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DACs item created by krmathis, May 17, 2010
Pros - See review
Cons - See review
Alright, let me give a little back. Since I’ve benefited far more from Head-Fi than the community has with my lurking presence, it’s time I posted something of substance. My first contribution are my impressions of the Red Wine Audio Isabellina LFP-V USB DAC. As a matter of disclosure, I much prefer LP’s but over the years I’ve spent, er, hundreds (in case my wife reads this) of dollars accumulating a digital library that now makes up over 35 continuous days worth of ALAC files. The problem is, I never found anything that made me want to listen to them for more than a few minutes at a time, let alone a month. Till now.
After communicating with Vinnie Rossi at Red Wine Audio, I found out that he made the Isabellina LFP-V Edition DAC for me. I don’t mean me literally but someone like me. Someone who prefers vinyl over other playback media, analog over digital, warm over bright, ... By chance, I happened to e-mail him just as he was beginning a new batch of Isabellina’s. He put one aside, I ordered on the following Sunday, and it was on my doorstep by Wednesday. The DAC sounded good to me right out of the box: “meaty, rich tonality, articulate bass, slam too, big soundstage, dead quiet, ...” Since I liked the sound signature I decided to leave the JJ Electronic E88CC in for most of the first 200 hours. I did so to assess any noticeable changes in the Isabellina, but also I felt that it would be easier to tube roll once I got a good baseline of the stock sound.
By the end of the recommended break-in (if you put much stock in that), everything I played through the Isabellina sounded tonally rich and musical. On bad recordings it was forgiving and on good ones it could be outstanding. It just seemed to squeeze the most music out of every ALAC files at times getting awfully close to vinyl and it turn to real live music. I could stop right here.
Ian Moore, Live from Austin, “Satisfied” - After getting battery operated audio gear, line conditioners, and tweaks to get rid of noise, what do I hear? Buzzing. As in Moore’s Fender amp buzzing during the intro (a little after the one minute mark). The Isabellina pulls tons of details (enough of this silly notion that detailed equals bright or vice versa), I may have heard it before but I’ve never heard it like this. The rest sounds right, real, I can almost smell the beer.
Dire Straits, Communiqué, “Once Upon a Time in the West” - I catch myself on track three remembering that I wanted to write something about track one. Twice. It’s hard to stay focused and not get lost in the music. If you extend both arms all the way out, that’s the size of the soundstage with headphones on. The whole band’s playing is beautifully communicated here (pun intended), extension, air, and separation between instruments. I’m now taking a break to listen to the first three albums in a row.
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä, Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’, ‘IV. Finale’ - As a music lover my preferences cover a pretty wide territory; however, one of the things I listen for in audio equipment is the chunkiness of its sound. Here the Isabellina also excels. It may be hard to get the full impact of dynamic music with headphones but the Isabellina sounds believable and achieves a sound that is big and meaty. On this greatly recorded album you can feel the weight of the orchestra with a strings section that sound wonderfully warm and big.
After living with the Isabellina for few months, I concluded that it has all the sonic qualities I look for in audio gear: rich tonality, tight, extended, and articulate bass, liquid mid-range, meaty, quiet, detailed, and importantly, I can listen to it all day without any fatigue. I switched back to vinyl and heard greater coherence and a sound that was slightly more real to me but those differences were highlighted only with a direct comparison to LP’s. I certainly never felt anything was missing (or added) when listening to the Isabellina. To my ears it’s the most natural DAC I’ve ever heard. I could go further and put it on my short list of the most satisfying audio component I’ve ever owned—not to age myself but I bought my first serious audio gear in 1982, so we’re talking lots of stuff here.
Is the Isabellina as detailed as DAC A, or as dynamic as DAC B, or as neutral as DAC C? Heck, I don’t know and really I don’t much care. If I could design and build my own DAC, and if I were as talented as Mr. Rossi (big if’s that), I certainly would come up with an Isabellina. For me, it’s absolutely perfect. I could make direct comparisons to the last two DAC’s I’ve owned. I could tell you that the Isabellina makes the ‘analog’ and ‘warm’ PS Audio Digital Link III sound, er, well digital (just like the name says), and sterile. The ongoing upsampling craze leaves me cold. The other DAC I could compare it to is the analog sounding non-oversampling 16/44.1 California Audio Labs Sigma tube DAC. Here, the Isabellina improves on all the sonic virtues of the CAL, while adding serious doses of coherence, richness, and naturalness.
The only drawback of my Isabellina as I see it is that it can only decode Red Book 16-bit audio files; however, Red Wine Audio now offers a ‘pro’ version with high-resolution 24/192 decoding (a $500 option at purchase or a $600 upgrade shipping included). This new option adds a user-selectable chipset to the digital board that lets you play either high-resolution or Red Book tracks (you can also listen to 16-bit tracks on the ‘pro’ chipset for a different flavor). For a somewhat late adopter like myself, Mr. Rossi sure makes it hard to catch up. 18 days after getting my first product and already I ‘needed’ an upgrade.
The Isabellina is solidly built right here in the good old US of A, and it looks cool with a mixture of old-school textured powder coated finish on the case and new-school polished front metal slab. I must admit that I don’t get the power button and I feel it is a little awkward to operate/push/press. Maybe it’s supposed to feel organic? Or it has to do with static? Having removed the top to swap tubes, I can tell you that the inside is be-you-tee-ful. My only gripe is that dealing with eight phillips head screws to remove/replace the top can be tedious. I also would hate to scuff the screws—I’m paranoid that way. If you’re an obsessive tube-roller you’ll likely leave a few off.
Well, I do have another gripe. Now that I know first-hand how good Red Wine Audio made my ALAC files sound, I have to have Vinnie’s Ginevra phonostage to do the same for my LP’s. It’s either that or risk spinning them a little less often. For a guy who previously viewed digital audio files as lifeless strings of 1’s and 0‘s that’s saying something.
Source: MacBook Pro > Red Wine Audio Isabellina; all files ALAC
Amps: Decware Mini Torii SE, McIntosh MAC1900, Schiit Audio Lyr, and Woo Audio WA2
Headphones: Audez’e LCD-2 rev 2 and Sennheiser HD-650
Interconnect(s), power cord(s), and headphone cable for Sennheiser HD-650 are Cardas
Headphone cable for Audez’e LCD-2 rev 2 is Moon Audio Black Dragon V2
I spent most of the ‘burn-in’ period with the stock JJ’s and then loaded an Amperex 6922 NOS tube (Hicksville, NY, 1965, PQ label) around the 150-hour mark. The unit sounded so good at that point that I decided to leave it be. I could have tube-rolled further but I didn’t see the point.
When evaluating new gear, tubes, recordings, I do as much blind listening as I can. My wife sets up the equipment and I can’t see what I’m listening to from my sitting position. I prefer letting my ears chose the audio gear; my eyes can pick the shoes. Maybe it’s not that scientific but it certainly helps.
I took the plunge and 'upgraded' my Isabellina to the Pro version recently; however, I didn’t think of the 'upgrade' as a no-brainer. I loved the sound of the original chipset and I didn't necessarily like the idea of having to listen to a different chip for HD tracks. Would I miss the sound I got to love? Additionally, you have to turn the unit off to switch between the two. That's a problem. I would like to enjoy listening to *all* my files without having to get up/turn off Isabellina/flip switch/turn on Isabellina/sit down/wait a minute between songs. And people think flipping LP’s is annoying...
So I considered alternatives. One of which was the $2,750 Ayre QB-9 USB DAC touted as a 'Class A+ Recommended Component' by the old Stereophile geezers. Nothing above A+ right? So it's gotta be good. I borrowed a demo QB-9 from my local dealer and compared it to my non-upgraded Isabellina over a week in my home system. They even provided an outrageously silly AudioQuest battery powered(!) USB cable retailing for $350. The battery 'died' when I got it home so I used a regular non-audiophile-approved-plain-old-USB-cable. The thing didn't even have gold anywhere on it. The horror!
In any event, Stereophile was right. The Ayre sure sounded beautiful. I heard an expansive soundstage, wide and deep; excellent instrument placement; a lovely presentation. Added to that was great tonality and details without harshness. And I was able to switch between HD and Red Book tracks (using iTunes via BitPerfect) without moving off my chair. The blue display gently changed from 44.1 to 96, to 88.2, ... nice. Compared to my DAC, the Ayre was more neutral, bettered the Isabellina in soundstage and extension at the top, and tied it in musical detail (more or less). The Red Wine had more weight, a richer tonality and a more organic sound.
So which is better? Neither. Both. For me they're equally excellent DAC's and I would be happy living with either one. I would hazard a guess and say that audiophiles might prefer the slightly more neutral (but still very engaging) QB-9 while music lovers might prefer the more organic and warm Isabellina. Since I consider myself a music lover, the Ayre went back to the dealer (along with the outrageously silly cable) and off to Vinnie went the Isabellina for the 'upgrade'.
Now excuse me but I have to get up to change chipsets.