LAVRY DA 11 DAC


PRICE: $1480

 

Review by

Dr. John Richardson

 

John Richardson’s present system:

Digital sources:  Jolida JD100 cd player, Benchmark DAC1 usb dac

Computer Transport:  Macintosh Mini

Turntable:  Michel Gyrodec SE/Fidelity Research FR-64s arm/Zu Audio cart

Preamplifier: Klyne SK-6

Amplification:  Threshold SA 3.5e (main speakers)/ODL HT-2 (subwoofer)

Speakers:  Shahinian Compass/Double Eagle subwoofer combination

Cables:  Kimber/Harmonic Technology/Signal Cable

A Clutch of Lavrys:  DA 10 and DA11

Everyone is aware of the old saying, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”  Audiophiles make use of this wise old saying whenever they compare different components in their systems, as we all know that system synergy is what transforms a stereo system from merely ok to good to great.  This idea also rings true for the folks who design and build the gear we enjoy.  We hear stories of guys who spend months, if not years, painstakingly striving for the most efficient circuit designs using the best sounding parts.  They then pot them up so no one can tell what’s inside and offer the resulting components to the public with little fanfare or advertising.  Hey, if you like it, great; if not, move on.  Stan Klyne, who built my reference preamplifier, is one of these types of folks.  So is Dan Lavry, who builds the subject of this review: the Lavry Engineering DA11 digital to analog converter.

Mr. Lavry is a very well known and respected engineer and designer in professional audio circles.  It’s common knowledge that his converters, designed and made in the state of Washington, USA,  and other studio gear are used by some of the most famous recording operations out there, including Sony Entertainment and Abbey Road Studios.  Unlike a lot of the better-known audiophile designers (and marketers), Lavry likes to remain relatively quiet about his designs.  While this seems a bit against the grain of modern marketing, where companies are constantly hyping the technical specifics of their newest and best designs, I can understand why Mr. Lavry likes to keep his cards close to his chest.  First, he considers his designs to be proprietary, and second, he doesn’t like the idea of audiophiles acting as “back seat designers.”  How many times have you visited an audio discussion site and noticed heated arguments about how a certain design must be superior (or inferior) just because it uses a particular power supply, chip set, or whatever.  I often wonder how many of these people who expound so freely have ever even heard the device in question, much less spent extended time with it in their own systems?  In other words, maybe we should spend more time evaluating a component by what it does, instead of constantly second-guessing and nit picking the designer and his intentions.  Remember, the whole is more than the sum of its parts!  However, I can say that I am impressed that Mr. Lavry often takes the time to respond individually to critics and admirers alike on many of these aforementioned discussion sites, as well as at his own company’s on-line forum.

So let’s get back to the DA11 DAC.  This converter is part of Lavry’s Black line, which lies below the Gold (highest end) and Blue (intermediate) lines.  It’s meant to represent Lavry’s entry level, which is probably best suited to most in-home (read: non-professional) consumers.  The Black line includes two DACs: the DA10  at $1148 and the DA11 at $1480, which vary somewhat based on their features.  The DA11 is more expensive and offers a larger feature set, which I will outline momentarily.

It is important to note that the DA-11 is a NON-UPSAMPLING DAC, which means it does will not allow you to change the native sample rate for playback as some DAC’s do. This is either a good thing or a not-so-good thing depending in which camp you find yourself. Some people think digitally increasing the original sample rate sounds better, while others feel all the extra digital manipulation, filtering and other factors serve to only degrade the sound. Mr. Lavry obviously falls into the second camp. However, the range of digital native signals the unit accepts is very wide; from 30kHz all the way up to 200kHz! That means it will playback very hi-resolution WAV files like Reference Recording’s HRX series at 24/192 or pretty much any music files you can download from Chesky, Linn or anyone else. You have not heard high-end audio until you have heard it played back at the same sampling rate at which it was recorded. It’s like listening to the original master tape – the Holy Grail of all audiophiles. The Lavry will accomplish that!

The DA11 looks like a simple black box: no over-the-top audiophile adornment here, though the front panel with it's row of LED's and digital volume readout give it a rather polished professional feel, more like something you'd see in a commercial recording studio, not a jewelry store. As we have said many times before, casework can easily account for 50% of the cost of a product; it's evident that Lavry has put the bucks where they think they need to go fro the best sound.  This is fine with me, as it’s like a stripped down racecar; everything is there for a purpose, excessive aesthetics be damned!  As I have said before, I like this sort of functional business-like look in my audio gear.  I should add that those front panel lights can be dimmed for those who like to listen in the dark. Besides the power switch, all of the functions on the front panel are accessed using small toggle switches.  While this may be a bit foreign to most listeners, I had no trouble getting up and running.  With the help of the enclosed manual, I was quickly navigating between the setup and the Playback Image Control (PiCTM) modes (more about this feature later…).  I also found it convenient that I was able to choose between balanced and unbalanced operation using the front panel toggles.  The standard input/output options are found on the rear panel:  the user can choose between coaxial S/PDIF, optical toslink, usb, and XLR inputs, but is limited to balanced XLR outputs.  Lavry does, however, provide a pair of Neutrik XLR to RCA converters for those of us (like myself) who prefer, or are forced to use, single ended outputs.  Showing its professional and international roots, the user can eer change the XLR pin settings. Since I use my computer as my source for the vast majority of my digital listening, I primarily used the usb and toslink inputs of the DA11.  Also offered is a premium on-board headphone amplifier for those who are so inclined (I’ll admit here that I didn’t spend much time with it).  Lavry advertises that most of the functions on the DA11 can be accessed using a universal remote, though I had no use for this feature. An optional, full function remote control is available, something you might want if you use the unit instead of a preamp; or AS a preamp.

Upon receiving the DA11, I was eager to get it into my system so that I could compare it to my reference DAC of nearly three years, the Benchmark DAC 1 USB.  Even cold out of the box, I could immediately tell that the Lavry was going to give a somewhat different sonic presentation than the Benchmark.  Before I get into what those differences are, let me review my long-term impressions of the DAC1 USB.  Let me be clear here.  I have lived with the Benchmark in my system for this long because I like it.  Specifically, it offers tight, tuneful bass, which while being a bit on the lightweight side, is always pleasing and musical.  The treble is also outstanding:  lots of detail and resolution, but without ever going over the top and causing listening fatigue.  Said differently, the Benchmark seems to have just the right amount of “sparkle.”  My only real criticism of the DAC1 is the midrange.  Initially, it was doing so many things right that I was able to overlook the slightly anemic nature of the mids, but after a couple of years, I was finding that I just didn’t want to settle in for those marathon listening sessions like I had before.  Somehow, the system just wasn’t as engaging as I knew it could be.  Could the Lavry DA11 be the panacea I have been waiting for?

Before plunging deeper into this burning question, let me thicken the plot.  A bit less than a year ago, my audiophile curiosity got the better of me, and I picked up a pre-owned Lavry DA10.  I had read good things about this dac, and I wanted to improve upon the internal dac in the Squeezbox-based system I have downstairs.  Since the DA10 has no usb input, I never put it into my main system where computer is king.  So downstairs it has languished, doing a sonically excellent, but under-utilized, job as part of the family entertainment center.  Therefore, I can’t say I was unfamiliar with the sonic signature of a Lavry DAC prior to taking delivery of the DA11.  In fact, my long-term exposure to the DA10 more than whetted my appetite for what a usb-equipped version might sound like upstairs in the big system.

It is important for you to now that the DA-11 can also function as a preamp with the ability to control speaker volume using digitally controlled ANALOG volume circuitry. This allows the DA11 to be connected directly to a power amp or powered monitors without a preamp for the ultimate in “straight-wire” listening. This feature allows the listener to easily reset the volume to a known level for consistent enjoyment with minimal signal degradation. Like all other programmable settings, the Volume setting is retained in memory when the power is turned “off.”

So what does the DA11 sound like in my main system?  In a few words, smooth, fleshed out, and eminently musical.  As I said before, I noticed the meat on the bones of the midrange as soon as I installed the little dac in my system.  Burn-in seemed minimal, but the dac did sound slightly smoother and more refined after being used for several days (and I do mean used).  I’m tough to please. 

Tonality is the most important aspect of stereo reproduction for me. If the instruments or vocalists don’t sound real, I lose interest, and fast.  While spatial presentation (as in soundstaging and imaging) is also important, it takes a back seat to tonality in my book.  I don’t care quite as much about where the cello is located in the soundstage, but I really need it to have the weight, presence, and harmonics of a real cello.  The Lavry does these things very well; instruments sound like real instruments in real space, as opposed to anemic representations of instruments, thus better preserving the emotion of the musical performance.

Also excellent was the DA11’s ability to convey the momentum of the music through proper reproduction of pace and rhythm.  If these are off, then my interest in listening evaporates.  If pace and rhythm are on, I can always tell because I want to tap my toes, air conduct, or drum on something with my hands.  In that sense, having the DA11 in my system was a good thing since it was causing me to get some exercise!

Let’s take a short tour of the DA11’s sonic signature from top to bottom.  I found the treble to be nicely extended and quite natural sounding, but maybe a bit less forward (or a bit more rolled off, depending on how one looks at it) than the Benchmark’s.  Don’t get the impression that something was missing, because it wasn’t.  I’m just talking about a slightly different kind of presentation here. The midrange, as I mentioned before, was nicely developed and fleshed out.  Maybe a tube DAC might add even more dimension and body to the mids, but the DA11 offered all of the warmth and texture I needed in the context of my system.  The bottom end was also quite tuneful, while a bit fuller and more extended than that of the Benchmark.  Such a presentation just served to add more realism to the performance without sporting excessive “junk in the trunk.”  In general, over extended listening sessions, I found myself being seduced away from the Benchmark camp and over into the Lavry camp.  In a word, the DA11 just sounded more “real” to me.

Resolution was also excellent, and on par with that of the Benchmark.  I did note, however, that the DAC 1 USB seemed to do a slightly better job of carving out the position of a given instrument or performer in lateral space.  The image edges were clearly defined and never fuzzy.  The Lavry came close, but was not quite there, though I think it did front to back depth in the soundstage a bit better than the Benchmark.  While I found the Lavry’s spatial presentation to be just fine, imaging freaks might end up preferring the Benchmark.

With the DA11 in-house, I also wanted to do some experimenting with its digital input options.  While I did most of my listening using the usb interface in conjunction with my Mac Mini computer as a server, I did spend time comparing the usb, coax S/PDIF, and toslink inputs.  My findings were interesting indeed.  Let me start by saying that there is a great deal of discussion in the audio world these days about the use of usb as an audiophile-worthy means of streaming bits.  Some critics say that the interface is flawed because it is inherently jitter-prone.  Others pooh-pooh usb as inferior because it is limited to digital sampling rates of 96 kHz and lower using native usb 1.1 drivers (Dan Lavry has some interesting insights in this regard, which are available to anyone who wishes to visit his forum and read his white papers).  Not so fast folks; remember that it’s all about proper implementation, making the whole more than just the sum of the parts… And the ultimate proof lies in listening.

 

Theoretically, streaming bits is streaming bits, so the inputs should sound identical.  However, we know that other variables come into play, so this is never really the case.  So here’s the story, based on my own listening experience.

I got the very best sound using my Jolida JD100 cd player as a transport, feeding the digital signal into the DA11’s coax S/PDF input.  I’m not talking night and day differences here, but they were audible.  For example, I have lately been using Rene Marie’s Vertigo (MaxJazz MXJ 114, cd) as a vocal reference.  If you like modern female jazz vocalists, do yourself a favor and check this one out.  Rene is totally genuine, and her voice can go from sultry and sexy to nearly orgasmic in a matter of seconds.  In the opening moments of her rendition of “I Only Have Eyes For You,” Rene’s voice is clear with breathy overtones (read: highly seductive).  Via the coax input, that’s exactly what I heard.  Using the usb input, I heard a slight loss of resolution, leading to a bit of “hooding” of her voice with a trace of graininess.  Again, these are differences one has to strain to hear, and probably wouldn’t be that noticeable if one weren’t doing A/B comparisons.  Let’s just saythat I had no trouble going back to the more convenient usb/computer combination.  Could this slight graininess be the result of some residual jitter in the usb interface?  Hard to tell, so I really won’t speculate.

Regarding the toslink interface, this is where I was most surprised.  Most of the “serious” audio literature I have come across recommends toslink as a last-resort interface, not to be taken seriously by card-carrying audiophiles.  Fine for gamers, teenagers, and armchair home theater aficionados, but not audiophiles!  I have always bought into this philosophy.  You know, don’t question authority…  However, my interest was piqued when I saw on the Lavry website that both the DA10 and DA11 could be linked directly to my Mac Mini via a mini jack to standard toslink optical cable.  I asked Lavry’s tech support guru, Brad Johnson, what he thought about all this nonsense, and he told me that I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the usb and optical inputs. 

Well, I figured, I’d show this dude who’s boss, so I went to the lifatec.com and ordered an inexpensive mini/toslink optical cable to try out.  Lo and behold, I’ll be damned if Brad wasn’t right!  I don’t think I could tell the difference between the optical and usb inputs if I were blindfolded.  Now I’m kicking myself for not bringing my DA10 upstairs earlier and linking it to my computer optically!

 

 

There’s one more rather unique feature of the DA11 that deserves coverage here, and that’s the Playback Image Control, or PiCTM. This is essentially a digital processing module that lets the user control the width and symmetry of the soundstage. 

The DA11 offers 6 image settings for each channel. The settings are:

 +2 for widest

 +1 for wide

0 for normal

-1 for narrow

 -2 for narrower

-3 for narrowest

According to Dan Lavry’s white paper on the topic, the PiCTM is meant to compensate for asymmetrical or otherwise non-ideal speaker placement in a given room, as well as provide for more realistic sounding headphone listening.  Both channels are controlled independently, which is a pretty cool feature.  Since my room is reasonably optimized, and I’m not a big headphone listener, I really didn’t end up using the PiCTM that much.  I’m guessing most serious listeners won’t as well, but it’s a nice feature to have if you need it.  I played around with it a bit, and it does work as advertised.  I noticed a bigger difference in compressing the soundstage than widening it.  One application did seem germane, however.  Everyone has a few of those pesky recordings from the early days of stereo where everything was panned hard left and hard right, leaving a hole in the middle of the soundstage. 

One of my favorites of this genre is Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s “First Time!  The Count Meets the Duke” on Columbia (LP, CS8515, ripped to my hard drive).  The Count and his orchestra emanate from one speaker, and the Duke and his folks emanate from the other speaker leaving, you guessed it, empty space in the middle.  Could PiCTM save the day?  With the settings at -2 for each channel, the twin pianos of Basie and Ellington shifted toward the middle of the soundstage, as if they were side by side on a real stage, as opposed to off-stage left and right.  A definite improvement in realism, I would say.  Try it; you might like it!

As a final note, I always like to have my audiophile friends listen to gear I review, mainly to see if they hear the same things I do.  To this end, I invited my friends Mike Peshkin (also a regular Stereomojo reviewer) and John Fritz over for a listen.  We spent a fair bit of time listening to the Lavry in my system, and everyone wound up quite impressed.  We didn’t stop there, however.  We decided to pack up both dacs and take them over to John Fritz’s house for a listen.  Now John has a very resolving system employing Audio Research amplification and Wilson Audio MAXX speakers.  If there is a problem with a component, you are sure to hear it in that system.  We ended up spending most of an afternoon and evening putting both dacs through their paces.  Since John doesn’t have a computer server, all of our comparisons were made using a Denon transport via coaxial S/PDIF into each dac.  We listened to each dac in two configurations: unbalanced into the Audio Research preamplifier, and balanced out directly into the amplifier.  We listened to jazz, rock, and large scale orchestral.  In most cases, we all preferred the Lavry.  With rock and intimate jazz, the differences seemed smaller, and in one case, a couple of us preferred the Benchmark.  However, once we got to massed strings and brass, the Lavry marched out ahead by a fairly wide margin.  I believe that the differences between the two dacs seemed smaller in John’s system because the tube amplification helped flesh out the Benchmark’s trademark leanness in the midrange.

So where does all of this leave us?  I’d say without a doubt that the Lavry DA11 is most definitely an audio success.  It offers lots of input options, remote control access, a headphone amp, the unique PiCTM feature, and yes, I almost forgot, great sound.  Is it the best dac out there?  I have no idea, as there are a lot of premium dacs from pro audio and audiophile manufacturers such as Weiss, Metric Halo, Apogee, Ayre, Wavelength, etc. that I haven’t heard.  Most offer either usb or firewire interfaces and should work well with computer-based servers.  However, many of the upper end products from these companies are considerably more expensive than the DA11.  And Lavry still has its upper end Gold and Blue offerings.  I’d wager, however, that the DA11 hits that important sweet spot in audio where the buyer gets the best value and feature set for the money.  Spending more might lead to slightly better sound, but it’s a game of diminishing returns.  Remember, we here at Stereomojo are about finding components that offer the best bang for the buck, and the Lavry DA11 most certainly accomplishes this!

It’s sort of a bittersweet moment as I get ready to pack the DA11 up and send it home to Washington.  I’ve learned a lot in this review.  For instance, I am glad I took the time to realize how good optical toslink, when properly implemented, can sound.  And perhaps the best news for me is that my DA10 has gotten promoted.  It now has the place of honor in my big system, linked to my computer using that inexpensive little optical cable.  Who’d have thunk it?  Remember, take the advice of the sages with a grain of salt sometimes, and take the time to experiment for yourself… you might be surprised at what you come up with.  Finally, thanks to all at Lavry Engineering, especially Dan, Priscilla, and Brad; it’s been a blast!

 

While some folks might find the Lavry DA11 a bit stylishly challenged, it reminds me of the girl next door you would want to marry.  This dac was eminently reliable, musical, and satisfying.  I can say that in the time I spent with the DA11, I never came close to tiring of it.  And the majority of its beauty lies underneath the exterior, as this is one well-implemented piece of kit.  For a more than reasonable price tag, the buyer gets tons of features, sound engineering, and phenomenal sonics.  Remember, the whole is more than the sum of its parts…

 

 

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