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
|
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

THE NUFORCE SOUND

The NuForce sound, or should I say lack of it, came as a pleasant surprise. I installed the DAC-100 just after reviewing the Lindemann USB 24/192 DAC. The first A/B comparison test I performed was with these two DACs running into the analog inputs of the April Music Eximus DP-1 DAC/PRE. After critically matching the output levels I was flummoxed to discover that I couldn’t reliably identify one from the other. Both did a superb job of preserving all the subtle soundstage cues and both had equally expansive soundstages. Since they are priced within $5 of each other, if I were forced to choose I would make my decision based on their ergonomics rather than sound quality. If I already had a good analog preamp I’d opt for the Lindemann, but if I didn’t own a preamp I’d chose the NuForce DAC-100.

Obviously the NuForce DAC-100 is sonically competitive with similarly priced DACs, but how does it rate verses higher-price DACS? I couldn’t do any real-time A/B switches, since testing involved disconnecting and reconnecting interconnects, but after several hours of listening I could reliably identify several sonic differences between the DAC-100 and the April Music Eximus DP-1. First the DP-1 had slightly better low-level detail. In my live DSD recording of The Deadly Gentlemen from Salina Schoolhouse, mandolinist Domenic Leslie turns to fiddle player Mike Barnett and says, “I’ll take the low part.” It’s easier to make out not only his words, but the direction he’s facing through the DP-1 than the DAC-100. Also the DAC-100’s soundstage is not quite as deep or three-dimensional as the DP-1. All the players seem to be closer to the wall behind them through the DAC-100.

To discover how good the DAC-100’s USB implementation was I set up another A/B test, this time with the Human Audio Tabla USB interface box. I attached the Human Audio Tabla’s S/PDIF output to one of the DAC-100’s two S/PDIF inputs and used Audirvana Plus for playback because it has the fastest switchover between output devices. Once levels were matched I found it impossible to tell which input I was using. While one test isn't enough for me to state conclusively that the DAC-100’s USB implementation is equal to the

Tabla, I can confidently say that adding an external USB interface did nothing to improve the DAC-100’s performance.

I spent quite a bit of time, especially early in the morning while my wife was still sleeping in the bedroom right over my office, listening to the DAC-100’s headphone output. With some headphones, such as the Grado RS-1 and AKG K-701, the DAC-100 headphone output is dead quiet. But with other headphones, such as the

Audio-Technica ATH W-3000ANV or the Sol Tracks HD, I could hear a faint low-level hiss. Fortunately the hiss didn’t get louder as the volume increased, but higher sensitivity earphones are more likely to have some background hiss from the DAC- 100’s headphone outputs.

A NUFORCE IN USB DACS

$1000 to $1200 seems to be a price that many manufacturers are aiming at with their latest high-performance USB-enabled DACs. NuForce’s entry at this hotly contested price point delivers excellent sound combined with a useful feature set, making it one of the DACs that should be on anyone’s “must audition” short list, if he’s in the market for an under-$1500 USB DAC.

SYNERGISTIC RESEARCH MUSIC CABLE DAC ($3599)

It takes a certain amount of nerve (or cluelessness) to write that a $3500 DAC with cables and a built-in power conditioner is a “value proposition.” But that’s exactly what the Synergistic Research Music Cable was designed to be. Synergistic Research practically gives you a 192/24-bit DAC for free with some of its very tricked-out cable. If you add up the cost for a 1-meter length of terminated Synergistic Research Active digital cable ($1000) and a 1-meter length of Synergistic Research Active Tungsten interconnects ($2000), a Powercell ($1250), Galeleo universal interconnect cells ($1500), and Precision A/C Basik power cord ($250), it comes to $6000, and that doesn’t even include a DAC. By anybody’s standards, getting $6000+ worth of stuff for only $3599 is a bargain.

THE SOUP-TO-NUTS SOLUTION

Setting up the Synergistic Research Music cable can be as simple as plugging one end into a digital source’s S/PDIF output and the other end into the analog inputs on your preamp. The Music Cable supports up to 192/24 data streams and will automatically detect and set its DAC for the proper data transfer. BNC devotees will be happy to discover that the Music Cable comes with a BNC termination. If your transport or media server uses RCA hardware for its S/PDIF output, you will need to use a BNC-to-RCA S/PDIF adapter.

There are no adjustments on the Music Cable except for a pair of interchangeable Galileo universal interconnect cells. These cells come in three varieties, black, grey and silver, and are designed to affect the overall balance of the system. Synergistic Research, or its dealers, can make suggestions as to which of the cells would be best for a particular system, but Synergistic Research encourages owners to try all three to determine their own preferences. My preference during the review varied more based on program material than basic system balance. Since switching the cells takes less than five seconds, using them as overall harmonic balance controls is about as easy as turning a knob or changing a low-hanging lightbulb.

I used the Music Cable DAC in a variety of computer-desktop and room-based systems. For computer use I needed to employ a USB-to-S/PDIF converter since the Music Cable accepts only S/PDIF. I used the Human Audio Tabla ($995) as well as the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 5 converter box when I employed USB sources. Synergistic Research makes a similarly priced USB- only version of the Music Cable, but it only supports up to 48/16 data files. And while I found its performance on Red Book and MP3s on a par with the S/PDIF version connected to the Tabla, (that was the conversion box I used for the A/B), its lack of support for higher bit-rates makes it less of a future-proof high- value purchase than the S/PDIF version.

During the review I only came across one compatibility issue. When connected to my MacPro system the Music Cable produced a low-level, but audible, hum at normal listening levels, on the right channel only. By repositioning the Music Cable I could lower the hum level, but I could never get the unit far enough away from whatever in the system that was causing the hum to eliminate it completely. None of my other computer- or room-based systems produced a similar problem. In every other system the Music Cable was dead quiet.