There’s a chasm in the audio market. On one side stand pro users. On the other stand audiophiles. Some companies straddle this line. But even then it’s common for such companies to clearly demarcate their equipment as “professional” or “hi-fi.”
Some types of equipment are more likely to see products straddle this chasm. Certain speaker and, especially, headphone models appeal to pros and enthusiasts alike. DACs, however, are not such a category. Sure, companies like RME and Mytek have had some success bridging the professional/consumer divide, but they’re the exception that proves the rule.
Browse Sound on Sound, Gearslutz, Tape Op, or Mix, and it quickly becomes clear that, for better or worse, few people are talking about consumer favorites like Schiit, but lots are talking about pro-oriented companies like Forssell and Crane Song that audiophiles are mostly unfamiliar with.
As an audiophile with an eye towards the world of professional engineering, it’s that last name, Crane Song, that first caught my attention. When I picked up Audio Mastering: The Artists, Discussions from Pre-Production to Mastering, Russ Hepworth-Sawyer and Jay Hodgson’s excellent collection of interviews with mastering engineers, I noticed that Dave Hill, the mind behind Crane Song, was one of the few tech people interviewed for the book. That’s because Hill has been making groundbreaking studio hardware and plugins for decades. Few people have thought more about how digital can sound its best than Hill, who’s dedicated part of his site to educating listeners about jitter with a tutorial on how to listen for jitter, complete with anonymized sound files.
In researching Hill’s DACs, another name that kept coming up was Fred Forssell. In the ‘70 and ‘80s, Forsell built equipment for artists like Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Jackson Browne. Commercially, his designs have appeared in products from Manley and AEA, among other companies. Forssell’s products produced under his own name include mic preamps, DACs, and ADCs.
In a level-matched, seven-DAC shootout that included the pro version of the previously reviewed RME ADI-2, mastering engineer Matthew Gray placed the Crane Song Solaris and Forssell MADA-2 (the MDAC-2a combined with an ADC) on top.
Combined with the praise for both DACs on GearSlutz and elsewhere, I decided I wanted to hear both DACs. (Like much pro equipment, there’s a robust used market for pro DACs, which is where I picked up my review samples.)
Both are meant to be rack mounted, with 19-inch wide, approximately 2-inch tall faceplates. Behind the faceplate, both units are 17 inches wide. The Forssell is 11 inches deep, and the Crane Song is 9 inches deep. Both units are all-metal affairs designed to take a beating in the studio. However, each weighs less than 10 pounds.
In contrast to many consumer DACs — think the hulking Denafrips Terminator and its rows of capacitors — the internals of both the Solaris and MDAC-2 are marked by clean layouts with plenty of room. The Solaris is based around AKM’s 4490 chip, while the Forssell uses Texas Instrument’s PCM1794. However, as with all DACs, sound is about implementation more than chips.
Both Hill and Forssell stressed the role of listening in their design philosophies.
“I think it is important for people to actually listen audio designs without preconceived ideas of how such designs will sound,” Forssell told me. “Talking about the details of designs often biases the reader about how the circuit will sound (good or bad), prior to them actually listening to the circuit and then forming their own opinion about how it sounds. At the end of the day it’s all about how it sounds, not what I did or why I did it when I was designing the circuit.”
Keeping with his reputation as one of the premier experts on jitter, Hill explained that the Solaris uses “an ASRC for jitter reduction [and] this reclocking allows the use of an ultra-low jitter reference for the DAC.” “There is a lot of listening involved in doing this,” he continued.
I set up a switch that I do not know which version I am listening to and over several weeks (testing every day) I will select the different versions of hardware and software and see what I like and do not like and if there is consistency in the selection. this is also done with different source material and needs to be level matched very carefully. Very few people get how import low jitter is, and you cannot get there by buying a commodity clock device…. Everything needs to be measured…. It take specialized gear to measure ultra-low jitter and AP or Stanford box will not get you there
Both DACs support PCM data up to 24/192. No DSD, MQA, or any other off-the-beaten-path formats welcome.
Of the two units, the Solaris is the more involved device, though no one will mistake either unit for the Swiss Army knife of the RME. From left to right, the Solaris’s face features a power switch, mute button, source selection knob, small LCD screen, gain knob, headphone level knob, and ¼-inch headphone jack. Both the gain knob and the headphone knob are, in fact, stepped attenuators, making for perfect channel matching. And, while I didn’t do an in-depth comparison of the headphone amplifier with stand-alone units, my casual listening found it to be the equal of such well-regarded amps as the Schiit Magni 3+ and the various entry-level THX amps.
The rear of the Solaris has four inputs (USB, AES XLR, S/PDIF RCA, and Toslink) and two outputs (fixed XLR and adjustable XLR). The USB input doesn’t require a driver on Mac, and Windows drivers are available on Crane Song’s website. The fixed XLR outputs operate at +18dBu, while the variable outputs max out at either +18dbu or +24dBu. (A 6dB pad can be activated by power cycling the Solaris while pressing the mute button, bringing up the unit’s setup menu.)
When the Solaris is powered on, all outputs are automatically muted. The Solaris’s LCD screen displays the input source, the source file’s sample rate, the mute status, the variable XLRs’ level, and the headphone output’s level. It also features a handy L/R level meter.
Comparatively, the Forssell is sparse. Its front panel features only one button (an input selector), one switch (power), and five LED lights (one for the unit’s power status, one for each of the unit’s two inputs, one showing input fault, and one for the SCR lock status). On the rear, the standard MDAC-2a features AES XLR and S/PDIF RCA inputs. However, it can also be configured with additional inputs. The standard MDAC-2a has two XLR outputs, though the unit I have also includes optional RCA outputs. The XLR outputs can be adjusted by an internal trim to produce either a +18dBu “pro” or +14dBu “hi-fi” level.
How do they sound, though? In a word, superb. (Those looking for a clear-cut winner in this pro DAC matchup will have to look elsewhere.) They do, however, sound different.
But before getting into a detailed head-to-head sonic comparison between the Crane Song and the Forssell, I can say a few things definitively with regard to how both DACs stack up against some notable competitors.
Neither the Solaris nor the DAC-2a has the myriad features of the RME ADI-2, but both soundly best the RME in the aural department. As I wrote in the review of the RME, the Solaris did detail, imaging, and depth better than the RME. Given that the Forssell is the sonic equal of the Solaris, the same judgment vis a vis the RME applies, even if the specifics are slightly different.
The other notable DAC that I put the Solaris and the DAC-2a up against was the Schiit Yggdrasil A2. As a multibit DAC aimed at the consumer, the Yggy is quite a bit different than its pro delta-sigma brethren. However, multibit enthusiasts skeptical of delta-sigma converters need to hear the Solaris and the DAC-2a. While neither dispensed with the Yggy as handily as they topped the RME, both were at least the equal of the Yggdrasil. The Solaris wrung more detail out of the recordings than the Yggy but lacked its slam. The Forssell was even smoother than the Yggy but didn’t have its front-to-back depth. And so on. The pros and cons of each DAC were apparent, but none was the clear all-around winner.
When it comes to comparing the Solaris and the DAC-2a against each other, the unmistakable fact is that both the Crane Song and the Forssell are world-class DACs, and I’d easily be happy with either as my main converter. Nonetheless, both excel in different areas and likely will appeal to listeners with slightly different tastes.
As with all excellent DACs, these differences are subtle — the kind only apparent on close listening. For this review, I fed both from the same USB to PDF converter, matched levels, and used a Kramer XLR input selector to compare them in real-time with the same music.*
That said, consistent differences appeared.
The Forssell has relatively more mid-bass, whereas Solaris leans toward the mid-treble. The former is comparatively meatier, while the latter is somewhat leaner. The Crane Song seems to have more square-edged transients, while the Forssell has slightly rounder presentation.
As might be expected from the above combination of characteristics, the Forssell slightly edges out the Solaris on macrodynamics, while Solaris edges out the Forssell on macrodetail. Both DACs, however, deliver excellent microdynamics and microdetail, meaning that they recreate the realism of instruments and vocals with aplomb.
Compared to the sometimes-understated distinctions above, the DACs display relatively easy-to-spot differences in soundstage. The Solaris delivers more front-to-back depth than the MDAC-2a. That said, while the Forssell stages all sounds more “up front” than the Solaris, I found that individual instruments sounded more a little more three-dimensional on the MDAC-2a. The Crane Song, on the other hand, delivers a greater sense of space than the Forssell, presenting more reverb and room sound in recordings. In terms of width, the Forssell edge out the Crane Song, if only by a modest margin.
The above observations are best illustrated with references to specific tracks, because not all songs reveal these differences equally well.
Putting on “Orphan Girl” from Gilliam Welch’s 1996 classic, Revival, both the Solaris and MDAC-2a do justice to Welch’s ethereal voice and T Bone Burnett’s unfussy production. However, the Crane Song provides a greater sense of space than the Forssell. The backing vocals are pushed deeper into the soundstage on the Solaris. Likewise, the Solaris evinces more reverb on Welch’s acoustic guitar than the MDAC-2a. That same guitar, however, reveals key differences in tonality between the two DACs. Welch’s acoustic sounds somewhat thinner (like it’s mic’d higher up the neck) through the Solaris, while it has more body through the Forssell.
Turning to “This Is the Night,” from Dusk, the 1992 masterpiece from criminally underrated The The, some of the same broad differences between the Crane Song and the Forssell emerge again. The Crane Song emphasizes the individual wires of the upright piano that anchors the song. The Forssell presents a slightly boxier, more wholistic piano sound. The MDAC-2a also hits harder than the Solaris, from the piano hammer impacts to the thump of the kick drum.
Next up is “Almost Independence Day,” the transcendent 10-minute closing track to Van Morrison’s 1972 album, Saint Dominic’s Preview. Like much of Morrison’s work, it was recorded primarily live in the studio. Especially on Tim Young’s hi-res remaster, it’s a remarkably clean and dynamic recording. Like the piano on “This Is the Night,” Lee Charlton’s snare on “Independence Day” leans towards the wires on the Crane Song and the skin on the Forssell. And, once again, the Forrsell presents an ever-so-slightly more dynamic listen.
Sticking with hi-res remasters of early-‘70s classics, the title cut on Ike & Tina Turner’s Working’ Together showcases the DACs’ different front-to-back staging and reverb presentation. Tina’s voice has unmistakably more echo on Solaris and sits deeper in the mix. However, both do an excellent job of rendering the subtle percussion in the left channel and presenting the horns in the right channel with bite and tonal accuracy. Those horns also sound slightly deeper (yet flatter) on the Crane Song and slightly closer (yet more 3D) on the Forssell.
Pulling up Joe Gastwirt’s mastering of the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead, soundstage width differences become as apparent as depth differences. On the opening track, “Uncle John’s Band,” Jerry’s voice on the left and the backing vocals on the right both sound wider on the Forssell. But, keeping with the previously discussed tracks, both sets of vocals have more reverb and sit deeper in the soundstage on the Crane Song.
The width differences between the DACs is even more apparent on “Streets of Paradise” from Richard and Linda Thompson’s 1975 release, Pour Down Like Silver. Richard’s guitar on the left and John Kirkpatrick’s accordion on the right each sound like their panned about 75 percent in their respective directions on the Solaris and more like 90 percent on the Forssell.
Such left-to-right staging differences extend to individual instruments, too. Rick Wilson’s drum kit on the 24/96 remaster of Heart’s “Magic Man” sound solidly in the center on the Solaris and more spread out on the Forssell. The effect is fine, but undeniable.
Interestingly, as the above examples might illustrate, the soundstage width difference is often more apparent on sounds that are not hard-panned right or left. It’s mostly a 50/50 phenomenon. Nonetheless, some hard-panned tracks, like “Driving Along” from Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson still sound wider on the Forssell.
Finally, while it’s difficult to pick illustrate this with a particular song, the MDAC-2a is the smoother sounding DAC, with the Solaris coming across as comparatively unforgiving.
All told, my time with the Crane Song Solaris and Forssell MDAC-2a was enjoyable and eye-opening. For one, it prompted me to sell my beloved Yggdrasil. Yes, it was hard to choose between the three DACs. But ultimately I found that the Solaris met my “left-brained” moods and the MDAC-2a my “right-brained” ones better than the Yggy. It was a big realization for a one-time multibit partisan.
For everyone else, the Solaris and MDAC-2a need to be added to person lists of “must hear” DACs, particularly for hi-fi audiophiles who’ve eschewed professional DACs.
* The specific USB to SPDIF converter varied between a Matrix X-SPDIF2 and a Mutec MC-1.2. Both DACs fed a Schiit Ragnarok integrated amplifier and a Monoprice Monolith THX 887 headphone amplifier. Most speaker listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer. Headphone listening included Focal Utopia, Sennheiser HD800S, and ZMF Verité closed.
About The Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.