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One Person's Journey: Choosing the DAC

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I needed a DAC. I read a lot of reviews and comments. Since I wanted to spend no more than US $5000 on all new gear—DAC, cables, computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, software, hard drives, power cords, remote—I quickly narrowed the field down to two contenders: the Weiss DAC2 and the Ayre QB-9. Among the more important considerations was the fact that I could audition both, at the same time, with the option of returning either one. I bought a DAC2 from the US distributor/dealer, Vintage King Audio in Detroit. I had it in my system for a little over a week. I was able to audition the Ayre from a local Seattle dealer on an overnight audition.


I have never bought a significant component without auditioning it in my system; ultimately, my ears are the arbiter. I bought the Ayre. Both are excellent products. I will briefly summarize my contemporary listening notes, but there is one rather significant caveat. I listened to a fully broken-in Ayre. The Weiss, on the other hand, was practically fresh off the airplane from Switzerland (I could see the shipping information on the box). It had not seen one minute of playing time before I started listening. By the time I listened to it head-to-head with the Ayre, it might have had 30 or 40 hours on it, still not enough, in the estimation of some Weiss owners, to make it a fair comparison. It find it entirely plausible that the Weiss needed more break-in time.


To my ears, the Ayre sounded very natural and musically involving. It had a weighty, round sound with body, texture, color, and dimension to the tone. Vocals were a little chestier. Bass was more prominent. By comparison, the Weiss sounded thinner, more digital, with less fulsome bass. It exhibited a slightly harder, flatter sound, with slightly more emphasis on transients. On the other hand, it sounded really clean with pristine, extended highs, and superb detail.


Bear in mind these are fine distinctions. I liked but did not love the Weiss. Ultimately, I am looking for gear that immerses me in the music and produces an emotional response. I am less interested in analyzing parts of the frequency spectrum than I am in being aware of how my physical body reacts while listening to music. The Ayre induced a little more relaxation and emotional involvement.


An interesting thing happened after I bought the Ayre and installed the brand new DAC in my system a few weeks later. The magic was gone. I was disappointed but not surprised; many Ayre owners have reported a long break-in period and the manual states that break-in takes between 100 and 500 hours. Still, none of my other new components had exhibited a dramatic break-in period. After 40 or 50 hours, it sounded like cardboard—grey, flat, and uninvolving. After 100 hours, it sounded OK, but not the DAC I had auditioned; it was clearly inferior to my Exemplar CD player. Somewhere around 180 hours I felt that it turned a corner and the magic returned. I stopped counting hours long ago and I suspect that it’s pretty close to fully broken-in now after three months. It sounds fabulous.


A few more observations about the Ayre and the QB-9. First, the company is solid, from both an engineering and customer service standpoint. The excellence of its products is well known, and its willingness to make upgrades available to its existing customer base for relatively small amounts of money is laudable. Ayre will reportedly soon be making available a hardware upgrade to the QB-9 that will allow it to play 24/176.4 and 24/192 files; this upgrade will reportedly cost a few hundred dollars. Second, it is truly plug-and-play. Within 10 minutes of removing it from the box when I first auditioned it, I was playing music in a properly configured iTunes (Ayre’s website is easy to read, easy to navigate, and covers the relevant bases, especially for non-technical types.) Third, the QB-9 represents outstanding value. Sure, it is limited to a USB input. But that will not matter to many prospective customers, myself included. For $2500, I think you will be hard-pressed to find a digital player that offers this level of sonics. For what it’s worth, I have no affiliation with Ayre and had never owned an Ayre product until now.


I have incorporated a few tweaks. The QB-9 sits on four vibration-reducing Finite Elemente Ceraballs that previously resided under my Exemplar CD player. Although I have not conducted extensive listening tests, I believe this resulted in somewhat greater resolution. I have also plugged the Mac Mini into an old PS Audio 300 Power Plant power regenerator, which itself is plugged into a separate (non-dedicated) circuit. I can’t say for sure if this has made a difference but Ayre recommends using something to clean up the power feeding the computer.


The Ayre is connected to my Shindo preamp via a Transparent USB cable. I have not listened to anything else. The 10-foot cable was about $150, making it a bargain in the high-end cable world. Like I said, the system sounds fabulous. Maybe I’ll get the itch to try other cables—in the meantime, there’s music to listen to. I am using a Shindo power cord on the QB-9 into my dedicated outlet with FIM outlets. Again, no burning desire to try different power cords, although someday I’ll try.


I have two small 2.5 inch, notebook-style hard drives feeding music to the Ayre. They are quiet, small, inexpensive, and do not need a wall wart. My 750 GB Western Digital drive is full and I have started filling up a 640 GB Seagate Freeagent Go drive. The Western Digital hard drive vibrates a little so I have set it on top of some cheap Mapleshade IsoBlocks.


I’ve had little desire to listen to my old Exemplar-modified Denon 2900 since burning in the QB-9. As a reality check, though, I’ve recently done some modest comparisons. The Exemplar is a damn good player. I could—and did—live happily with it for four years. As noted in my previous post, I preferred it to other decks that I had in my system, including the Marantz SA-11S1, LessLoss DAC 2004, Naim CD5X, and Meridian GO8. Compared to the QB-9, the Exemplar has a warmer, sweeter sound. This can be an advantage on recordings suffering from digititis and, regardless of recording, is a pleasant attribute. To my ears, the QB-9 sounds a little more neutral, seems to project a very slightly bigger soundstage, is somewhat more resolute (lyrics are more intelligible), and seems to do better with musically complex passages. All in all, these differences are slight. The Exemplar was not a cheap player when John Tucker first introduced it in about 2004 ($4000). Compare that to the QB-9’s $2500 sticker in 2010 and the value of the QB-9 becomes apparent. Still, without the other advantages of moving to a computer audio set-up, my opinion is that the sonic differences between the two players would not alone have justified replacing the Exemplar.


Next post: the software.



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