Light Harmonic Da Vinci DAC Page 2

Components Used in Listening
An Early 2011 MacBook Pro (Mtn. Lion) 2.3GHz i7 Quad Core; 16 GB RAM, Samsung 840 Pro 256GB SSD for the OS; Promise Pegasus Thunderbolt Drive for the music library; Synergistic Research Thunderbolt Active SE cable. Synergistic Research Tranquility Base with Galileo MPC for the computer.

USB Cables: Audioquest Diamond, Synergistic Research USB Active SE, and Wireworld Platinum Starlight

Music Software: Audirvana Plus and Pure Music

The Asynchronous USB interface of the Da Vinci supported Direct Mode / Integer playback with Audirvana Plus.

General Sound
The Da Vinci is very balanced sounding with no particular emphasis to the highs or lows. Bass performance is excellent being very well controlled with outstanding dynamic qualities. My favorite rock recordings delivered a good deal of punch and power at the low end with the Da Vinci. The midrange and highs are extremely neutral with no harshness or signs of digital artifacts given a good recording. This DAC is not euphonic or colored sounding with a false sense of richness. It does eliminate hardness or listening fatigue during prolonged listening sessions better than any other DAC I have previously listened to. The Da Vinci is detailed at the high end in the same manner as the Wavelength Crimson/ Denominator with Silver transformers. Subtle details emerge without emphasis with the capturing of micro details and dynamics. The Da Vinci, like the Wavelength, delivers information with great ease and realism. Some would refer to this quality as analog-like reproduction.

There are several qualities of the Da Vinci that I think are very special and deserve discussion.

The Da Vinci is able to reproduce the most convincing soundstage I have ever heard from a DAC. It has outperformed my previous reference the Wavelength Crimson / Denominator in the recreation of depth. Many DACs have difficulty reproducing the depth perspective and tend to present a triangular image. That is, there is a narrowing of the back of the hall or acoustic space being reproduced. The Wavelength Crimson presented excellent reproduction of depth with some narrowing. I had never experienced better until listening to the Da Vinci. The Da Vinci opens up the rear depth perspective very similar to what I hear in excellent vinyl reproduction. There is no narrowing of the acoustic space with the Da Vinci. I have listened to Eiji Oue / The Minnesota Orchestra performing Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances (Reference Recordings HRx 176.4/24) many times with many different DACs, but have never heard this degree of soundstage depth. Not only is the width enormous, but the depth perspective is simply spectacular.

Besides depth, the reproduction of hall reverberation is very well reproduced. The recording Contrasts by Cantatrix (sold by Linn 192/24) reproduce singers in a large acoustic space with excellent hall reverberation. The Da Vinci reproduces this large acoustic space with reverberation that is the best I have ever heard from this recording.

But there is more to the soundstage reproduction than simply the size and reproduction of the acoustic properties of the hall. The ability to isolate multiple images concurrently is also strength of the Da Vinci. Contrasts by Cantatrix played with excellent focus of the numerous voices in the natural reverb of this large acoustic space that was simply exemplary. The Da Vinci has outstanding focus with multiple instruments and singers within the soundstage’s acoustic space. The Dunedin Consort’s J.S. Bach Mass in B Minor (Linn Records 88.2/24) provides a great example of this with the singer’s voices easily heard from one another and the instruments suspended in the acoustic space of the recording. While the acoustic space is nowhere as large as that found in Contrasts, it is more easily heard with the Da Vinci than with other DACs I have experienced.

Dynamic Qualities
The second quality of the Da Vinci that grabbed my attention and, quite frankly, startled me was the way it handled dynamics—especially with multiple instruments and voices. The Da Vinci has one of the quietest, black backgrounds of any DAC I have heard. Certainly the low noise aids in the soundstage recreation I previously discussed, but also contributes to the dynamic qualities of this DAC. Himmelkvad by Nordic Voices (2L 192/24) presents six voices that dynamically range from a whisper to very loud with all emerging from a deep black acoustic space. The Da Vinci never sounded overloaded in the loud dynamic passages, but also was able to retain excellent detail in the quiet passages.

It is also outstanding in rendering micro details. Carol Kidd’s Tell Me Once Again (Linn Records 192/24) presents Carol singing with a nylon string guitar played by Nigel Clark. The detail of the fingers striking the strings was well reproduced with the Da Vinci. Now you may recall that I said a similar thing about the Wavelength Crimson DAC I previously reviewed here at AudioStream. The Da Vinci had similar detail with this recording compared to the Silver transformer DAC, but a quieter and blacker background. This is no small accomplishment given the superb detail heard with Wavelength Crimson / Denominator with Silver wire transformers.

The Da Vinci sailed through the explosive recording of The Dallas Wind Symphony Crown Imperial (Reference Recordings HRx 176.4/24). The Da Vinci never sounded overloaded and played the crescendos beautifully without loss of focus. The Da Vinci allowed the dynamic qualities of the music to bloom without hardness.

Monty Alexander’s Calypso Blues: Songs of Nat King Cole (Chesky Records 192/24) was also handled with great ease by the Da Vinci. Macro dynamic shadings were well rendered by the interplay of the piano, bass, and drums in this excellent recording made at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in New York City.

Lack of Grain
The Da Vinci seems to strip away subtle digital grain-glare or distortion that is present in most DACs. Once you become accustomed to listening to music from the Da Vinci, it is difficult to ignore the absence of this quality in other DACs. If one listens to a great deal of analog, you will know what I’m talking about. Is it the result of using a non-oversampling design without a digital filter? Is the large class A power supply coming into play here or the isolation of computer noise across the USB cable? I suspect all of these factors contribute to the Da Vinci’s analog-like reproduction.

Duet Engine
The Duet Engine utilizes analog interpolation with parallel output modules utilizing highly precise clocks to double the sample rate for CD 44.1/16 files. The Duet Mode does not utilize conventional upsampling or digital filters. Light Harmonic claims that a sophisticated aligned timing technology is used to double the effective playback sampling rate to 88.2kHz. Light Harmonic feels that the Duet Mode will provide smoother high frequencies without the negative effects of a “brick-wall filter”, and at the same time, provide bit perfect playback.

What I heard using the Duet Mode with CD files was an opening up of the soundstage with enhancement to the high end. The high end was smoother and slightly more detailed. I think the Duet Mode is less obvious in its actions than using upsampling software like iZotope and did not alter the basic sound of the file in a negative way. I liked what I heard using the Duet Mode and found it to be a very useful feature of the Da Vinci for genuine enhancement of CD quality files.

There is a selectable analog low pass filter that can be used for 44.1 KHz files that cuts in at 80KHz. I found its effect to be very subtle.

384/32 USB
I was able to test the USB stability with 352.8 KHz files I derived from Blue Coast Records DFF files. Not only did these files sound excellent, but there was complete stability with no drop-outs playing these files.

Evening Listening
Toward the end of my evaluation of the Da Vinci, I turned the lights off and settled down for a quiet late night listening session. I first listened to piano improvisations by Ola Gjeilo (2L HDtracks 192/24). The tracks of the single piano were beautifully reproduced with excellent dynamic shadings and no softening or blurring of the piano’s overtones. I would also like to emphasize the low noise floor-ultra black background of the Da Vinci allowed the piano to emerge from a complete black silence enhancing the acoustic illusion of being in the same room with the piano.

My time spent with the Da Vinci has served as an eye-opening experience as to what is possible with digital reproduction. Previous concepts of what constituted great digital reproduction have been redefined with analog-type qualities that I had never experienced before in computer audio. In the areas of soundstage reproduction, the ability to unravel complex musical passages, and the significant reduction of grain and other digital artifacts, the Da Vinci is the best I have ever experienced. Here is a vehicle for the reproduction of hi-resolution files that makes the investment in this music worthwhile. The treatment of 44.1/CD reproduction with the Duet Engine is also exemplary breathing new life into this medium.

The only thing I missed from the Da Vinci was the capability to reproduce native DSD files over USB (DoP – DSD over PCM). Larry Ho told me that Light Harmonic will be offering support for DSD 128 with a built-in completely separate Delta Sigma processor that will only be used for DSD processing while retaining the non-oversampling processor for PCM. Michael will be reviewing this model in the near future. [I got to hear the new Da Vinci Dual DAC at CES. Ed.]

I feel that the Da Vinci represents a significant advancement in digital reproduction. Its strengths are easy to identify and a joy to listen to. Listening to the Da Vinci was addicting as it allowed me to enjoy music for hours on end without fatigue. Anyone looking for a world-class DAC, regardless of price, owes it to themselves to audition the Da Vinci. From its unique looks to its spectacular sonic performance, I suspect that you will be as thrilled as I was with this first offering from Light Harmonic.

Associated Equipment