AK Fest DAC comparison

Discussion in 'AKFest 2007' started by RichPA, Mar 26, 2007.

  1. RichPA

    RichPA Don't drive angry Staff Member Super Mod Subscriber

    As promised, we spent some time in my room on Saturday afternoon comparing DACs. Here are some details; more to follow on our impressions.

    The system:
    Transport - Audio Alchemy DDSIII via Monarchy DIP 24/96
    Preamp - line stage of the Monarchy M24 DAC/preamp
    Amp - Dynakit ST-35
    Speakers - ACI Sapphire IIILe on sand-filled Atlantis 24" stands​

    The setup can be seen in the first couple of pics in Clarence's slide show: http://audiokarma.org/forums/showpost.php?p=1091888&postcount=25

    The music:
    Jorma Kaukonen - Overture (from Stars in My Crown)
    Mozart - Serenade in D major (Smithson Chamber Orchestra)
    Eryka Badu - Certainly (from Baduizm)​

    The DACs (and owners - owners, please post corrects as needed)
    Monarchy M24
    Modwright Perpetual Technologies P3A with CIA power supply (mine)
    Adcom GDA-600 (Hpsenicka)
    Grace 902 (Negotiableterms)
    McIntosh MDA-700 (Negotiableterms)
    Cambridge 840C CD player (Negotiableterms)
    Music Hall CD player (Jimbecky48001)
    Lite Dac-Ah modified by Pacific Valves (Trianglezerius)
    Lite DAC60 (Eric ??)
    McIntosh MDA-1000 (the nice guys in the McIntosh/Audio Classics room!)

    It seemed like more than 10 by the time I had done all the switching and disc-changing ... :) Later on, someone whose name I didn't catch brought in a prototype USB DAC that sounded quite good, though many who participated in the comparison had left

    The procedure:
    We listened to approximately the first two minutes of each of the three tracks listed above, in the same order, on each DAC, with me switching cables and matching levels as best I could. I think we spent a couple of hours at it, though it seemed like more at the end ... ​


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  2. Negotiableterms

    Negotiableterms Administrator Staff Member Admin Subscriber

    Rich ran a switching marathon, as the Energizer Bunny of gear swapping. Many, many thinks Rich, for making this idea come to life.
  3. Grumpy

    Grumpy Krusty old SOB! Yes, I own Audiokarma Staff Member Admin Sponsor Subscriber

    Maybe the Proto was Gilbert's from Blue circle USB Thingy ?
  4. hpsenicka

    hpsenicka Moderator Subscriber

    west of Toronto, Ontario
    Nope... the prototype was brought in by a guy from Ultra-Fi Times... didn't catch his name.

    Unfortunately, the BlueCircle "Thinggy" was not included in the round-up.
  5. gbeard

    gbeard New Member

    That "guy" was Larry Moore. So his new DAC sounded good huh? Was it the class of the field (Gilbert's not accounted for, of course)?

    Sounds like you guys had a great time! I wish I could have made it.

    Bowdle, if you read this, you need to give me a call!!!!

    Nice job AK. Now I need more info and more pics so I may drown in my own ...:drool:

    Cheers to all,
  6. RichPA

    RichPA Don't drive angry Staff Member Super Mod Subscriber

    OK, some impressions - others who were there for all or some of the time, please chime in! This is a mix of my own impressions and what I heard others saying.

    First, I think there was general agreement that the DACs sounded different from one another, and that at least in some cases preferences depended on the music.

    The Monarchy, which we heard first, was smooth sounding but lacked some detail and impact compared to the better DACs.

    The Modwright/PT was very open and detailed, and was in the lead much of the time.

    The Cambridge CD player was very close to the Modwright, and as an integrated player of similar price to the Modwright alone, clearly a great player. It was brand new out of the box (Negotiable terms opened it right there in the room), and if it improves as it breaks in, it will be very impressive.

    The Lite Dac-Ah was very impressive, detailed and dynamic - and at about a fifth the price of most of the others, IIRC. It seemed especially good on the Mozart piece, though it had prominent treble that might not suit some music as well over time.

    The Music Hall player was very nice, smooth and detailed, though not quite as much so as the better DACs - but it is an integrated player selling for much less than most of the DACs alone.

    The Adcom sounded good, but not as detailed or smooth as the others - but this is a 15? year old design, and has had no updates (caps, etc.).

    The McIntosh MDA-700 sounded very good, nearly as detailed as the newer DACs, smooth sounding, with really excellent bass. This is a 10-year-old design that has clearly held up very well over time.

    I'm afraid I really don't remember my impressions of the Grace.

    The Lite DAC 60 sounded very good, somewhat bright to my ears, with a lot of detail. It didn't sound at all like the Monarchy, although they apparently share some circuitry and design features.

    The McIntosh MDA-1000 was, well, wonderful. More detail, easier to hear small nuances of voice and percussion, smooth and relaxed sounding. I hated to give it back - to me, it really was significantly better than any of the others. It was by far the most expensive, but clearly you do get something for the money.

    I also have to say - and allow for some bias here, because it was my system - that I was impressed by the ability of the relatively modest system to clearly show differences among DACs.

    OK, time for the rest of you to add your thoughts!


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  7. RichPA

    RichPA Don't drive angry Staff Member Super Mod Subscriber

    Thanks, gb, for filling in my memory. To be honest, by the time Larry showed up, I was getting kind of tired. Was it the class of the field? To my ears, the MDA-1000 beat it as it did all the others, but I would say it was competitive with the best of the rest, maybe better in some respects.
  8. arm013

    arm013 Active Member

    Baltimore, MD.
    Boy that was an impressive and thurough experiment/adventure. With all the talk around here regarding the Number Cruncher DAC, it would have been interesting to hear 50.00 DAC with all those major player DAC's.
    Great job and lot's of fun. Had a blast this year. Great to get to know everyone and hang out.
  9. Negotiableterms

    Negotiableterms Administrator Staff Member Admin Subscriber

    I learned a LOT in the course of this comparison. While the following are my own thoughts, the listening group was astonished at how uniform our impressions were.


    1. No two DACs sound alike. Period.

    2. Except for the MDA-1000, none of the DACs were equally good at all three cuts.

    3. In upsampling players, higher upsampling means more detail, in fairly strict numeric order. The 768KHz MDA-1000 was incredibly detailed, very like good analog. Next in detail was the 384KHz Cambridge, then the 192KHz Grace.

    4. There's more to it than the conversion itself. Units with 'lesser' numbers outperformed their theoretical betters.

    5. Overall quality of sound isn't dictated by the numbers alone. The ancient Mc MDA-700 was preferable to several much later units with objectively higher technology.


    1. MDA-1000 - all by itself at the top. Nothing else even came close.

    2. Modwright Perpetual Technologies P3A with CIA power supply
    3. Cambridge 840C CD player
    4. Grace m902
    5. Monarchy M24
    6. Lite Dac-Ah modified by Pacific Valves
    7. Lite DAC60
    8. Music Hall CD player
    9. McIntosh MDA-700
    10.Adcom GDA-600


    First, many thanks to RichPA, who really did a fantastic job over a lot of hours. Thanks to everyone who brought a DAC, or sat through all the listening sessions. Special thanks to Chuck Hinton of McIntosh, who, when asked if we could borrow his $8,000 statement piece for a comparison, didn't hesitate, showing absolute confidence in his product. He was also confident that the damn elevators not working would make sure he got it back. :D
  10. hpsenicka

    hpsenicka Moderator Subscriber

    west of Toronto, Ontario
    While I tend to agree that the MDA-1000 was the top of the heap, I'm not sure I would necessarily agree with David that nothing else came close.

    In many cases I found it very difficult to identify or describe specific differences between units, although clearly they all did sound different to some degree.

    I don't think I could have confidently put together a ranking, as in some cases I found the differences almost too close to call, but I think that David's rankings are reasonable.

    As for the prototype USB DAC, a direct comparison may not be appropriate as this unit was playing source material from an Apple laptop rather than from the transport that we used to evaluate the other units....
  11. Drybasement

    Drybasement Hold the ketchup...

    Midland, Michigan
    Of the DACs I heard this one was my favorite. Like you mentioned, very open and detailed, especially with Jorma's guitar.

    The Cambridge 840C CD player held it's own remarkably well against the other outboard DACs. A real testiment to the quality that goes into their product. A very nice player.

    The Monarchy was a close third behind the Cambridge 840C and Modwright. Performs very well but didn't have the detail and openness of the previous two.

    The Lite Dac-Ah was very good with that Mozart piece but did not perform well with the other music. Much less detailed than the Modwright but alas, it was 1/5 the cost.

    I thought the Grace was the weakest of the bunch I heard. Not that it was terrible or anything as these DACs all sounded quite good to my ears, it was just not as revealing as the others.

    I didn't get a chance to hear the Music Hall CD player or the McIntosh MDA-1000.

    In closing, there is an audible difference between DACs with some being more proficient than others based on the type of music playing. I was very surprised at how noticealby different some of them were.

    One last thing, those ACI Sapphire IIILe's were fantastic speakers. I was really impressed by those.


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  12. Urizen

    Urizen Lunatic Member

    I am not familiar with all of the DACs ya'll auditioned, but from my experience, the LiTe DAC AH-M, which is non-oversampling (NOS) does sound "rolled off" in comparison to the Entech 203.2, Ah! Super NjoeTjoeb 4000, and Musical Fidelity A3 players, all of which upsample. The beauty of the LiTe, to my ears, is the cohesiveness and bloom in the bass through the upper midrange, although it lacks the "air" of the upsamplers. There's something there that my ears like, a smoothness and non-fatiguing sound. And, of course, being a budget minded individual, the price is right. A good taste of high end at a low price. YMMV.:D

    Thanks for the great reviews, fellas, and I sure hope I can make it next year.

  13. Negotiableterms

    Negotiableterms Administrator Staff Member Admin Subscriber

    Confident? Moi? Only Chuck Hinton was confident. I forced myself to do rankings as I went along, because it was the only way I could keep them straight in my head. I waffled between choices but forced a result. "Reasonable" is a great description.

    I thought the MDA-1000 stood alone because I completely agreed with Rich's first comment at the Fest, which was that he was very familiar with the music, and had just heard things he didn't previously know were there. We'd just listened to the same three cuts a dozen times, and I had the same impression: there was info on those CDs that all the others had missed.

    No matter the results, it was great fun listening and comparing!
  14. RichPA

    RichPA Don't drive angry Staff Member Super Mod Subscriber

    Yes, that's true. I now wish I had made the extra effort to pull my Benchmark out of the main system, because it differs from the Modwright in the same direction as the MDA-1000, and I'd be really interested in seeing how big that difference is. I got home and listened to the same 3 tracks here (yes, I'm completely insane), and I still think I want the McIntosh ...
  15. matel

    matel Super Member

    Thanks RichPa for this comparison of dacs.

    I 've a sneaking suspicion that thousands of AKer's are shortchanging their music systems by not having a top notch source. Me included!
    Thanks for bringing it to the fore. Speakers speakers speakers, how bout Source source source!

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