EASTERN ELECTRIC MINIMAX DAC
Price: $800 for the mod - DAC not included.
The Eastern Electric MiniDac needs no introduction to Stereomojo readers, we did the world's first review of it a couple of years ago. It was a contender in our ground breaking Blind Shootout of 6 different DACs where it placed a close second to the amazing Lampizator DAC at five times the price. But like many other great products, there are those whole think they can improve them by doing some modifications to the original - at a cost, of course. And that's where Wayne Waananen of Bolder Cables comes in. "I chose the EE DAC because it was the first DAC I had heard that sounded better to me than the modded Squeezebox I was using", Wayne told me. "I had listened to quite a few DAC in comparison, but none made me want to add it into my system. The EE DAC in stock form was very good. In looking inside at it, I saw some areas I knew could be improved if more money was spent on certain parts. I have known Bill O'Connell for a few years. I have exhibited with him at RMAF. He owns and uses one of my modded Logitech Touch and power supply. When I contacted him about modding the DAC he was very enthusiast about the project. He contacted Alex Yeung, the designer of the DAC and Alex was kind enough to send me the schematic after I signed a non-disclosure agreement. The first unit I modded was for Bill O'Connell. He was very patient while I worked out the parts selection and how to fit everything into the small space. Bill was also kind enough to provide another EE DAC that I could mod to a lower level to send out on tour. That tour is just about over now and the modded unit is available for purchase".
I was impressed with the EE DAC when I reviewed it and ended up owning it; listening to music becomes an “expanded” thing…LPs are wonderful but now CDs are, too.
Then I heard Wayne's modded unit and the earth shifted once again. Some of the improvement has to do with the different 12AU7 tube he uses to replace the one and only stock Electro Harmonix. He explains, "Just to set the stage, I prefer a mostly neutral and detailed sound with just the right amount of warmth. Nothing overly baked, but I certainly don’t want dry and edgy either. Something right in between fits the bill for me to accompany the sound I’ve come to appreciate with my VAC amp. Also, I tend to prefer a more forward presence over recessed placing me right there in front rather than mid or back hall. The Mullard tube has a pleasing tonality with a very significant soundstage, good depth and decent bass. I’ve used them in prior amps and the pre-production model of my forthcoming pre-amp. They’ve always had a nice sound, but been a touch softer than I cared for. In the EE DAC, it made me question if it was giving off a false sense of reality with the sound stage. Nonetheless, it’s a nice sound that I’m sure many will love. Then I popped in the Shuguang Pavane from Grant Fidelity . Dang. What just happened? I’m noticing significantly increased levels of micro dynamics. I am finding myself appreciating the reflected sounds of instruments within the hall where the band was recorded, the breathiness of brass mouthpieces, the strike of trumpet valve caps and the players quietly humming along, all while still being very, very musical. The best part is after 2 hours of listening, I don’t have any fatigue. Soundstage is plenty adequate, bass is nice and taut, highs are crisp, focus, imaging, it’s all there".
Of course, rolling in a different tube is just the beginning of Wayne's mod. The parts choice is largely dictated by the small space available on the circuit board. He ended up replacing 30 capacitors, 12 diodes, 7 resistors and added two circuit boards to the tube section. He also added another 30 capacitors for bypass and supplemental use. The EE MiniMax DAC was designed for a price point, but he raised the price point by using higher quality parts and redesigning the tube output circuit.
The mod also comes with a cryo treated, silver plated, ceramic fuse. Wayne sells the fuse separately for $12.00 plus shipping. I had already replaced the fuse with the said cryo'd fuse before I got the modded unit. I never expected the change I heard when I first listened to it AFTER putting the new fuse into my stock DAC. Simply the idea of such a dramatic change is difficult to wrap my head around. It isn’t that I didn’t expect ANY change, the fuse being an integral part of the power supply whether it wishes that or not (I can imagine one fighting…No, not in there! Help me…AHHHH!”).
I began by listening to Jordi Savall’s Alia Vox CD set, AV9827, a 2 CD set I use quite often as a reference. Mr. Sainte Columbe le Fils, Pieces de Viole is not only a tongue twister of a title, but a musical twister for your mind and your system. If I didn’t have to make choices (If I Were a Rich Man, yada dee, dee.) and could buy every CD in the Alia Vox catalog, I would certainly do so. The problem is there are XRCD’s and CDs like FIM’s We Get Requests, and on and on. Jordi Savall’s viola had so much weight it nearly knocked me off my couch. Imaging and soundstage be damned, although the modded DAC does that extremely well, that wasn’t the
most impressive part of the experience.
Each note seems to be highlighted, illuminated. As the viola is bowed, the combined sound of those strings becomes an event in itself. I’ve felt the power of a bowed instrument before, the rumbling in my chest is not the same as a drum, for instance. But that was while listening to LPs. I had never felt that level of reality before.
While edges of sound are not rounded off with the stock EE DAC, the mod seems to provide a finer tool on those edges…no digital rawness on the highs whatsoever. The stock DAC almost does it as well, but there is no doubt the mod does it better. I think stating “it’s just like LPs” is a cop-out, it’s not more like LPs, it’s like live music! The room is energized far more than I’ve ever heard from my deck alone.
I like the sound of female voices slightly better with the stock EE DAC, but I was listening late at night…not a fair comparison.
Authority…another over-used term, but the mod definitely presents the music with more “chest”…my feet didn’t feel things as they usually do, it was into my chest. Though one has nothing to do with the other, I did feel the soundstage was presented a bit higher, as if the venue’s stage lifted higher than with the stock EE.
Discovering that the modded unit has a blacker background while listening to an oddball CD, I could more easily discern each note, the way it sonically affected the next note. Thus I could sense the flow of the music better than with the stock unit.
With more discerning equipment you begin to follow and sense, along with the other players, what is happening AND ABOUT TO HAPPEN; as if you were one of the members of the group. I found myself to somehow be more immersed within the performance, part of it yet still an observer.
As an observer, I felt the stock unit presented a very wide soundstage, even wider with the silver fuse and wider yet with the modded EE. The edges of the soundscape cease to BE edges, the Proscenium arch (where one existed in a recording) easily identified as the natural border. Within that border, the stock EE amazed me as I could still identify shapes. Amazingly, I felt I saw depth and width to those shapes, imaging usually suffering at the edges of a soundstage; not so with the modded DAC, not in the least.
With a good piano recording you can follow the pianist’s fingers, IF and only if it was there during the recording of the actual event. It was a thrill to see Bill Evan’s fingers travel across the keyboard, sense when he gave a nod to another member of the group urging them to play. (8 CD set Bill Evans trio The Last Waltz) Again, I’ve “seen” this playing LPs, but never with CDs. Decays were more natural, without that sort of Doppler effect that decay can sound like…weird sound, that!
Poor recordings suffered, the stock unit isn’t really nice to poor recordings and modding it doesn’t help in that regard. Bud Powell’s The Scene Changes CD on Blue Note does not become much more listenable than when I’d previously heard it. Face the truth; it’s a lousy example of analog to digital! Ah, those 80’s CDs are truly wonderful…to illustrate how bad digital could sound back then.
I wanted to listen to a couple CDs I had original LP copies of the same titles. Pat Metheny’s As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls is an old favorite; my wife absolutely adores that record! This is a very typical ECM record; the sound is very sharp and clear, as if everything is highlighted. Some may feel it’s a hot recording, I simply think it’s ECM’s sound. While others may like it or not, every ECM I’ve ever heard sounds superb.
That and Bill Frisell CDs have been a large part of my listening regime. Not only because I like the both of them and their music is equally as fine as the recordings (or vice versa…or versa vice!), but my wife really likes them quite a bit.
I NEVER heard attack as easily and correctly as I hear from the EE mod. It’s not as if the stock Minimax can’t grab that micro-detail, it’s that the mod does it better. Not better in the “I think I hear that it’s better,” it IS better.
I have often judged a piece of gear by the way Famous Blue Raincoat made me feel. Singing along with the title song, I get choked up hearing Jennifer Warnes sing the passage, did you ever go clear? On the LP reissue I got choked up with some of the gear I’ve listened to, but always did when the equipment was doing things correctly. The modded unit added to the feeling which was as deeply poignant as it ever has been.
I hadn’t played Pat Metheny’s Day Trip since I got it, I’d played it over and over again those first couple weeks after I’d purchased it. But I had played the LP often, not the CD. I played it when I got my (stock) EE DAC, and again with the modded unit. Metheny’s attack was smooth…smooth as silk and still possessing that immediacy that a pick and/or finger sound when contacting a string. The DAC when modified, gave me more of that immediacy, urgency that I feel when hearing that first contact. More of what I expect from live, not LP! A very fine recording; a very fine piece of music. Nonesuch (Catalog # 376828) makes a package that’s difficult to resist, a CD and the LPs.
The stock unit has allowed me enjoy digital playback just as much as I enjoy analog. The mod takes it farther. I can’t say that the improvement is as significant as the Audio Alchemy alone and then adding the Minimax. THAT made my toes quiver, my liver wriggle, my head sway, and my hips turn around twice while my feet remained planted in the same spot.
To improve upon that is difficult, but it’s been done by these modifications. If you want cutting edge digital sound, MUST have it, then the cost of the stock unit plus the mods while not inexpensive, is far less than the “big boys” out there in the digital world…the audio world in general! I ask you to listen and tell me if one of those big-buck DACs gets any better than this.
Here we have a marvelous product a gifted mod expert has made even better, and I thought that had to be an impossible feat. Bolder Cable Company has modified a lot of different gear, but some owners of the Eastern Electric DAC may believe this to be beyond even its creator’s dreams.
Summing all of this old-lady perfumed flowery stuff, the EE DAC has its tube output, OR NOT, with the choice via a button on the front panel. If you have owned tube gear, you know how sound can be tailored by your choice of tubes…if you never owned tube gear…well, now you KNOW. Wayne at Bolder loves the Pavane tube available from Grant Fidelity. There are lots of choices for tubes, and you need but one…the most expensive is still ½ the price most gear demands (most use two in stereo circuitry).
I found, with my stock DAC, I liked the tube sound in my big rig and the SS sound with my office system, both knocked my slippers off.
Recommended for those who have the scratch. Heck, recommended for those who DON’T have the scratch.
The mod that I heard is just the first level of what can be done to the DAC. Bill at Morningstar has the 2nd level with Paul Hynes Regulators installed. That brings the price up close to $2,000.00, just for the mod. Wayne tells me there may be another level at some point that would involve placing the circuit board in a larger case so he would have more room to install even higher quality parts. We'll see.
Now for the good/bad news. Eastern Electric no longer MAKES the MiniMax DAC so you can't get a new one. It seems they are doing their own modifications to it and will be dubbed the MiniMax DAC Plus and will sell for $1,110. How will it compare to Wayne's world? We'll see that, too. Bill tells us we'll get the first one in the US.
In addition, we now have the Lampizator Level 2, the little brother to the incredible Lampizator 4 we raved about. Little bro will sell for around $2,000 so it also competes with Wayne's modded MiniMax. It is likely that a lot of people will be selling their EE DACs to upgrade to the new one, so there may be some bargains around, making Wayne's mod much more attractive.
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