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Massdrop x Airist Audio R-2R DAC: A Discrete Resistor Ladder DAC For $350

Discussion in 'Dedicated Source Components' started by jude, Jun 4, 2018.
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  1. Collusion[FIN]
    I got my unit on tuesday and I've now tested it on two different setups:

    Oppo DV-983H as transport (coaxial) -> RDAC -> SPL Phonitor 2 -> Focal Clear
    Bluesound Node 2i (coaxial) -> RDAC -> Rega Elex-R -> Forvoice 13.2

    Very inital impressions:
    - Wow, it has a very nice tone / frequency balance. Slightly sweet. Not syrupy. Stage is upfront. Not airy kind of sound, but not claustrophobic either. Kinda reminds me of the expensive MSB dacs (in terms of tone, not overall performance). Treble is less sparkly though.
    - Detail retrieval is okay. I mean, I don't currently have anything to compare RDAC (in the same price class), but DM Convert-2 is not world's apart. It is a step ahead, but RDAC still manages to do well enough without drawing too much attention, even if you have accustomed to something more accurate.
    - Dynamics are very decent. Not lacking at all. Your toes keep tapping the floor.
    Baten likes this.
  2. erniejade
    So safe to say you like it better then the built in dac on the bluenode si?
  3. PopZeus
    It's hard to say since Kingwa always seems to be making tweaks to the firmware of his DACs, thus changing the sound in slight (but perhaps significant if you're an obsessive audio nerd) ways. If we're to use the R2R-11 as the standard comparison point due to its price parity with the RDAC and it's relatively stable firmware, Audio-gd's DAC/amp combo is a bit more tube-like and colored. The tuning on the RDAC is more neutral by comparison, whereas the 11 sounds slightly more relaxed up top, and fuller in the bass region. When it comes to speed or (I guess) dynamics, the 11 sounds a bit smoother and less punchy but has more harmonics or sweetness than the RDAC. All that adds up to a more tubey sound for the R2R-11. It has that kind of quality you might expect from non-solid state technology, which I don't feel like the RDAC immediately jumps out as sounding like.

    With Audio-gd's other ladder DACs, I only have the early-2018 version of the R2R-1 as a comparison, but that definitely maintains some of that harmonic syrup while upping the level of transparency and dynamics. Because the balanced out on the R2R-1 is sightly more neutral than the single-ended, you have options as far as tuning goes.
    Last edited: Sep 6, 2019
    Khronos and endlesswaves like this.
  4. endlesswaves
    With my current setup of RDAC-LCX-LCD2C, the sound signature I've is very smooth. Don't think the R2R-11 is the way to go. Thanks for the info.
  5. carlmart
    Maybe someone asked this anywhere else on the thread, but did anyone compare the Airist with say a Topping D50, and would like to comment about it?
  6. Collusion[FIN]
    This would actually be quite reasonable comparison, but unfortunately I haven't had time to do it yet.
    erniejade likes this.
  7. Ty89m
    Anyone running Mac OS with Tidal having issues using "exclusive mode"? Very strange, it was working a few days ago and today I tried it and it drops the volume to where I can max the volume knob on THX 789 and it's still too quiet. If I turn off exclusive mode and open "Audio MIDI Setup", I can see the master output level for the Airist is set to half way. If I max the volume all is well, but as soon as I select Exclusive Mode again, it drops volume back to half and adjusting the "Master" volume channel in Audio Midi Setup has no effect. My RME ADI works as it should, exclusive mode doesn't cause any issues with volume, and the sample rate changes depending on track being played etc.

    I swear this wasn't an issue last time I listened, but it's driving me nuts! If it helps, when I select the ADI DAC and open Audio MIDI Setup, all three volume sliders are grayed out and at the lowest settings.

    Also - just tried with my Grace Balanced SDAC and same thing, exclusive mode causes the volume to drop just like the Airist. Trying to figure out why the RME is working as it should, but two other DACS aren't. Very strange.
  8. jasonho
    my new setup

    950A8853-BE7F-41E9-86E0-62CD08D1BB84.jpeg EA8142EE-433D-42C7-9EFE-1F85A682DB17.jpeg D042E614-2943-46C8-BB10-1E4ACE0E0F6F.jpeg
    erniejade, westyjeff, Zachik and 2 others like this.
  9. PopZeus
    Yer welcome! Yeah, given how mid-centric that 1k peak on the LCD2c can make it sound, I think you’re in a good spot with your current set-up. To really upgrade these R-2R DACs, the price gets pretty high, fairly quickly.
  10. klyrish
    I'm going to copypasta my impressions of this DAC from a thread on another audio forum. TLDR: this is the best DAC I've ever heard. It may not be the most detailed or resolving or have the best bass or treble, but something about the whole package in conjunction with the ZDT Jr. amp and parametric EQ'd HD6XX via Roon has resulted in the absolute best music has ever sounded to me.
    I know I'm a nobody around these boards and my limited experience with hi-fi equipment means I just don't have the background to draw from, but I hope that my thoughts here can help others in my position (Gungnir Multibit owners, heavy music lovers) because I found it hard to get any information about this DAC vs. Gungnir Multibit and/or in regards to how it handles the harder side of music.

    My replacement RDAC arrived on Friday and I quickly hooked it up to the ZDT Jr. and fed it optical to check for static. There was none. It sounded perfect. Even cold, it sounded shockingly good. So I quickly removed my headphones, turned off the amp, and allowed Spotify to stream to the RDAC overnight to warm up/burn in a bit.

    On Saturday evening, I listened critically for the first time and was completely blown away. I legitimately could not believe the sound I was hearing and the first song I listened to (Somewhat Damaged) brought happy tears to my eyes. It was such a rich, lush, full sound with so many details, such incredible separation and placement of layers/instruments, and an overall "organic" feeling that doesn't seem like the right word but is the closest I can get to what I mean. Basically, it felt like I was in the room with the band, listening while they played live rather than examining a recording. This is how music should sound.

    It was love at first listen and I knew right then I was never going back to the Gungnir Multibit or Schiit in general.

    I tested with a wide variety of harder rock/metal, with a HEAVY emphasis on NIN after the first few songs sounded so incredible with the layer separation and detail retrieval. Notable tracks I used for comparison purposes for those who care:

    NIN: Somewhat Damaged
    NIN: We're In This Together
    NIN: Just Like You Imagined
    NIN: Pilgrimage
    NIN: No, You Don't
    NIN: La Mer
    NIN: The Great Below
    NIN: The Way Out Is Through
    NIN: Into the Void
    NIN: Star****ers, Inc.
    NIN: Underneath It All
    NIN: The Pefect Drug
    NIN: Heresy
    NIN: March of the Pigs
    NIN: Eraser
    NIN: Reptile
    Architects: The Bitter End
    Architects: Alpha Omega
    Architects: Nihilist
    The Ghost Inside: Test the Limits
    Enter Shikari: The Sights
    Enter Shikari: Solidarity
    Enter Shikari: The Appeal & The Mindsweep I
    Enter Shikari: The Appeal & The Mindsweep II (live)

    I also tested primarily with the RDAC into the ZDT Jr. but also connected it to the Ragnarok and compared the Gungnir Multibit through both amps (using balanced cables with the Ragnarok). I tested my unmodified HD6XX, Focal Clear, and LCD-X headphones on all configurations--using balanced cables on all three when using the Ragnarok. I should note I have a 20-band parametric EQ (heavy V which is my preferred signature) applied for the HD6XX in Roon, a simpler 10-band EQ for the Clear (modest, slight taming of upper-mids and a few high frequencies), and the built in Audeze settings applied for the LCD-X (not exactly sure as it doesn't given any insight but there is a slight but noticeable difference between on and off and I prefer on).

    First and foremost, I'm a true believer in the HD6XX now. I've heard over and over they scale so well with a better amp, etc., but just didn't believe it. I was always underwhelmed with them on the Gungnir Multibit/Raggy combo. When I wanted to be analytical, I went Clear. When I wanted to enjoy more, I went LCD-X. This held true whether I was using the Raggy or the ZDT Jr. once it arrived. I got the HD6XX out of their box for the first time in months after getting the ZDT Jr. and found them much more enjoyable with the Gungnir Multibit -> ZDT Jr. chain than through the Raggy, but still wasn't enjoying them as much as the other two.

    With the RDAC -> ZDT Jr., the Clear and LCD-X both sounded flat and just...off. The Clear were especially congested with a flat stage and recessed vocals. The LCD-X are too dark and I find little enjoyment with them in this chain; they sound okay with some live stuff but on the whole, I'm not engaged. The HD6XX suddenly came to life in a way I still can't believe. They sound INCREDIBLE. The stage is much wider and sound so clear, so un-congested, so detailed, so 3D, and so utterly engaging I can barely take these off.

    The RDAC has shown just how bright, analytical, and congested the Gungnir Multibit really is to my ears. Truly. I'm not saying this to stir crap or just be a contrarian, it's the honest truth. RDAC -> ZDT Jr. -> HD6XX is the absolute best music has ever sounded to me.

    (All comments below are in regards to the HD6XX)

    Gone is the grating, unrealistic harshness of cymbals and weird aliasing I've often heard on synths (especially saw wave patches, i.e. March of the Pigs' driving bass synth riff which feels more metallic and harsh through the Gungnir Multibit). Music sounds so REAL. Drums have this weight to them I've only ever heard/felt at concerts or from my own playing when I still had a set. Cymbals crash and shimmer but it's not the ear-piercing sharpness I'd grown used to (and that I'm almost positive has been causing my headaches the last few weeks after extended listening periods). I prefer this slightly rolled off treble but could use just a touch more. Vocals sound so authentic and lifelike--even when screamed. I've heard foot pedals being engaged in numerous piano-focused pieces and confirmed that I could not hear them or had to strain really hard to hear them when the Gungnir Multibit was acting as DAC (case in point: NIN 1 Ghosts I. I've never heard/noticed the piano pedals before the RDAC).

    The most incredible thing, though, was the separation and placement of layers. My reference track is NIN: Somewhat Damaged for numerous reasons, but one of the biggest being how it starts with a simple four chord progression on a slightly-out-of-tune acoustic guitar that slowly piles more and more layers on as the song changes from quiet, introspective disdain to full on guttural rage and desperation. Two of the layers that highlight the differences between RDAC and Gungnir Multibit the best for me are the one that sounds like a violin bow rubbing on some dry surface which starts at 0:29. At 0:49 when the primary, sinister bass synth starts, and 1:00 when vocals and yet another layer of guitars come in, I can STILL pick that violin bow sound out at even the loudest parts of the song when all layers are present in the mix. And that bass line has this addition wetness to it that makes it sound so thick and heavy while still being metallic.

    After the guitars get distorted at 1:48, the violin bow is replaced with what I'm guessing are hi-hat samples using a similar percussive pattern as the violin bow, vocals turn to screams before the chorus (where another layer of guitars and a bass guitar come in on top of everything else) explodes. On the Gungnir Multibit, the hi-hats just sound like a basic, low-mixed 4/4 beat that gets lost in the chaos. On the RDAC, I can still pick out the pattern they're programmed to despite the mounting volume and intensity of everything else.

    These layers all sound like they're stacked out to both sides of my head. It's the craziest thing I've ever heard and have never heard it before this DAC. All of them totally audible separately yet perfectly mixed together into the whole song. At no point can I NOT pick out any one of the layers with the RDAC; I just need to focus on which one I want to hear and I can find it in the mix with little effort. With the Gungnir Multibit, once things get a little louder, the softer background layers disappear into a wall of congestion. I never paid much mind because I just figured there was too much going on as the layers continue to increase in number and volume but the RDAC showed how possible it is to present the song in its entirety while still perfectly separating each layer--no matter how quiet or back in the mix it might be.

    In Just Like You Imagined, I can hear a metronome ticking at the very end as the final synth crackles fade out. I've never heard that before. Not to mention the fact this song is a sonic journey with incredible dynamics and positioning throughout--I got a strong 3D sensation from numerous parts. New layers starting or others going away sound like they're fading up from or down into this blackness that I've never heard before either.

    In Into the Void, before the bridge this this soft, high-pitched bell-like synth going back and forth between the L/R channels except RDAC -> ZDT Jr. -> HD6XX sounds 3D, like they're popping all around above, below, in front of, and behind my head. In the Gungnir Multibit, they're just panning from L to R rather than encircling my head.

    I feel truly immersed in the audio with the RDAC. The softer edge and darker tone along with some tube magic on the HD6XX makes everything I play sound like I'm right in the room with the band. The tracks from The Downward Spiral were reproduced so well, I almost felt like I was listening to the 2004 10th anniversary re-release on DVD-A in 5.1 surround sound. It's absolutely amazing. Music feels live and organic rather than sterile and processed. I feel more like I'm at a show than in my office wearing headphones.

    I don't know it's possible, but I honestly hear as much detail with the RDAC as I did with the Gungnir Multibit--possibly more due to the lack of congestion and layers staying separate and audible. The RDAC seems to be better about pulling background sounds forward, making them more prominent in the mix with their own space and proper placement, while never overshadowing anything. Or maybe that's what others have meant by "laid back" in their description of the sound. All I know is that I'm hearing things I've never heard before, I'm hearing more things at the same time as others, and there's a better sense of a immersion with the RDAC.

    Live music--official releases and bootleg audience recordings--sounds so authentic and engaging that it takes no effort at all to imagine I'm in the crowd.

    The Clear feel cold and sterile with a lot of congestion and poor separation of layers. Honestly, they make the RDAC sound more like the Gungnir Multibit with vocals recessed and the higher end of the spectrum more pronounced (though there is better extension in the bass than the HD6XX). They also start their "by design" popping even with the volume pretty low. It's extremely annoying and I'm completely over these headphones now.

    The LCD-X are a bit better than the Clear but still feel colder and less engaging than the HD6XX and like I'm still outside of the performance--more like I'm in the studio hearing the mix over the monitors rather than being in the room with the band. Bass is shockingly disappointing on these and the same congestion that plagues the Clear is evident here. The HD6XX have much richer and harder-hitting bass, though that's likely due to the EQ settings.

    I also got a Metrum Amethyst off of Reddit which arrived yesterday. I powered it up and fed it optical audio overnight and have been listening all day today. I love the sound and am definitely 100% in the NOS camp. I feel like the Amethyst is a bit more clear and separated than the RDAC with a touch more treble as well, but it's lacking a bit in the bass.

    I listened to Nirvana - "Milk It" and Nirvana - "tourette's"--two longtime favorites--and "Milk It" especially has this heavy, menacing bass riff that I wanted to hear through this new stack. It sounds wonderful on the Amethyst, but switching back to the RDAC, I feel like it's got all the benefits of the Amethyst with harder-hitting bass and that extra something special about it that just sucks me in and makes me FEEL the music as much as I'm hearing it. It almost sounds like the bass has some slight overdrive through the RDAC; there's additional grit and weight to it not heard on the Amethyst (or Gungnir Multibit for that matter). There's a noticeable increase in slam with the RDAC and possibly even more low-level detail (or maybe my mind/hearing is just playing tricks on me) compared to the Amethyst. I don't know if it's because the RDAC is just this ****ing awesome in every way or the Amethyst still needs to warm up a bit more, but I am totally sold on the RDAC.

    One thing the Amethyst did better than the RDAC was giving a sense of true(r) analog sound; in particular, the aforementioned saw wave bass line from NIN March of the Pigs actually sounded like it was coming from a synthesizer plugged into an amp and recorded via microphone (which it was) rather than an entirely digital "analog" synth like the majority of synths today are. The RDAC is close but there's a little something extra (warmth?) in the Amethyst that sounds incredible. I'm very intrigued by the Onyx now as well, given how great the Amethyst sounds, but am concerned that I'm going to drop $2600 on a DAC that I ultimately like less than the $350 RDAC.

    I also want to get a high-end tube amp (EC, DNA, or Ampsandsound) but I'm afraid I'll drop $2000+ only to lose this magic the RDAC -> ZDT Jr. -> HD6XX has. I definitely like the warmer side of things and am willing to sacrifice some detail (and treble-induced headaches) if it means music is this enjoyable to listen to. I guess in the meantime, I'll just have to enjoy how amazing everything sounds with this RDAC -> ZDT Jr. -> HD6XX stack. :)
  11. bogginhead
    I love my Mimby (with the newest AD firmware rev.2 chip installed after upgrading it), but I'm wondering just how much of an upgrade the RDAC would end up being for me. I have a Loki EQ I use with it, and had been planning on grabbing an Eitr very soon to complete that little stack. I did purchase a TEAC UD-301s not long ago (that came in immaculate condition and works perfectly) for its balanced dac (its internal amp works great, though), and I've been considering selling the TEAC and the Mimby together (or trading them) for an Airist RDAC. I'm also considering the Audio GD R2R-11. What do you guys think? I'd honestly love to own one at this point, though to me the Mimby sounds fantastic (as well as the TEAC).
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2019
  12. Slade01
    From everything i've read, most reveiwers believe that the RDAC is very close to the Mimby, each doing some things just a little better than the other but really close, so it doesnt seem to be a big jump at all.
  13. StageOne
    For me the Modi MB is darker and the bass can be a bit muddy, more noticeable on speakers than headphones. The RDAC does have a mid-bass bump but it's clearer and I find it smoother. I've been A/Bing both and I'm pretty sure I'll stick with the RDAC for my desk setup. For me it pairs really with the ZDT Jr, an awesome combo.
    klyrish likes this.
  14. bogginhead
    Thanks for the replies, guys. I know a trade like this might seem a little overboard on my end, but I have a CTH+SDAC I'd love to be able to stack on top of an RDAC. I've also heard they make a great combo. If anyone here on the thread might be interested in a trade like this (Mimby rev.2 +TEAC UD-301s) please just pm me!
  15. bogginhead
    By the way, I know both of these questions are a bit off topic, but would you guys that may have experience with these two pieces of gear (Schiit Eitr and Audio GD R2R-11) think that just adding an Eitr to my Mimby would be as sufficient as an RDAC? And would it it worth it to trade the TEAC for an R2R-11? I was reading nothing but praise for the longest time on the R2R-11, but lately I've seen some different opinions on it. The TEAC's biggest asset is being a fully balanced dac / amp, but I honestly would part with it if it was worth either of the trades I've proposed.
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