I first met Light Harmonic’s chief designer Larry Ho in Atlanta at the AXPONA show, back in 2011. Of all the nifty bits I ran across that day, a few stood out, but the most striking was clearly his Darth Vader DAC.
Maybe it didn’t really look like Darth Vader. Maybe it just evoked the Dark Lord of the Sith. But you take my point—it was a striking design.
He laughed at me when I mentioned Lord Vader, and quickly pointed out why his brand-new DAC, which he was calling Da Vinci and not Darth Vader (for copyright reasons probably), had that angular chic: I was looking at two distinct chassis, stacked in such a way that they could save space, eliminate the extra circuitry and external cabling that a separate chassis required, and still reap all the benefits that physical separation grants. All I heard was “it rotates,” and I think I spent far too many minutes slowly pivoting the chassis top, which houses all the delicate conversion circuitry, back and forth over the power supply that sits in the lower box. You’ll forgive me (and hopefully Larry will too) when I tell you that you really ought to try this out at the next audio show. It’s a remarkable bit of machining, and the slip-snick as the top rotates is a bit akin to fondling the bezel of a Rolex. Slip-snick. Slip-snick. Slip-snick...I think I might have hypnotized myself a little bit there. Anyway, the Da Vinci definitely made an impression but it would be another two years before I got the chance to get up-close and personal.
Just so you know, the Da Vinci will play all of the standard, run-of-the-mill lossy and lossless computer audio files like WAV, FLAC, and AIFF at all the standard sampling rates, including 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, and 192kHz, across all inputs, which include a single USB-B interface, as well as AES/EBU and SPDIF. In a bit of foreshadowing, it’s the USB input that gets a bit of a bonus—the sampling there can also accept 352.8kHz and 384kHz files. And that, my friends, is pretty cool.
At $20,000, the Da Vinci sits at the bottom of the ladder of Light Harmonic’s scale. Sort of (we’ll get back to that). One level up sits the DaVinci Dual DAC, an externally-identical box that adds the ability to decode DSD and double-DSD files along a completely separated and isolated path, which is the only way that the Light Harmonic team felt that DSD could be implemented without seriously compromising the sound. Two DACs, two paths, one chassis, $31,000. And at the very top of the heap? The just-announced Sire DAC, at $120,000, will compete with the very best on offer, and represents Light Harmonic’s full-out, no-holds-barred assault on the high end.
An intimidating ladder, I’ll admit it.
But for those of you prone to skipping ahead, let me completely spoil the surprise. The Da Vinci DAC is the best all-around performer I’ve yet heard. It isn’t inexpensive and its looks will raise eyebrows, but the sound it’s capable of weaving is the most comprehensively compelling I’ve yet heard out of my home system. Full stop. Done.
Listening to Da Vinci
So, let’s be different and start squarely in the middle, with this: What do you listen for when auditioning a DAC?
Me, I tend to look for a couple of things. Maybe not first on the list, but somewhere near might be whether there’s a sense of depth. A lack here covers a variety of sins—clarity and detail, for examples. When I’m truly happy with a DAC, it’s usually due to the sense that I can hear “more deeply” into a recording. Playback that’s two-dimensional, with a soundstage that’s abbreviated in any number of ways, is fairly common, and leaves me feeling like I’m peering through a window. This is something that’s easy to get used to rather quickly, but a component can make that view more or less immersive, more or less immediate. This is where I start thinking about “veils” and whether or not they’ve been added or removed. Now, once in a great while, so many of these obstructions get removed that the hyperbolic in me tends to reach for something overblown. Like, say, imagining that the system has suddenly taken a sledgehammer to the window, removing it entirely, and providing something more direct in the way of a personal experience. Sometimes, hyperbole is really the only way to get across the fact that something is different. Really different. I guess it won’t come as a shock that I’m going to paint the Da Vinci as one of those things.
Take an excellent recording, like the shockingly clean Stockfish release of Chris Jones’ Roadhouses and Automobiles. I use the title track not for the music anymore because, quite frankly, I’ve played it so many times it makes my skin crawl, but instead for some of the sonic trickery embedded in the mix. To wit, there be bugs. Played back on a resolving system, you can quite distinctly hear crickets in the opening and closing sequences on the first track. I have no idea why, but they’re there. I’ve heard this odd bit of detail through many systems (and not heard it through more), and I’ve used it for a while now as a first-level barometer of how well a system can resolve detail in the soundstage. So, I ask: “Does the [insert component here] pass ‘The Cricket Test’?”