Empirical Audio Spoiler USB DAC
A big step forward in USB DACs
Review By Jules Coleman
here to e-mail reviewer.
Nugent is all of the brains and most of the brawn behind Oregon's
Empirical Audio and their Spoiler USB DAC. Steve began his professional career as an
electrical engineer. At first a sideline operation, the success of
Empirical Audio soon enough proved sufficient for Steve to abandon his day
job and turn his love of audio into his primary livelihood. From the
outset Nugent cultivated a reputation as a fine audio engineer and a
straightforward and honest businessman. In short order, he became one of a
handful of ‘go-to' modifiers for those seeking to extract as much
performance as possible from commercially compromised audio products.
Though he has modified everything in the music playback
chain, Nugent has focused his most attention on the digital front end. It
will come as no surprise then that when Nugent set out to manufacture and
market products of his own design, his emphasis has been on digital front
ends — in particular digital to analog converters, and various products
to maximize their performance. Nugent's modification services are
still very much in demand — and he designs and produces a fine
interconnect and power cord as well, but the bulk of his creative
resources have been devoted to perfecting his own DAC and its required
Having reported previously on Nugent's ‘turbo off ramp'
— which is basically an interface device between a computer's
USB out and a standard DAC's SPDIF and I2S (if you are lucky enough)
inputs — I welcomed the opportunity to review Nugent's attack on the
state of the art USB DAC. I was very favorably impressed with nearly all
aspects of Nugent's Turbo Off-Ramp and its' performance in conjunction
with his heavily modified Perpetual Technology DAC, especially using the I2S input.
In my previous experience, I found the sound of Nugent's digital products to be honest, energetic, packing considerable
dynamic wallop, lifelike — even ballsy --but ever so slightly hard
around the edges. I did not know what to expect from the Spoiler DAC
sonically, but I was anxious to hear the fruits of Nugent's labors.
I was not disappointed — in fact I was very pleased
with the results -- but I was surprised, The DACs shared a family
resemblance, but the differences in presentation were significant. The
Spoiler proved to be considerably easier on the ears, substantially more
refined, somewhat laid back by comparison, and ever so slightly
dynamically restrained. But I am rushing ahead of myself a bit.
I have been focusing largely on my academic writing the
past few years and have taken something of a sabbatical from reviewing
chores. During this period, I have continued to listen to music with the
same urgency and frequency that I always have. I simply resisted sharing
my impressions of what I heard with anyone but a few friends. I am sure
that my absence from the review scene went suitably unnoticed.
My reference system has remained largely unchanged over
this time. My analog front end consists in the Shindo version of the
classic Garrard 301 that includes Shindo's upgraded platter, bearing and
the Shindo 12-inch Mersault arm (based on the original Ortofon) tracking
the Shindo modified SPU classic cartridge. Almost any Garrard 301 table
will sound significantly more dynamically honest and alive than virtually
any of its modern counterparts, but the key to extracting all the wonders
of the 301 is the plinth. I have read more bad advise about plinths for
301s on audio forums; and I have seen and heard more mismatched plinths
and 301s than I care to recall. Nor have I adequately resisted the
temptation to let others — including other reviewers, including those
with whom I have toiled — know just how misguided they were. The Shindo
plinth is expensive, but it is the result of 20 years of product
development and more than 40 years of experience with the table itself —
not six weeks with a CNC machine; and it shows. The 301 is capable of
refinement and resolution that rivals the best contemporary designs in
addition to offering a dynamic realism that no modern table can match. But
you have to be willing to pay the price to hear it — but even at that
the price of a fully tricked out Shindo 301 will fall in the range of a
standard high end contemporary design that is much less musically
persuasive or honest.
My preamp is the dual mono all tube, full function
Shindo Catherine; amplification is provided by Shindo's 300B Ltd monos.
The speakers include the Auditorium 23 SoloVox and an original pair of JBL
Hartsfield ‘toploaders' with Shindo crossovers designed specifically
for them. Interconnects include Stealth Indra, Shindo silver, a number of
different wonderful and surprising offerings from Silver Fi of Istanbul,
Turkey; speaker cables included my standard Auditorium 23 which I continue
to recommend as the best value in audio, and another surprisingly strong
offering from Silver Fi. I used the Silver speaker cable exclusively with
the Hartsfields and the A-23 with the Solovox. This seemed the optimal
match in both cases. I can strongly recommend all of the Silver Fi
interconnects and speaker cables, and in future reviews I hope to have
more to say about various combinations of them. Another rare high value,
high performance product that I am to recommend with confidence.
All of my electronics benefit from being placed in
extraordinary Harmonic Resolutions SRX equipment racks that I will be
reporting on next month. The SRX is the latest offering from vibration
control guru, Mike Latvis, and to my mind, his best and most versatile
offering to date. HRS sets the industry standard, and while no
product produces uniformly exceptional results across the board, I have
yet to hear a product that did not benefit from finding a happy home in an
HRS equipment rack. Expensive as they may be, spread out over four or five
components, an HRS rack may well be among the best, most cost —effective
upgrades to your system you can make.
My system may not have changed much, but my listening
room has. The dimensions (30x18x9) have remained the same, but the large
area rug has been removed, the hardwood floors refinished, and the heavy
family room furniture replaced with sleeker, contemporary (and less
absorptive) alternatives. The impact of the changes has been subtle but
noticeable. The room is livelier, bass response and definition has
improved somewhat and there is a touch more sparkle in the highs. Just a
bit bouncier and fuller all around; it remains a somewhat forgiving and
The Review Component
Sometime in the early spring, Steve Nugent and I
exchanged emails and phone calls and soon thereafter, Steve sent me a
complete digital front end for review. Along with the Spoiler DAC,
Steve sent me his personal Toshiba laptop (which had much of the music he
plays when demo'ing his DAC at audio shows loaded on its hard drive), a
battery power supply for the DAC, a power cord, USB cable, and a pair of
Empirical Audio interconnects which I ultimately employed between the DAC
and the preamp for most of the review period. Nugent included easy to
follow set up instructions which I managed to follow without incidence.
Within a couple of hours, the digital front end was set up. I turned the
system on, set the computer to the Nugent's preferred playlist, and let
it play uninterrupted for a day or two to provide background listening.
After a couple of days, I began to listen with more care in order to
fine-tune the system, and by the end of the first week, I was ready for
sustained, critical listening.
The Spoiler begins as the Lite DAC-60, which is sourced from China. Basically, Nugent employs the D/A chips which are sourced from Burr-Brown, the front panel and the embedded CPU section on the main board. Nugent felt that beginning his design with the chassis and the transformers alone constituted a sufficient savings in time and money to outweigh the time it takes him to strip all of the components from the main board and cut/jumper the traces and the like.
It is of course not uncommon for audio components to use modules and off the shelf parts. In the case of the Spoiler, Nugent keeps the display board and cable, the power transformers, the power switch and the CPU section on the main board. He modifies the lower chassis, the cover and the power supply, and jettisons the
TOSlink output. He modifies or changes half of the parts on the main board, the IEC inlet, the
fuse holder, power supply caps, front panel, RCA jacks, associated wiring, the tubes, coupling caps and feet. To this assortment of parts, he add, capacitors to the main board, logic chips, connectors, switches, I2s circuit board, Pace-Car circuit board, Off-Ramp
I2S circuit board, power supply caps, wiring harness for Off-Ramp and Pace-Car, and of course the front panel Empirical Audio display.
Some may view the Spoiler as a heavily modified Lite 60-DAC and others will view it as an innovative design that employs some basic parts from a readily available and easily sourced Chinese DAC. At some point this is a debate without a point. The question is how does the DAC sound and where does the innovation lie; not whether it is a unique design that is novel from beginning to end.
Inside The Spoiler
The Spoiler is a very complex piece of audio equipment,
but that complexity is hiding inside a rather unprepossessing exterior.
All the beauty, elegance and style is on the inside, and Nugent has made
no effort to doll his pet up with fancy make-up like the thick aluminum or
metal face plates one finds on much high end audio. I am very big on
aesthetics and industrial design, but to be honest, with rare exceptions,
I do not find audio products works of aesthetic merit. Many of my friends
love the look of my Shindo equipment, but though the design is to be
praised for its connection to the overall voicing of the products, the
style itself does nothing for me. But oh my, the sound sure does.
Look you can't take too seriously the aesthetics of
most audiophiles. Have you looked at the rooms they live in — not to
mention the clothes they wear; or how about their personal grooming habits
(smile). It is enough to give one nightmares.
So the fact that the Spoiler is a plane Jane at best is
of little importance to me, but the average consumer might find the look a
bit bland at the price point. The basic Spoiler comes in at around $5995
and that price can be easily driven up to the neighborhood of 10K once all
the options are included. And if your experience mirrors mine, you are
going to find it hard to live without most if not all of the options that
The basic $6k Spoiler package includes:
Spoiler DAC with Siemens 6922 tubes; Belkin Pro Gold 5m
USB cable; Empirical Audio's power cord for the Spoiler (valued at
1.5K). PC and MAC Software — SRC plug-ins, Foobar, EAC, Directsound2
plug-in; Wall-wart for powering USB interface; Second Wall-Wart for
Pace-Car if (if one chooses to include the Pace-Car option).
The Spoiler can be customized by including several very
desirable options. These include:
A battery power supply (which I would highly recommend);
the Pace-Car (which is an internal reclocker that can be configured for
USB or for a Wi-Fi source such as a Squeezebox or Sonos device (also
strongly recommended); I2S and AES output (also desirable).
Of the options Nugent makes available, the Pace-Car
reclocker is essential. At this price point, the aim is to produce a
refined and highly resolved sound, and the Pace Car is designed to reduce
the number one nemesis facing USB DACs, namely, jitter; and Nugent claims
that the Pace Car succeeds at reducing jitter to inaudible levels. In my
listening I found no reason to doubt his claims. The Pace Car reclocking
technology may prove to be Nugent's greatest contribution to digital
audio playback. It can be configured to interface with a range of devices
like Sonos and Olive or Squeezebox and can turn water into wine. Or it can
be used (as I primarily used it) as part of the digital chain that began
with my computer hard drive.
I could not test what the Spoiler would have sounded
like without the Pace-Car upgrade, but I wouldn't have wanted to find
out either. The Pace-Car made for smooth running that equaled or surpassed
for refinement and ease of listening all previous USB DACs with which I
have been familiar. That's enough proof for me that one wouldn't want
to leave home without one's Pace-Car.
Unsurprisingly, the use of the battery power supply
added just a touch more refinement and ease while further reducing noise.
There was simply nothing inelegant about the design of the Spoiler or its
sound. Like many modifiers, Nugent is what I think of as a ‘parts'
guy. He sources what he takes to be the best sounding individual parts,
including the ubiquitous Black Gate capacitors, and his product is a
showcase of premium parts. Unlike others who follow a similar path, Nugent
exercises some restraint and seeks to find the most important locations in
the circuit for the parts — the place where their presence is likely to
make the biggest and most salutary benefit.
In general I am agnostic about the ‘parts' approach.
My instincts are considerably more holistic. I prefer designers who can
use all manner of parts, especially ones that others haven't thought of
or which the audio community has shunned. The designers I love are those
that know so much about iron, circuits and tubes that they know that all
manner of parts can be put to previously underappreciated good use in some
circuits and in conjunction with some other parts. Ken Shindo is a good
example. He has used tubes in the phono section of his preamps that would
never pass muster among the ‘parts' crowd as suitable for phono. It is why I like to read people
— even good friends of mine — explain
why a 12-inch tone-arm cannot possibly sound right; though Ortofon,
Fidelity Research, Ikeda, SME, and Frank Schroder among others seem to
have produced some pretty amazing sounding 12-inch arms. Here's my take
on the scientific method when it comes to audio. There are few apriori
proofs that something cannot possibly sound good. Be open minded and
listen before you condemn. Some audiophiles and reviewers — too may who
frequent the forums I fear — know that a number of products that they
have never heard must sound absolutely awful. “The circuit is wrong.'
‘The output transformer is cheap.' ‘That tube sucks.' And so on.
The arguments may be faulty or non-existent, but they do save the time and
inconvenience of actually listening.
In the early years of digital, some front ends were
praised for sounding like analog. This was shorthand for the claim that
the digital product in question would not rip one's ears off. What set
this group of digital products apart was not the fact that they sounded
like analog; they didn't'. It was the fact that they were listenable,
which was both rare and plenty good enough — given the state of digital
at the time. The problem is that this form of audio description has
outlived whatever usefulness it may once have had. Whenever a
manufacturer, reviewer or audiophile wants to praise the sound of a
digital product, he cannot resist describing it as ‘analog-like.' In
fact, such characterizations are invariably doubly misleading.
Not only are digital products nothing like analog,
analog is nothing like they think it is. They praise digital products as
analog like when the sound is soft, warm, fat, loose, undefined,
unresolved and rolled off at the frequency extremes. In fact, good analog,
let alone great analog, sounds nothing like this. It is well defined,
detailed, highly resolved, dynamic, filled with information at both
frequency extremes; well defined and ballsy.
The best digital has come a long way from the dark ages
of the 80s and 90s, but there is nothing to be gained by trying to compare
digital to analog. I have heard a lot of good digital in the past half
dozen years including Steve Nugent's product under review here, but it
just isn't analog. No, the Spoiler was not better than my analog front
end. So what? That doesn't diminish it in any way. In fact, the Spoiler DAC is excellent, and among the
very best digital products I have heard in the recent past.
Much of the sound of the Spoiler DAC remained the same
whether playing 16 or 24 bits: seductive, refined, smooth, relaxed and
coherent. There was a top-to-bottom integrity and balance to the sound.
The Spoiler imposed no signature on playback. It called no attention to
itself. It got many of the most important musical cues — timbre and tone
primarily — correct. Even though the Spoiler was basically without a
character and evenhanded in its presentation, it did seem to favor certain
music over others. It really shone on female vocals, small ensembles, folk
music and acoustic jazz. In contrast with the Turbo-Off Ramp and Perpetual
Technology DAC combination which packed a wallop that rivaled if it did
not quite equal the 301s way with music, the Spoiler seemed a bit
restrained. This meant that it was a bit less persuasive with large-scale
symphonic pieces, rock and electric blues. The differences were minor but
noticeable. In addition, I found myself being drawn to particular tracks
on Steve's playlist — those that reproduced particular instruments in
isolation — even drums (not for the thwack, intensity or impact, but for
the clarity and precision); vocalists and acoustic jazz.
The Spoiler could make almost any other digital product
seem dirty and a bit unrefined by comparison. The sound was pristine and
pure. Listening sometimes made me feel like I was among the down —home
sweet and honest characters of the musical ‘Carousel.' There was
nothing brazen or rough around the edges. Everyone is dressed up in his or
her Sunday best, heading to Church, then to a town picnic. The overall
presentation reminded me of being at a Church social. There will be fun,
laughter and food, but it will all be proper, safe and appropriate. There
may be a rough edge to the boy somewhere under the Sunday best he is
sporting, but you are not going to see it.
Many reviewers love the Clearaudio turntable sound while
others refer to it as ‘digital' and they attribute its digital
signature to the acrylic platter. In referring to the Clearaudio sound as
digital, these reviewers and audiophiles typically mean that the
presentation is cold, firm, controlled and button-downed. I have some
experience with the Clearaudio sound having reviewed the Master Reference
table, but I don't hear the table as cold or digital in the sense that
others do. The sound is firm and precise; the timing is impeccable. It's
just that when I close my eyes and imagine walking in time with the beat
as the table presents it, the picture I have is of a drill squad or a
military platoon answering a 6am roll call, rather than Gene Kelly or
Fred Astair. No one keeps time any better than Fred Astair or Gene Kelly,
but when they walk, they dance. That's the difference, as they say,
between ‘music' and ‘military music.'
If Clearaudio analog is digital, then it is not the
digital of the Spoiler. There is nothing ‘engineered' about the sound
of the Spoiler. Nor is there anything artificial about it. It is
straightforward, sincere, honest, true to the source and unedited. It is
as easy to listen to and enjoyable as any digital component I have ever
heard. It's one shortcoming is a kind of politeness in presentation,
that comes off less as sleepiness or laziness than as a reluctance to take
the risk of offending. It's as if the edges of Nugent's previous work
have been smoothed to increase refinement, but at the expense of some of
the rock ‘em sock ‘em quality of his other efforts.
Ultimately, it is a matter of listener choice. The
Spoiler is unquestionably as refined a digital product as there is on the
market. It is a joy to use; it is incredibly flexible and the person who
stands behind it is as good a person and businessman as he is a designer.
This is the sort of component that most people who buy and like will never
have a reason to replace. On the other hand, its inability to offend — even a little
— might make it appear to some as a bit lacking in
character. I found its relative dynamic restraint the one area in which it
came up short relative to Nugent's earlier work. We will see how the
product evolves over time as Steve Nugent is not one to sit on his laurels.
I should add that from a musical point of view, I by and
large did not prefer upsampling and the higher bit rates. I find that
upsampling tends to unbundled the sound and pick it apart, so that the
overall presentation is significantly less integrated even if it is
somewhat more ear catching. I prefer hearing how the parts come together
to form an integrated whole rather than how they can be pulled apart and spot lit. That is clearly a personal preference, and one of the great
things about the Spoiler is that it gives you both options — basically
on the fly.
Many readers have asked me to compare the Spoiler with
other USB DACs with which I am familiar. I hesitate to do so because I don't think comparisons
— especially those that emphasize evaluations
and rankings — provide useful information to consumers or to
manufacturers. Frankly, there is no reason on earth why you or anyone else
should care about my rankings anyway. If I have something useful to add,
it is in terms of characterization of the sound, not in terms of ranking
products. Still, there are some points of contrast between the Spoiler and
the Wavelength Cosecant, which had been my USB DAC reference (used with a
iBook computer and Apple Lossless).
Both feature tube output stages, and Gordon Rankin of
course has had his hands in and around tube designs for well over 20
years. I loved my time with the Cosecant, which is soon to be replaced
with a newer version. The Empirical Audio Spoiler and the
Wavelength Audio Cosecant are very different products
sonically. They interpret music differently and present it very
differently. The Spoiler is a more evenhanded, top to bottom balanced and
refined product. Everything has a place and everything is in its place. In
this regard, it is like Shaker furniture. No excess, nothing extraneous.
It is polite and charming and will not offend; nor will it respond with
anger when pushed. It will simply move backstage and resist the temptation
to show off its stuff.
In contrast, the Cosecant is somewhat more visceral. The
music comes across as somewhat more textured and developed. The bottom
octaves of the Cosecant in the iteration I owned were less well defined
than the mids and highs were. The Cosecant carried a nice wallop in the
lower midrange that moved the music along.
In game and decision theory, we employ a familiar
distinction between ordinality and cardinality. An ordinal ranking offers
an ordering, say, 1-10 of a set of options. 1 is preferred to 2; 2 to 3; 3
to 4 and so on. It is often extremely important to get the order right. On
the other hand, an ordinal ranking does not reflect how much more 1 is
preferred to 2, or 2 to 3, or 3 to 4 and so on. It may well be that 1 is
intensely preferred to 2 whereas the differences in preferences among the
rest of the set is very small indeed It may be, for example that 1 is
preferred to 2 far more (with greater intensity) that 2 is preferred to
10. So a person may be willing to give up a lot to insure that he gets his
first choice and very little to make sure he gets his second rather than
his fifth, seventh or even last choice. Cardinal rankings are designed to
reflect intensity of preference and not merely ordering of them.
If I were forced to contrast The Spoiler USB DAC ($8500
as tested) with similar offerings from Wavelength (the Cosecant V2 I had,
with the new Cosecant V3 being $3500), I would say that Steve Nugent is very concerned to get the order right: have things in their right place; in contrast, Gordon Rankin is more likely to risk getting the order a bit off if doing so will allow him to reflect better the intensity of the expression. Both represent exceptional products that emphasize different musically significant aspects of musical playback. If I were to liken them to speakers with which the reader may be familiar, I would say that the Spoiler presents music in the way that a classic electrostatic does: transparent, even handed, refined, even elegant, but falling just a bit short on dynamic or visceral impact. In contrast, the Cosecant presents music in the way that is reminiscent of the best of the horns: effortless dynamics, harmonic completeness, and tonal integrity; but failing to be perfectly evenhanded from top to bottom.
The only Wavelengths I have comparable experience with are the Brick and the
Cosecant V2. The former is not in the right comparison class. The latter is. Comparisons are hard to make and I resist doing so whenever possible. The Spoiler configured as I reviewed it comes in at around
$8500 and is sold direct. The Cosecant comes in at less than half the price and is supported by a dealer network.
The question cannot be, which is better. Rather, it must be, which makes most sense for you in your system. That is not a question I can answer.
The Spoiler DAC represents a big step forward in USB DACs. When in the early days of digital, reviewers praised some digital products, they never imagined that digital would sound this good: this balanced, refined, sweet, listenable, and enjoyable. If these virtues appeal to you, and if the flexibility of computer based or
Wi-Fi based audio appeals to you, then you owe it to yourself to give the Spoiler a serious audition. I think Nugent has a real winner here, and one that will appeal to the sonic preferences of many audiophiles and music lovers alike.
Type: Vacuum tube USB digital to analog
Inputs: USB and S/PDIF via coaxial (RCA)
Outputs: Stereo RCA
Output Level: 1.7VRMS
Sample Rates Supported: 16-bit/44.1kHz, 24-bit/44.1kHz, 24-bit/48kHz,
24-bit/88.2kHz and 24-bit/96kHz
Tube compliment: Two Siemens CCA grey-plates
USB Clock: Modified Superclock4
External Power: Jack for battery power USB converter (switchable)
Ear Isodamp SD125 chassis resonance control
Display disable from front panel
Spoiler DAC with tubes
Belkin Pro Gold 5m USB cable
Optimum custom Power Cord ($1.5K retail)
PC and MAC Software: SRC plug-ins, Foobar, EAC, Directsound2 plug-in
Wall-wart for powering USB interface
Price: Spoiler with Siemens cca grey-plate
tubes: $5999, the unit tested retails at $8500
Spoiler with optional USB Pace-Car inside: $1650 One Superclock4, $2300 two Superclock4's
Optional I2S input, rear-panel switchable from USB:
$300 (allows use of the Northstar I2S Transport)
Optional AES/EBU input: replaces S/PDIF input:
Optional BPS power supply and charger: $425
Voice: (541) 595-1001