General Description of The Analog DAC
The Analog DAC is MSB Technology’s newest DAC model that was designed to offer audiophiles a DAC that is analog-like in sound quality, but without the limitations of dynamics and distortion. As it just so happens, The Analog DAC is the least expensive of the DACs offered by MSB Technology, but offers a number of features found in their more expensive models.
DSD via DoP and SDHC
Before going to press with this review, I figured I'd give it one last lap around the 'net to see if I could locate some information regarding when (or if) the Fostex HP-A8C would be able to play back DSD over PCM/USB. I stumbled on a post by 'AnakChan' on HeadFi that pointed to the Fostex Japan website and lo and behold there was firmware version 2.01B with DoP (you can get it here). Once I downloaded and updated, all I had to do was navigate to the USB over PCM menu option, enable it, and I was streaming DSD over USB in no time. Lovely. Why this firmware revision from November 2012 is not yet available on the Fostex International (English) website is anyone's guess. The latest version to be found there is 1.31 which does not include the DSD over USB option so you are stuck playing back only DSF formatted DSD files through the HP-A8C's SD (or SDHC) card reader. And that's kind of a drag.
I first saw and heard the AURALiC Vega Digital Audio Processor at the 2013 CES and I remember thinking—I need to hear this one at home. I can't tell you exactly why this was the case especially seeing as listening to music is a difficult thing to focus on at hi-fi shows and determining the performance of a given component within an unfamiliar system is like judging a blind date by an online profile. So let's call my interest in the AURALiC Vega a hunch. And let me just say man oh man did that hunch pay off.
The Hex DAC is, according to Metrum Acoustics, a non-oversampling (NOS) filterless DAC in the strictest sense. This means that inside, including inside its mysterious* DAC chips, the PCM signal remains a PCM signal and it passes through the D/A process un-oversampled and un-filtered, as it were. Many of today's DACs, even some calling themselves NOS DACs, employ delta-sigma DAC chips that, among other things, oversample, interpolate, convert the PCM signal to a PDM signal (pulse-density modulation), and filter our precious musical data. Filterless NOS DACs skip these steps and some feel that the resulting analog signal sounds more analog-like as a result.
Z Ultra-Compact Component
The Zdac hails from Parasound's Z-line of "ultra-compact components" that includes the Zamp V.3, Zphono, Zphono-USB, Zcd, Ztuner, Zpre2, Zbreeze cooling fan, and the Zselect five-pair speaker selector. The Z-line comes in silver or rack-mountable black and all of the Z components share the same chassis so one could have a complete matching Z-system (sans speakers). For some, matching components are a plus while for others, mainly for certain kinds of audiophiles, matching components take all of the fun out system mixing and matching. Thankfully you can have the Zdac either a la carte or prix fixe.
One look at the Emotiva XDA-2 DAC/Digital Preamp/Headphone Amp and you may ask yourself—I wonder how much that costs? And when you learn that the answer is a dollar shy of $400, you may think "Wow" or you may think, "Wait, what does it do?". Price perception is similar to depth perception in that's its all about ones' point of view. While anyone that's been shopping for a DAC lately will more than likely be impressed by the XDA-2s package, what it does is play music and how well it does this one job will tell you most everything you need to know about its value.
64x DSD, 128x DSD, and DXD for under a Grand
The DSD wars are heating up. When I started my list of DSD-ready DACs back in November of 2011, there were a grand total of four DACs and two of them were from the same company. The big news back then was the Mytek DAC coming in at $1,695 but if you look at that list today, you'll see more for less (and more). The Teac UD-501 is currently the least expensive DAC on that list but that doesn't mean you're necessarily getting less. As a matter of fact, the Teac offers up to double rate DSD (5.6MHz) and 384kHz PCM playback out of the box which certainly looks like a lot on paper. But what really matters isn't to be found on paper, and it isn't even necessarily only about how it sounds, it is all about how it makes us feel.
Playback Designs MPS-3 CD Player/DAC
The MPS-3 CD Player, while offering a CD transport, is really a full featured DAC with Asynchronous USB input that supports high resolution files of up to 384/24 kHz PCM and 6.1 MHz DSD through USB with either a PC or MAC. A better name for this product is the Music Playback System 3. Playback Designs offers the same product without the CD transport for $6500 that is called the MPD-3.
Meridian Enters the Fray
The USB bus-powered Meridian Explorer is a small, portable 24/192-capable asynchronous USB DAC, headphone amp, and it can also function as a 24/96 USB to S/PDIF converter. There's a mini USB input on one side of its oval tubular extruded aluminum body and two 3.5mm outputs on the other. One of those outputs is fixed and is meant to connect to your hi-fi while also doubling as a 24/96 mini Toslink output. The other 3.5mm output is variable and meant for driving headphones. Based on listening impressions, I'd say the Meridian Explorer is damn well capable of driving you to musical distraction. And it does so for $299.00. Welcome to the beautiful and competitive world of computer audio.
The 99 dollar DAC
How low can we go? Schiit Audio has answered this question with the Modi USB DAC coming in under the $100 mark by an entire dollar. While I don't like to focus on price since performance is why we buy audio gear, there's no getting around the fact that the Modi is $99 and that number represents the least expensive DAC to come through AudioStream HQ so far. What's more, the Modi's outward appearance doesn't tip its low cost hand, at least to my eyes, with its custom steel chassis. So yea, Schiit have gone and done it, offering up what appears to be one heck of an audio bargain with the Modi USB DAC but let's look beyond prices and appearances and see what a Benjamin buys these days.
The Da Vinci DAC has been garnering praise from both reviewers and audiophiles alike after first being exhibited at audiophile shows in 2011. Light Harmonic, a new Sacramento California based company, was launched in 2010 by Larry Ho. The Da Vinci resulted from Larry Ho’s desire to create a DAC that fulfilled his notion of what good digital audio reproduction should sound like. Larry is a dedicated audiophile that, among other things, enjoys vinyl reproduction with a tube-SET amp. After the Da Vinci was created, friends encouraged him to offer this product for sale. The result was Light Harmonic and their first product Da Vinci.
FPGA All the Way
If you know only one thing about Chord Electronics, I'd suggest knowing they do things their own way and that way typically diverges from the main stream. This approach can be seen in any of their products industrial design from amplifiers to preamplifiers to digital to analog converters as they all share a lozenge-shaped outline and a round window for seeing into and emitting light from within. Once inside, you'll aso see that things are far from common. But what matters most, in hi-fi land, is how all of this adds up. Does it serve the music being the relevant question at hand. And not to give too much away up front, the answer with the Chord Chordette QuteHD (DSD) DAC is a resounding Oh yea.
iFi is an outgrowth of Abbington Music Research (AMR) "with trickle-down technology licensed from AMR and aimed primarily at the future, Computer Audio generation". We have two components under review from their Micro line—a USB DAC/Headphone amp and a USB power supply. For a combined price of $500, the iFi pair offers a lot of musical muscle for your money. The rest of the Micro line includes the iCan headphone amp ($249), and iPhono MM/MC phono preamp ($399).
Good Things Come In Small Packages
During my review of the Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC, I thought, to myself, wouldn't it be interesting if they offered just a DAC? Stripped away all of the additional functionality like the preamp, headphone amp and the front-mounted SD Card Reader and gave us just-a-DAC? Well the guys at Resonessence Labs must have read my mind because they've delivered just that (and more).
The Asus Xonar Essence One comes in three versions; the standard ($599), the One Plus Edition with Op-Amp Swap Kit ($699), and the unit under review the MUSES Edition (footnote 1) so named for its use of the MUSES 01 Op-Amps from New Japan Radio Co. Ltd. While I wouldn't call the Xonar Essence One MUSES Edition inexpensive at $899, I would say it leans toward the budget side of things, all things considered. With very solid build quality, a 24/192-capable Asynchronous USB input, two S/PDIF inputs, a preamp, a headphone amp, and optional "Symmetrical 8X upsampling", Asus has thrown a lot into the Essence One including the muses.