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  1. I'm considering these 2 DACs. My amp is a 120Wx2 NAD C370 and my speakers are B&W 602 S3. By Asus Essence I mean either the Essence ST, the STX or the most recent STX II. Have you been able to compare them against each other? In that case, what's your opinion? Are there any other DACs that I should consider in this price range? (around 200$) What do you think?
  2. I have a 2010 model Mac Air running OS X 10.5,8 that I will be upgrading to at least 10.6 in a few days so I can run pure music which is not yet installed. I just acquired a Dragonfly and started using it in the USB but noticed that when I play my iTunes AIFF and lossless music recorded at 44.1 the dragonfly's color is magenta not green and it is always magenta and not any other color no matter what songs I play at 44.k, any ideas why it stays magenta and is not green?
  3. From Fatman Itube to ifI ITube, a personal computer audio evolution story In medias res About two years ago I got a Fatman Itube ValveDock with an included IPod dock and two loudspeakers. This is a very nice looking hybrid amplifier using two 6N1 tubes in the preamp stage, integrated with a transistor amp. I discovered quite early, that the sound coming from the included loudspeakers is limited, boxy. So I started to search for a quality replacement for them, and I found the Tannoy Mercury V1, based on the reviews. That time I had a desktop (gamer) computer, and inside that worked a Terratec 6Fire home musician soundcard as the sound source. The 6Fire-Fatman-Mercury chain produced room filling, warm, dynamic, strong, detailed sound at moderate volume levels. I really enjoyed listening to classical and jazz music on this equipment. But there was something that bothered me – during listening to electronic or rock music I felt that the playback became a bit ’slowhanded’, the system did not have a firm grip on the quick changes in the music. Furthermore the 2x13Watt power of the amp seemed to be a bit weak for the Tannoys – from 50-60 % volume distorsion appeared and rose quickly. Then I received the Audioengine A2 for a try, and fell in love with their voice: great bass for the size, open sound with balanced sound signature in the whole spectrum, enchanting midrange, and the previously missed quickness, freshness. I have sold the Fatman Itube and the Tannoys, and bought a pair of A2-s. In the meantime I realized that I have less and less time for playing games on my PC, but I listen to music almost continuously – I decided to change the desktop PC to a used Thinkpad X60s, that resides since nearby the A2-s. About the same time I bought my first USB DAC, a FIIO E7, based on the review in What Hifi. During everyday use I found out, that the bass of A2-s rolls off quickly below 60Hz. Following a short Yamaha SW-150 bypass, I bought the Audioengine S8 subwoofer, that complements perfectly the A2. The pure power of the S8 (240W) may seem overwhelming, but using it with 10-15% level, setting the crossover to 70Hz, and following fine tuning of the Phase settings, the S8 seemlessly adds the missing base frequencies. That time I used the E7 during daily work with my notebook, and connected the A2 with a FIIO D3 SPDIF DAC and a M2TECH Hiface2 async USB-SPDIF interface to the Thinkpad. I think, the FIIO D3 was one of my best price/performance audio purchases until now. An outstanding Wolfson WM8805 USB-SPDIF receiver and a reasonable 24bit/192KHz DAC (Cirrus Logic 4344) worked inside – for about 35 USD. My friend Szabolcs helped me to change the „achilles heel” of the device, the TI LMV358 OPAMP chip to a AD8656, that resulted in a great leap forward in dynamics, without losing the nice detailed and open sound signature as a tradeoff. With such small optimization, the FIIO D3 could compete with DAC-s many times his price. (Unfortunatelly in the follow up product to the D3, the TAISHAN, the WM8805 have been substituted for a Cirrus CS8416 SPDIF receiver – based on several audio forum entries, the new version is less suited for pure music listening purposes). The E7 had considerable advantage in sound quality over the headphone out of my Dell notebook, but on the long term I found the soundstage annoyingly compressed. The logical next step came in the form of the FIIO E17. It used the same Wolfson 8740 DAC chip as the E7, but FIIO emgineers opted for a different USB receiver to enable 24/96 playback, and also changed the OPAMP. The FIIO E17 unsurprisingly shared the warm, bit dark sound signature with the E7, but the sound quality was as different as chalk and cheese: increased detail, micro dynamics, airyness and most importantly the larger size of the soundstage. The E17 became my audio buddy for about a year. It is easy and very enjoyable to ’make the mistake’ of following the audio websites, forums and magazines trying to catch up with the booming evolution of USB dacs in the last couple of years. In the second half of 2011 the Audioquest Dragonfly became the ‘darling’ of the audio magazines. The most important buzzwords were: 24/96 ESS 9023 SABRE DAC, designed by Gordon Rankin, asynchron USB interface, smaller than a small pendrive (very important one!), does not require USB cable, short signal path, analog level control from the computer, and last but not least the coloured bitrate led. I had to try it out. I have used the Dragonfly with my AIAIAI TMA-1 for weeks, but I had to conclude, that I do not like their sound. Fortunatelly it was not the the case was with the Dragonfly and the A2. The rich and fresh midrange of the Dragonfly came alive on the open sounding A2, and the Dragonfly succesfully controlled the base frequencies on A2 and S8 pair. The stereo separation was great, I could easily follow the diverse instruments in the mixes. I had only one complaint – the soundstage – they could not fill our small (15-20sqm) living room with powerful sound. I have to admit, that the A2 was designed initially as a desktop sound source, not to stand on a silicon desktop stand on the top of the case, bent towards and firing soundwaves aiming at our couch. It has been written in many publications, that the sound of the Audioquest Dragonfly is very detailed, but can sound a bit hard/digital and flat, and I had to agree. I really like the sound characteristics of the Dragonfly-A2+S8 chain – the lively midrange, the realistic portrayal of singers voices, separation of instruments – with all the compromise written above. I have tried to find some solution for the flatness, and I came upon the ifi IUSB USB power supply during reading articles about the problems and handling of computer USB power sources. The articles covered all the issues, how the noisy USB power source from the computer raises the noise level of USB DAC-s during music playback: lowering level of dynamics, ruining separation of instruments, smearing the sound of the unique instruments. I decided to give it a try. Ifi IUSB The IUSB is the product of Ifi Audio (the new subsidiary of the renowned british high end company, AMR). It integrates two functions: a clean, computer-independent USB power supply, and power filtering. The device can be connected to the computer with the included higy quality blue USB cable. Besides the USB socket have been placed the socket for the included ultra low noise 9V AC/DC adapter. In the iUSB the power is further ’purified’ in a multiple-step Super regulator filtering process developed by ifi Audio. Between the two sockets resides the switch for the IsoEarth ground noise elimination system – ifi promises 10x less ground noise using this functionalty of the iUSB – to handle problems with grounding, that is the second most critical noise source for USB DAC-s beneath the power source. On the other end of the device there are two USB outputs: the first is an integrated USB data + power socket, while the other provides only 5V power. The IUSB can be used in two configurations: · The DAC connected directly to the data+power socket or · powering the DAC from the USB power socket and receiving only data through the data+power socket using a V-cable. It may seem a marketing move from ifi Audio to offer only an other accessory, but it is far from that. With the help of my electric engineer friend (Szabolcs) we have built a short USB cable, connecting gold plated USB connectors with high quality copper wire taken from an ultra high speed STP/S PiMF CAT 7 cable, and shielded the power and data cables separately, also taking the professional shielding material from the CAT 7 cable, avoiding interference between the power and data paths. Since then I only use this USB cable for USB DACs on my notebook. The look does not justify the audio quality of the cable J - it overachieves easily in soundstage, level, detail retrieval and noise level the mid range audio USB cables I could try. This way I experienced the importance of the separation of data and power wires in USB audio cabling. Ifi Audio produces such V cable called Gemini, and there are several competing high quality products on the market, like the Elijah Audio ISOLAATE BL or a cable from Kingrex. Following the arrival of iUSB from the italian distributor I was very excited to check how the separate power and data path from the IUSB affects sound quality. Without a special V cable at hand I used a USB cable for external USB hard drives, that can take extra voltage from a second USB socket. This was imperfect, since this cable has taken power from both the power and power+data socket. The power and dynamics of the sound increased substantially, but as a tradeoff the base became less controlled, so I decided to plug the Dragonfly again directly to the data+power socket. Ifi Audio provides a USB- DC adapter to the IUSB, with that the IUSB can be used as a high quality clean 5V power source for 5V audio devices like the Squeezebox Touch. The installation was very straightforward - it did not require more than a couple of minutes to attach the device to the computer using the included USB cable, and powering the device with the included AC/DC adapter. I did not encounter any problems using the IUSB on several computers – all DACs attached through the IUSB have been recognized immediately by the computers. I have read in some forum entries, that in some cases the USB DAC could not be recognized by the computer – the temporary or permanent disabling of the ISOEarth function was the common solution for these issues. I did not have such problem, so I let on the ISOEarth ground filtering all the time. Listening experience Thanks to the substantial lowering of the noise level I could identify and listen to previously unheard details. In the recording of Easy to love from Bass Swing Trio and Barbara Bukle on the Stockfish Records-Art of Recording CD, the voice of the singer sounded much more natural, I could hear even her breath and touch of lips. Her sound moved away from the loudspeakers, it appeared holografically between them. The decay of the resonanse of the double bass strings was very realistic, the resonance of the body of the musical instrument also could come over, and I could paralelly listen to the piano and the diverse types of drums. During listening to live recordings, like on the CD of Nils Frahm called Spaces, in the song Says I could easily and clearly hear the individual noises made by the audience in the background, while the piano solo appeared properly positioned in the foreground. The atmoshphere of the concert hall was represented very convincingly. The wide range of dynamics, subtlety and diversity of his piano playing sounded very engaging. The music sounded much more dimensional, and dynamics became much better without changing the beloved characteristics of the sound of the Dragonfly and A2. With the IUSB the control of base frequencies became even better, more firm. On the recording Rise and fall from Bruce Cockburn I could easily follow the constantly moving baseline, the guitar bends and licks, the diverse types of drums and the bells also played by Bruce Cockburn. The IUSB added those elements to the sound of my system, that were missing/I hoped for: the musical instruments sounded more detailed with more believable touch and decay retrieval, more dynamic and potrayed better in space. The instruments moved away from each other in depth and horizontally. As a result more complex musical arrangements were easier to follow, did not collapse into tiring cacophony. The effect of IUSB is diverse, depending on the DAC it is used with. According to my opinion the Dragonfly arrived into a different league combined with the IUSB. Parallel to the Dragonfly I could listen to the HRT Microstreamer and IUSB combo. In this case the level of improvement was lower. The already meaty sound of the HRT became a bit better defined, and the perception of space, primarily in depth became more realistic. The IUSB can have the greatest effect on such USB DACs, that does not have independent power supply, but it can positively affect all USB DACs. The DACs without galvanic isolation are prone to the negativ effects of ground noise. The level of improvement depends on the quality of the power management of the USB DACs – based on my experience it is worth a try. The inclusion of the IUSB into the sound chain had a very positive effect on the sound quality, including the soundstage of the system, but I was still looking for the solution for the powerful room filling sound. It was an additional impulse for me, when I heard Nat King Cole songs (Nature boy, Love, etc) first on the great HRT Microstreamer – AIAIAI TMA-1 Studio Young Guru combo, then on the loudspeakers. On the IUSB-Dragonfly-A2 chain the velvety, shiny character of Nat King Cole’s sound was lost. It sounded detailed and nice, but cold and distant. Memories of the good old Fatman iTube came into my mind. Started to look for ITube MKII (2x25W) amps, but I did not find any for purchase. Parallel to that I listened to some studio monitor loudspeakers (Mackie MR5 Mk2, Presonus Eris E5) to check if the A2 is the limiting factor. ifi Audio started to promote their new product called iTube. Fortunatelly I could convince my friend Peter to order demo equipment from ifi, that landed at me for testing. ifi iTube The Ifi ITube is an integrated device, with multiple complementing functions. Ifi calls it The swiss army knife of audio – now that is the marketing J The iTube works solely in the analog domain. A General Electric 5670 NOS tube is hidden in the slim aluminium body of the device. The only sign of the working vacuum tube inside, is the small red light dot on the upper surface of the iTube, when the device is turned on. The modes of the iUSB can be set with DIP switches placed on the base surface of the device. With the default setting it acts as a tube buffer without gain with 1 M Ohm impedance. The iUSB can also be switched to preamp mode with 100K impedance. In both cases 6dB gain can be turned on, that can come handy with low output level players, like IPhones or Ipad as sources. There are two addtional switches on the device for the other two functions of the iUSB. The Digital Antidote Plus is the enhanced version of the sound improvement technology developed initially by Anthony Taddeo in the eighties. It completes timing and phase correction operations on the analog signal to eliminate phase errors resulting from digital signal processing, primarily from upsampling/oversampling techniques. The information I found about DAP, that it splits the analog signal coming from a digital source, delays one of them with some millisecs, than unites the signals again aiming for a more organic sound. The second optional function is called 3D HolographicSound. The headphone specific version of the technology was introduced in the iCan. This method corrects the sound of the diverse frequencies according to the characteristics of the human hearing. There are three modes: Off, Normal for HIFI loudspeakers with 2-5 meters of distance between them, and Wide for desktop loudspeakers. Experience, sound I presumed, that the ifi iTube shall bring the warm, meaty character of the Fatman iTube’s sound into my system. Based on my experience of two weeks usage, the ifi iTube does not stick to the whole stereotype of tube sound, but fortunatelly also does not contradict that. As an active loudspeaker user I used the iTube as a pure tube buffer without gain. The iTube did not color the sound, did not emphasise any of the frequency ranges - the preferred sound character of the Dragonfly - A2 – S8 chain remained unchanged. In exchange it brought back the wished velvety, polished character and liquidity of the sound. The digital edge and precise but sterile nature of the sound vanished. The previously rolled off decays became more realistic in space, and the occasionally hard edged sounds produced by the Dragonfly became more rounded. The attention to micro details, vividity, dynamics and the freshness/speed remained unchanged. Fortunatelly these improvements did not bring any tradeoffs with them (like the smearing, slow sound of the Fatman), and the base became more tuneful and tight. Everything sounded more natural. I tested the effect of Digital Antidote Plus, switching it on/off during listening to diverse types of music. The effect of DAP is more subtle, than the effect of the tube buffer or the 3D HolographicSound function. It smoothes primarily the sound of high frequency instruments, like violin, some wind instruments, and make them sound stronger. I listened many times to the recordings of Miles Davis - Tutu and Dave Brubeck Quartet – The Last set, with the DAP effect turned on. I felt that in some cases the sound became too smooth and homogene for my taste, I missed the ’bite’ of the brass section, so I decided to turn off the DAP. The preferred sound signature changes from person to person, and level of the effect is different on diverse types of music. The DAP effect can be turned on/off on the iTube making it possible for the user to set the sound according to his/her actual preference. First I switched the 3D Holographic sound function mistakenly to wide mode – the sound disintegrated in the room, it was horrid. I quickly turned it off, and later on switched it to the hifi/normal mode, appropriate for my setting. The instruments found their place in the space, the soundstage became wider, the instruments seemed to move away from each other, and the sound of base instruments felt stronger and even more tight. As a noticable change the sound of singers moved away from the loudspeakers and walls. The iTube could not eliminate the volume and pure air pressure limits of the A2s, but the system could finally fill our room with dimensional sound. Some weeks ago I could attend the concert of Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble on the A38 boat, that was one of the best concerts I have seen in ages. The CD cannot represent how vivid and colourful the concert was, but during listening to Bop, I could easily identify and hear the harp solos, the tight percussions and double bass, the brass section containing a tuba and pozan, the musical jokes like playing the base line with beating the mouthpiece of the tuba or solo played with the strings of the piano, beneath the continuosly pulsating piano base. The complex arrangement did not collapse. The Nat King Cole songs, for example Love regained the unique sound of the Capitol recordings and the purity, velvety feel, that did not hide the occasional small intentional hardness of his voice. The same could be said about the beautiful Strangers on the shore song from Acker Bilk, that was rediscovered on the Late night tale compilation of Röyksopp. Finally I felt, that I listened to these recordings from a digital source ’in the original form’, not just in good quality. During listening to the Once upon a time in America Cocoye theme from Yoyoma’s Morricone adaptation CD, the cello almost cried, and I heard the crackles of the instrument at the unrestful beginning of the song. Later on the melody calmed down, and the voice of the cello became warm and soft, showing all steps of the transition in between. I mentioned previously the Barbara Bukle song from the Art of recording CD. Hearing a Chopin Nocturne played by Gergely Bogányi from the same CD was really enjoyable thanks to the special gloss of the sound of piano during the lyric parts, and the full-blooded sound of the piano hammers sticking together with the resonance of the whole body of the piano in the more dramatic sections of the song. The album SSSS from VCMG presumably will not be a classic of the electronic music history, but the pulsating analog synthetiser sound of the first five songs can easily grip me anytime. It floored me to experience the ringing, resonating analog synthetiser sounds floating between and around the loudspeakers in the room with huge energy – I felt that I could almost feel the sound in the air coming from the A2s. I would like to mention the elementary power and dynamics of the drum+base startup of Billy Jean, and the clean separation of the elements in the complex base+synthetiser+singing+vocals+guitar solo arrangement in Scream from Michael Jackson’s History album. Based on the above detailed experience I can say the addition of the iTube between the Dragonfly and the A2 solved my problem, put an end to the flatness, analitical nature of the sound. The sounds became more rounded, palpable, full bodied surrounded with ambience. The iTube borrowed an analog feel to the sound of my system. The level of improvement varied again from DAC to DAC. The Dragonfly benefited strongly from the added subtlety, liquidity to the detailed, dynamic base sound signature. The sound of the HRT Microstreamer is more meaty and analog like (but I feel it a bit compressed used with loudspeakers, that I did not notice when I use it with headphones) – here I did not hear so much improvement. In summary it seems to me that the systems primarily focusing on detailed sound retrieval, having a bit digital, hard-edged sound (think for example Sabre…) can benefit the most from the addition of iTube. The level of synergy with already analog sounding high end DACs will be much lower. Some additional songs, and the effect of the iTube on the listening experience · Vocal o Janelle Monet – Give em what they love § The continuosly present guitar riffs with diverse effects, Prince’s halfways appearing guitar solo, the brass section, electric organ theme and the duet of Monet and Prince all found their place in the space. o Morningdeer - Concert on a Twig /Drive § All small momentum, resonance and the constant changes from almost crying voice to tender or jazzy singing was represented authentically together with the strong guitar-drum baseline, the marching piano, the diverse types of percussions and sound effects – all performed by Krisztina Dányi. · Rock o Rolling Stones – Under my thumb § The distinctive smooth character, mixing and ambience of Aftermath was present in the song. o Motorhead – End of time § I enjoyed the pure power of the distorted guitars in harmony with the base drums, percussions and hard edged singing of Lemmy. · Electronic music o Darkside – Psychic / Heart § The drums marching in at the beginning of the song from right to the middle of the space to slowly fill it out completely, the electric guitar jumping in at 1.02, the synthetiser sound becoming unexpectedly huge, and parallel to that the processed singing and guitar solo all sounded very real, convincing. o Marcel Fengler – Dejavu, Liquid Torso § The colourful synthetiser sound and the effects of the song from the album Fokus from the Berghain rezident dj floated in the air around me above the huge, hammering baseline. Usage, summary The ITube, as a vacuum tube device, should be switched on some minutes before listening to music to let it warm in, avoiding unwanted distorsion. During continuous usage the device becomes hot, not burning hot, but hot. It should be placed where ventillation is unhindered. The tube is socketed, it can be changed, if needed – screwdriver is included in the package. According to ifi the expected lifetime of the tube is 100.000 hours. Together with my wife we liked very much the sound of our system extended with the iTube. It is easy to get used to good things. When I had to give it back, both of us felt, that something is missing from the sound. We ordered one as a christmas present. Closing comments In this review I shared with you my computer audio experiments. Our recent system can play back all the types of music we used to listen to a very believable, enjoyable way. Recently I could hear the ifi IDAC, that is based on the same ESS9023 chip as the Dragonfly. Unsurprisingly, the sound character of the IDAC is very similar, but the dynamics are considerably better - maybe I shall change for that. In case I have to fill a bigger room with sound, then I shall audition some bigger active loudspeakers. The Adam Audio F7 would come first into my mind, that is starting to build a reputation of a price/performance champion in audiophile circles. Right now I feel, I have arrieved to a system, that provides such musical sound, that fully meets my/our expectations. Further developments are the ’music of the future’ (it is a hungarian slang for ’time will tell’J There is an important question – how much does it cost, and is it worth to buy? · Ifi IUSB: around 200 EUR · Audioquest Dragonfly DAC: around 200 EUR · Ifi iTube: around 300 EUR If you ask me, the short answer is yes. The three devices together produce a very detailed, dynamic, analog-like sound, that was the priviligue of the premium DACs costing 800-1000 EUR or above until now, without the tube buffer. I think, that the flexibility of the further development of the system is also a very important advantage. I could have avoided using a computer for music playback, plugging the IUSB and the DAC directly into the Synology, and playing music with its own AudioStation software, controlled from a tablet. I really like the sound and GUI of Foobar, so I shall set up the wireless controls through some addons in Foobar. Beyond reviewing these devices I tried to represent in this article, that thanks to the booming development of USB DACs, it became much easier and cheaper to build a notebook based mobile hifi system. Thanks to the fact that I did not have the money to buy a high end DAC 2-3 years ago, without the above mentioned steps I would have missed this period of rising quality mobile music playback, music enjoyment. Nowadays a FIIO E10 (Wolfson 8740) is worth a try as a first step, that can be bought for as low as 65 EUR. Combined with the iUSB its sound catapults into a different league. Later on the DAC can be changed to a pricier alternative, that also can be used with the iUSB power supply. We should not forget, that these devices are fully mobile, they can be used during working hours with a notebook and a headphone, and arriving home can become the competent sound source for the hifi system. I won’t say there are no other ways… Many music lovers believe that USB batteries, like the Kingrex UPower provide the cleanest power source. The music specific models cost around the same as the iUSB. The possibility of mobile use made them interesting, but the requirement of constant recharging and the obligatory usage of a V-cable kept them away from me. It’s up to us to find the system (elements), that fits our sound preference and wallet the best. Sound system used for testing · Thinkpad x60, 3GB RAM, 60 GB OCZ Agility SSD, Windows 7, Foobar 1.3 beta 5 · ASUS GX-D1051 V2 Gigabit switch · Synology DS212j NAS · Ifi IUSB + Gemini cable · Audioquest Dragonfly DAC · USB A-B converter (Conrad) · ifi iTube · KáCsa® OCC Line RCA cable · Audioengine A2 + S8
  4. Hello all, I am getting more interested in computer audio and have a technical question. I recently bought a Denon DM-39s micro system for the office and am really enjoying it. Currently, I have my Mac hooked up to it via mini to RCA (I know, I know RCA is bad). According to the Denon site, the unit has a built in DAC (192 kHz/32-bit D/A). My question is, does the DAC only operate when using the USB input on the front of the unit, or does it also kick in when using the RCA and/or optical port on the back? Interestingly, neither the Denon site nor the WhatHiFi review give any indication about this. I have Audirvana (the free version as I am still experimenting) running on the computer and a few FLAC files. The FLAC files play through the unit no problem. My other question is if I got a separate DAC (I am considering a Dragonfly 1.2), would it override the onboard one or could it be made to do so? Thanks,
  5. Hi everyone, first and foremost i want to greet everyone. I've been following this website for some time and i find it very inspiring. My question: I'm thinking to replace my Firewire Apogee Duet with an Audioquest Dragonfly... My setup is now MacBookPro -> Firewire Duet -> Musical Fidelity A5 -> Totem Forest loudspeakers. Now... what about the expensive RCA to RCA cables i already own? I use them to connect the Duet outs with the A5 inputs via 2 Jack-to-RCA adapters... Should I buy some new 3.5mm to RCA cables? In this case, do you have any recommendations? Or... would a 3.5mm to RCA splitter adaptor do the trick so i can keep my existing high quality rca-to-rca cables? If this is the case, which adapter would you recommend? Thanks a lot. Leonardo
  6. I’ve been on an obsessive mission to upgrade my computer audio system and desktop listening station to respectable performance level. I’ve been interested in hi-fi for a long time, but never really graduated beyond the entry-level gear, although I tried to buy the best (think Vandersteen 1B, PSB Alpha B1) and my “main” rig serves primarily as day-to-day home theater (those B1s are literally relegated to a bookshelf in a media console). With advances in computer audio, I saw an opportunity to get my audiophile on at the desktop, as well as revamp the computerization of my music. My initial purchase was the Sennheiser HD-650 headphones. This dictated my budget for a DAC and amp, in keeping with the conventional wisdom that headphones (or speakers) should garner the lion’s share of the hi-fi budget. Several DAC/amp options have emerged for $300 and less over the last half year, and the next level is a substantial leap upwards of at least 50%, and losing the integrated headamp and portability in the step (e.g., Schiit Bifrost, Halide DAC HD, Resonessence Concero, or Asus Xonar Essence One). So I focused my attention on the Dragonfly, iDAC, Modi, and now the Explorer. I bought the Dragonfly before the Explorer’s release, then purchased the Explorer in somewhat of an impulse purchase, and quickly conducted some casual comparative listening before the return window runs out on the Dragonfly. Starting with the Dragonfly Dragonfly is available on Amazon, replete with expedited shipping, easy returns, use of gift cards, etc. Although a good DAC remains an enthusiasts’ purchase, these simple-to-install, portable products with reasonably wide appeal and price under $500 should have minimal distribution hurdles and constraints, resembling the mass market more than a network of exclusive audiophile boutiques. Availability: not an issue with Dragonfly. The Dragonfly’s 3.5 mm output swaps easily between different downstream kit (headphones, external amps, powered speakers), even easier than dual RCA jacks. I didn’t require the Dragonfly’s supremely small thumb drive form factor, and would have preferred that the design budget be freed up to a larger size and allocated to other performance attributes while remaining aptly portable, as with the other DACs I considered. But the form factor is as functional as it is impressive. I bought the companion Dragontail USB cable to ease strain on the main unit’s USB stick and simply add back some substantive bulk to the diminutive device with a matching cable. As others have reported, there’s a gap between the cladding on each device, and the connection is crooked. Although it works fine and it’s a minor issue, what little I’m asking from the simple yet premium passive component from a major name in cables is a conspicuous disappointment. Research My initial impression of the sonic performance, before I actually listened to anything, was formed largely by AudioStream, to which I owe credit for very helpful research. Dragonfly placed on the light and lean end of the sonic spectrum, in contrast to the fat and rich presentation of iFi’s iDAC. With a similar position on the spectrum, Modi conceded to Dragonfly in Audiostream’s assessment. Late to the party, Explorer was the Goldilocks of the group, neither too fat nor too lean. Lacking the Goldilocks choice initially and forced to choose one end of the sonic spectrum over the other, fat and rich sounded more appealing than light and lean. But iFi availability was sketchy. One dealer that deigned to offer it online in the United States listed availability as January 20 up until February, and I also heard of shipping delays from otherwise satisfied customers even in its home country. And iDAC cost another $50 plus shipping than Dragonfly. And the RCA jacks would make for a slightly more cumbersome switch among systems. The Modi/Magni stack, while cheapest and small enough to port around the house, are even more suited for semi-permanent desktop placement, dedicated to a headphone rig. It was tough (and somewhat unpatriotic) to pass on Schiit’s exemplary home-grown manufacturing and distribution, but I haven’t ruled out adding one of their popular headphone amps. Purchase So I bought the Dragonfly. Behaving more like a young lad than a middle-aged audiophile, I proceeded to crush my new toy immediately out of the box with hard rocking favorites, recently re-ripped from CD (hopefully for the final time) to ALAC with XLD. Additionally, I played a smaller but more diverse collection of HD tracks up to 192 kHz sample rate, served up by a Synology 212j NAS via iTunes and BitPerfect on a MacBook running Snow Leopard. Stock cables. Dragonfly delivered the goods, but I was struck by its analytical sound. Much of this I attribute to being new to serious computer audio and headphone listening, if not entry-level hi fi more generally. It was a fascinating new perspective on my music, but one that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. The center of gravity of my music collection is 90s indie rock, with a tilt toward the hard stuff. This is not particularly amenable to the audiophile treatment, not to mention a rather analytical one. On poorer recordings of favorite material, I pined for an old-fashioned treble control to turn down. Nevertheless, Dragonfly delivered impressive resolution. I could pick apart individual elements of otherwise congested noise pop, for example. Aggressive attack livens up the sound. The resolution and attack serve up bass very nicely; nothing muddy about it. But even after listening for a few days and adapting to the sound and allowing for some burn in, I find that these strengths come at the expense of the corresponding excesses—a rather clinical sound. Dare I say, digital. Even with superior, more “grown up” recordings, albeit less so. One knock on the Dragonfly is that it stresses when pushed. Even within the context of my challenging listening habits, I observed this initially and over time. On most recordings, the sound completely falls apart beyond 75% volume, and often before. I reach this harshness limitation before a discomfort of otherwise clean sound pressure alone on nearly every recording; only the best of them overcome this. Over time, I tend to keep backing the volume down, winding up marginally above 50% at most, even though the loudness itself seems reasonable at, say, 67%, even 80% for short bursts of cranking up a favorite passage. Even after embracing the detailed presentation, it can be fatiguing to listen loud enough to hear the nuances. An external amp could help here, and I’d probably add one (most likely the Magni) were I to stick with the Dragonfly. Maybe even a tube amp, even though I’m not a big advocate of seeking tone control with amplification coloration. Otherwise, longer-term listening is pleasant enough at 50% or below. Enter the Explorer Its simultaneous launch and evaluation on Audiostream and Computer Audiophile immediately placed Meridian's Explorer as the new king of entry-level portable DACs. Well, more sonically neutral than Dragonfly and iDAC according to AS, and demonstrably superior to Dragonfly on CA. Having conducted such and exhausting initial search, I bought the Explorer almost impulsively, from Audio Salon in Santa Monica, per CA’s recommendation. Audio Salon delivered attentive service and quick shipping; I concur with the recommendation. Beyond the obvious feature set comparison, one thing I confirmed immediately with Explorer is that you can feed the separate headphone jack and line out simultaneously. Not that you’d want to listen to them both at the same time, but swapping between, say, headphones and desktop speaker monitors doesn’t get much easier, since you can keep them both connected and running with no switching. If I read the scant info on the iDAC right, it has both headphone and line out RCA jacks, but can only output one at a time correctly. Swapping with Dragonfly is literally a snap, but there’s just the one port. Evaluating the Explorer sound vis-à-vis Dragonfly has generally been an exercise in confirming expectation bias. Sorry, no rigorous blind ABX for the objectivists, but also no offending absolutist subjectivist claims intended. Explorer gets more right with less wrong than Dragonfly. Explorer does not exhibit Dragonfly’s excesses, but nor does it succumb to corresponding shortcomings. It sounds more natural and euphonic than analytical. Explorer delivers the whole rather than the sum of the parts, which Dragonfly picks apart (albeit to fascinating effect). Not hyper-detailed, but also not congested. Explorer excels at timbre and decay, but not at the expense of being unnatural or colored. Attack is not overbearing, but nor is it too slow. Soundstage and imaging are better with Explorer, too. Explorer sounds more laid back; I’m not sure whether that’s a notable signature or just a contrast with the fast, forward pace and attack of the Dragonfly. The Dragonfly attack is apparent on drum thwack. It’s punchy, but after a bit of time at satisfying volume, you feel like you’ve been punched. The Explorer delivers more satisfying decay on drums and strings, resulting in a more obviously natural sound. Part of that comes from well-presented timbre, which is sonically where Explorer outshines Dragonfly most gratifyingly. By my calculations and listening experience, Dragonfly delivers marginally more power into my HD-650 (300 Ω) than Explorer. Although both DACs sound good at modest loudness levels, Explorer holds up at higher volume longer. With Dragonfly, I’m usually reaching to turn it down. With Explorer, I’m reaching to turn it up. The Explorer sound quality breaks down at about the same point I reach my volume limit or just after. I can usually reach my short-term volume limit, but sometimes not. Again, an external amp would help here (I may look for one that goes to eleven). But that would require use of the non-headphone line out; I’m excited about the prospect of toggling back and forth between my headphones and desktop speakers—which is my next computer audio upgrade adventure (Emotiva Airactiv 5 or Adam F5?). Results So I will be sending the Dragonfly back with its tail and keeping the Explorer. Which is not to say that Dragonfly is a loser, or that Explorer is the final word on DAC/headamp combinations. Dragongfly excels with portability, punchy delivery, and fine detail. I don’t doubt that I might like iDAC even better sonically, but the more natural and balanced reputation of the Explorer seems more “correct,” but not at the expense of euphony. And there’s the port configuration and availability advantages that favor Explorer. I suppose Explorer gets you in at the entry level for neutral and natural, whereas previously, you had to choose among trade-offs at the humble $300 level. Explorer and Dragonfly may perform as good as previous generation DACs that cost much more, but even today, $300 doesn’t remove all room for improvement on sonic realism by any means. But Explorer is not lacking for much in a $300 DAC, not to mention one that’s portable with a headamp. And there’s always incremental improvements like an external amp or iFi’s iUSBPower plus two-headed cable. The latter gets you to the $500 class with a modular, incremental, optional upgrade rather than an up-front hit to the budget. I also fully acknowledge all manner of expectation bias, and I don’t pretend to scientifically pick apart different DACs. I just spend time listening to each DAC and forming impressions, fully aware of bias introduced by reading reviews and commentary—embracing it, even. I concede some trust in the most credible reviewers and reputable manufacturers that I’m getting the most for my budget. Beyond that, it comes down to basic features like outputs and even availability via a robust distribution channel (I haven’t even mentioned 192 kHz capability until now). While alternatives remain viable for different priorities, I’m delighted with the Explorer.
  7. Halide DAC HD, with 7 meter cord. I've had this in my system for 3 months and I love it. I'm only selling it because I decided to get a DSD compatible DAC in the near future. But, I've never heard imaging so precise on my system, even with much more expensive equipment than this awesome little DAC. And I love the simplicity of it... I bought it new for $550 plus tax. I'm asking $400. Buyer pays shipping. Here's CA's great review of the Halide DAC HD: Computer Audiophile - Halide Design DAC HD Review Thanks for looking!
  8. Is there consensus regarding optimal Audirvana + (2.1.1) & DragonFly 1.2 settings? Anyone care to share settings? I’m currently using the A+/DF recommendations from 2012: http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/487-audioquest-dragonfly-review/ Me: rMBP (OS 10.10.2) > Audirvana Plus 2.1.1 > Dragonfly 1.2 > Grado SR80/AKG 701 Thanks!
  9. Hello, So, it looks like I will have to buy a DAC for my little office system – the Denon D-M39s. I am looking at the Dragonfly 1 and 1.2. Both have received very favorable reviews. I am on a budget and can get the first version for $ 100. Is it worth spending the extra $ 50 to get the 1.2? Am I getting that much more? Thanks for any advice.
  10. Pros: Compactness, sound quality, no need to charge Cons: Could not found any This is really a must buy for an iPhone owner who likes to listen high quality music on iPhone. I am using it with my iPhone 7 Plus and the sound quality it improves will surely blow your mind. I know it is not that good like Chord Mojo and I am also owner of Mojo too but on the go it is very hard to manage it when DF Black will give you full flexibility because of it's compactness and it is really very pocket friendly in terms of pricing. Go for it. I also uploaded a small unboxing video on youtube. You can watch it here: Thanks...
  11. Well I've seen the ads in Stereophile over the last months and curious how it sounds. I placed a preorder for it over at musicdirect and should arrive in mid June. I plan on using it with headphones on my MacBook Air at home and when I travel. From their site: Features: 64-position analog volume control Accepts music files up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution Asynchronous Class 1 USB data transfer using the Streamlength™ protocol Direct-coupled circuitry from the ESS Sabre DAC chip through the analog volume control and output analog driver section Dual Master Clocks are used to minimize the amount of jitter present in the DAC circuitry $249.00 I know there are plenty of other options out there but do like the fact that it is so small and portable. Anyone else curious how this will sound? Thanks, Derrick
  12. Ok folks, I'm a college student with a budget, and after hours of online research, these are the best DACs I found. Now, I really need your help eliminating, and comparing and contrasting these, since I can't compare all four of them anywhere close to where I live. Also, I don't care about features, all I want to know is which one will produce the BEST sound. My current set up is a late 2011 MacBook Pro with its standard sound card, Channel D Pure Music iTunes plug-in, and a pair of Audioengine A2, which I will be connecting the DAC to, obviously. And yes, most of my music library is in Apple Lossless codec. HELP! Please and thank you.