If you are familiar with Stereomojo even a little bit, you surely know that we strongly encourage our readers to send us requests, suggestions, comments, ideas or any input having to do with the publication. We know that everyone has reasons they avoid review sites and especially print magazines; and for good reason. Virtually all of them exist to provide a source of or even the sole source of someone's income. That's not the case here, so we have a lot more freedom from conflicts of interests and therefore we are able to let our readers run the show. No fear. We say that we want our readers to think of Stereomojo as their publication, not ours. And we mean it. A majority of what happens here comes directly from our readers. That is precisely the case with what you are now reading; the number one request from our readers is MORE SHOOTOUTS!
We've done a number of them in the past, most notable our blind shootout of 14 "digital" amps. That's right - fourteen of 'em. Of equal note was our blind shootout of 11speakers that retail for $1,000 or under - an early precursor to our now famous "Stereo for Cheap Bastards" feature where we review components that top out at the same $1,000.
Putting together blind shootouts ain't easy; they are very time and money intensive. You need to assemble a large number of current products in the same place at the same time and you have to persuade manufacturers to participate, something many are reticent to do. Then you have to congregate a number of experienced audiophiles to be there at the same time as the components. And finally, you have to find a kind soul (and his wife) who is willing to put up with the wrecking of their household for a weekend who happens to have a system worthy of a reference.
Mike Peshkin, one of our beloved reviewers, is the kindest soul on the planet and his wife Carol is a true saint and I want to again thank them profusely for letting us invade their home. It helped a lot that Mike was putting on his 9th annual Ribfest where audiophiles, friends and family come to enjoy a feast fit for a king and fellowship that ranks near the top of any experience one is fortunate enough to experience. Mike lives in Chambersburg, PA, so for me it was a 1,200 mile trek in each direction, a long drive by anyone's standard. But there were another guy there from Florida and others from New York, California, Indiana, Kentucky and other far away places, most among the elite of the Audio Asylum audio board and veteran audiophiles and music lovers. There was much more discussions about music than there was about stereo gear, so the term "music lovers" is not misplaced. I can can say in all honesty that I cannot remember a weekend I have enjoyed more in a very long time. Everyone was just a joy to be around and I laughed more in two days than I have in the last 6 months, easy. Funny guys.
For instance, the Stereomojo DAC Shootout was almost immediately dubbed the "DAC-OFF". One of the funniest lines came from our hostess Barb Peshkin, who upon seeing the judges head back to the listening room after a short break, queried, "Are you guys going to go DAC off some more?" After laughing my butt off for a minute, I told Barb I had a whole new level of respect for her.
We have reviewed all but the Metric Halo and the Lampizator and those are in progress. Links to the current reviews of these DACs will be at the end of this report.
The process was simple: We pitted DAC A vs DAC B, C vs D and E vs F in round one. The winner of each of those was then pitted against each other in a semi-final.The two winners of the semi went to the final. That winner was the overall victor. Only three people knew the identity any of the DACs in the contest: me, Mr. Peshkin and Dr. John Richardson who is also a reviewer with Stereomojo - Senior Editor of Computer Audio. Dr. John was in charge of the setup and conducting the tests. We used his Mac Mini running Amarra as the source of the test tracks. None of us, of course, participated in scoring the tests.
In addition to the Mac Mini (latest version) the system was:
Infinity Compositions P-FR speakers,
TG Audio or TelWire loudspeaker cables,
Slightly modified Monarchy 100 SE monoblock amps
Anthem Pre1 P (w/ outboard power supply) preamp
Silver Dragon ICs, Telwire ICs from pre to power amp
Steel rack w/slate and/or maple block shelves, design by Dino
Brick Wall power Filters
The subwoofer and tube amp on the floor were not part of the system.
All DACs used a standard IEC cable and were warmed up prior to playing. Pink noise was used to set levels until the panel got tired of the blast of noise and found we could set levels even better by ear(s) than the RTA I was using. The DACs were hidden behind the system, out of view of the judges.
The judges were given a single sheet of paper for each contest with spaces for their name, which DACs were in the round (each DAC was assigned a letter) and blank lines under "FIRST DAC OBSERVATIONS" and "SECOND DAC OBSERVATIONS". Beneath that was a blank for "My Preference" and lastly a multiple choice for "Difference was: Significant, Subtle, Hardly Any at All". Frankly, my biggest fear was that there would be very little difference between the boxes. Previously, I had only heard one of the DACs in the Shootout. As it turned out, my fear was very unfounded.
For those of you who think that blind shootouts are a waste of time, we at Stereomojo understand that there are flaws inherent in a single blind test, just as there are in any type of evaluation. We believe that the best test is your own ears in your own home in your own system. As with any test or review, this should be used as just one piece of your overall buying decision. We do NOT recommend that you go out and buy anything based on these tests. We think the more honest and unbiased information a buyer has, the better equipped he is to make important decisions and this is just another source of information.
"One Foot in the Blues" from the Johnny Adams album by the same title. We choose this for its jazz/blues/male vocal genre and its outstanding realism and uncompressed, unlimited dynamics and natural recording process. Outstanding rendering of drums/cymbal and Hammond organ (the bass was being played on the organ pedals with no electric or acoustic bass which can be very muddy on an inferior system) with the deep, strong, baritone male vocal out front, with minimal natural reverb; a good test of midrange potential coloration.
"SONG OF BERNADETTE" from Jennifer Warne's "Famous Blue Raincoat", 20th Anniversary Remastered Addition. This was chose mainly because most people are familiar with it since it has been an audiophile staple for decades. Of course,it is also a female vocal with much passion and feeling with the instrumentation featuring piano and strings, always a good test of components.
"Over the Rainbow" from the Celtic Woman album "A New Journey". This is an Acapella performance of three women with very similar, hard to distinguish voices. They are placed left, center and right between the speakers and sing at different intervals in the arrangement solo and ensemble. Their performance is drenched in long, deep artificial reverb that is very difficult for a DAC to rendered perfectly. Reverb alone can separate the good from the best in many cases.
"A Sussex Overture" from "Arnold Overtures". This was a 24/172 file from Reference Recordings HRx series. This series is issued on a data DVD with one WAV file for each selection. Chosen because it is a high resolution 24 bit orchestral track with a great layered soundstage and extreme dynamics with lots of big bass drum hits and sparkling percussion. No vocals.
The Panel of Esteemed Judges was:
Thanks yet again guys for your time, patience and participation. It was an honor to work with all of you!
I think it's fair to point out that most of these guys are strongly in the tube electronics and vinyl analog over digital camp.
A vs. B
EASTERN ELECTRIC MINIDAC vs. EASTERN ELECTRIC MINIDAC
$750 vs $750
Sounds like we started out with a bit of tomfoolery, but the contest was between the EE DAC in Solid State mode versus the same DAC in Tube mode. With a single push of a button, the EE can toggle between the two modes, the tube being a Shuguang 12AU7. So the question was, could the panel tell a difference between the two, if so, how much, and which mode would sound better. So, the shootout was no only between two different modes of one DAC, but it could be implied that it was a blind test of the eternal debate between tubes and solid state in general. In a bit of irony, as we changed over from one mode to the other, Jim Koska said, "You know, if you really wanted to mess with our minds, since we have no idea what we're listening to, you play the same DAC both times". Jim is far too smart for his own good!
The EE DAC is a non-upsampling DAC - it plays at the bitrate of the incoming file: sampling rates of 32bit,32KHz,44.1KHz,48KHz and 192KHz, restricted to 16/44.1 via USB. It uses the ESS Sabre 9018 DAC chip. Five digital inputs (USB, Toslink, Coax, BNC, XLR);
It may be of interest to know that Stereomojo did the world's first review of the Eastern Electric DAC. After listening to the DAC myself, I found it to be so compelling that I asked TWO other reviewers to listen and offer their opinions to see if they, not knowing my opinion, would find it as amazing for the price as I. They did. in an unprecedented act, all three of us ending up buying one. Since then, three more of our reviewers have purchased the EE to use as their reference DAC. So how would it fare with a panel of 6 audiophiles with no clue as to what they were listening to, most if not all who had never heard it before at all?
OK Midfi, soundstage between speakers, shallow reverb, syrupy, bass not very tight
Immediately impressive, but doesn't attract me in the end. Female vocals borderline glary.
Clean, transparent, dynamic. Reverb harsh on transients
I'm hearing an artifact, can't explain it
Excellent dynamics, VG lateral image & transparency. Excellent ambience.
More musical presentation - Vocals more transparent than A
B is cleaner sounding DAC
I preferred this one on Jennifer Warnes - more acoustic & lifelike, strings more correct
"Rainbow" easier to distinguish the words
Tighter deeper bass, less dynamic range, more realistic, smoother more relaxed, piano and bass less harsh
Organ sounds more organic - more dynamic that DAC A - 2nd & 3rd track substantially more appealing
Less syrupy - low hi-end sound - soundstage OK - sibilance more natural - better lows
EASTERN ELECTRIC MINIDAC in SOLID STATE MODE
by a vote of 5 to 1
5 of the 6 judges indicated that the differences were "Significant" with one saying they were "Subtle".
Interestingly, the one judge who voted for DAC "A" wrote, "This is a cleaner sounding DAC" about DAC B on his score sheet, but thought "A" had more dynamics and ambience.
Darby's comments: The panel was not informed of the identity of any the DACs until the very end when the winner of the DAC OFF was announced, so at this point they did not know that they had preferred a solid state presentation over the tube. Needless to say, this revelation caused a lot of comments which I'll reveal, along with other observations of the DAC OFF, at the end of this report. Track four was not used in this round due to technical difficulties. Score sheets were tallied by Jim Koska, one of the judges, so that there would be no question of any impropriety with anyone associated with Stereomojo.
Judge Jim Koska adjusts volume level
C vs D
LAVRY DA11 vs. Anedio D1
$1,480 vs $1,270
The Lavry and Anedio are both solid state devices. The Anedio accepts USB (driver-free, adaptive, 16/48), BNC (24/192), coaxial (24/192) and optical (24/192). No XLR. It does have a headphone output. It also uses the ESS Sabre 9018 DAC chip, same as the EE.
The Lavry DA11 features 4 inputs: XLR AES-EBU, RCA SPDIF, TOSLINK S/PDI and USB. There are 2 XLR analogue outputs
A headphone jack on front panel. While the DA11 is a NOS DAC, it does NOT natively support sample rates above 24/96, downsampling them to 24/96. DAC chip is unknown.
DAC C - Lavry
The Lavry suffered a few dropouts during the test.
Transparency OK, soundstage mostly between speakers, 3D OK
Overall, 3 on a scale of 5
Not impressive - no "there" there
Vocals more congested than A or B, Less dynamics
DAC D - Anedio
Sounds more like "B" , but has more sibilance
Better dynamics than C
Overall, a 4 on a scale of 5
No dropouts! Kind of harsh on track 3
More pleasing than C, a little bass shy, lovely - though not as detailed as DAC A or B
by a vote of 6 to 0
4 of the 6 judges indicated that the differences were "Significant" with 2 saying they were "Subtle".
Darby's comments: The Lavry suffered intermittent dropouts on 2 tracks, the only DAC to do so. Dr. Richardson who reviewed it for Stereomojo could not explain why the dropouts occurred since the setup was the same as when he reviewed it with the Mac Mini source. He said it had never exhibited any dropouts previously. He checked afterwards to make sure everything was connected correctly - it was.
E vs F
Metric Halo 2D Expanded vs. Lampizator Level 4
$1,695 vs 3,300 Euros (about $4,700)
The Metric Halo is considered to be (and marketed as) a commercial grade mobile digital audio hub. It is strictly solid state, featuring a FireWire interface that provides 4 inputs and 6 outputs of simultaneous I/O, 24/96kHz A/D/A conversion with two channels of Ultra Low Noise preamps (72dB of gain with an E.I.N. of –130.5dBu), two channels of digital I/O as AES and S/PDIF, balanced send/return path, and individual monitor and headphone outputs, each with front panel level. It does not support higher resolution tracks above 24/96.
The Lampizator level 4 is a hand-made, all tube, limited production no compromise audiophile DAC conceived and built by Lukasz Fikus in Poland. Lukasz tested almost every DAC chip from Burr-Brown, Analog Devices, Sony, Cirrus Logic, Crystal Semiconductors, Philips, Asahi Kasei Microsystems, ESS, Sanyo, Matsushita, Nippon Precision NPC,and Wolfson Microsystems, but he will not disclose the chip he uses in this product, but he does say, "The chips are modern, not the nostalgic TDA's of any sort, and they are not available in DACS currently known to me elsewhere. The chips are selected from the computer industry because they just sounded better. I can say no more, except some basic specs:
input automatically recognizes frequency, up to 192 kHz
Bit length is up to 24
No USB available
Balanced operation: possible
AES/EBU - possible
Toslink - possible
The whole circuit - the whole DAC - both digital section as well as analog section have zero transformers, neither on S/PDIF nor on analog I/U conversion
There is only ONE capacitor in the whole circuit - both analog and digital - in the so called series path.
There is only ONE gain stage
The output impedance is circa 600 Ohms
All the wiring inside is made with silver wire in teflon, and no wire is longer than 2-5 inches. The optimized point to point allows for connection by part legs - without any wire at all.
As for the tubes, he told us "Signal tubes as standard are Soviet 6H6P - very smooth, powerful and analog sounding. They are used up to 25% of their nominal power which leads to life expectancy of 20 years or more. For the die hard audiophiles, a substitution with NOS ecc88 or e88cc is possible. Or for Soviet 6N1P for a different sound (more slam and detail, less analog liquidity)", he says.
Regarding the power supply, he says, "It is a basic well filtered and much over specified 9 V DC supply. It works so well, there is no need for batteries. Under even the worst case scenario - the supply is flat, noiseless and capable. It makes the DAC and receiver very happy. Every digital consumer has one regulated power stage per input. (currently there is 5 per PCB plus tube heaters (regulated as well). The supply paths (five of them) to the digital part make the best use of Sanyo OS-Con capacitors, SEPC series where it matters, and tantalum military grade caps and small chokes too. Even if the whole lampized DAC consumes only 25 Watts in total, we employ a custom made toroidal transformer capable of 50 Watts with separate secondary winding for every task needed. The Digital board is supplied by a separate EI custom made transformer.
Also the analog output caps, despite their nominal requirement of 0,47 uF per channel - we install Paper in Oils of 1,5 uF or more, to make sure that all the glory of the deepest bass notes comes out unharmed with no phase shift. To ensure a trouble free longevity of the Lampizator DAC, all the caps are overrated in voltage by at least 100 %. Knowing the military standards - the real ratings of voltage failure lies somewhere 400 % above of what we use.
DAC E - Metric Halo
Nice decay on snare drum, just seems musical, got me involved
3 singers! (on the Celtic Woman acapella track) Oh yeah! I like!
I like the vocals, depth, dynamics and reverb good
Best so far, sound stage wider, sibilance, coloration and 3D acceptable, nice percussion
Very good dynamics
Soft sound, not too exciting, relaxed
OK - not special, pleasing though not as much as much as one of the others
DAC F - Lampizator
Vocals OK, very clear
Best of all, most natural, low coloration, best 3D soundstage depth of all, sibilance natural
Excellent dynamics, better than DAC E
Tube-like sound in bass, nice cymbals, good vocal
The bass is back! Very dynamic, excellent - same on all tracks. One of the best
I can't hear any difference!
Lampizator Level 4
by a vote of 4 to 2
4 judges indicated the difference between the two was "Significant, 1 said "Subtle' with one circling "Hardly any difference at all"
Darby's comments: Interesting results between an all solid state DAC at $1,695 versus an all-tube product for $4,700, wouldn't you say?
I had agreed with the vast majority of the judge's comments as well as the winners up to this point, but here I deviated quite a bit, though I agreed with the winner. I thought the difference between the two was huge with the Lampizator clearly superior in all qualities.
This is the end of Round 1.