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Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 Digital to Analog Converter
Full Featured DAC Provides First-Rate Performance

 

 October 2010

 



As some of you may know, not too long ago I reviewed Wyred 4 Sound’s STI-500 integrated amplifier. This proved an enlightening experience for me and demonstrated EJ Sarmento’s considerable talent for building superb audio components without the customary high-end price tags. Of course part of the reason that Wyred 4 Sound products offer such high bang-for-the-buck is that they sell factory-direct and thus their products are not marked up nearly as much as if they were marketed through distributors and dealers. Wyred 4 Sound does have a few dealers who carry their products, and these dealers appear to maintain Wyred 4 Sound’s factory-direct prices.

After my review of the STI-500, I was so impressed that I bought the review sample and have been using it as my reference amplifier ever since. Accordingly, I was very pleased to receive the news that EJ Sarmento would be sending me the company’s new top-of-the-line digital to analog converter, the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2, for a full review.

The cosmetic styling of the DAC-2 will be familiar to those who have experience with other Wyred 4 Sound products. It matches their amplifiers perfectly, and it was kind of nice to see the two W4S components sitting side by side with their rugged good looks. Aesthetically, the Wyred 4 Sound components would not be considered “audio jewelry” as the company prefers to put performance first and cosmetics second. The DAC-2 comes in either silver or black finishes with the familiar machined black corner accents.

The suggested list price of the DAC-2 is $1499.00. W4S also makes a DAC-1, which is the same basic DAC with fewer types of digital inputs, no remote control or volume control, no HT Bypass or DC trigger, a lower-res USB input, LCD instead of VFD display, and standard power-supply filter caps instead of the W4S low-ESR “super-caps”. The price of the DAC-1 is $999.00

Upon installing the DAC-2 I realized that its remote control is identical to that of the STI-500 amplifier and since they are set to the same frequency, either remote will work either W4S component. This was not much of a problem for me since the DAC-2 was installed about 6 feet to the left of the STI-500 in my system, but for those who would use both pieces in closer physical proximity the remote control can be defeated in the DAC-2’s Setup Menu. This is a good solution since most of the control options are the same for both components (volume, balance, input selection, etc.).

Circuit Description & Features
The DAC-2 uses the increasingly popular ESS Sabre ES9018 processor chips. This 8-channel chip is used in its quad-differential mode, meaning that there are 4 differential D/A conversion circuits for each channel in parallel. This configuration contributes to the DAC-2’s infra-low signal-to-noise ratio and to its superior drive capability.

The power supply of the DAC-2 begins with an oversized toroidal transformer followed by 3-stages of power supply filtering with a total of more than 115,000uF of capacitance, and 13 regulation points. The analog output stages are powered by a separate power supply, which keeps it isolated from the digital front end.

W4S is very proud of the fact that they took the time to develop a discrete analog output stage using a dual-differential input amplifier stage and all Dale RN55d resistors for precise tolerance and control. This dual-differential design allows both the balanced and unbalanced outputs to take advantage of common-mode rejection.

The DAC-2 employs a 2-line Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VDF) to permit the display of several operational parameters at once. Because of its lighted nature and variable dimming feature, it is visible across a room and can be made dimmer or turned off once the parameters are set and known.

Besides the VDF display there are three push buttons on the front panel of the DAC-2. The center button is for Power and the two flanking buttons are marked “Up” and “Down.” The Up and Down buttons scroll through the different input choices, set volume, and together with the Power button are used to change and set values in the Setup Menu.

 

The rear panel of the DAC-2 contains no less than 7 (count ‘em) digital inputs: 2 RCA Coax, 2 Toslink optical, 1 AES-EBU, 1 24/192 Asynchronous USB, and one I2S (on HDMI, but non-standard HDMI format). Note that at this time the only source component to provide an I2S via HDMI is the PS Audio Perfect Wave transport. In addition there is one pair of HT Bypass analog RCA inputs.

Outputs include both high-quality gold-plated copper RCAs and Balanced Neutrik XLR connectors, claimed to be the finest on the market. There is also a 12V Trigger input/output, a female IEC connector for your favorite crazy-expensive aftermarket AC cord, and a master On/Off toggle switch.

The Remote Control, as I said, is the same as that of my W4S STI-500 integrated amp. It controls the basic functions like Power, Volume, Balance, Display Dimmer, Input Selection, Muting, and Phase Inversion. Some of these functions are only available via the remote.

Another nice feature of the DAC-2 is that it allows the user to custom tailor the digital filter to his liking. One can select the point of high-frequency roll-off via the IIR Bandwidth adjustment in several steps starting at less than 50kHz and going up to 70kHz. One can also specify either a “Slow” or “Fast” roll off.
The default setting is <50kHz with Fast roll off.

I experimented a little with the filter settings after the DAC was broken in as W4S suggests. I found that making a minor change to the 50kHz setting with the Fast roll off worked a little better in my system than the default of <50kHz. It seemed to add a bit more high frequency air and openness. I also tried changing the roll off slope to “Slow,” but to my ears this made the highs more fizzy and less natural and precise. YMMV.

Installation
Because of the DAC-2’s plethora of digital inputs, I was able to use it in both my computer-to-Home Theater surround sound system (via USB), and my purist 2-channel reference system (via S/PDIF RCA coax, and Toslink optical). In my 2-channel system, I began my listening through the DAC-2’s variable volume control set at around 60 but later achieved better results by setting the DAC-2 to its fixed volume mode. In my view, the fixed volume mode provides improved performance over the variable volume mode; to my eras, it seems more immediate sounding, more dynamic, and more true-to-life. On the other hand if you do not have a very good preamp, going direct to your power amp from the DAC-2 will likely work very well. Please note that in its fixed-output mode the DAC-2’s output level is higher than most DACs but each digital input can be configured to lower its maximum output level so that your preamp’s volume control will operate within your preferred volume range.

In my 2-channel system, the DAC-2 fed my custom tube line buffer, which in turn drove my Wyred 4 Sound STI-500 integrated amp. In the Home Theater system, the DAC-2 fed my Onkyo TS-XR605 receiver, which feeds a 5.1 surround system using Energy Connoisseur Series speakers.

In the 2-channel system I was able to directly compare the DAC-2 to my NuForce Edition Oppo BDP-83SE in 2-channel mode. I also tried using the Oppo machine as a transport but found it did not sound appreciably better (as a transport) than my trusty Pioneer DV-333 DVD player.

After the DAC-2 was broken in and working its best, my friend Peter brought over his Audio Note 2.1x Signature tube DAC along with Eastern Electric’s new MiniMax DAC that uses the same ESS Sabre ES9018 Reference processor chips as the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-1 and DAC-2 converters. For that matter, the Oppo BDP-83SE uses ESS Sabre32 Ultra DAC chips although they are a different model, the ES9016.

If you’d like to know the outcome of all the above comparisons, KEEP READING!

Preliminaries
My first impressions of the DAC-2 were quite favorable. I can recall playing a Shaggy CD and thinking that I had never heard it sound so dynamic before. But it was more than that. Another facet of the DAC-2’s performance that initially caught my ear was its ability to keep every instrument separate and clear. The DAC2 allowed me to hear and follow the background accompanying instruments with unprecedented clarity.

I knew early on that the DAC-2 was a step up from my former stand-alone player, the Rega Apollo and my present venerable Pioneer DV-333 DVD player. The Pioneer, I found, is a bit more dynamic than the Apollo, less temperamental, and more extended in the highs. The Pioneer now serves as the transport feeding the DAC-2. I hooked up both its Toslink fiber-optic digital output and its RCA S/PDIF coaxial output so I can A/B the two and decide which I like best. This seemed to vary with warm-up time and the particular recordings being played. The Toslink was on the mellower side while the RCA coax provided sharper transients and a higher degree of focus. Admittedly this outcome is something that will likely vary depending upon the particular coax and Toslink cables being used.

Experiments and Comparisons
The first comparison I made was between the Pioneer DV-333 player as a transport and the NuForce Oppo BDP-83SE. I rather expected the Oppo to cream the Pioneer royally, but that didn’t happen. Overall it was a toss up so I proceeded to compare the Oppo’s analog outputs to the DAC-2’s analog outputs. This was more interesting. While the Oppo and the W4S units both use ESS Sabre DACs, their respective processor chips are different models and they use different component parts in their respective power supplies and analog circuitry.

I felt the Oppo scored big with vocals and midrange instruments, having a very immediate and organic type of sound. The DAC-2 was almost as good in the midrange but had better articulation and detail at the frequency extremes, and provided a more coherent presentation from top to bottom. In comparison, the Oppo’s bass was weightier, but not as detailed; plus the extra heft in the bass seemed to obscure detail to some degree. Had the BDP-83’s bass been more controlled and articulate I may have preferred it over the DAC-2 overall. But since this was not the case, on balance I had to go with the DAC-2. Also, note that the Oppo - Wyred comparisons were made in the DAC-2’s variable-volume mode prior to my discovering that I preferred its fixed-output presentation.

The day I decided to try the DAC-2’s fixed output mode turned out to be very enlightening. From the very first CD I played, I felt that yet another veil was lifted. Dynamics, especially micro-dynamics seemed noticeably enhanced, instrumental focus and clarity improved, and along with it the overall sense of immediacy. My connection to vocalists and individual instruments grew more intense and I felt better-connected to the performance.

This being the case, my next move was to remove the DAC-2 from my 2-channel reference system and install it in my Home Theater system using my Dell/Windows XP Pro-based computer as the source. As I did this on a Sunday I hoped it would go smoothly as no one would be around to help me in case I had some sort of computer interface issue. Of course this turned out to be the case.

Wyred 4 Sound provides a USB driver installation disc that works with MAC and standard PCs. The instructions are fairly clear and I was able to install the drivers without a hitch. My problem came when I turned on the DAC-2 and tried to get it to “hook up,” which I assumed would be automatic. It wasn’t. As it happened, I needed to go to the Control Panel to the “Sounds and Audio Devices” program. Once there, I went to the “Audio” tab where I then saw that the W4S drivers were added to my list of devices under “Sound playback – Default device:”. Once I selected the W4S drivers as my “default device,” the music began to play. Step 9 in the W4S manual under the heading “USB Configuration” has words to this effect, but not being as computer savvy as I could be, the vagueness of the wording left me figuring it out for myself.

With the program working, I went to my free Monkey Media program where I pulled up my hi-res 96/24 FLAC files I had downloaded from Chesky’s HD Tracks. I have to admit I was very impressed with the sound quality provided by my admittedly modest HT system using the DAC-2 as the beefy conduit between my computer and the RCA inputs on my Onkyo receiver.

Holly Cole’s vocal “Larger Than Life” had that you-are-there kind of immediacy where one could discern every element of her diction. The big bass drum was a touch large and powerful and the cymbals shimmered as real cymbals should. Then on “Misery” by Dave’s True Story, the female vocalist had a kind of spooky atmospheric breathy presence followed by some bluesy guitar licks and fast wake-up drum beats that were quite palpable. I can say that employing the DAC-2 in my modest HT with hi-res recordings allowed the HT to perform much more like my much more expensive 2-channel rig.

By this time, I was trying to analyze what sonic parameters and qualities of the DAC-2 were an improvement over my previous digital sources. The list went like this:

*Instruments present smoother sound when called for
*Improved immediacy and focus throughout the crucial midrange
*Enhanced micro-dynamics adds more meaning and emotion to the music
*High frequencies are clearer and more natural sounding
*Fast transients are reproduced almost perfectly without overshoot or rounding
*Backing instruments and vocalists are more easily followed.
*Ultra-quiet DAC allows one to hear even the quietest sounds and musical nuances that were previously buried in the noise floor.

Showdown at the Alles’ Palace
One day, my tube-loving friend Peter calls me out of the blue and said that he had to hear the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 because of a great review it just received at another publication. I informed Peter that I was about to pen a very positive review of said DAC-2 myself and that he should drop by for a visit. Peter agreed and decided to bring his 8-year-old Audio Note DAC 2.1x Signature along to see how the two DACs compared. Peter’s Audio Note is somewhat modified in that he had installed more robust power supply capacitors, and NOS Telefunken E188CC tubes instead of stock tubes. He also upgraded the internal wiring to LAT International’s Silverfuse. On the way over he stopped by his friend’s house and picked up the new Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC, which uses the same Sabre ES9018 processor chips as the DAC-2 and has both solid-state and tube output options. This showdown was on!

We began the shootout with the DAC-2 playing in its fixed-output mode (since it was already hooked up). All the same cables and power cord were used on all three DACs to keep things fair. The coaxial RCA S/PDIF digital inputs were employed for consistency.

We put on some vocal music by Diana Krall, Ingrid Michaelson, and Aaron Neville. Here, the DAC-2 acquitted itself well lending a very even-handed and immediate presentation to the vocals and instruments. There was no hardness or spitty sound even on dynamic peaks. In fact, the treble had a tube-like softness while being more detailed and focused at the same time, which in some circles would be considered an eyebrow-raising event in itself. The accompanying brass instruments and strings sounded distinct, detailed, and tonally correct. Alas, all was well.

Next up was Peter’s trusty Audio Note 2.1x Signature tube DAC that sold for $3,875 sans the aforementioned mods. Frankly, even though Audio Note has a reputation for building great sounding DACs and this DAC was physically large and heavy, I had a feeling its performance would not be up to the standards set by the DAC-2. As it turned out, I was right, and wrong.

For sure the Audio Note had that kind of dark and lovely tube presentation that tube units are known for. But it had much more articulation in the bass than I expected and the highs were quite good as well. I felt the vocals lost a bit of immediacy in the upper midrange compared to the DAC-2 and the background instruments and sounds were not as clear and easily followed, but all in all, the Audio Note had a great, dynamic, punchy, and musically coherent presentation. Even the blazing guitar work from Rodrigo y Gabriela’s 11:11 CD (ATO 0080) sounded plausible and provided a wonderfully dynamic thwack attack! This is a very dynamic recording, difficult for any DAC to do well. I felt the Audio Note acquitted itself very well but was ultimately out-finessed by the DAC-2 in terms of tracking the dynamics and fast transients of several instruments blazing away simultaneously.

This left us divided, with tube-loving Peter preferring the slightly more rounded romantic presentation of the Audio Note. Also, the Audio Note appeared to have a small bump in the upper-bass/lower-midrange region, which imparted a bit more chesty quality to the vocals, which Peter likes. Part of this is a difference in frequency balance, as the DAC-2 has a bit more presence in the upper midrange without coming off as aggressive and lacks the upper-bass thickness of the Audio Note. The DAC-2 is also a bit more incisive and clear. Truth be told, both DACs sounded excellent, yet different in my system. However, the DAC-2’s vanishingly low noise floor and superior instrumental tracking ability must be viewed as valuable assets. In addition, its talent to portray macro and micro-dynamics with vividness and life while remaining musical and composed won my vote.

Next up was the Eastern Electric MiniMax. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the MiniMax but was optimistic because of the positive buzz on the Internet and because it uses the same ES9018 processor chips as the DAC-2. In fairness I must divulge that the owner of this particular MiniMax changed the stock tube to a USA-made RCA that he said made an improvement in his system.

We first tried the MiniMax in its solid-state configuration, which, for whatever reason was not good for the MiniMax. It sounded thin and lacked dynamics and did not sound natural to my ears (or Peter’s). Somehow the harmonic palette provided by the MiniMax seemed a bit disjointed and lacked the kind of toe-tapping rhythm and pace that the other two contenders delivered in spades.

After a song and a half or so we switched the MiniMax to its tube mode and immediately it sounded much fuller and more coherent. That said, the bass had good energy but lacked articulation and control, and again, the MiniMax was just not quite as harmonically right and musically satisfying as either the DAC-2 or the Audio Note. Additionally, the MiniMax produced a low background hum through both speakers that one would not anticipate in a quality DAC. In fairness to the MiniMax, at its scant $750 price it’s by far the least expensive of the three DACs, and in its tube configuration it seems to offer good value. Then again, for only $999 one could buy a Wyred 4 Sound DAC-1 and have a piece that performs nearly as well as the DAC-2.

Obviously, this afternoon showdown was not a thorough evaluation. We lacked the time to play a wider variety of reference recordings. Nevertheless I thought it provided a very good understanding of the relative merits of each DAC.

Summing up
Reviewing the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 has been an enjoyable and educational experience for me. The DAC-2 provides many more consumer-friendly features than other DACs in my experience. And with its array of digital inputs including an asynchronous 24/192 USB input and an I2S via HDMI, the DAC-2 is more than ready to serve as the heart of a traditional high resolution 2-channel audio system or as a link for playing hi-res music files from a computer into any stereo or Home Theater system one chooses.

The remote control and 32-bit volume control provide ease of operation and the ability to run the DAC-2 directly into a power amplifier without the need for a line stage preamplifier. Those of you who already have an excellent preamplifier or integrated amplifier will probably end up using the DAC-2 in its fixed output mode, as I did.

I often hear audiophiles complain about trying to balance their system’s sound on that fine line between ultra-resolution and compelling musicality. The Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 is one component that does not force you to play this tricky balancing act. Instead it provides fine detail and superb resolution perfectly integrated with musicality.

In conclusion, when you have a component with so many worthwhile consumer-friendly features that provides such exemplary musical performance and at the same time lets you hear every breath and nuance of sound no matter how slight, well, in my book that’s something to get truly excited about. When you see the price sticker reads only $1499, as they say, that’s the icing on one very delicious cake. I’m buying the review sample because at this point I couldn’t bear to part with it.







Description
Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 Digital to Analog Converter
Price: $1499.00
Warranty: 3 years to the original purchaser
Visit www.wyred4sound.com for complete specifications and warranty information

W4S DAC-2 Features (from wyred4sound.com):
• ESS Reference audio (ES9018) 32 bit DAC
• W4S proprietary discrete output stages for optimum sonics
• ESS Time Domain Jitter Eliminator®
• Automatic oversampling for precise output filtering
• Fully balanced design with balanced and unbalanced outputs
• Upgradable Digital, Output, and USB boards (designed for future improvements)
• Oversized toroidal transformer for solid and noise-free power
• Robust 35A Schottky bridge rectifier (same as used in the STP-SE)
• 88,000uF of filtering with W4S low ESR "super-cap" (same as used in the STP-SE)
• VFD display for input, sample rate, volume control, and configuration viewing
• Remote control
• Defeatable - 32 bit volume control
• HT Bypass inputs (selectable via DC trigger)
• 2x Coax inputs
• 2x Toslink inputs
• 1x AES/EBU input
• 1x Balanced I2S input via HDMI cable (not standard HDMI cable format)
• 24-bit 192kHz Asynchronous USB input
• Proprietary drivers for 32/64 bit Windows XP, Vista, 7 and Mac OS 10.4, 10.5 ,10.6
• Factory selectable mains 115/230VAC
• Compact size (8.5"W x 4.125"H x 13.5"D)
• 16 lbs.

Manufacturer
Wyred 4 Sound
2323 Tuley Rd Unit A-C
Paso Robles,Ca 93446
Phone: (805) 237-2113
Web: www.wyred4sound.com
e-mail: info@wyred4sound.com