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a short diary of some part of my life.

Posts tagged audiophile

I wondered when Schiit would be making a preamp for speakers, it should have a remote. They went further. My favorite preamps are Wyred 4 Sound STP-SE and Audio-gd P-2. I love passive preamps. All they do is controlling the volume. I could have lived with the STP-SE but as I wrote previously, I don’t need balanced outputs and I prefer something with a small footprint. The P-2 should fill my needs but it’s *ugly. I end up with a Swiss-army knife integrated amp, a W4S mINT.

  • Room
    Thick concrete floor finished with wood parquet. There are med-hard foam under the parquet.
    The ceiling is calcium silicate boards with rubber sheets cut in small pieces covering the suspension mounts, mainly to dampen excessive vibrations from tiny movements of the roof; these are not purposely built for audio, but to extend the life of the ceiling.
    Under the roof, there are hard foams here and there, acting as sound deadening.
    The roofing material is glazed ceramic.
    Walls are bricks covered with dense plaster.
    There are acoustic panels placed here and there.
    The window frames are YKK aluminum, rubber sealed (multiple). Just like suspensions for the ceiling, all window mountings use rubber O rings to dampen potential vibration.
    Basically, everything is built to last and to dampen vibration.
  • Power
    PS Audio Quintet connected to a wall outlet for audio that is individually grounded and isolated. The Quintet has different zones for DAC, preamp and power amp.
  • Source + DAC: Mac Mini + Schiit Eitr + Schiit Modi Multibit
    The Mac Mini is powered thru an APC UPS. Most of the time, I use iTunes + BitPerfect. I find no noticeable difference compared to Audirvana Plus. iTunes is huge win for convenience.
    The Schiit Eitr and Modi Multibit are plugged onto PS Audio Quintet on the same zone. The DAC zone.
  • Cables
    I use mainly Blue Jeans Cable RCA when out of sight. By out of sight, I mean if the cables are exposed, I prefer to use better looking cables that I made myself. The materials are mainly silver-plated copper, silver soldered and terminated with silver plated RCA plugs. Basically the stuff ALO Audio is using, sourced direct from the manufacturer in Taiwan.
    For digital cables, I use exclusively Blue Jeans Cable 1505F coax cable and Sys Concept high transmissivity optical cable.
    The power cables are Zu’s, I can’t remember the model name.
    Keep in mind that I’m not a cable believer, I believe, the shorter the cable, the better. I use boutique cables for their looks. And I’m just too lazy to sell them off.
  • Speakers
    Selah Audio Tempesta. A transparent pair of speakers. Enjoyable too.

Performance

The Saga features relay-stepped attenuator. I am a huge fan of relay-stepped attenuator, also found in the STP-SE. Once you use this kind of attenuator, you won’t go back to ancient pots. For those who like low-level listening, this is it. Say good bye to channel imbalance.

Tube buffer? I love tubes, who does not? Vs. passive mode, tube buffer offers a little bloom. I feel passive mode bass extension is more precise, you can immediately notice the difference. Depending on the music I am listening to, vocals sound best with tube.

Saga is dead quiet on both modes, as expected. I have various NOS tubes, it’s fun to see how each one performs. And I guess this is the main selling point. I don’t believe there is anything like Saga in the market.

I don’t like to talk about price but in this case, I want to. Most of the time, you don’t get what you pay for in audio world. So comparing how an audio gear performs based on price is completely irrelevant. Yes, there are expensive high performing gears out there, but there are also cheap high performing gears that perform just as good if not better than expensive high performing gears. If I read one reviewer who says, “oh yeah, this USD 350 is off course performing just like how it’s priced, this USD 3000 gear is off course a better product.” I’d just close the page.

Even if the USD 3000 gear is well engineered, you need to calculate how much this expensive product maker wants to make in the first place. Things are moving at a much slower pace, they don’t have the numbers. Add to that the incredible efficiency that Schiit practice. Then there is the dealer cut.

I’ve gone thru this path, very rarely that I found an expensive gear that performs cut and above superior to the cheaper counterparts. Regardless of price, the Saga is a high performance preamp.

How does the Saga pair with Modi Multibit and Vidar?
Honestly, I feel like the Vidar is a bit of a letdown. It’s a great power amp, no doubt. Wyred 4 Sound mINT as a power amp is my preferred pairing. I will eventually write a Vidar review. Stay tuned.

Paired with the mINT, I can literally point out which DAC used at the time. It’s completely transparent.

Paired with ModWright KWA 100, the Saga is also very transparent. A transparent preamp will expose flaws in the chain. Modi Multibit is a warm DAC.

Build Quality

The first thing I notice is the aluminum top. It is nicely grained with the right amount of thickness. The corners are chamfered and finished without any noticeable gouge. It’s a looker.

Saga looks very handsome from a distance but when you look at it closely, The chassis has misalignments here and there. Not as bad as their smaller chassis but they can do better at no cost. It’s a non-issue for most.

I hope I won’t see these poor soldering job if I ever open it.

https://www.head-case.org/forums/topic/12921-schiit-jotunheim/
https://audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/hardware-teardown-of-schiit-fulla-v2-dac-and-headphone-amplifier.3154/
https://audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/hardware-teardown-of-schiit-modi-2-usb-dac.2082/

Let’s be fair, not everyone build their product as neat as Justin Wilson of Headamp. But bad soldering job is just sloppy and it looks like you want to make a cost cutting measure somewhere. I view buying an audio gear as a long term investment, an investment that hopefully last for decades. I don’t leave my gears active all the time like many do. So I expect what I purchase will last for a while.

I know many people like to frequently change gears but I don’t do that. Once I’m settled, I won’t care what comes out this year or the next. If I want to add another set-up, then I may set out seeking new gears. Besides, unplugging, plugging and moving heavy audio gears are not fun at all. After all, the goal is to enjoy the music, not comparing equipments.

This superb tube preamp gets my highest recommendation, whether you want solid state or tube, this will fit your needs. Passive preamp lovers? Checked! For the solid state guys, you may like the Saga as the tube buffer sounds like a superb solid state preamp. Sure, the tube buffer adds a bit of colors, you may end up liking it as much as I do.

 

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There is no optical audio output at the back of the new Apple TV. It’s a big bummer for an audio enthusiast like me. I’m aware that there is a way around this but I need to have an AirPort Express, next to the Apple TV, connected to my DAC via its’ optical input or a powered speakers via its’ analog input. By having an AirPort Express in the audio chain, it’s going to add another complexity to my audio setup. What if the AirPort Expess goes bananas and I would have to fiddle with resetting or re-routing the audio output setting on the Apple TV to HDMI. I prefer not to use my TV’s HDMI to optical output. The sound quality is going to suffer.

I consider myself to be a minority user who likes to have the least hassle but also to have the best sound quality out of an Apple TV. But regular users will still face a major issue; with the older Apple TV, they can easily connect a separate analog audio line  to a powered speaker. Now, they cannot do it anymore with the new Apple TV. They need to have a TV with audio output jack(s). Usually, if the TV is not turned on, you won’t be able to pass an audio signal thru it. I have seen a lot of TVs without any kind of audio output.

you won’t be able to AirPlay audio directly to your speakers

I’m going to buy the new Apple TV but if I don’t like it, I’m going to return it. I don’t care about tvOS App Store. The UI looks awful. Now, there is a compelling reason to get myself a PlayStation 4. My Android-TV-equipped-Sony-TV might become my permanent Plex client.

I might buy the 3rd gen Apple TV just to keep it around for AirPlay.

Here are the scenarios that I’m considering:

  • new Apple TV -HDMI- Sony TV -optical- DAC -analog- powered speakers
  • new Apple TV -AirPlay- AirPort Express -optical- DAC -analog- powered speakers
  • 3rd gen Apple TV -optical- DAC -analog- powered speakers
  • PlayStation 4 -optical- DAC -analog- powered speakers
  • Sony TV -optical- DAC -analog- powered speakers

I’m seriously leaning towards the last setup. Perhaps, I should add, I will be installing a Wyred 4 Sound Reclocker before the DAC to whatever setup I end up with to improve sound quality.

The almighty amp.

Pros:

  • Small, Light
  • All in one box: DAC, preamp, & amp; no more messy cabling
  • Easy to use
  • Simple remote control
  • Lots of input: digital & analog + USB driverless input
  • 100 watts per channel
  • User selectable voltage setting
  • IMO, pretty good looking box and very well made

Cons:

  • Not very musical
  • No phase inversion
  • Requires warm-up time before it reaches its full potential
  • Probably not upgradable

I really like the mINT. I will pick another unit for my second system.

How to Choose the Right Speakers

The way to find good speakers requires a little legwork and you can’t do it online.

  1. Take your iPod/iPhone, (portable) DAC, or favorite good sounding CDs to an audio store
  2. Chase the salesman away and pull out a yellow pad or whatever note-taking app you have in your phone
  3. Play the first song on every speaker in the store, regardless of price and write down notes on how they sound
  4. Repeat the process with all of your reference songs
  5. Figure out which speakers sounded the best with the largest number of songs
  6. Now look at the prices and see what the bargain is
  7. Buy the speakers and take them home and set them up, paying attention to room acoustics
  8. Get a good prograde equalizer and balance the response
  9. Now, enjoy your music

Nowadays, my music reference is set and won’t be changed anytime soon. I usually bring HeadAmp Pico DAC or Wyred 4 Sound mINT if the audio store allows me to drive their speakers with it. When I chose my speakers, I also brought along with me, speakers that I bought online but I personally know the owner of the audio store. This is a unique case. It’s not like I didn’t buy anything from the store, I bought a lot of stuff from the store.

As usual, rules of thumb: spend less on amp and DAC, more on the speakers, and a bit more on room acoustics.

Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 digital board

Wyred 4 Sound have built their reputation solely based on their superb products. I have had nothing but superb experiences with EJ Sarmento (the man behind Wyred 4 Sound). Unlike many others who run established brands, EJ is almost a complete opposite of those mostly arrogant personalities. He is very helpful, listen and interact directly to his customers on various forums and countless emails. I honestly do not know who else does this except Paul McGowan (CEO of PS Audio) and Jason Stoddard (Schiit). Speaking of PS Audio, Wyred 4 Sound had a direct connection with PS Audio. EJ, together with Rick Cullen of Cullen Circuits who was a manufacturer for PS Audio started Wyred 4 Sound.

Complete Solutions

Wyred 4 Sound now offer complete solutions to your hi-fi needs. They have two DACs, arguably the best preamps at any price, and various option of amps. They also offer good quality cables. They do not sell speakers, I do not think they will ever build speakers. Just FYI, EJ uses a pair of AV123 LS6 as his reference speakers at his home.

Now, let’s get to the main event.

The Usual Setup

  • I’m pairing the DAC-2 with the marvelously good W4S’s very own STI-500. The pair allows the flexibility to swap one of them with any amp or DAC with or without volume control. In essence, both of them are designed to be flexible.
  • The sources are MacBook Air – via USB, Apple TV – via optical, Squeezebox Touch – via coax, and Wyred 4 Sound uLINK – via BNC.

In this short review, I will not name the top-tier DACs that I pitted against the W4S DAC-2, they are some of the best performing DACs in the market today.

The Results:

  • immediate improvements in transparency, speed, and clarity. Especially if compared with non-discrete output DACs and over-built DACs. The DAC-2 simply throws everything that the song has. Some people suggest a hi-fi DAC tend to sound bright. A lot of them think bright means details, it’s not. As Tyll Hertsens of InnerFidelity.com put this, “Good parts have black backgrounds and sound smooth with depth but still not missing any of the details that are actually there.” There are plenty of characteristics, but there are very few DACs that have black backgrounds, sound smooth and at the same time, not missing any of the details. This is the traits of a great DAC.
  • superior soundstage. Some DACs are claimed to produce huge soundstage. I have auditioned many of them and all I can say about the DAC-2 is that the DAC-2 produces soundstage just ‘right’. It does not go over the top. One DAC that I auditioned produces rather boomy soundstage, it doesn’t sound right.

Any other improvements? Yes, those two are the major differentiators, the rest is probably too small to be mentioned one by one.

There is no point comparing well-engineered DACs because they almost sound pretty much the same. Inferior DACs may sound good for some people. I’m not going to argue with that as we all prefer many different things. My goal is to create the most enjoyable musical experience. And I believe I have achieved it with my current setup. So, thank you for EJ for making this superb sounding affordable gear. 🙂 😉

As a Pre-Amplifier

One of the main differences between DAC-1 and DAC-2 is the preamp feature in the DAC-2. It can also be operated via an IR remote which is pretty handy for lazy people like me, people who prefer to enjoy his or her music from a couch.

As a preamp, it performs great. When I had ModWright KWA 100, I used a preamp in between the DAC and the power amp. The level of grunge introduced from the preamp, versus driving the KWA 100 directly from DAC-2 is at astonishing level. The DAC-2 does the job better than a superb dedicated preamp. The digital volume control allows me to fine tune the volume level. And it’s always well balanced and linear.

Design & Build Quality

Don’t expect the level of spanking shiny precision chassis like amps from D’Agostino, formerly of Krell. W4S offerings are designed to be utilitarian. It probably does not look pretty for some people but to me, it looks sensible and no-frills. EJ could have designed it around beautifully milled chassis, but he didn’t, to keep the price reasonable.

Once the top cover is opened, the innards are assembled neatly. There is no excess solder, no cold solder, no resin mark anywhere on the boards. The PCBs are also well secured onto the chassis. All cables are tied and shielded safely, you won’t complain there will be safety risk. Connectors used are all high quality. It is a very well built electronic. Perhaps, the best I’ve seen.

Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 discrete output stage analog board

Cons

There are weaknesses, right? Yes, there are two.

  • The top chassis is somewhat cumbersome to remove and reinstall. There are a few misaligned screw threads.
  • The USB input does not represent the true potential performance of the DAC. Luckily, W4S offer a dedicated USB to S/PDIF converter that is worlds better than DAC-2’s built-in USB input.

Customizations

You’ll probably wondering why I tape the gills on the side of the DAC-2. It’s to prevent dust from entering the unit. The unit barely gets warm, even in the summer.

The digital inputs on the backside is also a bit different than a regular DAC-2. On standard unit, there is no BNC jack and shutter type TOSLINK jack. BNC will allow true 75-ohm S/PDIF connection and shutter type TOSLINK will allow me to get away without the easily misplaced plug on the plug type TOSLINK jack.

This issue probably an afterthought for most buyers and most manufacturers tend to dismiss requests from customers to make these little changes. EJ was very accommodating. He’s open to little customization and he did not charge extra for them. I would imagine he had to pick one unit and opened it up. That changes although small would at least used his valuable time that he could use to do something else, like designing the new excellent mPRE. EJ Sarmento’s willingness to do it is a real testament how much he cares about his customers.

75-ohm BNC Jack

Shutter Type TOSLINK Jack

Plug Type TOSLINK Jack

Hi-Fi is NOT expensive and often times, HYPED!

Most audiophiles tend to think if a hi-fi product is priced at extraorbitant price or if the chassis is precisely milled from unobtainium materials, the sound must be good. The truth is there is little correlation between price and real world performance. It saddens me when I read the first thing a person wrote on a forum is a performance of a product based on its price. A famous local headphone site specifically make performance categories based on price. IMHO, that is just wrong. When I came by to their brick & mortar store, it turns out that they have little knowledge about hi-fi in general. Surprising, huh? I’m not saying I know more about hi-fi than them, I came to this hobby, not knowing anything, but I want to be a smart buyer, I want to play safe so I learnt and I am still learning. Just like when researching modification parts for my car and actually installing them by myself, I learnt a lot from those processes.