Would you look at that… the trilogy is finally coming to an end. The first one was for myself, the second one was at request of the community, this one is back to being written for myself. I was able to set up a pretty incredible handful of weeks with some top tier options in my own setups, and you bet your ass I’m going to try and write about them, can’t let an opportunity like this go to waste. I can’t really go any higher for various reasons (cost, time, and if it’s even possible), so this is kinda it, my journey to find the DAC I plan to live with as long as possible, completed. I hope.
Sure, there’s a lot more out there I could try, and there’s going to likely be some amazing products in the future as well, but I’m looking to really call it quits here. I realistically could have stopped my journey long ago and settled on most all of the DACs I tested in PT1 since really almost all of those were fantastic, but no. I just had to wonder what each step brought and then compare options at each level lol. This is the last one, and with any luck, you won’t be seeing any more of these, as I’ll just be enjoying my setup not caring about anything in the world (I know this isn’t likely going to happen, but I can dream).
I don’t really have much more to say here, you know the drill at this point, I’ll get into the stuff that actually matters now:
The Final Five (and associated modifications/tubes/upgrades):
- Totaldac d1-twelve-mk2 (own)
- d1-driver-mk2 monoblocks to bypass internal output stage
- live-powers for all PSU
- Acrolink DA6100 & DA3100 Clock / Control
- APL HIFI DSD-MR MK2 (own)
- Stock tubes
- EMM Labs DV2 (on loan)
- Aural Symphonics Optimism Lotus ST (for testing with NS1)
- Berkeley Alpha Reference Series 3 (on loan)
- There’s nothing to note here lol
- Lampizator Horizon (on loan)
- Takatsuki 274B & KR RK 5U4G for rectifiers
- Brimar CV1988 & Mullard CV181 for input
- Tung-Sol KT170, KR KT88, & Tesla EL51 (w/ adapters) for output
- Graphite Audio IC-35 footers
Have to thank the generous friends and dealer who created this opportunity; and also give them the middle finger for pushing me this high up in the first place though lol. I will note right off the bat, these are all amazing, and I could live with any of them and be happy, but I do plan on only going with 2 of these DACs, one for my Setup 1, the other for Setup 3. Speaking of that:
– Setup 1:
Digital: Home Switch -> UpTone EtherREGEN (w/ Mojo Illuminati V3) -> Ediscreation Silent Switch OXCO Extreme (ground isolated on incoming, connected on outgoing) -> Antipodes K50 (running Squeeze server & player)
Cables: Commscope Teraspeed Fiber + Finistar SFP, JCAT Signature Ethernet, Final Touch Audio Sinope USB, Transparent Reference XL AES, Triode Wire Labs The Obsession Power (all connected to a PS Audio P20, separate 20a circuit)
Analog: DAC(s) -> LAMM LL1.1 Signature -> LAMM ML3 Signature OR LAMM LL1.1 Signature -> Angstrom Stella SHA20 MK2
Cables: Purist Audio Design Neptune Luminist XLR, RCA, Spade, Neptune Diamond Power (direct into wall, separate 20a circuit, Synergistic Research Orange Duplex)
Tubes: Stock tubes
Transducers: Verity Lohengrin IIS & LB-acoustics Mysphere 3.1
– Setup 2:
Digital: PC -> Ideon 3R Master Time Blackstar OR Totaldac D1-Digital-MK2 OR Berkeley Alpha USB
Cables: Final Touch Audio Callisto USB, Synergistic Research Atmosphere X Alive Power AES & Power
Analog: DAC(s) -> Bricasti M28 Monoblocks
Cables: Synergistic Research Atmosphere X Alive RCA & XLR & Power
Transducers: Borresen 01
– Setup 3:
Digital: PC -> Mutec MC-3+ USB -> Totaldac D1-Digital-MK2 OR EMM Labs NS1
Cables: Final Touch Audio Sinope USB, Tara Labs RSC Air Evolution AES, Triode Wire Labs The Obsession Power (separate 20a circuit)
Analog: DAC(s) -> FM Acoustics FM155-MKIIR -> FM Acoustics FM108-MKII Monoblocks OR DAC(s) -> Mass Kobo 394 II/Eddie Current Studio T/Oji Special BDI-DC44B GT
Cables: FM Acoustics P.I.T. RCA & XLR -> RCA OR Tara Labs RSC Air Evolution XLR & RCA, Triode Wire Labs The Obsession OR attached power cables (separate 20a circuit)
Tubes: RCA 2A3 Black Plate
Transducers: LB-acoustics Mysphere 3.2, Hifiman Susvara, Focal Utopia, Final D8000 Pro, Abyss AB1266 Phi TC, early Sennheiser HD600
- It’s just my opinion for what I personally enjoy the most in my own setups, nothing more than that.
- I will only be testing on my own 3 chains, so synergy comparisons are going to be more limited, I’m also not going to change around everything to suit each DAC, so it’s going to be a bit more a question of “how does this DAC slot into my existing setups” rather than changing everything around to best suit each DAC (although I will try to adjust the chains to let these DACs put their best foot forward if possible. It will be less technical than some of the previous comparisons as it’s going to be based more on how I feel in the end and my preferences and synergy rather than a conclusion that’s more applicable to a larger audience.
- I am limited when it comes to digital source, as an example I don’t have APL’s streamer which apparently is the best with their DAC and their proprietary connection, but I do have an NS1 which would favor the EMM, so I am going to try and be fair and mainly judge using the Antipodes and its frontend (might move it around to different setups) which I hope will maximize performance fairly/evenly.
- I have less than a month or so with all these DACs, that’s likely not enough time to put all of them through the paces, I do have to give some of them back to their owners, so I hope this isn’t too limited of a time frame for a fair assessment. I should also note I have owned the Totaldac for a lot longer than anything else in this comparison.
- I’m not descending into tube rolling hell with the Horizon (or any other tube equipment in my chain), so that’s going to be a limiting factor with that DAC, as that will shift the sound a reasonable amount depending on what you put in there.
- I listen to quite a wide range of music in both genre and quality/format, so my preferences are going to tilt toward something that maximizes the most of my library rather only a specific category, so that’s something to keep in mind.
- Don’t take the results as a tier list or choosing the “best”, because it’s only choosing what I feel like is the “best” for my setup and preferences. I can assure you all of these DACs are amazing and can be the “best” in a specific setup for a specific person.
- This one has nothing really to do with price points or value, really mainly only max performance, that’s how they were selected and that’s really what’s going to decide on what I end up going with. I really don’t care too much about looks, features, convenience, etc, or even value in this case (although I won’t skip that entirely), it’s all about sound.
- I lack the vocabulary and writing skill to articulate some of these differences in a coherent way so it may be overly simplistic. Trust me, these are very very very hard to describe, and a lot more different than they seem on paper lol.
- I made sure to let all of these units properly warm up, they are all well broken in, I paid attention to isolation, power, digital signal, everything, I want to make sure I don’t prevent these DACs from performing their best, but I can’t guarantee I did everything that I possibly could have, I’m sure I missed some specific step or thing to note for a specific unit.
- This is really more written for those who have had similar experiences with higher end DACs, it might make less sense or be more confusing for those who haven’t heard systems of this level, so I apologize in advance for that.
- You might find most of all of this is more positive than negative with little downsides for any of the options. That’s just how it is lol, these were all cherry picked from cherry picked batches already, the cream of the crop, crème de la crème, you get the idea. I will try and note some of the downsides, but it’s really quite hard to be too negative at this point. Oh what a problem to have lol (I just don’t want to come off as one of those “everything is awesome” sorta guys)
- I had limited time with the EMM, had to give that back sooner than the others.
With those out of the way…
“I want to find the DAC that makes me forget about all other DACs” is what I initially set out to achieve before I had even written my first DAC comparison, this is what I thought when I bought my first truly balls to the wall DAC, the Aries Cerat Kassandra II Ref. Considering I just used the phrase first balls to the wall DAC, this wasn’t achieved lol. I then shifted my thinking to “I want to find a few high end DACs that offer me good variety and top level performance,” and this lead me to PT1. Given the fact that I now have to call this initial write-up PT1, this clearly didn’t happen either, so I quickly scrapped this way of thinking lol. Hmmmmmm, how do I actually make an achievable goal for myself? I wasn’t expecting that DACs got so good as you kept going up (and so far it just keeps going), that there’s so many both wildly different and equally worthwhile options (seriously, there’s a lot), and that there’s so many possible systems and changes that matter more and more as you go up for these DACs to let them perform their best (stuff like the K50 was a revelation for me). It’s quite a pain in the ass lol.
Well, what am I thinking now? I’m really not sure, but I think that now I have setups that I am well satisfied with, don’t have any plans to change, and I am kinda looking to settle down, the goal has changed to “I want to find something I can live with that both maximizes my finalized setups and removes most desire for something new,” which while I can’t prove it’s a more feasible goal than the last at the current moment, it at least seems more attainable lol. I guess you’ll know if it happened if there’s another one of these articles or not lol.
Setup 1 was actually almost meeting that goal, the Totaldac basically removed any desire I had in most other DACs, and there’s nothing I can really complain about with it. Why am I here then? Well, I have collected SACD for awhile, and it just happens that the Totaldac really doesn’t do that well with that format (I mean, it’s amazing still, but I just wasn’t as floored as how things such as the Lampizator Pacific or Nagra HD handled DSD), and I was really curious how a DSD based DAC of a supposedly similar caliber would fare in that setup. So stupidly I got the APL in, and that somewhat ignited a new wave of curiosity. I was so, so close to my goal, but I just had to ruin it for myself. Well, now you get this, so hopefully someone gets some entertainment value out of this to make up for my stupidity lol. But oh well, I wanted a higher end DAC for Setup 3 anyways, so now I guess it just makes sense to have this shootout (definitely not coping).
I can’t say there’s really a strict, well laid out method I have for this, but I do have some aspects I want to make sure to focus on and cover:
- General sound signature/coloration within each chain, then generalized overall
- Overall technical performance within each chain, then generalized overall
- Differences between digital sources and reaction to DSD (and PCM of course)
- Quality of integrated preamp/volume control in each setup, then overall
- Changes in settings, tubes, inputs and outputs, etc
- Reactions to external tweaks and changes like cabling and isolation
- Then compare all the DACs against each other in each setup, than generalized overall
- Other stuff I might think of later lol
Basically just going to go by listening and using it as I would normally. Letting things come to me with time, trying to thoroughly enjoy rather than listen for the sake of creating a write-up. I want to make sure I miss nothing and take it all in, so I will be spending quite a large amount of this month listening, work is going to have to wait for this one lol. To be clear I will absolutely be listening critically, just going in with a more open mind (don’t want to make it seem like I’m just doing casual listening here, that’s typically impossible anyways given what these DACs put out, they force you to listen critically lol). Near the end of my listening when I felt properly acclimated and comfortable with the DACs, I did both blind and (unblind?) A/B these DACs for comparisons with the help of a friend to verify my prior observations and more accurately convey the level of differences (although I still don’t think I can really properly articulate the level of differences these DACs have between each other, it’s just something you have to hear in person, but isn’t everything that way in the end lol).
Generally I like to take notes during and after listening for whatever comes to mind, then translate that gibberish to a brief summary lol, so I apologize in advance if it’s not the most coherent and easily flowing information out there, but I will try to give some structure instead of a messy stream of thoughts. Without further ado:
While I’d rather get right into the weeds and talk about how each DAC performed in each system, it seems rude to not give them some sort of general introduction and overview first lol. So in this case, the generalized experiences and notes are going to first try and give a feel for what is done consistently well throughout my setups and what they’re really all about. Yada yada all the shortcomings that come with generalization, just make sure to keep them in mind. Most of this will be further elaborated on in other sections, so don’t worry, there’s more if you were curious.
Totaldac: Instantaneous Tangibility
Don’t let the amount of boxes and cables put you off from this setup, you stop caring once you hear it all set up and working. This is a DAC that has continually floored me with its directness and immediacy that I haven’t heard others match, leading to a very, very involved experience and extremely tangible reproduction without shoving it down your throat or creating some inorganic emphasis or coloration, it feels distinctly natural, albeit perhaps slightly relaxed but without limiting or restraining the sound. I have not experienced texture such as this, to where I am hesitant to really call it texture since it feels like much more than that. Spatially, it’s really, really damn good. I want to use the word “holographic,” but I’ve always used that term to describe spatial performance that while immersive and “3D” sounding was inorganic, exaggerated, lacking accuracy, and potentially somewhat void of true spatial prowess underneath. The way the Totaldac presents music is in a space that is extremely finely detailed and accurate to how it feels like it should sound in life, and it consistently is able to pull this spatial information from really most any decently recorded music that contains space to begin with, it feels like it draws every last ounce of dimensionality out of your music (the amount of verticality is also insane). If there is some coloration to this spatial performance, it might be that it adds a bit more of a sense of scale and grandness to things, but this really has almost always been a positive for me and seldom caused any issues or track skips.
The aforementioned tangibility aspect has to be assisted (guessing here) by how accurate the Totaldac conveys weight and density to things that naturally should have it, without adding to things that shouldn’t (although this really only comes through with higher quality recordings from my experience). It leaves the sense of precision and balance with density that I haven’t heard with other DACs when it comes to this aspect. The overall control of this combo is extremely impressive as well, the Totaldac has somewhat of an iron grip over whatever comes out of it, but never feels ham-fisted on its reproduction. This leads to a pretty incredible feeling of tightness without feeling forced or overdone. I could go on about the micro and macrodynamics, resolving power, speed, impact, what have you, but really all of those are close to top notch too, and there’s just a level of deepness and nuance that this DAC conveys that ends up making it the most immediately convincing sound I’ve heard yet. There’s a reason why this DAC almost prevented this entire comparison from happening lol.
I should note though that this experience is only achieved with the d1-driver-mk2s and a really (and I mean really) good digital frontend (in my case an Antipodes K50 with AES and associated upstream gear). The d1-driver-mk2 greatly enhances what the DAC is good at and furthers its unrestrained feel, which it isn’t fully able to articulate without and feels somewhat, well, restrained and limited with its internal output stage. They also greatly enhance the ability to drive power amps with the Totaldac, but really I found it to produce amazing results even when plugged into preamps or integrated systems, I can’t really detect any perceivable downsides in my setups. If you are going to consider this DAC, I wouldn’t suggest it without the drivers, they are a must (as are the live-power power supply upgrades). And the nicer digital source of course. Seriously, don’t skimp.
A big surprise to me was actually this unit’s general performance as a preamp, namely with the drivers. It’s a digital volume control, which right away is generally frowned upon, but really it’s shockingly good driving power amps direct, and reducing the volume to my ears is really minimal quality loss to where I really don’t worry about using it. It’s also helpful to better match levels in your systems between an integrated unit or preamp. Really awesome trait to have. Works well with most power amps and integrated although only truly shines on some pairings and not others when acting as a preamp unlike some of the more versatile preamp options other DACs have mentioned later.
Signature: I want to call it neutral-natural, although it has a slight bit of extra warmth, smoothness, and sweetness. But, its directness also creates an unprecedented sense of clarity at the same time that keeps it sounding fairly balanced regardless of base signature.
Standout Traits: Energy/incisiveness/directness or whatever you want to call it, spatial recreation, tonal density/weighting, anything in the time domain, the sense of being unfettered in the best way possible for the most part.
Weaknesses: While this DAC has immediacy in spades, it doesn’t have immediate wow factor, it’s something that grows and grows on you rather than blowing you away in the first second. If you are after the most forward presentation and information this won’t be the best pick. This also isn’t that forgiving of a DAC in the end, it will leave less than ideal sounding music good, but fairly dull.
Things to Note: you want the drivers, you want the live powers, and you want a good AES/SPDIF digital signal. Excellent preamp capabilities, and excellent bal or se. Lots of cables and boxes though, shitty build.
APL HIFI: Sugary Enough to Give You Cavities
Is there ever such a thing as too much of a good thing? Yes, and too much of a good thing has been distilled down into this very DAC. At first, I actually didn’t notice this, even after acclimation. But comparing to other units in this roundup, the first thing that went through my head was “holy shit, wait what?” It does such a good job at making you forget its coloration, but comparing directly really puts things into perspective. Perhaps let’s get into the actual sound of the damn thing. This is easily the most forgiving DAC in this comparison, and honestly I’d call it one of the most forgiving DACs I’ve ever heard. It has this remarkable ability to make almost anything sound top notch. But it’s also one of the best technically performing as well. Really don’t know how they pulled that one off, but I’m all for it lol. I don’t think I’d call what it’s doing embellishment either, it’s just emphasizing what’s good of everything that runs though it. To be clear, it DOES NOT mask anything, all the flaws/shortcomings/meh aspects of the music are still present and obvious, but the big differentiator is that they aren’t painfully obvious or distracting. It gives you everything, but unlike other DACs of this caliber its able to take the best out of what you are listening to AND make you not really care about the less than desirable aspects. It’s just so sweet, rounded in a really pleasing way, has some bloom that makes things feel very fleshed out tonally, it’s very delicate sounding in general.
Why am I complaining about this, saying it’s too much? It’s generally because this trait becomes somewhat overwhelming in its coloration of what you listen to, and I don’t really feel like I’m getting the true emotion or feeling of the pieces I listen to. This is really a preference thing, I can see people absolutely loving this over the other options, but it’s not something I really know if I want in my setups at this point (a bit of spoilers there lol). The background blackness, microdynamics, resolving power (for the signature), and organic presentation is awesome, and are real standouts and selling points, along with the aforementioned forgivingness, but it can sometimes just homogenize and color the sound enough where I don’t really get the illusion of realism or organicness as much as it seems like I should. Spatially I would call it a bit average there with a more compact stage but fairly open inside that more slightly flatter stage. It’s lacking a bit of overall energy, and dynamically feels almost deliberately compressed but I actually don’t mind in this case since it’s an enjoyable or artistic sense of compression if that makes sense, but it also does contribute to that heavy coloration from my experience. I’d say the priority of this DAC is focusing on taking best from the source and making it a very organic and pleasing experience with little drawback, and is less concerned with creating a more realistic and “there” sort of experience. I don’t want this to sound like a knock, it’s just a very specific sonic goal it has and nails, but it’s not the most realistic/uncolored DAC I’ve heard because of that, but again that’s totally fine for what it goes with and what it achieves, it’s doing plenty, plenty right. Oh, super liquid and coherent, one of the best I’ve heard in this regard.
You can really tell (wild guess here) that it was based off some analog source like a tape deck or vinyl setup as a reference in sound, since it really seems like its coloration and characteristics are somewhat inline with a lot of the best analog sources I’ve heard (although I’m far less experienced with analog sources than digital), I have a feeling if you are coming from an analog source over to digital, this would be a very easy transition. I should clarify that I’m not one of those digital vs analog only one is the best sorta people, they can be both equally good, there’s a lot of things that go into that comparison though lol. As you can tell, I do favor digital though, or at least that’s what I’ve decided to invest in.
Generally I do think this DAC performs its best when given DSD over USB, it sort of feels a bit less colored and homogenizing and more free flowing and unrestrained, sort of taking a bit of the masking layer off to offer a bit more directness and immediacy that is greatly appreciated. I do think PCM is quite good still especially when set to the DSD512 upsampling with the Zero filter, but with native DSD recordings or tape transfers, I think this is really where it comes alive. Would still consider it regardless of if you have a lot of DSD or not though, just something I feel like is worth mentioning in this section.
Signature: Warmer leaning slightly relaxed, sweeter in general, very colored.
Standout Traits: Overall liquidity and coherency, insane forgivingness, tone and timbre, microdynamics, resolving power, background blackness.
Weaknesses: Stage and dynamics are a bit flat in comparison to other options here, very, very colored in comparison to other options, slight homogenization of sound, a bit soft.
Things to Note: Generally favors DSD over PCM but PCM ain’t bad, doesn’t seem too picky on digital source and synergy, DSD512 and Zero was best filtering option, bal vs se are similar enough.
EMM Labs: An Unsteady Balance
Right away, you can likely see that this isn’t going to be my favorite option out of the bunch. But it’s by no means bad either. The DV2 is an interesting mix of sonic goals, on one hand, it’s forward, resolving, pretty spatially accurate, and has great attack and also macrodynamics. On the other, its got great tonality and weight to things without feeling rich, has a bit of softness and smoothness to it, and perhaps a bit of warmth. It wouldn’t really sound like these can work together, but they do, albeit in a bit of a more less than desirable manner in my setups (which will be elaborated on later). I will immediately call attention to the transients on this DAC, which do heavily prioritize the quality of the attack and first hit, but somewhat truncate and quickly smooth over the decay which while it leaves the feeling of great speed and separation, leads to a more unnatural sound that feels like it lacks information and substance. This can be irritating at first when comparing to other DACs, but in the end I don’t think it’s a total dealbreaker for some in some systems. It shouldn’t sound smooth given what it goes for, but I think that more shaped sound ends up lending to the feeling of a bit of smoothness and softness in the end, even if that’s not there at first, I’d almost describe it as an expander with a slow attack and quick release, it just somewhat ends up sounding a bit muted at times. But I can’t complain about this forever, there are still other aspects to get into lol.
Spatially it’s pretty incredibly well balanced, about equal depth, width, verticality, boundary, etc, it’s just very refined and properly adapts to the recording in an accurate yet holographic manner. I would say it’s not the most natural stage, but I think it’s more conveying the stage of the recording than trying to make the stage more real to life which I can’t really knock it for. Speed and separation are without issue and this DAC does a good job keeping up with really whatever you throw at it. Its great tonal density helps to keep things from sounding lean, and its strong macrodynamics keep things reasonably lively as well, although microdynamics might suffer a bit in return. I’m not really sure how to feel to be honest, this really sounds like a weird middleman between the aforementioned APL and the next-to-be-mentioned Berkeley, and I can’t quite figure out if I like it or not, and if it really does what I want it to in my own setups.
The preamp is really quite good, a bit picky on what it pairs well with, but still quite good and could potentially take over preamp duty depending on the setup. I do think when it comes to digital inputs that the ST Optical based Optilink sounds the best with the EMM NS1 streamer, and AES or SPDIF coming after that, but USB seems more lackluster in comparison. DSD and PCM performance are honestly pretty well similar which is great to see.
Signature: Neutral warmer leaning, forward though.
Standout Traits: Great attack and macro capability, well balanced stage in scale and accuracy, great resolving power, nice tonal density and timbre
Weaknesses: Unnatural transients lacking decay, more surface level in sound, a bit more on the soft side of things.
Things To Note: ST Optical link is the best input so NS1 somewhat needed, DSD and PCM equally well, picky on synergy and system, volume control/preamp are solid, bal vs se are similar enough.
Berkeley: No, *This* Is How It Was Recorded
So, you’re a no nonsense kinda guy huh? Well boy do I have the DAC for you, brutally neutral, dead simple, and gives your setup a nice dose of honesty in sound. If there was a “studio reference,” this is it. It’s fucking raw, in the best way possible. Just as its unforgiving nature with music, it’s the same with upstream, cabling, and downstream components as well, it’s picky and needy, but that keeps that honesty and transparency factor high. You’d think a DAC such as this would be overly clinical, dry, and somewhat boring, but you’d be quite wrong there. Well, you could be right if it’s a bad system, bad mastering, or bad synergy. It delivers what you give it in a fairly “uncolored” manner. When fed with incredible music and an incredible frontend, it really just comes alive. The Berkeley just feels like it’s doing the least amount of processing, coloration, or digital magic to get its sound. Something that’s uncharacteristic of a lot of DACs I’ve heard throughout the years. Also uncharacteristic of most modern DACs, the lack of a USB input (although they do also sell the Alpha USB DDC, more on that later), and lack of DSD support. You at least do get both balanced and single ended outputs along with basic volume support. You can change filters, but don’t really bother. It just works, and there’s not much to prevent it from working. While we’re here, seriously don’t skimp on the AES or SPDIF source, garbage in, garbage out, this DAC sucks without a proper source.
The Berkeley feels like a musical magnifying glass (could be a microscope or some sort of exotic lab gear, looks the part lol), extremely technical, clear, and useful for figuring out what you are really listening to. This does come with the obvious downside of revealing flaws just as easily though, but give it organic music, it will give you that organicness back, give it complete trash and it will have no problems making sure you know you fed it trash. I want to call this a more macro focused DAC, but it’s not. I wouldn’t call it micro focused either. It’s incredibly balanced here, moreso than other DACs in this list, same thing with the overall signature and presentation, I’d just call it insanely linear and neutral in a way that while I wouldn’t call it “real,” it just has a sense of purity and (untouched-ness?) that’s extremely appealing in a setup. I would say the goal of the Berkeley in the end doesn’t really seem to focus on sounding the most organic, realistic, warm, smooth, bright, revealing, what have you, its goal just feels like delivering those 1s and 0s in the most accurate manner possible regardless of how that sounds. Perhaps that’s what all DACs should strive to be? Nah, but it’s a trait that’s a whole lot more valuable than it seems at first glance. It will readily adapt to what’s being played, almost shifting its traits and signature to best suit the music. Is this the true trait of being uncolored, almost chameleon like? Well, it gets close lol.
I will say this isn’t the most technical DAC in this roundup, but it’s so incredibly balanced, refined, and raw that I think it ends up truly hanging with the rest of the pack. If I did have to call out some specific characteristics that jump out in a positive way (outside that rawness, and the lack of things that jump out lol), I would say its overall accuracy in tonal balance, harmonic accuracy, and honestly a sense of slight intimacy and closeness that makes information really pop out and easy to pick up on. Also extremely well extended in both ranges, along with excellent control and command erring more on the uptight side of things. Space while on the flatter side of things is extremely accurate and laser sharp placed and defined, dynamics are also extremely neutral and no nonsense. I do think that it’s not the most convincing DAC in the lineup given how faithful it stays to the recorded material, it is slightly ever so slightly blunted or smoothed over to prevent me from fully getting the sense of realism, but that’s about the only complaints I would lodge. More faithful to the recording than faithful to life so to speak, perhaps slightly mechanical (in comparison to some of the other options here). I generally dislike when things are called “Reference” right in the name, typically it doesn’t truly live up to the label, doesn’t make sense given the product, or is just used as marketing wank. This is one of the very few audio products where I feel the name truly defines what it accomplishes.
Quick note on the volume control, it’s all right I guess, but I’d say it’s not my favorite for direct driving power amps or using as a volume control outside of very small adjustments. Balanced is a lot better than single ended, I think single ended generally feels a bit more dull and lifeless where balanced better showcases what this DAC can do.
Signature: Dead neutral, studio neutral.
Standout Traits: Rawness, linearity, harmonic and time domain accuracy, overall speed, and control.
Weaknesses: Fairly unforgiving and might be too critical for some, jack of all master of none, it’s not really that natural or realistic sounding as some others.
Things to Note: Super, super picky about chain and source, need AES or SPDIF source, preamp meh, bal better than se.
Lampizator: Ruthlessly Immersive
This is one lively DAC. Like, really really energetic, forward, and a whole lotta fun without consequence. It’s almost macro focus on all aspects of sound while still capturing almost all the nuance and delicacy along with it. To be clear, this forwardness and energy isn’t the immediacy and directness I talk about with the Totaldac, it’s something different, and the main selling point of the Lampizator (for me). This energy and intensity comes forth really with most tube combos I have tried.
Speaking of, this is one big caveat to my impressions on this unit. It’s able to take every non DHT tube under the sun from what I see, and I am not someone with a big tube collection, nor someone with a big desire to swap tubes around all day either. I am very much a “pick a pair I like, then set it and forget it” sorta person when it comes to tube amps. I don’t have a lot of options to try with this demo so I’m sorry I can’t really explore all the ways this DAC can sound with the millions of combinations one could make, I just have to do the best with what I got lol (my opinion on tube swaps anyways is that while they can be very valuable and very important, they won’t suddenly turn something into an entirely different product). I will get into tube swaps in more detail later on (albeit limited), but these are my general impressions that were consistent across multiple tube swaps.
The Lampizator’s transformative impact on the system is typically making any setup perk up and step on the gas. While this isn’t always desired for every setup, its somehow caused no issues in any of mine, and offers a level of energy and involvement that most DACs aren’t really able to touch. Spatially, it’s almost violent in how much it forces you inside the space of what’s playing, perhaps adding a bit more overall for good measure, very “all around you” sort of stage almost all the time, more immersive than most of the DACs in this lineup and makes most all other sound flat in comparison. Dynamically, it has so much range, and it’s always willing to remind you of that, both in macro and microdynamics that really help contribute to that lively and forward feel, makes things feel truly explosive and punch you in a non jarring way. I also love how organically it presents loads of detail and texture, and also how it’s able to maintain a sense of sweetness throughout all of this that just ever so slightly leans a bit more than neutral. I don’t think I’d call it all that forgiving, but it doesn’t seem to butcher lesser recordings and keeps its general traits well unlike some of the others in this comparison. Oh, control is fantastic and also really helps. I don’t really know what else to say, it feels like it really captures the “moment” of the music.
I mentioned the awesome preamp capabilities within the Totaldac, but I do think the most impressive built in preamp would happen to be the one in here, it’s so, so damn good. Shockingly good, like, this could be a preamp on its own without a DAC section and I’d still rave about it. How do I know that? There’s a pair of balanced and unbalanced analog inputs on the unit so I can bypass the DAC inside the Lampizator and use this unit as a preamp only, how convenient. Feeding some of the other DACs into this one (a strange feeling to do at first lol) offers fantastic results, slightly taking on the positive characteristics of the Lampizator but also not imparting too much of its character to shift balance too much, just offering a whole lot more than other DACs in this roundup do when connected directly to power amps. I could easily see this DAC replacing even similar tier preamps in one’s setup. Although, I don’t think it could replace the one in Setup 1 for me (but I would have never expected it to anyways). I do suggest setting the Lampizator to its highest volume to bypass the preamp is best if you are plugging it into a preamp or integrated setup (assuming your preamp is up to snuff), it likes to be the only preamp/volume control (where with the Totaldac I found this to be a non issue). Don’t know where to fit this in, but it’s not as picky as some of the other DACs here for incoming digital chain, but you are still rewarded for going up, and you should still treat it well. USB is by far the best option from my experience.
One, one more thing actually, I was also given some special footers/feet (Graphite Audio IC-35) that apparently can be added to your order, and I gotta say they make everything better, kinda a no brainier, and I won’t be testing without them, and will be buying a few sets for myself, more on that later.
Signature: Depends on tube choices, generally a bit slightly more on the warm spectrum but overall pretty neutral, consistently forward and energetic.
Standout Traits: Dynamics, spatial recreation, forwardness & energy, the immediate resolution and texture, the general feeling of capturing the energy of all music.
Weaknesses: Might be a bit forward or overwhelming for some systems, can get sloppy with lesser quality tubes, and there’s something, just something in my setups that I think makes it feel a bit exaggerated, but nowhere close to a dealbreaker.
Things to Note: USB input is the best, preamp is amazing (but bypass it if going into other linestages). All the I/O you might ever need, build is fantastic, tube rolling hell though. You want the feet (shoutout Littledrummerboy).
The System Synergy:
Time to get a bit more specific, and try and explain what these DACs are doing in my setups. All comparisons made will be within the context of that system, and I’ll try and also mention what my goals and expectations are for a DAC to slot into that system as well for better context. Again, this is heavily reliant on what I want these systems to do, so this really does come down to personal preference in the end. I don’t know how well I’ll be able to differentiate between technical synergy mismatches and personal preference mismatches, but I’ll give it my best shot. It’s just that these thoughts are really more for myself than for anyone else, I’ll give little burbs on what was the take home for each DAC in the setup.
Within System 1: Everything Is Revealed
This is, by far, by a country mile in fact, the most capable system I have, and have heard. Hands down. There’s little I can really use to describe this system outside of the word “real.” I do not say that lightly, this is the first time I’ve felt that with any of my own systems, and only out of a select few that I have ever had the pleasure of demoing. The synergy in this current setup between everything is impeccable down to the smallest tweaks, and any disruptions in this system will break the illusion pretty quick. The best thing a DAC can do in this system is maintain this balance and offer a level of capability that allows this system to show off what it can do. If these DACs fuck anything up, I will know, quite immediately, and it’s going to be significantly judged for doing that. One of these DACs will end up living in this system, and it will be the most convincing and real unit to my ears, I will accept no sacrifices and no substitutions in this setup. Now it’s time to see if any of these options can stand up to the unachievable goal I’ve just given them lol.
Totaldac: Convincing me that more boxes = more better
In General: Given what I’ve said above, I think the Totaldac ends up doing the most right. Reminded me why I almost didn’t even bother to do this comparison, it fits into the setup so, so well. Firstly, that directness and unfettered sound allows this system to reach out and touch me like none of the other DACs in this comparison (I’ll finish filing the police report after I finish writing this), and offers a level of time domain perfection that I don’t think is achieved by any of these other options, at least when it comes to realism. I think the only ones in this lineup that might get close to this is either the EMM which while I think captures the initial attack quite well, is somewhat lacking on the follow through in comparison, and the Berkeley which offers potentially a more accurate representation of the transients of the recording as they were recorded, doesn’t end up feeling as realistic and tangible and feels more mechanical and flat in its delivery. I think this is a hugely significant factor in the realism of this specific system, and this is where a lot of DACs don’t hold up. The previously mentioned perfect weighting and tonal density also shines in this system over other options, adding to that tangibility factor, how accurately it weights things and can easily shift and remove that weight when required is stunning. Spatially, this actually isn’t the most immersive and involving stage option this comparison has to offer, but I would call it the most realistic and accurate, the best balance between offering a convincing presentation while adding a bit of extra scale to make things pop a bit more. The Verity really pull all spatial detail and reveal it as they are given from my experience, and with some of the more intense or exaggerated spatial presentations, they are really cool at first, but sorta get old if they end up being shallow or lacking accuracy/realism in their placement, one of those balance things I think the Totaldac nails with this specific setup. Dynamically, I do think that this system can seem overbearing if focus is placed too much on either macro or micro, it flows through all too well, and I think the Totaldac has struck the most organic balance between them so far. I do think that signature wise, the slightly warmer and richer lean with a bit of treble de-emphasis ends up working nicely to give a bit more meat on the bone and take some of the forwardness and intensity away without sacrificing any sense of energy or engagement. I would have to say that from a resolution perspective, it offers a slight bit lower macro detail than some of the options in this roundup but totally makes up for it in micro, leading to a very satisfying amount of information resolved with a very very organic presentation that feels rather uncolored.
Enough of the technicalities, how does it make me feel? Well, the first word that comes to mind is satisfied. It kinda just hits all the right spots, all I could really ask for, and it’s also been fairly easy to live with as well. I just can’t complain about really anything it does in this setup, and this is not in a “do no wrong do nothing right” sense, it does everything right for me in this setup. Really can’t give more praise than that.
Using DAC Preamp, bypassing LL1.1: It doesn’t really hold up, unfortunately, the ML3 just really don’t like other preamps besides the LL1.1. It felt overall much more restrained, less real, less life, etc, you get the point. Won’t be replacing the LL1.1 anytime soon.
APL HIFI: Having your cake and eating it too, then throwing up later
In General: Frankly, this is too much. It’s simply just too much of a good thing, to where I think it ends up coming across as overdone in this setup, and that makes it pretty distracting and lose some of its realism factor despite the general enjoyment I get from it, and the strong technical factor as well. I would say its already covered strong sweetness and bloom does really help make most things sound very favorable on this setup, but its loss in directness and incisiveness and overtly colored sound end up leaving the system with a feeling of almost restraint or looking through a tinted and warped window that I can’t say leave me feeling pretty satisfied after I listen to. It feels more fun in the moment with a bit of regret afterwards. I think this might really have more to do with my personal preferences than anything else (well, I guess system synergy would be a strong one), but I just think this DAC both didn’t handle as wide of a range of music I listen to (favored more organic music than not), and just overall wasn’t to my taste. From a technical perspective, it was the most forgiving DAC out of the entire lineup, and did offer a level of technicalities generally distinctly above the EMM and Berkeley, and generally traded some blows with the Lampizator and Totaldac but more leaning in favor of the latter 2 than the former in most aspects, it’s just that this techincal performance ended up being a bit marred in this setup by both its strong coloration and also general lack of directness and tangibility brought about by that lack. Its coherency and liquidity were overall fantastic, yet felt a bit undermined by its obvious sonic goal. Resolving power and presentation of that information was fantastic, greatly nuanced, awesome microdynamics, yet the DAC just didn’t really feel like it connected me with the music so to speak. I think one of the other things that didn’t work that well in this setup is the generally more micro and compacted focus in stage, spatially it didn’t really seem to properly take advantage of what I know this setup could do, and that sorta bothered me as well.
This might sound overly negative, but I still really, really enjoyed this DAC, it just isn’t something I’d want to live with long term in this setup knowing what else I could be getting from other offerings. I just don’t really have much to say here since I feel like I already summed up what I thought in this setup. Also wish it had its characteristics of when it plays native DSD all the time, might stand out a bit more then.
EMM Labs: Straddling the fence
In General: Not sure why, but I just haven’t been impressed with this DAC in this setup. Now I will say it’s the one I’ve had the least amount of time with, but it’s also not really given me much desire to spend more time with it either. One immediate qualm would be how this DAC seemingly murders transients. The attack is amazing, really well done, very realistic sounding, but then decay is almost sometimes seemingly absent, leading to a perception of lack of information and organicness that all the other DACs in this roundup carry forward. This was a constant sore spot in this setup, leading to a more front row forward presentation that felt more surface level and without much behind it. But I don’t want to rag on this DAC too hard, because there were things I still really liked. I generally thought spatially it was pretty refined, accurate, and adapted well to what it was playing, ended up being consistently good and involving in that regard. The macrodynamics of the unit were impressive and quite capable which really showcased its amazing attack and energy it could pull off, but still left me wanting a bit when it came to microdynamics and lower level resolution. It’s also pretty speedy and well separated too, and it’s able to present things in a fairly neutral and organized manner, but it was just never really convincing in this setup. I don’t really truly know what to attribute that to either, but I’ll just boil it down to a synergy and preference mismatch for now.
Using DAC Preamp, bypassing LL1.1: Basically see what I thought about the Totaldac preamp mode. Although I do feel that was a bit of a step over this as well still.
Berkeley: Did I ask what you wanted?
In General: Honestly, I was surprised this DAC even worked at all in this setup. I was expecting to be insanely harsh and unpleasant with most things I played, but that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t overly bright, overly forward, overly skewed in one way or another, it just kinda did its chameleon magic. That being said, it didn’t always offer me the most pleasing experience, but it’s hard to fault it for that when that’s by design. After trying so many DACs, I’ve really come to appreciate what it does, especially with the level of digital frontend in this setup, and considering what you can get them for used, man is this a solid value lol. I do think that this setup really is pushing it to its limits though, it’s just not as technical as the Lampizator, Totaldac, or APL, but it’s on at least even footing with the EMM, and still makes a great showing in this setup. I do think that while this honesty really is endearing, it’s also not something that I’d want to be running 24/7 in this setup given how capable it is. I would say this system is already painfully honest, and adding to that might be pushing it a bit too far. I think that rawness and chameleon aspect is really appealing in this setup, showing me how much things can sometimes shift and change, although still limited to their respective boundaries, it’s not limitless, and some of these DACs, namely the Totaldac and Lampizator can shift more, but do seem to keep a bit more of their coloration and focuses, where the Berkeley really just feels like it gives you everything up front without asking if you wanted it or not in a more mechanical way, it’s almost like lab controlled adaptation vs natural adaptation with some of the other DACs lol (if that makes sense). Overall its technical abilities are generally very balanced to where there’s not many things in specific I’d want to call attention to in this setup, although I will mention its tenancy to sound a bit more generally dry and somewhat dissect things in a pleasing yet unnatural manner. I’m not sure, this DAC seems somewhat unappealing on the surface, but it really does have enough below that surface (like its nuance, transient excellence, and overall refinement in what it does) to make up for that, but it will be lackluster if underfed and/or you don’t know what you’re getting into.
I think this might really be up there for me if it could just reach the level of the Totaldac, Lampizator, and APL in terms of technicalities, I would be willing to live with it full time, I just think those aforementioned offer more of a next level experience, but the uniqueness of the Berkeley isn’t diminished by this. Also, I wonder if the SE nature of this setup is gimping performance, wish I could run balanced and see.
Using DAC Preamp, bypassing LL1.1: Really unsatisfactory, the volume control generally makes a worse showing than other DACs in this lineup that have it, seems more for very small tweaks than to be used as a preamp.
Lampizator: Being transported to an alternate dimension
In General: I don’t think I’ve ever heard this setup sound so massive, grand, and spatially immersive than I have with the Lampizator, it truly feels like a different space that shouldn’t be possible to recreate. I don’t want to make it sound like this space is inorganic or artificial, that’s very much not the case, it’s just so capable and upfront about its spatial abilities that the dimensionaly of this DAC is hard to ignore. And it’s hard to go back after hearing that lol, but that’s not the only thing it does well. Dynamically, in both macro and micro, it’s so lively and accurate that it’s hard to ignore, and it sounds truly explosive with a more macro focus without feeling like sacrificing anything in micro. This one is really hard to describe for some reason, but it’s just so capable in the end lol. The Totaldac and this are really neck and neck for which one I like more. I appreciate the more direct and tangible approach of the Totaldac, but that only shows itself on more nuanced tracks whereas the Lampizator is more consistently impressive with lesser recorded tracks, and it’s at times just more involving and exciting than the Totaldac with really little downside. I do think that from a finite balance perspective, the Totaldac nails that better and makes me just think more of the music and the experience in the end, whereas the Lampizator does call more attention to itself, but again, not a bad thing since that attention is well deserved lol. Going through some tube swaps, I do think that some of the looser tube pairups dilute the overall experience and come off less favorable, but the Tak + Brimar + Tung-Sol give the best balance of overall technical ability, refinement, and fun factor while having a bit of a sweeter and warmer lean still. Literally could be a coin flip for which one I’d want to pick at times, which is a terrible thing to experience, because then you want both lol.
Using DAC Preamp, bypassing LL1.1: This was likely the best showing out of the group in this setup as a preamp, but it still wasn’t enough to get close to match the LL1.1 in this setup, the ML3 just accept nothing else lol. But I do think it added a bit more overall fun to the setup as a preamp, but lost some of the aspects and delicate balance that contributes to the system’s sense of realism.
Conclusion For Setup 1:
Totaldac takes it home, and is staying in the setup. I could easily live with the Lampizator here though if need be. The APL was compelling but I don’t think I’d be satisfied long term with its coloration and signature, the Berkeley had its moments but generally just wasn’t as enjoyable to listen to as the first 3, and honestly I feel the EMM was just a synergy and preference mismatch that wasn’t to my taste, it didn’t do anything wrong, but didn’t really do anything right in this setup either.
None of the units worked well as a preamp for this setup, although the Lampizator followed by the Totaldac made the best showing. I will say that using the volume control on the Totaldac into the LL1.1 was more satisfying than using the Lampizator volume control into the LL1.1, so the Lampizator seems more at home either being used as a preamp driving a power amp, or not at all.
Within System 3: Headphone Haven
You might be wondering why I’ve skipped the second, that’s a very simple answer, nobody cares about the middle child. While this setup isn’t speaker based, and it’s nowhere close to the level of performance as the first, it is the one I use the most, and using these DACs with headphones is an interesting proposition. Does it even make sense for DACs of this caliber? Yes. Well, no. Hmmmm, maybe, final answer. There’s a lot of options to explore here, different configurations, many different needs for each headphone and amp, and a good opportunity to really test the preamp capabilities of each DAC for driving more picky power amps and (attempting to) bypass volume/preamps in headphone amps. Also a lot of opportunities for balanced vs single ended comparisons too. Might be more brief due to time shortages though (at least in description)
Totaldac: Reliable excellence
On the FM Acoustics: This is really where I think its overall balance and refinement is put on full display, it captures everything I like about the FM (overall balance, nuance, just general convincingness it provides in most aspects specifically time domain) and elevates them entirely. Even acting as a preamp bypassing the 155, I was really surprised how well this continued to be, but I do still prefer the overall better refinement and control brought by the FM preamp in line. I found specifically the Mysphere 3.2 and Susvara benefited from this pairing the most. I will say that the chain almost felt too honest at times, as in the headphones could benifit from a bit more exaggeration to really increase engagement. I also think while technical ability was truly fantastic, the overall use of headphones was really gimping what this setup could attain, whereas I think the Lampizator actually felt like it could better push it’s capablity down to the headphones (if that makes sense).
On the Headphone Amps: I thought that the Totaldac had fantastic synergy with basically all of the amps I had on hand, easily maximizing their performance, the Mass Kobo with the Utopia and Mysphere 3.2 gained fantastic space and naturalness while keeping its awesome tactility and directness I love it for, the Oji Special really showed off the raw command and control it can exert in such a refined and nuanced manner with the Susvara and AB1266, and the more all around reference sound of the Eddie Current + Utopia or D8KP was sweetened up a slight bit without disrupting balance and also maxing out technical performance it can achieve . Truly a fantastic all rounder, with no qualms with any headphone amp pairing.
APL HIFI: Magically getting a bigger stomach
On the FM Acoustics: I wasn’t expecting this to be a good pairing, but somehow the more blatant coloration of the APL didn’t seem to bother the FM, and really also helped in gaining a larger spatial image and better macro focus than before, this setup was really winning me over. The overall liquidity and coherency was addicting and the more sweet and forgiving nature was intoxicating in this setup. I might say that it could have caused things to be a bit too polite for my liking, but it really wasn’t a thought that was commonly on my mind while listening. I liked this better with the Mysphere 3.2 this time as the Susvara could have used a bit more energy (the AB1266 was actually pretty nice here).
On the Headphone Amps: I really enjoyed this DAC specifically with the Eddie Current and Utopia, as the fluidity and warmth was a perfect partner to the more critical and analytical amp, easily getting close to the Totaldac in maxing out what it was capable of from a technical level (and spatially also felt more large which was great). The Mass Kobo with the Mysphere was also extremely pleasant, although somewhat lost a bit of the directness that it exhibited with the Totaldac which is something I look for in this specific amp along with being on the smaller side of things spatially and dynamically, but I’d still call it an amazing pairing nonetheless. The Oji Special, I don’t know, it was good, but it didn’t call out to me as good synergy as other pairings did, I think it overall ended up feeling more restrained here and a bit too relaxed for my tastes with this amp especially with the Susvara but the AB1266 fared better here.
EMM Labs: A wide skillset comes in handy
On the FM Acoustics: This sort of felt like a balanced and capable setup that while I enjoyed, didn’t think it really captured the capabilities of the FM as well as I thought it would. That transient issue I’ve been complaining about was very apparent here, marring most of the experience for me, and made the FM feel more dull when they really shouldn’t be. I also think this pairing ended up feeling a bit too unnatrually fast which bothered me a bit. I did think it did a solid job driving the power amps on their own, but was clearly better with the preamp in line. The Susvara shined here the most to me as it emphasized its speed and gave a more upfront presentation which I enjoyed.
On the Headphone Amps: The EMM was more consistently good pairing with most of the headphone amps though, worked quite well with the Oji Special and Susvara and AB1266, leading to an energetic yet not overly forced sound. The stage accuracy was clearly showcased on the Eddie Current with the Utopia, and the Mass Kobo allowed the EMM’s fantastic attack to shine with the Mysphere 3.2. I do feel that the aforementioned did offer a bit more over the EMM here, but I think it’s still really pushing the limits of what you can get out of these headphone amps.
Berkeley: Turning the magnifying glass into a microscope
On the FM Acoustics: I don’t really feel this was as good of a match as others, the more raw aspect of the Berkeley didn’t really synergize well with the FM, and it lead to a more general mechanical and emotionless sound that wasn’t to my tastes and an overfocus on speed. It was still technical, it just lacked some of the almost harmonic realism and tangibility that other pairings offered. I still enjoyed it with the Susvara though. Preamp mode wasn’t all that great so I don’t feel like commenting on it. I spent a bit less time with this one than I should, the potential is there with this pairing, but I think this is more rawness and dryness than I prefer in this setup, felt too deadpan for what I wanted from this setup.
On the Headphone Amps: My impression of this DAC is a lot more favorable on the headphone amps though. The Mass Kobo with the Mysphere 3.2 and AB1266 felt like a neutral reference machine, in the best way possible. The Eddie Current also suddenly was an incredible dead neutral and technical combo with the Utopia without taking any organicness hit. I didn’t like it as much with the Oji Special and Susvara, but it still made quite a good showing but felt a bit more deadpan and less organic than some of the other pairings.
Lampizator: Putting your dick on the table
On the FM Acoustics: Huge, absolutely massive sounding, with such finesse and control, throbbing with dynamic power, leaking with a bit of wetness and liquidity from the tubes. While it wasn’t as balanced and synergistic as the Totaldac, it offered an insanely engaging experience that really brought more space and dynamic capability to the headphones that the Totaldac didn’t do as well, it didn’t come off as too much in this setup either. It’s showing off at this point really. Fantastic with the Mysphere 3.2, Susvara, and AB1266, extremely engaging and pushing the limits of these headphones just as the Totaldac did. Driving only the power amps, I did think it was still an awesome experience, although tilted their more nuanced balance to one of more macro focused than I prefer, but did a fantastic job still, I just think the FM preamp offered a more balanced experience that sounded a bit less overdriven and better contained. The gain is high on direct out mode so not much volume range, but it’s not too big of a problem here with how I have it set up.
On the Headphone Amps: This DAC made the Oji Special come alive in a way that I haven’t heard it do before, just everything insanely elevated, spacious, controlled, and so much fun, specially with the Susvara and Mysphere 3.2, hard to unplug. The Eddie Current with the AB1266 and D8KP proved an interesting experience in how grand and large the amp could sound and how much added command and macro capability it showcased even if it did tilt balance more than normal. The Mass Kobo with the Mysphere 3.2 and Utopia had almost as good tactility as the Totaldac yet a much more grand stage, impressive dynamics, and clarity that really was hard to beat, again here hard to unplug, really nails it for all amps here.
Conclusion For Setup 3:
I gotta say, the Lampizator really did nothing but impress here, and this setup doesn’t feel the same without it, so I’ll be grabbing a Horizon for this setup. My second pick would be either the Totaldac or APL, the Totaldac don’t think was really able to flex its muscles as it did in the speaker setup but still great (and I also don’t want to buy 2 Totaldac lol), and I surprisingly thought the APL was quite awesome in most of these setups as it felt more balanced and also less noticeable downsides (for my preferences) and felt similar level to the Totaldac here. The EMM fit in well and was more of a “do no wrong” option here, although I’d be equally interested in having the Berkeley as well as a comparison point, but I felt the EMM meshed better on a wider range of amps and offered better volume control when needed/required, it was better for daily listening.
As a preamp, I generally thought the Totaldac was the most consistently good, with the Lampizator being a bit more hit or miss on what took well to its preamp. The EMM was also consistently good but not to the technical level of the Totaldac as a preamp, and while the Berkeley did fare better here than in Setup 1, it still didn’t shine in comparison to the others and their preamps/volume controls.
Within System 2: A Simple Setup
Given that this is the middle child setup, I feel like it’s only appropriate to give it the least amount of attention, these will be very brief. It’s basically a compact but not, basic yet refined, impressive although uninteresting system. It does its job, and it does it well. It’s not too picky, nor is it too forgiving either. I might just be tainted by how high achieving the first and third system are, but this at least deserves a “that’s nice honey, where are your brothers at?”
Totaldac: Great, but nothing standout here
Overall, while this did have a lot of the characteristics carry over from other setups, but just didn’t generally impress me as much as I hoped it would. Use as a preamp worked without issue and felt right at home at this setup. Overall I’d describe the sound of the setup with this DAC as “safe.”
APL HIFI: Disqualified
Considering how I really only gave this setup a more brief listen since I already have a DAC for this setup, the APL didn’t even get a chance because the lack of a volume control, and I was too lazy to pull over a preamp or volume control.
EMM Labs: Regaining that balance
Surprisingly slotted right into this setup, and offered a clear level above the Bricasti M21 which typically lives in this setup for performance, and it really seemed to drive the power amps quite well, overall brought both a more upfront but more organic presentation with lots of technical ability and range in this setup.
Berkeley: Let down by lackluster volume control
This really felt quite flat and lifeless in this setup, going to guess due to the lackluster volume control and amplifier synergy mismatch, ended up leaning reasonably bright too, didn’t really bother adjusting the setup to fit though.
Lampizator: Letting the preamp speak, perhaps too much
This overall brought the best out of the system, but also lead to an experience that I feel would be overwhelming long term given the space and what I use the system for. It really allowed the speakers to offer a massive and pinpoint stage given the size of the room, harness their full dynamics, and present things in a very organic and resolving manner. Solid option, but the EMM felt a bit more appropriate for a setup like this.
Conclusion For Setup 2:
There is no conclusion really, the main DAC of this setup, the Bricasti M21, isn’t going to change, so I didn’t spend any real time here. But if I did change it, I’d honestly pick the EMM for what it does in the setup and how balanced it was while having an excellent preamp, seemed to mesh well with the amps. Lampizator after that, but it felt like it was almost too much in this setup but it was a more overall engaging experience than the EMM. Totaldac was great, but didn’t really grab my attention that much here, likely didn’t mesh well with the amps. The Berkeley just didn’t drive the amps well, otherwise it could have been nice.
The Finishing Touches:
From things such as tube rolling, cable swaps, filter/settings adjustments, input and output differences, isolation, power, etc, there’s a lot to cover when it comes to these tweaks, they all add up to the final sound. I’ll try to cover what I can in brief, basically the cliff notes of my findings on these endeavors.
Totaldac: Don’t Forget the Driver(s)
You want one of these. Actually, you want 2 of them if possible as the monoblock version. And live-powers to go along with them. Seriously, these things easily elevate the overall performance of the unit, and are a contributing factor to its standout sense of immediacy and directness COMBINED with its other desirable aspects. With the base twelve-mk2, you get 2 options select-able by a switch, either unbalanced XLR and RCA out at a lower voltage which drives directly off the ladder with no output stage, or you can use the built in output stage for normal voltage and balanced operation as well. But this built in output stage really isn’t as good as the direct out for the sense of, well, directness it brings and somewhat in comparison smears and colors things in a way I don’t like. Enter the d1-driver-mk2 monoblocks. Setting the DAC to direct output and hooking these bad boys up combines the best of both worlds, you get the directness and tangibility of the direct out, and the meat, control, and macro capabilities of the output stage without seemingly any compromise. I would genuinely say the twelve isn’t worth it unless you get these drivers, it seriously elevates the overall experience by a surprising amount. Even when putting these in between a seriously good preamp, it still overall improves the experience, there’s literally no downsides to my ears with these things, a must for twelve (and direct) owners imo. So all of my experiences in here are with using the drivers in direct mode on the DAC.
– Inputs & Outputs:
There’s a lot of them. Out of one box, into another, in and out and in and etc. Ignoring going through the setup process of this DAC and connecting everything together, I’ll just cover some of the main differences between digital inputs and final analog outputs, there’s honestly more to talk about when it comes to cable choice but I don’t know if I can cover all of that right now.
Hmm you know what I probably should cover how the hell you actually connect all these boxes together, since it’s not as simple as most units here (but it’s not hard either). So depending on how you order the live-powers, you will either have a separate smaller psu for each unit, or one big live-power multi box with multiple cables to power multiple components. Outside of the power supplies, you first start with the reclocker/digital box of the system which takes in USB, SPDIF, and AES, and then outputs 2 mono AES signals to be sent off to the DAC monoblocks. You then connect the AES cables into the AES input for each DAC monoblock, one will be labeled LEFT and the other RIGHT. There is also a clock and sync cable you connect in between the monoblocks. After that, you connect the DAC monoblocks output to the driver(s), then off to your amp/preamp/integrated. Not all that difficult as it looks. Digital Source -> twelve reclocker/splitter -> monoblock DACs -> driver(s) -> analog component.
Analog & BAL vs SE: Really I find both are pretty similar, in fact you only have the option of unbalanced output with the direct mode, so it’s not something you really need to worry about.
Digital: From my experience, the Totaldac generally takes better to a quality AES source, although USB isn’t lacking. I found that with my setup, going from an Antipodes K50 -> Totaldac d1-digital-mk2 reclocker -> d1-twelve-mk2 reclocker/splitter yielded the greatest sound quality, even preferring it to a direct K50 connection which has worked best with most of the other units in this roundup. USB was good direct out of the K50, although I generally felt that the AES from the K50 and reclocker offered more overall tangibility in the end in this setup.
– Digital Scaling:
The better the digital source, the better this DAC gets, plain and simple. It really needs a quality source to shine and get that true tangibility and directness I talk about, the K50 does an amazing job at that. I do think that at minimum a d1-digital-mk2 is needed to give this DAC what it deserves, but going higher is easily worthwhile.
– DSD vs PCM:
Given mine has the DSD over DoP option, it can receive DSD, and while it’s still plenty enjoyable, it never really captured me in listening compared to some other DACs when fed DSD, and that still holds now considering some other DACs in this roundup do a lot better with this format. I’d just suggest skipping this option and convert your DSD to PCM.
There’s honestly too many boxes and too little feet I have on hand to try figuring out what to isolate and what to not, what actually sounds different and what doesn’t lol, so I skipped this section.
– Preamp Capability:
Despite having a digital volume control, this has to be the best digital volume control I’ve heard, and with the combined d1-drivers, you end up with a beast of a preamp for direct driving power amps or having in front of a preamp or integrated unit. Generally it seems to work quite well for most things connected to it, which is nice that it’s not too picky. It doesn’t really seem to lose any of its energy or directness at lower volumes, although it might take a bit of a hit on body and overall control. I do think it won’t replace an equally tiered preamp, but I do easily prefer it over most lesser volume control methods in integrated options for example.
I will cover only 3 types of cables here, interconnects are seemingly more hit or miss depending on the system, but really you should match all cables to suit your system as they work as a whole.
Power: Depending on how you have your live-powers configured as single box vs multi box, this can get expensive, fast, so I generally ended up using an Audience FrontRow HP for my live power multi box, but if I had single live-powers, I’d likely scale things down. I did try the Purist Neptune Diamond and while it added more warmth and richness it seemed to tilt a bit too warm for me generally but it was a close second. A TWL Obession is a good pick if you want a bit more forwardness in things but didn’t yield as high of performance as the others.
Digital: While I didn’t use USB often, the FTA Sinope did a great job here and generally was a bit of a more fun leaning cable without taking away any technicalities. The Transparent Reference XL was the clear winner out of what I had given its amazing technical ability and more neutral lean that didn’t seem to do anything I disliked. All of this was mainly tested with an Antipodes K50.
Clock: While I didn’t test this one again, there was a stark upgrade moving from most of my basic SPDIF cables I tried from DH labs, Black Cat Cable, Snake River, etc, I found that an Acrolink DA6100 improved performance pretty well, although the Black Cat Silverstar 75 Mk II did a great job if you didn’t want to spend that much (although it’s worth the extra cost for a nicer clock cable)
– Warm up:
The entire setup needs a few days to properly stabilize and be at its best, I just leave it on 24/7 which is what I’d suggest doing.
– Power Conditioning/Regeneration:
I actually can’t decide if I like them on the PS Audio Power Plant P20 or right out of the wall, generally I think that while they get a bit of a clarity boost from the P20, they somewhat lose their directness by a bit, so generally while it’s a bit less clean at first listen, I kept them in the wall which I think yields more realism than the P20 could muster, but don’t feel super strongly here.
– Moving Down the Ladder:
Moving down the Totaldac lineup, I think the d1-direct does a pretty incredible job for the price if you grab the drivers with those, while I won’t say it’s on the same level of the twelve, it’s not a huge leap from the direct to the twelve so that might be the more reasonable TOTL option for some. I would say that there is a pretty large gap between the direct and twelve vs the six or single, with the latter being generally more warmer colored and relaxed, with less directness and neutrality along with generally reduced technical performance. Really I enjoy all of the Totaldac though at their respective price points, but I think the direct is likely the one to consider if you can’t swing a twelve, just make sure to get the driver or two.
APL HIFI: Zero Is Larger than It Seems
I didn’t have any time (or desire) to really mess with tubes here, so it’s just using what it came with.
– Inputs & Outputs:
Analog & BAL vs SE: It does seem that generally the balanced and single ended outputs are pretty similar to each other in sound and performance, I might say that balanced offers a bit better macro ability but really though from my quick tests with this one I thought they were about equally good.
Digital: One big elephant in the room is that I don’t have an APL streamer to use their DTR inputs, which supposedly “elevate this DAC to the next level” according to a friend, so I can’t test that, sorry about that. I did find that it doesn’t really seem too picky with the digital inputs, also I generally found that while DSD was best over USB, most PCM was best over AES with my K50 at least. I didn’t test Toslink since I didn’t care, coax SPDIF was just fine. I do think I didn’t spend enough time on the digital input comparison though.
– Digital Scaling:
From my brief testing I did think that this DAC wasn’t too critical of digital source, don’t get me wrong it absolutely appreciates a better one, but it also didn’t feel as “make or break” as some other units in this roundup. I find that improving with nicer digital sources brought a better sense of clarity and definition and also enhanced a lot of the spatial abilities and lack of directness that was more pronounced with lesser sources. The K50 was the top dog here, but actually coming in second was the Berkeley Alpha USB instead of the Totaldac d1-digital-mk2 simply because the more cleanly approach of the Berkeley seemingly fit better in my setup than the already a bit more relaxed and warmer focus of the Totaldac.
Quick note on reclockers between the K50, I generally found that I preferred the sound of the K50 with an Ideon 3R Master Time Blackstar in between the APL with 2 FTA Sinope for USB, it generally seemed to improve tactility and clarity to my taste. When it came to AES though, I found that I preferred the sound directly out of the K50 into the APL.
For DSD all of this is bypassed, but for PCM to DSD upsampling, your options are Normal, Slow, and Zero, and for DSD rate you can choose between 128, 256, and 512 (only in Zero mode though). Personally I found that in general the Normal filter was a good balance between Slow and Zero, although personally Zero felt the most natural and also the most rich to me as well. Generally I did find that while the 128 setting offered a bit better sharpness and control the 512 setting offered better space and time domain performance which I preferred. Most of the listening was done with Zero + 512.
– DSD VS PCM:
DSD is clearly the way to go here, although I really only found it to truly shine with native DSD content, some SACD were hit or miss, and upsampling to DSD before hitting the DAC didn’t always yield good results either. I already mentioned the improvement on directness and liveliness that gets a bit muffled/smoothed over when feeding it with PCM, but PCM is by no means bad, and I would say it does better with higher res content over Redbook in this case as well.
I don’t feel too confident in saying something here since I didn’t give too much time to this, but trying the Graphite Audio IC-35 did generally improve the sound more than I was expecting, with an overall increase in clarity and also staging that allowed the DAC to feel a lot more open and less compacted, but I’d like to revisit this to make sure at a later date, but it was reasonably noticeable from my experience.
– Preamp Capability (or lack thereof):
No preamp or volume control, can’t say more than that.
I will cover only 2 types of cables here, interconnects are seemingly more hit or miss depending on the system, but really you should match all cables to suit your system as they work as a whole.
Power: As you may expect something like the TWL Obsession really worked well here to add a bit more forwardness and snap behind things, although an Audience FrontRow HP did generally boost technicalities and also forwardness, its own slight roundness and smoothness wasn’t exactly to my taste, but it was a tossup between these two. I would have gone with the Purist Neptune Diamond as it was a good middleground technicalities wise, although it’s more notably warmer lean ended up pushing too rich for my setups and preferences. I will say that really the differences here were a lot more stark than I expected them to be given how the digital cabling responded.
Digital: When it came to USB, I actually like the Synergistic Atmosphere X Reference USB with the Blue circuit over the FTA Calliso as I liked the more upfront and cleanly nature of the Synergistic vs the more rich presentation of the FTA that felt like too much. I also actually found that while the Transparent Reference XL did offer a higher level of technical ability in comparison, the Tara Labs RSC Air Evolution had the same effect as the Synergistic in generally tightening things up and increasing focus. All of this was mainly tested with an Antipodes K50. I will say that really the differences here weren’t as significant as I would have expected, they seem more inconsequential in comparison to the power cables.
– Warm up:
I would say that it takes a few hours to get to where it wants to be, but really this seemed more at home with a day or so of warmup, something slightly irritating since it contains tubes, but given the type of tubes and limited quantity in use, it might be ok to spend that extra tube life from time to time.
– Power Conditioning/Regeneration:
While I would say that the PS Audio Power Plant P20 did generally improve sound overall along with a more neutral voicing, it wasn’t that large of a difference, and I do think some immediacy suffered because of that leading to a bit more unnatrual sound.
– Moving Down the Ladder:
This is my first experience with the brand, so unfortunately I have nothing to say here.
EMM Labs: STop Using Other Inputs
– Inputs & Outputs:
Analog & BAL vs SE: I actually wasn’t really able to test this too much, they both sounded good, but since I had more limited time with this unit than others, I had to somewhat omit this proper testing.
Digital: The EMM Optilink over an ST Optical cable link (get it, STop = ST optical) is really the best way to go here, although you are either limited to using one of their CD transports, or their NS1 streamer which I happen to have here. I was honestly surprised, it bested the K50 over USB when using Optilink but fell behind for other digital inputs. It’s really to the point where I’d highly suggest the NS1 + DV2 combo if you are going to consider an EMM DAC, it really adds to the experience for the price. Otherwise, I did feel that the AES and SPDIF inputs generally performed better than USB from quick tests, although USB wasn’t too far off, and I wonder if that came down to cabling in the end.
– Digital Scaling:
As mentioned above, while it did scale, it seemed that using the Optilink really brought the best out of this unit, and that will limit future scaling to other EMM products, so that’s something to note.
– DSD vs PCM:
I actually felt that PCM and DSD performance was on a somewhat similar level, both were great and I can’t really make any qualms to its performance. I did feel that native DSD might have a slight edge, but it wasn’t really worth messing around with given the smaller nature of the change.
I didn’t really have the time to test this, I apologize.
– Preamp Capability:
The preamp on the EMM is pretty great, although only with the right synergy to the downstream components. I do feel it’s a bit more demanding on what the preamp actually decides to shine with and what it doesn’t, but it’s solid for the money, and seemingly a good value to me if you actually need a volume control or not. I do think it’s a bit more on the no nonsense and flatter side of things compared to the preamp performance of other units in this comparison. But also had more limited time testing this.
Also didn’t really have that much time to play around with this, but still got some comparisons in. I will cover only 2 types of cables here, interconnects are seemingly more hit or miss depending on the system, but really you should match all cables to suit your system as they work as a whole.
Power: I would say my favorite was an Audience FrontRow HP as it mainted the forwardness but also gave a better sense of both nuance and organicness in presentation, also giving more defined edges and taking away a bit of the smoothness. The Purist Neptune Diamond was a good option as well although it did more noticeably color the DAC warmer and richer, but I felt it was roughly on par with the Audience when it came to technicalities.
Digital: I didn’t have that much to test here for ST optical outside of the Aural Symphonics Optimism Lotus, but for AES I found the Transparent Reference XL was generally my favorite pairing, USB wise I felt the Synergistic Atmosphere X Reference USB with the Blue circuit ended up offering more clarity and energy than the FTA Callisto but that was also an enjoyable pairing.
– Warm up:
Again, didn’t have much time to test this one, but it seemed to be ready to go within a few hours, didn’t seem like it had a longer warm up time like some of the other DACs in this lineup.
– Power Conditioning/Regeneration:
Generally I would say the PS Audio Power Plant P20 did generally improve the overall sound of the unit, mainly increasing clarity, stage accuracy, and bass performance in general, worthwhile improvement to the DAC.
– Moving Down the Ladder:
It’s really been pretty long since I’ve owned or had an EMM or Meitner in house, so I feel a bit hesitant to comment, but from what I have tried, their older DACs have a generally different sound than their new, and I feel like the EMM focuses more on overall forwardness and technical ability and accuracy over their older warmer smoother and more relaxed counterparts. But really been awhile though in comparison to other units.
Berkeley: You Are What You Eat
– Inputs & Outputs:
Analog & BAL vs SE: Right off the bat, balanced is better than single ended. Balanced really better captures that rawness and chameleon like aspect whereas in comparison single ended feels a bit more blunted and homogenized. Generally I’d suggest keeping this one in a balanced chain to better take advantage of what this DAC offers, although it’s not like it’s something to entirely skip if running single ended.
Digital: Generally from my tests, I think AES is marginally better than the BNC SPDIF options, although they are fairly close, that could have been down to the AES cables I have in house being a bit higher tier than the BNC SPDIF cables I had on hand. I didn’t care about Toslink so I didn’t test it.
– Digital Scaling:
Differences between digital sources were easily appreciable and I would not consider this DAC without investing in a hearty AES/SPDIF source. I did find that the overall signature/voicing and technicalities of the Berkeley varied greatly depending on digital source, and can greatly affect the overall sound of the DAC. The Antipodes K50 easily was the best pairing here greatly elevating the performance and balance of the Berkeley, whereas things like the Totaldac d1-digital-mk2 did improve upon technicalities but disrupted balance somewhat. The Berkeley Alpha USB, while not as technical as the 2 aforementioned, really did maintain the balance of the DAC almost to the level of the K50 but didn’t come close to the technicality improvements brought about by that streamer/server.
This is genuinely the only one in the lineup that sounded flat out bad when connected to a lackluster digital source, the rest of the DACs here in the lineup did sound not worth the price without a good source, but still sounded pretty damn good, this one will get flat/lifeless, analytical, and homogenized.
Quick note on reclockers between the K50, I generally found that I preferred the sound of the K50 directly connected to the Lampizator via Transparent Reference XLR.
While I wouldn’t call the differences between the filters small, I would say that either one you go with won’t radically change the DAC. There are 2 options, 1 and 2, and 16 and 24 bit versions. Generally I found that the most refined and balanced sound was achieved with Filter 1.24, Filter 2 I generally found more dull and lifeless. I didn’t really notice any difference between the different bit versions so I elected to choose the larger number.
Aside from volume control, there is also balance control and gain control, which look like progressively smaller and smaller level adjustments, I did not mess with these due to limited time.
– ? vs PCM:
There’s no DSD capability here, sooooooooo not much to really comment on. I do think this DAC actually excels best with basic Redbook CD quality audio, high res is good, but I’m seriously impressed how well this performs with more common sample rates.
While I noticed a slight improvement while using the Graphite Audio IC-35 provided with the Lampizator, I didn’t really have time to look into this further, and while I would say this difference was worth the cost, I can’t say for sure as I was unable to blind a/b this one. I did think it generally improved technical performance and didn’t notice any signature/voicing changes with the unit, I felt there was a better sense of coherency and also a bit more organicness to the sound, slightly less mechanical.
– Preamp Capability:
It’s somewhat lackluster, it really doesn’t seem like it was designed for driving power amps, and its volume control isn’t really convenient and seemingly more designed for small balance adjustments rather than acting as a preamp or main volume control. I can see it winning out over cheaper preamps, but really most preamps at the caliber of this DAC are likely going to do a better job than what this can muster for volume control/preamp duty.
I will cover only 2 types of cables here, interconnects are seemingly more hit or miss depending on the system, but really you should match all cables to suit your system as they work as a whole.
Power: I actually felt that I was somewhat at a loss when it comes to what cable I preferred, all of them were solid options depending on what way you wanted to lean, I guess my favorite then was the Audience FrontRow HP as it really was the best technical performer while adding a nice dose of smoothness and richness to the DAC. I found things like a TWL Obsession to be too forward, and the Purist Neptune Diamond while great technically did lean the DAC warmer than I would have liked although I can see this being a very good thing depending on the setup. These changes were quite pronounced, loud and clear.
Digital: I wasn’t really able to test too much of the BNC since I didn’t have a equally tiered BNC cable (and can’t find my adapters), and don’t care about Toslink, I did find that generally the best option I tried was the Transparent Reference XL (a reference cable for a reference DAC I guess) as it really elevated technical ability while also adding a bit of a relaxed lean to reduce intensity slightly and add more body and stage space which was appreciated. Trying something like a Tara Labs RSC Air Evolution was great for technical ability although I found this was too forward at times. All of this was mainly tested with an Antipodes K50. These changes were quite pronounced, loud and clear.
– Warm up:
Surprisingly, the Berkeley has a surprisingly long warmup time, and it really doesn’t sound great on first turn on, feels pretty congested, make sure to keep it on if you can, I’d say its warmup to where it’s mostly settled in takes a few days.
– Power Conditioning/Regeneration:
I actually found that connecting to my PS Audio Power Plant P20 it boosted technical ability a decent bit, it did upset the balance of everything a slight bit. I generally preferred it with the power plants though for the technical boost without shifting things too much.
– Moving Down the Ladder:
Since I’ve tried all of the Berkeley Reference series of DACs (although least amount of time/experience with the RS1 since I didn’t like it at first), so far my general opinion is that the older models don’t quite really capture the rawness and chameleon aspect of the new, and generally worse technical performance. That being said, the Reference 2 especially with the MQA firmware (which the firmware upgrade does improve the sound and is worthwhile doing) is a killer used deal given current prices, and while I don’t think it’s up to 3 levels, it’s not a huge step below the 3 either, so that’s amazing value there. I do think the Reference 1 is a larger gap between the 2 and 3, so I’d really shoot for a 2 if possible since I thought the Reference 1 sounded a bit too homogenized and more flat in its sound in comparison to the 2 and 3. I have seen friends initially say there isn’t much difference between the 2 and the 3, but from my experience that’s only true if you have a lackluster digital source, if you make sure to deal with the increased pickiness you are better rewarded and the 3 takes a step ahead.
Lampizator: Tube Heaven or Hell?
– Tube Hell:
Tubes are likely what most would care about here, but unfortunately if you are looking for 10s of tube swaps, you won’t find it here. I will say that the friend who loaned me this unit did a lot of that trial and error tube testing already and only passed along with what he ended up liking the most (2 combos). He did tell me he found most EL34 to be unsatisfactory in general, but that’s all he said… Well at least the 2 sets for each tube type worked quite well and offered good variety. So you don’t have to scroll back to the top:
Takatsuki 274B & KR RK 5U4G for rectifiers
Brimar CV1988 & Mullard CV181 for input
Tung-Sol KT170, KR KT88, & Tesla EL51 (w/ adapters) for output
Bolded was my favorite combination together and what I mainly used for this comparison, but some of the other combos were worthwhile
Rectifiers & Output: When it came to my 2 choices, historically the RK 5U4G had been my favorite rectifier to date in most things I heard it in, especially in the Pacific, and initially when I first tested the RK with the KT88s, comparing to that 274B it was still the champ. But, what about the KT170? Clearly the higher number is better (learned that from ASR), but no, with this combo it felt rather lifeless in comparison to the KT88. Now, what about the KT170 and 274B together, that must be mega bleh right? NO, this combo clearly became my favorite by far, it offered an overall more convincing, controlled, and technical sound over the 5U4G + KT88 combo that I couldn’t believe was only happening when this pair was together. I guess ASR was right all along. Either the KT170 was restricted by the 5U4G, or the KT88 didn’t match with the 274B, I don’t really know, I just know that they offered somewhat similar sound overall, but the KT170 + 274B was just a step up with the same characteristics. Best thing is, these are all new production, so one could safely buy spares and not have to worry, perfect for someone like myself who doesn’t want to care lol.
There is an outlier here though, the Tesla. It offered a more sweet, bodied, and richness that the other’s didn’t without some of the softness and sloppiness that my friend described about EL34. Slightly darker and warmer tonality, still very technical though, but overall I felt that the KT170 emphasized more of what I like about the Lampizator, and also better suited my systems for what I was after. But I think this tube is a worthwhile pickup for someone looking to relax this DAC a bit and add a bit more richness and “tube-ness” that some might miss from older Lampizator designs. Rectifier wise, I generally liked the 274B more with this one strangely enough, I was expecting the 5U4G to be the clear champ here but it wasn’t, it felt more dry and almost limp with this pairup.
Input: The 2 options I had here were both really good, although I generally found the more balanced and technical presentation of the Brimar to be more satisfactory with most of the pairings. I did enjoy the Mullard with the Tesla more to further its warmer, smoother, and more relaxed approach. Rectifier choice didn’t really seem to impact my preference on this tube as much as it did with the output tubes.
So yep, that’s kinda it, I really just don’t have the time nor tubes to give this a proper rolling run though, but it’s good enough for now. If you want to just enjoy and be done, go for the KT170 + 274B, although you still have to go through the hassle of finding those input tubes as I was told most new production options my friend had on hand paled in comparison to most NOS he tried. But I’m not really someone to ask about tubes anyways, you’d be better off finding more information elsewhere lol.
– Inputs & Outputs:
Analog & BAL vs SE: Generally from my experience, the single ended and balanced analog outputs and inputs were pretty inline with each other, I didn’t really detect much of a noticeable quality change from balanced to single ended in chains where I can appropriately test that. If I had to say something, I did feel that balanced offer a touch more overall control and command, while single ended offered a bit more sweetness and smoothness, although keep in mind that it’s a hard thing to test fairly for many reasons, but I think this will slot into a balanced or single ended system without any worry that you might be missing out, from my experiences and setups at least.
Digital: I will say, USB, something typically looked down upon as a digital input option, really, really pulled through over any of the AES or SPDIF options I tried. Even with a cable advantage for AES (Transparent Reference XL AES vs FTA Sinope USB), I still thought USB was the better option, it just felt more lively, more organic, and better defined most of the time. I mainly tested this using the same streamer and digital frontend (the one with the Antipodes K50 and associated in Setup 1), and from my experience that has basically equally good USB and AES out, and the USB just took the lead. Trying it on lesser USB sources, I was less impressed, but still found USB to generally pull out a win assuming you had a good USB source, and no, a PC or phone was not a good option from my experience, you’d be better off using a DDC with those instead. The only ones I didn’t really try was Toslink, because I don’t care, and I2S, because I didn’t really have a high quality HDMI cable, and I also don’t care. Asking my friend, he said on his setups he didn’t find I2S to have a distinct advantage over AES, so I’ll just take his word for it there.
– Digital Scaling:
Differences between digital sources were easily appreciable and I would not consider this DAC without investing in a hearty USB source. I did find that the overall signature/voicing of the Lampizator remained fairly consistent through different sources although technicalities varied more greatly. I don’t really have many USB sources in house anymore, with the Antipodes K50 mainly being used if possible, otherwise using the Ideon 3R Master Time Blackstar if going directly out of a PC. The difference between the K50 and the 3R easily justifies the price jump. I do have more flexibility and options when it comes to AES/SPDIF sources, as just mentioned, the K50 is sorta a step above anything else I have though so that’s the clear winner, with the Totaldac d1-digital-mk2 coming in second.
Quick note on reclockers between the K50, I generally found that I preferred the sound of the K50 directly connected to the Lampizator via the Sinope, rather than 2 Sinopes with an Ideon 3R Master Time Blackstar in between. I found that while it felt cleaner, it felt less nuanced, direct, and a bit more sterile in general. When it came to AES though, I found that putting a Totaldac d1-digital-mk2 in between with 2 of the Transparent cables did improve the overall sound compared to directly out of the K50 into the Lampizator.
– DSD vs PCM:
I would call this one of the few DACs that can pull off both around equally well, specifically over USB, I really felt equally happy listening to either format as it was able to take advantage of both to the maximum. I typically would have more to say here, but genuinely I think they are on a similar level which is fantastic news in my book.
I do think in general it likes being fed higher res if possible, although not to the point where I’d start upsampling as I think the quality loss there would be noticeable, it’s not like it suffers with Redbook, just seems like it’s a bit more at home with higher res recordings.
– The Feet (Isolation):
I’m no foot fetishist, but damn I’m impressed by what the Graphite Audio IC-35 can do on this DAC, and I can see why they were a highly suggested upgrade. Adding these feet greatly improves the overall focus of the sound and increases accuracy and precision without affecting the sense of organicness and naturalness. It really is just generally better without any perceivable downsides to my ears unless you do find a bit of a more diffuse, and dare I say smoothed over experience, desirable in comparison (but keep in mind, this in the context of special feet vs no special feet, not in comparison to other DACs).
– Preamp Capability:
I already raved about the preamp, but then also suggested to bypass it (max it out) when going into a preamp or integrated unit of a similar level. Why is that? Well, I think that running the Lampizator in bypass offers a higher level of overall purity and also a better refinement of what it has to offer. This isn’t to say that the preamp mode of the Lampizator isn’t refined or pure sounding, but I do think it adds a bit more bloat and diffusion that I didn’t find to occur within direct mode. But this is assuming you have a preamp even close to the level of the Lampizator, if not, you genuinely might be better off shelving your existing preamp and using the DAC as a DAC/Preamp combo since it’s that good and seemingly compatible.
I will cover only 2 types of cables here, interconnects are seemingly more hit or miss depending on the system, but really you should match all cables to suit your system as they work as a whole.
Power: It clearly showcased the difference between the TWL Obsession (a cleaner more dry leaning sound in this case with strong but not top of the range level of technicalities), Audience FrontRow HP (more organic density and liquidity along with a strong technical boost, does slightly exaggerate the forwardness of this DAC), Inakustik LS-4004 AIR (sort of a middleground option while having the highest technical ability, most balanced), and Purist Neptune Diamond (personally my favorite as it gives a bit more of a warmer lean without limiting technical ability nor adding strong coloration to the unit). These changes were quite pronounced, loud and clear.
Digital: Without a doubt my preference here was the FTA Sinope, it somewhat did as what the Purist power did for the DAC, just best balance and refinement across the board. Trying a Synergistic Atmosphere X Reference USB, while more even and cleaner sounding with its Blue circuit, just didn’t seem to capture the magic. When it came to AES cables, the Transparent Reference XL was a true technical and neutrality beast, but I think it’s more no nonsense presentation wasn’t exactly to my taste, but this did elevate AES to be damn close to USB in my comparisons by the pure strength of this cable, comparing a Tara Labs RSC Air Evolution added more energy but otherwise wasn’t a comparison. All of this was mainly tested with an Antipodes K50. These changes were quite pronounced, loud and clear.
– Warm up:
Being a product which contains many fancy, expensive, and potentially rare/limited light bulbs, I really would never leave this on all the time even if it would sound the best that way, it just kills me inside if I do that (along with killing tube life). I’d say so far generally it’s warmed up enough to not worry about after 2-3 hours of time, it’s mostly settled in by then. Generally my advice here would be if you plan to use it enough during a day, just turn it on in the morning and off in the evening. Although I’d only do that if you’re going to be listening to it for a significant portion of the day.
– Power Conditioning/Regeneration:
I personally found the Lampizator, when plugged into a PS Audio Power Plant P20, generally more clean and pinpoint, although a bit less organic in presentation as consequence and a bit squelched in terms of dynamics and overall energy. It is fairly picky when it comes to the quality of power from my experience, and I honestly liked it more out of the wall for better immediacy and realism.
– Moving Down the Ladder:
So, there’s a lot of Lampizator models, and I haven’t tried them all, nor have I spent significant time with all the models I have heard, so I’ll just generalize here. The Horizon is a significant step up from the Pacific in basically all ways from memory, although might be a bit less sweet and balanced than the Pacific, and when it comes to micro vs macro as I feel the Horizon leans more on the macro side while the Pacific leans more on the micro. I do think that you can sort of categorize current Lampizator models into 2 categories, the more new Lampizator sound (Horizon, Pacific, Baltic 3), and the old (Golden Gate, Atlantic, Amber). The new sound focuses more on being technical, forward, reasonably neutral, slightly macro focused in some cases, and also more involving and energetic, whereas I find old to be more in line with warmth, sweetness, more relaxed and smooth, a bit less technical focused. Used Pacifics are a good deal right now and while not Horizon level offers a pretty amazing level of ability, so I’d consider looking into that one as a more affordable replacement for the Horizon in this comparison.
The Final Comparison:
And here it is. The thing most have been waiting for. I’m not going to stall any longer. Just remember these are generalized and all the caveats that come with that. Also keep in mind that these are in comparison with eachother and only each other, this can make things look like they are greatly lacking in some areas, when in reality they really aren’t on its own, only in comparison to the other units it’s up against.
Check the Glossary for definitions of the terms, what the symbols mean:
= means about similar, perhaps slight edge to the first over the 2nd
>= means a bit better, noticeable but not enough to push it over the next tier edge
> means fairly better but not massively so, possibly next tier better but not decidedly so
>> means stand out better, pretty easily noticeable, easily next tier better or a bit above
>>> means skipping multiple tiers, leagues better
Macrodetail/Surface Level Detail: Lampizator >= Totaldac > EMM >= APL > Berkeley
– Generally, I think the Lampizator is great with more surface level information, with the Berkeley somewhat sounding not as upfront resolving as the rest.
Microdetail/Low Level Detail: Totaldac >= Lampizator > APL > Berkeley = EMM
– This is where I think really the first 3 pull ahead, and the second 2 fall behind more, both the EMM and Berkeley are good, it’s just that I don’t think they can offer the level of low level information as the rest.
Speed: EMM > Berkeley >= Totaldac >= Lampizator > APL
– The EMM feels very quick although unnatrually so, the Totaldac and Berkeley imo have the most convincing speed along with the Lampizator, and the APL is a bit more on the slow side in comparison.
Separation: Lampizator >= Totaldac > EMM = Berkeley > APL
– Generally the Lampizator and Totaldac do a phenomenal job here, the EMM and Berkeley are on a bit lower level, and the APL while at first does sound fairly well seperated, you notice its weird tendancy to smush some things together.
Control & Grip: Totaldac > Lampizator > Berkeley >= EMM > APL
– I would say that in the end the Totaldac seems to offer a level of control that just flat out impresses me more than the others, although the Lampizator and Berkeley do get close, where I think the EMM and APL are on the more soft and easygoing side.
Impact & Slam: Lampizator >= Totaldac > Berkeley >= EMM > APL
– The Lampizator seems to generally hit the hardest, but the Totaldac is close, otherwise similar to the above.
Punch: Totaldac = Lampizator >= Berkeley > APL > EMM
– The Berkeley gets close to both the Totaldac and Lampizator in doing a great job with the energy in smaller hits that still convey good tangability, the EMM notably didn’t feel as strong here.
Midrange Texture: Lampizator >= Totaldac >= APL > EMM > Berkeley
– I think the Totaldac is close, but the Lampizator really seems to take the cake in this case, APL also makes a strong showing albeit a bit more muted, same with the EMM, the Berkeley has good texture but feels more mechanical in its delivery leading to it sounding pretty off.
Bass Texture: Totaldac >= Lampizator >= APL > EMM > Berkeley
– The Totaldac regains the lead here, EMM and Berkeley don’t quite offer the level of the first 3 though.
Treble Extension: Berkeley >= EMM > Lampizator >= APL >> Totaldac
– The Berkeley to me has the best well extended treble, but really all of them are plenty extended, except the Totaldac. Without the FIR filter (which I don’t use), there is noticeable treble roll off, but admittedly I didn’t really think it detracted from the experience or made the treble less capable, but it is something important to note.
Bass Extension: Totaldac > EMM >= APL >= Berkeley > Lampizator
– Really the Totaldac kills it here, with the Lampizator feeling like it’s missing those very very deep subbass notes in comparison but not enough to really cause problems with the mass majority of music, although I’d also assume this is more influenced by tube choice so this is something that could likely be improved.
Microdynamics: Totaldac > Lampizator >= APL > Berkeley > EMM
– The Totaldac to me offers the best representation of more minute lower level changes with the APL and Lampizator following, the Berkeley, and especially EMM felt a bit more on the lacking side of things in comparison when it came to micro.
Macrodynamics: Lampizator > Totaldac > EMM >= Berkeley > APL
– Really most of these DACs in this comparison did quite well with macrodynamics with Lampizator being more standout, the only one I’d call attention to is the APL which is a bit more micro focused in comparison to the rest.
Background Blackness: Totaldac >= APL >= Lampizator > Berkeley >> EMM
– I don’t know why, but the main outlier here is the EMM which feels almost more gray or cloudy in its spatial background which taints the experience a bit for me.
Stage Width: Lampizator >> Totaldac > EMM > APL > Berkeley
– The Lampizator sounds generally the widest and most spacious, the Totaldac is more on that “just right with a bit extra space” stage width for me, the EMM is pretty overall neutral and balanced in its stage, APL a bit more on the compact side, and the Berkeley is a bit more on the intimate side of things.
Stage Depth: Totaldac >= Lampizator > APL > EMM > Berkeley
– I do think the Totaldac narrowly takes it for depth from the Lampizator, the APL has a very deep stage to make up for its more average width, and the EMM as well, the Berkeley feels a bit less deep than some of the rest.
Stage Verticality: Lampizator > Totaldac > APL > EMM >> Berkeley
– Really the Lampizator pulls out here with its overall spatial involvement, the Totaldac feeling a bit more tame in comparison, the APL with its more compact and unremarkable stage ends up doing quite well though, the EMM does a good job here too just not to the level of the first 3, and the Berkeley is more flat in this manner.
Stage Boundary: Totaldac >= Lampizator > EMM >= APL >> Berkeley
– The Totaldac to me feels the most well defined although a bit diffuse, but it’s able to adapt to the stage of what’s being played the most while having the tightest boundaries, and the Lampizator feels a bit too large at times but it’s close for which one to go with. The EMM does a decent job but not to the level of the first 2 but has good spatial balance and didn’t let down here. The APL felt a bit more compact and homogenized spatially, and the Berkeley is a wildcard given its typically more flat and no nonsense spatial recreation adapting less than the aforementioned but it really is extremely tight in its spatial image, it just can’t adapt as well.
Placement Accuracy: Totaldac >= Lampizator > EMM > Berkeley >= APL
– The Totaldac and Lampizator are incredibly accurate in the space they depict. The EMM makes a solid showing here too. The Berkeley has extremely sharp placement as well but feels less dimensional, the APL would be a bit higher although it sometimes feels like it compacts the placement too much limiting the potential accuracy vs stage size, it just feels overly colored in stage for me.
Presentation Organicness: Totaldac >= Lampizator > APL >= EMM > Berkeley
– The Totaldac and Lampizator really offer the most organic presentation, although the APL and EMM do well enough here. The Berkeley does feel a touch artificial in its presentation in comparison.
Presentation Openness: Lampizator >= Totaldac > EMM > Berkeley >= APL
– Generally the Lampizator and Totaldac both sound damn open, the EMM also doing well here, whereas the APL feels more compacted in comparison.
Timbre: Totaldac = Lampizator = APL > EMM > Berkeley
– A three way tie basically, first three are really just impressive here and it’s hard to pick a clear winner. The Berkeley has good timbre, it’s just not consistent which is sort of a problem.
Tonality Organicness: Totaldac >= Lampizator >= APL > EMM >> Berkeley
– You’d think the APL would take this one home, it just felt too colored to call it organic, and I think Totaldac or Lampizator really reached the most organic balance. The EMM also felt more strangely colored, and the Berkeley just isn’t organic lol.
Tonal Density Quantity: APL > EMM > Totaldac >= Lampizator >> Berkeley
– The APL is on the richer side of things, but really none of these DACs are overly rich, although the Berkeley can get pretty dry at times.
Tonal Density Quality: Totaldac > Lampizator >= APL > Berkeley >= EMM
– Easy take home for the Totaldac, although the Lampizator is also very good in this category as was the APL. I’d say both the EMM and to a lesser extent Berkeley felt a bit more homogenized here.
Smoothness: APL > EMM > Totaldac >= Lampizator >> Berkeley
– I wasn’t expecting this, honestly the EMM sounds fairly smoothed over but not to the point of the APL, but the rest aren’t surprising. I would mainly say it’s from really smothering the decay of transients, something none of these other DACs do.
Softness/Roundness: APL > EMM > Lampizator >= Totaldac >> Berkeley
– APL just has that softer and sweeter focus, and it’s hard to ignore its bloom, and EMM has that to a bit of a lesser extent as well that take the edge off things. The Lampizator and Totaldac are more overall balanced, and, well, the Berkeley doesn’t exactly have this in its vocabulary.
Liquidity: APL >= Totaldac >= Lampizator > EMM > Berkeley
– Close call but the APL might take it here, although Totaldac isn’t far behind. The Lampizator is good but a bit lower than the first 2, surprisingly though I do feel the EMM edges out the Berkeley which I wasn’t expecting going into this.
Coherency: APL >= Totaldac >= Lampizator > EMM >> Berkeley
– The APL is really just insanely coherent, but really both the Totaldac and Lampizator are pretty close behind, and the EMM as well, really most all of these are pretty great here. The big outlier is the Berkeley, because it has a tendency to almost dissect things, and while that’s really cool to listen to, I can’t really call it that coherent in comparison to the other options here.
Forwardness: Berkeley >= EMM > Lampizator > Totaldac > APL
– I was honestly surprised the EMM ended up sounding pretty forward as well (with the Totaldac more in the middle), and the APL being the most chilled out.
Energy & Incisiveness: Totaldac > Lampizator >= Berkeley > APL > EMM
– An expected win for the Totaldac on incisiveness, with the Lampizator following behind more focused on raw liveliness but less direct, but a surprise 3rd of the Berkeley with its rawness giving it a bit of a bump over the other two, with the APL feeling more direct than the EMM, although neither have that trait as a stand out one (though both improved when playing DSD).
Forgivingness: APL >> Lampizator > Totaldac > EMM >> Berkeley
– Expected win for APL, with really the rest not being able to get to that level, and obviously the Berkeley is far last in this category.
Overall Treble: Lampizator > Berkeley >= Totaldac >= APL > EMM
– The Lampizator honestly has the best balance of refinement, technicality, sparkle, and overall fun factor. I don’t know why but I feel compelled to put the Berkeley second here due to its incredible extension and air without getting harsh or overbearing, although it’s not as technical as some of the other options here, but it is extremely refined. The Totaldac has awesome treble but it is lacking prominence really and the FIR mode doesn’t really fix that either, same with APL although I feel the APL has better extension but just less airy sounding although quite resolving. The EMM just didn’t really seem all that impressive in the treble, felt somewhat smooth and dialed back lacking a lot of airiness of the rest.
Overall Midrange: APL >= Totaldac = Lampizator > Berkeley >= EMM
– Another tough one, it’s hard to say no to the sweetness of the APL which is so addicting, and really I can’t ignore how much I enjoyed that. The Totaldac otherwise would have been top dog if it weren’t for that, lots of texture, immediacy, tangibility it has to offer. Lampizator makes an equally good showing, almost offering a balance of the first two while adding more energy and explosiveness here. The Berkeley’s very faithful and honest rendering of the midrange makes for a pretty impressive listening hearing how it adapts to recordings and shows you exactly what’s there without modification, if only it was as technical as the first 3. The EMM, I mean, it’s great, but nothing really stood out in a good way, its attack is awesome and it’s well balanced, it’s just, kinda boring in the end.
Overall Bass: Totaldac >= Lampizator >= APL > EMM >= Berkeley
– This is tough, but I think I’ll give it to the Totaldac simply because of the weighting and tangibility it gives in the bass. The Lampizator is a close second and has more low end energy and roundness with a bit more impact with similar resolving power, but feels a bit less tangible and balanced, really close though. The APL while revealing fantastic information and texture didn’t really give much physicality to things and felt a bit restrained here in comparison to the 2 other options. The EMM has pretty amazing attack and low end dynamics, but feel a bit surface level compared to the aforementioned. While the Berkeley is last, I do think its overall accuracy to rendering the recording causes it to, most of the time, end up sounding fairly dry and flat in the low end, even if it is accurate, but this one feels a bit more like a wildcard pick in this region and isn’t as technical as the first 3, can sometimes rise up pretty high though.
Overall Subbass: Totaldac > APL >= Lampizator > EMM > Berkeley
– Feeling very Totaldac here, I think the overall capability in control, extension, texture, and nuance that’s revealed in the Totaldac’s subbass makes it hard to resist and easily my favorite here. The APL eeks out over the others in this case due to the loads of information that’s revealed but it isn’t as tangible as the Totaldac. The Lampizator while awesome in both information and control doesn’t have as much physicality as the first two and is a bit more rounded, and slightly lacking that final extension. The EMM, while it did nothing wrong here, didn’t really have any standout positives and just felt more like a polite and inoffensive low end that didn’t seem as either enjoyable nor capable as some of the others. The Berkeley has amazing extension and control but doesn’t pull as much information as the others in front of it and is a more dry sort of subbass that isn’t working as well.
Overall Space: Lampizator > Totaldac > EMM > APL > Berkeley
– Generally the Lampizator just has the most space to offer you, and extremely accurate space at that. The Totaldac to me is next focusing a bit more on accuracy and realism but a bit toned down in general. The EMM is the next up as it offers I think the most well rounded spatial experience although a jack of all master of none situation. The APL while on the more compact side of things really makes up for it with great intimacy and depth with a very black background, but its speration and smaller scale holds it back. The Berkeley is just generally extremely accurate with its stage, it just lacks a sense of tangibility to it and feels more dimensionally flat in comparison to the rest.
Overall Incisiveness: Totaldac >= Lampizator > Berkeley >= APL > EMM
– Generally I think the Totaldac really just encompasses this group of traits the best, leading to the most direct and convincing sound overall to me. The Lampizator gets close, really close but doesn’t have that last ounce as the Totaldac does. The Berkeley is very direct although lacks a convincing factor while the APL is convincing but lacks directness, and the EMM while I don’t want to put it last here, just doesn’t pull much over the DACs in front of it in this area.
Overall Transients: Totaldac >= Lampizator >= Berkeley >=APL > EMM
– I think it ends up being similar to the previous category where the Totaldac and Lampizator really lead the pack here, the Berkeley does a pretty good job of representing but it’s a bit too mechanical in delivery to be truly convincing, the APL should be higher but just kinda ends up shaping things a bit too much for my taste. I don’t know why, but the EMM just seems to smooth over everything after that inital strong and capable attack, leading it to sound reasonably artifical to my ears, otherwise would be higher.
Overall Realism: Totaldac >= Lampizator > APL > EMM > Berkeley
– Self explanatory. To me the Totaldac and Lampizator pull it off the best, the APL can narrowly overcome its coloration with strong technical ability, the EMM is all around good but feels a bit restrained in the end, and the Berkeley is just too raw and mechanical to get that realism factor compared to what the others do.
What Did I End up With?
The Totaldac ended up coming out on top in my Setup 1, and the Lampizator ended up quickly becoming my pick for Setup 3 (and was a strong second in Setup 1). The APL was likely my third pick, and the Berkeley and EMM sorta tied for 4th, although I did find the Berkeley generally more interesting and to my tastes in the end. Only one problem, the friend that loaned me the Horizon has no plans on selling it, so I guess time to either wait for one used or find a way to secure one at a good price lol.
The Lingering Thoughts:
The Shit Scale™
and other tables didn’t make an appearance in the first version of this write up, but people seem to like them, I just don’t really know if they really fit given the rest of the writeup. Nevertheless, I don’t want to disappoint anyone, so here they are (in order of typical appearance):
|(Barely) Brighter Leaning:
|EMM Labs DV2
|Berkeley Alpha Reference 3
|APL HIFI DSD-MR MK2
|Just really does everything I could ask for, meshes amazingly with all my systems.
|Adds a level of fun and immersion that wasn’t matched, with just as much technicality at the expense of a bit of directness and balance.
|Berkeley Alpha Reference 3
|Faithful, honest, and reliable, feels raw and unprocessed in a way most DACs don’t, and there’s a certain charm and satisfying nature in that.
|APL HIFI DSD-MR MK2
|It would be higher, but I always felt as if I didn’t really get the direct feelings and impact of the music after each session, regardless of how fun it was, can see this being higher for others.
|EMM Labs DV2
|Did nothing really all that wrong aside from being a bit weird transient wise to me, incredible all rounder, but didn’t really offer me a level of either engagement, realism, or reason to keep listening in comparison to the other options.
Before I comment on the value, I’d like to get out of the way that while there is indeed a concept of value at this level, really all of these units are in a price and performance bracket where for most a few (or even ten) extra thousand really doesn’t matter to them, and it’s not really going to influence what they get, this is a league of little compromise after all. With that being said, here is how I’d assign that value (used value if possible):
|Berkeley Alpha Reference 3
|Considering how cheap these get used and continue to get cheaper, how capable they are, and how they can be upgraded in the future, it really is hard to beat for the price they go for.
|While these are hard to come across used and aren’t all that much discounted, I think they hold up even with new pricing, and as used prices go down and more show up, it becomes an even better proposition.
|While these are still expensive now, knowing past Lampizator models, it should drop off a fair bit later on (although no bets since these are limited in production to some extent), although it’s still a solid value new, but the cost you could sink into tubes could offset that lol.
|APL HIFI DSD-MR MK2
|This is sort of sharing a spot with the Horizon even though it is lower, while it wasn’t exactly to my preference considering how they are basically half priced used and not impossible to find, I’d say if it seems appealing to you it’s pretty fairly priced.
|**EMM Labs DV2
|Honestly these are kinda expensive both new and used considering how they performed in my system and how I ended up feeling about them in the end.
Revised shit scale, to better suit my opinions of these DACs
|EMM Labs DV2
|APL HIFI DSD-MR MK2
|Berkeley Alpha Reference 3
Yes I know it’s not the typical nice, oh, and holy, but really all of these are holy shit level, and I feel like I’d do a disservice doing otherwise.
A Message to Anyone Actually Considering These:
DEMO THEM FIRST. DO NOT USE THIS WRITE UP TO SOLELY DECIDE. This should be obvious, but I just wanted to get that out there. At this price point, you really should be making the effort to find people to demo this stuff in your system, buying blind in this range is way too much of a risk in my mind, even if you were interested in any of these but couldn’t find any way to try, I’d honestly suggest you rather look around for something you can demo if that’s possible. Synergy and preference are absolutely critical at this range, and what I like and what sounds good in my system will likely not line up with yours. Just something I feel compelled to reiterate.
Also, DON’T BUY THESE FOR HEADPHONE SETUPS. Yes, one of these is going into a headphone setup. Yes I’m being a hypocrite here, I just know that it’s pushing the max they can do and I know I’m not getting good value. I might suggest stepping down a tier or two to keep it more reasonable, unlike me. Max I’d go for a headphone setup might be something like a Totaldac triunity (or direct + driver), Lampizator Pacific, EMM DAC2X V2, Berkeley RS2, and others.
I made this section thinking I’d have some big, long, drawn out conclusion, but I really think I’ve said most all I have to say above, and the conclusion has already really been stated. I’m sorry, but there’s not going to be TL;DR here like on my other articles lol.
But it would feel weird to not have some sort of proper ending to this write up, and really my DAC journey as well. Frankly, I’m pretty DAC’d out right now, and struggling how to actually give a proper closer to this long, long journey. A closer for the sake of the article, but a closer for myself as well. I’ve been in the deeper side of the hobby for like 20 years at this point, and while I’ve been going to shows, dealer demos, or friends houses for demoing some seriously nice DACs for awhile now, only really in the past 5 or so years have I had the financial ability to get setups (and DACs) like the ones I have demoed though. I’ve ended up cycling through quite a number of DACs, increasing in performance generally each time, leading up to this. Reaching this point is never really something I expected would happen, and honestly I don’t know if it should have happened, but oh well, that’s just the nature of this hobby isn’t it. Point being, these selections and this final article are basically my exit from the DAC world, I’m not really going to be keeping up with the latest and greatest anymore, since I now feel I have what I wanted from the start of hearing the first standalone DAC that truly caught my attention (a Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 MKII): something that gives me more than anything I could ask for, and something that will force me to stay with it long term lol. Overall, being able to either demo or own so much digital gear over time has really shown me how little I know about things, how many things factor into the quality of a DAC and associated digital transports/streamers/servers/whatever, enough to not really be able to parse it all. There’s merit in most all designs, things don’t really stop getting better, there’s lots of limitations and things to note, the quality of the digital source can be equally important, etc, etc, etc.
All of this really isn’t relevant to the article though. Both the Totaldac and Lampizator capture what I want in a digital decoder entirely, so that’s what I’ll be living with. Sure I could grab others down the line, but I don’t really think I’ll feel the desire to do so outside of just having them to have them, and what sort of reason is that to keep gear around? Hard to see the reason to look at anything else anymore lol.
Need further clarification? Have any questions? Looking to get into some juicy DAC action? Head over to the Sonus thread and get in on the fun! https://forum.sonusapparatus.com/t/short-high-end-dac-comparison-pt-1-pt-2-source-gear-progression-and-general-thoughts/26 (check out PT1 & PT2 as well)
Yet Another DAC Article
I’m sorry about adding another article about a digital product, I swear we talk about more than DACs on the forum (sometimes lol). In my defense, I was working on this and a few DAC articles came out during that, although it’s not like I wouldn’t have released this because of that lol. I think at this point in my (and many others) audio journey, the concept of the source is so intriguing and ends up being responsible for the most drastic and radical changes within my chain, and also ends up being the most tweakable aspect of my setups as well, so I end up focusing on it. Thank god I’m not into analog, since there’s undoubtedly more to tweak and modify and care about there than within the digital audio realm (at least for the end user). And it’s a lot, lot more expensive, this is already pushing it to the limits for me here lol. Perhaps I’ll do an article on a headphone, speaker, or amp/preamp to make up for the DAC article dominance lol.
Future me edit: I kinda did that, kinda not.
Time is the Most Precious Resource
And I don’t feel like I had enough of it to truly represent these DACs as best I can. I would have liked to cover more information and go into another level of depth into things, but more than half of these aren’t mine, and I had to give them back to their respective owners (I don’t blame them for not wanting to hand these out for any longer, I don’t know how I’d live without these after owning them lol). There’s a lot more that could be covered, more systems that could be tried, more tweaks and changes that could change things, more tubes that could be rolled, you get the point.
I can’t help but feel like I just did the EMM a disservice in this comparison, but it’s truly what I think about it in my setups. I have enjoyed EMM and Meitner DACs in the past, I think it’s likely a combination of the lack of good synergy between my setups, and also my general preference not really being in line with their house sound. It was still a great DAC and one of the top I’ve heard, but it just really fell behind in most of my setups compared to others, but I’m sure and I know that will be different in other setups. So don’t let this be a turn off to an EMM DAC, they are still amazing and do make sense in some setups, it just wasn’t for me in my setup.
The Magic of Isolation, and the Lack of it in my Setups
Honestly, I never really paid attention to proper isolating, shelving, vibration stuff, what have you, especially not on solid state gear. But after messing around with the feet that came (extra) with the Lampizator and how much that improved some of the DACs here, I feel compelled to try out more options within my setups on all of my gear and see what ends up being worthwhile. It’s unfortunate this matters, but oh well, I guess the rabbit hole never truly ends does it.
An Antipodes Without Equal
I wish I had other digital sources that were on the level of the K50, I think that really would have provided greater insight into the DAC and how it changes. Most of the results were basically “K50 the best” on the tests, and while that’s not really helpful from a comparative sense, it did at least show how these DACs greatly took advantage of what this streamer/server had to offer.
I’m Wearing a Cooler Master Headset
Direct out of a laptop, because all of my setups are a mess after this comparison, and I’m too lazy right now to set them all back up, and yes it’s been painful. But this gives me a good opportunity to further slim things down and decide what to sell off while it’s all in pieces. And honestly, I don’t really use Setup 2 much anymore, I think I’ll just sell off the Bricasti gear and move the speakers to Setup 3 and go from there, seems like the right move, and helps free up some cash to offset the Lampizator lol. I also think I might end up selling the Oji Special since I think the FM acoustics can sort of safely take it’s place, although I will miss it, but need to free up more cash somehow lol.
Future me edit: yeah I did sell it off, and basically changed out my main speakers and 2ndary speaker and desktop setups because of other circumstances, just check my profile.
These are somewhat how I would define the terms used in my ranking system (and also just used in general)
Macrodetail/Surface Level Detail: How much upfront clearly apparent information can something pull out of the source?
Microdetail/Low Level Detail: How much lower level and more nuanced information can something pull out of the source?
Speed: How fast can something respond overall to quick changes in music?
Separation: How well can something differentiate sounds happening at the same time, and accurately portray that space between things in three dimensions?
Control & Grip: How tightly can something follow the music and how much force can it also exert while doing it?
Impact & Slam: How well can something give visceral power and slam to things while keeping moderately composed overall (more in the lower ranges)?
Punch: How well can something give smaller and quicker hits of energy and perceived tactility and swing (more in the midranges and slightly higher)?
Midrange Texture: How well can something represent perceived tangibility and feeling in the midrange?
Bass Texture: How well can something represent perceived tangibility and feeling in the bass?
Treble Extension: How far can something extend into the treble while remaining refined and composed?
Bass Extension: How far can something extend into the bass while remaining refined and composed?
Microdynamics: How well can something convey quick low level changes in volume while remaining audible and apparent, not being overwhelmed by more prominent information?
Macrodynamics: How well can something convey large changes of volume and scale while remaining audible and apparent, not feel limited or out of control?
Background Blackness: How well does something create a sense of nothingness between instruments, its ability to recreate empty space without the feeling of something being present when nothing should be? (Note, this is not noise floor aka background hiss)
Stage Width: How far can something extend in creating its space while still remaining coherent enough?
Stage Depth: How deep can something extend into the stage, how much range something has inside the stage between the farthest and closest aspects?
Stage Verticality: How high or low can something go in its three dimensional space?
Stage Boundary: How sharply/clearly can something define the boundaries and limits of the stage, and how well do they shift depending on the source?
Placement Accuracy: How accurate is something at creating a convincing overall stage, accurately representing the location of sounds in space and time with precise definition?
Presentation Organicness: How realistic is the overall balance of something (all combined aspects), in a way that leans closer to live?
Presentation Openness: How open and expansive does something present within its boundaries?
Timbre: How accurate is something at creating the characteristics of an instrument or sound, other aspects that don’t directly focus on tonality, the general nature of the sound, how true does the instrument sound to life?
Tonality Organicness: How balanced is something in frequency response and how well does it prevent things from being masked or overwhelming each other throughout the entire range?
Tonal Density Quantity: How much weight and meatiness/thickness does something place on notes?
Tonal Density Quality: How well does something vary its weight to be accurate to the recording, and its ability to control the weight and prevent it from affecting other aspects?
Smoothness: How smooth and non fatiguing does something portray its sound, potentially blending together sometimes?
Softness/Roundness: How rounded and softened does something represent sharp attacks, potentially blunting or dulling them?
Liquidity: How well does something handle the natural flow of music without adding or subtracting things, flowing through without imparting any extra texture or sound of its own?
Coherency: How well does something portray a sense of unity and seamlessness overall?
Forwardness: How close does something bring the sound from where it should be, how much things are pushed toward you more than they normally would be?
Energy & Incisiveness: How directly, clearly, and energetically does something represent sound?
Forgivingness: How forgiving is something of both bad synergy with other components and bad source material, the ability to make even lesser recorded or poor matches sound more enjoyable?
Overall Treble: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall treble range sound on something?
Overall Midrange: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall midrange sound on something?
Overall Bass: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall bass range sound on something?
Overall Subbass: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall subbass range sound on something?
Overall Space: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall spatial recreation and presentation sound on something?
Overall Incisiveness: How overall direct and decisive something is, how well does something overall meet the needs and adapt to what’s being played?
Overall Transients: How accurate, polished, and realistic are the overall transients and associated time domain aspects of something?
Overall Realism: How overall realistic and convincing does something sound as a whole?
Not a reviewer and not writing reviews, just opinions and experiences of someone in too deep for fun. Prefer to keep things concise (sometimes), casual, and hopefully enjoyable, not much more to say here lol, more active on the forum
Add me on XMPP at email@example.com