Another

Review

 

 

TrueHarmonix U2 Preamp/DAC

$699

Review by

Michael Peshkin

At under $1,000, here's yet another product that falls into the category of "Stereo for Cheap Bastards". This is too much fun. Maybe it should be illegal. Banned in 7 countries!

I’ve become involved with some DIY projects and now, computer sound! That, of course, is only one thing you can use a digital to analog converter for, but that’s where I’ve been listening to the U2. The unit is designed and made in Taiwan.

The U2 should perhaps be renamed the U3 because it is actually three products in one: a DAC, a preamplifier and a headphone amplifier. The DAC portion is NOS or non-over sampling; it won't take your original 16/44.1 Redbook CD bitstream and upsample it to, say, 24/96. What it sees via it's input is what you hear. For many, that is actually sonically superior to upsampling or oversampling, even though it is claimed to natively play digital content up to 24/192; impressive in itself for $699 even if were only a DAC without the other two features. If you just have to know, the U2 employs the Cirrus CS4398 Chip for all its dirty, digital duties.

The rather smallish metal chassis (2 x 6.46 x 9 inches) weighs in at a rather hefty 7.8 lbs, aided by an expensive looking thick acrylic front panel.  The, uh, red protuberance on the front is a volume control. It's length makes it easy to grip and also makes a rather stylish fashion statement. I'll comment further on that later. The other knob on front isn't a knob at all, but a touch sensitive on/standby toggle. Again, an unexpected luxury touch on a $700 product.

Around back, you get a coax, optical and USB digital input. No SP/DIF or XLR like the Eastern electric. Outputs are labelled, Analog, DAC and Main. To make it even more fun, the U2 has a great analog input too, so that if you have line level playback gear you can use it as a preamp, or as I did, with a phono stage. There is also a stereo mini-jack output. It also has two different headphone jacks on the front panel, HD (for high damping) and  LD (low damping). Plug your cans in the HD socket and you get a simulated solid state device with higher bandwidth and a little cooler shading. The LD or lower damping jack makes things sound a little warmer and three-dimensional as a tube might. From what I heard, the two settings do roughly approximate the difference between tube and solid state - without actually using a tube. Pretty cool. If you like headphones and don’t feel claustrophobic like I, you’ll have a very versatile unit with the U2. Oh yeah, if you want to upgrade the AC power cable, you can. The supplied generic cord is not captive.

I’m not a fan of headphones; perhaps being caught in a drainage pipe for a short time when I was 9 years old has some influence on that. And neither is my wife, but I connected the U2 to her Dell laptop she uses on the dining room table. She got a kick out of listening to the Blue channel on XM radio.

I used it as a preamp, connected to the Audio by Van Alstine Insight+ 240 amplifier. I still have the Fritz Carbon 7s connected to that amp; the sound has been enveloping and, well, just plain fun.

A Dynavector P75 Mk. II phono stage is supplying me with analog sound; it’s connected to the analog input and the sound has been smooth and full. With a good online radio feed or with the Kenwood turntable playing the lead-in attack has been awesome. Bass, and the Carbon 7s are surprising in that respect, is powerful, beautifully presented and VERY real.

Possessing the versatility of a preamp and a DAC in a small package really is a turn-on. My Cary preamp, the pre that’s normally in that system has been down for well over a month so the U2 has been a life saver. I think I have moved the U2 and the Eastern Electric DAC back and forth the between the two systems in my basement at least 5 or 6 times. I can’t decide which one I like better! The Eastern Electric Minimax is a DAC only, though it does have a volume knob to adjust its output in case you want to run it direct, but the fact that the U2 actually has inputs so you can use it as a little linestage makes me want it very badly.

It may be interesting to note that as of this writing, fully FIVE of us Stereomojo reviewers have now purchased the Eastern Electric MiniDAC. However, if the U2 didn’t “do music” as well as it does, I surely would not want to keep it in my home. Whether the music is orchestral or Big Band, Blue Grass or Jazz, this little unit gives more than anyone would ever believe, much more. Timing and flow is as good as I have ever heard with a good analog rig. That isn’t supposed to be!

At least, until I got the Eastern Electric MiniDAC I thought that way. Digitally reproduced music, at least for this youngster, has become as close to the feeling I associate with LP playback as could ever be imagined. I’m not going to play the apple and oranges game ever again. It is MUSIC I hear, not any flavor. There is no vanilla or chocolate; no apples and oranges. That’s quite a statement from Mike who has an LP collection of over 10,000 – if he’s still counting - publisher

PC sound, of course, is no better than the signal sent. Just as a poorly recorded LP cannot be made to sound like a perfect recording, a digital signal does not in any way improve that recording. I suppose it could be manipulated in the digital domain by the radio station that is streaming it, but you and I both know they aren’t going to do that.

I’m convinced, until I hear a very familiar recording, that high bitrate MP3’s can sound ok. The few times I have been able to compare an LP or CD I own to the PC sound issuing forth from either the Minimax or the Trueharmonix, there is no doubt that MP3 has a restricted sound. Knowing its limitations, would I want MP3 quality for all of my music listening? No more than I would want to listen to that transistor radio that I took to the community swimming pool when I was 12 years old as my only music source. Thankfully it is far more pleasant sounding than that! But perhaps the most surprising things about the U2 is how well it handles lower resolution digital material. If you listen a lot to less-than-CD quality files, the U2 should be on your shipping list. You might be as surprised as I was how good they sound through the U2.

The transistor radio could not even begin to have the sonic attributes that PC sound has. But when connected to a good transport, the U2 really can show its stuff. It is the Humphrey Bogart of the digital world; the Minimax being the Jimmy Stuart (Maybe younger people would rather me use Keannu Reeves and Brad Pitt?).

Listening to both the EE and the U2 in all of the same situations, I really enjoyed both even though the difference between the two is rather vast. But the Minimax could not have a phono stage or any other line level attached to it! With either the Edwards Audio phono stage I had in for review or my Dynavector P75 Mk. I,I playing LPs was a very pleasant experience. The Dynavector sounded beautiful; I was amazed at the detail the combination of the U2, the P75 and my VPI HW19 Mk. IV revealed in each and every LP I played. The Edwards showed that the U2 is capable of throwing a very wide soundstage, the images shown with quite a bit of three dimensional beauty (for thems that care about that sort of thing), but what it gets right, whether PC audio, CD playback or as a line stage, is great MUSIC. The music swayed and flowed through and saturated me as if I were a dry sponge. I absorbed it all, and it flowed past me to fill the room with very believable sound.

I’d write about the LPs I listened to such as Toussaint (Sceptor records SPS24003) and tell you about attack and better, the enjoyable sound of the music, but the fact is that although I listened to some CDs with the Audio Alchemy as transport and LPs using the U2 as a line stage, the real fun and joy I had was when it was connected to my computer. THAT is where it would be if I owned it, THAT is where I spent a huge amount of time listening to music off axis from my desk or close listening as I sat on the couch and heard CDs played on the DVD drive or streamed music.

It is that configuration I enjoyed the most, I think most who buy the U2 will do the same, but again it has that line stage & dual, different sounding headphone jacks allowing a lot of versatility. I believe it is there many would find it to be a great asset.

Believable? I am not speaking of the sonic attributes; while good, there are better…that’s a certainty. There’s just so much you can do with a price point of $699. But the edge, the lines, the cut of its jib when producing music was right on! If you want highly illuminated details in your music, look elsewhere. If you want great sounding music you’ll like the U2.

I played No Quarter, all four sides, and my wife played air guitar! She beats her legs like drums with this music, but never has she played air guitar! Kudos to the Edwards Audio phono stage as well as the U2, I realize, but without the U2 as line stage, there would have been no music.

I played the same record later with my Anthem/Hagerman Piccolo set-up and it too, was magnificent. That isn’t the point, really. The point is that the U2 was and is a very remarkable line stage.

There are far more expensive units that cannot get the musical flow correctly, you hear the music as slightly fast or slightly slow, you are not as enthused by what you know is a superb performance. The U2 does it for soda bottle collection redemptions (can you still collect soda bottles and turn them in and get money for a hamburger, French fries and a Coke?). Granted, there are lots and lts of DACs out there for about the same price, I haven’t heard most of them, but I have heard and enjoyed the U2.

 

               Edwards Audio MC1 & Separate Power Supply

I don’t believe I’ve heard better than the U2 at pointing out to me what is wrong with a particular CD. CDs played on an older deck, an AMC CD6b, were far more pleasant to listen to; yet a great recording definitely sounded great. The U2, with some music, can be an unforgiving taskmaster. It excels, shows its attributes and a good recording’s attributes, when fed with the proper food.

My computer is a unit made by a local computer company to my standards, which previously weren’t that high, but I wanted a “better” sound card, and a “better” DVD transport. The sound of the Audio Alchemy transport and the U2 is as good as I’d ever expect, the sound using my computer as a source, while not equaling the sound of CDs on the Audio Alchemy, is very good, very listenable and enjoyable, it is there I found it very warm.

I had and continued to have a few problems getting my computer to recognize the U2, but I have no doubt that it was my ineptitude along with the vagaries of the computer itself, that caused the problems. That is my one caveat, to make sure your computer and the U2 get along well in your sandbox. My wife’s DELL and the U2 married quickly and did quite well together.

I can’t state it strongly enough that listening to streamed music through the U2 was a real joy. Compromised Mp3 sound, lower than CD quality, whatever disparaging thing you wish to say about the average (non hi-rez) online radio station, the sound was eminently listenable; the U2 beautifully delivering the music to my Audio by Van Alstine Insight 240+ amp and onto the speakers I had attached during this listening period, the very listenable Fritz Speakers’ Carbon 7.

If I had never heard some other DACS, I would have been thrilled by the sonics. Not as good as the Minimax when listening for the leading edge, I was quite impressed with the sound of Lionel Hampton’s vibes on XM Jazz radio or Joshua Redman’s sax when playing the CD on the DVD drive of my computer. Only when I connected the U2 to my Monarchy amps with the Audio Alchemy AD pro as transport, the U2 made me fall in love with its ability to simply play music.

Playing the Redman CD Moodswing (Nonesuch STCD 400091) a recording I have been listening to through a lot of equipment lately) on that big system revealed what the U2 is REALLY capable of delivering. Imaging was three dimensional; the soundstage wide, again I would be eminently impressed as good as the sound was, the Minimax bettering it, but the U2 made music envelop me, always putting a smile on my face. Being wrapped in a blanket and given a hot cup of tea, your cat lying across your feet and keeping them warm, that is what you get from this DAC! Nothing priced like this should deliver as much. Just do not connect it to an already warm system!

I could list 19 CDs and how each sounded, but in truth, I mostly listened to the U2 through the computer, streaming radio. I also played CDs on the computer’s DVD drive, which sounded far better played on the Audio Alchemy/Minimax set-up.

Using the DC as a preamp, the Kenwood KD500 vintage turntable played some beautiful music, good attack and all the regular aural cue stuff…but mainly it was just plain wonderful to listen to as a streamer, nothing but a streamer, you can put your hands on your head, but rather put them on the knob of the U2 and crank it up!

 

We're issuing an emergency Cheap Bastard alert. While the $750 Eastern Electric DAC is phenomenal and I could not live without it now that it is in my system, remember the U2 is a preamp AND headphone amp with two different sounding outputs; a three for less-than-the-price of one bonus! A superb DAC that allows you to hook up a phono stage or other line level device, thus enjoying your CD and LP collection is a great idea. Good, really good sound along with that versatility? If you need a DAC, this definitely should be considered. You may need to call the police and tell them you don’t know what you’ve done, but for it to be this good for this price, it must be illegal.

The U2 may be one of the most fun audio toys I’ve ever had in for review. I absolutely loved listening to streamed radio with it. Tormentils has done something with this product that makes it stand out as a player of less-than-CD quality files. Of course, even the quality of 256 or 320 ripped MP3's can vary drastically, so it won't make bad ones sound like a Reference Recording SACD. And it won't make a 128 sound like a 320. But what it will do is make lower resolution files and internet streaming listenable for those of us that recognize and appreciate high quality music.

There is no remote control available if that's a concern.

We reviewed the Eastern Electric DAC recently and I have to state that if you want a great DAC and have a good transport, the MiniMax is quite phenomenal. I want both, and although some might wish to have the MiniMax if they owned both of my systems, I think I’d be happiest with the U2 on the computer, the Minimax with a good transport in another system. The best of both worlds…there can’t be anything wrong with that, can there?

 

PUBLISHED SPECS

MODEL:U2
DIGITAL INPUT:USB(96K/24BIT)
OPTICAL(192K/24BIT)
COAX(192K/24BIT)
ANALOG INPUT:RCA X 1
HEADPHONE OUTPUT:3.6MM X 2(LD X 1 + HD X 1)
ANALOG OUTPUT:RCA X 2, 3.5MM X 1
Contactless On/Off Switch
OS Support: Win7 64&32bit, Vista 64&32bit, XP, MAC
Custom USB Driver Design
Special USB Transfer Design
Custom Control Panel for 32bit OS
Cirrus CS4398 Chip
1 Year Warranty

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