DiDiT DAC212 dac/amp - Review Introduction As co-organisers of the recent 2015 UK Head-Fi meet, @smial1966 & I were keen to obtain demo units of new & interesting gear for attendees to audition on the day. One such item came from a new Dutch company - DiDiT High-End. DiDiT were keen to participate and sent us two of their pre-production DAC212 DAC/amps for UK Head-Fi’ers to demo. They went down well at the meet and I've subsequently had the chance to live with one for the past eight weeks or so. As we all enjoy a good shoot-out, I've also had a Hugo TT on loan from Chord for most of that time (hey, organising Head-Fi events has it’s perks ) and I also recently received my crowdfunded-since-2013 Geek Pulse X Infinity. The main part of this review will focus on the DAC212 and I'll add some comparison thoughts from the other DACs near the end. Associated Equipment & Setup Music - Jazz, fusion, electronic, prog rock and more Source files - FLAC lossless on Synology NAS (16/44 to 24/192 PCM & DSD) via ethernet Player - Dell Studio XPS laptop (Windows 7 64-bit) running JRiver 20.0.115 and Roon 1.0 build 21 / WASAPI and ASIO via USB Headphones - HiFiMan HE-560 w/ Norne Draug 2 + both Focus and Focus-A pads. Also - MrSpeakers Alpha Prime, Senn HD600, OE Audiosystems custom modded T50, Shure SE-500 Standalone amplifier - Luxman SQ-507X (vintage early 1970s transistor amp) CD transport (used to test coax and toslink digital inputs) - Little Dot CDP1 Other DACs available for comparison - Chord Hugo TT; Geek Pulse Infinity; Geek Out 450; CI Audio VDA2/VAC1 Specifications Inputs: 2 x Toslink, 2 x Coaxial, USB Mains: 100-240VAC Supported Sample Rates PCM: 44.1kHz to 384Khz Supported Sample Rates DSD, DXD: DSD64 to DSD512, DXD352.8 THD+N: 0.0006% (0 dBFS @ 1Khz 24BIT/48kHz) Output Level: 0 dBFS: 2.0 VRMS. +6 dB (internal gain jumper): 4.2 VRMS DC Offset: 0.1mV Frequency Response: DC to 50kHz +/- 0.5dB. DC to 90kHz -3dB Output Impedance: 1.6Ohm @ 1kHz Max 212mm x 212mm x 45mm (W x L x H) Weight: 2.7kg Design & build The first thing that strikes you about the DAC212 is the packaging. Instead of the usual polystyrene inside a double-box, the main chassis is friction-held in place by a pressed cork (yes, cork) shell, complete with cut-outs for the remote and a compartment with a removable cover for the instruction manual. It's certainly effective - the unit is held firmly in place and fully enclosed in the cork, providing what I would think is excellent protection in transit. A similar method is used for shipping wine bottles, so should be well able to keep an audio component in one piece. Taking the DAC212 out of it's packaging, the unit itself feels reassuringly heavy and the design, whilst fairly minimalist, is to my eyes really quite attractive. The chassis is milled from a single block of aluminium and the smooth rounded edges & brushed finish make for a classy looking unit. There are a number of nice design touches that remind you you're dealing with a high end bit of kit here: The power button on the front is a capacitive soft touch affair that has a circular illumination around it when on standby. A short touch changes input source, long touch powers the unit on or off. Instead of the more common fluorescent or oled display, the DAC212 has an array of 29 x 8 small leds (yes I counted them - twice). The display shows currently active input source and flashes up any changes to sampling rate, DSD playback and so on. A nice touch is the ambient light sensor that will control the brightness of the display, which can be overridden in the menu if you prefer. The only other features on the front of the unit are the 1/4" headphone socket and the IR sensor. Looking at the underside of the DAC212, the thoughtful touches continue. The three stainless steel feet have a sorbothane ring & these 3 rings have been calculated in such way that they absorb the resonance frequency of the DAC chassis. With no further controls on the front panel, all volume, input and menu control is performed with the included remote. Ordinarily this might bother me as I'm a fan of "proper" volume knobs & switches, but the wonderful design of this unit has followed through to the remote which is a perfectly weighted aluminium wand (for want of a better word). Don't worry, there's a flattened underside to prevent it rolling around on (and subsequently off) your table. Functionality is kept simple - there are only five buttons: power, vol+, vol- , mute and S (for selecting menu options). The "contact points" of a product design are crucial - think cars for example..steering wheel, gear knob. With audio gear it's the controls, and both the remote and the capacitive touch switch on the front are a pleasure to use on this device. I'm a sucker for that cold, weighty aluminium feel in the hand (memories perhaps of the gearstick knob on my old Honda Civic Type R ....sigh) so I definitely enjoyed using this remote. Moving to the back of the unit, there are two coax and two optical digital inputs, along with the usual USB type B, and a USB type A for firmware & software updates. There's also a "DiDiT link" socket which I think will be for connection to future products - whilst this is the first from the company, a number of other products sharing a family resemblance are planned. Note the lack of balanced XLR outputs. Despite this being a fully balanced DAC internally, this early production unit doesn't yet have balanced outputs - I'm told they are definitely coming within the next month or so for final production units. I'm also hoping to see a 4-pin XLR headphone socket on the front. I suspect it might spoil some of the aesthetic, and would be likely to require a board re-design, but it does seem a shame to limit ourselves to a 1/4" headphone jack on a fully balanced DAC. Not only that, but even for single ended amps I'm still far more inclined to prefer an XLR headphone connection - there's something just wrong about the thought of the shorting that's going on when inserting & removing a 1/4" headphone jack. If you're a fan of after-market power cables you'll need to choose carefully. Due to the curvature of the chassis panel near the power socket, my Schuko IEC equipped cable wouldn't fit. Comments I've read elsewhere suggest the Furutech FI-15 fits ok though. Lifting the lid, you get some more appreciation for the thought that went into the chassis. Those three silver metal strips that run most of the depth of the board mate up to similar protrusions in the chassis cover to provide extra shielding between digital, analogue and power sections of the board. The DAC212 uses the well known flagship chip from ESS, the Sabre 9018S. If that immediately has your mouse pointer running for the X on your browser tab, keep an open mind - not all Sabre implementations are created equal. With a recent resurgence of interest in non-oversampling and R2R DACs, the Sabre chip is sometimes (often unfairly) associated with harshness and digital glare...personally I've now spent time with two excellent Sabre implementations that sound anything but. Looking further inside, note the mu-metal shield over the 9018 - shiny. One significant feature of the technical design is that there are no capacitors in the signal path or output. That means that no matter what the impedance is of the headphones they all have the same frequency response on the output of the DAC. Not all DAC designs are DC-coupled like this so the frequency characteristic of the amplifier changes with the impedance of the headphone. Not only is a Crystek femto clock used for the 9018, but also two further (Japanese) femto clocks for the USB. For the output section, there's an OPA1612 opamp for current voltage conversion and for the differential amplifier OPA1611 combined with a LME49600 as output driver. The whole design is fully differential, up to the LME49600. We're fairly accustomed to seeing linear power supplies with high end models so I was surprised to see that the DAC212 has a switching power supply in the chassis (made by PowerPax). Nevertheless, one thing the DiDiT guys were super clear on from our discussions was their obsession over producing a low noise floor. To that end, the design uses 12 independent ultra low noise power supply regulators, which apparently ensure that the DAC is very quiet but also delivers tremendous impulse power. DiDiT's measurements put the S/N ratio at -135dB @1kHz full scale and distortion below 0.001%, so I suspect they've succeeded there. Finally, there is also a +6dB gain boost available if your headphones and/or offboard amplifier require it. This is set via a couple of jumpers (this is a balanced design) on the PCB. My HE-560s enjoy a good amount of drive & I found best results with the +6dB enabled. I also found the high gain setting preferable when using the unit as a DAC-only outputting a fixed signal to my Luxman SQ-507X. The standard line out voltage seemed lower than I was accustomed to with my Geek Out 450 but the +6dB brought this back in line just fine. Overall I think DiDiT have done a fantastic job with the design of the DAC212. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into focusing on the small details that when added together make a big difference. Whilst there are certainly a couple of improvements to be made - most notably the menu navigation (see next section) and the inclusion of balanced outputs - these are already in the works for the full production model coming soon. It really looks and feels like a quality product, just what you would expect at this price point (more on that later). Operation Power on the DAC212 and you're greeted with "DAC 212" flashing across the matrix display before settling on current input. You may also notice the sound of a relay clicking a few times, another nice design touch - this is a self-cleaning function to avoid build-up of corrosion on the relays. The DAC212's menu system is navigated via the remote & can be tricky to follow. It's also easy to inadvertently mute the device when leaving the menu as the mute button doubles up as menu entry/exit via a long press. The DiDiT guys are well aware and will be revising the menu navigation in an update soon. Currently, the menu consists of nested categories with a number of options available including quite a few that take advantage of the ESS9018 features. These include serial data mode selection, slow/fast rolloff speed, OSF filter, de-emphasis filter and more. If you like to tweak your digital decoding then there's plenty here to play with. There are also comprehensive volume settings available in the menu, allowing you to specify custom default volume levels for each input. You can also choose between pre-amp (variable) and DAC (fixed) output modes - essentially, the DAC212 is a decoding pre-amp with a headphone amplifier included. Finally, this is also where you select settings for the matrix display - intensity, timeout and auto-brightness ranges. The thoughtful touches keep coming - soft muting: pressing the mute button on the remote swiftly but gradually reduces the volume, and again gradually increases it back to normal levels when un-muted. Whilst not absolutely required, it's small touches like this that make the DAC212 a real pleasure to operate and give you the feeling that someone really thought about this stuff. Other assorted thoughts on operation: The chassis almost certainly acts as a heatsink, but never gets any more than warm to the touch. With headphones connected, the remote sensor can occasionally get blocked if operating the remote from the left hand side at just the right (wrong) angle. The Windows USB driver for the DAC212 was an easy install & has worked perfectly. DiDiT are working on implementing Bluetooth capabilities into the DAC212, along with (and this is cool) a mobile app that will provide an easy way to control the settings on the device. Listening to music The design & build section of this review was intentionally lengthy as the intricate design of the DAC212 called for it, but also because the sound quality impressions are likely not to be so lengthy! Don't think of that as a negative against the DAC212's performance - in fact it's quite the opposite. What I (and I suspect many of us) look for in a DAC is an ability to get out of the way of the music whilst feeding the amplifier with a resolving, detailed, spacious and perceptively neutral analogue signal without any obvious shortcomings or flaws that detract from our enjoyment of the music. Certainly, that's where I'm coming from. I'm not interested in a warm tinge to my DAC sound, nor a rolled-off treble, nor a boosted bass. My preference is to have any colouration applied by the headphone, perhaps the amp, but I want that underpinned by a highly resolving & detailed, neutral and natural-sounding DAC so that whatever changes I choose to impart further up the signal chain, I know I'm not missing anything at the source level. To my ears, the DAC212 absolutely nails that ideal source component task, and it does it without imparting any harshness or extended listening fatigue. Whatever the music calls for, it's there in spades, with no perceptible sonic weaknesses nor flavour of it's own. To help describe what I'm hearing, let's look at some specific albums and tracks played via Roon to the DAC212.... Edgar Knecht - Gedankenfreiheit from Dance On Deep Waters [24-96 HDTracks] A wonderful modern jazz album filled with swinging, intricate tunes. Gedankenfreiheit is a great track for showing off the subtleties of your audio chain. Listen out for the barely audiible cross stick/rim shots on the drums in the quieter passages. The bongos/congas near the beginning should sound organic with a lovely sense of...for want of a better description..."boing"! The piano should sound natural, and when the pace quickens all the instruments should be clear & precise with no blending or muddiness. Massive Attack - Unfinished Sympathy from Blue Lines [note - original version, not the dynamically compressed remaster] This track provided my first "wow" moment with the DAC212. A great DAC differs from a competent one when all the small details add up such that you feel a level of emotion with the music that was previously missing. At 20 seconds into this track, when the synth strings start come in, so did my goose bumps! The ebb & flow of the strings is something I hadn't previously felt so much with other DACs - heard yes, but not felt to the same degree. Also, listen for the sub-bass right at the start (if your headphone can reproduce it!). Bill Evans Trio - Waltz For Debby This is a wonderful live recording, the best I know for including all that ambience (background noise!) that makes you feel you're really there in the Village Vanguard. The clinking of drinks, the light chatter, the wonderful sounds of Bill Evans at his most romantic. On a good system with great imaging and soundstage, close your eyes and this can take you away to another place. Nick Drake - Way To Blue from Five Leaves Left I find this track a good test for male vocals. Nick's voice sound too forward/boomy on some equipment & can have me reaching for the volume down button. My favourite gear (now including the DAC212) keeps it smooth and a pleasure to listen to. Fiona Apple - Extraordinary Machine from Extraordinary Machine As far as I'm concerned, Fiona Apple can do no wrong, and this is one my favourite tracks of hers. The arrangement is intricate & fun, with some subtle details that are easily glossed over on lesser equipment. Listen out for the ambient noises during the intro. Fiona's voice sound wonderfully rich & natural & the close-up recording mic picked up all the lip-smacking mouthy details (how else can I describe them?!) of her performance. Evelyn Glennie - First Contact from Shadow Behind The Iron Sun This track from percussionist Evelyn Glennie is a great detail, soundstage & imaging test. It's the best my HE-560s have ever sounded with regards to pin-point imaging. Within the wide soundscape I can identify precisely from where each sound is emanating. There's also a lot of high frequency detail on this track which is reproduced pin-sharp and without any harshness. A totally black background is essential for this kind of music - that's exactly what you get with the DAC212 with it's completely inaudible noise floor. Infected Mushroom - Savant On Mushrooms from Friends On Mushrooms Vol 2 Infected Mushroom tracks are great for getting a handle on the impact of your gear. Whilst I feel this is mostly dictated by your choice of headphone, I want to be able to hear those fast, dynamic leading edges of notes that music like this employs so much and for that you need a highly resolving source too. The high dynamic compression and pure speed of this music also means it's easy to end up with a mess of fatiguing noise. The DAC212 handles all this excellently and makes for a highly entertaining listen. There are also a couple of look-over-your-shoulder moments on this track that I always like to check for imaging & soundstage - try @4:16 for example. Miles Davis - Four & More [SACD DSF rip] This 1966 date is probably my favourite of Miles Davis' live recordings. He covers a number of his standards but at a faster pace than studio albums, which combined with the excellent audio quality makes for an exhilarating listening experience. Again, pin-point imaging and a natural, engaging sound are what I'm hearing from the DAC212 on this album. I really could go on through 50 more tracks but I think you're getting the idea by now. To summarise the overall sound from the DAC212, to my ears it is extremely resolving & detailed, with excellent imaging, an inky-black noise floor (don't be afraid to use IEMs on this one) and a transparent, neutral, balanced tone (perhaps better expressed as no tone at all). If I'm nit-picking, some might describe the sound as a tad dry, but frankly I feel that's essentially what you're getting with a highly transparent & neutral source. Tonal "character" can be added further up the signal chain if desired. Forget what you may have read (or heard) of Sabre DACs - I'm not hearing any digital glare or harshness and no sibilance that isn't in the source material. I've been deliberating over using the term "analogue". I can't say for sure that this sounds like pure analogue...I never owned an analogue system with such high resolution. What I do know is the DAC212 communicates emotion to me in my system, more so than any other DAC I've used. I put this down to "leaving nothing out", and allowing the true dynamics of the recording to flow. "Analogue" or no, that works for me. Comparisons Chord Hugo TT As I mentioned in the introduction, I've been lucky enough to have the Chord Hugo TT here for eight weeks alongside the DAC212. These two devices have a similar retail price and form factor and I've been very interested to compare them. All my critical listening has been with volume matched output using JRiver 20 configured with two zones, one for each DAC. That way I can switch immediately between them on the same track. For listening via an external amplifier (my Luxman SQ507X), I use the same method but also with a Mapletree Audio Line Router to flip DAC inputs to the amp, again instant A/B listening. Let's be honest, at this level in the DAC market (in my experience) we're not talking night & day differences. If that's what we're hearing then either someone has a new wonder-product or someone else has done something very wrong. Or it's in our own head. Having said that, throughout this process I have tried to be as objective as possible. There was no DBT involved, just a lot of time spent flicking between A and B whilst listening to familiar music. For stretches of time I also forgot about comparisons and just sat back to simply enjoy the music. Sometimes I find a device can grow on you that way even if you don't hear significant differences during critical listening. Cutting to the chase, I did hear differences between the Hugo TT and the DAC212, leading me to prefer the latter. To my ears, the most obvious difference is that the TT just doesn't have the resolving capability of the DiDiT unit, nor the transparency. Where I hear a clean, detailed sound with the DAC212, the TT can sometimes introduce some harshness in the highs and some looseness in the bass and mid-bass. Again, we're talking small differences here, but at this level that's what we have to work with. I also felt the TT had a tendency to sound comparatively less precise at higher volumes through the on-board amp, almost as if sufficient power output to the HE-560 was an issue. I also didn't feel it had quite the same snap/attack on the leading edge of notes, resulting in a slightly less exciting presentation. Oh, and at this point I should mention that neither amp stage could effectively drive an HE-6 to a satisfactory level without clipping - they would definitely require an off-board amp for that. Listening to the DACs via line-out to a vintage Luxman SQ507X (early 1970's) transistor amplifier, the differences were harder to identify. The Luxman has it's original components and retains a tube-like character which smooths over some details and gives a slightly thicker presentation. Both DACs provided an enjoyable listen on in this configuration, although the TT doesn't appear to offer a fixed output. It was easy to introduce huge distortion by increasing the TT's volume even in line-out mode. It's clearly capable of outputting quite a high voltage through it's line level output and this easily overwhelmed the Luxman's inputs. Obviously the message is...don't touch the Hugo's volume control when using it's line-out. So, I clearly preferred the sonics of the DAC212, how about the design, build & operation? I realise I'm going to sound like I'm really bashing the TT, but I struggled to get along with it's "unique" design. Now, I must applaud Chord for taking aesthetics in a different direction. Some people will love it, and that's great. In a sea of boring black & silver boxes, Chord's funky, organic design is to be welcomed. For me, I wanted to love it, I really did, but there were just too many annoyances in the TT's chassis and interface design for me to ignore. First up, rather than being milled from a single block of aluminium as per the DAC212, the TT chassis is made up of two split halves with the join right around the middle of the unit. I can't quite believe they did this as, to my eyes, this join absolutely ruins the aesthetic of the (otherwise quite funky) chassis. I can only hope this is a pre-production model, but judging by the original Hugo, I doubt it. That alone is enough to turn me off at this price, but I also found the hard crossfeed and input buttons felt cheap and wobbly. The volume control caused much scratching of heads at the Head-Fi meet. For those unfamiliar with it, that recessed round glass ball to the north of the window is the volume control. As you rotate the ball, the led behind it changes colour to show where the volume is at. Making the lowest volume light up red and highest light up white seemed back to front for a few who tried it at the meet, and the non-intuitive direction of vol + and vol - also caught some of us out. These are things you'd get used to over time, but just seem a bit off to me. My final design gripe is the display, which is partially covered by the chassis cut-out so that you can't actually read the whole thing (see the picture above). The geek in me does, however, like the window that reveals the Spartan 6 FPGA chip, although despite trying to learn what all those led colours meant I never did quite remember them all. On the plus side, the Chord has bluetooth APT-X compatibility (DiDiT are working on adding bluetooth into their production units), and of course it also has that big battery that allows you to run it off the grid for a good few hours (at least six in my testing). It strikes me that the battery is of less use in a desktop form factor like this compared to the portable Hugo, but it was cool to be able to move it around the house for temporary listening away from my desk. Summary & Value Obviously, I'm enormously impressed with the DAC212. It does precisely what a DAC should do in my opinion - it gets out of the way and simply allows the music to flow. Of course, there's no "simply" about achieving that end...it's no doubt down to the incredible attention to detail the DiDiT guys have paid to every aspect of the design. They've apparently been working on this for three years and, rather than be tempted to release a merely "decent" product, have worked at it to the point where they have a truly refined device with high-end performance. Talking about value is tough when we're into multi-thousand euro devices (the DAC212 currently retails at 3,000 euros). Perhaps it comes down to how we define value for money. Certainly, to my ears the DAC212 is a superior product to the similarly priced Chord Hugo TT. The latter will, I am sure, sell many units in no small part because Chord is a well known company and their original Hugo was a huge sales success. To my mind, the DiDiT DAC212 deserves no less success. I hope prospective buyers at this price point get the chance to audition one so they can make their own decision. tomscy2000, smial1966, glassmonkey and 1 other person like this.