Four DACs from $699 to $3600

Channel Islands Transient Mk II, Lindemann USB-DAC 192/24, NuForce DAC-100, Synergistic Music Cable DAC

Equipment report
Categories:
Digital-to-analog converters
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Products:
Channel Islands Audio Transient Mk II,
Lindemann USB-DAC 24/192,
Nuforce DAC-100,
Synergistic Research Music Cable DAC
Four DACs from $699 to $3600

SETUP AND ERGONOMICS

Given its level of internal sophistication, the installation, setup, and day-to-day operation of the USB DAC 24/192 were disarmingly simple. Once a USB cable was attached between the Lindemann and my Mac, the DAC was recognized in the Sound Control Panel as “Lindemann USB 2.0 Audio,” and I could select it as my output device. Although the Lindemann has no volume controls, its volume can be adjusted in software via iTunes (or other playback software). Since its full level is only 1.4 volts, and many fixed-output devices use 2.0 volts as their standard single- ended output level, in some installations such as those that use a passive preamp with no provisions for gain, the Lindemann might not have sufficient maximum volume. But in other systems this lower output level could allow users to employ the Lindemann without a preamp, using only minimal software gain attenuation. Another option for potential users searching for a minimalist solution could be attaching the Lindemann directly to a pair of powered speakers with gain controls, such as the Adam Artist 5x or PSI A-14M powered monitors.

The USB DAC 24/192 doesn’t come with a remote, but chances are you’ll never miss it. The only pushbutton on the front panel controls the input source, and if you have only one source, such as when the Lindemann is hooked up to your computer’s USB, even that button will remain untouched.

Unlike many USB DACs, which offer the option of a digital output, the Lindemann has only analog outputs, so it can’t be used as a USB-to-S/PDIF converter. While this may limit its appeal to some audiophiles looking for a USB converter as well as a DAC, it does keep things simple—it’s the analog out or nothing.

THE LINDEMANN SOUND

From the first time I heard the USB DAC 24/192 at CES I thought it was a very fine-sounding DAC. My experiences with the 24/192 at Casa Stone have done nothing to change this opinion. With a musical yet revealing character, the USB DAC 24/192 produces a large and well-defined three-dimensional soundstage that sounds neither digital nor analog—on good recordings it sounds like a microphone feed.

Early in the review I tethered the USB DAC 24/192 analog outputs to the April Music Eximus DP-1 DAC/PRE. This setup let me compare the Lindemann’s analog output to that of the Eximus DP-1. Since their USB interfaces are based on the same XMOS chipset I wasn’t exactly shocked to find that the two USB/ DAC sections had very similar sonic signatures when the Eximus DAC was set to 192/24 oversampling mode. The Eximus DP-1 delivered slightly better low-level resolution and dimensionality, but it had the advantage of one less interconnect in the signal chain. Both DACs also had a very similar harmonic balance and dynamic contrast when the DP-1 was in 192/24 mode.

When the DP-1 was set to non-oversampling native-rate processing the Lindemann USB DAC 24/192 sounded tighter with less harmonic bloom, but with more detail and low-level information. The fact that the differences between the Eximus DP-1’s three processing modes were greater than the differences between the Lindeman USB DAC 24/192 and the Eximus DP-1 in 192/24 processing mode tells you how similar to each other these two DACs can sound.

Putting an $1100 DAC against a $3500 one would not be considered a fair fight under most circumstances, but to give you an idea of how well the Lindemann DAC performs, that is its competition. The April Music DP-1 DAC PRE has a lot more ergonomic flexibility with its excellent built-in headphone amp, pure analog pass-throughs, and high-quality analog volume control, but based solely on sonic performance the Lindemann USB DAC 24/192 is certainly on the DP-1’s level.

Since many users will also be hooking up an S/PDIF source to the Lindemann USB DAC 24/192, I spent time listening to music through the S/PDIF input. To supply the S/PDIF I used the Human Audio Tabla converter ($995), which utilizes the M2Tech HiFace as the basis for its USB conversion. With its built-in battery power supply and automatic charging via USB, the Tabla doesn’t complicate the computer-audio grounding scheme, thereby reducing the chance of ground loops affecting the sound quality. Using the Tabla also let me compare the Lindemann’s XMOS USB solution with Human Audio’s M2Tech HiFace.

On Alexis Harte’s song, “Please Come Out” from his Six Spoons of Honey album, the similarities between the Human Audio USB interface and the Lindemann USB DAC 24/192 were far greater than the differences. Both created equally large, well- focused, and three-dimensional soundstages. After more than a half hour of going back and forth, the primary difference I heard between the two USB solutions was ever-so-slightly better solidity and fine detail through the Human Audio Tabla USB interface.

On my live concert recording of the Boulder Philharmonic performance of Ruby Fulton’s “Deadlock,” the sonic differences between the two USB interfaces were miniscule. During the beat-box solo passages I was impressed by the Lindemann DAC’s harmonic neutrality and the analog section’s transparency. Together they did a superb job of accurately rendering the dimensionality and dynamics of the live-to-DSD recorded performance.