Light Harmonic Da Vinci Digital-to-Analog Converter

The Vitruvian DAC

Equipment report
Categories:
Digital-to-analog converters
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Products:
Light Harmonic Da Vinci
Light Harmonic Da Vinci Digital-to-Analog Converter

About the USB cable. There isn’t one that ships with the DAC, but you’re obviously going to need one to use that input. I’m going to wave my hands at the “how can a USB cable make a difference” argument and simply state that it does and that the optional LightSpeed USB cable that Light Harmonic offers is the best I’ve heard. No, the differences are not huge, but this one is reliably good and full-frequency. There are two versions, one with the “client-side” connectors (USB-A) separated (power from signal) and one with them joined. I tried them both, and for my setup I found the separated-connector version to be preferable, though the difference was extremely subtle.

The Da Vinci has several digital inputs, USB, SPDIF and AES/EBU. I tried all three—especially that AES connector, as that’s what I use with my Berkeley Alpha DAC by way of the truly excellent Alpha USB-to AES/EBU converter. I’ve used that converter with every DAC that allows me to do so, and without fail, its addition dramatically improves the performance of every DAC I’ve attached it to. Tighter bass, airier highs, cleaner detail— the gains are almost always across the board.

Well, that was true until I used the Berkeley converter with the Da Vinci. Very clearly, the Da Vinci is to be used with the USB input. Yes, you can use whatever input you like, but the USB input is different. It uses the now-standard asynchronous mode, courtesy of the XMOS receiver chipset, and all the extra-special buffering and filtering is done on that interface, so bypassing it in favor of a “legacy” input is going to be a mistake, in my opinion. Better still, the on-board volume control options are restricted to the USB input, so if you have any curiosity at all about running this DAC directly into your amps, you’re stuck with the USB input anyway. It should be obvious, but as a safety precaution let me note that if you do set this up to run amp-direct from any signal sourced from the other inputs, the resulting volume will be at full scale (i.e., insanely loud).

Another curiosity has more to do with form driving function: Given that the shape just has to be this particular shape to meet the design goal of a non-resonant chassis that minimizes internal reflections also means that the readout/display is cocked upwards at a 45-degree angle, and unfortunately, it’s not a fancy-shmancy highly-visible OLED display like you’d find on the AURALiC Vega. If the DAC sits on the top of your three-shelf rack in order to show its sexy self off, you’re not going to be able to read the display from anything resembling a listening position. I solved this quite straightforwardly by placing the Da Vinci on the lowest shelf I had, and ta da! Done. This also gave me the side benefit of being able to use the included remote. Not that I really needed the remote. It doesn’t actually control the volume; other than muting, it’s really only for engaging features, and once you’ve set them you can pretty much put the remote back in the hulking Pelican crate everything came in.

Last bit on the amp-direct thing. I used the DAC in quite a few different setups, including without a preamp into both a single-ended tube amplifier from BorderPatrol and into balanced solid-state amplifiers from Vitus Audio, Pass Labs, and others. In general my systems tend to sound more transparent with no preamplifier, but I’m going to hesitate before universally and unequivocally calling that “better.” To be fair, I suppose it depends entirely on the preamplifier. I found that the DAC-only sound tended to be more open, with a larger soundstage and higher level of detail retrieval, than what I could manage with an external passive preamplifier, but with a very high-quality active preamp, the presentation could be more robust and muscular, with little degradation in the soundstage (and, perhaps, an even more extended, precise one). Where things got really interesting was in the evening, when un-restricted dynamics invoked wrath. Here, the Da Vinci-as-preamp excelled—detail, dynamics, and soundstage all maintained their characteristically high levels of performance even as I accommodated the schedules of my Little People, and did so well past the points I was able to achieve with my other two DAC references.

What I’m hinting at is that the amp-direct thing is most definitely worth exploring. If you’re like me and have an analog source that you have absolutely no intention of foregoing, then this is all moot, but if you’re looking to simplify with an all-digital setup (and assuming that the amplifier has enough gain), chances are that the Da Vinci, with a rather low 12 ohms output impedance and a 2-or 4-volt output, will likely not only drive your system fully and expertly, but could revolutionize it entirely.

A Question of Value
In a world of wildly escalating pricing and irrelevancy to anything resembling the “common consumer,” another $20,000 product isn’t terribly exciting. The problem with all this, as I see it, is a belief that audiophiles are only interested if products are at or beyond a certain price point, and titillating anecdotes aside, this is just crazy talk and may well be the leading cause of the decline of the industry as a whole. On the other hand, the high-end-audio industry is also the only one I know of that routinely prices and sells design concepts as if they were regular products. It’s as if Ford’s latest thinking about the future of automobiles, a design it called “Concept Future” and showed at the Detroit Auto Show, suddenly got a sticker price and an order queue. These cars aren’t meant to be daily-drivers (or even driven, in many cases), they’re just ideas that the company tests out to see what reaction they evoke. But in high-end audio, that’s exactly what happens with the “concept” components—they’re priced and positioned for sale, if only to the super-high-roller. Of course, there’s little to no expectation that these concepts will move a ton of volume, but as test-beds of nifty engineering or shiny design ideas, they’re superb. Case in point is what Light Harmonic has done with the Da Vinci. This DAC wasn’t conceived of as a built-to-a-price-point product. It was commercialized (eventually) in that it is currently priced in such a way as to make profit for the company, but it really started as Larry Ho’s statement of vision. The finished result told him many things about what a DAC platform can do, and that education led him to the 100-times-less-expensive Geek Out USB dongle—a soon-to-be-released DXD/double-DSD-capable headphone DAC/amplifier. It also told him things that his original design could not do, and that is leading to the 6-times more expensive Sire DAC.

The best a reviewer can hope for is to measure a product against his own references, for one, and to measure the product against the designer’s goals, for another. For me, the Da Vinci is clearly, unambiguously, and obviously superior to my personal references. At the risk of putting words in Larry’s mouth, I can still recall the giddy grin he wore the first time I met him, way back. He’s so obviously proud of what he’s put together that seeing his concepts made so stunningly, menacingly real has got to be a win. Of course, now that the Sire has been announced, I do wonder what it is he thinks he can do to top Da Vinci.

Anyway, if you want to take that as a measure of value, then so be it. But I won’t ever be able to tell you if the Da Vinci is “worth it” without a tediously detailed reference to my own, very personal calculus, and even if I could articulate that for you, the chances of it being meaningfully comprehended are slim. All I can offer is this: The Da Vinci DAC is an outstanding performer and I absolutely loved using it. When it left, it caused physical pain and a significant period of psychological withdrawal. I am still unhappy it is not here. And adding insult to injury, the Lotto Fairy is still not taking my calls.

Twenty-thousand dollars is a ton of dough. And that is for a product that has already been leapfrogged by the industry. DSD, like it or lump it, is the latest and stickiest buzzword, and any DAC that doesn’t support it requires significant justification. The Da Vinci does not support DSD and will not. Which may be a problem. Of course, it may not be, and I know that many of my colleagues are adamant that the format is as irrelevant as SACD was—and for exactly the same reasons. Me? I’m agnostic. I have several hundred DSD albums, but admittedly I’m weird. If you do not see yourself as ever needing or wanting to explore that format, then awesome.

The Da Vinci, then, occupies that rarest of the rare when it comes to high-end audio—the Exit Ramp. It may be that there is better, or more refined, or whatever, when it comes to digital-to-analog conversion, but I’m really not sure I’d bother as beyond this point on the price/performance curve jumps become so incremental that value becomes an entirely alien notion. For me, the Da Vinci marks new territory and is my new high-water mark for what can be done, at least with non-DSD source material. In short, I’ve never heard better. Very highly recommended.

SPECS & PRICING

Converter type: R-2R architecture with patentpending 3-layer buffer
Output levels: 2.05V unbalanced; 4.1V balanced
Digital inputs: One asynchronous USB 2.0 interface on standard USB-B connectors (will accept up to 32-bit PCM at 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192, 352.8, 384K S/s); one asynchronous AES / EBU on XLR connector (will accept up to 24-bit PCM at 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192kHz); one asynchronous SPDIF on one RCA phono connectors (will accept up to 24-bit PCM at 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192kHz)
Balanced outputs: One stereo pair on XLR connector
Unbalanced outputs: One stereo pair on RCA connector
THD +N (unweighted): Better than 0.0018%
Residual noise (unweighted): Better than –115dB @ 20Hz–20kHz
Residual noise (A-weighted): Better than –125dB @ 20Hz–20kHz
Crosstalk: -142dBFS @ 10kHz
Dimensions: 18.5" x 7.87" x 18.5"
Weight: 61 lbs.
Price: $20,000

Light Harmonic, LLC
3050 Fite Circle, Suite 112
Sacramento, CA 95827
(888) 842-5988

Associated Equipment

TIDAL Audio Contriva Diacera SE loudspeakers; Soulution 530 integrated amplifier; Vitus Audio RS-100 stereo amplifier; Vitus Audio RD-100 DAC/preamplifier; Pass Laboratories XA-100.5 monoblock amplifiers; Pass Laboratories XP-30 preamplifier; Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC and Alpha USB converter; Purist Audio Design’s Corvus Line cables and interconnects; Shunyata Hydra Triton power conditioner; isolation products from Symposium AV; DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 loudspeakers; BorderPatrol S10 EXD SET stereo amplifier; BorderPatrol Control Unit EXD preamplifier; Auralic VEGA DAC; signal cables from MG Audio Design; power cables from Triode Wire Labs; Silver Circle Tchaik 6 power conditioner; isolation products from Symposium AV; MacBook Pro used as a media server, configured with Audirvana; media files on external FireWire 800 hard drive

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