This is the third time I will have reviewed a digital component containing the 32 bit ESS Sabre chip. The first was designed by ESS. Parts were mounted on an acrylic board. The review appeared sometime last year. The second was the OPPO 83 SE which was reviewed this year. There are at least two other DACs of which I am aware which implement the 32 bit Sabre chip, namely, the Buffalo DAC and Wyred for Sound, version II. There is another company which manufacturers 32 bit chips, namely, Wolfson. However, I am not familiar with any DACs using such a chip.
A significant difference between the Eastern Electric DAC and others is the presence of a tube. The salient parts which account for differences in sound between DACs include power supply, capacitors, OP-AMPs, clock and wiring. I will be mentioning specifics about all but the clock a little later on.
It would be useful to ascertain the contribution, quantitatively , of each of the aforementioned parts upon the sound of a DAC. This is mathematically/statistically almost an impossible task, and perhaps of marginal interest to audiophiles. Since there are other parts than a chip which account for differences in sound, a higher resolution chip (32 bits) does not ensure sonic superiority.
The Mini Max DAC is versatile in that it includes 5 digital inputs, a phase switch and an option for tube and/or solid state operation. In addition, it has an IEC facilitating the acceptance of after market power cords.
The following information does not appear on the website:
Wiring: PVB, gold plated copper, while internal wiring is tinned copper
Caps: signal path–high quality audiophile grade Eastern Electric OEM film power supply–a mix Eastern Electric and Nichicon
OP-AMPS: National Semi Conductor
Power Supply: A mix of regulated ICs caps and chokes, supplied by companies such as Texas Instruments, National Semi Conductor and other top manufacturers. This is not a switching type.
Tube Circuit: gain stage, not a buffer stage
Note, the output of the solid state circuit is 2,5 volts + or - .5 db, while the output of the tube circuit is 3 volts + or - .5 db.
When comparing the two circuits, it is advisable to use an SPL meter to equalize the gain between the two circuits. I found it necessary to use my Radio Shack SPL meter for this purpose.
The DAC was fed a continuous signal for over 200 hours prior to the review. In addition, I had to decide what digital and interconnect cable to use. As a rule I don’t discuss the selection process, rather, I append a list of components used as the end of the review under the heading “Associated Equipment”. In this case, by chance, I was comparing two pair of coax cables as well as two pair of analog interconnect cable, after the DAC was “burnt in”. Initially I compared a copper and silver digital cable. I also compared a copper and MAC Mystic cable, as well. I observed greater differences sonically between interconnect cable than between digital cable. Thus, I selected the Nagy’s silver digital cable.
My selection of the Mystics as the interface between DAC and passive preamp was based upon the difference in resolution between the two interconnects. I felt that it would be advantageous to use a cable which, in theory, would reveal more of the attributes of the DAC, yet, since I have found the MAC cables reasonable well balanced spectrally, I was not concerned with any problems in frequency response resulting from DAC preamp interaction.
Rarely do reviewers “justify “ their cable selection. I thought such a brief explanation would be useful for the reader.
I also replaced the Chinese 12au7 (stock) tube with a NOS 5814. I cannot identify the source as the writing on the tube has been rubbed off. In addition, I removed the stock power cord and replaced it with an EAR to EAR. This is typical of what I do, namely, replace stock parts whenever possible.
I listened to all recordings in the out-of-phase mode. Many recordings are out of phase, but I prefer this mode of listening.
As I often do, I begin a review with an audiophile staple, namely, Holly Cole, DON’T SMOKE IN BED, Alert Z2 81020, track 1. Through the solid state circuit, the acoustic bass was controlled and evinced a balance between strings and the body of the instrument. A close-miked voice can sound unpleasant and sibilant. The level of resolution revealed the proximity of voice to microphone, with a slight emphasis upon the word “see”. I have heard a greater emphasis upon that word in other contexts–in my own stereo system with other components , at CES shows and at the homes of fellow hobbyists. I would not consider the vocal production as sibilant because it does not exceed my subjective threshold for such a condition.
Staying in the small ensemble/single instrument genre, I selected Sophie Yates performance of a Scarlatti sonata, from the CD FANDANGO–SCARLATTI IN IBERIA, track 1, Chandos 06315. I started listening in the solid state mode. I noticed a slight veil affecting the clarity of the striking of strings, a slight obscuring of the harpsichord in that it was difficult to detect the woodiness of the instrument and a slight lessening in the ability to hear the release of the strings after they were plucked. In spite of these deficits, very small in magnitude, it was still easy to identify the instrument. Through the tube circuit, the aforementioned “errors” were ameliorated. The timbre of the harpsichord sounded more natural, there was less veiling and one could discern the release of the strings and body of the instrument.
The last instrumental selection was a guitar duet featuring John Williams and Julian Bream, from the CD TOGETHER, track 1, RCA 09026-61450-2. In this instance, no veiling was observed, in the solid state mode. The articulation of the strings sounded realistic, yet one could observe the wood body of the instrument. One could hear the movement of the fingers from fret to fret, as well as the release of the strings.
In contrast, the tube circuit produced a slight loss in resolution but a fuller sound. The guitar strings sounded thicker and the wood body assumed a greater presence. It is difficult to conjecture which version is closer to the data of the recording, because the recording is essentially, an unknown variable. Happily, owners of the DAC can have the best of both choices, by switching back and forth between the tube and solid state circuits and decide for themselves which they prefer and believe more closely represents the actual recording..
The last two selections represent recordings from the genre of larger ensembles — both orchestral. As the DAC is able to read the high-rez format I decided to select my only example of such a format, a Reference Recording HRx sampler from 2008, a DVR, 24/176.4 WAV file. I selected track 8, Rachmaninoff “Symphonic Dances”, movement 2, Eji Oui conducting the Minnesota Orchestra.
The sound of this DVR was unlike any recording of this piece I have ever heard. Unwittingly, I had left the setting of the DAC on “tube” and only determined this after I had listened to the selection. As has been previously indicated, I usually begin my comparison going through the solid state section.
I noticed a complete lack of congestion and spaciousness which reminded me of listening to an orchestra at a concert hall — quite impressive. Timbre had a you-are-there feeling, unlike any CD. I suspect a live performance, depending upon seat location, would sound different. Yet, what I hear reminded me more of a live orchestra than any LP of the same composition I have heard. I don’t want to appear to sound like an endorsement of this disc [I will. It is magnificent - Ed], but I suggest it may be worth the reader’s time and effort to obtain an Hrx sampler from Reference Recordings. I cannot assure anyone an experience totally congruent to mine, but it may be money well spent.
Through the solid state circuit there were some changes which detracted from the sense of liveness experienced through the tube circuit. First, the orchestra was a bit more forward and less spacious. Second, the timbre of instruments did not seem as natural as before. Perhaps one could apply the analogy of the attributes of classic solid state and classic tube sound to sum up the nature of the two versions. In spite of differences between the two modes, listening through the solid state circuit was still quite enjoyable.
The last selection was a classic performance of Offenbach’s “Gaite Parisienne”, track 1, conducted by Fiedler, from a JVCXRCD, JVCXR-0224-2. Through the solid state circuit, there was an absence of veiling, a realistic presence of acoustic basses and a balanced frequency response. The orchestra sounded full and ensembles were distinct. I observed no homogenization. The woodblock was positioned deep into the orchestra and the triangle, exhibiting sparkle without being etched,was in a more foreground position. However, the orchestra was a bit forward.
Through the tube circuit, there was slightly less focus, but the spectral balance was similar to what was experienced listening through the solid state circuit, with the exception of a greater emphasis upon the acoustic bass. There was slightly more depth, creating the effect of a greater distance between listener and musicians. Also, the triangle was a bit toned down, rounder and smoother. Spacing between triangle and woodblock seemed to be unchanged. My final thoughts appear below.
All serious listeners can be divided along a continuum. At one end is accuracy of reproduction. At the other, is accuracy of timbre. Let me explain.
Many audiophiles believe the pinnacle of sound requires reproducing the recording as accurately as possible. Since perfection is impossible, resolution is often a substitute objective in lieu of accuracy, provided the sound is not analytical or unpleasant.
At the other end of the continuum is “musicality”. The problem with this term is its imprecise definition and many connotations. I think those who favor “musicality” (production) would accept timbral accuracy instead — but that’s my opinion. Again, it is impossible to create perfection of timbre, so you do the best you can or create a sound that satisfies your preferences.
Another complication is the fact that the recording is not known by its owner and cannot serve as a benchmark to compare to the sound of a stereo system. Thus both “camps” face the problem of not knowing how erroneous they are in their pursuit of their respective goals.
Where does the MiniMax DAC fit into the continuum ?
I believe that regardless of the choice of circuit, a bit of resolution is given up. In its place listen ability or pleasantness is the trade-off. I did not ever experience thinness, harshness or edginess.
Thus I would say that this DAC in the context of my stereo system (see list of Associated Components), tends to be closer to the production end of the continuum rather than the reproduction end. Note, changing the interfaces from the DAC, such as cables and choice of tube manufacturer, may change the balance toward either side of the aforementioned continuum.
The DAC has the flexibility of incorporating all major digital inputs, as well as a phase switch. During the review, I relied on the coaxial input. I auditioned the fiber optic and AES/EBU before and after the review and the basic character of the stereo system did not change.
In addition, the alternative of solid state or tube outputs provides another opportunity to affect the performance of the DAC.
The entire package, including the acceptance of hi-rez formats, at a retail price of $750, would seem to generate competition for many DACs costing a lot more money.
Perhaps not as refined and not as resolving as my PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC (at 4 times the price), it is definitely more forgiving and perhaps, more suitable for many solid state systems.
Transport: PS Audio Perfect Wave
DAC: PS Audio Perfect Wave
Preamp: Bent TVC Passive
Amp: VTL Deluxe 120s
Interconnects: MAC Mystics
Speaker Cable: Ear to Ear
Power Cords: Ear to Ear, Western Electric copper
Speakers: QUAD ESL , Magnepan 1.6
Accessories: Room Tunes, Egg Crate Mattresses, Sound Fusion Sound Boosters, Chang ISO 64, PS Audio Juice Bar, PS Audio Ultimate Outlet , Nirvana Audio Isolation Transoformer, Larry Smith IDOS
The Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC
Morningstar Audio Imports, Inc.
44 East University Drive
Arlington Heights, IL 60004
Phone: (847) 255-1150
Fax: (847) 255-1878
Source: Manufacturer loan