Imagine for a moment that you own a “previous-generation” CD player (that is the polite term, I believe). It still spins discs perfectly well, but you’ve watched in dismay as DAC technology advanced apace, ever larger numbers appearing on the faceplate of successive new models. Well, if you haven’t been paying attention, the good news is that you can now get a taste of the latest conversion technology for a whole lot less money than you might expect – and your options don’t end there either.
I refer, of course, to the proliferation of budget DACs coming out of China. While ugly rumours of substandard build quality, pirated designs and fake audiophile parts have continued to circulate, these appear to be confined to ‘grey imports’ sourced directly from Asia – anyone purchasing from a legitimate distributor has little to fear, though purchasers of second-hand gear should be cautious. The online buzz surrounding these DACs has been very positive; on the other hand, most of this has come from computer audio and headphone users. Would their findings hold good for conventional 2-channel stereo systems?
Furthermore, the claim made by the latest 24-bit/192kHz converters to inheritance of the digital playback throne by lineal descent has come under challenge from a new breed of non-oversampling (NOS) DACs. In a strange mirroring of the tube and vinyl revivals, this approach employs 16-bit converter chips from digital’s distant past in a variety of configurations; its standard bearer the legendary Zanden player (see also Roy Harris’ recent review of the Sigtone Shek D2. Ed). Like most trends in audio, opinions have been firmly divided on its merits. Clearly we have some questions to answer here.
My test bed was to be a Pioneer PD-S904 player; a dozen years old but time has not wearied her and, to be honest, we’ve grown rather fond of each other. Much lauded in its day, it still sounds surprisingly good with a big soundstage, impressive transparency and a dynamic, pacy presentation that never fails to engage. On the other hand, complex material reveals a lack of ultimate resolution and it errs toward tonal leanness/hardness on some programme. Endowed with Pioneer’s renowned “Stable Platter” mechanism (as used by Wadia, among others), it can be expected to perform well as a dedicated transport; sadly, the version of the machine sold in the Southern hemisphere provides only an optical digital output, so I was restricted to using this for the comparison to remain valid.
While searching for suitable devices aimed squarely at the purist audiophile (ie. omitting USB inputs, variable outputs, headphone sockets etc.), I happened across a relatively local online vendor previously unknown to me – Coem Audio in Brisbane, Australia – who were happy to supply a Zhaolu D3 oversampling DAC, plus a modified NOS device of comparable price, on a 30-day sale-or-return basis. That was a deal I found easy to accept … gentlemen, start your engines!
LiTe DAC-AH with COEM Audio Mk II Modifications
This DAC employs no less than eight TDA1543 converter chips, biased to their maximum 8V operating limit and thus requiring the assistance of a row of dinky heatsinks (which had a cuteness factor approaching that of babies’ socks!) – all of which panders unerringly to my audiophile instinct for excess. A pair of impressive-looking output capacitors are substituted for the original op-amps, resulting in a marginally reduced output level of 1.76V; appropriate adjustments were made during auditioning. Rather than labour the technical description, I’d refer those interested to the company’s website. Internally, the soldering and layout were very neat; at a price of AU$400 (roughly US$350, given the current weakness of the greenback), the AU$145 premium over the standard device appears fully justified. Facilities are minimal – a coaxial (RCA) digital input, a Toslink optical input, a small toggle switch to select between them and a pair of gold-plated RCA analogue outputs. Its designer suggested that, based on the fact that this DAC does not reclock the digital datastream, the optical input should be inferior to coaxial – but both are provided, and I was unable to test the alternative.
While it will never be mistaken for a thing of beauty (hardly a realistic expectation at this price), the DAC-AH is solidly constructed and its small footprint (just 15×6.5×22cm WHD), discrete blue LED power indicator and restrained black/gold colour scheme allowed it to merge unobtrusively into my system when placed on a spare shelf in my rack. Mindful of the low retail price and the need to ensure a fair comparison, I made no effort to experiment with vibration isolation and exotic cables; my own Kimber interconnects and the basic Toslink optical interconnect and detachable mains cable supplied with the DAC being employed throughout.
While my preference is to leave all components (except power amps) permanently powered, the DAC-AH does not offer a standby mode and, in the oppressive heat and humidity of the Australian summer, tended to get worryingly hot while idling (though cooled down somewhat when passing a music signal). Coem Audio do not recommend this, suggesting that 10-15 minutes of warm-up is adequate. Although burned-in for a period of time by the vendors following modification, I gave it a further 3 days before critical listening commenced. Of course, impatience got the better of me and I did sneak a quick listen up front, on the basis of which I strongly recommend additional burn-in to any purchaser - the sound really did change significantly during that time, though further improvements were not apparent once testing began.
My approach to evaluating these DACs was to select 15 tracks covering a wide range of musical genres and varying standards of recording quality, all of which I know intimately well, and having played them in sequence additional tracks were utilised to explore specific aspects of each unit’s sound. Formal testing completed, I spent a while just living with each of them to see if my opinions changed with greater familiarity. As much as one tries to enter these things with an open mind, my research had conditioned me to expect some softness of tone and a loss of rhythmic impetus from a NOS converter. So it was a surprise when the sound immediately had an easy familiarity to it, with all of the qualities that I’d prized in the Pioneer player essentially preserved. The soundstage moved fractionally further away, though with no loss of height or width and an increase in the depth perspective. There was a clear improvement in detail resolution, especially the inner threads of complex music, though rather than draw attention to itself this was achieved in a subtle, organic fashion in keeping with its overall musicality – not the chrome-plated, ruthlessly delineated detail that some prefer. Bass instruments also assumed an unfamiliar quality, trading a degree of power and extension for a more spatially localised “plumminess”; this had an appealing authenticity to it, though the jury’s out on which should be considered more “correct”! While it seemed entirely appropriate to orchestral music, Stanley Clarke’s powerhouse Justice’s Groove lost some of its visceral impact.
The DAC-AH proved to be entirely even-handed across the wide variety of musical styles that I fed it, from the gentlest ballads and sonatas to the brutal sonic onslaught of Joe Satriani and Tool; a quality upon which I place a high value. That said, classical music was often particularly well served. In my experience, most moderately-priced systems and/or budget CD players (including the Pioneer) tend to spotlight the violins in the orchestral mix, whether by slightly excessive output or mild tonal hardness through that spectrum of the audio band. The DAC-AH restored a wonderful democracy to the orchestra, balancing its sections more evenly and sweetening the string tone just sufficiently – this harmonious balance was equally evident (and enjoyable) in smaller-scale chamber music. Another highlight was Ray Obiedo’s Castille; the open balance and naturally smooth, rich and forward sound of this modern jazz really brought out the best of the DAC-AH.
Of criticisms, I have remarkably few. I did sometimes sense a slight lack of the airiness and ambience that conveys the hall acoustic; equivalent reservations over a marginally shut-in treble in contemporary music recordings also appeared in my listening notes. Perhaps related, cymbals could seem a little splashier than usual, with less of a metallic edge. Both effects were very minor, and perhaps influenced by the fact that treble extension is not a great strength of my system to begin with. Throughout many hours of intense critical listening, I would occasionally think I’d identified a shortcoming in the DAC-AH’s sound – a politeness to its character, a mild loss of transparency, reduced rhythmic drive – only for the next track to firmly disabuse me of the notion. The theory behind NOS technology does concede potential problems in the timing domain, but ultimately I could not fault it here either; while not displaying the very overt rhythmic impetus of some components, it had no problem setting the toes tapping. It also clearly improved the aspects of the Pioneer’s sound that I’d felt had been wanting, smoothing out its occasionally grating tonal hardness but without removing the music’s rough edges where they existed. I would not consider its outright sound quality to threaten the finest modern players, which are simply able to offer a bit more of everything, but it was consistently impressive and, most importantly, offered a very balanced performance free of any obvious shortcomings. In the specific context of this test, that made it a conspicuous success.
Zhaolu D3 24/192 Oversampling DAC
Sporting a Crystal CS4398 DAC chip, and in its latest incarnation featuring factory upgrades to key capacitors and op-amps, the Zhaolu wears its audiophile pretensions on its sleeve. Solidly and thoughtfully constructed, the power transformer and smoothing capacitors are each separately screened from the digital circuitry, while touches like the rhodium-plated silver RCA sockets on the rear panel are unexpected in a device at this low price point. Featuring four digital inputs (2xRCA, Toslink and TG-link) selected from the front panel, an unexplained facility for setting the default selection sequence (the manual is in Chinese) and a single pair of RCA analogue outputs, this is still very much a minimalist device. Its output is specified at 2V, the standard for Red Book CD replay.
Measuring 25 x 6 x 28cm (WHD), it has a much larger footprint than the DAC-AH and is thus more likely to end up on display. Effort has been expended to provide a stylistic flourish, by slapping a contoured silver front plate on an otherwise featureless black box, but it serves mainly to make the DAC unnecessarily obtrusive – though, as aesthetic crimes go, the front panel graphics have it by a distance! Still, we’re audiophiles and it’s the sound that counts, right? In use, two annoyingly-bright red LEDs remain lit, and the ventilated case could get quite warm, though not to the point of causing concern. It was powered up for several days prior to use and fed a burn-in signal for much of that time, but still appeared to make further small gains during the first few days of auditioning.
The D3’s basic character asserted itself straight away, and I do mean asserted; its sound was immediately big, dramatic and highly transparent. Also apparent was increased resolution, music’s inner strands being more fully unravelled, their detail laid bare and presented with razor-sharp edge definition. Soundstage dimensions and image localisation were both impressive, though the slightly forward perspective did tend to diminish the perception of depth. The treble response was extended, with an open, airy feel that conveyed hall ambience well. Three persistent qualities pervaded everything that the Zhaolu did – tremendous power and extension in the bass (the word “seismic” appears more than once in my listening notes!); astonishing macro- and micro-dynamics, accomplished without the least sense of strain; and a compelling rhythmic drive, which provoked an involuntary chair boogie on anything remotely upbeat. In simple terms, the sound was bold, brash and in-your-face - nowhere in the Zhaolu’s vocabulary was the word “subtlety” to be found!
I freely admit, the sheer physicality of this DAC was initially very impressive. Though never at its best with classical music, most other genres benefited in some way from its supercharged delivery and fine resolution. Suffice to say, the honeymoon didn’t last long. As the novelty wore off, its relentless drive and overtly “hi-fi” presentation became fatiguing, while its lack of musicality steadily came to the fore. Tonal hardness throughout the presence range and an overemphasis on the leading edge of sounds robbed acoustic instruments (violins, flutes and guitars especially) of their timbral signatures, superimposing a slightly hollow or ‘nasal’ colouration. Where I’d previously lauded its drive and dynamics, I began to suspect that these qualities were being underpinned by excessive output across a wide band of frequencies, from the upper-mid bass to the low treble. That sounds strange, I know; but the subjective impression was that, wherever in the music I focussed my attention, there was just too much of everything. Ultimately, it came down to this; despite excellent transparency and several qualities that were admirable in isolation, at no time did the Zhaolu’s sound provide a convincing illusion of a real music event.
This outcome was disappointing and surprising, in view of the widespread praise that the D3 has enjoyed in online forums and the evident care taken in its construction. I cannot identify any obvious reason why it should be so; the device has simply not worked well in the context of my system. Based on what I heard, others may find it to be the antidote to a ‘dull’ system balance (though that is fairly rare in my experience), and it might also impress in lower-resolution systems, where the overt detail and dynamics could count for more than any issues with tonality. However, I must suspect that I have not heard the best the Zhaolu D3 can offer.
I came into this review with two simple questions foremost in my mind. Firstly, can these budget Chinese DACs offer genuine ‘audiophile’ performance? Based purely on what I heard, I do feel that the modified Lite DAC-AH deserves that epithet. Although not the last word in digital sound, it offered a lot of performance for the money. Secondly, what sonic signatures would the competing conversion technologies offer? Well, here I’m not convinced that the question has such a simple answer! When I hear good 24/192 players, I often note a mild emphasis on music’s architectural and rhythmic qualities – which is not to imply any consequent failing on the tonality side, though some would claim as much. COEM Audio’s NOS DAC arguably emphasised tonality over rhythmic drive, yet still its sound had more in common with a top flight 24/192 machine than did the Zhaolu D3. Perhaps the ingenuity of designers counts for more than the technology itself.
Although the Lite DAC-AH reviewed here contains modifications specific to Australia’s Coem Audio, the base device is widely available around the globe and has also been seen as a suitable platform for modification by a variety of vendors. Indications are that the Zhaolu too is well distributed, at a representative price of US$275 or so. I would encourage anyone looking to update an ageing player (with a digital output!) to investigate these devices for themselves … particularly where the safety net of a sale-or-return deal is available.
Finally, it would be remiss not to acknowledge COEM Audio’s assistance and all-round excellent service - thanks John!
Tracks from the following discs were primarily used for this assessment. Be warned that, among the sonic diamonds, are included a few cubic zirconia!
Talk Talk — The Colour of Spring, Missy Higgins –The Sound of White, Stanley Clarke — East River Drive, David Gray — A New Day at Midnight; Life in Slow Motion, Andreas Vollenweider — Caverna Magica; Down to the Moon, John Mayer — Heavier Things, Mozart — Clarinet Concerto K622 (Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Marriner), Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Salomon Quartet), Handel — Complete Violin Sonatas (Manze/Eggar), Vivaldi Concert for the Prince of Poland (AAM/Manze), Scott Cossu — Switchback, Windham Hill A Musical Exploration (sampler), Craig David — Slicker Than Your Average, Savage Garden — Savage Garden, Joe Satriani — The Electric Joe Satriani, Tool — 10,000 Days
Analogue: Linn LP12 / Lingo PS / Ittok LVII / Audio Technica OC30
Digital: Pioneer PD-S904 / Meridian 507
Amplification: Custom-built AC Magnum dual mono P200 pre and power
Speakers: Acoustat Spectra 1100 hybrid electrostatics
Cables: Kimber (various), van den Hul
Accessories: Target & Sound Organisation stands / RATA Torlyte, Aerolam & Mission shelves.
Distributed by Coem Audio
PO Box 366
QLD 4110 Australia
Daniel Chin - 0422 753 517
John Pham - 0431 582 396
Fax - 07 3103 4293
Price: US$350 LiTe DAC-AH
Price: US$275 Zhaolu D3
Source of review sample: Distributor loan
[Archived Review from 2006 - both DACs still current - Ed]