List Price: $1,270
Dr. John Richardson
Seems that over the last couple of years as a reviewer, I’ve had a good run with DACs, otherwise known as digital to analog converters. Maybe this trend has been due my interest in computer audio, or maybe it has more to do with the shift away from one-box disk players to outboard converters, but I’ve been fortunate to have had my share of good to excellent DACs spend time in my home. Perhaps we could call it DAC-attack. Nonetheless, I’ve appreciated being on the forefront of this next wave of the digital revolution.
I suppose it’s gotten to the point where I have become something of Stereomojo’s go-to DAC guy. Well...you are Senior Editor for Computer Audio ~ publisher A case in point is the subject of this review: Anedio Audio’s new D1 DAC, which sort of found me before I could find it. This was not a review solicited by either myself or the manufacturer; rather, the Anedio came my way through Jack Caldwell, who manufactures the very cool Holistic Audio Arts omnidirectional speakers (check out my review of their H1 speakers here at Stereomojo.com). Turns out that Jack really liked how the Anedio DAC mated with his speakers and arranged to bring a pair of the DACs along when he dropped off his speakers at my house. I ended up keeping one here at my place and pawning the other off on fellow reviewer “Muzikmike” Peshkin, who lives nearby. So, with the blessing of James Kang (or plain ol’ James, as he prefers to be called), Anedio’s founder and chief dude, we were able to add yet another contender to the excellent group of digital processors that have lately come our way.
First, my apologies to James at Anedio… I’ve put a lot of miles on the D1, but I kept getting sidetracked with other projects, reviews, and a full-time job, so the Anedio review kept getting pushed back again and again. Maybe I just subliminally didn’t want to part with it, but whatever the reason, I’m pleased to finally be writing it up. If there is any advantage to my delinquency, I hope it is that I have had a longer than usual time to sum up my thoughts. The typical audio honeymoon period has worn off, so you are reading my real long-term impressions of this piece of audio gear, not some “hey, I’ve been listening to this awesome DAC for one week, and it’s the best thing since sliced bread…” We all know how that goes.
My D1 came very well packaged, and appeared unopened. I’m pretty sure it was a brand new unit. Mike’s, however, had been used by Jack Caldwell and seemed to be well broken in. I really like the appearance of the unit, as it sports a metallic brushed aluminum finish with attractive art deco-like LEDs along the sides of the faceplate. On the front is a stepped volume control, along with a pushbutton digital source selector and a headphone jack. All in all, the D1 is a very elegant piece of kit sporting nothing extraneous, just the features and controls one needs. The rear panel consists of a pair of unbalanced RCA outputs, as well as digital inputs including usb, coaxial S/PDIF, optical toslink, and BNC. The DAC ships with a remote control unit, but we only received one between us. This I gave to Mike, as I don’t at all mind getting up to change the volume. Unfortunately, I don’t presently have a good pair of headphones, so I was unable to evaluate the D1’s onboard headphone amplifier.
Focusing on technological implementation, the Anedio D1 utilizes the ESS ES9018 32 bit “sabre” DAC chip, which is also used in the Eastern Electric Minimax DAC that was so well received by multiple Stereomojo reviewers, myself included. I was also impressed with the volume control, which is a 100-step combination analog/32-bit digital attenuator. I found this to be remarkably clean sounding, and I never had trouble finding an appropriate volume setting, as there were more than enough increments to work with.
However, I think what I found most impressive was Anedio’s ultra-careful attention to jitter reduction. Jitter, as we all know, results from timing errors in the digital bitstream that correlate to unwanted and often ugly sounding audible artifacts. It is thought to be one of the primary sources of so-called “digititus” that has traditionally kept a lot of audiophiles and music lovers from truly enjoying digital media. As is lovingly outlined on Anedio’s excellent and informative website, the D1 DAC employs three separate levels of jitter reduction, all in the digital domain. The methods used are somewhat unique in that they don’t involve re-clocking and interpolation; therefore, they are claimed to be bit-perfect and not degrade the digital signal in any way. In fact, every D1 DAC is accompanied by a certificate that demonstrates that unit’s resistance to jitter. Impressive indeed; mine showed audible jitter at below -150 dB.
Let me now hand it over to James, who I asked to outline some of the distinct design goals he had in mind when he came up with the D1:
“In designing the D1 DAC, one of our main goals was to tame jitter as much as possible. In our experience, even a small amount of jitter is readily audible, causing digital music to sound harsh, brittle, and fatiguing. We believe that our multi-stage jitter reduction circuits practically eliminate jitter and deliver smooth and natural sound. Also, we felt that it was important to make all digital inputs sound consistent, whether it be USB or S/PDIF, by feeding all of the digital inputs through the same jitter reduction circuitry. “
“Transparency is also an important goal for us. We achieved this by subduing all non-harmonically related tones as far as possible, down to -150 dB, and by preserving the intrinsic performance of the ES9018 DAC down the signal chain. We realize that such a level of transparency is unforgiving of any imperfections in recordings, and we understand why some audiophiles may not prefer it. And it may take some time for our ears and brain to become adjusted to it. However, this is something we chose to live with. Our ultimate test is listening to recordings that have extraordinary levels of transparency, such as the ones by Mapleshade Records, known for their purist recording techniques. If we can reproduce their recordings with airy and silky highs, liquid and lush midrange, tight and agile bass, then we believe we have achieved our goal.”
“Dynamics and imaging are important to us. We want the DAC to produce both the nuances of pianissimo and the visceral power of fortissimo while maintaining rock stable imaging. For these, we believe that the design of power supplies and the PCB layout are critical, and we devoted an extensive amount of research and development time to optimizing these.”
James also filled me in on some specifics regarding the output stages of the D1. Reading on:
“The I/V stage immediately following the ES9018 DAC is built around the Texas Instruments OPA1632, fully-differential amplifier, chosen for its superb ability to reject common-mode noise and for its ultra fast settling time. The output of the DAC contains a lot of switching noise, and we believe it is critical to reject this noise as much as possible and be able to track the DAC output with agility. The line output stage is based on the Texas Instruments OPA1611 op amp, chosen for its superior sonic quality. The OPA1611 is one of a new generation of operational amplifiers fabricated using a SiGe bipolar process, which allows for a higher current gain and higher speed than a Si bipolar process.”
Finally, I asked James about where the D1 is produced. He was quick to report that the enclosure is sourced from the Far East, but that the printed circuit board is manufactured and stuffed here in the USA. Presumably, all final assembly and testing also takes place at Anedio’s headquarters in New Jersey.
Based on what I am reading here, I’d say James went to extraordinary lengths to optimize his design for the cleanest, most transparent sound possible. Was he able to achieve these goals?
Keep in mind that my sample of the D1 DAC was presumably not broken in prior to its arrival. I therefore gave it a lot of time (at least 100 hours) before doing any critical listening. I will say that this DAC definitely benefitted from the break-in period. Initially, it sounded a bit opaque and uninvolving, but over time blossomed into what I am about to report.
All of the break-in time and much of the evaluation period was spent listening in conjunction with my Virtue Audio One integrated amplifier driving the Holistic Audio Arts H1 speakers. In fact, most of my evaluation of these speakers was done using the Anedio DAC since they paired together so well sonically. In this case, I maxed the volume out on the D1 and used the analog potentiometer on the Virtue amp to control the gain. As a system, these three devices made some wonderful music together; my impressions can be found in my recent review of the H1 speakers here at Stereomojo.com.
In order to let the Anedio D1 take center stage for this review, I switched it into my main system. After talking with Mike Peshkin, I found that he had gotten excellent results running the D1 directly into his amplifier and bypassing a preamp altogether. Given James’ quest for transparency, I decided also that this would be a good move for me as well, as it would remove a level of electronics that might otherwise cloud the D1’s sonic characteristics.
The following represents the signal chain I finally settled on for my critical listening in this configuration:
Mac Mini using Pure Music playback software
Metric Halo ULN-2 (as a high resolution firewire to S/PDIF converter)
Anedio D1 DAC
Threshold SA 3.5e amplifier
Shahinian Compass speakers
I’ll note that I used a long BNC terminated digital cable to connect the ULN-2 to the Anedio so that I could use a very short (0.5 m) analog cable run to the amplifier. I also removed my subwoofer from the chain since the DAC didn’t have two sets of analog outputs.
While the sound was excellent through the Holistic speakers, I wasn’t prepared for the clarity and resolution I heard through my Shahinians sans preamplifier. Mr. Peshkin was right: the Anedio really is wonderful directly into a power amplifier. With all of the DACs I’ve spent time with, I’ve started to put them into groups. For example, we have the ultra-resolving detail-meisters, such as those from the Benchmark family. On the other side of the fence are the smoother, softer, more analog DACs such as the Hegel, and to a bit lesser degree, the Eastern Electric Minimax. Somewhere in the middle are favorites such as the Lavry DA10/11 and the internal DAC in my Metric Halo ULN-2. All have their strengths, some have various weaknesses, but all have received favorable coverage from me. So where does the Anedio fall in this group?
Here’s the part that makes me happy. The Anedio D1 has the speed, attack, and resolution that I really loved about the Benchmark DAC1 USB. However, it somehow manages to avoid the somewhat thin and brittle midrange of the Benchmark that started to bug me after awhile. While maybe not quite as liquid through the mids as the Eastern Electric, or even my Metric Halo, the Anedio never failed to please me. Even after many days of listening, sometimes for hours on end, I never left my listening chair fatigued. The Anedio came off as nearly totally neutral, thus allowing the sonic signatures of my amplifier and speakers to shine through; it was like a clear window onto the music from the source end. It seems to me that clever, thoughtful design, coupled with superb attention to jitter reduction has paid off in this case.
I found bass to be superbly rendered. The D1 goes way deep, and does so with excellent definition. Bass drum and timpani thwacks had beaucoup body, with plenty of attack and decay. From day one, even during the break-in period, I could tell that the bass response was going to be a real strength of this DAC. Ditto the treble. Highs were articulate and crystalline, without ever becoming tizzy. Cymbals were never irritating, but just sounded right, with nice burnished tone and tons of decay. The upper registers of the violin had appropriate presence and sheen, but never became steely in an unpleasant manner.
One Sunday afternoon toward the end of my audition time with the D1, I took it to my friend John Fritz’s house. John is an attorney, accomplished musician, and avid audiophile. He has a wonderfully musical and resolving system consisting of Audio Research amplification and Wilson MAXX speakers. Using his Denon universal player as a transport, we sat down for a highly enjoyable listening session, indulging in old favorites such as Sonny Rollins’ “The Bridge” (cd, Bluebird). John was quick to offer up effervescent praise for the DAC, focusing on its detailed presentation, as well as its ability to sound “relaxed, but with a tightly controlled sound.” I was glad to find out that John was hearing exactly what I was, namely the D1’s ability to sound detailed, yet musical and highly engaging.
Obviously, I’m pretty impressed with the Anedio D1. The million dollar question, however, is how does it compare with other DACs in my stable, namely my Metric Halo ULN-2 and the juggernaut Eastern Electric Minimax DAC? Yes, that DAC; the one that has stolen the hearts of four Stereomojo reviewers to date. Publisher update: It's now six of us.
Let’s find out…
First off, I’d like to say a few words about my Metric Halo ULN-2 and its internal DAC. This piece of gear, which has a street price of around $1695, has become an indispensable component in my main system and has turned out to be a reviewer’s dream because it offers so much flexibility in the digital domain. However, it is purely a pro-audio component and probably wouldn’t be welcome in most audiophile systems. Why? Well, it’s about as far from plug ‘n’ play as you can get. It does a lot of different things, and it requires a software interface (MAC only) to access most of its functions. That said, once I mastered the learning curve, I have used the device regularly to record and archive my vinyl, listen to my vinyl (via digital RIAA correction), and route digital signals from place to place (as in from a computer hard drive to an external DAC). I also spend a lot of time listening through the ULN-2’s internal DAC, as it’s a permanent part of my main system.
Some people out there, ranging from serious audiophiles to professional recording engineers, rank the Metric Halo DACs as some of the best sounding in the world. While I don’t claim to have heard everything, I have spent considerable time with some very good DACs, and I can say that the ULN-2’s DAC section holds up against anything I have yet heard. It’s uniformly excellent. I’d summarize its sound as highly detailed, yet warm and totally engaging. I do most of my recreational listening using it and often forget that it’s there; I tend to take it for granted. I therefore consider the ULN-2’s DAC to set a very high bar for comparison against other DACS.
My initial comparison was between the ULN-2’s DAC and the Anedio D1. For this and other comparisons, I fed the analog outputs of both DACs into the line stage inputs of my Wyetech Labs Coral preamplifier, as this configuration allowed me to change between DACs quickly and easily. Otherwise, the evaluation system was the same as mentioned above. The ULN-2 also continued to serve as a digital firewire to S/PDIF converter for the Anedio via its coaxial input.
I was pleased to learn that these two DACs share many common traits. In fact, they were almost indistinguishable in their sonic characters. Both excelled at bass definition and extension, as well as in reproduction of transient decay. Both also shared a nearly identical treble signature, with plenty of sweet extension with no apparent digital nastiness. If I were to pick out any differences, they would be in the reproduction of the audio midrange. If anything, the Metric Halo DAC seemed a bit more rounded, dimensional, and sweeter in this important part of the audio band. The Anedio had what sounded like a very slightly lean character in comparison, though this was accompanied by what seemed like a bit more midrange definition and attack. Even though I could hear differences, I felt that both DACs did a very good job of getting out of the way and letting the slightly “tubey” character of the Wyetech preamplifier shine through.
One album that helped me make these comparisons was an older Columbia recording of John McLaughlin, Al Dimeola, and Paco DeLucia called “Passion, Grace, and Fire.” Imagine these accomplished guitarists playing together in the best fusioned-up Flamenco tradition. What you get is a literal explosion of audible color across the soundstage featuring complex harmonics and dynamics (both micro and macro) that will tax any system. My brothers and I spent our teen years listening to this record over and over again, so I know it pretty well, yet I continue to be amazed by it and enjoy it. I often wonder why it hasn’t become more of a staple demonstration record among audiophiles and reviewers. Because their "Friday Night Live in San Francisco" is. Featuring the same artists live in concert, it is considered much better on every level than the studio session "Passion" ~publisher
A system has to be doing a lot of things right to reproduce this recording with the finesse and impact it inherently possesses. According to the liner notes, Al is on the left channel, John takes center position, and Paco owns the right channel. However, in this incredible wash of sound, a system must work hard to allow good differentiation of the three guitarists in space at all times.
Audible differences between the two DACs on “Passion, Grace, and Fire,” were minimal and neither detracted from the musical artistry and enjoyment in any way. What I heard from the Anedio was a slight enhancement of attack, fingers against strings, and clarity in the midrange. In contrast, the ULN-2 offered a rounder, more effusive presentation, which seemed to blend the overall performance in a very satisfying manner. Both DACs did an excellent job of allowing me to position the individual musicians in three-dimensional space, both laterally and depth-wise, though the Anedio for some reason seemed to elevate the players just above my speakers, while the ULN-2 placed the guitarists just at the level of the drivers. Both DACs also allowed me to easily discern the differences not only in the individual playing styles of the guitarists, but also in the instruments themselves.
Another album in frequent rotation as of late is Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong’s “Together for the First Time” (Roulette LP, transcribed digitally at 24/96 resolution). Who doesn’t love the Duke’s suave piano accompanied by Satchmo’s mellow trumpet and raspy vocals? This album is classic Dixieland at its best, applied to some of these artists’ best standards. Take for example “The Beautiful American,” which is an instrumental tour de force featuring clarinet, trumpet, trombone, acoustic bass, and drum kit.
Likewise, on this cut, I was hard pressed to hear substantial differences between the two DACs. If I were to nitpick, I’d say that the Anedio did a slightly better job of highlighting the ride cymbal and hi-hat, casting these in a bit more detailed light, thus coaxing out both attack and decay and leading to a more realistic recreation of the recorded event. On the flip side, the ULN-2 seemed to provide a slightly “wetter” presentation of the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone, bringing out a little bit more harmonic texture. All in all, we are talking a dead heat with one DAC edging ahead in one area, but then lagging a bit in another. Again, after spending a lot of time individually with both DACs and being intimately acquainted with each, I was expecting a lot of similarities in A/B comparisons and thus a very close race. I wasn’t disappointed.
Next up was that giant killer, the $750 Eastern Electric Minimax DAC. For the sake of consistency, I used the same recordings as before to make direct comparisons. Frankly, I was somewhat surprised to find that the differences between the Minimax and the D1 were much smaller than I had expected. On “Grace, Fire, and Passion,” I found the Minimax to offer up a noticeably more organic texture that lent a very realistic body to the guitars. I also sensed what seemed to be a bit wider and deeper acoustic space around the instruments, as if there was more reverberation from the surrounding walls of the performance venue. I found these things had a tendency to draw me in to the music and make me forget that I was listening to my stereo system reproducing an old recording. Even so, I was in no way disappointed in the performance of the Anedio in comparison. Here, I had to admire and bask in the textbook resolution and attack as the notes flew forth from the guitar soundboards. Again, I was drawn in to the performance, suspending reality, but for this slightly different reason. And don’t get the idea that the D1 was harsh or unforgiving in any way… It wasn’t! It’s smoothness, while maybe not quite on par with the Minimax, was nonetheless beguiling.
On the Ellington/Armstrong cut “The Beautiful American,” I was again drawn in by the Minimax’s ability to add harmonic depth and texture to the wind and brass instruments, maybe even a bit more so than the ULN-2 did. However, I still found the Anedio D1 superior in its ability to coax out detail and harmonic color, not to mention attack and decay, from the cymbal work in this piece. In this case, the D1 was the king of the heap. I really can’t imagine a much better showing here.
So again, I’m hard pressed to call an overall winner between the Minimax and the Anedio. Ask me one day, listening to a particular type of music, or even a specific recording, and I could probably name a favorite. On another day, or maybe even an hour later, I’d probably change my mind. I can’t keep ‘em both, but I’d sure like to. Problem is, as I told “Anedio James,” I already have more DACs than cats!
Remember that we got two samples of the Anedio D1, and that my compatriot Mike Peshkin got the second one. He also spent a lot of time listening to it, and was glad to share up some of his own opinions.
Here’s what Mike says.
“Using the Anedio directly into my AVA Insight 240+ amp, I was impressed by the clean, “top to bottom” presentation. Used with the Cary preamp, however, while the sound is quite good, it doesn’t have that feeling of cleanliness, an absence of any type of distortion, or being limited in any way.
The Cary makes it sound warmer, and the sound is still great from top to bottom, but those crystalline highs are gone. It may be the interconnects I used, but while I’d first thought it was with the AR2ax speakers I then remembered that those speakers were the ones I’d had on the system when the Anedio was feeding the amp directly.
I’ve had, for quite some time, a pair of Fritz Carbon 7 speakers hooked up to the AVA. That combination is one of the great matches in audio, so the Anedio was feeding its signal through a chain that had been the same for quite a long time. YET, I noticed that each note was a bit purer, while using the Anedio ONLY, the computer as my source via the usb input.
On the other hand, strings had a warmth and “realness” the Cary could bring out. The overtones and undertones of plucked strings are more easily heard with the Cary (again using the Anedio and computer as source). That’s not to say that wasn’t there with the “naked” Anedio, just that my attention was more easily drawn to the presentation of those musical artifacts.
My suggestion would be to use the Anedio alone, but if you have other sources you’d need a preamp to switch from one source to another. There are many very good DACs available today; some may appeal to the “multi-source” listener more than the Anedio which seems to shine all on its own.”
Indeed, I’d say Mike’s experience pretty much mirrors my own. While I found the Anedio to sound excellent feeding my power amp alone, I think I enjoyed listening to it a bit more through my tubed Wyetek Labs preamplifier. Unlike Mike, I don’t think I lost much in the way of resolution, but (like Mike) I feel that I gained something in terms of improved midrange harmonic color and purity. As I’ve said before, component matching and personal preference go a long way in this hobby.
Just a few words about the usb input… Mike used it almost exclusively while listening to Redbook discs and streaming radio via his computer. I didn’t use it much because most of my listening was done with hi-resolution source material. Like other DACs I have recently reviewed, the Anedio D1’s usb input is limited to 16 bit, 44.1 or 48 kHz source material. For most of us, that means Redbook discs or rips. I did, however, spend a bit of time with the usb input. My computer immediately recognized the DAC via usb, and we were off to the races. What I heard was a very slightly softer and rounder presentation with a slight loss of attack relative to the S/PDIF inputs.
Nonetheless, the sound was excellent, engaging, and musical. I suppose some of the credit is probably due to the very nice new usb cable that was given to me by Jason Terpstra, the cable guy at Virtue Audio…Thanks, Jason! If you don’t think digital cables make a difference, just try Virtue’s usb cable. I lent it to Mr. Peshkin for a while, and he also readily heard the differences between the Virtue and stock usb cables.
Good news is at hand though for computer audio junkies. James tells me that he is close to offering his own hi-resolution 24 bit/192 kHz usb to S/PDIF converter that he will sell at a substantial discount to Anedio D1 owners. If it’s as good as the D1, I need to hear it!
OK, the Anedio D1 DAC just plain rocks! I was a bit long in warming up to it, but over time (probably too long a time… Sorry, James!) it grew on me in a big way. This is a DAC that reels you in slow but hooks you good. Strengths include a beautiful balance between detailed resolution and relaxed smoothness. While not as “pretty” sounding as our beloved Eastern Electric Minimax DAC, the D1 more than held its own while giving up essentially nothing in the way of musicality. Said another way, the Anedio D1 specializes and getting out of the way of the performance by virtue of its truly neutral presentation.
Keep in mind that the Anedio D1 costs $1270, while the Eastern Electric Minimax sets you back only $750. Even so, I still think the D1 is a good value, as it offers some features that the Minimax doesn’t, including a very good built-in headphone amplifier and that fantastic remote-controlled analog/digital volume control. Plus, it offers a highly sophisticated and elegant look that should turn heads in any system.
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