"Stop that plastic music"
- is the common comment of my wife entering the room while I listen to file based music. When you ask her, why she judges digital music that hard, she would most probably start talking about artificiality and the lack of emotions in digital music. Actually I love her for this audio passion. We share the same HiFi hobby and music is some important part of our live. We both like vinyl most and for my wife there is no need for another source, OK, for usability a CD is accepted by exception, but there is absolutely no need for computer audio. So why do I spend a reasonable amount of time and mony for computer audio?-
I think it is about the theory behind digital audio. Digital promises to be lossless, stable, reproducible, storable, transferable, transformable…but meanwhile many of us have accepted even digital cables can make a difference in sound, linear power supplies, EMI shielding, clocking, audio interface implementation, drivers. All matters, so the decision is not only about audio devices, but about the whole chain. So in a digital audio world there are restrictions, dependencies, limitations and pitfalls, too.
For my wife and me, the computer audio journey has been shaped by many high expectations and many frustrations. Despite of these lessons we learned, I am still inspired by the wish to find a satisfying computer audio setup and to convince both of us, yes, digital audio works.
Actually there have already been two DACs in our setup, an Audio Synthesis DAX Discrete with an ASL (a proprietary protocol setting the DAC as master and the CD Player as slave for the audio data transfer, connected via a dual-ST glass optical interface ) linked Marantz SA11 for CD listening and a Chord Hugo for computer audio.
When Chord announced a new Hugo 2, immediately I started asking myself, is it time to go for as new Hugo or even for another DAC?-
We all have our experiences and beliefs. One of mine is not to spend an arm and a leg for a digital device and that for two reasons: vinyl is hard to beat and still our favorite source and for the second, the progress in architecture, design and power in the digital domain is that fast. Keeping at the recent development level with digital products might become expensive over time. So for a DAC the focus is a bit more on a reasonable price-performance ratio. BUT!!! Not at the cost of quality.- Only a “giant killer“ will do!- How to find one?. As usual, my online research began at testing sites, forums, audio sales portals, audio magazines. After nearly half a year I had my short list, but not a clear favorite.
Then by accident I came across some DAC reviews on YouTube. Yes, on YouTube! Of course on YouTube applies what you hear is not what you get and this is true for even more reasons than it applies for promotion or listening sessions hosted not in your own listening room and not in your personal audio setup. Anyway, we like listenings sessions with another setup in other rooms, we even pay for it. Back to YouTube and DAC reviews. Are they really worthless?- I do not think so, single product reviews support you with technical product details and the reviewer’s appraisal of pros and cons. If there are more than one reviews available you can compare "in-between" the reviewed product line of one reviewer and also compare a review to other reviewer’s results. Treating the fact of the poor audio quality of the YouTube channel as constant, allows us to compare different "sounds" or might be better named "sound signatures" of a single device in an under otherwise identical audio chain. Yes, this is far away from best practice, but combined with some available online reviews it served me for a pre-selection of only 3 DACs. Originally I planned a shootout between them, but I have to admit, the decision for the Denafrips Terminator (DT) had already been taken at that time. So I skipped it.
Setup and Listening experiences
When the DT arrived, I placed it besides our turntable and connected it via USB to a Sonore ultraRendu first. The sound was full-bodied and with tension, but also tending to a bit of a sweet and slightly bloomy sound, might be perceived as good or bad, depending on the music. Next I connected it to an Empirical Audio Offramp 5 via AES (Jorma cable), via RCA (Mapleshade cable) and via I²S HDMI LVDS (PS Audio AC12 cable). The sound by the I²S connection get rid of that bloomyness and turned into a leaner, more familiar one. Somehow this appears "righter" to me.
Replacing the Sonore ultraRendu by the SOtM sMS 200Ultra leads to another sound signature again. When the Sonore UR (UBS) marks one end and the OR5 (I²S) marks the other end of a scale, the SOtM-sMs200Ultra falls somewhere into the middle of it. As a result it became quite clear to me, the DT is sensitive on the different connections and depending on your source chain and your connection you will hear a notable difference in sound. So on one hand no final (subjective) verdict possible, but on the other hand this allows us to explore the strengths of the DT. And these strength are present, independently from the chosen input connection.
How does the DT perform in comparison to the Hugo 1?
In my setup and to my preferences the DT clearly outperforms the Hugo in terms of resolution and imaging. The bass is deep and dry, on a comparable level, but voices are more natural and with more timbre, paired with the absence of sibilance. The heights seems to be more brilliant. In general "more" music and "more" musicality. In addition, the DT does not have any issues with galvanic isolation on USB side, a drawback on the Hugo.
How does the DT perform in comparison to the DAX Discrete?
The DAX Discrete is an upsampling DAC. Due to it’s age, it does not support "true" external high-resolution connections, only a 96 kHz via SPDiff is supplied. The SPDIF interface is not as good sounding as the ASL interface. The upsampling ( to 702 kHz) and the selectable filters (e.g.with roll-off) lead to a certain sound, I like.
For computer audio and high resolution audio files, the DAX Discrete is limited by nature. Personally I do not want to up- or oversample high-resolution audio files. Here I prefer a NOS DAC. Sound-wise, the DAX Discrete is more on the full and smooth side in comparison to the DT via I²S, but not when connected via USB, then the situation is the other way around!. The DT via I²S offers more detail resolution, more grains. The DT via I²S is my DAC of choice.
In our setup the DT motivates me to invest some more time and more money into the digital domain. The journey continues and the DT acts as a new starting and end point in our digital audio chain.
Ah, yes, the real important question….
Could the DT convince my wife of digital audio?- Honestly – NO!-
Did I expect that?, honestly – NO! –
Are you married?
Credit: Markus G. @Zurich, Switzerland