I was not planning to write anything about me reaching audio nirvana… I am so happy that from now on, I don’t have to deal with what gear I want to buy or try, what music I want to listen to analyze the sound quality.
After a long and exhausting search, I am now able to breath easily. My brain does not have to think much other than which artist’s album I want to play, which track I want to play, and what music I want to add to my collections. This is something that I was not able to do in the last year or so. A lot of dollars have been poured as well. Audio is a very expensive hobby. But what hobby is cheap? You just need to get what you need (not want) and be happy with them. But that never works because the real problems are how much or how far you are willing to go until you are happy and how you can dismiss ‘I want the latest and the greatest’ bugs.
Higher Price Tag ≠ Better
Audio isn’t exactly as expensive as I thought before. I knew I was going to splurge ten-thousands of dollars into it. But what I didn’t expect is dishonesties in audiophile industry. The dishonesties include hypes, lies, and very huge margins (for mediocre performing products). This is where people lose their hard-earned money. There are very few honest personalities but they are also share their own issues. Late delivery, no email replied, and minor/major imperfections are some of the issues. Their products are superb if you are willing to give them a chance to remedy the issues. I guess you just have to patient. I have learnt the hard way and I am now well prepared if I were to purchase a new Hi-Fi product.
Now, let’s talk about manufacturer’s sound signature. Most of them have their own sound signature. They can’t get away from it. Audio-gd for example, no matter how many times Kingwa wrote that their gear are wire with gain, I still find them to be dark, slow, mellow, and smooth. PS Audio products tend to be bassy, engaging, and warm. Bryston products tend to be a bit dry, a bit thin, but very neutral. They are all different in their own ways. I personally don’t mind sound signature but I prefer it at a much lesser degree and a more enjoyable way. There is no King of the Hills in term of sound signature. This is where you need to make a stance on what kind of sound signature you prefer for your ears. Only you who can make the decision. No one else could.
Superior or Different?
Then, there is sound quality, which one really is better than the others. Most high-end manufacturers’ products are often touted to perform better than their cheaper counterparts. This is not exactly true. In my opinion, there are only two major differentiations, superior and different. Being superior means a product simply sounds better than the others. Being different means a product simply sounds different (sound signature differences) but no better. This is where technical specs (+ measurements) and manufacturers’ reputation can be very useful. Ears and brain can often be misleading. A few words or so from a superb review can turn our opinion upsidedown. I think this is a real issue that plagues most audiophiles. To make it worse, most of them do not have experience with high-end gear (IMO, a high end gear is a high performance gear). They often simply throw opinion that they get from various reviews. In my opinion, superior gear should be transparent to the music. It doesn’t excel with only one genre, it excels in almost every genre. The gear shouldn’t be designed to be genre specific. That way, I can enjoy my musics however I want.
This single requirement basically throws out Red Wine Audio, Mhdt, Audio-gd, any lush sounding tube gear…
I bet some of you want to know what gear I end up keeping. Sharing is caring so here we go…
I feel that good sound must be produced from the front end. So, let’s start with the front end, the DAC…
DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)
I wasn’t aware of the prowess of PS Audio before I tried the PWD (PerfectWave DAC). Luckily, I also encountered W4S (Wyred 4 Sound) with their DAC-2. IMO, they are extremely similar. I actually think the DAC-2 is a poor man’s PWD. There are also a few other high-end brands that I have tried after I auditioned PS Audio’s best DAC, such as: Weiss DAC202, Berkeley Alpha DAC, Lavry DA11. They are all very similar. They play various genre with ease. All of them sound superb. But which one really is the best. To make this simple, here are the breakdowns:
- PWD Vs. DAC-2
as I said above, they are extremely similar. PWD tends to be a bit warmer at times or DAC-2 tends to be a bit more engaging and a bit more detailed at times but still retains an enjoyable degree of warmness, just like PWD. That’s it! I don’t know which one is more realistic. They are equally enjoyable.
- Berkeley Alpha DAC Vs. Weiss DAC202
they are extremely similar too, maybe the Alpha is a bit warmer and the sound position is centered. I bet no one could differentiate them. One advantage of the Alpha over the DAC202 is the ability to play HDCD.
- PWD/DAC-2 Vs. Alpha/DAC202
the Alpha/DAC202’s detail retrieval is just nuts. It is a noticeable difference but we are talking 5-10% improvements. At times, Alpha/DAC202 is not as engaging as the PWD/DAC-2. I think this is the DAC that you should choose if you like a very revealing source. This advantage can be overturned when I2S over HDMI (PWT – PerfectWave Transport) is used on the PWD/DAC-2, PWD/DAC-2 is just as good if not better in detail retrieval. Other than detail retrieval, with I2S over HDMI, PWD/DAC-2 excels over Alpha/DAC202 in almost every area.
- Lavry DA11 Vs. Alpha & DAC202
I got this curiosity about Lavry DA11. Two weeks passed and I found them to be very similar. Yes, a $1480 Lavry DA11 performs just as good as a $5000 Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC. The DA11 can stand on its own. You won’t be able to differentiate them, my friends and I can’t! It was a very surprising finding considering I didn’t have any interest in the DA11.
You would think: oh, the PWD or the DAC-2 is a clear winner. Keep in mind, we are talking about minor improvements. No DAC absolutely stood out, they were more variations on a theme than substantial differences. Oh and, if you purchase a PWT to be paired with PWD/DAC-2, it brings the price of the combo to Alpha/DAC202’s territory. So, which one I ended up keeping? You will have to read the following paragraphs below.
Not needed. Read speaker amplifier section below.
Choosing a speaker amp is not as hard as choosing a DAC. The differences between various speaker amps more apparent that the differences between various DACs. Nevertheless, I still had to purchase and borrow a few amps. I’m more willing to splash much more dollars into a speaker amp than a DAC. A good speaker amp will likely outlast me. A DAC on the other hand, will likely become obsolete in just a couple of years. So, I consider this as a one-time-purchase (inferior speaker amps will be sold or returned). This has to be right. I had the following amps for comparison: Wyred 4 Sound STI-500, ModWright KWA 100, and Krell FBI. W4S DAC-2 was used as the source. FYI, STI-500 and FBI are integrated amps, so in the following comparison, the highly acclaimed Wyred 4 Sound STP-SE is used in between the DAC and the KWA 100.
- STI-500 Vs. KWA 100
STI-500 produces a slightly warmer sound. It does almost everything right though. The bass is a bit boomy if compared with the KWA 100. The level of detail retrieval is more or less the same. KWA 100 sounds somewhat more engaging at low volume. PRAT is where KWA 100 excels over STI-500.
- STI-500 Vs. FBI
STI-500 seems to be a refined version of the FBI. The Krell sounds raw. It has brute force that can sound somewhat unrefined. The bass on the FBI is pretty good, it’s definately bassy but it doesn’t go as deep as the STI-500. STI-500 presents equal level of detail retrieval. PRAT is a little better on the STI-500. It sings with almost any music, while with the FBI, it only excels in a few genres.
I think I can pick a clear winner, it’s the KWA 100. Keep in mind that it is almost twice the price of the STI-500. Recently, ModWright increased the price of their products. I also used the excellent STP-SE which cost $2K. The combo is going to set you back around $5.5K. Not to mention, additional interconnects and power cable. Wait a second, if you notice that the PWD and the DAC-2 have 32-bit digital volume control feature. You actually don’t have to use a preamp in between the DAC and the power amp. $2K is saved. That’s why these excellent DACs present very high value. They can act as a preamp and it is a super transparent one. If you introduce a preamp in between, you make the signal path a lot longer. I for one believe that the shorter the better. You can easily differentiate the sound with or without STP-SE, the overall sound quality do suffer a bit. This is with the excellent STP-SE. Imagine if you are using a lesser preamp. I couldn’t believe the amount of grunge a pre-amp adds.
For speakers, I use a pair of Selah Audio’s top-of-the-line two-way monitors and a single Selah Audio powered subwoofer. I use monitors because I like simplicity. I dislike big-honking speakers. A couple of months ago, I brought my speakers to a local high-end audio store. The owner was pleasantly surprised. My little but heavy speakers trounce some of his floorstanders and all of his monitors. They sound bigger than they look! This was something that I didn’t expect. In the future, when I am in my 50s (I’m in my mid 20s BTW), I’ll give Rick Craig (Selah Audio owner & designer) a call. I’m going to go all out. Selah Audio is the best speakers manufacturer that I have come across.
I think I have put too much energy and money into this one hobby. This has got to stop. Here are my choices:
- DAC: Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2
why: it is an excellent performer at the price point or any price point. As I said previously, no DAC absolutely stood out. Even if I remove any reference to the price, it is still one of the most honest sounding pieces I own (along with the PWD). This thing is just loaded with settings, features, inputs, outputs ,and just raw performance. You know when you pull this brick out of the box that it is all business right off the bat. No bling. No pretty touchscreens, you pay straight up for what really counts and get it in spades.
- Amplifier: STI-500
why: KWA 100 is clearly a better amp. But when paired with DAC-2, the major differences diminish to minor differences. EJ has clearly put a lot of thoughts into making the DAC-2. The pair is just magical.
The Wyred 4 Sound pair allows me to save some money to fund my next and final two purchases. They are one of PS Audio power conditioner and additional room treatments that actually looks good! I could have gone all PS Audio PerfectWave series, but the thing is when similar performance can be achieved in lower price point and not sacrificing one bit of the sound quality, I’m willing to do it. Besides, Wyred 4 Sound is a veteran in the business. They know what they are doing. Yes, DAC-2 is a poor man’s PWD. It has the prowess of the PWD in cheaper suit. It is also upgradable. Consider these as well:
- I have no problem spending $10K on speakers that will be a good buy 10 years from now but I think that spending more than $5K on something with an 18 month leadership is very questionable.
- DACs are great at improving sound from a lower quality source, but output is limited by your amp and of course the speakers. You will get bigger improvements when you upgrade amp speakers, probably in that order in my opinion. Speaker changes make bigger differences provided you have a decent amp. Then I’d consider a DAC to smooth out any remaining problems from your old source/DAC.
I won’t be buying anymore audio products (except the final two purchases mentioned above), even for my curiosity sake. It’s set and done! I will be adding more music though. Having experience the troubles associated with audiophile gear, I do not want to go thru the same path again. I’m very happy that I don’t have to deal with those hassles again. But I guess without having gone thru that path, I would not have known this and that. Although I lost a lot of money and valuable time, I do appreciate good people in the industry. Good guys from Wyred 4 Sound, PS Audio, HeadAmp, and a few more deserve more recognitions than they have now. They are not only producing superb products but also providing great services to the community. All the pain and happiness have taught me a lot of things, not just audio, but life in general.
Given there are too many choices in the market, I have a few suggestions for you:
- Ask yourself, do you want to be an audiophile or audiophool? I’m dead serious.
- Set your budget. You DO NOT need to spend crazy money to get great sound and I’ve seen a lot of people selling their gear because they need to finance something important. This is something that you will not want to experience. It proves that you don’t save enough and you have spent more than you originally intended. DO NOT put aside any $$ for ‘audiophile’/fancy cables. The general consensus of high-end audio must be expensive is WRONG. High-end audio is affordable (High End is specifically SQ related not price dependent).
- Take every single review as grain of salt, including mine. Personally, I tend to give more weight to users comments, especially when users comments reach a critical mass. I also give more weight to negative comments than positive comments.
- Buy from ‘real’ reputable companies. There is less chance they would screw you up. Both the design of the product and customer service are usually top notch. You will also get higher resale value.
- Ask yourself these questions for the gear you have auditioned: Do they have their own sound signature? Are they transparent enough? Do they produce enjoyable music?
- Avoid buying used gear when possible! I know many people recommend this way to save tons of money but the thing is when you buy used gear, you don’t know how the item that you are about to buy or have bought performs. There are many reason why people sell their gear. One of the reasons is damaged gear. I have personally seen many ‘surprises’ when buying used gear.
- Do not attempt to modify the thing yourself and do not ask somebody (who is supposed to be a ‘reputable’ modder) to mod it for you. If you are not satisfied with the equipments you own, sell them and upgrade. If you want a better sound, sell them and upgrade.
I will post a few photos of my listening room when everything is in its right places. Right now, it’s too messy. I also need to sell off equipments that I no longer need, to recoup my initial investments.
So, I guess, this is it. Enjoy what you have and most importantly, the music!