I recently reviewed the fabulous Weiss DAC202 FireWire DAC in these pages (as seen here). Rather than reiterating all the sound qualities of DAC202, I would encourage the reader to refer to the previous review to find out about the technology utilized and sound characteristics of the Weiss DAC. USB or FireWire, the basic character described remains the same with just some variances. It is a bleeding-edge, state-of-the-art FireWire DAC that can serve as the proud centerpiece of a highly accomplished and resolving audiophile system. Weiss Engineering has been a long-time adherent of the FireWire technology for audio reproduction, and their current implementation of that interface is a highly-tuned, rock-solid, sonically-pure tour de force of the highest order. Weiss has been one of the main champions of FireWire technology for a very long time, and it was indirectly implied that they looked upon USB as somewhat second-rate, at least as USB technology stood at the time.
So it was rather surprising when the DAC202u was announced recently which incorporates a USB input in addition to FireWire. Why now? From what I have gathered from what scant little information actually spelled out by Weiss and others in distribution, a few things have led to this USB version.
Firstly, FireWire is rapidly losing ground in the computer world. Mac's were the main stronghold of FireWire, but recently, Apple has been moving away from FireWire in full embrace of the new Thunderbolt technology. Windows machines have never been big on FireWire, and it is indeed difficult to buy a Windows laptop or desktop these days with FireWire interface. FireWire is a lost cause for windows laptops, and even desktops need additional FireWire cards installed before being able to interface with FireWire DACs. The fact is, the vast majority of the public out there does not want to deal with extra effort needed for FireWire and simply chooses to use the already-existing USB connector. To add to the USB movement, numerous audio companies are now producing USB DACs with new ones being launched every day it seems. All this has likely created a large demand for a USB DAC from Weiss, as I am sure they have been bombarded with requests for USB input from their patrons and potential customers.
Does this mean Weiss has "sold out" by introducing USB in their DACs despite USB's inferior performance? Personally, I doubt this is the case, and from what has been said by Weiss, it can be gathered that they felt USB technology has improved to the point today that they felt both USB and FireWire could provide equally compelling performance in their products. So what exactly is the USB technology that resides in DAC202u? It is thankfully the preferred asynchronous USB interface using the rapidly-standard-setting XMOS USB chip that supports up to 24-bit/192kHz. Apple OS will support it without needing additional software, but Windows machines will need to install Thesycon drivers, which is painless enough and comes on a CD from Weiss. In fact, of all the USB DACs and drivers I have tried over the years, this Weiss USB DAC and the included software has been the most trouble-free to install and use without any hiccups during operation. This is a lot easier said than done, and those who have first-hand awkward experience with many of the earlier USB implementations will appreciate how Weiss DAC202u just works.
USB Or FireWire?
The difference between FireWire and USB on the Weiss is both subtle yet salient. The difference is audible and may even be important to some, but degree of difference is in the order of changing to different USB cables or analogue interconnects. The USB input is a little more relaxed in the midrange, especially in the upper midrange, which gives the impression of soundstage stepping back a half step including the center vocal or instrument. The presentation is slightly less "digital," suffused with a pitch more airy bloom around instruments. Interestingly, this smoother presentation appears to present a hair more information in high treble area, almost seeming like some energy from upper-mids simply moved upstairs.
FireWire, on the other hand, hands out a smidge more bite and attack to guitar strings and female vocals. Due to a bit more "present" presence region, voices are more intelligible and denser. There will be more recordings that sound hotter or forward with FireWire when compared to USB, but if the system or music is already on the relaxed side, then FireWire will appear to present more palpability. As a corollary, as one turns up the volume higher and higher, especially with recordings that are a bit hot, many will prefer the USB input's smoother, airier....
These differences manifest themselves differently depending on the music being played. Going from USB to FireWire can be visualized this way. With USB, Imagine bloomy, air-infused clouds filling the back wall. The clouds are softly-lit white and fluffy like cotton candy. With FireWire, the clouds get slightly less fluffy and denser. They take on more obvious shape with clearer outlines and seem to be lit with a bit less soft white light, which shows the aspects of cloud folds better but overall with less ethereal effect.
Different USB and FireWire cables present different sound characteristics also, so the degree of the differences between USB and FireWire input described above can range from slight to moderate depending on the cable configuration as well, which makes the comparison even more difficult. It's additionally difficult to choose between USB and FireWire because different recordings will slightly favor one or the other, plus different system synergy and individual tastes will prefer one over the other. Truth is both interfaces are excellent, just like good S/PDIF via RCA or AES/EBU via XLR input into the Weiss.
I recently attended T.H.E. (The Home Entertainment) Show in Newport Beach, CA where I listened to dozens of digital front-ends as well as vinyl, and I must say that while many systems sounded excellent, I did not walk away thinking "I must have this DAC!" My limited "show-conditions" impression is that DAC202 should have no trouble providing fabulous source for any of the systems. I also did get a chance to listen to Weiss Engineering Jason transport ($24,000) and Media Plus DAC ($20,000) combo as well, and as great as that system sounded, I was impressed by the rough similarities in the overall sound signature to my home reference system with DAC202, e.g. high resolution without brightness or grain, finely gradated dynamics, and just a sense of naturalness and easeful soul. Obviously different systems, rooms, show-conditions, etc dictates that this is not a scientific comparison by any means, but hey, if one cannot possibly ever afford a $40,000 plus front-end, DAC202 certainly should be in the consideration.
My previous reservations regarding DAC202 involved mainly the price and less-than-tank-like build and mass. Same applies to DAC202u, but additionally, I was not exactly happy to see the way USB input was implemented. The USB connector was installed where the S/PDIF output RCA jack previously resided, meaning one can no longer use S/PDIF output from DAC202. There is still AES/EBU output available, but one would expect a product in this price range to have a separate USB connector installed without disabling a pre-existing feature. I have inquired Weiss regarding this omission, but apparently it was a necessity due to USB being an add-on.
On the bright side, I had noted in DAC202 review that the FireWire connector was too close to the power IEC connector, such that thick audiophile FireWire cable would not fit well when thick audiophile power cord is used. On DAC202u, and presumably on all subsequent Weiss DAC202 units, the IEC connector was turned around 180 degrees, which increases the distance to the FireWire connector. My thick audiophile FireWire cable now fits fine without issue.
Sampling rates: 44.1 kHz up to 192 kHz @ 24 Bits
Digital Inputs: AES/EBU or S/PDIF on XLR, S/PDIF via RCA, TosLink optical and FireWire. Wordsync input on BNC connector.
Digital Outputs: AES/EBU on XLR, S/PDIF on RCA, and FireWire. Wordsync output on BNC connector.
Analog Output: Stereo via balanced XLR and unbalanced via RCA.
Headphone Output: Standard 1/4" Jack
Level Control Main Output: Four coarse settings via relays (analog domain), fine setting via rotary encoder (digital domain). Level control can be defeated for the main output.
IR Remote Control: Power, Volume, Input sources, DAC upsampling filter type, and absolute phase.
Dimensions: 30cm x 19cm x 8cm (DxWxH)
Available in silver or black finish
Price: DAC202 is $6966 and $7694 for DAC202U
United States Distributor