During the years that J. Gordon Holt and I made recordings together he often complained about the lack of “pro” audio gear being reviewed in consumer audio publications. Many times he found a particular piece of gear that he wanted to review, but because it was sold and marketed principally to professional audio engineers, it was deemed by his editors to be inappropriate. He found this so irritating that he didn’t write as many reviews in his later years as he might have, if given freer rein. Gordon’s last reference speakers, the ATC SC- 40s, were just such a “prosumer” product.
Flash forward ten years; computer audio has reduced the gap between pro and consumer gear to the point where they are almost interchangeable. This convergence of current-generation consumer and pro gear is a result of parallel technical paths. The latest computer-audio pro and consumer products employ the same DACs, software/firmware solutions, and circuit-topology concepts. Nowadays differences in input/output options, routing flexibility, and cosmetics have become the primary differentiators separating pro from consumer devices.
The latest generations of state-of-the-art DAC chips from Cirrus logic, Wolfson, and Ess have the built-in capability to natively support the DSD format. The first DACs to utilize this added capability are from companies whose prime focus has been the pro market: Mytek, Benchmark, and Lynx. But the $1595 Mytek Stereo192-DSD-DAC, $1995 Benchmark DAC2 HGC, and $2495 Lynx Hilo all bridge the gap between pro and consumer so completely that, except for where they are purchased, the difference is moot. I have no doubt that this would have pleased J. Gordon Holt immensely.
The Mytek Stereo192-DSD-DAC
Manufactured in Poland, the Mytek Stereo192-DSD-DAC was designed by Michal Jurewicz, who is also the founder of Mytek Digital. Mytek opened its doors in 1992, and its first products were A/Ds and D/As for the pro recording market. According to one of Mytek’s background papers, “The ADCs and DACs prototypes designed by Michal have been used to record many now classic albums of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Mariah Carey, James Taylor, B52’s, and many more.” In 2005 Jurewicz was commissioned to design a DSD master-recorder for Sony’s SACD division. And while SACD’s moment in the audio sun was distressingly brief, the experience put Jurewicz in an ideal position to make a DAC/pre that supports DSD.
The Mytek Stereo192-DSD-DAC comes in three versions. The differences involve ergonomics and cosmetics. Fortunately for consumers, all three have the same price. The “standard” version is available in two finishes, silver and black. The black- chassis 192-DSD-DAC has front-panel volume-level LEDs below the LCD panel, while the silver version has none. Input and output options on the black and silver 192s are identical. The “Mastering” Stereo192-DSD-DAC has a front panel similar to the black standard version, but instead of an analog pass- through it substitutes a dedicated DSD input for 128x (5.6MHz) files (currently only accessible by a PC-based computer). For audiophiles who want to use an analog source, the standard version with its analog inputs will be the more useful option. Having the “idiot light” level-meter LEDs on the front panel makes the blackface version my preference over the silver face.
Mytek sent me two Stereo192-DSD-DACs, a black standard as well as a mastering version. For the review I used the standard version. I did listen to the mastering version near the end of the review period, primarily to see if the 400-plus hours of playing time I had put on the standard version had any effect on the sound compared to a brand-new unit with no playing time. There was a profound difference. The unused mastering version had a midrange glare and harder edge that was not present in the broken-in sample. Anyone evaluating a Mytek Stereo192-DSD-DAC that has not been thoroughly broken-in hasn’t really heard how a Mytek Stereo192-DSD-DAC can sound. I recommend at least 200 hours with an active signal. I left my review sample tethered to a Logitech Duet tuned to my local public radio’s Internet feed for nearly two weeks before I placed it into my desktop system.
Setup and Day-to-Day use
Installing the Mytek Stereo192-DSD-DAC in my desktop system was easy and straightforward. It has a single pair of balanced XLR outputs as well as a single RCA single-ended output. The balanced output went to my power amplifier while the unbalanced output went to both a Stax SRM-007T headphone amplifier and Velodyne DD10+ subwoofer. The Mytek is unique among the three DAC/pre’s in this review because it has a FireWire input in addition to its USB inputs. I connected both the FireWire and USB connections from my computer as well as a s/PDIF feed from an Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 5 USB to s/PDIF converter.
The Stereo192-DSD-DAC has two USB inputs, one for 1.0 USB and the other for 2.0. For both Macs and PCs you need to download and install a driver to support USB 2.0. If you don’t have the proper driver, you can use the 1.0 USB input sans driver. Given how easy it was to install the Mytek driver, I can’t think of any reason besides being completely cut off from the Internet for not downloading and installing the Mytek drivers. Once USB and FireWire drivers were installed, both the USB 2.0 and FireWire outputs were recognized and visible in my Mac’s Audio MIDI control panel.
The Mytek’s front panel has only one knob, three pushbuttons, a 3" by 1⁄2" LED front-panel display, a 1⁄4" stereo headphone output, and an on/off switch. The knob does quadruple-duty, serving as an independent volume control for both rear-panel outputs as well as for the headphone level. Also by pushing the volume control in slightly it converts to a mode selector that turns to select different options within each mode. A push while in a mode selects whichever choice is displayed in the front panel LED read-out. This multi-function control-design does require some “user training.” But after using the Stereo192-DSD-DAC exclusively for a week or so the logic of Mytek’s nested menu options becomes second nature. The Stereo192-DSD-DAC also supports a remote control, an Apple remote to be exact. Any Apple remote can be coupled to the Stereo192-DSD-DAC, as can an RC-5-style universal remote. Two of the small buttons on the front panel are function buttons. They are both user- programmable to serve as a specific input selector, a mute, a phase inversion select, a mono select, an l-R select, an M/s decode, or for instant -20dB volume reduction.
Unlike many DAC/preamps which have their volume controls for the headphone and main outputs ganged together, the Mytek supports separate volume control adjustments from a single volume knob. Merely push in the knob to switch from headphones to line level. The front panel LED displays a -99 to -0 volume scale, making it easy to see exactly what your volume level is at a glance. It also makes matched-level A/B comparisons easy and accurate. If you already have a line-level analog preamp, you can set the Mytek Stereo192-DSD-DAC for fixed-level analog output.
The only control on the front panel that I did not find of value was the on/off switch. Every device needs an on/off switch, right? True, but perhaps a smaller or rear-mounted on/off would have been better. Why? Because when the Mytek is turned on or off it emits a rather loud transient thump. Obviously, best practices indicate that you should always turn your power amplifier and subwoofer on last, and turn them off first. This will eliminate the possibility of the turn-on and turn-off noise damaging anything downstream from the 192-DSD-DAC. But, “things happen.” The DAC/pre’s in my desktop system are situated below my desk at approximately knee height. Several times during the review my knee came in contact with the on/ off switch. The results were loud and not pretty. Also, once during the review I had a power outage and my power amplifier exhausted its power reserves, generating a prodigious thump. Knowing “best practices” and being able to employ them in the real world are two different things.