Whenever you have a meeting with the President of Audio Note, Peter Qvortrup, you can guarantee a long discussion about the "state-of-the-art" in "high-end" audio and how it has long left the real path of serving the music. i for one agree with some of his statements as long before the zero-feedback single-ended tube rebirth in America came about i had already owned the now legendary Audio Note Ongaku. The Ongaku is much like the Audio Note DAC 5 Special ($33,000) in that it is a design built to produce the ultimate of musical reproduction, then costs factored in. Sure there was the more expensive Gaku-On ($250,000) just as there is the DAC5 Signature ($55,000). Before sticker shock sets in, let me explain...
For those looking for the bottom line costs, the Ongaku integrated amplifier with it's 27 watts per channel would set one back a jaw dropping $89,200. Of course once your ears heard the glories of music with the Ongaku in one's system your jaw would drop once again as the ease and incredible transparency would wash through your soul. Consider it the Ferrari 360 of the line. While no 12-cylinder 550, the 8 cylinder 360 is nothing to pass off as a second rate automobile either.
i shall make no excuses for the extreme pricing of the Audio Note DAC 5 Special as a Ford automobile would surely get you to the store and back, though it is nowhere near the same experience as driving my, er um, a Ferrari for a "leisurely tour" around the countryside. Consider the difference of watching a great love story on television versus living it for oneself. In one situation you do get a bit involved, yet your soul is not fully satisfied whereas the other situation is a deeply satisfying experience... Enter the Audio Note DAC 5 Special.
To take some quotes from the owners manual i received with the
unit "Extensive research into the fundamental properties of the data stream itself have shown beyond doubt that regardless of the theoretical and measurable advantages of the signal manipulation employed in all currently available digital products, such as higher over sampling, noise shaping, re-clocking or jitter reduction. All these corrective measures greatly interfere with the critical time domain requirements of the signal, based as current theory is, on an assumption that music is similar to book keeping data which off course it is not.
Of course like all top end products from Audio Note, there are many filter-interface coils/transformers wound with their pure silver wire and extremely high content nickel mu-metal cores. As you can see above there are a total of twelve coils/transformers. Top-grade Elna power capacitors are used for the main power supply (center) while the tubed analog boards (bottom left) use very expensive high-quality Black Gate capacitors. The usual bit and pieces (or at least usual for a top-range Audio Note product) grace the remainder of the unit. This, plus a very sturdy case brings us to a weight of 22 kilograms (almost 50 lbs.)! Most multi-bit Japanese CD players weigh in at around two pounds total. Make of that as you will.
In contrast, the top rig DAC5 Signature ($55,000) is all silver, has "better" Black Gates, silver wire everywhere, plus an improved power supply and Audio Note carbon resistors plus the silver wires super interface. Back to our story...
The DAC 5 Special analog section employs an upgraded M6 Line pre-amplifier output stage with two anode followers after another using a single 5687 double triode per channel. Of course this is coupled to an output transformer, though this time one with copper wire on a High B C-core which they claim is equivalent to the quality of the cores in my previously owned Ongaku! Alas, the Ongaku now resides in someone else's home as my personal finances took a nose dive a few years back. i miss it greatly. Anyway...
Analog outputs appearing on the rear of the unit include both unbalanced "single ended" (RCA) and balanced (XLR and LEMO) operation. My review sample as seen above included two sets of female RCA jacks and one pair of LEMO for analog output as appear on the rear, center of the unit. To the right are the digital inputs that include both RCA and BNC jacks. The balanced output via the LEMO connectors is truly symmetrical via the usage of an inter stage transformer which is symmetrically wound to provide symmetry of the positive and negative waveforms of the signal at all amplitudes (signal levels) but also provide wide band impedance conversion.
There is no provisions for the considered less than optimum TOSlink or better AT+T glass fibre. A separate ground post on the far right is for those looking to unify their grounding scheme. On the top left is the power on/off switch with a standard IEC power jack plus two fuse holders below it.
Separate dual channel power supplies and double choke filtering plus vacuum tube rectification is included to insure not only a very high isolation between the digital circuitry and power supply, but also in supplying the analogue signal paths with an extremely clean power source. Did i mention the use of Audio Note Tantalum film resistors?
Installation is easy as you simply insure the DAC 5 Special is powered off, install your digital and analog cables, then turn the unit on. While the technology inside may be extremely diverse and cutting edge, hooking it up is almost easier than logging on to AOL or installing new mouse software on a MAC.
Play, music, then!
After the usual 100 hours of settling it was time for some serious listening. While the unit sounded quite good out of the box, it was previously broken in and therefore hard to say what the true fresh out of the box sound is. Starting out in a more mellow mood, on went David Chesky's Club de Sol (JD33). My favorite two songs are "Sunrise" and "Morning Mist" (tracks five and six). Track five is basically a wonderful piano solo which goes smoothly into track six that adds acoustic bass, various percussion and acoustic guitar. This 1989 recording in RCA's Studio A still holds up very well today sonically with Bob Katz as the main engineer.
The piano has wonderful body and, in my room with the Audio Note DAC 5 Special, what seems to be a near appropriate size. Of course the "size" of the piano is very dependant on the loudspeaker's position (separation) and where one sits within their listening. What really matters is how even each note is from the lowest to the uppermost register with the adding "human touch". After all, playing a piano is (usually) a human event and here we have the best, most human feeling sound i have heard from this piece of five inch polycarbonate. Notes seemed to float more freely and the inner sound of the piano's. From the hammers striking the strings to the body (and soul) of the piano's soundboard.
Moving on to "Morning Mist" the sound of the accompanying guitar to the depth of the bass were more apparent than i have previously heard. This is not to say they were augmented but to confirm my longtime suspicion. The way we humans hear seems to be that the very initial first few milliseconds are either clean and clear and has the brain work less at deciphering the data (read: music), or the first sounds heard are not as defined and therefore makes the ear/brain work harder to distinguish the incoming data. With the DAC 5 Special the entire musical pathway is clean in such a way as to make one's ear/brain work less to make sense of the music. In turn the inner resolution is also more apparent adding in a more relaxed musical presentation. My only real complaint was that the chimes' seemed a tad bit rolled off at the upper extreme. This might also be due to my usage of the Max Rochlin Memorial cable that i personally "invented" and was designed with a slight touch of uppermost register roll off (click here to see the cable's design).
Moving on to Classic Record's Clasic Compact Disc of Billie Holiday's Songs For Distingué Lovers (VSCD-6021) really set me back emotionally. Make no mistake, my favorite classic female voice is Billie Holiday to the extant that i named my lifelong pet Severe Macaw parrot Billie (see Billie's webpage here). Small and subtle inflections and timing cues are what separates teary-eyed listening sessions from the robotic electronica so popular today.
While this is not a "state of the art" recording by any stretch of the imagination, and my vinyl records of Billie bring me more musical bliss (or sadness as it were). i'll cut to the chase here, no the DAC 5 Special did not equal the sound i get from my (almost same priced) analog rig playing the Classic records vinyl version (MG VS-6021). It was close, yes, though the nod most certainly goes to the vinyl. Could be due to slightly different mastering of the two different formats, though they were re-mastered by Classic Records during the same period. While this album is stereo, my feelings are Billie-philes would be better served getting the now out of print (and out of business) Mobile Fidelity vinyl Billie Holiday recording Body and Soul (MSFL 1-247). While monophonic, for me emotionally it is much more satisfying. Yes, the DAC 5 Special is vinyl-like in the way it takes the digital pits and transforms them into analog. Analog is still King in my book for high software availability consumer replay. But then we have DACs like this...
Going for something more classical in my collection, in went my fave Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (Teldec 4509-90201-2). This is the best recorded, and more importantly, performed version of 1812 i have heard after trying some 15+ different version on CD. This 1992 recording shows how a great conductor, such as Zubin Meta here, can really bring new life into a piece that has been more than butchered by many others. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs here with a great sense of phrasing and timing. Not to be missed! As for how it sounded through the DAC 5 Special, in a word glorious! Ok, so it is an all digital recording, but do not hold that against it. The strings and horns sound very natural while the apparent soundstage and hall's acoustics seemed to be captured in a brilliant balance. usually i find that the French horn gets butchered with digital. In the right hall and recorded well, the French horn has a cutting sound with unique harmonic structure that is both full-bodied and resonant. Not tinny nor overly muted. With this DAC in my system there was a wonderful sense of 3D space that filled my listening room.
To add, the flutes were also very well rendered. My many years of continually enjoying live music, and also performing it, is of great benefit here. If there was only a great recoding of steel drums... Note to readers: if you know of a great recording of steel drums please contact me.
Lastly, for this review, is the newly re-engineered HDCD King Crimson Holland pressed Lark's Tongue in Aspic (EG Records with the UK being CDVKCX5, rest of world LC 03098). Crimson heads surely visit the website Elephant Talk and have heard the big buzz about the new re-masters. This CD offers dynamics from subtle and quiet to fully blown mayhem! Of course this being avant-garde music for musicians, would you expect anything less than spectacular musicianship with a stunning array of "textures" and "colors"? While the DAC 5 Special does not decade using HDCD, i found this to not be detrimental to my "Frankenstein" DAC that can decode the now Microsoft-owned format.
As the music contained on this CD is so diverse as to give any blow-by-blow comments would be washed away by the next 36 measure phrase as to make the preceding 36 bars seems like a different musical experience... let alone song to song differences! In the end my feelings are that the DAC 5 Special can easily handle music from the most simple to the most intricate while making each instrument within the composition easily discernable to the others. The DAC 5 Special never, ever seemed grainy unless the music dictates or the recording is horrible. Smooth, clean and clear with a musical sense only a well-mastered musician can conjure.
Wilt thou have music?
Many long hours have been spent listening to the DAC 5 Special. Lost sleep, missed dates, and those glorious 3am Pink Floyd rendezvous. To say it is the highest performing DAC my ears have ever clapped on to would be an understatement. Ok, so i have read other reviewer's glowing statements about this unit in their formal analysis, though it is hard to prepare oneself for this type of dramatic improvement to what many feel is the dreaded old 16-bit/44.1kHz CD format. SACD? DVD-Audio? What about the many millions of CDs available today? Sure you can fall into the hokey upsampling ballgame, but why? Upsampling is really nothing new, but it makes for great marketing eh?
For those who have the ways and means to own the DAC 5 Special, or bigger brother DAC5 Signature, i would humbly suggest you put it on your short list of must audition before trying the proprietary and limited availability SACD format. DVD-Audio is another can of worms with also limited software availability at this time. With the many thousands of CDs in my collection i can only mourn sending back the DAC 5 Special knowing what is really residing in those old-school silver pits. Until then it seems their lower end DAC Kit 1.1 (or upgraded version 1.2) is in my foreseeable future. Of course in the end what really matters is that you...
PS: Back in late 1998 Peter Qvortrup wrote an essay of sorts about their using 1x oversampling technology. Please click here to read it.
Weight: 22 kilograms
Dimensions: 145mm x 450mm x 425mm (HxWxD)
Output Impedance: 600 Ohm Balanced (XLR) or Single-Ended (RCA)
Reference Output: 3.2V RMS
Channel Balance: Less than 0.2 dB
Digital System: 18 Bit analogue devices AD1865N
Price: £19,500 UK, US price approximately $33,000
Audio Note (UK) Limited