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a short diary of some part of my life.

Posts tagged DAC

I’ve been trying to build a second system for the living room. I scouted many local audio stores. I didn’t particularly find anything interesting at any of them so I went to Singapore. Singapore is famous for its’ vast selections of high-end shops, including hi-fi audio.

Initial Plan

Initially, I was quite certain that I was going to buy Schiit Gungnir (DAC), Wyred 4 Sound mPRE (DAC + preamp), and ModWright KWA 100 (power amp). I’m already familiar with the latter and the former. The mPRE was what I wanted to audition. I was not going to buy them online or had them shipped to Jakarta without knowing how they perform. I didn’t plan on acquiring speakers other than Selah‘s. Dislaimer: I have never heard of how a decent pair of non-directional speakers sound like. The only way to do this is to audition them in person. This is why we need to support audio dealers. They help us make definite decisions.

Raindrop Audio

I visited Raindrop Audio in 16 Waringin Park. The store is located right in the middle of a suburban area. It’s a bit difficult to find, but it’s actually a good thing as it is far enough from city noise. They are the sole distributor of W4S in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Once I called them, informing I would be coming, they set up a listening session with exactly what I was looking for.

The setup: W4S Music Server – W4S mPRE – W4S mAMP (mono amp x 2) – Heed Audio Enigma 5 speakers

Heed Audio Enigma 5

Wyred 4 Sound Music Server & mINT

A Huge Surprise

I was already familiar with a few Wyred 4 Sound products as I’m currently using the DAC-2 and STI-500. This setup is different from any setup I have auditioned. It eliminates the need of a complete room acoustic treatments. Most of the time, with directional speakers, you need to set up the sound to be right in the middle of where the seating position is going to be. Even after the room acoustics are adjusted, you still can’t go around the room and expect the sound to sound just as good as at the seating position. The Heed Enigma speakers solve this issue. The sound is always full bodied and the resolution stays pretty much the same at different listening positions. There may be a slight degradation at extreme angle but I’m sure I will be more satisfied with them than with any directional speakers.

At Heed Audio, we have found that loudspeakers with a non-directional radiation pattern are best able to simply let the music into the room. At the same time, other things begin to happen. Rather than feeling compelled to sit rigidly in the “sweet spot”, it is possible to move to the right and left, forward or backward, up or down, and the music follows.

I came to Raindrop to audition Wyred 4 Sound and now, I think I’m going to buy a pair of Heed speakers. They just got a potentially long-term customer.

Heed Enigma 5

The Enigmas was not only excelling with little room acoustic treatment, they actually sounded pretty good. Ray, the owner of Raindrop played a few classical, they all sounded superb. As stated above, the sound was always full bodied. They did not sound thin or overly thick or heavy, they sounded just right. Usually, with complex passages and vocal, inferior speakers will definitely struggle, they are not inferior speakers, they are superb speakers. The Enigmas produced complex passages effortlessly. Vocal was also produced gracefully without any sign of glares and spikes. This sounds like to good to be true. Then, I looked at the speakers, the drivers are custom-made for them by Morel, one of my favorite brands. Heed does not skimp on build quality and it shows. After looking at the speakers, I went back to more listening sessions. The sound was never constraint. They sounded detailed, a bit on the warm side, full bodied, and never fatiguing. With opera, they sounded big. The soundstage was huge but still believable. The sound placement was great. It’s almost like I was being served by live music, with the performers performing in the room. Or better yet, it’s like listening in a jazz club. They sounded absolutely satisfying.

Wyred 4 Sound minis

No great speakers will sound good if not driven by equally great DAC, preamp, and amp. The digital front consists of W4S Music Server and the DAC section in the mPRE. I suspect, the W4S mPRE preamp section is a great one. Looking at the specs alone, it’s possible that it is equal or better than the marvelously good W4S STP-SE. The power amps are the W4S mAMP, two monos, powered by the newest ICEpower modules inside.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be buying them. I want to combine all those functions into one box, that can be found in a mINT. Hopefully the Heed speakers will sound just as glorious. If not, I can always purchase them.

The music server can be controlled via an iOS app. Ray was standing behind me during the audition and he did not even touch any of the minis in front of me. Everything seemed to run seamlessly. There was an ethernet cable connected on the back of the music server, thus no wi-fi signal interference.

As I said above, the sound produced by the speakers never felt constraint. The two mono amps never ran out of breath. Even during steep up and down, the amps easily drove the Enigma.

I like EJ’s approach in making the minis. They are pretty small compared to today’s huge hi-fi gears. I also like the shape of the box. It does not look like a radical new design, it is still utilitarian with more rounded shapes. The buttons are all well thought out. It’s easy to memorize what those buttons are for. There is a LED on every function. The remote is a cute and functional. Everything on the W4S minis scream quality.

Purchase Decision

I will be buying a pair of Heed Enigma 5 when I travel to Singapore in December. I suspect, most people will also be very satisfied with them as the sound is also a huge change compared to the usual directional speakers and you don’t need to invest heavily on room acoustic treatments. The only room acoustic treatment that Ray had in the room during the audition was a panel behind the speakers. Perhaps, that was a way to show that they only need a little treatment.

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Office Headphone Setup

CEntrance is one of the few companies who offers driverless USB audio. They are not some companies who commission someone to make a product for them and label it as their own or a company who sells mostly overly hyped products that do not perform anywhere close to the high price tag, typically found on boutique brands. They are a design-engineering-driven company.

USB DAC

A lot of geekery trends were made mainstream by geeks and nerds. Geeks tend to be curious at new techs. Some of the techs are not necessarily ready for consumers but they still buy them. Thankfully, early adopters are now becoming public-beta-testers for those techs. A lot of bugs will be fixed, revised or even redesigned by the time the tech reaches mass-market.

In the early days of USB DAC, everybody did not seem to mind installing, maintaining, and updating drivers. Now, we want driverless solution. USB DAC solutions have matured to the point where we no longer have to tinker to use them. It’s now plug and play (on Macs).

DACport

Ever since I saw DACport for the first time, shortly after it is announced, I immediately felt this is the gear that I should try (partly because CEntrance is the maker). Normally, I don’t buy the first runs, I want to buy a gear that has been publicly tested. So, I purchased it. Long story short, it performs like a champ since day one. It’s been what? 3 years since its introduction and I hardly found anyone having problem with it.

Design Philosophy

Unlike many audio gear makers, CEntrance tries to keep much of the heavy-lifting to the gears they are making. Things like clean power, the need of isolated ground, ’boutique cables’, superb S/PDIF signal are not issues users must provide. They are actually helping us not worrying about those things and let us enjoy what really matters, which is good music, really. They are also not some random companies (some of them are quite famous) who sell half-baked gears.

As NwAvGuy wrote:
I completely agree some products are hastily thrown together using trendy components, made to look high-end, and rushed to market in search of quick profits. Other companies, like Centrance, take a much more holistic approach and put genuine high-end performance ahead of aesthetics and time-to-market. The quality of such products is more than skin deep and they pay a lot more attention to getting the normally hidden details correct.

Sound Quality

As what I have written about NuForce uDAC-2, the DACport is the better product. But not by a wide margin. It’s definitely better in every area. Compared to the uDAC-2, I can immediately hear a sense of speed, space, precision, and airiness. You don’t feel constrained with little guy. I’m accustomed to great bass slams (quality, not quantity), DACport will give you that.

It’s a refinement of what the uDAC-2 should have been. I think it’s either Nuforce got lucky or improvements in audio is really that small. Either way, this is the benchmark of a USB powered USB-DAC. This will be a classic or it already is.

Compared to a desktop amp, say a Schiit Lyr (w/ stock tubes), DACport excels in a few areas like speed and airiness. When I’m out of the house, without my desktop amp, I don’t feel I need of anything more than the DACport. It doesn’t make me miss my Lyr. I’m perfectly fine without the Schiit amp. It is that good. And when I use it as a DAC, it performs even better. A friend of mine who also owns a DACport run it as a DAC for his speaker setup claimed that he couldn’t differentiate his desktop DAC and his DACport. Too good? Maybe. But I have heard quite a few people whose experiences match my friend’s findings.

For IEM, the gain is too high for my taste. I like to listen in low volume range and it barely allows me to do that. Fortunately, unlike many portable DAC/amp, this one does not suffer from channel imbalance. There is zero detectable hiss at high volume range. I would like to have a bit more wiggle room to fine tune the volume for IEM. That’s the only con that I can think of.

For full size headphone, like my Grado RS1i, it’s a great match. Grado is notoriously known for its ‘smallish’ soundstage. Well, DACport fixes that. It doesn’t sound like many artificial soundstage inferior amps produce. Its sound placement and precision are just right where I want them to be. All the great traits about Grado house sound are retained and refined. Bass is deep and articulate. Micro-details are presented in a manner that does not pierce my ears.

I think this is the best portable DAC/amp in the market.

Build Quality

I consider my HeadAmp Pico to be the best in class in term of build quality in portable amp/dac world. That remains true with the intro of DACport. There are slight misalignments here and there on the DACport but nothing worries me. The finish is also better on the Pico. But Pico is the best, to be fair without a comparison with Pico, DACport is still miles better than the rest of the competitors. Have you ever seen any iBasso amps? If you haven’t seen one, if DACport gets 10-point, iBasso gets 6-point. Don’t even think about looking inside, iBasso gets an even lower score. Pico and DACport are engineering marvel. Look now, my uDAC-2 is already dead and it’s only been 3 years. I expect DACport to last for a long time, maybe not as long as my home gears due to the stress it often gets from frequent travels.

The Highest Recommendation

This is it, look no further. You don’t need to follow the trend. New products will keep coming but DACport will still be one of the best. There are not many companies out there who have the resource and expertise to compete directly with CEntrance. This is purely them outmuscling the competitors. They set a benchmark of what a portable amp/DAC should be.

This all started when I found Audio-gd, an audio manufacturer led by He Qinghua or well known as Kingwa. He makes superb audio gear based on designs that can only be found in some of the most exotic audio electronics on the planet. Oh, don’t worry about the price, they are very reasonable for what you get in the unit. The designer/owner himself is a very honest person which is a huge plus in my book; there are very few honest personalities in audiophile world. I’d have a hard time finding similar products that can compete well in Audio-gd price brackets or even well above it. I have had a few Audio-gd products, my newest toy from them is the new Audio-gd Reference 5 DSP.

Reference 5 idea was suggested by an audio forum member who owns a complete Audio-gd system. He suggested Kingwa that Audio-gd needed a DAC to be paired with their smallest balanced headphone amp/preamp, the ROC. The chassis was readily available. I never thought it could be done at the time as the chassis is quite small for a fully balanced PCM1704U-K-based DAC. Not only did he manage to design one but I think he brought up a few interesting ideas about the design which will be covered below.

Design

PCM1704
The RE5 uses four Burr-Brown PCM1704U-K ~ R-2R/multi-bit chip, two chips per channel. It’s a fully differential/balanced DAC. The PCM1704U-K is considered to be the best sounding DAC chip. It is also the last of its kind.

DSP-1
There are two kinds of Reference 5 ~ RE5. The DSP version uses Audio-gd DSP-1 and the DF version uses the DF1704 digital filter. DSP-1 is a powerful proprietary programmable digital filter processor developed by Audio-gd. Burr Brown DF1704 is a typical digital filter used in many PCM1704-based DACs. For HDCD lovers, unfortunately, none of RE5 digital filter options can decode HDCD, you would have to choose one of their DACs that is designed specifically for PMD100. DSP-1 uses Altera Cyclone on its’ heart, it has comparable processing speed to an Intel Pentium II processor. If you want to play with DSP-1 settings (switchable via DIP switches on the DSP-1 board), here is the diagram: http://currawong.net/head-fi/DSP_settings.html

DAC Reference 5 has built in DSP-1 processor, which is a Two-channel Digital Interpolation Filter and data in-phase processor for digital audio. This Device offers advanced features for high-performance digital signal processing (DSP) applications up to 250-MHz. Data and Master-clock in-phase processing are without jitters. So DAC Reference 5 can offer a clear and focused soundstage, apart from accurate and neutral reproduction of the recorded disc/music. Theoretically when using the DSP1, data will be running parallel, achieving near zero jitter state, no matter the level of CD transport attached, be it hypermarket grade or hi-end level, you will still be getting the best and similar sound quality! Practically, through some experiment, although we could perceive the sound quality difference between differently priced and level of CD transports (as an audiophile, you just can’t just follow pure theory, but you must also venture the practical side too), but final result shows that using entry level CD transport or hypermarket grade DVD player, the improvement of sound quality is huge compared to typical digital processor chip like PMD-100, DF1704 etc.

ACSS & Overbuilt Power Supply and Filtration
All the processing/filtering after the DAC is done in the current mode ~ ACSS (Audio-gd Current Signal Sytem) which is a lot less harmful to the sound than voltage mode. Each PCM1704U-K has its’ own ACSS module. It has zero feedback analog stage, discrete output stage ~ there is no op-amp/IC, no coupling capacitor on the signal path, and all DC coupled. The power supply is monstrous, it has nine groups of parallel voltage regulators to purify dirty power and provide clean power to the digital board and analog stages. There are two beefy R-Core power transformers, each of them serves different purpose, one for the digital board and the other one for the analog stage. R-Core transformers are arguably better than torodial transformers. The transformers, ACSS modules, and IEC socket are carefully shielded with copper sheets to avoid interference. Each and every section of the DAC is heavily regulated. Those are not marketing hypes, they are just good designs.

The ACSS is a non-feedback technology made with discrete amplifiers. Most people know the global feedback design can offer better specs in test measurements, and non-feedback can’t do well in test measurements but can offer better sound for the human’s ears. Here is a conflict of the classic circuits. But the ACSS opens a new field, it can offer a least coloration sound which is more neutral with very low distortion and high linearity. So it can retain the dynamics, detail and neutral sound but not sound bright or harsh.Audio signals are usually transmitted as voltage fluctuations, such as what eventually powers headphones and speakers. Instead of this, Audio-gd gear sends the signals, including digital (a first as far as I know) as a current signal (electricity has voltage and current). The advantage is that the effects of components on the signal, including cables, are reduced considerably this way, and you end up with a cleaner signal. Also, in Audio-gd gear, after the signal is amplified, it’s changed back to a voltage signal. However, if you connect two Audio-gd components together using ACSS, the circuits changing voltage to current and back are bypassed, so both act as if they are one unit, improving things further.

Modular Circuits
Since the entire analog and digital circuitries are modular, users may easily replace modules in the DAC if there is any future upgrades. The DSP-1 is socketed onto the digital board and the digital board is lifted above the main PC board by three aluminum standoffs. There are two ACSS modules ‘hidden’ underneath the digital board. Recently, Audio-gd ran out of PCM2706 USB receiver, Kingwa posted an offer on Audio-gd website to exchange the USB input for another Coax or Optical input. To have another Coax or optical input, the digital board needs to be changed.

Inputs & Outputs (stock config):

  • 3 digital inputs: Toslink-Optical, Coax-RCA, USB.
  • 2 sets of analog outputs: RCA and XLR.
  • 1 set of ACSS outputs if one wants to utilize Audio-gd’s ACSS technology. That is another compelling reason to get one of their preamps, power amps or integrated amps.

I don’t use the built-in USB input, so I won’t bother writing anything about it here. For those who cares about the built-in USB input, it uses Tenor TE7022 24bit/96kHz USB receiver. The same Tenor chip can be found in Stello U2, NuForce HDP, NuForce uDAC-2, and Teralink X2. Instead of having a USB input, my new RE5 has two Toslink inputs and two coaxial BNC inputs. I figured it would be better to have no USB input as the technology is still maturing. There are various USB-SPDIF converters out there, new ones come out every a couple of months.

Build Quality

There isn’t anything special about its’ exterior, it has an old school fairly rugged lightly brushed aluminum case with solid aluminum feet. Unfortunately, the fit and finish of the chassis is still well below my expectations. There are scratches, gaps and excess materials all over the chassis. I own a Wyred 4 Sound DAC, comparing them side by side is like comparing a Lexux Vs. a cheap Chevy. W4S DAC’s fit and finish and overall build quality are top-notch, much better than the RE5; my main beef is sub-par parts selection that do not contribute directly to the sound quality, such as: cheap CMC RCA jacks (that can easily worn out after several usages) and flimsy ACSS connectors (I may replace the ACSS connectors with mini XLR). In all honesty, they make little or no effect to the sound quality. I would rather have a well designed innards than a beautiful chassis that may cost up to half the price of the unit and skimp on the quality of the components inside. Besides, I sit at least six to ten feet away, it looks simple and fairly beautiful. Overall, the build quality of the innards is very good. It definately looks handmade.

The first thing that I noticed when I opened the RE5 was, it is massively populated and well laid out. There is practically little to no space spared. It screams great care that Kingwa has given in designing this DAC. Aside from RE5’s engineering prowess, I find many high quality components used inside the RE5, such as: Dale resistors, Hitachi transistors, Toshiba transistors, WIMA film capacitors, Solen capacitors, Sanyo OS-CON caps, WBT silver solders, Canare BNC, and Neutrik XLR. The input naming on the RE5 is simple and user-friendly. There is a switch knob on the face plate for switching between Coax, Toslink, and USB. It really is a very simple case. The chassis looks similar to a TEAC unit ~ it also has rounded corners instead of boxy looking cases like older Audio-gd gear. This chassis is also used for Audio-gd balanced headphone amp/pre amp, the Phoenix and the ROC.

Setup

All electronics are plugged onto a PS Audio Quintet power center. Quintet is the first passive power conditioner that I found to work as advertised, it cleans power and it protects any electronics plugged onto it. I’m feeding the RE5 with Squeezebox Touch and Halide Design Bridge plugged onto my Apple MacBook Air with Audirvana+). I use the RE5 XLR outputs to feed Wyred 4 Sound STI-500 (a state-of-the-art ‘wire with gain’ integrated amplifier). The speakers are Selah Audio RC3R on Sanus speaker stands. Several speakers isolation devices and room treatments are used to get the most out of the speakers. I have various analog interconnects, digital interconnects, speaker cables, and power cables but ultimately settled with Blue Jeans Cable. I have used the RE5 for several weeks to familiarize myself with the sound signature.

Now, about the Sound Quality…
It’s definitely an upgrade over my old DAC-19Mk3 ~ which beats PS Audio lower end model, Benchmark DAC, and RWA DAC in musicality. Everything seems to sound clearer and more dynamic. I can hear more passages in the music, the bass goes deeper and better tonal balance. It produces a very smooth sound signature. The sound placement is right where I want it to be which is on the center of a stage. To keep this simpler, all the good things and improvements over those DACs mentioned above are easily distinguishable. Two months ago, I went to a jazz concert in Seattle. FYI, the theatre is renowned for its excellent sound system, it’s not like your typical concert venues which mostly offer mediocre sound systems. I still remember the superb experience listening to her musics live, how good the vocal was, listening to the same music at the jazz concert with the RE5 is pretty close. I have no trouble identifying instruments that are being played, instruments sound very real, and silky smooth vocal seems to evolve around me. I’m a big fan of movie trailer musics, musics created by Two Steps From Hell, Alan Silvestri, Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, and Steve Jablonsky are often hard to find, a few of them are only available on iTunes. Listening to a few Steve Jablonsky’s music blow my mind, it’s so surreal! The best thing about the RE5 is that it does not get in the way of the music, it simply disappears. This is what Hi-Fi is all about.

The thing about high-end DACs is that they offer very little performance for the money. This isn’t the case with RE5 or any top of the line Audio-gd DACs. While some may not like the sound due to its very slightly colored sound signature (sometimes, it can be too smooth), I think it’s really the sound signature of this particular DAC chips. I could be wrong but hearing PCM1704 on several occasions, almost all of them sound very similar. People might say, well, the PWD is better. PWD is only better at several key areas. No DAC stands out from the rest. If you like neutral but musical sound, you might like the PWD. But for the ultimate clean musical sound, you’ll like W4S DAC-2. Now, let’s bring DAC-2 on the table. The RE5 sounds good but DAC-2 betters it in some areas, such as: soundstage, speed, details, precision. Speed and cleanliness in complex passages are the major differences here. RE5 can be somewhat slow and not as clean as the DAC-2. That does not mean the RE5 is not a good DAC. It is, it’s just it offers different presentation.

To make this simpler, here are the pros and cons:

Pros:

  1. Musical
  2. Vocal
  3. Smooth, easy on the ears.
  4. Natural, organic-sound.
  5. Expansive soundstage, some people might like this.
  6. Clean bass, again, some people might like this.

Cons:

  1. Soundstage is not as precise as some of the best DACs.
  2. Not the fastest sounding DAC.
  3. Some like the smoothness, but some say it’s a dark-sounding DAC, it is.

In all fairness, without all those newer best performing DACs, this could be the end game. This could be the only DAC that you really need. After all, the goal is to enjoy music, not analyzing them. Other words, buy what you enjoy the most, not the latest DAC that you can get. Usually, DACs based on older DAC chips tend to sound better because designers have mastered making DACs around them.

~~~

The RE5 is a great sounding DAC quite possibly one of the most natural sounding DACs that I have tried. I find it a lot easier to find flaws from my previous DACs ~ the only way to compare which DAC is better than the other is compare them side by side and spend some time with them. With this DAC, I often feel very excited playing musics that I have forgotten in my hard drives ~ I find myself searching for good music again. I don’t have any genre preference, as long as the music is good and it is well recorded, I’m willing to listen to it. DACs from well-known brands are often claimed to be great bargains for the money. Some even compare them by their prices, I’ve never seen a direct correlation between cost and quality in electronics. In my opinion, most of them offer very little for the money, in fact, they are often very overpriced. I would say, the RE5 is the ‘real’ bargain for money, a genuine high performance DAC for the $$. This is definitely one of the DACs that I’m going to keep for a long time. It’s time to take a rest and enjoy the music. Happy Listening!

I’m officially addicted to Audio-gd! They make superb products. I don’t really care about the price, they have small form factor, small enough to be placed on my cabinet and they perform better than other similar products. I have always reluctant to buy a product from a well known brand. I prefer to surf around internet forums to find decent products which can be easily found simply by using Google. There are various forums to choose from, they are various reviews to read, ultimately I had to bet on my own based on the reviews and researches that I have read and done. My decision turned out to be good, Audio-gd products do not disappoint me, neither is Kingwa, the owner and designer of Audio-gd products. Kudos to you, Kingwa!

First, I bought the DAC-19Mk3, it has dual PCM1704UK DAC chip, PMD100 or DF1704 as the digital filter and accepts various digital input including USB. I initially preferred the PMD100 as it is more musical than DF1704 which sounds a bit more digital than analog – after many hours of listening sessions, I came to a conclusion that I like both filters, there is nothing wrong with both of them, I no longer find DF1704 to have any digital traces. I may purchase another DAC-19Mk3, I’m very impressed with it. If you want to read my impressions of the DAC-19Mk3, here is a link to it: https://ravenda.wordpress.com/audiogddac19/

A month later, I bought an Audio-gd pre-amp, the P-2. The P-2 is also an excellent product, it has virtually zero noise, digital volume control with IR remote, and interchangeable voltage gain modules (you can change the modules to find the sound signature that you like – these won’t color the source’s sound signature too much, I consider them as tweaks). The construction of the P-2 is rugged, simple and elegant. This is exactly what I want, it’s not eye catching and it just works just like my Mac.

About the sound quality of the P-2, this pre-amp is completely silent, even when I’m pairing it with my Woo Audio 6 (modded) and using my Sennheiser IE8 (IEM), it’s dead silent. It doesn’t have its’ own sound signature as far as I am aware of. Whatever DAC that I am pairing it with, it will pass the sound of the DAC. The P-2 uses relays to control the volume, relay is the best sounding switch that has the least resistance and can maintain at all frequencies. While much more expensive, slower and noisier (clicking) when switching, they are far more sonically superior to any switcher chip on the market today. There are only two flaws that I can think of, one is the rotary encoder which is quite glitchy and the other one is the very cheap looking RCA jacks that can wear out quickly after several uses. I don’t think I will ever need another pre-amp anytime soon. This could be the last single ended pre-amp that I would ever need. I don’t have any plan to go “balanced”, balanced rigs are big and possibly run hotter than my current rigs.

I highly recommend the P-2 pre-amp for those who are looking for an excellent pre-amp. You can also ask Kingwa for more information about the pre-amp or whatever you needs are; he is very helpful, no BS, and willing to satisfy his customers.

Audio-gd isn’t a well known audio company brand in the US yet!. The company is led by Mr. He QingHua (Kingwa), the First Prize winner of the American National Semiconductor Audio Design Contest. Kingwa designs his gear based on his  extensive research on high end audio equipments. He’s been listening to his customers all along, including following discussion threads at many audio forums. There are three products that came to fruitions because of customers’ demands; first the Compass (Amp/DAC combo), the Panther (a power amp), and the Phoenix (a fully balanced headphone amp/pre-amp).

I’ve been using the Audio-gd DAC 19Mk3 for a few months and I‘m very happy to report that this is my favorite DAC, compared with:

  • NuForce uDAC-2 ($129 USB DAC)
  • Mhdt Havana ($749 ~ typical NOS DAC sound signature, sounds warm and pleasant)
  • Pico amp/DAC ($499 ~ small, err… tiny, there is nothing wrong with the SQ considering its’ size :D)
  • AMB Gamma 2 ($230-parts cost only ~ superb DAC for its’ small size, my second best DAC, it sounds neutral, you can also drive a headphone from one of the analog outputs)
  • And, a few other famous DACs…

I tend to buy a few things at the same time for my curiosity sake. If I don’t like it, I can always sell it or return it. I’m pairing the Audio-gd DAC-19Mk3 with Audio-gd P-2, D-Sonic Magnum 500S (2X250W / 8Ω | 2X500W / 4Ω; ICE Power), and Selah Audio RC3R (3 way monitor; Fountek ribbon tweeter, Morel dome midrange and Scan-speak woofer).

The DAC-19Mk3 uses two Burr-Brown PCM1704UK – R-2R/multi-bit chip, one chip per channel. It’s a single ended DAC with two sets of RCA outputs. The PCM1704UK is considered to be the best sounding DAC chip. Manufacturers are now favoring Sigma-Delta chips due to its ease of manufacturing (cheaper to produce) and features that can be implemented in the chip (built-in digital filters, anti-clipping; take a look at Wolfson’s top of the line DAC, WM8741 that can be found in PS Audio PerfectWave DAC). They no longer consider sound quality to be the top priority in making those chips. Those claims above may be argued by some people, but the PCM1704UK is still used by some of the best DAC designers and the chip can be found in some of the most expensive DACs. The D/A chip is irrelevant to judge a DAC unit sound quality, what really matters is its’ implementation.

There are two digital filters can be used in the DAC-19Mk3, the Pacific Microsonics PMD100 (a 24/55 HDCD digital filter) and the Burr-Brown DF1704 (a 24/96 digital filter). All the processing/filtering after the DAC is done in the current mode – ACSS which is a lot less harmful to the sound than voltage mode. Each PCM1704UK has its’ own ACSS module. The Audio-gd ACSS technology is inspired from Krell who is the proprietor of the current gain technology. It has zero feedback analog stage, DC coupled, and discrete output stage – there is no op-amp, no coupling capacitor on the signal path.  to purify dirty power and provide the cleanest power to the digital board and analog stage. There are two beefy R-Core power transformers, each of them serves different purpose, one for the digital board and the other one for the analog stage. They are carefully shielded. Those are not marketing hypes, they are just good designs.

It has 3 selectable inputs: Coax (RCA), Optical (ToSlink) and USB. One can ask Audio-gd if one needs different (Coax RCA – BNC) or more inputs. The USB input uses the commonly used PCM2707 USB receiver to convert the USB signal to S/PDIF. I have read a few decent articles that claim i2s signal is better for USB input. I used it once for my curiosity sake and the sound was decent. I don’t really care about this as I rarely use the USB input. I also found out that the DAC-19Mk3 is able to output ACSS (CAST) signal if needed, you just have to swap one set (there are two sets of RCA outputs) of the RCA outputs to ACSS (CAST – 4 pin) outputs. That if you own an amp or a pre-amp that accepts ACSS (CAST) inputs. For those who will be using the USB input exclusively, you might be interested in shutting down the S/PDIF inputs when using the USB input by installing a jumper to get an improved SQ. Here is a picture to show how to do it:

Let’s see where this DAC excels! The power supply is monstrous, Kingwa designed the DAC to have superb power filtration. It has 8 groups of parallel Class A voltage regulators to purify dirty power and provide the cleanest power to the digital board and analog stage. The noise floor is suppressed to the lowest level possible – no audible noise at all. Sub-par products tend to perform mediocre when fed with dirty power due to their poor power supplies. Switching power supply is also a big no-no, a regulated one is generally preferable for high end audio electronics. Clean power is very essential for any audio or electronic products, insufficient power filtration may produce bad results and also shorten the life of the circuits. Almost half the size of the DAC-19Mk3 is used for the power filtration, one does not need to worry about getting a power filtration/regenerator unit or a fancy power cord (snake oil!).

~ I tried various power cords for my curiosity sake, none of them improves the SQ or sound different. I have also tried various interconnects from Blue Jeans cable, ‘SPC (silver plated copper) head-fi.org sponsor’ cable, Cryo-parts SCSCag wires, all of them sound exactly the same. Unless your cables are mediocrely built, I don’t see the point of buying these fancy cables other than for their looks. All these expensive fancy cables are merely jewelries that do not add anything to the music ~

DAC-19Mk3 without digital filter board and ACSS modules installed

The Sound

About the SQ… it’s a superb DAC. This DAC completely surprised me during my first listening session with a whole new set of audio gear. I have always thought that the Audio-gd Phoenix (headamp/preamp) is no where as dynamic as some of the best headamps out there, I thought similar sound signature could also be found in the DAC-19Mk3. The single ended Audio-gd DAC (19Mk3) is well, different. It is very dynamic and at the same time, not harsh at all. This DAC makes me appreciate good recordings and instruments. There were times when I thought certain instruments sounded weird when played directly from my sound card, a PS3 and an iPod; the 19Mk3 corrects all faults in my system, every single instrument sounds right to my ears. The vocal is silky smooth, it does not have any digital trace at all. The soundstage is huge, grand soundstage. You won’t get the DAC-19Mk3’s soundstage and incredible dynamic with a NOS DAC, its soundstage is a lot smaller than what the DAC-19Mk3 can produce, NOS DAC also sounds recessed, very recessed if one compares them side by side. Now, I understand why some people like NOS DACs’ sound signature, it’s easy on the ears. The DAC-19Mk3 sound placement is superb, it is never in-front-of your face, it’s like hearing a live performance! The background is very black, one can easily notice tiny details in the recordings. There are layers of details, one can easily pin-point instruments that are playing. This is the most analog sounding DAC that I have tried. Everything seems to be natural, dynamic, and very well balanced. I couldn’t find anything wrong with the SQ. The bass gets low and impactful. I am honestly amazed by this DAC, it is a giant killer. The DAC-19Mk3 is quite neutral, this is a plus: good recordings would shine, but bad recordings were still bearable or even enjoyable if one liked the music enough to accept the poor recording. Being a music fanatic first and audiophile second, I tend to listen to a number of poor recordings as well as very good ones. 😎

If I were to point out areas where I want the 19Mk3 to be able to do a little more is the bass impact. I’m not a bass head, perhaps my transports aren’t good enough (Arcam CD36, Squeezebox Classic, and M2Tech hiFace) but I have not been able to find any major sound quality difference between them. I don’t see the need of getting a big and expensive transport unless my current transport is very bad and affecting my system’s sound quality.

I’m very impressed with Kingwa’s attentions to details, every single part of the DAC seems to be well thought out. I’m also amazed by Kingwa’s decision to salvage any (Pacific Microsonics) PMD100 from used audio equipments. PMD100 is no longer made and is getting rare to find. As mentioned above, I can choose to use one of two excellent digital filters, the musical PMD100 and the neutral (hi-fi) DF1704. The PMD100 produces musical sound signature which suits classical, jazz, female voices, basically anything slow. If I want more impact and neutral, I use the DF1704. The bass has noticeably increased, it goes deeper, and produces more details but the soundstage seems to suffer. PMD100 (laidback) is preferable for forward sounding speakers while DF1704 (forward) is better for laidback speakers, it’s all about balance and synergy.

Audio-gd PMD100 board

Build Quality

For those who care about the build quality and chassis work, the innards look quite good but it’s definately not at the same level of finesse of HeadAmp (Justin Wilson) which I consider to be one of the very few manufacturers who craves for perfections. There is a few major concerns about the build quality and there are some minor imperfections, such as: a few not-so-good soldering jobs, bent PCB, many traces of glue on the PCB, and parts are not aligned as neat as HeadAmp. This DAC looks almost like a DIY unit. My AMB y2 looks much better inside out. The chassis is as simple as it can be, it works and it is very sturdy but it’s far from a Grade A chassis. The plates are not aligned perfectly, there are gaps between plates here and there. My DAC-19Mk3 top plate is hard to pull out due to incorrect size of the top plate. These are just some minor shortcomings that have nothing to do with the sound quality. I would rather have a well designed innards than a beautiful chassis that may cost up to half the price of the unit and skimp on the quality of the components inside.

This is one hell of a DAC. I can’t imagine how good higher end Audio-gd DACs are after using this DAC. I bet it’s a huge step up above the DAC-19Mk3. This DAC is priced at $480 + shipping. I don’t think I can find any better DAC at that price point. All brand names DACs that I have auditioned above are not even close to the DAC-19Mk3. I don’t usually buy ‘Chinese’ products if I have the chance to choose. Off course, almost all electronic products are now made in China, not that it matters but I had a sheer experience of buying unknown ‘Chinese’ made products that failed to meet my expectations in the past. This is simply not the case with Audio-gd, superb designs, superb executions and zero marketing BS (unlike many major brand names who sell more marketing that the actual product itself :mad:). Thanks Kingwa, for making this excellent DAC! Oh and, you might want to pick the PMD100 as the digital filter or your super backup, the supply is running low. If you send an email to Audio-gd, don’t be surprised by their difficulties of answering questions in English. They usually reply within hours.