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
Digital-to-analog converters
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


For a good part of the review period the Music Cable DAC was connected to a stock Logitech Touch music server. I also used the Music Cable coupled to a Lexicon RT-10 universal transport, Oppo BDP-95 universal player, and Meridian 598 DVD/CD transport. Since the Music Cable can only support one input I suspect that most users will want to hook it up to a music server or computer-audio source (for this a USB/SPDIF converter box may be needed) for maximum ergonomic ease.

The first A/B test I conducted after almost a month of break-in time was with the Wyred4Sound DAC II. Since the Logitech Touch has two digital outputs I could use the S/PDIF for the Synergistic Research Music Cable DAC and the TosLink connected to the Wyred4Sound DAC II. Obviously this wasn’t a completely fair test since the Wyred4Sound was saddled with a higher-jitter TosLink connection, but because the Music Cable won’t accept TosLink it was my only option. At least both DACs had the same Synergistic Research Active Tungsten interconnects between the DACs and my Parasound P-7 preamp. For those who think comparing a $3600 DAC to a $1500 one isn’t a fair comparison, remember that with the $2000 Synergistic Research interconnect the Wyred4Sound combo comes to just under $3500.

Hooked up to the Squeezebox Touch the Synergistic Research Music Cable produced a noticeably more three-dimensional image than the Wyred4 Sound DAC II. Both DACs delivered equal amounts of detail, but the Music Cable’s increased dimensionality located small details more incisively within the soundstage. Harmonic balance differences were miniscule, with the Music Cable delivering a slightly more relaxed and less mechanical presentation.

To see how much the source quality had to do with the sonic differences I heard, I did additional listening tests using the Lexicon RT-10 transport. Once more the Music Cable got the S/ PDIF output, but this time the Wyred4Sound got an AES/EBU signal feed. Based on my tests when I reviewed the RT-10 many moons ago, the AES/EBU was the RT-10’s best-quality digital output. Once more the Music Cable produced its usual remarkably three-dimensional soundstage. But unlike the first test, here the Wyred4Sound’s soundstage wasn’t left as far behind—in fact on some material such as the MA recordings Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—Works from His Golden Age—Yoko Kaneko: Fortepiano I was unable to distinguish between the two DACs in matched-level tests. As a control I also listened to the analog output from the RT-10. After I reduced its output to match the two DACs output levels I was surprised to find how close it came in performance. Only in depth recreation did the Music Cable deliver noticeably superior results. On another MA Recordings release, Nima Ben David—Resonance, all three conveyed the same excellent transient response and immediacy of Ben David’s viola de gamba. But the Music Cable preserved the best sense of depth and room bloom. The Wyred4Sound DAC II made the room seem slightly smaller, as if the back wall had been moved forward by ten or fifteen feet. The Lexicon RT-10 had the least depth, but wasn’t too far behind the Wyred4Sound DAC II.

On some material I couldn’t hear any discernable sonic differences between the Synergistic Research Research Music Cable and the Wyred4Sound DAC II—specifically Kelly Joe Phelps’ Brother Sinner & the Whale. Both DACs did a superb job of capturing the grit in Kelly Joe’s voice without adding any electronic grain or grit to the sound. Both also preserved the subtle dynamic nuances of Kelly Joe’s fingerpicked resonator- style acoustic guitar. Finally, both DACS provided an equal number of spatial cues and the same degree of precise lateral focus.

For a third round of A/B CD-source tests I used my own live concert recordings of the Boulder Philharmonic, down-sampled from DSD to a Red Book 44.1/16 CDR. Once more the Music Cable displayed the best spatial reproduction. The soloists in the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello were more firmly anchored in space and had a greater feeling of solidity and mass through the Music Cable than from the Wyred4Sound DAC II.

For my last listening tests I went back to the Squeezebox Touch, but with higher-resolution 96/24 and 192/24 music files (yes, the Squeezebox Touch supports 192/24 with the addition of a third-party app, available directly from the Squeezebox’s own internal menus). I used the same Boulder Philharmonic recording, but this time it was only down-sampled to 96/24 and 192/24. Again the Synergistic Research Music Cable created a more convincing and dimensional soundstage. On the Frank Zappa composition, “Be-Bop Tango,” recorded in 2010, the Music Cable’s superior depth recreation was readily apparent, especially during the contrapuntal final passages when the music became rock-n-roll frenzied.

For 192/24 sources A/B comparisons I had to do a manual disconnect, and reconnect the S/PDIF cables from the back of the Squeezebox Touch because the TosLink connection doesn’t support 192 (96k limit). While this was less than ideal due to the lag-time during the changeovers, I still found that the Synergistic Research Music Cable DAC had slightly better depth recreation. The difference was not as pronounced as when the Wyred4Sound was getting a TosLink feed, but it was still noticeable.