PrimaLuna Evo 100 DAC

Tube Magic

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters
PrimaLuna Evo 100 DAC

Setup and Use
Mindful that the Evo 100 is a tube unit, I placed it on a shelf on my equipment rack with ample ventilation. I connected it to my linestage via unbalanced High Fidelity Cables CT-1 Ultimate interconnects, and to my AC wall socket via the stock power cord. The cord appeared sturdy but not particularly distinctive, but my policy is to use the supplied cord unless the manufacturer says otherwise. An Audience Au24 SE USB cable connected my digital source, a Dell Latitude E6330 laptop computer running 64-bit Windows 10 Professional and Roon version 1.6 software, to the DAC. 

I was prepared to put on the supplied white gloves and install the tubes when I received the Tube DAC, but they came already installed in the proper sockets. I just plugged in the USB input cable and RCA output cables, along with the power cord, and the Evo 100 was ready to play. The DAC had been broken in already, but I played it a few days to be sure it had settled in after shipment. The DAC, which appeared to be sturdily built, was surprisingly heavy at 28.7 lbs. Fit and finish were fine, but the unit looked a little rustic compared to some highly styled and much more expensive components (in my opinion). Since I favor simplicity in styling, I rather liked the Evo 100’s appearance. It seemed right at home on my equipment rack.

I used Roon as the playback software on my computer, and it worked just fine with the Evo 100. I didn’t need to install a driver for my Windows 10 operating system; Roon recognized the DAC as soon as it was turned on. I just had to name it and enable it in Roon’s setup for it to be available to play. I also specified a maximum PCM sampling rate of 192kHz and DSD maximum of DSD128. So when I tried to play a DXD file or a DSD256 file, Roon resampled the file to 176.4kHz or DSD128, respectively, both formats within the capability of the Evo 100. In other words, it played both files, although at a slightly reduced sampling rate. Audibly, I heard the music play without a glitch, even though it did so at the reduced sampling rate. Can you hear the difference? I couldn’t.  

What makes a component sound exciting? Is it the ability to reveal new levels of detail in familiar recordings, or the ability to extend the frequency range so that bass goes lower and treble higher, or maybe the ability to paint the soundscape with an increasingly accurate harmonic brush? For me, it’s the ability of a component to portray dynamics correctly. I don’t mean a component should be able to play really loud and really soft—most can do that easily. No, I mean that the component has to be able to play at all levels between super-loud and super-soft, and to reach those levels, if not instantaneously, then at least really fast. Some have called that capability pace, rhythm, and timing, or PRaT for short, but it’s really the ability to swing the dynamic output rapidly. It only takes one component in a system to screw up accurate dynamics. It can be your DAC, your turntable, your speakers—or anything else.

All this trivia flitted through my mind when I fired up the tube DAC, because the first thing I noted was that it sounded exciting. I’ve found that, unless a designer does some strange things in the digital section, a DAC’s sound is largely affected by its analog section. The Evo 100’s designers have lots of experience designing tube analog circuits, and it shows. The robust power supply enables powerful (or tiny) level changes without strain, and fast enough to sound realistic. While some components make volume levels sound like a series of stepped loudnesses, the Evo 100’s dynamic levels are continuous—like real music. On the album La Folia 1490-1701 (an AIFF rip from Alia Vox AFA 9805), the piece “Folia Rodrigo Martinez,” played by Jordi Savall and his band of Renaissance specialists, romped through this reconstructed ancient piece like it was new, changing both volume levels and tempos (speed) continuously. The Evo 100 tracked volume and speed effortlessly, enhancing my appreciation of this intensely energetic piece from 1490. The individual whacks on the cascabels (sleigh bells) which open the piece were slightly less distinct than with some DACs, although they were hardly identical. Bass was not only deep but detailed. Instruments were portrayed with tremendous resolution and tonal truthfulness. The wood block and castanets were audible throughout the piece (some DACs mush them together into a background blur). The urgency and flow of the performance suggested the performers were having a great time. I credit the DAC’s robust power supply for making this easy to hear.

Energetic is not usually my first reaction to Shelby Lynne’s cover of “Just a Little Lovin,’” the title track from her album (DSD 64/DSF, Acoustic Sounds) of Dusty Springfield covers. But the Evo 100 added an extra dollop of energy, prompting me to think of that description. Percussion instruments in the opening bars had extra transient snap and detail that enhanced their realism, while the kick drum had plenty of impact. Lynne’s voice seemed to have gained a bit of dynamic expansiveness, thus making it more alive-sounding. 

I’ve become very fond of “Snilla Patea” by Bjørn Kåre Odde, who expertly plays a solo fiddle in the recording. The Schola Cantorum chorus under the leadership of Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl starts out in an accompanying role, moves into the forefront, then sinks back into its original role as the fiddle retakes the lead. The Evo 100 tracked all these changes effortlessly. It also made Odde’s fiddle sound timbrally and texturally convincing, with no hint of stridency. 

An old audiophile fave is Rebecca Pigeon’s The Raven, with the track “Spanish Harlem” perhaps being the most familiar. The Evo 100 played it with its accustomed purity, but also revealed that Pigeon’s tone was a bit uneven as she progresses through the song. There’s just a smidgen of excess breathiness, but no treble emphasis or peakiness to the reproduction.

I enjoy the album Nordic Noir, with Mari Samuelsen on solo violin, her brother Håkon on cello, and the Trondheim Soloists because it consists of mostly tranquil, peaceful music from Nordic composers, at least until it reaches Arvo Pärt’s “Darf ich’” where Samuelsen’s violin shrieks as if in pain. The Evo 100 powerfully portrayed the distressed violin part with no strain, no distortion. On calmer parts (most of the rest of the release), dynamic variation was still preserved. Music doesn’t have to be loud to be communicative, but you need a DAC capable of dynamic distinction to fully appreciate it. Most any DAC can distinguish between loud and soft music; not all distinguish between soft and slightly softer as well as the Tube DAC.