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NAD C658 Streaming DAC and C298 Power Amplifier

NAD’s new C658 streaming DAC packs a huge number of advanced technologies and capabilities into an affordable package. The C658 is a BluOs-enabled streamer that incorporates a DAC with MQA decoding, support for about a dozen music-streaming services, network connectivity, a full suite of preamplifier functions, a moving-magnet phonostage, two subwoofer outputs with configurable crossover, and Dirac Live DSP room correction. You can add inputs now and in the future, thanks to NAD’s Modular Design Construction architecture. The C658 even has a Bluetooth aptX HD receiver/transmitter so that you can listen to music through your wireless headphones. The price? $1649. 

A logical partner for the C658 is NAD’s brand-new, $1999 C298 stereo power amplifier. It, too, is packed with features, including balanced and single-ended inputs, variable gain, line outputs for daisy-chaining multiple amplifiers, a bridging function for monaural operation, an auto-on feature when signal is detected, and remote control. The C298 is one of the first amplifiers to feature a new circuit, called Eigentakt, that is a significant advance in Class D amplification. The Eigentakt output-stage module, created by a new Danish company called Purifi, has extraordinary specifications, including vanishingly low distortion or noise. The design effort was led by Bruno Putzeys, one of the brightest thinkers in switching-amplifier design (Putzeys created the Hypex Ncore Class D module that is the basis for dozens of high-end amplifiers. I describe this new switching-amplifier module, which you are likely to see in many upcoming high-end products, in a sidebar.) 

The C298 is the third NAD amplifier based on the Eigentakt module. The previous iterations are the Masters M33 and M28, each priced at $4999. The C298 is the company’s first attempt to bring the technology to a much lower price point, largely by eschewing the fancy casework of the Masters Series. The C298 is rated at 185Wpc into 8 ohms and 340Wpc into 4 ohms, with a dynamic power rating of 260W into 8 ohms, 490W into 4 ohms, and 570W into 2 ohms. When bridged to operate as a monoblock, the C298 can output a staggering 1000W into 8 ohms.

The C658 network streaming DAC can accept a wide range of inputs (see Specs & Pricing), but will probably be used primarily via its integral support for music-streaming services, and be controlled through the BluOS app. (A full-function remote control is also included with the C658.) BluOS is a wireless digital ecosystem for connecting and controlling a variety of products, including whole-house wireless-audio distribution.        BluOS is a multi-room wireless platform developed by Lenbrook International, and is a sister brand to NAD. BluOS offers a full suite of compatible products for any application. After downloading the app (iOS or Android), you select the BluOS device to stream to, choose music from a streaming service, and enjoy. I logged in to my Tidal and Qobuz accounts, which gave me access to all the music I wanted. You can also connect to any network-attached drives and play music stored on them. Music management is handled through the BluOS app. The C658 shows up as a Roon endpoint (the  C658 was recently Roon certified). BluOS recently made a deal with the Neil Young Archives to provide BluOS users full and free access to the iconic musician’s catalog, all in high resolution. BluOS is compatible with PCM up to 192kHz/24-bit, but lacks DSD support. The optional USB input module will accept DSD up to DSD512, but converts it to PCM at 192/24. The module also accepts USB 2 audio from a computer. Finally, the BluOS app offers a range of free Internet radio services in addition to the paid streaming platforms.

The C658 also allows you to name inputs, set auto-standby time, disable inputs, select between fixed and variable output levels (fixed is the “theater-bypass” mode), trim the gain on each input, engage or bypass the tone (bass and treble) controls, and adjust the display brightness. On the technology side, it’s built around the ESS Sabre 32-bit DAC. The volume control operates in the digital domain, except when the C658 is in the analog-bypass mode.

The C658 is the first NAD Classic Series two-channel product to incorporate Dirac Live. Dirac Live is a DSP room- and speaker-correction system that measures the frequency response and time signature of the sound at the listening position. From this measurement data, Dirac calculates a series of filters that flatten the frequency response and assure correct phase response at the listening seat. Those filters are then downloaded into the C658, which processes the audio signal before the C658’s digital-to-analog conversion stage. In essence, the system “pre-distorts” the audio signal in a way that is the inverse of the distortion created by your speakers and room. That is, Dirac Live modifies the signal driving your loudspeakers so that the final result at your ears is flat in frequency, with most of the sound energy in the room arriving at your ears in phase. Dirac Live doesn’t just look at amplitude information, but also at the room’s time signature. It distinguishes between deleterious reflections, such as floor and ceiling bounce, and later-occurring and lower-amplitude reflections that sound like natural reverberation. 

The version of Dirac Live included with the C658 corrects frequencies up to 500Hz. For the full-frequency-range version, you must pay $99 for the software upgrade. A future software upgrade will provide extensive control over the C658’s subwoofer-output signals. Specifically, it will include a bass-management function as well as clever tricks, such as causing one subwoofer’s output to cancel a standing wave created by the other subwoofer. That feature is like having an active room-resonance-cancelling device built right into the C658 (provided that you have two subs). The C658 hardware, including the two subwoofer outputs, can accommodate this new feature when it becomes available.

Because Dirac Live operates in the digital domain, analog signals at the C658’s input are digitized, processed, and converted back to analog at 192kHz/24-bit. Fortunately, you can bypass the digital conversion on specified analog inputs so that the C658 operates as a pure analog preamplifier. Those bypassed inputs, however, cannot be processed with Dirac Live, and the DSP subwoofer crossover won’t be accessible. (See the sidebar for more about setting up and running Dirac Live.)

Overall, the C658 was fairly easy to operate considering its extensive features and capabilities. I quickly became accustomed to the BluOS app. In typical NAD tradition, the two products’ casework is utilitarian rather than lavish; NAD spends the parts-budget on those components that affect the sound quality. If you prefer a more upscale chassis, NAD offers the Master Series of components.

Listening

I auditioned the C658 and C298 separately in my reference system before using them as a pair. This put each product under the microscope of reference-quality sources, electronics, cables, and the Wilson Chronosonic XVX loudspeakers. For a more real-world situation, I paired the two NAD components with a speaker of commensurate price, the Focal Chora 826, a floorstanding three-way that sells for $2200-per-pair (review upcoming in the April issue). The complete system, without cables, was $5848. I ran balanced interconnects between the two NAD components.

I connected the C658 to my network via an Ethernet cable. NAD also sent to me the Bluesound Pulse 2i, an all-in-one tabletop system ($699) that connects to the BluOS network wirelessly (as I used it) or via an Ethernet port. NAD wanted me to experience how products like the Pulse 2i allow BluOS to function as a whole-house wireless audio system. I wasn’t expecting to receive the Pulse 2i, but discovered that it was a great way to have music outside the listening room. There’s the joke that the audiophile’s way of realizing whole-house audio is to open the listening room door and turn up the volume. I must confess to taking that approach myself. But the ability to place the Pulse 2i in the kitchen, for example, and have full wireless access to high-resolution streaming music controlled by my iPad was compelling.

Starting with the C298, the amplifier had more than enough power to drive the Wilson Chronosonic XVX to any listening level without strain. Even on music with very wide dynamic range (John Williams at the Movies on Reference Recordings) the C298 had plenty of pluck. Peaks were reproduced effortlessly; the bottom end stayed tight and defined at high playback levels; and the soundstage didn’t collapse during the loudest and most complex passages. NAD has long been a proponent of amplification with lots of dynamic headroom, which could be defined as the difference between the amplifier’s continuous power rating on the spec sheet and the clipping point on musical peaks. This approach makes sense; music is dynamic and much of its expressiveness is contained within those dynamic contrasts, and not on steady-state tones. It’s worth noting that the Eigentakt Class D output module is rated at 400W, but NAD specifies the C298’s output power at 185Wpc into 8 ohms. Clearly, there’s a generous amount of headroom.

As with other Class D amplifiers I’ve auditioned, the C298’s bass reproduction was outstanding. This amplifier goes deep, has a nice sense of heft and weight through the midbass, and has terrific dynamic punch on instruments such as kickdrum. An acid-test of bottom-end impact is the track “Octopia” from drummer Simon Philips’ album Protocol II (Qobuz 96/24). In addition to first-rate performances by the entire band (including great guitar work by Andy Timmons), this album showcases Philips’ phenomenal talent, recorded with spectacular drum sound. His huge kit includes many low-tuned toms that put the C298 to the test. The C298 did justice to this album, sounding like an unflappable powerhouse and reproducing the kit with effortless dynamics and impact. 

But it wasn’t just all sledgehammer impact; the C298 also revealed dynamic subtleties and nuance. Throughout the listening, I noticed that the C298 had an unusually satisfying ability to convey music’s rhythmic flow and forward propulsion, from the funky grooves on bassist Brian Bromberg’s Thicker than Water (Tidal MQA) to Ray Brown’s hard-swinging acoustic bass on Soular Energy. This could be the result of the C298’s extremely low output-impedance, which translates to the amplifier having an iron-fisted grip over the loudspeakers’ woofers—either the Wilson’s 12.5″ and 10.5″ drivers or the pair of 6.5″ woofers in the Focal speakers.

The midrange had a nice presence on Norah Jones’ voice on her album Day Breaks (Tidal MQA). Her vocal had good tonality, too, with just a touch of added sibilance. The upper-midrange to lower-treble was a bit forward in perspective, but only a bit. This character brought cymbals and the upper harmonics of instruments to the fore, imparting a lively quality to the sound. Significantly, the C298 lacked the “chalky” haze over the mids and treble that I’ve heard from other switching amplifiers. Instrumental timbre was fairly natural, with excellent resolution of inner textural detail. The C298 was also remarkably adept at revealing subtle instrumental lines. It was easy to hear low-level instruments in the mix or at the back of the hall. The C298’s soundstaging was outstanding—big, open, spacious, and detailed, with precise image placement. If you think of amplifiers in this price as sounding flat, congealed, and a little grainy (compared to reference amplifiers), you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise with the C298.

Dropping the C298 into the middle of a system with $800k worth of source components, electronics, cables, and loudspeakers revealed just what a spectacular bargain this amplifier is. Although not the last word in timbral liquidity, the C298 does just about everything else at a level far above what its price would suggest. It was supremely musical and engaging, particularly the wonderful sense of rhythmic drive and ability to convey dynamic shadings and expression. I have not auditioned many Class D amplifiers, but can confidently say that the C298 is the best switching amplifier I’ve heard.

The C658, in this same system but feeding my reference amplifiers, revealed a good-sounding DAC at this price level. The overall tonal balance was neutral, but with a slight treble emphasis, heard as a bit of additional sibilance on voices. The top end also had a touch of sheen overlying instrumental timbre, and a slight layer of grain. This tended to affect recordings that are inherently bright, rather than blanketing all music. It’s by no means a deal-breaker, but I’ve heard smoother-sounding DACs. 

I was particularly impressed by the C658’s resolution through the midrange; the NAD revealed subtleties of texture and dynamics that are commendable for its price. The bottom end was well defined, and favored articulation over weight, making it easy to follow bass lines. Importantly, the C658 didn’t compress images in the soundstage into two-dimensional representations; rather, image outlines had some tangible space and air around them. The C658 had a good ability to present instruments and voices within a soundstage that was wide and well defined. Dynamics were similarly impressive, with the C658 having the ability to convey subtle nuances of dynamic expression such as gently struck cymbals. 

To get a better feel for the C658’s DAC section performance, I compared it to the AudioQuest DragonFly Red, a $199 overachiever. Although the two products couldn’t be more different in function and capabilities (the DragonFly is a USB stick with no features other than MQA decoding), the AudioQuest, nonetheless, provides a benchmark for what is possible at an entry-level price. The NAD’s bass was a little lighter in weight but more detailed than that of the DragonFly, which was a bit loose and billowy. With the NAD it was easier to follow bass lines, and the overall tonal balance sounded more natural, with the bass better integrated into the rest of the music. The C658 had a much wider and deeper soundstage, with greater spread and separation of instruments in the hall or in the multichannel mix. I also heard greater midrange resolution from the NAD, which better revealed subtle details about how instruments make sounds. The acoustic guitar accompaniment on Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” sounded more natural and realistic through the NAD. Overall, the C658 was significantly better sounding than the DragonFly Red. It may not seem fair to compare a $199 USB stick to a $1649 full-featured product; nevertheless, the comparison puts the C658’s DAC performance into perspective. Although you can find better-sounding DACs at the C658’s price, they won’t have the NAD’s extensive capabilities—full preamplifier functions, phonostage, subwoofer outputs with configurable crossover, streaming under BluOS control, and, most significantly, Dirac Live DSP room correction. 

Next, I moved on from the Wilson Chronosonics and listened to the C658 and C298 driving the Focal Chora 826 for some time before engaging Dirac Live room correction. (See the sidebar on setting up and running Dirac Live.) Starting with the stock version that corrects up to 500Hz, I could see in the measured response two peaks of excessive energy in the range from about 80Hz to 180Hz, with two dips below 80Hz. The target curve showed a smoother response after correction, with the gently rising bass of the NAD target curve. In the listening seat, engaging Dirac resulted in more low bass and less midbass bloat. The Focal Chora 826 almost sounded almost like a different speaker in the low end, with greater depth and extension. Kickdrum had more impact, with seemingly much steeper and faster transient attack, coupled with quicker decay. The musical effect was greater punctuation of the rhythm. With the midbass bloat removed, it was much easier to hear nuances in bass playing; pitches were more clearly articulated; and, most significantly, I could more easily hear the starts and stops of each note. With Dirac, individual notes were more distinct in pitch and dynamics. This was true across a wide range of music, from Ray Brown’s acoustic bass on the previously mentioned Soular Energy to Brian Bromberg on Thicker than Water. The overall tonal balance was somewhat lighter and leaner, but this leaning out of the midbass was entirely salubrious; the sound still had plenty of weight and authority, but was cleaner, tighter, and more intelligible.

That impression was with the Dirac version that comes free with the C658, which corrects up to 500Hz. Below this frequency is where room modes are most problematic, and this version of Dirac results in a remarkable transformation of the bass and low bass.

I then switched to the full-frequency-range version, a $99 upgrade, and again measured the system and loaded the new filters from my PC into the C658. I’ve generally believed that it’s best not to try to correct higher frequencies with DSP, for several reasons. First, it’s easy to dramatically change the sound of your speakers (which you presumably like) and get “lost in the woods” trying to find the right tonal balance. It’s easier to do more harm than good. Second, correcting higher frequencies is much more technically challenging that correcting lower frequencies. In my previous experience, it’s best to use DSP to fix the bass and leave the rest of the spectrum alone. 

But that wasn’t the case with Dirac Live. The bass improvements just described were all there, but the effect on the midrange and treble was equally remarkable. Using the NAD target curve (the frequency response the correction system aims for), Dirac didn’t fundamentally change the Focal Chora 826’s smooth and flat tonal balance. Instead, engaging full-range Dirac produced a startling improvements in image specificity, in clarity, in the ability to hear individual instruments through the mix, and in transient response. Sounds started and stopped faster, with less overhang. I also heard a smoother upper-midrange and treble, with less hash. The sound was overall more refined. The impression of individual instruments within a soundstage was heightened.

The full-frequency version of Dirac Live is the most impressive DSP correction system I’ve heard. It is well worth the $99 upgrade. In fact, it made the $2200-per-pair Focal speakers sound like more expensive models.

I next tried Dirac Live with the Wilson Chronosonic XVX, a speaker with much greater bass extension than the Focal. The Wilsons are perfectly positioned in my built-from-scratch listening room, which has good dimensional ratios for evenly distributing room modes. Even with these advantages, rooms will still create peaks and dips in frequency response, caused by the interaction of direct and reflected waves, and between different reflected waves. Two waves combine constructively to produce a peak of energy at certain frequencies, or destructively to create a dip at certain frequencies. Those frequencies are determined by the room’s dimensions. After measuring the system and loading the correction filters for the Wilsons into the C658, I compared with no correction. I did hear an improvement in the bass, but it was an order of magnitude less than with the Focals. The bottom end was a bit more muscular and defined, with slightly better transient performance. 

After lots of swapping individual components in and out of the reference system, and experimenting with Dirac, I finally settled in for some music listening to the system as it was intended; the NAD pair driving the Focal Chora 826 with Dirac properly calibrated. I have to say that the performance of this $5848 system was outstanding, particularly in the bass. The bottom end was quick, articulate, punchy, and had outstanding resolution of pitch and dynamic shading. It was truly a full-range system with a terrific bottom end, a quality that’s very difficult to achieve without spending a lot more money. 

Conclusion

The C658 and C298 can serve as the heart of a capable and powerful music system. The C658 streaming DAC is loaded with all the features needed in today’s digital streaming world, has expandable inputs to accommodate future interfaces, and the BluOS app provides easy and intuitive control over a music library. The C658 can also serve as the heart of a whole-house wireless system. The C298 amplifier is a powerhouse that will drive virtually any loudspeaker. It also has qualities that are consistent with much more expensive amplifiers, including superb soundstaging, clarity of instrumental line, and good resolution of timbre. Bass and dynamics are spectacular, with excellent rendering of pitch and clarity of bass lines. The overall sound is slightly forward in perspective through the midrange and treble, a character that suggests attention to system matching. I can see the C298 delivering terrific performance when paired with much more expensive components. It’s that good.

I would have recommended this pair without Dirac Live, but this DSP speaker- and room-correction system vaults the performance to a new level, without the sonic compromises I’ve heard from some other DSP systems. The improvement in bass extension, clarity, and dynamics is astounding. The full-frequency version of Dirac brings newfound image specificity along with far more lifelike reproduction of transients.

Considered alone or as a duo, the C658 and C298 deliver exceptional performance and value.

Specs & Pricing

C658
Digital inputs: USB, 2x coaxial, 2x TosLink, Gigabit Ethernet RJ45, Wi-Fi 5 (802.11 ac/n), Bluetooth aptX HD (two-way); Apple AirPlay2, HDMI on optional MDC board
Analog inputs: Line in x2 (unbalanced), phono (mm, >80mV overload margin)
Analog outputs: Balanced on XLR jacks, single-ended on RCA jacks, subwoofer output x2
Other input/outputs: IR in/out, 12V trigger in/out, service USB
Formats supported: MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG, WMA-L, ALAC, OPUS, MQA, FLAC, WAV, AIFF; converted DSD supported only via BluOS desktop app
Dimensions: 17 1/8″ x 3 15/16″ x 16″
Weight: 22.3 lbs.
Price: $1649

C298
Output power: 185Wpc into 8 ohms, 340Wpc into 4 ohms
IHF dynamic output power: 260Wpc into 8 ohms, 490Wpc into 4 ohms, 570Wpc into 2 ohms
Mono IHF dynamic power: 1000W into 8 ohms, 1100W into 4 ohms
Inputs: Balanced on XLR jacks, single-ended on RCA jacks
THD: 0.005% at 1W-185W
SN ratio: >98dB (A-weighed, 1W output into 8 ohms)
Input impedance: 56k ohms single-ended or balanced
Dimensions: 17 1/8″ x 4¾” x 15 3/8″
Weight: 24.7 lbs.
Price: $1999

NAD ELECTRONICS
633 Granite Court
Pickering Ontario
L1W 3K1 Canada
nadelectronics.com

The post NAD C658 Streaming DAC and C298 Power Amplifier appeared first on The Absolute Sound.

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iFi Zen DAC

Will all the readers who have spent over $130 on a dinner for two raise their hands? OK. Will anyone who did not raise his hands yet who’s spent more than $130 for a cable or interconnect raise his hand? By now we should have the vast majority of the folks reading this review with their arms in the air. You can put them down now. What if I told you that for that same $130 you could have a USB DAC capable of not only playing back high-resolution PCM files but also DSD and MQA files, in addition to offering single-ended and balanced headphone outputs and an adjustable balanced line-level preamplifier output? Interested? I hope so.

Technical Tour

The iFi Zen series of components offers audiophiles and budding audiophiles on extremely tight budgets the prospect of excellent sound and extensive features for very little fiscal outlay. The Zen DAC, Zen Blu, and Zen Phono can be used alone or in concert with one another for different input sources, while the Zen Can provides headphone outputs. The Zen DAC handles USB digital inputs (2.0 or 3.0), while the Zen Blue accepts Bluetooth sources and has outputs for single-ended and balanced analog as well as coaxial and TosLink SPDIF. The Zen Phono has single-ended and balanced outputs and supports both moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges via four different gain settings.

While it’s certainly important to know what’s inside a component (we’ll get to that), it’s equally if not more important to know who designed it. IFi, formed in 2012, was created as a sub-division of the high-end firm Abbington Music Research, whose principal designer is Thorsten Loesch. For the Zen DAC project John Curl was drafted as the co-designer, focusing on the analog sections of the Zen DAC. This impressively accredited designer-duo focused on making the most cost-effective high-performance DAC/preamplifier they could for the Zen’s price. While I have not reviewed any AMR products, my own history with John Curl’s designs goes back to his Class A, differentially balanced, two-chassis JC-80 preamplifier, designed for Frank Dennesen in the mid-80s. It was impressive both in sound and in the amount of heat its pure Class A amplification scheme could generate. In many ways the Zen DAC is just as impressive, though it is far smaller and runs much cooler than its ancient predecessor.

The Zen DAC’s list of component parts includes a mix of something old and something new. The device list begins with the latest XMOS 208 series USB input chip, which iFi proprietarily modifies, followed by a BurrBrown DSD1793 DAC chip, which is certainly not the newest DAC chip available but one that iFi has used in the past. The Zen’s analog stage features a true differential balanced circuit with TDK COG capacitors, Texas Instruments low-noise power supply, and an analog volume control. Using an older chip almost guarantees that the Zen DAC will not, and does not, measure as well as the latest generation of AKM DAC chips, but, as we learned from the “specifications war” of the late 70s, not all specifications are as audibly important as others, and in the end we all listen with our ears rather than through test rigs.

ifi_zen_2

Ergonomics and Setup

The Zen DAC is not merely a DAC; it can also serve as a balanced-output preamplifier. But unlike the vast majority of balanced preamplifiers with XLR outputs, the Zen DAC uses a 4.4 Pentaconn balanced output-connector, due to space and price restrictions. Finding a suitable Pentaconn-to-dual-balanced-XLR cable so that the Zen DAC’s balanced outputs can be used to drive a balanced-input power amplifier and its single-ended outputs reserved for a subwoofer, proved to be the most difficult part of setting up the Zen DAC as a stand-alone DAC/pre. First, I tried a $30 Pentaconn-to-dual-XLR cable from Amazon, which generated a constant hum, so it was not useable. IFi sent me a cable that worked, but currently the equivalent via Amazon was around $80, which could be a bit pricy for a $130 DAC buyer. Another option was to use a cable to convert from Pentaconn balanced to RCA single-ended, but that route generated a low-level buzz on both channels with both of the cables I purchased for the application (from two different manufacturers).

During much of time I had the Zen DAC, I used it as a basic DAC with fixed output connected to a Tortuga Audio V2 passive preamplifier via its single-ended RCA analog outputs. I also used the Zen DAC connected via its balanced outputs to the $7999 Sony SA-Z1 active loudspeaker system. At the end of the review period I hooked up the Zen DAC via its balanced outputs to the Mytek Manhattan II’s balanced analog inputs so I could listen through the Spatial X-2s connected to the Pass 150.8 amplifier and dual JL Audio Fathom f112 subwoofers. Going from active volume control to a fixed output level on the Zen DAC was as simple as moving the switch on its back. I connected a bevy of amplifiers to the Zen DAC during the time I used it as a preamplifier, including the Benchmark ABH-2 ($2999), Clone Audio 25P (discontinued, last price $750), Fosi Audio TDA7498E ($75), and Perreaux E110 (discontinued). Loudspeakers tethered to the system include the Audience 1+1 V3 ($2965), Silverline Minuet Supreme ($699), Aperion 4B ($199), Role Audio Kayak ($695–$795), and ATC SC7II ($1495).

The front panel of the Zen DAC has a large centrally located volume knob flanked on the right side by single-ended ¼” and balanced Pentaconn headphone outputs. The left side has a “Power Match” switch, which alters the gain levels of all the outputs, and a “Truebass” switch, which enhances the Zen DAC’s bass output. On the rear of the Zen you’ll find a balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn and one pair of single-ended RCA analog outputs, a USB 3.0 input, and a 5V power barrel-connector. You have several options for an accessory/additional Zen DAC power supply. You can upgrade to an iFi Power ($49) or iFi iPower X ($99) power supply at any time. You can also add other iFi devices such as the iPurifier3 ($129), AC iPurifier ($99), and DCi Purifier2 ($99). At different times during the review I used the iFi Power, iPurifier 3, and DC iPurifier. During that period, the nearfield system was also attached to a PS Audio Dectet AC power conditioner. With this setup I did not hear any audible differences with the DC iPurifier2 in service. I used the iFi iPower supply (not the X) throughout the review, except for a couple of hours to confirm that it made an audible improvement. I did find that my choice of cabling between the Zen DAC and either a preamplifier or directly to a power amplifier made an audible difference. Kimber Kable’s KCAG ½-meter lengths were far more revealing, dynamic, and involving than the no-name standard freebie cables. And yes, even a ½-meter pair of RCA-terminated Kimber KCAS cables are more money than a Zen DAC, but if you want to hear what the Zen DAC can do, decent cables are needed…and yes, they could very well cost more than the DAC itself.

The shape of the Zen series products is unique without being wacky. You can still stack Zen components if that is your way, and with all but the thickest and heaviest cables there’s no need to pile additional weight onto the Zen’s tops to keep them from being pulled askew. For extra security, I added a steel cylindrical doorstop on top of the Zen DAC, which made it look like it had a stainless-steel chimney.  

The Zen DAC supports every file format from PCM through FLAC and DSD512, as well as MQA. Unlike most entry-level high-performance DACs, which often lack any way to tell what format and bit-rate is being used for a particular file, the Zen DAC uses a color-coded system of lights that surrounds the volume control knob to signal the format and bit-rate. The Zen DAC isn’t the first DAC I’ve reviewed that used a color-coded system. The Chord Qutest also employs such a scheme, but with the Qutest there are more color options, some of which are not easy to differentiate. The Zen DAC keeps it simple with only five options—green for PCM up to 96k, yellow for PCM above 96k, cyan for DSD up to DSD128, blue for DSD256, and magenta for MQA. Unlike the Chord’s cornucopia of colors, I was capable of memorizing the iFi color code. The only tricky part of initial setup for Roon is that the Zen DAC must be designated as a “renderer only” rather than a “decoder and renderer”; otherwise it will not properly respond to or decode MQA. IFi recently added a new and different GTO filter set available via a free download for users who want to try a different “flavor” of digital filter on the Zen. And if the newer GTO filter is not to your liking, you can revert to the earlier version any time via iFi’s website.

The two buttons on the Zen DAC’s front panel add versatility. The “Truebass” is much like a fixed “contour” control that increases mid and low bass. This can be useful for listening at low volumes or with a pair of headphones that seems bass-shy. At normal listening levels I found it of little value, but when listening late at night at “don’t wake the wife” levels, it was OK (though I prefer headphones for this scenario). The other feature, called “Power Match,” changes the output-section gain. Its higher gain setting was useful for lower-sensitivity headphones and could possibly help with certain amp/speaker combinations.

Before I go all better-than-sliced-bread crazy over the Zen DAC, let me list my issues and quibbles with it. First quibble is the volume knob itself. It doesn’t wobble or feel loose, but it turns with so little effort that if you adjust by feel, you may find that as you reach down to adjust the volume it’s all too easy to accidentally come in contact with the control, at which point it will move. Some additional resistance or click stops would eliminate this issue. Next quibble is there is no remote control, so if you plan to use the Zen DAC’s volume control as opposed to its fixed output, the unit will need to be within hand’s reach. 

I had some small issues with the 4.4 balanced headphone output on the front panel. Sometimes it required a bit of turning to successfully establish both channels’ outputs. The balanced 4.4 output on the back worked in perfect silence with balanced connections to balanced amplifiers, but when I tried to use several different brands of cable that went from balanced 4.4 to unbalanced RCA, I noticed low-level buzz on both channels. I ended up using an adapter to double the number of available outputs to two pairs of single-ended outputs, so I could attach both a single-ended-input power amplifier and a single-ended-input subwoofer to the Zen DAC.

The lack of an included power supply would be an issue if the Zen DAC supported SPDIF like the Schiit Modius does. But since it will always be connected to USB, as that is its sole input, an additional power supply should be considered an upgrade and not a necessity (except for optimal sonics). My final issue with the Zen DAC was the choice of 4.4 Pentaconn balanced connections as the balanced-output option. It’s not that the Pentaconn is in any way inferior to 3.5mm balanced, but it is certainly not as common—there are simply too few cabling options at prices that would be acceptable for an entry-level system. My hope is that iFi will supply a commensurately priced Pentaconn-to-balanced-XLR cable in addition to the Pentaconn-to-Pentaconn cable that’s available. 

Sound

Given the Zen DAC’s price, most experienced audiophiles, including me, would assume that while adequate for background listening, the Zen DAC would be no real competition for “serious” cost-no-object flagship or “premium” DACs. This assumption is based on past experience with DACs built for a budget price-point. And while physically the Zen DAC is no competition for a flagship DAC, if you close your eyes and listen to reference-quality recorded music you know well (or that you were the original recording engineer for) you will be as surprised as I was. The music is all there without the grey haze, middling-level definition, noise, grain, or that soft “pleasing” sound that I was expecting. Used as a Roon endpoint with an accessory outboard power supply I found the Zen DAC’s performance to be good enough that I could happily live with it and even use it in a high-level nearfield or desktop digital-audio system. 

When listening to a super-expensive component, most audiophiles listen for where and how it sets new audible performance standards. With a budget or entry-level component, the listening scheme is reversed—you’re listening for the sonic flaws. But what if, after many hours of listening on a wide variety of systems, you don’t hear any of the usual flaws or “tells” that telegraph a component’s budgetary roots? That leaves an audiophile or reviewer in a pickle…but not a big pickle. The only logical conclusion is that DACs, even an entry-level one using older DAC chips such as the Zen DAC, can now perform at a high enough level to satisfy many audiophile’s sonic needs. This was not the case even a few years ago. 

I used the Zen DAC in three rather different systems. In the Sony SA-Z1 desktop system, the Zen DAC was connected via its balanced fixed-output and got its signal from a Raspberry Pi4 powered by an iFi iPower supply. Compared to the same streaming sources from an Astell & Kern AK2000 connected via analog mini-stereo, I couldn’t discern any differences in the sound quality. In both cases I heard everything I was expecting to hear and perhaps even a bit more. The midrange purity and detail I was accustomed to hearing through the Sony with other streaming/DAC combinations was not diminished in any way by the Zen DAC. When I listened in my main system, connected via the balanced analog outputs, using the Mytek as an analog preamplifier, I could hear that the Raspberry Pi4 was simply outperforming a Mac Mini on streaming sources. The Mac mini’s stream wasn’t as dynamic and lacked a bit of low-level detail and precision compared to the Pi4 through the Zen DAC.

I assembled a budget-friendly combination of the Zen DAC connected to the Fosi Audio TDA7498E ($75), driving the Aperion 4B ($199), and wired it up with basic no-name cable…my sonic verdict was that the loudspeakers were the weak link, not the Zen DAC or that ridiculously good Fosi chip amp. When I swapped in the Role Audio Kayak speakers and installed my reference Kimber KCAG and Audience Au24-SX speaker cables, the sound was nearly as refined as it was through the Clones 25P or Benchmark ABH-2.

My favorite somewhat cost-effective combination of components with the Zen DAC was my MacPro titanium-trashcan desktop system, using Roon connected via USB, with the single-ended fixed output connected to the Tortuga Audio LDR V2 passive preamplifier, which was then connected to a Velodyne DD 10+ subwoofer and Clones Audio 25P power amplifier driving a pair of Role Audio Kayaks. The midrange purity and delicacy of this system reminded me of the kind of seductive presentation I usually associate with a single-ended tube amplifier, but without any of the background noise or low-level hum. It didn’t matter whether it was a male or female vocalist; the absence of grain and electronic texture was entrancing. On Julia Michaels’ track “Just Do It” via Tidal, her voice had a commanding presence that was not owed to volume or gain but to the harmonic rightness of her particular vocal timbre. 

Using the Zen DAC connected via balanced to the Benchmark ABH-2 driving the Audience 1+1 V3 proved that time travel is indeed possible. OK, not really, but almost. I have MQA-encoded FLAC files of Eric’s Wiggs’ new EP Vermillion Road, which unfolds to 96/24 via Roon and the Zen DAC. Wiggs and his guitar had a three-dimensional presence and sense of weight and dimensionality in this system that rivaled any ultra-high-end system I’ve ever heard. These same tracks sound equally transformative with the Zen DAC connected to the Sony SA-Z1 system. These same two setups also handled big, bold, in-your-face pop music, such as Halsey’s “Clementine” on Tidal, with aplomb.

Putting the Zen DAC’s headphone outputs through their paces I discovered a mixed bag. If you want to use your high-sensitivity in-ears, such as the 115dB-sensitive Empire Ears Zeus, you will be disappointed, due to some low-level hiss from the unbalanced output and even more hiss from the balanced 4.4mm output. If you have medium-to-low-sensitivity headphones, the results will be more to your satisfaction. Using the Zen’s unbalanced outputs, I had enough gain to drive the Beyer Dynamic DT-990 600-ohm version without activating the gain boost. Using the balanced output with the Sony MDR Z-1R headphones, I also had more than enough gain, and the bass through these extended-bass headphones was most impressive. DJ Snake’s “Frequency” had just the right amount of push coupled with pitch clarity on the lowest frequencies. One small ergonomic issue is that when you plug in headphones, the outputs on the back of the Zen DAC do not mute. You will have to turn off your amp and subwoofers to engage in any late-night headphone listening.

While the Zen DAC’s “Powermatch” feature may have value with some harder-to-drive headphones, I did not find it of value with amp/loudspeaker systems. In almost every case the sound became less controlled with some added harshness in the upper frequencies during loud passages. Also, the midrange lost some of its relaxed and natural timbre with Powermatch engaged. The “Truebass” bass boost proved to be more useful, especially at low volume levels and on extremely bass-shy recordings, but given its 10dB boost at the lowest frequencies I wouldn’t engage it on any loud hip-hop tracks, unless you enjoy watching your woofers trying to jump out of their cabinets.

Competition

As I said earlier, just a few short years ago there would have been little competition for the Zen DAC that could deliver similar features and sound quality at even close to its price, but nowadays you do have several other high-quality options at equally appealing price points. The Schiit Modius ($199, Issue 311) has a more limited feature set, since it is only a basic DAC with no preamplifier or volume adjustments, but it does offer additional input options including TosLink and RCA SPDIF. The Modius also lacks MQA capabilities, but it does have a balanced out via full-sized XLR connections instead of the Zen’s 4.4mm Pentaconn connections. Another competitive option is the Grace Standard Balanced DAC ($150, available through drop.com), which offers excellent sound in a small box with fixed-level XLR balanced outputs and an additional optical/coaxial SPDIF input. Connected to the Sony SA-Z1 system via its balanced outputs the Grace performed on a par with the Zen DAC, but it is not MQA-compatible as the Zen DAC is. The Grace would be an excellent option for someone who already has a high-performance balanced analog preamplifier. If you don’t mind putting in some assembly time, the Khadas tone board with plexi case ($104 via Amazon) delivers remarkably good sound for either USB or SPDIF. It only has single-ended outputs and no MQA capabilities, but for PCM, FLAC, and DSD files the Khadas, with its 119dB S/N figure, will amaze you. For $399 the Pro-ject Pre Box S2 Digital offers almost all the features of the Zen DAC, while adding additional ones such as a full-color display, multiple filter options, more inputs, and a better interface for high-sensitivity in-ears; it even has a remote control. What the Pro-ject lacks are the balanced outputs for amps or headphones, a bass boost, and different gain-range options. But I never felt a need for either a bass boost or different headphone gain options while using the Pro-ject. If you don’t require balanced outputs, the Pro-ject Pre Box S2 Digital would remain my top budget choice if you can pony up the extra cash.

Summary

I often see the cliché “giant killer” in positive reviews of lower-priced gear. That really doesn’t tell you much. An “it is what it is” approach strikes me as a more even-handed way to look at the Zen DAC. Yes, it offers a lot of features at an entry-level price, and I found that when it is mated with other high-performance components the end result can be reference- or near-reference-level sound, but it does require careful system matching and quality cables that will likely cost far more than the DAC itself.

I see two ideal users for the Zen DAC: younger just-minted audiophiles looking for good sound on a budget for nearfield listening, and older ones looking for an inexpensive way to add an MQA DAC and a decent headphone amplifier to their room-based systems. The former will use most of the Zen DAC’s features while a majority of the latter will set it on fixed output and use it as a basic DAC. Both win.

Just as I was finishing up this review, drop.com (formerly Massdrop) announced a Signature version of the Zen DAC at $249. This version eliminates the headphone outputs, as well as the Truebass and Powermatch options. It adds “better parts.” I suspect it will appeal more to seasoned audiophiles than to newbies, but I will admit that I committed to purchase one, and am still awaiting delivery. The big question in my mind is whether the Signature actually delivers additional sonic performance. It sure does look cool and capable. You can expect a follow-up in a future issue.

Specs & Pricing

Type: DAC/preamplifier
Inputs: USB 2.0 and 3.0
Formats supported: PCM to 384/24, DSD to DSD128, FLAC, MQA
Output: Balanced and unbalanced analog via one pair RCA and one 4.4 Pentaconn, fixed or variable
Dimensions: 100 x 30 x 117mm
Weight: 491g (1.08 lbs.)
Price: $129 

IFI AUDIO
ifi-audio.com

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Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound

Lotoo PAW S1: The Swiss Army – A USB DAC/Amp Review

DISCLAIMER: Lotoo provided me with the PAW S1 in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank Lotoo for their kindness and support. The review is as follows.

The past couple cycles have seen Lotoo go from strength from strength. The release of their PAW Gold Touch player saw them gain acclaim at the top flight. Then, the subsequent release of their more affordable PAW 6000 did the same in the mid-tier market. Much of that praise was attributed to their sleek, modernised aesthetic, impeccable build quality and all the proprietary software they packed in there too. Now, bringing all this and entry-level pricing into the mobile market is Lotoo’s PAW S1 USB DAC/amp. A balanced output, OLED display and Lotoo OS in hand, the PAW S1 is the dongle to beat.

Lotoo PAW S1

  • DAC chip: AKM AK4377
  • Available inputs: USB Type-C, Lightning (sold separately)
  • Available outputs: 4.4mm balanced jack, 3.5mm single-ended jack
  • Sample rate support: Up to PCM 32-bit/384kHz, DSD64 and DSD128
  • Output power: 70mW/ch @ 32Ω (single-ended), 120mW/ch @ 32Ω (balanced)
  • Key feature(s) (if any): OLED display, EFX sound-shaping, MQA decoding, LTOS
  • Price: $165
  • Website: www.lotoo.cn

Packaging and Build

This PAW S1 comes in a clean, compact package, adorned all around with sleek, matte-finished artwork. Also, on the top-left corner is a sticker from Pentaconn, which indicates that the 4.4mm socket Lotoo have sourced for this DAC/amp is of utmost quality. Inside is the S1 itself sat within a foam cutout. And, underneath that is a quick-start guide and a warranty card, along with the S1’s accessories also sat in foam. This consists of a short Type-C-to-Type-C cable to connect the S1 to Type-C devices. And, there’s a USB 3.0 adapter for, say, laptops and desktops too; all in Lotoo’s sleek, anodised aesthetic.

With this S1, Lotoo prove that – no matter the price tier – build quality is something they know how to deliver. Its chassis is excellently compact, yet impressive in robustness and heft. It’s by no means as luxurious-feeling as their bigger, pricier DAPs. But, given the price and size of the S1, you’d be hard-pressed to find a dongle that looks and feels as premium. It’s a near-unibody design with a screwed-on bottom panel. Despite how flush it sits against the rest of the chassis, I do wish Lotoo had put screws on all four corners, rather than just two. The end with screws feels solid and firm as I tap my finger on it, while the opposite feels ever-so-slightly loose. Again, it still sits flush against the rest of the device. But, it does take away a teeny bit from the S1’s near-flawless feel. That aside, however, Lotoo have, again, finished their product superbly; dressed in an even and seamless coat of anodised-black, then capped with sharply-defined engravings above and below.

We then get to the one of this device’s defining features: The 128×32 OLED display. The screen in its default state feature the current track’s sample rate, the S1’s gain mode (Low or High) and the current volume level on the upper third. Taking up the rest of this screen is the EFX profile you’ve selected, which essentially is Lotoo’s DSP or sound-shaping. Personally, I like how the S1’s UI looks. It’s clean, it isn’t too flashy and it tells you all you need to know. And, it’s lit up sufficiently with zero traces of backlight bleed too. Lastly, as a finishing touch, Lotoo have also incorporated some sliding animations that appear when you cycle through EFX profiles and gain modes, which gives the UI some life and adds that last bit of polish.

Bookending the S1’s body is the device’s I/O, which have similarly been installed seamlessly. The USB-C jack sits perfectly against its opening with zero crookedness or gaps, and the same goes for both the 3.5mm and 4.4mm sockets. There’s a touch more tightness to those audio outputs than ones I’d find on my laptop or DAP, but it shouldn’t be much of a worry. Lastly, the S1’s three buttons sit perfectly level and still, are engraved precisely and depress with a very firm, tactile click.

Ergonomics and Physical Controls

Clearly, given the S1’s compact, lightweight design, it’s an absolute breeze to carry around; whether in an in-ear pouch or your coat pocket, even. It isn’t as thin as some of Cozoy’s USB dongles, for example, but I reckon it’ll still make an easy fit in whatever space you’re carrying your other electronics in. That’s further aided by its detachable cable system. Speaking of, Lotoo’s included braided cables have good heft to them as well, so I won’t have to worry about those wires potentially snapping off if I hang this S1 off a table edge, or bending and kinking if I stuff the dongle in a trouser pocket. Overall, this is a DAC that’s as easy to carry as it is to keep, and built tough enough to withstand the hustle of daily, portable listening.

The PAW S1’s physical controls consist of three buttons, whose base functions are Function, Volume Up and Volume Down. Pressing the first brings up the EFX selection screen, where you can use the Volume buttons to cycle through this device’s 16 included EQ profiles. Pressing that Function button again will summon the gain selection screen, where you can either select High Gain or Low Gain. For example, for headphones and in-ears, respectively. Overall, it’s an easy, intuitive system that’s also quick, due to the dongle’s responsiveness. If I could make one suggestion, Lotoo could add a way to revert the EFX profile back to Stock in a single action. Perhaps, by pressing both Volume buttons at once. But, that is my only qualm.

Connectivity

This PAW S1 is capable of outputting both 4.4mm balanced and 3.5mm single-ended audio, though, obviously, not at the same time. Still, this addition of a TRRRS socket does put it a step above most USB dongles available today; a Pentaconn-issued one, no less. Volume on both outputs have a range of 100 steps, which should be beyond sufficient fine-tuning for most users. Then, for the input, you have the S1’s modular Type-C connector. By default, it connects to a Type-C-to-Type-C cable with, again, an optional USB 3.0 adapter. And, you could also purchase Lotoo’s Lightning cable attachment to use the S1 with Apple’s mobile devices. It features the same braiding and hardware as the default cable; a detail I love to see.

I’ve tested this PAW S1 with a couple other Type-C cables, and those results are a tad hit-or-miss. The ultra-long charging cable that I use with my MacBook does get this device to work, but it disconnects intermittently; presumably, because of a lack of power. The USB 3.0 to Type-C cable that comes with the PAW Gold Touch works perfectly fine. So, I’d personally recommend using the cables Lotoo provides for the best results. Though, in a pinch, most standard cables can work too.

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Questyle CMA Twelve Flagship DAC/Headphone Amp

Audiophiles can be snobs. No, really! It’s true. They want their home amps to be Class A and they will secretly think (or loudly proclaim) that other amp styles are lesser constructs. This mindset can be a serious challenge for personal audio enthusiasts who can’t or won’t want to haul huge power-hungry devices with them on the go. So, it was with much enthusiasm when Questyle launched their Current Mode Amplification (CMA) as a new approach to Class A that not only could be used in desktop devices but could also be made easily transportable. One of my favorite portable players was Questyle’s CMA Class A inaugural portable, the QP1r, a Guru product of the year winner. https://headphone.guru/questyle-qp1r-dap-a-hi-res-value-without-sonic-compromise/ and https://headphone.guru/headphone-gurus-2015-products-of-the-year-and-writers-choice-awards-the-best-of-the-best/

Questyle’s desktop products have been equally high quality and assembled to an impeccable standard at the same Foxconn facility that assembles the iPhone for Apple, Inc. Their current flagship DAC/Headphone amplifier is the CMA Twelve. The Twelve indicates twelve years since Questyle founder Jason Wang invented Current Mode Amplification. Produced in Black or Gold machined aluminum, with a standard or master quality option (Master includes a ROGERS ceramic PCB for ultimate signal processing quality), the CMA Twelve has the usual ¼” single-ended and four-pin balanced XLR headphone jacks and was one of the first offering the new 4.4mm balanced jack. The front is clean with switches to select between Headphone amp or DAC only and High or Standard Bias control. There is a bank of lights that let you know the file data type and quality as it is being played as well as which input you have active. Once you have them down a glance tells you everything you need to know about what you are playing. Nice! The rear of the unit has a strong selection of input options including USB, Toslink, AES, and S/PDIF. The outputs include Single-Ended RCA and Balanced XLR with a switch to select from Fixed or Variable output allowing for Preamp capabilities and a Standard 14dBu or Studio 20dBu output switch for level matching.

Questyle CMA Twelve

Inside, the CMA Twelve’s layout is clean with top-quality parts used throughout. Flagship AKM 4490 DAC chips are supported by WIMA Capacitors, Nichicon capacitors, and DALE resistors. Questyle uses what they term True DSD allowing for the processing of DSD files totally within the DSD domain with no PCM conversion up to DSD 256 natively. PCM files are handled to 32/384 depending on input. All that tech adds up to great sound in a premium chassis designed to eliminate vibration and produce as direct a signal as possible in pure Class A.

Questyle CMA Twelve

One of the things I have appreciated about previous Questyle desktop gear is their ability to drive a wide variety of headphones beautifully. So, after some burn-in time, I led off with my Sennheiser HD800s using the standard ¼” single-ended jack. I was sourcing via Roon on my Mac Mini using an AudioQuest Diamond USB cable. Daft Punk has been in the news lately as they have ended their nearly three-decade-long partnership. I queued up “Lose Yourself to Dance” from “Random Access Memories” (Columbia 2013) in 24/88.2 FLAC via Qobuz and was immediately enjoying the deep bass groove from this popular dance track. The hand-clapping was sharp and natural as Pharrell Williams added his smooth vocals. The HD800s provided a great tool for the CMA Twelve to throw a wide soundstage with good directional positioning. This is a fun album that for me is more accessible than some club electronica. I went through the entire album and enjoyed the presentation. A good start for the new Questyle flagship.

Next up was my Focal Utopias with the Dana Cables Lazuli Reference cables in four-pin XLR Balanced. The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out” album is a classic jazz standard older than I am. Yet its music has been used on countless movie soundtracks. “Take Five” (Columbia 1959) in 1bit DSD has such a laid-back cool vibe and via the CMA Twelve, it was offered up with a sense of wonderful space and dimensionality. Joe Morello’s opening snare drum had the requisite crisp and precise snap on the drumheads. Paul Desmond’s saxophone was late-night jazz club smooth. Eugene Wright’s upright bass gave a solid foundation and drive to the song. Brubeck’s piano was a perfect second to the saxophone’s harmony. The CMA Twelve really showcased the Utopia’s beryllium M dome drivers to full effect. It was a strong combination.

Moving on to the Audeze LCD-X planar magnetic via the 4.4mm balanced output I went Hard Rock with Disturbed’s “Immortalized” (Reprise – Warner Bros. 2015) 24/48 AIFF CD Rip. “The Vengeful One” is a hard-driving guitar powerhouse that hits hard from the first note. The CMA Twelve opened the LCD-Xs up and drove the song hard with all the power and force necessary to give the song justice. Guitar, bass, and drums teamed up to support Dave Draiman’s powerful vocals. Having been to a few Disturbed concerts this was a fun ride remembering the visceral power of those performances. The Questyle flagship brought the energy and allowed the Audeze’s to rock out. It was truly excellent.

I threw a number of genres and headphones at the CMA Twelve and the results were all good. It is worthy of the flagship moniker. The option of single-ended and two balanced connection styles makes it accessible to a wide array of headphone choices. The switchable BIAS allows for an even wider choice of headphone or two-channel pre-amp options. The DAC is very clear without being overly bright and uses a favorite DAC of mine, the AKM 4490. I came to enjoy the front panel LED layout as it did not take long to be able to glance at it and know the type and bit rate of the file being played. A good thing for a Roon radio user. Given the build quality and track record of Questyle, I would expect the CMA Twelve to have pride of place in your headphone listening space for many years to come. Highly recommended.

Questyle CMA Twelve

Specifications:

Finish – Black or Golden · Chassis Materials: special CNC tooled Aluminum · Dimension: 12.99”(330mm)[ W ]×7.87”(200mm)[ D ]×1.38”(55mm)[ H ] · Working Status: Pure Class A · Voltage:100-120V or 220-240V,the voltage is switchable. · Power Consumption: 17W DAC + Headphone Amplifier Section – Outputs: 4.4 mm balanced headphone jack 4PIN balanced headphone jack 6.35mm headphone jack – Max Output Power: 247mW @ 300Ω; 900mW @ 32Ω(6.35mm headphone jack) 825mW @ 300Ω; 2W @ 32Ω (balanced headphone jack) – THD + N: 0.00070% @Po=100mW, 300Ω 0.00167% @ Po=50mW, 32Ω – Frequency Response: DC-20kHz(+0, -0.4dB)@0dBFS, 24Bit, 192kHz DC-80kHz(+0, -3dB)@0dBFS, 24Bit, 192kHz – SNR: 112dB, non-weighting DAC + Pre-Amp Output Section – USB Type B Input: Support 44.1kHz-384kHz/16Bit-32Bit PCM and DSD Native DSD64, DSD128, DSD256, as well as DSD64, DSD128, DSD256 of DoP format (Note: support Win XP, Vista, Win7, Win8, Win10 and Mac OS) – Digital Input & Output: SPDIF input and output, Optical input, AES/EBU input Support 44.1kHz-192kHz/16Bit-24Bit PCM – Pre-Amp & DAC Section: Balanced XLR x1 pair, unbalanced RCA x1 pair STANDARD 14dBu: XLR: 5.084V RCA: 2.549V STUDIO 20dBu: XLR: 8.887V RCA: 4.475V [email protected] 20dBu: XLR: minimum at 0.00085% RCA: minimum at 0.00115% SNR: XLR:>112dB RCA:> 109dB (non-weighting) (Note: FIX/ADJ: Fixed Output Mode or Adjustable Output Mode of the pre-amp.)

Price: Standard $1499.00 USD / Master $1999,00 USD

bluebirdmusic.com

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Original Resource is Headphone Guru

Topping D70s Review – Effortless

Pros –

Highly linear sound, Excellent detail retrieval throughout, Hard-hitting yet even bass, Wide BT codec support

Cons –

Settings menu overly-complicated to access, Volume buttons are inefficient, Large footprint

Verdict –

The D70s’ strength lies in its ability to effortlessly resolve the minutiae and do so without any fatigue, all the while upholding an almost perfectly even-handed presentation


Introduction –

I’m sure by now the vast majority are no stranger to Topping. The company has been making source devices for quite a few years now and have recently received widespread accolades for their chart-topping measurements and cost-efficient, scalable designs. The D70s represents the successor to Topping’s original D70, sitting just below the D90 in their dedicated DAC line-up. It utilises two of AKM’s AK4497EQ chips and features an upgraded XMOS 16-core XU216 microcontroller in addition to BT5.0 with LDAC support. Topping promise less jitter and native MQA decoding for a hearty jump in measurable performance over its predecessor.

The D70s retails for $649.99 USD at the time of writing. You can read more about it and treat yourself to a unit on Apos Audio (affiliate).

Disclaimer –

I would like to the team at Apos Audio for their quick communication and for providing me with the D70S for the purpose of review. The company is a sponsor of THL, however, all words are my own and no monetary incentive has been provided at any time for a positive review. Despite receiving the DAC free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.


Contents –

Behind the Design –

Linear Power Supply

All great sources are built atop a quality power supply and the D70s is no different, using the same linear, regulated toroidal transformer as the D90. It has 8 independent voltage regulators and 7 Nichicon electrolytic high-grade caps built for audio application that provide clean and stable power.

Dual AK4497EQ DAC Chip

At its heart lies two of AKM’s 2nd highest DAC chip, the AK4497. However, Topping were able to beat even AKM’s own reference design in terms of measurable performance, to the extent that it almost matches the flagship AK4499 as used in the D90. Besides this, the D70s implements the same Accusilicon AS317 femto-clocks and Altera MAX II CPDL FGPA module with Topping coding.

High-Performance Inputs

The D70s utilises XMOS’ latest USB chipset that enables full-MQA decoding and native playback. In addition, they pair the AKM DAC with AKM’s AK4118 chip handling digital inputs for maximum compatibility and performance. On the Bluetooth front is the CSR8675 receiver chip from Qualcomm with wide codec support and BT5.0.

Unboxing –

Similar to Topping’s amplifiers, the D70s comes within a large card box with the device itself safely secured within a laser cut foam inlet. There are adjacent cutouts for the remote, power wire, BT antenna and USB cable in addition to a user manual and warranty papers on top. The unboxing experience is simple, effective and utilitarian matching the ethos of the product itself.

Design –

As compared to the original D70, the successor boasts a slightly more sophisticated design and proud MQA certification on its faceplate. It retains the aluminium shell that provides rigidity in addition to enhanced isolation. Robust silicone feet provide a planted and stable feel on the desk. The fit and feel is also impressive with rounded edges and a nice, uniform sand-blasted finish across its exterior. Though this remains far from a modern design, especially coming from SMSL’s competing devices, with visible screws and a simplified black and white OLED display with 4-button navigation. The faceplate is squared off and protrudes noticeably from the housing rather than sitting flush. In turn, I find this design to be nowhere near as sleek as the D90 or even the former D70 to my eyes. However, this can also suggest that the device is intended to be stacked or contained.

Otherwise, it feels solid and robust; Topping are clearly capable of providing strong build quality and the D70s’ BOM are well considered. The device does have quite a large footprint, being the largest Topping DAC in fact, which is something to consider if you have small desk. It is clearly larger than my THX789 and the SMSL SU-9, especially in width. The control scheme is button-based as opposed to the rotary encoders we’ve seen implemented elsewhere. On the rear are the inputs and outputs. A power switch sits adjacent to the plug and a voltage selection switch is located on the right-hand side since this device uses a linear power supply that cannot automatically adjust for different voltages. The D70s supports AES, COAX, USB, Optical, I2S and Bluetooth inputs while providing XLR and RCA outputs.

Usability –

Navigation

The D70s provides, to me, a versatile experience albeit not the most intuitive one for the user. It excels best, in my experiences, as an all-in-one DAC used not just for headphones but also speakers and perhaps even a media/TV setup. This is because the device is, by far, easier to navigate with the included remote, which can be inconvenient to constantly have on hand during use in a regular headphone/desk setup.

Accessing the sound setting menu without the remote requires powering off the device using the rear-facing power switch, holding the sel button and switching the DAC back on. Otherwise, when on, the sel button simply changes sources, the arrows the level of the pre-amp output unless set to pure DAC-mode (in which volume control is disabled). It’s frustrating that holding the sel button whilst the device is on offers no further functionality here as would be intuitive.

Apart from this, the D70s provides a streamlined experience and users shouldn’t feel the need to constantly tweak these settings during daily use. It also features an auto-power on feature which is super handy for use with a PC setup. A small niggle, the volume control via the front-facing buttons is noticeably slower than a rotary-encoder, however, source selection is quick and clearly denoted by the large OLED display. The DAC also constantly provides status of the inputs/outputs in use, the volume setting and the sampling rate it is currently using.

Bluetooth

The Bluetooth input is also easy to use, simply change to the BT source input and it becomes discoverable by any BT source. The D70s promptly paired to my Xperia 5 II over an LDAC connection. On the phone I was able to prioritise either signal stability or sound quality in addition to LDAC’s usually auto-scaling function. The wide codec support of this DAC is a huge plus, providing the convenience of wireless with surprisingly low-quality degradation. Of course, this is not how the DAC will be assessed but is surely handy when listening to music during social events. I found the connection to be stable and the range easily sufficient to traverse a large room without any form of intermittency or artefacts on behalf of the external antenna.

Next Page: Sound Breakdown & Verdict

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Product Launch: Topping D30 Pro & A30 Pro

Topping has achieved very frequent recommendation recently with their chart-topping source designs and reasonable pricing. Perhaps more impressively, the company demonstrated that they were able to scale their high-end technologies down to their more affordable models without sacrificing much performance.

The D30 Pro and A30 Pro matching DAC/AMP combo continue their winning streak of products. Both carry the design scheme of the 90-series with a rounded faceplate and larger volume dial. The D30 Pro offers a Quad DAC setup with unconventional 4x CS43198 chips promising fantastic SNR. Meanwhile, the A30 Pro uses Topping’s signature NFCA module alongside balanced input like the A90. It offers a whopping 6W of power output alongside a 0.1ohm output impedance.

The A30 Pro (Apos AudioHiFiGO) retails for $349.99 USD while the D30 Pro (Apos AudioHiFiGO) retails for $399.99 USD at launch. Apos Audio is selling the 30-series through their ensemble program offering additional savings. For $759.99, Apos are able to provide both sources alongside a balanced XLR cable, representing almost $70 USD savings overall.

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Mytek Audio’s Brooklyn ADC

Most diehard audiophiles believe the best system you can build will have the following components: a turntable, phono stage/preamp, and an amplifier. Keep it simple, keep it analog, and with the right component selection, the result is a system that sounds effortless and realistic in a way that a digital based system can never sound.... Read More »

The post Mytek Audio's Brooklyn ADC appeared first on Positive Feedback.

Original Resource is Positive Feedback

Taking it With You – Clarus CODA DAC

In December of 2020, Clarus Cable released the Coda DAC/headphone amplifier ($300), giving the audiophile on-the-go a new and elevated option for taking music everywhere. Utilizing the ESS Professional Series SABRE DAC, the CODA plugs directly into your laptop via USB-A, and features a 3.5mm headphone jack on the other end. Inside the solidly-constructed device... Read More »

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NAD Launches New MDC Upgrade Module, MDC USB DSD

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New module allows users to add the convenience of high-resolution PCM and DSD computer music playback and streaming through popular NAD amplifiers

PICKERING, ONTARIO, CANADA FEBRUARY 23, 2021 – NAD Electronics, the highly regarded manufacturer of high-performance audio/video components, announced the immediate availability of the latest module in their Modular Design Construction (MDC) portfolio, the MDC USB DSD ($499 U.S. MSRP) adding USB Audio 2 for both PCM and DSD playback capability to six of NAD’s most popular stereo (pre-) amplifiers – M33, M32, M12, C 388, C 368 and C 658*.

NAD MDC USB DS

With NAD’s Modular Design Construction (MDC), adding the latest cutting-edge technology can be as simple as a software upgrade and adding a new hardware module into your stereo amplifier. The MDC USB DSD module allows users to experience the convenience of computer music playback and streaming, in high resolution up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM and DSD up to DSD256, combined with the music performance of their NAD hi-fi system.

Thanks to the Asynchronous USB connection with the MDC USB DSD module, computer sound has been eliminated so music flows freely. The module bypasses the computer’s low-quality DAC, clocks and associated circuitry that cause jitter and distortion by using the high-quality DAC in select NAD amplifiers. Users can listen to the details and dynamics reproduced from the original recording in their full glory rather than the noise and distortion of the typically mediocre computer audio stages.

With the ever-growing amount of high-resolution content up to 24-bit/192kHz available for download or streaming, experiencing music as it was originally recorded in the studio or at a live concert has never been easier. Users can enjoy the convenience of playing their favourite music from their computer’s USB connection to stream from a local hard drive, or popular music streaming services such as Spotify, Tidal or Qobuz. With MDC, the ability to easily upgrade a component to include other digital formats is totally unique and unprecedented.

* C 658 support is expected in April 2021.

Key Features of the NAD MDC USB DSD Module:

  • Asynchronous USB connection
  • Audio resolution up to 24bit and 192kHz
  • USB Audio 2
  • DSD up to DSD256 (DSD is converted to 24-bit/192kHz PCM)

About NAD Electronics

Founded in 1972 and now sold in over 80 countries, NAD Electronics is renowned for its award-winning line of high-quality components for audio, home theatre and custom installation applications. Since the beginning, NAD’s commitment to four core values – innovation, innovation, simplicity, performance, and value – have earned it a cult-like following that catapulted it to becoming a household name amongst audiophiles and music lovers alike. To this day, the brand continues to design and manufacture some of the most acclaimed and affordable hi-fi components that include modern features and technologies meant to appeal to a new generation of audiophiles.

contacts

Mark Stone

Marketing, NAD Electronics

[email protected]

Links

Website: https://nadelectronics.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nadelectronics

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NADElectronics

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nadelectronics/

The post NAD Launches New MDC Upgrade Module, MDC USB DSD appeared first on Headphone Guru.

Original Resource is Headphone Guru

Neil Young Archives Gets Cookin’ with Mojo

The following is a press release issued by Chord Electronics

23rd February 2021 | Kent, UK – In a new article posted on the Neil Young Archives, Neil Young and Phil Baker describe how they currently use Chord Electronics’ Mojo DAC/headphone amplifier with their phones and desktops. They created a web page dedicated to correct Mojo set up to help their members enjoy all that Neil Young Archives has to offer, at full resolution.

In the ‘Let’s Get Cookin’ with SOUND!’ article (neilyoungarchives.com), NYA author Phil Baker introduces the British-built Mojo and the simple recipe for ‘Xstream’ sound quality, which includes Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adapter and the Neil Young Archives.

Describing Chord Electronics’ Mojo Baker writes, ‘The Mojo, designed and built in the UK, is one of the best portable DACs/amplifiers available at any price. It’s what Neil and I use with our phones, iPads and computers to listen to NYA at its full resolution.’

The article also features practical Mojo advice from Chord Electronics’ Sales Director, Colin Pratt: ‘Mojo unlocks the hidden data that other DACs just can’t reproduce… it brings a real sense of presence to your listening experience.’

Neil Young Archives, described by The Guardian as, ‘A revolution in fandom’, contains the complete archives of Neil Young. The site is designed for a chronological exploration of artist output including music, books, films and videos. Neil Young and Phil Baker recently co-authored a book about high resolution audio, ‘To Feel the Music’.

Price and availability

Mojo is available now priced at £399

The post Neil Young Archives Gets Cookin’ with Mojo appeared first on The Absolute Sound.

Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound