DAC with integrated fully balanced headphone amp

Yulong DA9

Average User Rating:
5/5,
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Recent User Reviews

  1. project86
    5.0/5,
    "The latest from Yulong"
    Pros - Solid all around performance with a beautiful, sweet tone, adjustable filters that actually make a difference, very respectable headphone output (in balanced mode), lossless volume control works quite well
    Cons - Not the last word in bass weight or tonal saturation, single-ended headphone out is only decent but not great, no remote for the otherwise very useful preamp function
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    A few months back, I had an interesting discussion with a forum friend. While chatting about the general state of all things audio, he congratulated me for my recent debut at Digital Audio Review, and mentioned how often he agrees with my gear assessments. According to him, most people find me "fair and balanced" (with no political reference intended). How nice! I was actually feeling pretty full of myself. Then he added "Shame about Yulong though..." as if to point out that my record isn't completely sterling.

    "What do you mean?" I inquired, genuinely having no clue where he was going with this. He became hesitant, so I urged him to be completely honest - I'm a tough dude, I can take it. So he dropped a bit of info on me that I really hadn't heard before.

    His opinion, which he claims is shared by many others he knows, is that Yulong gear doesn't sound all that great. My reviews helped popularize their DACs and, to a lesser extent, their headphone amps, but none of it is actually very good at all. It's a black mark on my otherwise pretty credible history of assessing gear.

    Now, I happen to know plenty of other folks both online and in person who use/enjoy the Yulong gear. So I know this isn't a universal opinion. But still, the person mentioning this to me is a very reliable. I just didn't know what to make of it.

    Fast forward a few weeks. By sheer luck, someone else reached out to me, asking about Yulong's DA8 DAC. They had recently purchased a used model (original, not Mark II) on the forums, and found it sounded totally different than my review. They honestly thought it might be broken. I offered to have a listen and see what I thought. Within a few days I had their DA8 up and running, and was pretty shocked by what I heard. This was indeed a mediocre sounding device... weird, congested low-end performance, tizzy highs, and funky imaging. This was totally different from the sound I experienced and ultimately wrote about in my review. I got the other friend involved and he confirmed this as matching his experience with the DA8 he had owned prior. Based on that, I'm ruling out the possibility of this particular DAC being broken, though I guess it's still possible on some level.

    This really surprised me. I've covered multiple Yulong DACs over the years and generally noted some consistency from unit to unit. Not that they sounded identical, but there was definitely a similarity - I'd call it an evolution in sound, starting with the original D100 and ending with the DA8 mkII. There were a few diversions along the way, such as the rich, creamy D18, but when viewed as a whole I think the sonic trajectory is pretty clear. Unless we count this particular poor-sounding DA8 which doesn't fit in there at all.


    Now, there's been a lot of hand-wringing lately about sample to sample variation among flagship headphones - Focal's Utopia being the main culprit, and of course Audeze which has struggled with consistency for years. We don't often talk about variability in source components but it's something I've experienced on occasion - the most prominent example being the Mytek Stereo192-DSD. At one point I had two of those here and they sounded drastically different... if one of them wasn't broken, the other must have had a substantial revision at some point, because they were very obviously not the same. This is something I've confirmed with others as well, so I don't think I'm crazy (or at least not based on this).

    Could the same thing be at play with Yulong gear? I don't know, but it would go a long way towards explaining the differing opinions on the brand. Sure, every audio maker faces this to some extent, but now that I look closer I find Yulong has some pretty vocal detractors as well as plenty of satisfied users. It's almost as if the two groups are hearing completely different things.... well, perhaps they are. I can't speak as to what causes this, or how often it happens. Perhaps counterfeit parts inadvertently made their way into a few batches? That sort of thing is surprisingly hard to combat, even when the manufacturer is diligent. Your guess is as good as mine. All I can say definitively is my positive experience with Yulong has been consistent across a wide range of devices. Make of that what you will.

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    Anyway, my whole motivation in writing this is to discuss Yulong's latest project, the DA9. This is a pretty major departure from the DA8 and DA8 mkII - aesthetically, but also in terms of design and, ultimately, sonic presentation. Pricing remains the same at $1299. Remember how I said the prior Yulong gear tended to have a "house sound"? The DA9 goes is a fairly different direction, to the point where lovers of the prior models may not care for it, and those who disliked the earlier stuff could very well love it. Think of it as a sort of "fresh start" for the company, in a good way.

    Design
    Yulong went in a new direction with the DA9 on multiple levels. Externally, the device now looks a bit like the M2Tech products such as the Young DSD DAC. This is a good thing as those were always sharp looking devices even if the sound didn't quite keep up. The DA9 enclosure comes in black or silver but the front panel is always gold. It's a handsome faceplate that makes me wish I had my old Sonic Frontiers transport in gold to go along with it.

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    The information display is back to a smaller text-based LCD from the D100 and D200 rather than OLED from the DA8 series. I guess some people had issues with the OLED in terms of longevity (I never had a problem). Gone are the multitude of buttons for settings and selections - this time around everything is accomplished by spinning or pressing/holding the multi-function knob. Press and release immediately to cycle inputs. Press and hold briefly to switch between headphone mode, DAC mode with volume control, or pure DAC mode with full scale output. Press and hold for about 4 seconds to unlock filter selections, and hold roughly 8 seconds for sound adjustment mode (which I'll discuss later). It's a bit cumbersome when accessing filter and sound adjustments, but thankfully that sort of thing tends to be set and forget. The final noteworthy trait of the front panel - a balanced headphone output. We've seen these on Yulong's dedicated headphone amps but this is the first combo DAC/amp unit to get balanced drive. As we'll discuss shortly, that's a good thing.


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    The rear panel brings us back to classic Yulong, with the same connectivity we've seen since the original D100 which launched 7 years ago (a lifetime in DAC years). That means USB, Toslink, coaxial, and AES inputs, and then RCA and XLR outputs. Something a bit different this time around - all inputs support PCM up to 24-bit/384kHz, though source devices which manage such high sample rates are rather uncommon. Not only that, but all inputs can do DSD64 and DSD128 via DoP. I confirmed DSD64 using coaxial and AES, but I didn't have a way of testing Toslink, nor DSD128. This could be useful as the market for external USB to SPDIF "bridge" devices heats up. The popular Singxer SU-1, for example, can spit out DSD64 via SPDIF, and the Audiophilleo "Special Edition" version goes up to DSD128, as well as PCM at 384kHz. Many DACs won't accept those, but the DA9 does.

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    Speaking of DSD, the DA9's USB input does DSD64 and DSD128 via DoP, as well as native mode up to DSD256. This is useful for those folks using Roon or HQplayer to offload filtering/upsampling. Having both methods available increases compatibility for the widest amount of supporting equipment, which is always a good thing.
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    Internally, the design is pretty much all-new - but skip ahead to the listening section if you don't care about excruciating technical detail. Starting with the large Plitron toroidal transformer, the linear power supply has a decent amount of filtering capacitance and a total of 18 groups of low noise regulation spread throughout the PCB. USB input is an XMOS U8 which runs off the device's linear power supply - no dirty USB power to worry about. All digital inputs pass through a Bravo SA8804 which is a custom DSP used for clocking, wave shaping, and jitter reduction. Yulong (the designer) tells me the SA8804 uses a "phase-locked loop with synchronous low jitter clock-gen" which achieves even better jitter performance than so-called "femtosecond" clocks. The signal is then delivered to AKM's latest flagship chip, the AK4497, fed by a dedicated ADM7150 ultra-low noise regulator.
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    The AK4497 DAC spits out a balanced signal which passes through the low-pass filter stage comprised of OPA1611 and OPA1612 opamps, then off to an output buffer made from OPA1622. Signals then go out the XLR outputs or get converted to single-ended for RCA connections.
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    In keeping with the theme of "change", volume control is handled a bit differently this time around. Where prior models used the integrated 32-bit Sabre volume control scheme, the DA9 instead uses a PGA2311 digital controller to regulate levels in the analog domain. This means, in theory at least, a quality lossless implementation, good for full resolution even at very low volume settings.
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    The integrated headphone amplifier is described as a fully balanced, fully discrete, DC coupled class-A design with JFET input and high-current output. Balanced mode is potent, rated at a full 3W into 32 ohm loads. 300 ohm headphones see 460mW while 600 ohm cans get 230mW. Single-ended mode sees a reduction but it's still plenty powerful - 2W into 32 ohms, 230mW into 300 ohms, and 110mW at 600 ohms. Output impedance is a 2.2 ohms in balanced mode and about half that in SE, which is low enough to avoid problems the vast majority of headphones and IEMs.

    Before I go any further with the sound portion, I have to mention the tweakability of the DA9, which is unique if not entirely successful. There's a choice of filters - Sharp Rolloff, Slow Rolloff, and Super-Slow Rolloff. I tend to prefer the Super-Slow option for general listening but the differences - as usual with selectable filters - are subtle at first. Spend some time with them and I believe they do make a worthwhile sonic contribution, but don't expect a whole new DAC with each filter selection.

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    The DA9 also has a unique "sound mode" adjustment option with three different choices. Sound Mode 1 is flat, Sound Mode 2 is U shaped, and Sound Mode 3 is n shaped (as in an upside down U). Yulong says mode 2 is "delicate and firm" and might be useful with classical music. Mode 3 is "laid back with stronger voice presence" which might work best with jazz and vocal oriented music. Each mode is essentially a very gentle EQ slope. We're talking differences of perhaps 1.5dB over the entire frequency spectrum - which just isn't very noticeable most of the time. To put that in perspective: the variation in room acoustics from one room to the next will be far more significant. It's an interesting idea but I feel like it should have been more dramatic... or else why bother? As it stands, I just leave it on Sound Mode 1 and call it a day. Keep in mind these adjustments only apply to the line-out, not the headphone section.

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    Listening
    Yulong recommends letting the DA9 warm up sufficiently prior to critical listening. As is my standard practice, I left it on for my entire evaluation. I can't say for sure it makes much difference, but I don't want to take any chances.

    I started things out with a really simple setup: Roon playback via Surface Pro 3, using Yulong's CU-2 USB cable. I listened through the Sennheiser HD800 using the stock cable and then an Effect Audio balanced cable. The Surface and the DA9 were both connected to a simple CablePro Revelation power strip, with the Yulong CP-1 cable delivering power to the DAC. I figured this simple, direct chain would make it easy to bring out the character of the DA9, and I was right.

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    The resulting sound is, as I've mentioned, quite different from what I've experienced on prior Yulong models. Where the DA8 was somewhat warm and a little dark, and the DA8 mkII built on that for a more balanced (but still slightly warm) signature, the DA9 is totally different. It's generally neutral as far as not being overly warm, or obnoxiously bright, or any other major coloration. If pressed, I'd say there's a bit of a "lighter-weight" tonality going on, as exemplified by devices from Benchmark and Mytek to name just a few. In that sense I suppose it shares a passing resemblance to the older Yulong D200. But there's a distinct "sweetness" to the sound which makes it unique.

    Sweetness is hard to describe but I imagine many readers know what I mean, at least to some degree. There's a certain delicacy, a sort of softness to the sound, though not in a bad way. Where the DA8 might have been called thick and a perhaps bit slow with regards to transient attack - at least compared to some competing DACs like the Matrix X-Sabre - this new model is explosively quick, yet not sharp in the least. The focus is much more on the decay, which can linger for what seems like ages when the music calls for it. It's an interesting mixture of agility and resolution, all packaged in a way that sounds extremely "un-digital" (yes, I just made up a word).

    I know I called the original DA8 very analog sounding, and I still contend that is the case... at least for the particular example I reviewed. If my above description of the DA9 made you think "analog" as well, I don't blame you. But it's a totally different approach to get there. Where the DA8 would soften poor recordings by toning down the top end, the DA9 is more extended and sparkly up top - but still easy to listen to. It achieves this by its gentle attack and near complete lack of digital glare. Perhaps the word "graceful" is a term that applies - softness seems to imply something is missing, and that's not really the case.

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    The resulting sound is probably the best I've heard from Yulong. DA9 gives the strings of Zoe Keating a beautiful reverberation that the prior models can't match. It brings out the delicacy of Prescilla Ahn's voice on her older albums, versus the more confident tone she adopts on new material. And it's spectacular with percussion, helping reveal nuances like the precision of Jack DeJohnette, the swing of Max Roach, and the explosive power of Elvin Jones. Overall it's a thoroughly satisfying result - one that works particularly well with headphones such as HD800 or the Dharma which can sound overly sharp in the wrong system.

    If I switch to the other filters, things get a little more "typical". There's still a gentleness to the presentation, but Slow Rolloff mode has less of it, and Sharp even less still. Sharp in particular has a more direct, exciting approach, where transient attack is more explosive. I can hear the appeal of these modes, as they add a sense of immediacy that works better in some systems. Sharp mode has the most expansive soundstage if that really matters to you, though the other options trail very closely behind. For me, the Super Slow option is still the clear winner.

    AKM likes to use the term "velvet sound" when discussing their latest generation of DAC chips. I'm not sure where they mean to go with that, as the rest of their marketing material is hard to parse due to translation issues. But if we stick with the "velvet" term I'd say it captures the DA9 essence fairly well, at least when used with the Super Slow filter.

    I've heard other devices using AKM chips such as the AK4490 which shows up a lot. None of them sounded like the DA9. I've also heard the Gustard A20H which packs a pair of AK4497 in dual mono - and I didn't care for it much. There was definitely a disconnect between its technical ability and the soul of the music.... it sounded unnatural to me. The Yulong, despite having a single chip, does a far better job of living up to the "velvet sound" concept. The Gustard DAC is perhaps more explosive and dynamic but none of that matters if the timbre of instruments is off. As with Yulong, I've heard vastly differing reports about Gustard gear, and I don't know what to make of it - all I can do is report what I hear.

    Downsides? No DAC is perfect, and the DA9 is no exception. Soundstage is expansive but imaging is a bit less precise than the DA8 mkII, particularly when used with Super Slow mode (which, again, I feel is a fair trade-off, but you may disagree). And if you're looking for a bass monster, you won't find that here. Low end reproduction is clean, clear, and plenty satisfying, but you can probably do better at this price - the Eastern Electric MiniMax Supreme comes to mind, as well as the previously mentioned Matrix X-Sabre. And if you like a thicker tonality, there are plenty of others in this price range that should do the trick, such as the new Metrum Amethyst NOS DAC. No, the DA9 is not looking to out-power or out-resolve the competition, but rather to win over the listener with it's beautiful tone. If you want to focus purely on resolution or bandwidth, the older DA8 mkII is probably a safer bet for your needs.


    Headphone amp and other tidbits
    When I swap headphones and try external amps like the Pass Labs HPA-1 or Violectric V281, I get a better sense of what the DA9 integrated amp is capable of. As I've said, you really want to go with balanced mode. SE is workable but seems to be missing some of the magic in comparison. The presentation becomes more two-dimensional, and the sweet tone is less obvious.

    If you must use the single-ended out, it's best to stick with low impedance dynamic headphones. Something like a Fostex or Grado or Ultrasone doesn't miss out on nearly as much in SE, as opposed to higher impedance Sennheiser or beyerdynamic models, or most planar magnetics - those really respond to the extra current available in balanced mode.

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    CIEMs work reasonably well with the DA9. Sensitive models such as Empire Ears will have a bit of background hiss, while others have a nice quite background, and the 99 step lossless volume control comes in handy for dialing them in just right. Yulong's headphone stages haven't always been kind to IEMs but this one is usable in most cases.

    Using a flagship stand-alone headphone amp shows that the DA9 is still a better DAC than headphone amp. The key difference is dynamics - while the DA9 is very potent for an integrated headphone amp, it still doesn't match the bombastic response of the Pass or Violectric. The Pass brings out more top-end detail while the V281 improves bass rumble and tonal solidity. None of this is surprising given the prices involved.

    For a more real world comparison I switched to the Arcam rHead which is excellent at $599. I find it superior to the SE mode but pretty evenly matched with the Yulong balanced out. If pressed, I'd say the Arcam has an edge in clarity, and highlights that midrange sweetness a tad more, but it's a close match overall. I could find a bunch of more expensive amps that don't measure up to Yulong's integrated amp, as well as a few more affordable stand-alone options that do a better job... but that would make this already long review even longer. Suffice to say - the integrated amp is surprisingly good, if not reference caliber.

    For preamp duty, the DA9 is clearly better than the prior Yulong gear. That lossless analog implementation really does the trick. With a 4.2V output and 22 ohm output impedance, this little box can work with pretty much anything, and the 99 step volume control should be plenty. I briefly threw it into my speaker rig paired with a PS Audio S300 amplifier and driving Usher Dancer Mini One DMD speakers, and the result was very pleasing. Excellent drive and tonal richness, which is usually the first thing to go on a DAC-direct setup. These results apply even at really low volumes which I very much appreciate. My only complaint is the lack of remote - you can't win them all I suppose.

    Lastly, I'll mention sources. The Yulong is surprisingly competent when using basic transports like an old Blu-Ray player or a standard laptop. The proprietary DSP reclocker works its magic and the result is more than acceptable. For a lot of people, there's no need to worry about using anything beyond a pedestrian source, as even the most basic pairing will do a pretty good job.

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    For the rest of us audio nuts, the DA9 still rewards quality sources, though it still remains less critical than other DACs. I used an absurdly complex chain featuring a Zenion server with a dedicated linear power supply, running Roon, streaming to a SOtM sMS-200 with a separate linear PSU, then out to a Wyred 4 Sound Recovery (also with linear PSU), then out via BMC PureUSB active cable to a Singxer SU-1 - then finally out to the DA9 using an AES cable. This chain sounded remarkable but honestly it wasn't worth the massive cost or complexity compared to just running direct from the sMS-200 or even straight from the Zenion server via USB. On the spinning disc side of things, an Oppo 103 via coaxial sounded just about the same as several expensive transports I have on hand from Simaudio and Esoteric. I spotted no discernible difference between AES, USB, coaxial, or even Toslink, which is pretty remarkable in and of itself.

    Remember, the DA9 doesn't care so much about USB power quality either, as it uses it's own internal PSU for that. So filtering the signal with a BMC PureUSB or Wyred Recovery results in smaller than usual gains - DA9 already reclocks incoming signals with very impressive results. Overall I'd say the jump from basic (Surface Pro 3 for example) to some type of modestly higher quality source (sMS-200, microRendu, decent CD player, etc) seems to be worthwhile. But from there I wouldn't bother going extreme.

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    Final Thoughts
    I still don't know what to make of my experience with the Yulong DA8. The poor sounding version was quite disappointing, while the better example was easy to recommend. I'm going to chalk it up to a bad batch and move on because that's really the only thing that makes sense to me. I never heard about the DA8 mkII sounding inferior, so perhaps whatever bug existed was ironed out by then - not a satisfying conclusion, but there's really nothing else to be done at this point.

    In any case, Yulong's DA9 is worth a listen if you get the chance. If you've heard prior Yulong models and didn't care from them - this thing is something different. You might like it. On the flip side, if you've been a loyal Yulong user - this is something different, and you might not like it. Especially using the Super Slow Rolloff filter. But I figure it's worth a try if the opportunity comes your way.

    Overall I'd put the DA9 on par with the popular Mytek Brooklyn. While Brooklyn offers more bells and whistles, its more affordable competitor from China is very similar as a DAC - assuming the Sharp filter is in play. Using Super Slow makes the DA9 preferable to my ears. The DA9 is clearly superior in terms of headphone amplification, regardless of filter choice, as long as the user has access to balanced cables. No doubt Brooklyn will command the lion's share of attention, both on the forums and in the audio press, but those willing to go with a lesser known device will find themselves rewarded.

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