Associated Equipment:
Digital Front End
Amplification
Loudspeakers
Cabling
Electronic Visionary Systems Millennium DAC 1

The Porsche Of DACs

Tim Shea

1 March 2001

EVS DAC1Specifications

Input Impedance 75-110 Ohms
Output Impedance 100 Ohms
Output Voltage 2-7 Volts
Input Bit Resolution 16-24 Bit
Input Sample Rate 44-96 kHz
Power Consumption 15 watts
Dimensions 14" 11" 3.25"
Weight 7 lbs.
Price $750
Warranty 3 years

Address:
Electronic Visionary Systems
1112 Pilger Rd.
Boulder Creek, CA 95006
408-399-9708
e-mail: ricevs@worldnet.att.net
website: http://www.tweakaudio.com/index.html

What's your preference, the Porsche 911 or the Lexus LS430? Obviously, these are two excellent automotive animals, yet they occupy opposite ends of the performance spectrum. One coddles you in luxury, insulating you against the imperfections of the road as you enjoy the passing scenery without a care in the world. The other transmits every nuance of the road and demands your attention and input as you concentrate on each little bump and turn, reveling in the pure driving experience and reaping the rewards of your efforts. Each driver could say that he or she is experiencing the pinnacle of what the automotive world has to offer, but how could they both be right? There are many ways to get from point A to point B, and your personal preferences dictate which is best for you.

So it is with audio equipment. It's that old debate of musicality vs. accuracy, warmth vs. detail, romance vs. reality. Some components excel at smoothing out the bumps in recordings, allowing the music to flow without drawing undue attention to details. Others reveal every last bit of detail contained in the recording, yielding an open window on what the engineer intended you to hear. The former camp would likely argue that the enjoyment of the music matters above all else, while the latter might contend that the little details make the music sound real and believable. Components overly warm and romantic can sound dull and lifeless, whereas components that magnify detail can sound too bright, grainy, or harsh. The best components are able to walk the line combining elements from both camps to capture the music's essence as well as its details. Enter the EVS Millennium DAC.

In keeping with our automotive analogy, the Millennium DAC is definitely parked in the Porsche camp. In fact, I would argue that not only is it a Porsche, it's akin to that Mother of All Porsches, the 911 Turbo. But please don't think that we are talking about one of those harsh, abrasive audio components that grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. The beauty of the 911 Turbo is that for all its pure performance it is equipped with an all-wheel-drive system and monstrous, red Brembo brakes that never allow you to get you into trouble. So it is with the Millennium DAC-- it transmits everything its fed, but by virtue of its exceptional engineering and premium parts, it never puts the wrong foot forward. Call it the ultimate in carefree performance.

The Evolution of the Millennium

So what goes into the Millennium DAC that makes it so special? Many who have tried or have read about the highly regarded MSB Link DAC have probably heard of Ric Schultz. Ric has built a very successful business in part through modifying MSB DACs and the transports that feed them. You may also have heard of his volume attenuators that have garnered their share of acclaim in the audio world. Ric's modified MSBs have achieved a kind of cult status among people who have owned them. In fact, Ric gets all his business through word of mouth thanks to the impressive performance he delivers at ridiculously low prices. When talking with Ric, it is immediately obvious that he knows his stuff and that he is absolutely passionate about achieving the best performance at the lowest possible ticket.

About a year ago, bolstered by the popularity of his MSB upgrades, Ric introduced his own DAC-the Millennium DAC. In keeping with Ric's philosophy, the Millennium DAC is an extreme minimalist design. There are absolutely no lights, bells or whistles. The unit has but one switch to toggle between 24/96 and 16/44 bit/sampling rates. The Millennium DAC does do 24/96, but it doesn't upsample current 16/44 CDs. The minimalist theme continues inside the unit, which is dominated by two transformers mounted perpendicularly to reduce interactions and noise. The Millennium DAC uses the Analogue Devices DAC chip to handle the processing duties, and the other parts are straight out of an OEM wishlist catalogue: Caddock, Vishay, Infinicaps, Elna Cerifines, etc. Ric also pays careful attention to shielding by lining potential sources of noise with insulating strips and copper foil. Suffice it to say that the view the hood is as impressive as a 911's engine bay. It's all about performance.

Ric will custom configure each DAC to individual specifications, but, like the 911 Turbo, options are limited and include balanced outputs and additional output jacks. Ric will also set the output voltage to optimize performance for use with either active or passive preamps. There is a 30-day, risk-free trial period since the Millennium DAC is only available through Ric. The warranty is good for three years. In the interest of full disclosure, a problem did develop with my first unit. it produced a loud popping noise on certain material. Ric traced the problem to a faulty chip and sent a replacement that has worked fine. According to Ric, I was the only one to have such a problem, and I have not heard of any similar to mine from other Millennium DAC owners.

What Does Nothing Sound Like?

Now we're getting to the good stuff. We've warmed up the engine, and now we'll know how shake out when the rubber meets the road. Well, in a nutshell, the Millennium DAC sounds as close to nothing as anything I've heard (a statement that makes sense only to audio freaks).

Audiophiles talk about the ultimate preamp as sounding like straight wire with gain. The concept behind that phrase applies here. The Millennium DAC simply transmits everything and adds nothing. From the airiest highs to complex midrange harmonics to the lowest depths of the bass abyss, everything comes through unadulterated against an absolutely silent, black backdrop. For an analogy, when you pull the protective plastic off the faceplate of a new remote control, a foggy haze disappears and everything gets cleaner and is easier to see. Instruments and voices sound clear, articulate, full, and pop out in a three-dimensional plane that seems so real it's scary. Dynamics, micro and macro, are there in spades. Fingers plucking strings, sticks hitting cymbals and drumheads, it's all there as recorded, no more, no less. Classical passages from pppp to ffff occur in lifelike realism, guaranteed to startle the unsuspecting spouse/neighbor/town.

For a good example of what I'm talking about, put in Keb Mo's excellent Slow Down CD and just hit play. I've heard this disc on many a system, and its unvarnished nature will reveal a system's characteristics. If you have an overly bright system, this disk will sound harsh, and if you have an overly euphonic system, the crystal clarity and overall realism will be lost. The Millennium DAC brings this disk to life in a way I haven't heard elsewhere.

When I lived in Chicago I had the opportunity to see Patricia Barber at the Green Mill, a venue she plays almost every week. It's an intimate club atmosphere any audiophile would kill for, and it only cost $5 to get in the door. Playing "Yesterdays" off her latest CD gives a nice glimpse into the aura of her live shows, and the Millennium DAC provides all the nuances that take you there, offering up all the dusky depth and soulful articulation of Ms. Barber's seductive voice. Not enough detail, and the you-are-there factor diminishes; with too much, the sibilance can overwhelm. The Millennium DAC gets it right.

For those who haven't heard the new DVD-A or SACD formats the 24/96 recordings, the experience can be a revelation. One hears a smoothness and "rightness" that I have rarely experienced outside the vinyl realm. In fact, my general perception is that 24/96 sounds like vinyl with more extended highs, tighter bass, and much better dynamics. And it's got an eerie sense of liquid quiet in the background that CDs can't match, and it's all fully conveyed through the Millennium DAC. Chesky's 24/96 sampler provides some standouts such as Livingston Taylor's "Isn't She Lovely" in which Taylor's voice is supremely fluid and powerful but loaded with intricate detail which allows the performance to be completely fleshed out. Likewise in the John Basile Quartet's "Desmond Blue" you not only hear the tonal characteristics of the cymbals of the hi-hat as it closes, but you can hear and almost feel the air being expelled on every other beat. It is precisely the Millennium DAC's ability to convey and not editorialize this level of information that makes it truly special for any system (or listener) set up to handle it.

Comparisons

I've only had extensive listening experience with one other DAC, the MSB Link DAC II with Dusty Vawder's Channel Islands upgrade that replaces many of the important bits with the no-holds-barred variety. Back to our car analogy, the MSB definitely leans more toward the Lexus side though not too far in that direction. In fact, for those looking to smooth out the digititis of CDs and recapture some of the warmth and charm of vinyl, I would highly recommend the Link. It is able to convey considerable detail while infusing a sense of ease and grace associated with the black disk.

Where I felt the Link fell short of the Millennium DAC on an absolute scale was in ultimate transparency and dynamics, but the rest may well be up to your tastes and what you're trying to accomplish in your system. I did not have the chance to audition the highly-praised Monolithic power supply option that may well bring dynamics(and cost) more on par with the Millennium DAC, but the fundamental character differences remain, for better or worse.

Does Nothing Have a Downside?

Everything has a downside. In the case of the Millennium DAC, the feet on the unit are out of place on a piece of this caliber (Ric freely admits this and encourages experimentation --his site is called www.tweakaudio.com after all.) The power cord is also of the garden variety and therefore another area for improvement. I also hear a slight hum coming from the unit, but it is inaudible from more than a couple feet away, although I'd rather it not be there at all. Finally, you can no longer acquire the Millennium DAC. Ric has already gone through a few iterations of the original DAC (reviewed here) and is about to launch the next version, the DAC II, offering supposed state-of-the-art performance for about $300 more than the original. (Hey, Porsche's been upgrading the 911 for over 30 years. Anybody complaining?) Current Millennium DAC owners can upgrade at a discount and get priority service over new unit orders, which brings me to my last point. Porsche 911s are not scarce at dealerships, but they are very expensive. Ric's DACs, on the other hand, are relatively inexpensive but scarce. At last check it'll be about two months before you get to hear the sound of nothing. C'mon, we've all waited longer for nothing before, haven't we?

Should You Buy Nothing?

Nowadays, as we teeter at the brink of promising new formats, should you even bother spending any of your hard-earned green on a box intended for use with a dying format? (Incidentally, the DAC II will be upgradeable to handle 2-channel DVD-A and SACD, but not multi-channel.) Personally I think it will be a while before the software is abundant enough for me to crave the new formats. Meanwhile, prices will drop on the hardware side and the performance will undoubtedly improve significantly as it always does from first- to second-generation machines. All I know is that during the brief period the Millennium DAC was out of my system much of the air and life were drained from the music, and I missed it-a lot. Everyone's value scale is different, so you have to ask what it's worth to bring your entire CD collection to life for posterity. Looking at it from that perspective the Millennium DAC seems like a true audiophile bargain, even in these volatile times. I can't come close to affording a 911 turbo, but I bet not many 911 owners have a Millennium DAC either-so there.

[End Note: The Millennium DAC II, which should begin to ship as you read this, will cost $1050 but promises absolute state-of-the-art performance (when was the last time you got state-of-the-art anything for a grand?), and you can be sure there will be a Millennium DAC review Part Deux as soon as we can get our hands on one.]

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Luminous Audio

Electronic Visionary Systems Millennium DAC 1