbles a bit.
I started from using a Nuforce udac2 and later on upgraded to a Taiwanese brand DAC/AMP combo called DA&T U1s which costs about $400. Recently I've acquired a Chord Mojo and even though Mojo is intended to be a portable DAC/AMP, I found that the DAC portion is somehow better than the one in my U1s. (And of course WAY better than udac2) I've been using the Mojo as a reference DAC for a while and became curious about how a well built dedicated DAC would sound like.
Now I've been listening to the DAC-80 for several hours, A/B testing with an RCA switcher (Mojo -> Asgard, DAC-80 -> Asgard) and I can say that the DAC-80 is clearly better and offers a balanced sound all around.
I'm using an HD700 and the soundstage really opens up coming from Mojo to DAC-80. Instruments are more realistic in the recordings, especially piano and strings. Vocals tend to get hot because of the notorious treble spike of HD700, but on the DAC-80 it feels more relaxed and well placed in space. I even found out that a certain sound which I always considered noise in the background of one particular violin track was actually the violinist breathing!!
I think the Mojo's strong suit is its detail and accuracy, yet the congested soundstage wraps up too many information in a small space, restricting its sound to be as musical & natural as the DAC-80.
The DAC-80, on the other hand, have a slightly softer touch to its edge (just a tad softer, it's still very detailed and precise) and a larger soundstage both in depth and in width. The result is a very natural and effortless sound, which places all the instruments and vocals around your head in the right place and distance.
Pros - Very "analog" sounding - dynamic and rich, quality digital volume control, seems to have good jitter attenuation capabilities
Cons - Some people have had issues with Nuforce's drivers on Windows 8 - I don't use 8 so I can't comment
Not long ago I reviewed the new DAC-100 from NuForce. I was impressed with its dynamic, exciting sound, which focused more on musicality than excruciating detail. Fast forward a few months, I also covered some of the matching Home Series gear over at InnerFidelity. I liked the whole lot of it, which was not something I had anticipated. But I did have a few minor complaints. Specifically, I noted the DAC-100 didn't have the same design aesthetic as the rest of the group. As a higher priced model I guess it made sense to have a standout enclosure made of higher quality materials, but it still seemed odd that a person using the DAC-100 with the HAP-100 headphone amplifier would have a stack that didn't quite match. It's close, but not exact. The other issue was regarding duplicated features - the DAC-100 user got a very credible integrated headphone amp, which I could see negating the need for the stand alone HAP-100 unit. I suppose that could be considered good for the consumer and bad for NuForce, but personally I think the target market for nice DAC like this would eventually be after a stand alone amp anyway. I remain torn about integrated amplifiers in higher end DACs - at times they seem like a brilliant idea (assuming they are of decent quality) and other times the feel like an unnecessary expense that will end up not being used. I'm sure readers have their own opinions on the matter which help shape their potential purchasing choices.
Not long after that review, I was informed that NuForce (abruptly?) discontinued the DAC-100 and replaced it with their new DAC-80 model. Essentially the DAC-100 minus headphone section, the DAC-80 uses the familiar Home Series enclosure and sells for $795, which is $300 less than the 100. This made some sense to me so I asked them if I could give it a try to compare with the original.
The DAC-80 is very similar to the original DAC-100. It's got the same overbuilt power supply with Noratel brand toroidal transformer and extensive array of capacitors and voltage regulation. It's got the same AKM AK4118 digital receiver, the same Nuforce branded USB implementation capable of 24/192 operation, and the same AKM AK4390 32-bit DAC. It also has the Xilinx FPGA doing who-knows-what to help eliminate jitter. The one difference that jumps right out is the output stage - it uses the same pair LM4562 opamps but has no transistor buffer. The DAC-100 had heatsinks packed tightly and the DAC-80 just as an empty spot in that location. As far as I can tell the actual PCB is the same in both models with the DAC-80 losing that part of the output stage plus a few minor changes like different capacitors. Even the USB board still says "DAC-100" on it.
The DAC-100 uses a somewhat unique configuration where it drove the headphone stage with one channel from each LM4562 and buffered that with transistors running in class A. The line output used the "other half" of that - which explains why they needed a pair of stereo opamps for a single ended design. The DAC-80 no longer needs to power headphones so it actually could have used a single stereo opamp, but it was likely easier for NuForce to keep things as-is. There's probably also some potential for reduced crosstalk by running each channel from a separate opamp.
All this time I was operating under the assumption that the DAC-100 used transistors for both the headphone amp and the line-out stage. But maybe I was wrong - maybe the class-A transistor section was entirely used by the headphone stage, and the line-out was purely opamp based. That's certainly possible and either way it shouldn't take anything away from the excellent performance of that unit. As I read the datasheet for the AK4390 I notice it does voltage output rather than current output. So there's no I/V conversion stage needed. The LM4562 operates as an LPF and the output we get is basically straight from the DAC chip itself. Since the FPGA handles jitter rejection, there's no upsampling scheme involved, which means a very pure signal goes straight from the DAC chip to your amplifier of choice.
As you can see, the front and rear panels are pretty much the same as the DAC-100:
Internally, everything remains the same was well - power supply filtering:
Another view of the 17 caps:
Overall interior - can you spot the one difference from the DAC-100?
This lettering is the same:
Same Xininx FPGA and same PIC microcontroller:
Same AKM digital receiver:
This is the actual DAC chip itself. Looks like NuForce tried to obscure the text, but
I can still read it in certain lighting. Not sure why they hide it - it's a quality modern chip:
The USB section even says DAC-100 on it:
LM4962 opamps... getting warmer as far as what's different:
Bingo! There it is! Big empty spot where the output transistors and heatsinks used to be
in the DAC-100:
Again, just like the DAC-100, the DAC-80 is a DAC with preamp functionality thanks to its 32-bit volume control implementation. With inputs including asynchronous USB, Toslink, and coaxial SPDIF (x2, transformer isolated), and the included remote, the unit could in fact be a viable preamp for a small system (obviously using digital sources only). With the integrated amp no longer on board, and matching casework this time around, the HAP-100 seems like an obvious dance partner for the DAC-80.
The front panel is visibly different from the 100 but functionally very similar. Instead of dedicated buttons for source selection, the 80 borrows ideas from the rest of its Home Series cousins - push the volume knob to cycle through sources, hold it down to enter or exit standby mode. There's an actual power on/off switch on back. Same rate indicators remain in place, looking close but not quite identical to the 100.
After giving it extensive time for burn-in, I set out to give the DAC-80 a listen. Rather than start from scratch, I began with the assumption that the 80 should sound at least roughly similar to the 100. So my initial testing was centered around direct comparisons between the two. If the 80 ended up sounding vastly different, I could then start over and get a feel for it all by itself.
Thankfully for me (since the alternative would be more complicated) my initial assumption proved correct. Despite the simplified output stage which no longer has the discrete buffer, I can't reliably tell the 80 apart from the 100. There were times when I actually thought the DAC-80 was ever so slightly better than the 100 - by just a hair - but these were fleeting. So ultimately I'd say they are close enough to be indistinguishable.
This supports my new theory that the 100 used the discrete buffer for headphone duties only. So all this time I was listening to (and enjoying!) a more simple design than I had thought. But that's fine with me - designers should be building around their chosen architecture rather than adding stuff just for the sake of complexity. When the chosen parts call for simplistic design - and the AK4390 appears to do just that - then I'm all for it.
You can read my DAC-100 review to hear more about my impressions of the sound. In a nutshell, it's a somewhat musical sounding DAC, very dynamic and exciting. Definitely a different sound compared to the recent trend of hyper-detailed DACs. Not that detail is poor - in fact top end air and extension is on the strong side, but it's refined enough to avoid that "digital" feel. I particularly like it paired with my Analog Design Labs and Icon Audio single-ended triode amps. I can use different DACs and amps to assemble a more detailed system, or one that does better vocals, or one with more finesse. But for sheer musical, toe-tappin' fun, the NuForce/SET amp combos are tough to beat. And I don't mean that in a disparaging way, where the sound is slow, syrupy, murky... It remains fairly balanced for the most part - it's just got some extra excitement there compared to more neutral options.
One of my chief questions, the reason I was interested in evaluating the DAC-80 in the first place, was to see what amp I could pair it with in order to match the DAC-100. As an all in one design, I thought the DAC-100 was a great value and an exceptional match with the HD800 and T1. The 80 costs $300 less - what can we get for that price in terms of stand alone amplification? The list of potential suspects is not huge - the Matrix M-Stage is really the only one I currently have that doesn't exceed the $300 difference. The Lake People G103 (in standard form, not the Pro version with XLR) squeaks in at less than $300, but I sent mine to Tyll Hertsens for measurements so I don't have it available right now. I decided to stretch things a bit and include the Yulong A100 which exceeds the budget by $60 or so depending on who you buy from. And then of course I had to try the DAC-80 paired with the HAP-100 which combined sells for $300 more than the DAC-100 alone.
The DAC-80 plus Matrix M-Stage is actually a really great combo. I'm currently running the M-Stage with the class A biased OPA627 opamps - there may be some better opamp choices out there, but this one is pretty darn good already, and is available from Tam Audio around my target budget for this comparison. I had loaned out my M-Stage for a long time and when it recently came back, I was surprised at how well it holds up. I think overall the DAC-80/M-Stage combo is a better performer than the DAC-100 alone, with a few caveats. The M-Stage brings to the table a quieter background and a more seductive midrange. This is welcome with some headphones like LCD-2 and Denon D7000 where the DAC-100 could sometimes feel a little distant with vocals. To some degree the effect remains, no doubt due to the character of the DAC itself, but the M-Stage seems to mitigate it compared to the integrated amp section. But when I switch to the HD800, a headphone known to pair well with the M-Stage, the integrated amp still pulls ahead. There's just a synergy thing going on where I really enjoy it. The Beyerdynamic T1 also seems to do better from the DAC-100, with a smoother and more controlled top end and better bass extension. Overall I'd say the M-Stage wins more often than not, but when the DAC-100 shines it really shines brightly.
Next I switched to the Yulong A100 which sells for roughly $360. The A100 is a killer budget amp, very detailed and clean. With the DAC-80, the result is again very good with a wide variety of headphones. But this time around it's a little more thin and tilted towards the top end, so doesn't go as well with the K701 or the Audio Technica models that are already somewhat bright and/or bass shy. With HD650 or Denon headphones, the A100 is exceptional and definitely improved over the DAC-100 - tonal balanced ends up being similar but detail and clarity are superior. But again the HD800 and T1 do best with the integrated unit. A minor thing, but the A100 doesn't stack well with the DAC-80, as it's deeper than it is wide (and the NuForce is the other way around). In the end my preference shifted based on my mood - do I want more detail and accuracy, or am I in the mood to rock out?
Finally, NuForce's own HAP-100. Remember, this combo is $300 more than the DAC-100. I notice a significant improvement in the low bass region, with more believable grunt and extension. I notice superior imaging and accuracy in the soundstage. And those vocals, which had been slightly recessed at times, were almost as forward as I'd like. That last bit is tied with the DAC character and will never go away completely, but the HAP-100 is one of the best I've heard for bringing those mids forward.
The HAP-100 also seems more comfortable with planar headphones. Not that the DAC-100 is terrible on its own, but the dedicated amp seems to have more oomph (to use the scientific term). Mostly this shows up in the extreme low frequencies, which real instruments don't actually make. It just feels more solid. I can make either unit gracefully clip if I play music loud enough but the HAP-100 holds out longer before going there.... not that either really has an issue at normal volumes.
By far the largest improvement comes with respect to noise floor. My biggest complaint about the DAC-100 was that it didn't really work so well on more sensitive headphones or any IEMs. There was a clearly audible hiss that not only appeared with my CIEMs (which is fairly common with desktop amps) but also with full sized headphones like the Ultrasone Signature Pro or Grados. I'm not talking about some vague noise floor issue - it's an actual hiss, loud and clear and highly obtrusive with certain music. As much as I like the DAC-100, it's basically off limits to those certain headphones. The HAP-100 brings a silent background to the table, even quieter than the A100 and M-Stage. This means significant gains in low level resolution, which leads to a more believable presentation. Custom IEMs like the Frogbeats C4, Heir 6.A LE, or the JH13 Freqphase are excellent at resolving those little details, so the improvement is very much appreciated.
I also used the DAC-80 in my speaker rig with the matching STA-100 amp. It makes perfect sense in that application because speaker users won't necessarily care about the integrated headphone amp being removed. You still get the same high-quality DAC performance, the same well implemented 32-bit digital volume control with remote capability, and this time you get perfectly matching aesthetics. Add the HAP-100 for headphone capability and multiple analog inputs, and you've got a formidable stack for $2,000 that has great headphone amplification, truly versatile preamp capabilities with all sorts of inputs (digital and analog), and plenty of power for most speakers. The DAC-100 really wouldn't add a thing to that equation, so I can see why NuForce went in this direction instead.
The DAC-100 was discussed in the most recent HeadFi gear guide as being one of the best sounding DACs under $1500. I've heard a lot of DACs in that range and I'd have to agree - the DAC-100 is certainly up there on my list. And yet NuForce already discontinued that model. Why? Simple really - the DAC-80 makes more sense. It better matches the rest of the home series components in both price and appearance, and helps make a better case for the HAP-100 as a complimentary add-on. Oh, and it loses none of the rich, dynamic sound that made the original model so enjoyable.
Will the integrated amp in the DAC-100 be missed? With HD800 and T1, absolutely. Those made for dynamite combos straight from the DAC-100, and for users of those headphones I'd say check around for remaining DAC-100 stock. For most everyone else, the DAC-80 is the way to go, and I completely understand why NuForce made the switch.