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Yulong DA10

Rating:
4.5/5,
  1. project86
    The AKM Sound, Fully Realized
    Written by project86
    Published Sep 28, 2019
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Sweet midrange, bass texture, treble clarity, holographic soundstage, transport matching, looks
    Cons - Still not a warm, smooth, "fun" sound like some of the older Yulong designs, no remote
    [​IMG]

    My first experience with Yulong Audio was covering their D100 DAC way back in 2010. At the time, nobody had really heard of the brand apart from perhaps the local enthusiasts in Shenzhen. The D100 offered features and sound quality typically found on devices costing several times the price - very impressive for a small upstart audio firm.

    9 years and many products later, Yulong no longer needs any introduction. While still not what I'd call "mainstream", the brand is quite well known across a wide range of forums including headphone and speaker enthusiasts. Yulong (the designer himself) continues pushing the limits without going overboard on price. His flagship releases tend to hover just over the $1k USD mark, yet like the original D100, they remain competitive with others costing significantly more.

    The latest iteration of Yulong's top-dog is the DA10. As with most of its predecessors, the DA10 is an integrated DAC and headphone amp, and offers volume control for DAC-direct connection to your amplifier, all in the same compact form factor. Internal design could be described as an evolution of the DA9, which if you recall was substantially different from the prior DA8 and DA8mkII models - sort of a "reset" if you will. That 8-to-9 transition marked the switch from ESS Sabre chips to the AKM AK4497 DAC, along with a slew of other fundamental design changes. The resulting sound was sweet, clear, and nuanced, with a performance that continuously drew me in as I logged additional hours with it.

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    DA10 takes that same winning formula - AKM AK4497 chip, robust linear power supply with ultra-low noise regulators, fully discrete balanced Class A headphone output - and further refines it. The main change is the way signals are processed prior to the actual D/A conversion stage. This time around everything is handled via FPGA - there's no off the shelf digital receiver or reclocking chips here, but instead it is all custom programmed. The FPGA handles all SPDIF inputs, acts as a jitter-reducing FIFO buffer, and does PLL clock duty in partnership with a Crystek "Femto" clock. This pristine signal then passes to the AK4497 for conversion to analog before being sent to the analog stage which uses the same OPA1611/OPA1612/OPA1622 analog stage as the DA9. Or, route the signal to that discrete, fully balanced headphone amp which again is identical to its predecessor. Note that USB signals first come in through an updated XMOS U208 which is capable of DSD512 and PCM768kHz - both of which are doubled from the prior model. FPGA processing still applies as the XMOS chip hands off the signal.

    And that's the bulk of the internal changes. Sounds simple enough, but in practice that's actually a pretty significant change. The new design puts Yulong squarely in control of the signal for a huge portion of its journey from input to output, and the proprietary FPGA process can be perfectly tailored to suite the desired result.

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    We also get some external changes which I find to be rather welcome. First, the enclosure is more low-key and "traditional" looking, swapping out the gold faceplate of the DA9 for a solid black or silver design (there is a red version available for those seeking a bold look). The general layout is very similar but upon close inspection, I notice the enclosure has more details and tighter tolerances compared to the (already excellent) prior model. The new design reminds me a bit of when Bel Canto upgraded to their .7 series of components. Check out the beveled edges on the faceplate of a Bel Canto DAC 2.7 compared to the older (and more expensive) DAC 3 and you'll see what I mean. It may not be obvious in the pics, but in person the DA10 looks like an upgrade.

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    I also like the display which uses a generously-sized wide angle IPS panel. It seems more logically laid out and easier to read at-a-glance compared to the more simplistic text-based design of the DA9, while also avoiding the (infrequent) issues some experienced with the OLED panel of the older DA8 series.

    Again, none of this is drastically different, but keep in mind the DA9 was an excellent device that launched just 2 years ago. It remains competitive to this day, but it's nice to see Yulong isn't standing still. Custom FPGA solutions are seen by many as the wave of the future, and remain beyond the reach of many competing audio firms.


    Gear
    I inserted the DA10 into my usual test-rig. That means Equi=Core 1800 balanced power conditioner and Audio Art Power1 ePlus AC cables as a basis. Just for fun, I also swapped in Yulong's own CP1 heavy duty cable, which is surprisingly nice. Transports varied but for the most part I used either a Nativ Vita, Resonessence Labs Fluvius, ModWright Oppo 205, or a Surface Pro. For testing the built-in amp, I used Meze Empyrean, Sony MDR-Z1R, Sennheiser HD650 and HD800, Fostex TH-X00, and HiFiMAN HE1000v1. When testing the DA10 as DAC only, I paired it with external amps including the Pass Labs HPA-1, Niimbus US4+, and Cayin HA-1A mk2. I also threw in my Stax rig, which is a KGSSHV with SR-007mkII or SR-4070. Interconnects were from the Audio Art's IC-3 e series in both RCA and XLR.
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    Listening
    I'm not going to reinvent the wheel here - everything I said about the sound of the DA9 pretty much still applies. That means clean, clear sound with a beautifully sweet tonality, particularly in the midrange, and superb treble articulation. But the DA10 builds upon that performance, with several key improvements that I believe make it a worthy successor.

    Perhaps it will be easiest to explain in context of my few minor gripes about the DA9. While I found it beautiful to listen to, I also mentioned it wasn't quite the last word in tonal saturation. Meaning at times it lacked a bit of weight to the presentation. DA10 adds just a hint of richness, particularly in the midrange, which results in more solidity and "oomph". This is most noticeable with vocals, where the DA10 captures a bit more of the chest voice versus merely the head voice. Again, subtle difference, but a positive one. Note that the sweet, almost delicate nature of the midrange presentation remains in full effect despite the boost in thickness, so everything I loved about the DA9 is still applicable... this update does not transform it into a drastically different presentation.

    Another little complaint I had was that DA9 didn't have the best low end impact. It was nicely articulate but lacked just a touch in authority and slam. That changes here, with DA10 sounding competitive with the best I've heard in this price class and even beyond. Thankfully it remains agile and totally free from bloat, so it doesn't stray from what made the DA9 enjoyable in the first place. Ultimately DA10 remains a generally neutral sounding DAC rather than a warm design with a prominent low end boost - I don't want there to be any confusion about the Yulong becoming something it is not.

    Lastly, soundstage and imaging have improved by a significant margin, likely due to the superior processing horsepower on board. The DA10 now competes with class leaders such as Benchmark's DAC3 in providing a wide open, lifelike soundscape, whilst avoiding the somewhat steely, artificial treble tone the Benchmark sometimes displays. In this case the improvement is more significant - where the other two aspects were relatively subtle, this one is more obvious when listening with good recordings and using quality associated gear. My advance copy of the new Reference Recordings Holst: The Planets featuring Michael Stern at the helm of the Kansas City Symphony (which I very highly recommend!) is totally immersive, with a clearly defined sense of space that the DA9 - while still doing a fine job overall - doesn't quite reveal. Recordings with less spacial information obviously don't emote as clearly but the DA10 does what it can with the material I give it.

    All in all, a superb performance when compared directly to the DA9 or, for that matter, most other DACs in this price class. I wouldn't call it a night and day difference over its predecessor but with careful back to back listening, it's pretty clear which one is superior. We still get the same sweet, beguiling tone along with improvements in several areas, ultimately making for a more satisfying experience which is extremely competitive for the price.
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    How competitive, you may ask? Well, I had the chance to give it a go head to head with the excellent PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC, which goes for $1699 - that's $500 more than the DA10. Both devices make great DACs and have very nice integrated amplification. Both also drive external speaker amps directly, sans preamp, without any appreciable loss of quality that often accompanies a DAC-direct hookup.

    The differences? I thought the Stellar DAC had a bit more bass bloom, combined with a tuneful midrange which could be appealing on some recordings (particularly classic rock which can be a bit thin). But the DA10 was clearly more nuanced and textured in the lower end, making it the more "accurate" sounding of the two in that respect. The accuracy continued into the more neutral, slightly sweet midrange, making it superior for vocal projection and realism. And then there's the treble - whilst the PS Audio has very nicely controlled highs, inoffensive and somewhat musical, the DA10 is far more insightful and resolving - yet still not harsh. It's in another league entirely. The Gain Cell DAC is very enjoyable and I never fell I'm missing any details until I switch to the DA10 and discover that yes, there is more to be heard.

    Stellar offers plenty of analog inputs plus a remote, making it the more useful device in some circumstances. But for pure SQ alone the Yulong is superior without question, at least in the majority of system configurations I assembled. Since the Gain Cell DAC is one of my favorites in the sub-$2k price range, that's a big with for the DA10.

    Without going into too much detail, I think I also like this DAC more than the RME ADI-2 DAC, the Bryston BDA-2, Chord's Qutest, and the original Auralic Vega. All are strong performers in their own ways, yet none matches the DA10 in terms of overall sonic refinement, sweetness of note, and tonal balance. Considering 3 out of those 4 sell for quite a bit more, that again tells a story about the Yulong and how competitive it is.

    Transports
    But general sonic enjoyment is not the only aspect worth mentioning. Perhaps the biggest change over the DA9 is just how easy it is to unleash this level of performance. The DA9 already had a custom DSP algorithm for processing all incoming data, which made it fairly undemanding of transport quality. DA10 handles everything via custom programmed FPGA, and the result is an even more low-key device that really doesn't care about transport quality in the least. It's hard to believe, but the DA10 sounds just as good with a standard Surface Pro or off-the-shelf Dell workstation as it does with excellent music servers and disc transports - that would be the SimAudio Orbiter, Resonessence Labs Fluvius, or Innuos Zen Mini mk3 with the matching linear power supply upgrade. In all cases, the result was essentially identical - or at least close enough where the strain to identify subtle differences just wasn't worth the trouble.

    Favorite tweaks such as the BMC PureUSB1 active USB cable, the Wyred Recovery USB Reclocker with Wyred PS-1 linear PSU, or even the superbly capable Titans Audio Lab Helen jitter reducer/signal enhancer don't make an appreciable difference in the overall performance. Again, you can switch back and forth and try to convince yourself of some minor change, but in the end I was satisfied enough to not bother with any tweaks.

    Frankly, I don't recall ever hearing a DAC quite so ambivalent to transport quality. I have heard some with euphonic coloration which tended to impart its own flavor across the board, making the transport contribution smaller than usual. This is not that. The DA10 is quite resolving and transparent overall, it just doesn't care about transport quality - an intriguing combination.

    This ultimately means the end user is free to choose a player based on other aspects such as user interface or price, without regard for output quality. That's new to me, and pretty exciting.

    Note - this may explain the omission of the increasingly popular I2S via HDMI input. That's typically the highest quality way to feed a DAC these days, but when transport quality is made irrelevant by proprietary means, then the superior I2S connection becomes pointless. Makes sense to me.
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    Amp Stage
    Everything I've said above applies broadly to both the line out as well as the headphone stage. The integrated amplifier is identical to what we got in the DA9, but again, much has changed in the path leading up to that amp section. Leashing headphones directly to the DA10 allows us to pick up on those changes fairly confidently, as long as we use the right headphones.

    Like most prior Yulong designs, the DA10 pairs best with lower impedance cans. 32 ohm loads see 3 full watts from the balanced output or 2 watts from the 1/4" jack. That's potent enough to drive most cans with authority, though obviously you won't maximize an Abyss or HiFiMAN HE-6 without adding a powerhouse dedicated amp. Sticking with the 4-pin XLR jack is generally the way to go, but single-ended connections don't suffer too terribly, and this is particularly true of less demanding cans. IEMs are fair game unless they are particularly sensitive (certain Empire Ears and 64 Audio models come to mind) and the digitally-controlled analog volume control is uniformly excellent.

    Overall I'd happily drive my Sony MDR-Z1R, Meze Empyrean, or Fostex TX-00 directly from the DA10. Adding a modest headphone amp such as the Cavalli CTH changes the flavor a tad but in my mind is mostly a downgrade. Moving up to an Arcam rHead or Rupert Neve RNHP is a sidegrade at best - perhaps certain headphones benefit based on synergy, but as a whole the system is not elevated to any significant degree. It was only when I went up to the powerful Cayin iHA-6 that I noted a clear improvement, and then even more so when going to something like a Pass Labs HPA-1. So overall I'd say the integrated headphone stage is excellent as long as one keeps expectations in check and uses a lower impedance headphone.
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    Conclusion
    Yulong has done it once again. Not only does the DA10 sound sweet, organic, neutral and clear, it does so with superb aesthetics and build, at a price that seems more than fair considering what some others are asking for lesser performance. Bonus points for being so accommodating with transport quality - use whatever you want, the DA10 will make it sound like a mega-transport.

    I don't particularly care about the increases to DSD512 and PCM768, but I recognize that the market has something of an arms race going on in that area... and Yulong is not immune to it. On the plus side, it makes the DA10 is rather future proof, and allows it to handle all sorts Roon or HQPlayer upsampling shenanigans. So that's a good thing.

    In any case, my only real complaint is the lack of remote, which is a common one in this segment for whatever reason. Beyond that, the DA10 does pretty much everything I could ask for. While not matching the tonal heft of a Metrum Pavane, or the wide-open clarity of my Resonessence Mirus Pro Signature Edition, the DA10 nonetheless does everything I could possibly ask for in a $1200 unit. Anyone looking for an all-around performer in that price range (and beyond) should give it serious consideration.

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    1. ericohgb
      Thanks for the review. Very curious about the Nimbus though. Have you already reviewed that amp? If not, I'd be very interested to hear your opinion. Best, Érico
      ericohgb, Oct 1, 2019
    2. project86
      project86, Oct 1, 2019
      ericohgb likes this.