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DAC Story, iFi, Mac mini and others Uptone ...


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Selecting the right DAC for my system has been a longtime enterprise. I'll try to will make it short.

 

 

For most of the music lovers, the DAC acts today as a main source before the preamp, and for many, as a full preamplifier

In my opinion, the preamp is the delicate piece of a system, it defines its 'soul'.

... For some, the Preamplifier is even a 'Holy graal', one of the most expensive link of the Hifi Chain. Good preamplifiers are rare and coweted.

 

So : we are often comparing small 1000-2000euro pieces of electronic, made with respect of a nice industrial rentability, and which include both digital and analog technologies, against nearly masterclass artwork pieces, built by highly experienced companies (AR, C.Johnson, Pure audio, Gryphon, M.Levinson, Jadis, Cointerpoint...), and which can cost several k$.

 

At first sight, this comparison looks impossible. Indeed, I do think it is impossible...

Many attempts that I made in the past with direct connexion between the CD/DAC and the power amps gave poor results.

I always came back to my preamplifiers (namely an Audio Research SPxx and a widely modified Perreaux SM3)

 

But I must admit that the times have changed, and the modern stuff allows us to expect acceptable results :

- The modern DACs/Preamps have a big advantage : they are small, and miniaturization leads to very short circuitry.

This goes in the right direction in comparison to a complex system which includes a DAC, a preamplifier, plus all the perturbating cabling between them.

- Additionaly, for some reason I ignore, the analogous side of these small devices has been widely improving in the last years.

 

Here, a remark : to my experience, the analog side of the DAC is at least as critical than the technology of the digital side itself.

=> Some old -25 years- DACS equipped with excellent analog section give very musical results (Jadis , Theta, ...). I would recommend them for music lovers.

 

Since the 2010's, my mates and I made many test with differents DAC in the 500-1500e range (I had about 5 at test in the same time).

In the last years and still today, the one I prefer is the iFi IDSD and its additional iUSB. I will not go into details about all the comparisons, but in the USB mode, it stays one of the most transparent, musical, dynamic and versatile on the market. Sure there are some others as good at it, but I did not find them.

An additional comparison with the internal DAC of a 2015 Esoteric CD showed very close result, except something more deep in the low frequencies on this excellent japanese device (ab. 7000euro).

 

About money :

The IDSD + iUSB costs about 900e, including the USB cables which I did not change even after a quick test with more expensive ones.

For the ones who are in the Hifi stuff since a long time, 900e is cheap in regard to the sound result.

My Theta Basic and ICOS DAC 4 costed 4 or 5 time more. I will not argue if they are 'better' or 'worse', I love them both as SPDIF DACs.

But to my ears they play in the same league that the younger, and the two older brothers require a preamplifier.

So the iFi still looks close to a miracle to me ...

 

At that stage,

My only concern is still a little frustration in the stage width, the positioning stability (I love to listen to big orchestras) and something missing in what you can call the 'richness' of the high frequencies.

This occurs when you hear many violins together for example : each violin has its own tonality, its own spatial position, the sound attack of each instrument is not exactly synchronised to the others.

... Very few systems can reproduce this correctly, and it is a big part of the emotion one feels in the live music.

 

My friend Jocelyn has build a Battery supply for his own iFi system, and he remarked that this gave improvements on the Stage stability and depth.

So I made tests by replacing the original 9v power supply :

- by a set of 9v batteries : the stability and depth were clearly better, but with a definitive loss in dynamics. Too smooth for me. Pehraps I used wrong batteries type.

- by a modified 4A computer PWC 9v supply. No audible difference with the original iFi small device, but more noise.

- by my 2A laboratory-type power supply : I lost the depth of the soundstage.

 

 

Then I looked in the direction of the available 'audiophile' power supplies on the market.

From 300 to 1000$ there are about 5-6 different solutions.

My choice went quickly to the Uptone JS2 : flattering reviews, and it is the one with two adjustable outlets

=> 12 volts for the Mac mini and 9V for the iFi DAC.

So I took the risk, and ordered the complete set JS2 + Cables + optional modification of the Mac Mini fan supply.

 

 

Assembly in the Mac is a nice play, the manufacturing quality is very-very good.

 

The difference is immediately audible :

The sound seems clearly louder. The stage is deeper, more focused and stable. Bass stay very tight, with even some violence time to time.

But what is the most surprising is the amount of details which appears in the heights.

I need now a long testing period. Only the time will confirm if the confort of listening stays as good as before the modification.

 

My first conclusions are :

1 - The iFi system is sensitive to the power source. A 9V batteries set will give a different result than the original supply.

For a cheap and instructive test this would be what I recommend.

2 - The Mac mini + iFi system is sensitive to the power source. It may change dramaticaly the dynamics, the soundstage focus, richness in the high frequencies.

 

 

Notes :

- My listening analysis are based on 2 systems both quite large and resolving (Electrocompaniet Bi-amping / Electrostatics speakers or Alpha Vecteur conventional speakers.)

I don't know if the difference would be so sensitive on a smaller system.

 

I'll be back after some listening hours.

Mathieu

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I'm back after more deep listening hours : there is no point for discussion, the improvement is huge in every fields, which is something rare.

Dynamics, stage depth, precision of the positionning in the 2 dimensions, and contrast between the different instruments are dramaticaly improved.

It gives sometimes a feeling of realism which makes me cold in the back. Very impressive.

 

- For those who listen to large ensembles (Herreweghe - Beeth N°9) They will find a deeper scene, together with more differenciation of the instruments, and better articulation of the low frequencies. What I never hurd before on my system is such a violence of the Cymbals attacks.

- On a small Jazz ensemble session, the realism is incredible, piano is musical, non agressive and you can feel the entire physical structure of the instrument.

- On voices (N. McGegan - Mantegnana, B. Terfel - Mozart, P.Petibon - Rameau) the differences between individuals are better respected, and the force of the bass singer gains force. Not any loss in tempo, musicality and delicatness.

- On more modern/electronic music, the most remarkable fact is the strenght and the violence of the bass frequencies.

My big Electrocompaniet monoblocs give life to the speakers as never before. It confirms the paramount importance of the inital source. I've been upgrading electrodynamics and electrostatic systems since many years, and I do know how long and painfull may be an upgrade process. Some improvement ones consideres as valuable may prove to create in contrast some negative artefact during later listenings.

It that case I've nothing to say but total satisfaction. If your system is transparent enough you will be happy with it.

iFi IDSD + iUSB was indeed a very good and versatile DAC,

... the Uptone supplies add a charge of realism and contrast which makes the music even more enjoyable and surprising.

 

My target was to own a musical and faithfull source, both for my own pleasure and the many improvements of Hifi gear i'm doing.

The reader understoods that I'm fuuuuully satisfied...

Total cost is about 700e (Mac mini i5 2nd hand with SSD) + 800e (iFi IDSD + iUSB) + 1000e (Uptone 9/12v power supply with options and cables). => 2500e.

 

Note : ... my only concern is that I cannot say which change made the major improvement

- The Mac Mini 12v supply change ?

- Or the IDSD 9v supply change ?

No matter, it works.

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