Dan Meinwald, the U.S. EAR distributor, sent along a pair of Philips JAN 7308 tubes, of which he is fond. And I have to agree; the Philips sounded gorgeous in this application and represents a big step up from the stock 6922. Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to make that call, and the Philips was used for the remainder of my listening tests. There’s not much to say about the motorized volume pot, except that I found the remote control a bit touchy to adjust and, as with other such volume controls, difficult to set to reproduce a particular volume setting. The presence of a volume control combined with an exceedingly low output impedance of under 60 ohms make it possible for this DAC to directly drive a power amp. However, should you desire to go through a preamp, simply set the volume control to about 2pm and let the preamp do the rest. Of course, one would expect some loss of immediacy when the signal is made to pass through two volume controls, and I can confirm that the most transparent soundstage to be had was with the DACute directly driving a power amp.
The fact that the output stage is tube amplified and transformer coupled is quite significant. In my experience, a DAC or CD player’s output stage plays a major role in its overall sound quality. Quite frequently this boils down to the mitigating effects of tubes versus transistors. Call it heretical or even anachronistic, but in my view digital wants tubes—digital needs tubes. Tubes are the requisite “cavalry” to the rescue with a dose of textural warmth and liquidity. Even in the highest echelons of high-end audio, the presence of a solid-state output buffer or gain stage often makes for a double whammy—digital crispness aided and abetted by solid-state tonal-color blindness that makes toast out of musical textures. And it’s that sort of a sorry combination that has pushed many discerning listeners away from digital sources and back to vinyl and analog tape. I’ve been advocating for many years the insertion of tubes, as early as feasible, into a digital front end as a means of controlling digital nasties. And that’s exactly what Tim has done, and it’s also the basis for ModWright Instruments’ modification of the Sony XA-5400ES SACD player.
At the heart of Dan Wright’s Truth Mod is a 6SN7-based output stage, which replaces the op-amp-infested stock analog stage. Not only that, but the tube stage is powered by an external high-voltage tube-rectified power supply. The Sony looks a bit odd with a couple of 6SN7 triodes sticking out of its top deck, but it has been a staple in my reference system for several years now. It really is that good. Naturally, I was curious to see how the DACute stacked up against my modified Sony. This comparison played out with the Sony acting as a transport for the EAR DAC, connected to one of its SPDIF inputs. Since both units are tube based I expected some common ground, especially when it came to imaging performance.
And while that, indeed, was the case, the DACute outperformed the Sony/Truth Modification in several areas, at least in the context of a high-efficiency speaker being driven by the Triode TRX-M300 monoblocks. It was capable of finer modulation of harmonic colors, the Sony sounding slightly more grey and less saturated. The boogie factor, the rhythmic drive that propels musical lines forward, was also enhanced. That coupled with exceptional resolution of dynamic contrasts made for a vibrant presentation packed with dramatic tension.
Harmonic textures ebbed and flowed with a natural edgeless fluidity and a heightened sense of purity due no doubt to freedom from digital hash. And all the while the DACute shone a light on low-level detail. But there was nothing forced about its presentation. Much like ripples in a pond, detail dotted the fabric of the music—a far cry from the surreal hyper-etched presentation being accepted by some audiophiles today as music. No sir, that’s not what the real thing sounds like.