Eastern Electric Mini TUBE DAC PLUS
We at Stereomojo caused a bit of a firestorm a couple of years ago when we were the first to review the original Eastern electric Mini DAC. We were impressed and so were many of our readers as our e-mails lit up with those who purchased the unit and told us how right we have been about it. It didn't hurt that all three of the reviewers who initially evaluated the thing ended up buying it. Since then, three more of our reviewers have pulled the trigger, two of them waiting for this new, updated edition.
In addition, last year we did a Blind Shootout of five different DACs ranging in price from roughly $800-$5000 with a little wrinkle; we pitted the original Eastern Electric Mini DAC against itself, one round using the solid-state output and the other the tube. There were several outcomes that surprised the panel of judges, the first being just how good digital playback in general sounded. You see, almost all of the judges were dyed in the wool analog lovers with their main or only source being a turntable front end. They hadn't heard the latest generation of digital playback and their low expectations were blown out of the water.
The second major eye-opener was the tally which showed the solid-state output of the MiniDAC winning over the tube output. BAM! This caught the judges by surprise as well since most of them were also dyed in the wool tube aficionados.
Number three surprise-orama was the final outcome with the least expensive DAC, the Eastern Electric, coming in a close second to the most expensive $5000 Lampizator Level 4 DAC. That sets a pretty impressive stage for our review of the new Tube DAC Plus!
The new version also has a new name, but we're not sure what it is. The website lists it as the Tube DAC +Plus (the two plusses seem a bit redundant) and the MiniMax DAC Plus, omitting the "Tube" and "+", and then under "news" it's called the MKII DAC. We'll just call it the EE DAC Plus for clarity.
We were also first to publish pictures of the new model including the picture below of the old and new together. We will talk about all the new additions in a moment, but there is one major deletion as well. Look at the picture below. Can you spot what's missing in the new one?
It's the volume knob. This is important only if you plan to use the DAC as a preamp as well. If your only source is a CD player or music server, that could be an issue, but since there was and is not a remote volume control, it's probably moot. The previous volume knob could also be used to match the DAC's output level to your other components. Both tube output and solid state output now have equal voltages at 2.5V. Amazingly, other reviews failed to mention that the volume control is gone altogether.
Also, you can see that the new model is considerably bigger. It's also heavier. Otherwise, the front and back of both models are identical.
So let's talk about what has been added to the EE Tube DAC. Perhaps the biggest improvement is its ability to natively decode 24/192 high-resolution music files via USB. The old model was stuck at 24/96. The audiophile world, a small segment of the overall digital music universe, is trudging toward the vastly superior higher bit rate music, even though such files, comparatively, are few and far between. Even HDTracks, perhaps the leader in high-res file downloads, shows most of the availability in either standard Redbook 16/44 or only 24/96. They top out with a few 24/172 selections. Reference Recordings offers a dozen or so HrX 24/172 titles in DVD data format and there are a handful of others, but good old MP3s still rule the world.
According to US distributor Bill O'Connell at Morningstar Audio, the list of other improvements are thus:
1. Sabre ES9018 DAC chip
2. A Sync USB 32/192
3. Dual power transformers separate digital and analog
4. improved tube output stage
5. improved PSU
6. improved signal input section with high frequency relays/resistors module
7. Tube/SS outputs selectable
8. Socketed output opamps
9. improved S/N level
The tube supplied is the same Shuguang 12AU7 as before. Since there’s only one tube, the EE is an excellent candidate for tube rolling, though the differences in tube sound are not as profound as might be heard in other devices. Also, if you have big fingers, the small space surrounding the lone 12AU7 still makes it difficult to remove. And as before, though the little EE sounds good right out of the box, it really takes about 200 hours for it to reach peak performance.
LET'S TALK SOUND
Let's get this question out of the way quickly: Is the Eastern Electric Tube DAC Plus the best DAC available at any price? The answer is definitively no and not by a long shot. The Lampizator Level4 runs rings around it, and anything else I've heard so far for that matter. But it's about 5 times the price. The Lampizator Level II at $2000 is a closer comparison. A full review of it is coming soon, but in the meantime, it outperforms the new Tube DAC Plus as well, mostly in terms of transparency, air and texture at the frequency extremes, but particularly the low bass. But in my opinion, it also pales in comparison to the mighty Lampizator level 4.
But how does the new Tube DAC Plus compare to the previous version, other than the fact that it costs $300 more? We can say that the additional 300 bucks is well worth it. Every aspect of the sound has been improved. I'm still using my Qsonix 210 music server that allows me to instantly queue up any track from about 1800 CDs and high resolution tracks from my listening position via my iPad, so it's easy to run through 40 or 50 songs in one listening session. From rock to jazz, opera to bluegrass, everything sounded better through the new model, whether via the tube or solid-state output.
The tube vs. solid state outputs is an ongoing debate and a matter of personal taste and how it sounds in each individual’s system. The good thing is that it does give you a choice.
The two areas that most stood out to me were in the low bass which is meatier, more detailed with significantly better texture. The second area is its greater ability to render ambient cues like reverb and spatial information.
Those qualities are very difficult for digital re-creation because of the huge number of zeros and ones they generate. Such cues are the result of sound bouncing around hundreds if not thousands of times and in the case of a pipe organ or choir in a large cathedral with an 8 second reverb time, it's common for DACs to truncate them or let them fizzle out like a Fourth of July sparkler. Sound engineers and producers work very hard to get that sound right (at least the good ones do) and the result is something beautiful and profound in its own right. Because I have directed a lot of choirs and played a lot of large pipe organs in large venues him, I know I'm especially sensitive to this, but I think everyone can recognize the difference if even on a subconscious level. Our ears and brains work on the smallest increments of time and space; it's miraculous how precise they are.
THE OLD, THE NEW AND THE LAMPIZATOR LEVEL 2
Because of the lower noise floor, sounds stand out in greater contrast rendering a more believable three-dimensional portrait of the performance. There seems to also be a bit of an increase in dynamic range, both on the micro and macro scale. Images within the soundstage, which is also increased incrementally, are more vivid and breathe with more life.
We love to divulge dirty little industry secrets at Stereomojo because you need to know, so lets do a bit of debunking here. I need to note that I checked with Bruce Brown who is one of the industry’s leading sound engineers (and also a Stereomojo reviewer) who actually does state-of-the-art analog to high-resolution digital converstions in his Puget Sound Studio. The EE (and several other DACs) claim to be a 32 bit decoder. Perhaps. The problem is that there are no 32-bit A-D converters. Currently, unless something came into being last week, no one makes at 32 bit recorder. That means that there are not any 32-bit recordings.
But, even if they did make a 32-bit A-D converter (the opposite of a DAC) the interface that goes into the computer, either AES/EBU, USB, firewire or whatever, is still 24-bit. Now, it MAY be possible to compose something like Electronica or a tune made entirely with samples in 32-bit form, but that would take place entirely inside a computer. Not recorded via a microphone.
As we stated earlier, the recording industry is still struggling with providing and selling 24-bit releases. No one is in a hurry to release anything in 32-bit format.
See if you hear that anywhere else!
The bottom line is that the Eastern Electric Tube DAC Plus is a significant step up from its predecessor that was already an extreme value in the vast marketplace of digital to analog converters.
Who should pursue this product? If you have a DAC or CD player that is 2 years old or older, even if it was pricey at the time, you should get your hands and ears on one of these. If you have even a recent music server such as a Squeezebox or Olive, you may find a significant improvement here.
If, like our Shootout panel, you haven't heard what digital can sound like these days, the little Eastern Electric will surprise if not amaze you with what it can do with standard CDs. Throw in a few 24-bit recordings and you may be thinking you've been missing a spectacular parade.
Sabre ES9018 DAC chips
Separate Power Transformers for digital and analog sections
Inputs : AES/EBU, BNC, RCA, OPTICAL and USB M2Tech OEM 24bit 192KHz Asy
nc USB input
Tube and solid state output selectable
Phase In/Out selectable
Sampling rates : 16-32bit 32KHz - 192KHz
Frequency Response: 10Hz-40KHz
THD : 0.2%(Tube) 0.02%(Solid State)
Dynamic Range: 135dB
Note: No volume control.
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