Background and Bias
One year ago, I initiated an evolutionary cycle of my system, and – as a source-first believer – I went all-in (happily exceeding the allocated budget as usual) on a Taiko Extreme server. In retrospect, I am very happy about my choice, as it has immediately brought a significant bump across the whole board of how the system performed, and it keeps steadily getting better as Taiko guys release hardware and software upgrades.
Next in line comes my DAC. I don’t feel my uber-complex DAVE / M-Scaler daisychained mess is lacking sonically on some specific areas, so I am not looking for something to fix in particular, rather an overall improvement, and possibly a significant one. Not interested in a change of flavor, side-grade or trade-off.
Since I am not the type of audiophile that likes to change gear often, also in the DAC case I would ideally keep my next one for several years, as I move forward to improving on other elements of the setup.
I listen mainly to classical music, jazz and leave – say – 20% to eclectic explorations. My priorities are tonal balance, timbre realism, spatial presentation, transparency. As I use to attend live classical concerts on a regular basis, the recollection of the real thing is haunting all my listening sessions and all – inevitable – deviations from the memory of live experiences are detracting from the enjoyment and emotional engagement I achieve through my rig.
I have come to realize that my brain is especially sensitive to spatial cues, at least as much as to timbre naturalness. In fact, the illusion of out-of-the-head sound is a major source of relaxation and abandonment during my listening sessions.
The way I come close to this kind of presentation with my present gear is by using the cross-feed (CF) feature of the DAVE, which I find utterly enjoyable with several recordings, especially older jazz albums that used to be mixed in a hard panned fashion.
Unfortunately, CF is not implemented in any of the upper echelon DACs I am considering (Lampizator, TotalDAC, EMM Labs, T+A HV Series, MSB, NAGRA, dCS).
My dCS DAC Audition: Targets and Expectations
I decided to ask my dealer to arrange a private presentation of the dCS Rossini and the Lina / Bartok with the main objective of answering the following questions: “Is a superior DAC without CF better (for me) than a lesser DAC with CF?” and “how is the CF – or Expanse – from dCS compared to DAVE’s implementation?”, where the former was by far my main focus.
What I was NOT aiming for was to compare dCS DACs to Chord DAVE + M Scaler, as the only way to achieve this in a meaningful DAVE – in my case – would have been to ask for a proper home demo. First, because I don’t trust my aural memory and secondly because my setup is very different to what I can get at the dealer’s.
My dCS DAC Audition: Setup and Methodology
The dealer was kind enough to prepare a dedicated room for me for the whole afternoon, equipped with Rossini Apex + Clock and the full Lina stack. In order to reduce the variables and to allow quick switching between the two systems, the Lina amplifier was used in both setups.
First-rate interconnects and power cables were in place.
I prepared a playlist on an USB stick, and, as most of the tracks were available on Qobuz, I tried both reading the files via USB and streaming them by using the respective streamer modules of the Rossini and Lina. As streamed content sounded often better than the USB stick. I ended up using Qobuz for most of my audition.
I did not play with filters / mappers and upscaling, sticking to F2 (recommended by dCS for orchestral), Mapper 1, no upscaling. All my tracks were PCM, so no need to fiddle with DSD filters.
I alternated quick A/B comparisons and longer sessions (one or two full tracks on a setup then on the other one and back etc.).
Of course, all the above is far from an ideal way to fully exploit the absolute potential of both Rossini and Lina, but I thought it was sufficient to my main objectives (see previous section) and anyway it was the best I could access to.
My playlist was mainly made of acoustic music, which is what I actually listen the most. Ranging from solo instruments (violin, cello, piano) and vocals, to small ensemble (quartets, baroque, jazz), to full blown orchestral tracks.
I used my Spirit Torino Valkyria throughout the audition, being my daily driver and my all-time favorite for classical music / acoustic content in general.
My dCS DAC Audition: Sound – Part 1: dCS Lina crossfeed options
In order to establish a baseline which I thought it would be closer to what I am used to at home, I started from the Lina, and tried its various CF options.
I started from Expanse, and both E1 and E2 filters sounded very wrong to me, especially E2, where I felt an additional reverb that – while helping with creating a sense of ambience – seemed somewhat artificial. I also felt that both timbre and transient response was a deviation from the unprocessed sound, which I did not like (softer, more diffuse).
Traditional crossfeed (CF setting) instead was much more to my liking. As with the DAVE, I preferred the CF on in most cases, and some hard panned tracks (e.g. Mari Nakamoto “Georgia on my mind”, or Coltrane “Out of this world”) – which were basically unlistenable without CF for me – became enjoyable again.
Although I liked the CF setting, I felt that the implementation is not top-notch IMO. The soundstage collapse is more apparent than on the DAVE, the harmonics richness is somewhat diminished, and the transients were a bit smeared, at the expense of some listening excitement. Music sounds flatter both emotionally and spatially as a result.
A test track that I use for assessing soundstage depth is the Introduction of the B.B. King “Live at county jail” album. With the DAVE, when I use CF I get the sense of a very layered and deep soundstage, where ambient sounds, the voice of the announcement and the “boo!” from the crowd are coming from very different locations in a large 3D environment. This was not the case with the Lina.
That said, I still believe the CF option is a strong asset of the Lina or Bartok for headphones users.
My dCS DAC Audition: Sound – Part 2: dCS Lina vs Rossini, no CF
When comparing the Lina (w/o CF) to the Rossini, the superiority of the Rossini was clear, while not as staggering as I would have expected.
The Rossini produces larger sonic images, a more dramatic macro-dynamic swing, while exhibiting more nuances and detail retrieval at the same time. It seems just able to extract more information from the same base material.
In direct comparison, the Lina seems almost too smooth and polished, bordering a blurred presentation, whereas the Rossini retains an extremely smooth and natural timbre, a rich and detailed midrange, yet more articulated and more resolving of micro-dynamics content.
On small ensembles, localization was more precise with the Rossini, without any sense of an overly analytical delivery.
Solo cello extracted a denser, more masculine and harmonically rich sound.
On large orchestral music, the hall ambience was more obvious, and in the massed passages, the readability of the various (multiple) elements of the music were more stable and clear.
The Lina was no slouch, and the voicing of both DACs is very aligned to a smooth, relaxed and big sounding signature.
A track that I use for PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) is “That’s amore” from Ray Gelato (Linn Recordings). I must say that with both Rossini and Lina I did not get the toe-tapping, spine chilling excitement I am used to. The Lina with CF was borderline sleepy compared to my expectations.
My dCS DAC Audition: Sound – Part 3: dCS Lina with CF vs Rossini (no CF)
Given the – while not dramatic – significant performance improvement on the Rossini, I actually felt that I was able to enjoy many tracks with it more vs. the Lina, even accounting for a less realistic soundstage due to the lack of CF.
For example, “La campanella” from the Reference Recordings Nojima Plays Liszt album, which I normally prefer with CF on, was actually more involving and overall realistic on the Rossini, thanks to a better sense of harmonics decay and a more dramatic macro dynamics.
However, with all its goodness, there were still many cases with the Rossini where I painfully regretted the effect of CF. The Mari Nakamoto track I already mentioned remained unlistenable for me, as it was John Coltrane sax on “Acknowledgement” (from Love Supreme), and the loss of focus and depth on most classical concert recordings.
My dCS DAC Audition: Conclusion
I have enjoyed my dCS afternoon tremendously. It was clear that I was exposed to very fine pieces of gear. Although I don’t feel confident in commenting in detail how these compare to my system, I generally sensed a smoother, denser (in a good way) presentation, with a magnificent balance of sheer technicalities and holistic listening pleasure / naturalness. Vocals and strings timbre and nuances in particular were very impressive.
While the Lina is – given my priorities – perhaps better tailored for headphones listening thanks to the CF, the Rossini is on another level of completeness and realism. I guess the difference would have been starker on a 2-channel system (as I experienced in the past).
I was genuinely hoping to be totally blown away from the Rossini, as I was prepared to make the investment on the spot if that happened. I would have liked to carry the Rossini at home for a while for a more thorough assessment, but that was not an option unfortunately, and, honestly, I suspect that my addiction to CF would have brought to a similar outcome. I still have not backed off from that possibility, if I will be able to get the chance from the dealer.
For now, it seems that my quest for a major DAC upgrade for my headphones rig must remain open.