Another comparison I was eager to try was with April Music’s Eximus DP1 DAC/preamp. The DP1 packs a fantastic DAC and a high-quality op-amp-based analog stage. This was to be a classic confrontation of tubes versus solid-state. Not surprisingly, the DP1 bettered the DACute in the areas solid-state designs have traditionally excelled in—at the frequency extremes. The DP1 exhibited a tighter bass range and was subjectively more extended on top. However, it lacked the smooth grainless textures of the EAR, which in the case of the DACute turned out to be a package deal. Much like red hair and freckles, the smoother textures and diminished top end came bundled with slightly softer transients. As a result, the EAR came across as a kinder and gentler purveyor of music, while the DP1’s crisper presentation was the more impressive and was responsible for an enhanced sense of soundstage transparency. In the end though, the DACute’s tube attributes shone through and won me over with a wonderfully palpable presentation that shimmered with dynamic energy.
That finally brings me to the DACute’s USB input and the subject of computer audio. Early this year I fell though the rabbit hole into the wonderland that is high-end computer audio. Actually, it was a deliberate move designed to take advantage of a technology that in the span of just a few years sprouted from infancy to a relatively mature state. In particular, I was intrigued by the possibility that 44.1kHz/16-bit files streamed off a computer hard drive could be reproduced with less jitter and greater fidelity relative to what even an expensive CD player or transport is capable of. The core of my computer audio system consists of a Mac BookPro laptop with 8GB of memory and a solid-state hard-drive running Sonic Studio’s Amarra Version 2.5 music player software. From my perspective, Amarra’s integration with Apples’ iTunes, support for up to 384kHz sample rates, memory cache playback, and playlist mode make it a clear winner. But that’s not the whole story. I found it essential to avoid using the Mac’s onboard DAC for clocking the datastream. The cleanest solution was to synch Amarra to an external digital data converter with an asynchronous USB input. Not all CD players or DACs possess a USB input and some of those that do, as is the case with the DACute, do not offer an asynchronous USB capability. My converter of choice was and still is April Music’s Stello U3 ($495). The U3 is a stand-alone device, powered directly by the computer’s USB port, that runs a custom xCORE 32-bit/500MIPS microprocessor from chip-maker XMOS. The Mac-to-Stello USB connection was made via a 1.5-meter Audio-Quest Carbon USB cable. The U3’s output was connected to one of the DACute’s SPDIF inputs via a 1-meter coaxial cable.
This system combined to produce an exceptional virtual transport. I was startled by my findings when comparing computer files ripped onto the Mac to the same CD’s digital feed from the Sony to the DACute. I didn’t expect much of a diference, but for the record, the computer file playback resulted in enhanced microdynamic shadings, purer textures, and an increased sense of transient clarity. The sound quality of the playback was so fabulous that I seriously doubt that any conventional transport under $25k could improve on it.
The next round of listening tests pitted file playback through the Stello U3 against a direct feed from the Mac to the DACute’s own USB input, the latter connection being made via an Audio-Quest top-of-the-line Diamond USB cable. Re-clocking the data through the Stello U3 made for a huge sonic difference. Simply put, the direct USB input resulted in loss of spatial integrity. What was a cavernous depth perspective flattened out considerably. What was precise image focus became diffuse. With the U3 in the chain, massed strings never sounded so pure and refined. Numerous complaints I’ve lodged in the past about digital reproduction of string tone being adulterated by an upper midrange hardness were now ancient history. The moral of the story is this: For best results, avoid the DACute’s USB input and resort to using an external asynchronous data converter.
If I were in the market to purchase an external DAC right now, the EAR DACute would be at the top of my shopping list. It’s mission accomplished for Tim de Paravicini, who has managed to reveal digital’s analog persona in convincing fashion. The DACute is a fantastically compelling DAC that has restored my faith in digital audio.
SPECS & PRICING
DAC chip: 24-bit, multi-level delta-sigma conversion
Inputs: USB, two 75-ohm coaxial SPDIF, TosLink optical SPDIF
Output level: 5V RMS
Tube complement: Two ECC88/6DJ8
Output Impedance: < 60 Ohms (balanced or single ended)
Weight: ??? lbs.
Dimensions: 435mm x 95mm x 320mm
Price: $5895 in black finish, $6595 in chrome
Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire England
+44 (0) 01480 210004
EAR USA (U.S. Distributor)
MartinLogan Summit X and Acoustic Zen Crescendo loudspeakers, Basszilla Platinum mk2 DIY loudspeaker; April Music Eximus DP1 DAC/Pre and Stello U3 digital data converter, Sony XA-5400 SACD player with ModWright Truth modification; FMS Nexus-2, Wire World, and Kimber KCAG interconnects; Acoustic Zen Hologram speaker cable; Sound Application power line conditioners