EASTERN ELECTRIC MINIMAX DAC
Dr. John Richardson
James L. Darby
Dr. John Richardson
A few weeks ago, I received an email from publisher James Darby. This alone isn’t such an unusual occurrence, as we chat from time to time about interesting gear worthy of review and our impressions of such. Apparently, this newcomer to the already crowded digital scene was creating quite a stir on some of the on-line chat sites, thereby bringing it to his attention. He told me had already received one but wanted another opinion. When he asks us to do a second opinion, it usually means the first reviewer either didn’t like what he was reviewing very much or had some issues with unit. When things like that (rarely) happen, it’s our policy to have someone else review it in a different system and room with different ears just to make sure that what the first reviewer heard was accurate. Not only does that insure absolute fairness to the manufacturer, it also takes any potential for politics or favoritism out of the process. I later found out that our audio icon Mike Peshkin was also reviewing the thing! Hmmm….something’s up for sure.
Upon opening the box, I found inside a manual, power cord, DAC, and a couple of replacement fuses (just in case). After a look at the manual to be sure there were no surprises, I hooked up the new visitor to my secondary system and began the process of putting 50 or so hours of good burn-in on it. As one might imagine, I was curious about the sound, especially after James’ emphatic email. The DAC sounded amazingly good out of the box, but still a bit congested and reined-in compared to my in-house DACs. Nonetheless, I could hear some things going on that gave me a healthy glimpse of the goodness to come.
Before dealing with the sonic attributes of the EE DAC, a few words about its overall construction, design, and appearance might be helpful. In short, it’s a fairly compact box with quite an elegant look. Unlike the utilitarian pro DACs I’ve been messing with lately, the EE really looks stylish on my rack. More like a piece of art than a techie geek fest. The LEDs are not overly large or bright, and I love those beautiful silver knobs that stand out against the anodized black faceplate and chassis.
The EE DAC has a total of five different inputs: AES/EBU, BNC, RCA coaxial, optical (toslink), and USB, all selectable using a rotary switch on the front panel. Output-wise, there is but one set of single-ended RCA jacks; balanced outs are not an option at this point. However, the DAC does have a few interesting and potentially useful features. Chief among these is a switch that gives the user the option to choose (on the fly, I might add) between an op-amp analog output and a true vacuum tube analog output. Also provided are a phase inversion switch and an analog volume control for those who might want to use the DAC straight into a power amplifier. There is no headphone jack, and a remote control option is not available at this time. However, the DAC does come equipped with a set of four vibration-busting hemispherical rubber feet. I therefore had no desire to try putting it up on cones.
Now, let’s get down to the more technical nitty gritty. The heart of the EE DAC is the new ESS 9018 32 bit “Sabre” DAC chip, the newest and most advanced chip available for consumer digital audio. While this chip is used in other available products, its use here suggests designer Alex Yeung’s desire for a state-of-the-art product, even at its more than reasonable asking price of $750. A bit of fact finding turned up that this version of the Sabre DAC is capable of processing native digital signals up to 192 kHz with upsampling to 864 kHz. The DAC accepts both USB and S/PDIF inputs and is said to be nearly impervious to external jitter. Unfortunately for those wishing to use a direct USB connection between the DAC and a computer, the EE DAC is limited to 16 bit/48 kHz signal input due to its use of the ubiquitous Burr Brown PCM2707 USB receiver chip. While this solution is well characterized and plays well with native drivers, it is by no means as state-of-the-art as the rest of the processing hardware in the DAC. I’m guessing that Alex Yeung decided to go this route to get the DAC to market sooner, or to perhaps meet a particular price point. I’m hopeful, however, that a future version of the EE DAC will be available that takes advantage of the newer asynchronous USB 2.0 technologies that now enable a direct USB connection to process at sampling rates up to 192 kHz. After all, more and more folks (like me) are moving toward using a computer exclusively as a transport, so the employed technology would be well served to keep abreast of the leading edge.
Of course, we all know that a really good processing chip alone does not a great DAC make. Of equal (or greater) importance are a well-implemented power supply and a properly designed analog output stage. I believe that the output stage is where Alex’s real talent shines, especially given his well-documented ability to design excellent tube-based gain circuits. Here, the tubed output stage employs a single 12au7 vacuum tube for gain. I emphasize that this means a true vacuum tube gain stage, not a simple tube-buffered solid-state gain circuit. For inveterate tweakers, both the vacuum tube and the op-amp in the two output stages can be rolled to tailor the sound to satisfy a particular listener’s fancy, though I stuck with the supplied devices for the purposes of review.
Another design choice that I really agree with is the absence of upsampling. The EE DAC reportedly converts the digital stream only at native sampling rates; I like this because I believe in minimal processing. In other words, we are most likely better off doing less math on the data, thus keeping it closer to its original form as it is found on the source medium. This should be especially true for the high-resolution files that are now becoming more and more readily available.
Mini Price. Maxi Sound?
After what I felt to be an appropriate burn-in period, I had to decide how to best connect the EE DAC to my reference system. I’ll admit that I have made the choice to give up totally on traditional digital transports; my Mac Mini (newest version) now serves up all digital goodness in my system. Therefore, all of my reported listening impressions were made using my Mini, along with the excellent Channel D Pure Music engine running in cahoots with iTunes. Rather than starting out with a direct USB connection, I decided to use my Metric Halo ULN-2 pro interface as a firewire to S/PDIF converter. I made this choice primarily because I wanted to listen to my 24/96 high-resolution vinyl rips that I have been making since purchasing the ULN-2. Furthermore, the ULN-2 employs an excellent clock, and thus serves as an initial filter for incoming jitter. Using the Metric Halo box, I was able to listen using the AES, BNC, and RCA inputs on the EE DAC, all at sampling rates up to 96 kHz. Most of my comments pertain to the AES input, as it is reported to provide the best sound, though all worked (and sounded) just fine.
My first, and strongest, impression of the EE DAC is that it excels at portraying the space associated with a recording. Specifically, it always threw a huge lateral soundstage with lots of depth. Sound cues that normally fall within the space between my speakers suddenly jumped outside the boundaries of my normal horizontal listening plane. I could also clearly hear the space, or cushion of air, that surrounded individual instruments in, say, a string quartet or small jazz ensemble. In certain well-executed recordings, I could close my eyes and essentially visualize the physical space in which a recording was made. For example, if a particular performer were in an isolated booth, I could pick that out. Good orchestral recordings were rendered in such a way that I could “see” the semicircular arrangements of the performers on the stage. I’m sure that many of these three-dimensional time and space cues were so apparent due to the EE DAC’s superb ability to reproduce low-level detail and remove the proverbial veil that often surrounds reproduced music. Allow me to elaborate further with one striking (at least to me) example.
One of my favorite jazz recordings is an early Charlie Byrd performance called “Charlie’s Choice, Jazz at the Showboat, Vol 4.” This album has been reissued several times, most notably on the Riverside label as “The Guitar Artistry of Charlie Byrd.” However, I was last year the lucky recipient of a mono pressing on the original Offbeat Label (Offbeat Records, OJ 3007). I own (or have heard) several of the later stereo reissues, and I can say with certainty that the early mono LP wipes the floor with all other comers. In terms of clarity and dynamic punch, there is just no competition. What I love about this powerhouse recording is the awesome performance put in by Charlie and his trio (Keter Betts on bass and Buddy Deppenschmidt on drums); the technical interplay between the players and their intensity has to be heard to be believed. Also, this recording has some of the most lifelike recorded drumming I have ever heard, but that’s just the icing on the cake.
Well, I was listening to my 24/96 copy of “The House of the Rising Sun,” the first cut on side two, and right at the end I heard a strange sound that came from way back in the soundstage. I had never picked this out before, so I went back and listened again. Lo and behold, it was a car horn sounding off outside the Showboat Club, which was located in Washington DC (maybe it’s still there…). Not only did I hear this tiny detail for the first time, but it was obvious that it was just outside of the recording venue! Maybe Charlie’s ride had arrived.
Another important attribute of the EE DAC is its ability to accurately portray tonal colors and timbre. Instruments and voices sounded as they should, with just the right amount of body and sheen. A DAC needs to get this right, or it doesn’t stay in my house for very long; EE’s DAC really does a fine job in this respect. Bass was punchy and deep (though maybe not quite the best I have heard), the midrange was ravishing, and the treble was appropriately airy without ever being forward or etched. With the tube output in action, the sound was appropriately “tubey” but never slow or bloated. Notes had a nice sense of attack on the leading edge and plenty of decay on the trailing end.
Good orchestral recordings emphasize these strengths quite well. I’ve been for many years an admirer of English orchestral works, and the Lyrita label rules when it comes to this kind of music. I have had a large collection of their compact discs for many years, but have only very recently begun acquiring used vinyl on the label. As good as the CDs are, my 24/96 digital transcriptions of the LPs are markedly better. I could cite many examples of beautifully performed and recorded music on Lyrita, but I’ll just mention one: Sir Lennox Berkeley’s First Symphony (on Lyrita stereo LP SRCS 80). The end of the third movement features some wonderful (but somewhat quietly played) bowed ‘cellos and basses. Through the EE DAC, the sound almost growls out of the speakers, sounding about as realistic as I could imagine recorded instruments to sound.
Speaking of growling, I also played my digital transcription of the well-known RCA LP of Moussgorsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” from “The Power of the Orchestra,” (RCA Living Stereo VCS 2659), which could more properly be called “The Power of Brass and Percussion.” This excellent Kenneth Wilkinson recording highlights bursts from the brass section that will nearly lift you out of your seat when played at realistic levels. Here, the EE DAC did a great job of making the horns sound like real horns, complete with realistic overtone, bite, “blattiness,” and dynamic. With my eyes closed, I was almost “there.”
While I did the majority of my listening with the tubed output in the circuit, I did spend some time with the solid-state output option. What surprised me most was the similarity between the two. I expected a bigger difference than I heard. Given my long-term favorable impressions of the tubed output, I can only say that Alex Yeung also did a wonderful job of designing and implementing a solid-state output circuit! Yes, the tubed output gave a bit more body and roundness to the notes, but the differences were not that appreciable. Most of the “goodness” was still there, and in spades. For listeners who might desire a bigger, rounder, more traditional sound from the tubed stage, tube rolling should yield the desired results.
Finally, I wanted to elaborate a bit on the USB input of the EE DAC. All listening comparisons were done with Redbook files due to the limitations of the USB receiver chip mentioned earlier. Directly compared to the S/PDIF inputs, I found the USB input to yield a slightly more recessed and “fatter” sound. It was as if the listener were seated a bit farther back in the concert venue, so that there was less focus and immediacy to the performance. Otherwise, I didn’t sense any real difference in the tonal character of the DAC. I’m not saying that this type of presentation is inferior, just different. In fact, I found it to be quite pleasant indeed, and possibly preferable for some listeners for certain material. Again, my only real gripe with the USB implementation is its inability to deal with high-resolution files. Otherwise, it performed more or less flawlessly, with no clicks, pops, static or dropouts whatsoever.
I was able to make direct comparisons between the EE DAC and the two other DACs I own and keep in-house. Specifically, these are the Lavry DA10 and the internal DAC in my Metric Halo ULN-2 interface. Both of these DACs have lived with me for some time, getting frequent use, and I consider them both to be keepers and excellent values at their respective price points ($1148 for the Lavry and $1695 for the Metric Halo). I’ll start by saying that I really like all three of these DACS. To use a lame analogy, they all share the same “flavor.”
I like ice cream. My wife might even call me a specialist in that regard. We all know the flavor called chocolate, but we also all know that three premium brands will vary somewhat in the finer aspects of the experience associated with indulging in chocolate ice cream. All are still chocolate, but with slight variations on the theme, in things like texture and finish. That’s how I tend to classify these three DACS. Maybe the Benchmark DACs are more like vanilla; in other words, still very good, but of a noticeably different “flavor.”
That said, variations among the three DACs were relatively small on the grand scale of things in the audiophile world. All of them were similar in tonal quality (hence, “flavor”), but with differences in nuance and presentation. Both the Lavry and the Metric Halo were wonderfully neutral without ever becoming irritating or boring. Both threw a decently wide and deep soundstage. However, compared to the EE DAC, both pro units seemed a bit rough around the edges, and I mean that quite literally. Imagine a solo saxophone playing in the center of the soundstage. With both pro DACS, the sax was solidly there in space, but there was a bit of fuzziness associated with the edges of the image of the instrument. A good analogy would be an image in a photograph taken just out of focus. With the EE DAC, all images were snapped into focus, with that lovely sense of space around each. All of this translates to a remarkable sense of refinement such that I would not expect from a $750 DAC.
I also noticed some small differences in soundstaging. Specifically, the EE DAC threw the widest soundstage of the three, but also frequently projected instrumental images both in front of and behind the plane of my speakers. In contrast, the Metric Halo specifically presented the soundstage more distantly, such that all of the performers appeared in space behind the speakers.
I won’t even begin to try to rank these DACs in terms of performance, since a presentation I like might not sit so well with another listener. Also, specific things I hear in my system with my speakers could well be differently perceived in another person’s system. I’ll just say that all are excellent performers at their respective price points, though they offer different feature sets and aesthetics.
However, you can rest assured that the Eastern Electric Minimax is one hell of a DAC.
Mike Peshkin: Living in a Cloud of Denial
Living in a cloud of denial can be a safe place, but not knowing how good today’s DACs can be and assuming the CD player you’ve owned for years can “hold its own” with the young studs is quite foolish. Perhaps not that foolish, there’s no doubt whatsoever the Audio Alchemy Pro CD player is a wonderfully musical player, but…
Using an adapter to allow for the coax connection, I hooked up the Audio Alchemy to the Eastern Electric DAC and literally had to hold on tight to keep from falling as it took me for a ride into the age of modern DACs. I was shocked from the very first note.
I played CD after CD, amazed at how great the music was portrayed. Well-recorded discs jumped up and slapped me in the face, kicked my butt! The first disc I played was the 2 CD set from Telarc, Ray Brown’s Walk On. I thought the Alchemy produced the bass in that recording quite well… It did, but the EE made those bass strings snap and explode!
On the first band of Stereomojo’s 2009 Jazz Recording of the Year, We Get Requests from FIM records, a CD you must get if you are a Jazz fan and enjoy great sound. This is the K2HD reissue by Winston Ma. Mike's right! Make sure you get this one ~ publisher Ray Brown’s bass growls like no bass has ever growled in my home. I’ve heard it from LPs, but never CDs. The EE DAC made me proud that the Alchemy is still a phenomenal transport, but it doesn’t make the music more real, it makes it a good listen. The EE DAC made that bass become real and gave me a good listening experience.
Female vocals were sublime… Janis Ian’s Breaking Silence was as poignant on CD as it is on vinyl…that had never happened before! Comparing the LP and the CD there was a difference, but the difference was far less than ever before… apples and oranges became apples/oranges. There was no deepening of female voice, no “chestiness,” simply more intimacy. With all well recorded vocals I could hear consonants being formed by the lips. This is not a common sound to be reproduced! As the tongue presses against the palate, both lips touch each other, and we hear the air it takes to form those sounds, but only with well recorded music and great equipment to reproduce it.
Listening to the Jazz sampler from JVC (JVCXR-0001-2, an XRCD), Carmen Lundy sang ‘Round Midnight for ME! That was followed with Nakagawa playing the tune for me on flute. I heard every intake of breath; the way he controlled the sound of his instrument. I expect that from vinyl playback; I never expected to hear it in my home on CD.
I’d always said that CD and LP were two sides, no better than one another in most respects, just different…apples to oranges. I found myself turning the CD player on far more often than I played records and it wasn’t just for convenience!
Using the solid-state output, the sound became just the slightest bit more hard… more analytical, perhaps? The difference was miniscule, at least with the CD that was playing. I left the tube output on for the rest of my listening period. My notes reflect more anger at myself than comments upon the DAC! “I should have upgraded!”
James Darby, Publisher
Several years ago at an audio show I met Bill O'Connell of MorningStar Audio. After talking for a few minutes, it was if I'd known the guy for years. We had a lot in common and I knew instinctively that he wasn't the typical “full of hype and hot air” distributor that proliferates in the audio industry. Eventually he offered me a world's first review of the Eastern Electric M156 mono block power amps, pictured left. When I come across something that is extraordinary, I like to get other opinions to make sure I'm not engaging in over exuberance. Such was the case with the mono blocks, I even hauled them over to a friend's house and stuck them into his $500,000 system, replacing some much, much more expensive amplifiers – four of them in fact. The big Eastern Electrics not only held their own, but in my opinion and that of a few others at the event, surpassed the Einsteins. At the time, funds were not available to purchase them and to this day I wish I had sold a kidney or something to keep them.
When I got the e-mail from Bill telling me about the new MiniMax DAC, my expectations were high, even though Bill's e-mail said absolutely nothing about how "great" it was or how it was going to set the world on fire or how it bested every $50,000 DAC on the planet, it was just Bill being Bill.
When I got the thing. I stuck it in the main system replacing the $3000 Perfect Wave DAC, a Stereomojo 2009 Product of the Year. Usually, any time you stick a brand-new component in the system. It sounds rather raw, congested and in dire need of many hours of burn in. Remarkably, the little box sounded pretty darn good the moment I turned it on; not only before burn in, but before the thing had even warmed up! Linda and I ended up listening to it for four hours that night; that never happens. I was so surprised I ended up sending Bill an e-mail the next day asking him if it was indeed a new unit. It was...
The source being used was the Qsonix 110 Music Server tethered to the Eastern Electric via SPDIF and a $1000+ Kimber digital cable. In the same e-mail I had asked Bill what normal break-in was and he said, “Some people say 100 hours, others 200 hours”. The sound started opening up around 30 hours, the tube section started sounding a bit more “tubey” around 60 and around 100 hours things pretty much plateaued with no significant changes since then.
A few days later, the new Qsonix 205 arrived with its upgraded Wadia digital circuitry. Hmmm… should I hook it up to the $3000 Perfect Wave or the $750 Mini? The new Qsonix had an AES/EBU XLr output, so the connection to the Mini was quicker and easier than Paris Hilton.
The bottom line is I'm even more enthusiastic about the Eastern Electric DAC than both Dr. John and Mikey for several reasons: I've had a little more experience with higher end DACs so my reference standard is higher, I was able to use the AES/EBU connection which is the highest quality available and I was also able to listen and compare reference music files at up to 24/192, a more stringent test. I always use a top-of-the-hill Cardas power cable on DACs. An upgraded cable is a ust for digital things. Having said that, what I heard was pretty much exactly what both guys described!
As I have said many times, one of the most difficult things for digital of any kind to reproduce is long, beautiful, dense reverb. Reverb is also something at which analogue excels. I remember well the early days of digital reverb in recording studios, it was only 8-bit and sounded pretty awful, but like all things digital it's gotten much better where today an engineer or any hobbyist on their computer at home with the click of a mouse can get an almost perfect replication of the world's finest concert venues with Impulse Response Convolution Reverbs.
Rather than describe what less than ideal DACs sound like, below is a little graphic that will show you what digital reverb can sound like. While there are literally millions of reverb types, let's assume this is a simple, linear, 4 second smooth reverb that begins at the left and smoothly trails out to the right. The first example shows what the recorded 'verb should sound like while the other examples show what typically happens when sent through a DAC, CD player or other digital source. It's almost always truncated, fizzling out like a Fourth of July sparkler before it's supposed to, or “premature disintegration”… in the meantime, you can hear grain, noise, coloration (or lack of it), smear and pixelization among other artifacts.
Well, I said all that to say this: the Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC renders reverb and ambience better than any digital device I've heard at any price. Think big, soft, billowy cumulus clouds; those are the Mini. Then think thin, streaky, puny Stratus clouds; those are older or cheaper DACs. I think when Mike and John were describing the voluminous space and how well it was defined, I think part of what they were hearing was the magnificent job of rendering the microscopic molecules of the sometimes thousands of reverberant reflections; long, short, wide, narrow, loud and soft bouncing off everything from the microphone itself to walls, lighting fixtures, rugs and even people that constitute ambient audio. The fact that the little wonder was able to capture all of that from high-resolution, studio master quality tracks was in itself remarkable, but what really blew my mind was the reverb it was able to dig out of standard Redbook CDs! I sometimes use an OPPO 980 Universal player as a transport or to play SACD's. The EE made standard CDs sound better than SACD's or DVD audios played through the Oppo, and by a considerable margin at that.
Of course, ambience is not the only thing the Mini does extraordinarily well. It's fast. Very fast, but even more than that, it hangs on to notes as good or better than anything I've heard. For example, big drum hits; we not only hear the initial attack and the resounding enclosure of the drum, but you hear it trail off like a real drum would and not get chopped off as per usual. Textures. Dynamics. Low bass will make you wonder what you've been missing all these years. And yeah, I'm still talking about regular CD's.
Now, here's a slight negative if you want to look at it that way; The EE is not at all forgiving. Bad recordings will be uncloaked and great recordings will be exulted. I didn't find the DAC either forward or laid back, another unusual observation. It pretty much did what the recording dictated.
Both John and Bill said the tube circuit (and it is a separate circuit, not just a tube buffer tacked on the front) does not make a profound difference. They are correct. I was actually a bit disappointed by that. The Shuguang 12AU7 comes with it - Bill says it's the best new production available, but he recommended several NOS tubes since the EE is perfect for tube rolling. If you have EVER thought about trying tube rolling but were too intimidated, THIS is the ideal platform for beginners. Since there's only one tube, it's a cheap date and won't even demand dinner. You don't even have to open the case to change tubes, just pluck it right out the back. Well, I lobbed a Seimens in there things changed quite a bit from the Shuguang, but the difference between the solid state and tube sides was still not night and day.
Speaking of tubes, one thing you should know is that when you're listening to just the SS, the tube is still powered, so you don't want to leave it on 24/7. If the unit is on, the tube is on.
While I did not fool with the USB input (cough cough), the fact that it is limited to 44.1 is a downer for some people. If all you're doing is USB right now, I think you will at some point want to enter the superior world of at least SPDIF but preferably AES. I'm just sayin'...
At this point, you may be asking, "So James, are you saying you like the $750 EE MiniMax DAC better than the PS Audio $3,000 Perfect Wave?"
Well, I told Bill the next day that I'd like to buy the MiniMax DAC if he would be so kind. I also asked him if he'd let me buy one for Mike Peshkin since he's been writing for us for years for no pay and he was stuck with that ancient Audio Alchemy - just like the one i gave away about 15 years ago....
So. I bought one, Mike told me he WANTED to buy his before I surprised him and told him the one he has is his gift and just as I was about to publish this review, I got an email from Dr. John saying this:
I think I've finally decided to pull the trigger and buy the EE DAC. After living with it for almost a month, I think it satisfies my criterion that I would truly miss it if it left my system. It's the first piece of gear that I have had in for review that has qualified... I have some very good DACs here, but none seem to have quite the level of refinement of the EE, and I'm finding that I need that in my system."
We never use the phrase "highly recommednded" like most others because no single product can ever be recommended for everyone, there are too many variables. however, it seems three different reviewers have decided to buy the same product; something that has never happened before. Who should be in the market for the new EE Minimax DAC? We supposed if you already have a megabuck DAC, you might want to hang onto it, though you could sell it and buy one fo these, probably be just as happy and come out way ahead. For a paltry $750, this is really as close to the state of the art as 99.9 % of us will probably ever need to be. Yes, technology will march onward, and digital reproduction will continue to get better, but why worry? This thing makes music and should keep us music lovers satisfied for some time to come!
The only real shortcoming at this point is the limitation of the USB input to 16 bit/48 kHz resolution (and lower) material. However, if you really want to get jiggy with computer audio, just invest in a really good high resolution USB to S/PDIF converter (they can be had for around $1000 or less), combine it with the EE DAC, and you are good to go for less than $1750 total. In those terms, this represents more or less state of the art high-resolution playback for peanuts. Needless to say, very highly recommended…
As for awarding the Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC our MAximum Mojo Award, that's a true no-brainer. It's also high on our list for a Product of the Year. Congrats to Bill O'Connell of Morningstar and creator Alex Yeung
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