32 bit, 384kHz, ultra-low distortion, “Up to” 130dB S/N Ratio(A-weighted), Maximum linear power supply, Time domain jitter Eliminator, blah, blah, blah! Endless filler words from marketing teams ring through my ears as I researched DAC’s for this review. Navigating through the word salad that manufacturers use to make their product stand out amongst the crowd can be a difficult task for most people. I have decided to start off this review with a brief explanation of what to look for when buying a piece of audio equipment.
What makes “high end” gear sound better than most of the cheaper stuff? For DAC’s and amps/preamps, it starts with a good circuit design. Nowadays, the guesswork has been done already for most designers. Take the Popular ESS 9018 DAC, which is one of the easiest DAC chips to make work and many companies just follow ESS’s factory circuit design recipe with very few vearing off into uncharted territory. Then we figure in the cost of the chip itself, the ESS DAC’s are relatively cheap. And lastly their is the marketing with the ESS chips with their impressive “32 bit” technology……… which is actually 5-6 bits! Yes, ESS does have a clever marketing team and I am sure they have made big money with their chips. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a relic of a DAC chip, the Philips TDA1541A. The TDA1541A is a R2R DAC and was very expensive to produce, much more than most D/S DACs. The TDA1541A also required very careful circuit design with most companies never squeezing anywhere near the TDA1541A’s potential out of their designs. Their has been a resurgance of the R2R designed DAC’s recently as people start to understand that newer does not necessarily mean better sound. The problem with the R2R DAC’s is that they are very expensive and difficult to produce which is in my opinion why manufactures moved away from them in favor of cheaper to produce Delta/Sigma DACs.
In addition to circuit design, parts quality has a very direct impact on the sound quality of audio equipment. And to those who need to see measurements, have a look at Walt Jung’s work on capacitors in audio equipment and John Curls work.
Oftentimes the best sounding capacitors are expensive and physically impractically large. Most manufacturers use the cheapest capacitors they can get away with and here is an area where people who aren’t afraid of a soldering iron can improve their equipment for relatively cheap. Any of the DACs below can be improved with better capacitors. I will go through some mods below as well.
6th place: yulong d18
The Yulong D18 is the cheapest DAC of the group at $699. The D18 utilizes the ESS 9018 DAC and feautres the lowest build quality of the group but it is still decent. Their is no headphone amp with the D18.The sound of the Yulong I would describe as warmer than neutral with a slight loss of detail in the leading edges of cymbals, brass, and guitars. Bass is decent but compared to the best in the group lacking in impact, punch, and depth. Midrange performance is respectable and the overall sound balance does come together to create a non-fatiguing sound that can be listened to for extended listening sessions without fatigue unlike some other DAC’s which also use the ESS 9018, often described as analytical and artificial sounding.
Overall, the D18 did not redefine what I thought was possible with digital but it was more listenable than many of the lower teered DACs out there and did a good job with less than stellar recordings, smoothing them out and allowing me to turn up the volume a little bit more without listening fatigue. Soundstage and imaging were less defined than with the top DAC’s of the group but still better than all the portables DAC’s I have tried. I would say that if you have bright speakers/amps the D18 would likely make your system less fatiguing and if you have warm sounding speakers/amps to steer clear of the D18. If you can find one used for cheap or get a better deal than the new price it is worth considering.
Long Term update:
I have spent more time with the D18 and made some tweaks which have improved the sound. I first swapped out the Wima film caps for Kemet R82 films available from Mouser. Then I replaced the electrolytics around the Op-Amps with Elna Silmic II’s, Also from Mouser. Lastly, I changed the power supply capacitors to Nichicon FG and upped the capacitance and voltage values. The rest of the electrolytic caps were replaced with Nichicon FG but standard values. These upgrades noticably improved the overall clarity of the D18. Soundstage and imaging became more 3D and holographic and overall tonal balance was closer to neutral than stock. If you can solder I think these mods are worth pursuing and do not cost much.
5th place: eastern electric minimax supreme
Much praise was given to the original Minimax DAC from the publications as well as the forums, in fact I owned one. The Supreme improves upon the original with daul toroidal transformers which are decoupled from the chassis via wooden blocks, a smart and meticulous touch by designer Alex Yeung. Another thoughtful touch is the op-amps are socketed so modders can easily change op-amps. Coupling caps are EE brand 3.3uF Polypropolene film. The Supreme uses a pair of ESS 9018 DACs. Build quality is far superior to the
D18 and equal to the best in the group. Fit and finish is superb.
The first thing I noticed when switching from the D18 to the EE Supreme was a far more detailed and airy treble and faster, deeper, more impactful bass. This difference was especially apparent when I listened to metal with complex drumming. Death’s “Symbolic” album is well recorded but many systems cannot articulate Gene Hoglans cymbal work and double bass drum very well. The Supreme allowed me to close my eyes and visualize Gene Hoglans every move with much more clarity than the D18. His snare drum should have a very distinct tone and snap which I have heard in real life for reference, the Supreme did not capture the full tone of Hoglans snare, lacking the lower midrange fullness that the real thing has with its deep 8″x14″ shell. I began to notice a trend with the Supreme, the sound while stunningly detailed and articulate in the bass and highs, was lacking in the full fleshed out midrange that the best DAC’s and good vinyl can convey. The sound was never harsh like the early D/S DACs but the midrange magic was not there in tubed or in solid-state mode. In stock form the Supreme does a lot really well, but I think I could make it sound much better as my heavily modified Original Minimax sounds better than this stock supreme. I suspect replacing the cheap op-amps with Burson discretes would make a significant improvement to the sound. Just to be clear, I am not one who prefers “soft, tube-like” sound. I prefer a sound that sounds as close to real life as possible meaning I need exceptional detail without false detail such as a tipped up treble/midbass. Soundstage must be 3D, wide, and imaging must be clear enough that I can close my eyes and be fooled into thinking the performers are actually in front of me. A tall order, but I have been there!
Long term update: After using the Supreme for a few months and testing various mods, I have come to the conclusion that their are two weak points in stock form. The stock tube can be replaced which results in a more organic sound. An old trick with the original minimax and minimax plus was to remove the tube all together and the sound would improve, I cannot say the same is true for the Supreme. The big improvement however getting rid of the modest stock op-amps and going Discrete with Burson or Dexa. If you can afford to pay $1000+ for a DAC you must get rid of those stock op-amps! Rounding out the mods I replaced the stock 3.3uF coupling caps with some Mundorf Evo Aluminum Oil and a HiFi Tuning fuse. I cannot comment on the fuse affect on the sound as I replaced other parts at the same time but overall with these mods this Supreme beats my modified original Minimax and the improvement from stock is significant and worth the upgrade cost. The overall sound conveys a realism close to only the true high end DAC’s, very impressive.
Now the reason I ranked the Supreme in 5th is because it is the most expensive DAC in the group and still needs mods to compete with the best in the group. But, once properly modified most serious audiophiles would likely be very happy to own the Eastern Electric Supreme.
4th place: Audio-GD DAC 19
4th Place is the Audio-GD DAC 19: The Audio-GD DAC 19 is in its final iteration as the PCM1704UK DAC chips are now around $150/pair, Compare that to the ESS 9018 in bulk pricing around $15-20 each. The DAC 19 features Dual R-core transformers, Dale Resisters, and a bunch of Wima film caps. The signal path is fully discrete with NO op amps, thank you! Power supply is Class-A. Nover audio grade capacitors are used throughout, I am guessing they can be improved upon.
Now this is music! From the very first track I played to the last the DAC-19 sounded musical. The highs were not quite as detailed and airy as the with the EE Supreme but played a balancing act between the slight tip up of the supreme and slight tip down of the D18. Bass was every bit as detailed as the Supreme but with a more palpable character, especially noticable with bass drums. The tone of the bass drum was more complete and full wheras the Supreme while easily followable lacked some coherency and depth. The midrange was where the DAC-19 excelled most making guitars sound more realistic than with the D18 or supreme. Classical music was played with powerful dynamics and a deep and wide soundstage, though not as deep and wide as with the Supreme. I would say the supreme is more exciting at first listen while the DAC-19 takes a little time understand its language. The D18 was a step down in overall clarity compared to the two.
I found myself listening to music moreso than listening cymbal work specifically as the Supreme would sometimes draw more attention to that area of the sound while the DAC-19 presented the sound without emphasis on any specific frequency. Now, that does not mean the DAC-19 was some boring, flat sounding DAC. The DAC-19 had more clarity than the Supreme everywhere but the highest highs.
After about a month of listening to the DAC-19 I started experimenting. I started with the power supply caps and replaced the stocks with Mundorf M-lytic AG. I then changed all the Wima’s for Kemet R82’s my go to compact film caps. The rest of the low value electrolytic caps were replaced with Elna Silmic II’s. The improvement was well worth the effort as overall sound was improved with greater clarity and even more controlled bass. Comparing the modified DAC-19 to the modified EE Supreme was interesting. Some would likely prefer one and some the other. Electronic music was more convincing through the EE Supreme as was complex classical music. The DAC-19 excelled with metal and rock as its rythmic bass along with precise midrange never let the sound lose focus like so many lesser sources do when the musicians push their instruments to the limit of speed and technicality. The EE Supreme won out in soundstage and imaging but not by a large margin, noticable for sure but not huge.