SW1X Audio Design: DAC II

General Information

From the SW1X site:

SW1X Audio Design - DAC II Performance Level 2 D to A Converter

DAC II is based on 2 x PCM56 DACs with more sophisticated power supplies and powerful 6N6P/6N30P/5687/E182CC valve output stage with 6X5GT (or GZ34/5Y3/5R4 as an option) valve rectification. The DAC has a similar analogue character akin to DAC I, steps up in low level musical refinement and offers presentation on another level. The transparency and the low level resolution of the DAC II easily reveals any imperfections in a recorded material. The more dynamic sounding active I/V (current- to voltage conversion) stage is directly connected to the single ended class A, zero feedback, anode follower 6N6P/5687 tube output stage. The whole circuit has only one decoupling capacitor per channel in the signal path. Everything, including the whole signal path is wired with specially selected copper conductors & dielectric from input to output. The DAC II is also available in the Special or Signature version, which is available on custom built to order basis only.

S1650041-scaled.jpg


SW1X Audio Design DAC II Features:

Latest reviews

Pros: Exceptionally engaging, very musical/ not sterile, tones/ notes seem very dense and tangible
Cons: No DSD, slightly older-school design; not full of "digital features", no MQA (if you care about such things)
Introduction

I have had ~2.5 weeks of constant use of a new SW1X DAC II. I think it is an exciting DAC that doesn't have any commentary here on head-fi. Therefore, I thought I'd try to add a review. To caveat, while I went to school for audio engineering (around a thousand years ago), I am a not someone with hundreds of device reviews nor am I any sort of "expert" in this domain. I am also a human full of biases (like we all are!). I am a science-minded person and generally aware of various biases. I have done my best to check my biases, as well as I am able. So it is said, I have had no inducements of any sort to place this review or any comments anywhere. I just think the DAC is cool and thought I'd share my humble thoughts.

I began looking for a DAC a few months ago. I had some listening in shops and in show conditions, but wanted to take the next step and get something in my home environment.

This review comes off the back of having 1 month with the Lampizator Amber 3. I had them both DACs for an overlap of just over 1 week. Once I had finalised my opinion, I let the other DAC go back. I had been using an RME ADI 2 prior to this. I will offer comments comparing principally the SW1X vs the Amber3, because I took notes and did a reasonable job of capturing my thoughts in notes. This was also the final two in deciding which DAC I would buy.

I will link to several other impressions generated while DAC hunting. I am not "post-promoting", just adding (what I think is) relevant context from across a few threads. I will also shamelessly reuse some pics I have posted elsewhere. I hope this is viewed as an effective laziness. I added my overall impressions on the Amber 3 here. I also had an Ideon DAC & reclocker(s) during this period, impressions here. It is worth noting that the Ideon DAC & big reclocker unit together significantly more expensive than either the Amber or the DAC2 and, while I liked it, I preferred the Amber3 and SW1X DACs. I think it is absolutely plausible that there will be people who prefer the Ideon-style of DACs and encourage a listen to them - another lesser-known brand.

During my time with the Amber3, I experimented with various streaming devices. The Ideon reclockers were pretty impactful and got me more curious about nailing down the path upstream of the DAC. That story covered is here. Once that was settled, this was the setup for my comparisons:

Roon/NUC > streamer > DAC > Glenn OTL > Verite Closed

"Starting" with the punchline; while I loved the Amber 3. I really love the SW1X DAC II. They are around the same price ~3k GBP (less if you are in a no VAT area). Both companies have been very good to deal with. After in-home evaluations of both, I have purchased a DAC II. The SW1X DAC II I purchased, in the end, has two modifications; 1) a USB module and 2) Audio Note capacitors.

One more bit of context; I listen to a lot of electronic music. Lately, well-produced more relaxed/ downtempo things, but I do like all sorts of electronic music. I do appreciate all kinds of well-produced music, but electronic music dominates.

Overview

How did I come across SW1X? Over on the Glenn amplifier thread, @L0rdGwyn mentioned SW1X. Google also turned up some very positive comments from other SW1X users. To quote @L0rdGwyn "From my reading, they are viewed as an up-and-comer in the high-end DAC market. Impressions I have read from lifelong audiophiles have been overwhelmingly positive”. I know at least one very well respected head-fier who has an SW1X DAC and is pleased with it, and at least one more who has one on order. With a bit more Googling, I noticed they were based here in the UK and thought I might go give them a visit.

I had some email discussion and then went to go see Slawa at SW1X, my initial visit experience is shared here. In summary, I was impressed with their DACs and was keen to try one at home. After around a month of build-time, a DAC II was ready for me.

DAC II compared to Amber 3:

Settling in:


It took several days for the Amber3 to settle/burn-in. I wasn’t sure I liked it for ~ week 1. It just generally had "harshnesses". I thought the harshnesses in the upper mids were going to be a deal-breaker, but it settled in and mellowed well. It also took a good bit of time to get the DAC2 to settle in. At one point I also wasn’t sure it was going to work for me. It did, as it happens, change very nicely. A few times I turned it off to let the capacitors empty, then turned it back on. I am not sure if it is a psychoacoustic phenomenon, but I felt like when it came back from power-downs, you could hear more material changes (~1day on, 1h off cycles). I played plenty of music through it and let it run while not using it too. After an initial period of settling in, it mellowed and settled into a very nice sounding DAC in my setup. Presently, I am exceptionally happy to have it; in fact, I feel lucky to have found it. The experience with both DACs was instructive for me with respect to burn-in/ settling in time; these things have burn-in time! There are tubes, there are capacitors, and perhaps other things that need to be exercised to settle.

Comparing:
Once the DAC2 had settled in, I went for a direct comparison vs the Amber3 (which was also burned/settled in by this point). I had several repeats of the same playlist (fixed list of local files) played comparing DAC2 vs the Amber 3. Below are my notes on these 2 DACs. While the Amber 3 is a very nice DAC, the DAC2 took me. When switching back and forth (~90 mins with each) you could hear the contrast between the two. I also did ~1d of just Amber3, followed by 1d of just DAC2 to final-check my conclusion before calling the Lampizator dealer and telling him I would be getting a different DAC.

An important point to note; these are both beautiful DACs. All comments are exceptionally picky (by design). If it says "harsh" take it to mean; "slightly, by comparison", not "absolutely harsh" in some strong sense. I would be very happy with an Amber3 to be clear, I just preferred the SW1X - in my setup, with my ears.

Just so it is said, compared the RME ADI 2, I felt it was thin and insubstantial by comparison to either of these DACs. That alone surprised me! Moving on...

Comparison Notes:

SW1X DAC II
Summary: makes tangible, engaging tones you feel like grabbing
  • Notes sound big and full, tangible
  • Holographic / 3d space
  • Good lower bass
  • Good mid-bass impact
  • Vocals strong - feel very present
  • Less space between images vs A3 sometimes
  • More forward presentation (more like you are in row 1 than row 5 or 10)
  • Very engaging and simply enjoyable. I keep just listening to the songs.
  • Sometimes feel like the vocal is whispering in my ear
  • A subset notes from various songs on my "DAC-off" playlist:
    • full piano sound
    • you can hear tiny sounds
    • great headstage
    • solid dynamic range (not sure why, but I had a real feeling of a bigger dynamic range. This doesn’t really make sense to me, but this is the notes)
    • great bass kick
    • solid imaging
    • hearing more sounds
    • "full-on" sound
Lampizator Amber 3: More forgiving, but less substantial tones
  • More set back presentation
  • A bit more space between instruments
  • Muddier low bass
  • Smaller less substantial notes
  • Vocals not as intimate
  • Thinner/ less bass impact
  • You can hear recording harshnesses, but it is thinner and therefore less critical
  • Thinner male vocals
  • Less lush
  • Notes from various songs:
    • Vocal less intimate
    • Guitars less "real"
    • Forgiving, smaller kick notes
    • Spacious/ forgiving - but thinner
    • Smooth
    • Slightly blurred kick drums? / Less kick note impact
    • Unremarkable where sometimes D2 has a sense of 'awe' in presentation
    • Breakbeat drums harsh/ tinny
    • Good separate sounds
    • Not connected to female vocal
    • Not magical or whimsical
    • Tom drums insubstantial
    • Nice timbre in piano
The USB unit works perfectly from my Mac and any other devices I have plugged it into. With the source I am using and the tiny-valve-based USB unit, the small Ideon reclocker I had experimented with didn’t add anything to the setup. That is interesting (to me) because in most other setups I have experimented with, it usually added something positive. Here is a photo of the USB unit. Note the tiny tube laying down (tube-based master clock).



A minor oddity, while there is a USB unit in the device, it reverses out the back of the unit a SPDIF out that you must re-route to the DAC’s SPDIF input. It sounds great, so I have no complaints, but I was surprised.

In-Build Photos

These were already shared on the SW1X DACs and more thread, but thought relevant here too.







Closing:

The SW1X DACs represent a bit of an of older-school philosophy. Slawa would recommend just about any sound-quality / performance improvements over any convenience. They eschew modernities that they feel would subtract from the overall sound. I really valued talking to Slawa during the planning phase and my visits there. Their DACs have been compared to Audio Note DACs and there is similarity. Another positive is that SW1X can and will do customisations that you might like. All of their bespoke signature editions have exotic parts that you can choose from. SW1X is also a smaller company, but having visited I can say that they are in this for the long haul. They have certainly been doing this for some years and will be doing it for more years to come. I have met other very, very happy users at a get-together at SW1X. He certainly has much enthusiasm among his customers.

IMO the only way to perform such a comparison is to have a device in your home setup. SW1X will offer a 14d in home use/ return policy. Lampizator (UK distributor at least) also had a flexible in home trial. Both of the trials involve money, but if you are not happy you can get all of the money back and give the device back.

Conclusion:

Here is the last picture of the inside, before it was closed up.

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On the whole, I think it is an excellent DAC, certainly the nicest I have heard in my setup. I imagine it is minimally in between the Amber 3 and the next grade of Lampi DAC. It really made the RME sound thin/ flat by comparison. I did hear several other SW1X DACs, all more expensive of course, and they all seemed even better (sadly)! That said, this was within my price-range and I thought it was the best way I could spend that money on a DAC.

Coda:

We are all here because we love music. The least I can do is end this long post with some music. Here are three currently repeating their way through my recent listening.




Be well!
Chris
Last edited:
chrisdrop
chrisdrop
Does that mean I would get to play with more gear?! Sounds awful :L3000:...
marc020
marc020
Sounds delicious!
K
Khronos
I wonder how this would compare against Audio-GDs flagships.

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