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Mr Underhill

R2R NOS DAC and DDC Mini-Bakeoff

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Introduction

Would love to have opened this up, but I only have a small living room.

Visited by Metatron and George47 yesterday, together with George's AudioNote (AN) 2.1, an AN4.1 he is currently sheltering and the Matrix SPDIF 2 that he recently reviewed.

I bought a Schiit Eitr and so we had a three way comparison between my current DDC, the SingXer F1, the Matrix and the Eitr.

The main aim was to repeat the get together a couple of weeks ago where we compared the AN2.1 and Border Patrol (BP) DACs in Metatron's system, but in mine.

My system (briefly):

USB Storage/StarTech/Raspberry Pi 3 powered by R-Core Chinese LPSU via LT3045
Sonore ultraRendu powered by R-Core Chinese LPSU via LT3045
DDC
DAC
EAR868/EAR534
Focal 1008be II

One thing I have been wrestling with for months is edge. I think there are a number of reasons for this and present in different, although similar, ways. I have made progress but this was again bothering me, especially as I thought I had more or less put it to bed a few weeks ago - this was a driving force behind trying the different DDCs. They made NO DIFFERENCE on the edge front, but something else did, which I will return to later.

We made up a review music list, which was modified over the day: See Appendix A.

The DDCs

Metatron was delayed so George and I initially compared the DDCs. My view:

F1
https://www.shenzhenaudio.com/singxer-f-1-xmos-usb-digital-interface-board-xu208-chip-high-end-u8-upgraded-version.html
Detailed.

Eitr
http://www.schiit.com/products/eitr
Detailed. Bit more weight to the intruments. Bass perhaps a touch better defined.

Matrix
http://www.matrix-digi.com/en/products/158/index.html
Wow. Detailed. Weighty presentation. Warmer. Excellent sound stage. More below.

The DAC comparisons were therefore done with the Matrix.

The DACs
The DAC comparison was obviously very straightforward: 4.1 > 2.1 > BP. Actually ......no.

I bought the Border Patrol having done long comparisons with the Bel Canto DAC 3.5vb, Schiit Yggdrasil and the Lampizator L4G5. All are good DACs but their presentations will suit different tastes and systems. For me the BP wasn't as detailed as the Yggy, or as euphonic as the Lampizator, but it communicated music in a joy filled and enthusiastic fashion that I find extends any music listening session.

Listening to the AN2.1 at Metatron's was very similar to the BP, but added: a bit more bass weight; detail; and spacial positioning. It repeated this in my system.

The AN4.1 is a bigger and MUCH heavier beast. I believe this IS probably the best of the DACs .....but NOT in my system; system synergy. The 4.1 extracted more detail and nuance but just lacked the boogie factor of the 2.1 and BP.

Intellectually I believe the order of the DACs in terms of detail and presentation is 4.1 > 2.1 > BP; in the right system.
However, in my system the order for me was: 2.1 > (4.1 = BP), where the detail and nuance of the 4.1 was equaled by the BP's boogie.

We ended the day playing Streetwalker and Billie Jean via the 2.1, what a blast.

Edge
While trying the 4.1 we useed the SE inputs, but decided to try the balanced, this failed for some reason (I suspect my cables). I realised that I had plugged the balanced cables into my Oppo 105D a few weeks ago. Removing these cables appeared to reduce the edge we were hearing. I will be testing this again today.

Matrix
I am very impressed by this small box of tricks. It is not simply that I am hearing added detail from very familier tracks it warmth and instrumental weight makes me listen to whole albums where before I might have been inclined to listen to certain tracks.


Conclusion
I suspect I will be buying the Matrix.
I am very happy with the BP DAC, which I think is an absolute bargain. However, if an AN2.1 comes up at the right price I suspect I will find it very hard to resist.


Thanks to George & Metatron.

Appendix A - Music Playlist
---------------------------------------------
Let Me Touch You Fir a While
Alison Krauss & Union Station Live (Qobuz)
Track includes some high notes that can be hot on my system

Columbus
Mary Black
Live at Oympia (DVD rip > 16/44)
My favourite recorded version of this artist and song.

Keith Don't Go
Nils Lofgren
Acoustic Live
Virtuoso Guitar

Son of Man
Phil Collins
Tarzan Soundtrack (CD rip)
Can be far too hot on my system

Happy
Martin Sexton
Seeds (CD rip)
Sharp Recording

Crucify (2015 remaster)
Tori Amos
Little Earthquakes (Qobuz)

Come Together
Brian Bromberg
Wood  (Qobuz)
Big fat bass!

Unfinished Sympathy (2006 remaster)
Massive Attack
Collected  (Qobuz)

Hella Bar Talk / Enterprising Young Man
The Music of Star Trek
The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra  (Qobuz)
Powerful stuff.

Jungle
Tash Sultana
Notion  (Qobuz)

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Super Wammer

Great write up Mr U. 

Thanks.

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Thanks Mr Underhill. I love your comparisons. 

I am using an Allo Digione to power my current DAC. Absolute the best source I have used (Much more expensive gear).  Better for me going Ethernet to spdif rather then USB.

But, I am looking at either a Border Patrol DAC or an Audionote Kit 2.1. I would only use the Spdif as the Digione is amazing, and I have very nice cable from Triode Wire Labs.  Both would be similar price. I live in Canada and get free shipping with the ANK. The ANK is not going to be as good at the original AN 2.1 due to lower quality parts in some key places. But apparently it is pretty close. Especially with upgraded coupling caps.

The Border Patrol with passive I/V conversion is IMO the best way to use the TDA1543 chip as per Ryohei Kusunoki’s legendary designs. 

Audio Note has their transformer coupled I/V conversion which is also famed and key to their house DAC sound. The AD 1865 chip is more detailed. 

The AN has more tubes to maintain which I am not excited about  

It’s a hard decision for me, as I can’t audition either one. When you listen to the 2.1 is it hard go back to the BP? Or is it really a small difference? I do like transparency and resolution but not with harsh treble.  I am tired of “digital filters” and up-sampling. 

I would appreciate any  any more comparisons. Thanks so much!

Edited by Orangecrush

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Hi OC,

No. When we originally did the comparison I started keeping an eye on eBay, but I have found that I am perfectly happy with the BP SE and have decided to just stick. It is giving me superb results and as I am enjoying a wide array of music why change, especially as I heard an older model that had been upgraded/updated, via AN so it is repeatable.

If you speak to Gary and want the AN sound then he will build an AN kit for you with his own mods built in; again, I thought about this then decided 'no'.

M

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Of course, myself and George47 are the other two who heard this combination, in both MrUnderhill's system and my own. See profile for kit. George47 owns the AN 2.1x.

I personally like the AN 2.1x a little more than the BP.

I guess the AN is more detailed. I currently have a Chord Hugo, which by spec should be better, but I find its non-offending mids and treble sometimes sound like its run through an audio limiter/compressor in the mids/treble, limiting the scale (difference between quiet and loud musical passages) whereas the BP and AN both 'breathe' and let rip when the need arises.

Listening to the Chord Hugo seems to do everything correctly when listening from an analytical perspective, but it doesn't grab me as emotionally. The midrange presentation doesn't have the fullness I'd expect, which makes it a bit of a bass/treble fiend with a subjective gap in the middle. The AN is quite close to the Hugo in resolution, but subjectively more natural on some types of instruments, while having plenty of scale.

The BP is fuller or richer, or thick.... whichever adjective you use is down to your own perception of it in your system. I feel it's subtly too rich for me, bordering on 'thick' sounding, although it has plenty of drive and involvement - never sounding slow. My DAC sounds anaemic/thin in the mids by comparison to the BP and AN, but has cleaner treble than both, albeit losing that all-important sense of scale. The anaemic midrange of my DAC doesn't make that emotional connection as much as the other two DACs because it sounds compressed. Both the AN and BP have scale and fuller midrange, which translates to a good emotional connection to the sound. The AN has a fullness and drive like the BP, but the treble IMHO is more refined, and there is more detail, which I am used to from owning the Hugo. That's why I prefer the AN over the BP, but both are very enjoyable.

If you like your sound to have drive/guts/balls, the BP has more of it than the AN. I find the AN quite natural in how I perceive its pace, rhythm and timing.

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Thanks Metatron Mr. Underhill. I did communicate with Gary, and in the end I ordered a ANK 4.1. It will be somewhere in the middle of an AN 2.1Sig and 4.1. It was a tough decision, but I feel for the amount more I paid over the BP SE I will be getting more for my money as this will be hopefully be a keeper. 

I cant help feel that I would miss the resolution and transparency if I went for the BP. With nice NOS Tubes and upgraded V-cap CuFT’s I hope I can strike a good balance of resolution, transparency, and emotion. 

It will take a few weeks for the build, and then I will have break in those V-caps for 400 hrs, so it will be awhile before I know!

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15 hours ago, Orangecrush said:

in the end I ordered a ANK 4.1. It will be somewhere in the middle of an AN 2.1Sig and 4.1. 

Where are you based...? It would be good to add this alongside what we've demoed. We did demo an actual AN 4.1, in MrUnderhill's system, but it was too brief for me to really come to conclusive thoughts, only first impressions on something that had otherwise sat disconnected and cold all day. It may not have been at its best while I had the chance to hear it:

  1. It seemed to have more resolution than the AN2.1 we had on hand
  2. It lost a certain amount of drive and bass that the AN2.1 conveyed. I felt the drive conveyed by the AN2.1 was essentially correct, so the AN4.1 seemed softer and more laid back. However, I think the AN DACs need synergy with the system they go into. Put the AN 4.1 in another system and we might find the bass impact returns more taut with plenty of timbre - we don't know without trying!
  3. I've heard the Chord DAVE and some other esoterically priced DACs. Price is not an indicator of outright quality given products tend to seem voiced, but the Chord DAVE would be more my thing by comparison to the AN4.1 (assuming I had the funds, I don't), as well as a lot cheaper than an AN 4.1. I still want to try an AN4.1 in my system out of curiousity.
  4. I feel a very good system is needed to warrant even considering esoterically priced DACs. Assuming you have a good DAC already, I'd always opt to put the majority of money towards better speakers.

That said, I am in the market for a DAC at some point. Currently the AN2.1 is staying on my shortlist, but my list of DACs to try is long. I've considered and AN Kit DAC, so if you are nearby, it would be good to hear yours once you have it. 

Edited by Metatron

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Sorry, I’m in Canada!  I think you are in the UK?

The thing with the AN and ANK  DACs is the tubes can adjust the sound so much.  So without knowing the tubes in the 2.1 vs 4.1, it is not really a fair comparison.  Especially the rectifier. The Bendix 5852 will pull much more heater current and deliver that punch (coveted AN sound) then the 6X5. Any chance you could find out what tubes are used in each?

Edited by Orangecrush

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1 minute ago, Orangecrush said:

Sorry, I’m in Canada!  I think you are in the UK?

The thing with the AN and ANK  DACs is the tubes can adjust the sound so much.  So without knowing the tubes in the 2.1 vs 4.1, it is not really a fair comparison.  Especially the rectifier. The Bendix 5852 will pull much more heater current and deliver that punch (coveted AN sound) then the 6X5. Any chance you could find out what tubes are used in each?

Yeah, we're UK. A long time ago I lived in Canada (Kitchener, Ontario). 

PM George47 (real name also George) and ask, he will likely know what valves are used in the 2.1 and 4.1 as he personally knows the guys at AN.

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Moderator

The AN2.1x is based on the M2 preamplifiers and has 2 x 6DJ8 and for the PSU 1 x 6X5.

The AN4.1x has 1 x 5814a, 1 x 5687WB, 1 x ECL82 and 1 x 6X5

The fun and games start with tube rolling.  A good overview is: 'The 6DJ8 is the "baseline" version of this tube type. The 6922 is the improved version designed to lower microphonics and improve lifespan. The 6922 also is rated for a higher voltage. 6922 can be used interchangeably in 6DJ8 gear. However, while in most applications it isn't a problem, the 6DJ8 isn't always usable in 6922 applications.

ECC88 is the European designation for 6DJ8. E88CC is the European designation for 6922. You'd think they could've differentiated the letters a little more to make it less confusing. CV2492 is the military designation for 6922 (used by Mullard, most notably).

7308, E188CC, and CCa are yet other super-premium versions of the standard 6DJ8. These were built to tighter tolerances and are very rare (and expensive).

If you get an AN 4.1x with the 7044 from AN, throw it away and get a decent 5687. 

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Thanks George!  The ANK 4.1 differs slightly and uses 2 x 5687, 1 x ECL82 and 1 x 6X5.

After I burn in the V-caps CuTFs (400 hours) I will replace stock tubes with Tung Sol 5687 (smoothest, Peter Q’s favourite), Mullard ECL82 (warmest midrange) and Bendix 5852 (punchier bigger presentation, twice the heater current then 6X5, but Brian at ANK says their transformer can handle it).  

I have Amperex 7308’s in my Decware Torri III amp. I wish they were not so expensive!  But they do last a very long time. I found they have the most emotional presentation. 

Over the years I learned the hard way that buying cheaper tubes that people say are almost as good as... ended up costing me more then just buying the right tube in the beginning. :)  So with the ANK 4.1, I want to start off right. I also buy spares at the same time to save shipping/duty costs which make the tubes cheaper in the long run. 

What is your impression on the AN 4.1 in the context of this thread?

Edited by Orangecrush

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7 hours ago, Orangecrush said:

Thanks George!  The ANK 4.1 differs slightly and uses 2 x 5687, 1 x ECL82 and 1 x 6X5.

After I burn in the V-caps CuTFs (400 hours) I will replace stock tubes with Tung Sol 5687 (smoothest, Peter Q’s favourite), Mullard ECL82 (warmest midrange) and Bendix 5852 (punchier bigger presentation, twice the heater current then 6X5, but Brian at ANK says their transformer can handle it).  

I have Amperex 7308’s in my Decware Torri III amp. I wish they were not so expensive!  But they do last a very long time. I found they have the most emotional presentation. 

Over the years I learned the hard way that buying cheaper tubes that people say are almost as good as... ended up costing me more then just buying the right tube in the beginning. :)  So with the ANK 4.1, I want to start off right. I also buy spares at the same time to save shipping/duty costs which make the tubes cheaper in the long run. 

What is your impression on the AN 4.1 in the context of this thread?

Agree on the quality of small tubes. I have swapped in TungSols, Mullards and Raytheons with a spare for each one. They make a significant difference and are normally not that expensive. Buying lots of not so good ones is expensive, I am never sure why we always want to learn the hard way. 

The AN2.1 is the sweet spot in the AN range. I have found it always makes an impact when put into different systems. Most times people really like what it does. It makes music sound closer to real people, playing real instruments. Its cost is not that outrageous and it has embarrassed some really expensive DACs by getting rid of that sterile digital sound. For me, it changes things from a cerebral experience (listen to the bass, treble, detail) into an emotional one. A lot of DACs seem to reduce the emotional impact.

I am not totally bowled over by the AN3.1x. Yes it is better than the AN2.1x but I do not think it is worth 2x the price. I had one for a few years but did not find going to a 2.1x (especially with decent valves) much of a musical change. The AN4.1x is in a different class and starts to challenge vinyl. It has more dynamics, detail and relevant musical information. It is not as versatile as the 2.1x as it does not always work as well as the 2.1x in differing systems. In the right system, it really raises the bar. I have heard the ANK4.1 and really liked it and I would say it is around the AN3.1x level or slightly better. 

I have not seriously listened to the AN5.1 as there is no way I can afford one, even a used one.

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3 hours ago, George 47 said:

I have not seriously listened to the AN5.1 as there is no way I can afford one, even a used one.

It's possible to get the ANK version and upgrade parts over time with those you prefer. When I checked out the prices, it would come to less than most DACs of interest (Bryston BDA-3, PS Audio Directstream, Mytek Manhattan 2, Metrum Pavane L3, Aqua La Scala Optologic, Chord DAVE, MSB Analog)... all of which I hope to try. 

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