Audeze's Black Box Beta Impressions: The DDA-1
Oct 16, 2015 at 4:25 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 11

Trogdor

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Hey Everybody:

I wrote this article for my site but I wanted to cross post it here as an ice breaker for the Head-Fi community at large so other beta testers can give feedback. Also, if you have any specific questions that I can answer, I will most certainly do so. This is definitely one of Audeze's coolest products to date! :D

Introduction




Audeze is one of those companies that just came out of nowhere circa 2010. Founded in 2008 by two engineers, Alexander Rosson and Sankar Thiagasamudram, Audeze's first major successful product, the LCD-2, pretty much revolutionized the high-end headphone market overnight, and along with HiFiMAN, made the words "planar magnetic" a household name among audiophiles. Since then Audeze has released several critically acclaimed headphones, from the venerable LCD-3, which has been hailed as one of, if not the best headphone in the world (full disclosure: I own one.), to the more recent EL-8, which offers best-in-class performance and was designed by BMW DesignworksUSA. Very recently, Audeze announced their new flagship, the LCD-4, which they claim is the best performing headphone they have ever created (full disclosure: I want one.).

But like all small companies, Audeze wants to branch out and expand their market share by offering customers complete end-to-end solutions - vis-a-vis DACs and amps. That's why when the EL-8 was first launched, Audeze also released the Deckard along side it. Similarly, when the LCD-4 was announced so was the King, a companion reference headphone amp designed by none other than world renown circuit designer Bascom King.

Now if you are already a big Audeze fanboy (or girl) like I am, then you know about all of these announcements and have been feverishly following their developments as they come in. However, amidst all of the chaos, Audeze quietly posted a new, mysterious thread entitled, "Beta testing the new Audeze Black-Box" in the Sponsor forum on Head-Fi. The post showed a picture of a black box nicknamed the DDA-1, and claimed that it is going to take "headphone personalization to the next level" and that "you can also tweak the response (frequency) to your liking.". Suffice it to say, I was intrigued, and after a short back and forth with the good folks over at Audeze, I was selected to participate in their beta test program. Below are my general thoughts, impressions, and feelings about the DDA-1 product. Please note, this is not an exhaustive review since the DDA-1 is still in beta form, and is still subject to change before Audeze finally brings it to market.

First Impressions Can Be Deceiving




The DDA-1 is your fairly typical USB/DAC combo. The unit can be powered via your standard wall wart or off USB - so technically, the DDA-1 is also transportable. It has a headphone out as well as SDPIF and USB inputs on the back, with a button to switch between the two. The documentation doesn't list the exact USB receiver or DAC chipsets inside but states that it supports up to 192kHz sampling rates. On the front of the unit there is a mute button, a volume knob that also acts as the power button, as well as a few LED status lights for those who listen strictly in the dark. So on at least a first glance, there really isn't much to report. However, there is a small button in the front with accompanying status light that reads "Bypass." Bypass what? Interesting.

The documentation seems to describe two modes of operation: Analog and Digital. In digital mode, the DDA-1 acts as just a DAC and provides line level out to your amp weapon of choice. In analog mode, the unit acts as a stand alone USB/amp for your headphone. I'm told that the DDA-1 can power all of the Audeze headphones with ease (there weren't exact specs in terms of impedance and wattage during the beta).

Let's Talk Synergy




It turns out that the DDA-1 contains not just an amp and DAC, but also a very powerful DSP (an Analog Devices SHARC 21469). Morever, the DDA-1 is only one part of an entire ecosystem Audeze calls the "Synergy DSP Platform." Basically, it works like this: Audeze has developed some proprietary algorithms (transfer function) that allow you to manipulate your headphone's measured frequency response (FR) using the Synergy Web Application. Then, using the Synergy Desktop Application, you can upload those FR targets to the DDA-1 as one of three selectable presets. Once the upload completes and a preset is chosen, all the bits you now shoot through the DDA-1 will be processed by the DSP, which in turn will calculate your frequency response targets and mimic that curve in real-time. Pretty slick, right?

But the first question you are probably asking yourself though is why is this any different from just using standard EQ? This was exactly the first question I asked Audeze when I started to play with my own Synergy generated custom targets. With Synergy, you get optimized time domain response, which translates into more transparency and better imaging. Typical EQ works by manipulating the signal by changing its phase. Old analog EQs use inductors and capacitors to perform the dirty deed while modern digital versions use taps on a digital delay line. Either way, EQ can introduce artifacts since it's mucking with the signals phase. However, if you use the DDA-1, you get near linear-phase response. And because the SHARC is so powerful, you get very low latency too. Audeze also claims the DDA-1 has a latency of less than 11ms at 24-bit/96k sampling rates.

Notice above, I said "your headphone's measured frequency response." That's why beta testers were sent a pair of open-back EL-8 headphones instead of being able to use our own. The Synergy platform only works with headphones that Audeze has measured and uploaded to your cloud account. Why? Because the transfer functions Audeze has developed rely on accurate baseline measurements to guarantee that near linear-phase response. I'm told that once the product is officially launched, existing Audeze customers will be able to get their headphones measured and bound to your online Synergy web account.

Garbage In, Amazing Out




When I first logged into the Synergy Web application, I noticed that Audeze had already uploaded a few targets for me to play with. There was the "EL-8 House" curve as well as a few smooth target curves, namely "3rd Octave" and "6th Octave" respectively. I decided to upload a few of these pre-cooked targets and compare and contrast to the stock EL-8 sound via the Bypass button (A ha!). Right off the bat: Amazing, especially the 3rd and 6th octave smoothing curves. In general, I consider the stock EL-8 to be a solid planar magnetic can with really nice and tight bass coupled with Audeze's signature lush mid-range. It's main downsides are a fairly lack luster treble response and a soundstage that is just congested and lacks air. But through the DDA-1, the EL-8 sounded like a different can altogether. And I'm not talking your stereotypical audiophile subtitles either - the differences were striking.

I played a lot different kinds of music through the DDA-1, including opera, jazz, and classical, but most of my listening sessions mainly consisted of metal. And within that space, I shot through the DDA-1 a lot of highly compressed, brickwall limited material, like the latest Black Dhalia Murder and Black Breath records (both DR5), as well as highly dynamic, well produced records such as the soon to be released Horrendous album (DR10) and the lastest Locrian release (DR9). In every case, the EL-8 sounded significantly better with the DDA-1/DSP active than without it. The most noticeable improvements were in the soundstage and overall clarity departments, where the EL-8's muddled sounding characteristics seem to just vanish. I particularly loved the "3rd and 6th Octave" smoothing curves, which helped give the EL-8 a much more refined feeling to them, especially with classical and operatic source material. And what's fascinating is that it wasn't just the bass or the mids or the treble that improved - everything sounded better, with better micro-detail retrieval and a new sense of dynamism that didn't exist when the DSP wasn't doing its magic.

I also compared my LCD-3 non-fazor through the DDA-1 in Bypass mode against the EL-8 with the DSP active (mostly using the "EL-8 House" curve). Winner: LCD-3. Hands down. The DDA-1 can only do so much, and the LCD-3 is just a better can in every department compared to the EL-8 (and should be at over twice the price). But though the EL-8 is still a significant step down from the LCD-3, it was no longer grossly so. I could live with the EL-8 plus DDA-1 knowing what the LCD-3 sounds like. I can't say the same with the stock EL-8.

Time to Get Personal




Alright, time to get personal and a bit funky. I created a very bass heavy curve just to have a little fun and see how Audeze's transfer function reacts. The bass heavy curve was basically moving the points on the FR curve between 50-250Hz up to give them a boost with the goal of having the EL-8 really slam my eardrums into my cranium. And you know what? It worked. But at a cost. Now the EL-8 sounded more like a U-shaped headphone, with the midrange sounding lifeless and a bit removed from the action. Why? Because it is a U-shaped headphone with my custom graph, i.e. the Audeze transfer functions are working as designed! I then tried to adjust my bass heavy curve some more by playing around with the midrange and treble departments to compensate. It was really fascinating to get an entirely different feel out of the EL-8 every time I changed something - for better or worse.

Another really cool test was being able to switch different curves in real-time via the Synergy Desktop application. This became really helpful when I wanted to hone in on an area in my custom curve. I would load all three presets with slight variations and compare and contrast them in real-time by hitting the Preset button during playback. When I thought one of them improved significantly, I would then reload three different versions of it again but this time with more tweaks. Lather, rinse, repeat. Basically, I was learning how Audeze's transfer function reacts when I make various changes. Eventually, I got the hang of it.

It's a Beta!


I did run into some problems and noticed a few missing features during my testing - some major, some minor, some in between. Audeze was very receptive to my feedback and I'm told most of my suggestions will be incorporated in the next revision. For example, I use Audirvana, and the Synergy Desktop application for the Mac wouldn't open while it was also open (yes, Exclusive Mode was off). That will be fixed. I found the web interface to be good, but there are some basic improvements that need to be made. For example, there should probably be a separate screen that shows all of my target files as well as how much space is left in the cloud for me to generate more outside of the View History drop down. I also found selecting an individual point or group of points occasionally painful due to rendering delays. Finally, I'd also like to see Linux support added, even if that means a simple command line utility that would allow me to manage my DDA-1 from a shell. But all in all, I say the product is fairly stable with a few a few rough edges that need to be polished before going to market.

Concluding Thoughts


In case you couldn't tell, I think this is a great product but with a few caveats. First, I don't know the price and even more importantly, I don't even know how I would price the DDA-1 if I had to. There really isn't anything like it in the market. Sure, there are products that use DSPs, but I know of no other vendor that is offering a total platform for this level of customization. Secondly, if you aren't thrilled with the Audeze house sound, I don't think the DDA-1 is going to convert you either. The DDA-1 improves what is already available in your Audeze headphone of choice, but it doesn't make your EL-8 into an LCD-3 or any other can for that matter. Finally, despite all of the customization features, I felt the existing Audeze curves that they designed for my pair of EL-8s were vastly superior to what I came up with on my own. Moreover, I was pretty content with just the EL-8 House and Smooth Octave curves to play with and frankly, I think they are worth the price of admission alone (well, depending on that price).

Overall though, I think the DDA-1, and more to the point, the whole "Synergy DSP Platform" concept is a terrific idea and represents truly the state-of-the-art, integrating sophisticated DSP technology directly into your playback chain. The level of customization is incredible, and I can only imagine what else Audeze has in store (what about crossfeed? what about multichannel support? what about mixing with it?). I want to give a big thank you to Audeze for giving me the opportunity to participate in the Black Box beta testing program and I can't wait to see how the final product turns out.

If any of you have any technical questions, post him here and I'm sure Audeze will answer them.
 
Oct 20, 2015 at 12:39 PM Post #2 of 11

Wildcatsare1

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Any idea what the price will be, and will there be "general" curves designed for various iterations of the LCD-3 (or current X) which don't require returning your HP?
 
Oct 20, 2015 at 3:49 PM Post #3 of 11

Trogdor

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Any idea what the price will be, and will there be "general" curves designed for various iterations of the LCD-3 (or current X) which don't require returning your HP?


Don't know anything about pricing. Probably when the DDA-1 is closer to release, we will all know more details.

As I understand the product as of today, Audeze needs to measure your headphone to get accurate measurements to use in their proprietary transfer functions to simulate custom FR curves - otherwise the linear phase response goes out the window.

I'd really like a world where you can share curves, or more precisely, graphs, that can be regenerated for your specific can but tuned by friends and/or professionals.
 
Oct 23, 2015 at 7:44 AM Post #4 of 11

derbigpr

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So, when you mention EQ to audiophiles, most just ignore it and automatically refuse to use it, but when someone packs it up in a product and sells it for a lot of money (for doing what you already can do alone), it suddenly becomes amazing? :p
 
Oct 23, 2015 at 12:23 PM Post #5 of 11

Trogdor

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So, when you mention EQ to audiophiles, most just ignore it and automatically refuse to use it, but when someone packs it up in a product and sells it for a lot of money (for doing what you already can do alone), it suddenly becomes amazing? :p


Did you actually read the article? This is a lot different than just EQ.
 
Oct 25, 2015 at 1:14 AM Post #6 of 11
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@derbigpr
Thank you for your interest and response. We developed DDA-1 with one simple goal, 'Can we make a great headphone sound even better using signal process?'
 
What if you are able  to retain the sound signature but magically make your headphone response appear faster? This would translate to more transparency and better imaging. Is it still called 'EQ'? Even better, what if you wanted to change the tonal balance a little to your liking and at the same time add transparency without adding any artifacts?
 
The key to optimizing a  headphone response is to first start by measuring the headphone's response. Unfortunately, measuring a headphone's response requires  specialized equipment and also experience. With DDA-1, we do the measurements for you. The response optimization is specific to the measured headphone only and the measurements are stored in the cloud and associated with the user account. The transfer functions we generate are again personalized to the measured headphone only and will not provide optimal results with other headphones (even if they are of the same model).
 
Audeze Stay updated on Audeze at their sponsor profile on Head-Fi.
 
https://www.facebook.com/AudezeLLC https://twitter.com/audeze https://www.audeze.com/
Oct 25, 2015 at 6:34 AM Post #7 of 11

Shembot

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  @derbigpr
Thank you for your interest and response. We developed DDA-1 with one simple goal, 'Can we make a great headphone sound even better using signal process?'
 
What if you are able  to retain the sound signature but magically make your headphone response appear faster? This would translate to more transparency and better imaging. Is it still called 'EQ'? Even better, what if you wanted to change the tonal balance a little to your liking and at the same time add transparency without adding any artifacts?
 
The key to optimizing a  headphone response is to first start by measuring the headphone's response. Unfortunately, measuring a headphone's response requires  specialized equipment and also experience. With DDA-1, we do the measurements for you. The response optimization is specific to the measured headphone only and the measurements are stored in the cloud and associated with the user account. The transfer functions we generate are again personalized to the measured headphone only and will not provide optimal results with other headphones (even if they are of the same model).


This sounds amazing. I don't have any real problem with EQ, DSP, etc. Hell, I write DSP software for real-time radar systems; why not use it to make headphones sound better? I'm extremely intrigued by this project.
 
Oct 25, 2015 at 10:14 AM Post #8 of 11

Trogdor

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This sounds amazing. I don't have any real problem with EQ, DSP, etc. Hell, I write DSP software for real-time radar systems; why not use it to make headphones sound better? I'm extremely intrigued by this project.


That's basically my take on it too. I think leveraging DSP technology (in addition to stand alone DAC chipsets) is really the next frontier in audio.
 
Nov 9, 2015 at 2:41 PM Post #9 of 11

BobSaysHi

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I was selected from the head-fi community by Audeze to beta test a "black box" DDA-1. I recieved an early version of the DDA-1 with a pair of their EL-8 open headphones. I'd like to say again that this is a beta test of the product, the final version is still being worked on. I'm not affiliated with Audeze in any way.
 
Thanks again to Audeze, I got the open EL-8 headphones and the DDA-1 to test for a month. I listened to the EL-8 with the DDA-1's integrated amplifier and DAC (and software), as well as the EL-8 on its own around the house.
 
If you haven't read the opening post in this thread, you should. Trogdor did a very good job describing the DDA-1 and provides pictures of the software itself, which looks and functions as a very good software equalizer.
 
 
If you want a quick summary of the sound the EL-8 and the DDA-1, it's really really good. It's a great unit. Even the house curves sound fantastic. It's intuitive. This is the ideal product for anyone who likes to play with an eqalizer. It was hard to send it back.
 
I didn't take any pictures myself of the unit, but in its current state it is very much a "black box" without and markings. There's a large volume knob in the center, which has LEDs surrounding it which let you know how loud the unit is if you're using the integrated amplifier. There's also a button on the front which toggles the equalizer on and off.
The DSP "equalizer" functionality is by far the selling point of this product. It is fantastic. It's more than an equalizer though, and functions on a higher level than even an advanced software equalizer. Before your pair of headphones leaves Audeze, its frequency response is measured and recorded. The DDA-1 uses that information and knows exactly what your headphone already sounds like. Through the Audeze software, which is available on windows and macintosh, you can create a frequency response curve which is read by the DDA-1 and applied to anything that goes through it.
 
My first impression of the EL-8 headphones is that they are very high quality headphones. I don't own any high end headphones, but I'm very familiar with orthodynamic headphones like the EL-8 as I own and currently use the Fostex T50RP. The EL-8 sounds better than the T50RP I currently use.
 
I spent very little time actually messing with the software while using it. I installed the software and fell in love with the default "house" curve that Audeze provided with the DDA-1. It sounds very very good. The guys at Audeze got it very right with that curve. I listened to it for most of a month and never once thought "that doesn't sound right." You can even edit the default curves. I added a little bass to the house curve, and liked that a lot. You can make your headphones sound however you want, however the default presets are top notch.
 
If you do not currently own an Audeze headphone the DDA-1 is not for you. Without knowing how much the DDA-1 will cost it's hard to comment on value, but if you own one of Audeze's headphones and want a new DAC/amplifier this is probably it. It's fantastic. There's not another product like it that I'm aware of. This is especially a great combination with the EL-8. If I currently owned an EL-8 and I wanted a new amplifier I'd wait for the DDA-1.
 
Nov 9, 2015 at 9:04 PM Post #10 of 11

Trogdor

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I was selected from the head-fi community by Audeze to beta test a "black box" DDA-1. I recieved an early version of the DDA-1 with a pair of their EL-8 open headphones. I'd like to say again that this is a beta test of the product, the final version is still being worked on. I'm not affiliated with Audeze in any way.

Thanks again to Audeze, I got the open EL-8 headphones and the DDA-1 to test for a month. I listened to the EL-8 with the DDA-1's integrated amplifier and DAC (and software), as well as the EL-8 on its own around the house.

If you haven't read the opening post in this thread, you should. Trogdor did a very good job describing the DDA-1 and provides pictures of the software itself, which looks and functions as a very good software equalizer.


If you want a quick summary of the sound the EL-8 and the DDA-1, it's really really good. It's a great unit. Even the house curves sound fantastic. It's intuitive. This is the ideal product for anyone who likes to play with an eqalizer. It was hard to send it back.

I didn't take any pictures myself of the unit, but in its current state it is very much a "black box" without and markings. There's a large volume knob in the center, which has LEDs surrounding it which let you know how loud the unit is if you're using the integrated amplifier. There's also a button on the front which toggles the equalizer on and off.
The DSP "equalizer" functionality is by far the selling point of this product. It is fantastic. It's more than an equalizer though, and functions on a higher level than even an advanced software equalizer. Before your pair of headphones leaves Audeze, its frequency response is measured and recorded. The DDA-1 uses that information and knows exactly what your headphone already sounds like. Through the Audeze software, which is available on windows and macintosh, you can create a frequency response curve which is read by the DDA-1 and applied to anything that goes through it.

My first impression of the EL-8 headphones is that they are very high quality headphones. I don't own any high end headphones, but I'm very familiar with orthodynamic headphones like the EL-8 as I own and currently use the Fostex T50RP. The EL-8 sounds better than the T50RP I currently use.

I spent very little time actually messing with the software while using it. I installed the software and fell in love with the default "house" curve that Audeze provided with the DDA-1. It sounds very very good. The guys at Audeze got it very right with that curve. I listened to it for most of a month and never once thought "that doesn't sound right." You can even edit the default curves. I added a little bass to the house curve, and liked that a lot. You can make your headphones sound however you want, however the default presets are top notch.

If you do not currently own an Audeze headphone the DDA-1 is not for you. Without knowing how much the DDA-1 will cost it's hard to comment on value, but if you own one of Audeze's headphones and want a new DAC/amplifier this is probably it. It's fantastic. There's not another product like it that I'm aware of. This is especially a great combination with the EL-8. If I currently owned an EL-8 and I wanted a new amplifier I'd wait for the DDA-1.


Hi Bob, quick question: What was your platform of choice? Windows or Mac? Just curious.
 
Nov 22, 2015 at 10:35 PM Post #11 of 11

Gowry

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My LCD-X and I are looking forward to the release of this. As someone who takes their headphones back and forth to work, I wonder why there is a box needed. Could this also be delivered as a VST-style plugin? Looking forward to hearing impressions on how this makes the LCD-X sound as well.
 

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