Chord Dave ($14,000)
I've gone back and forth with my feelings on Chord DACs ever since the original Hugo launched some years ago. They tend to strike me as impressive technical accomplishments which ultimately don't quite fit what I want out of my DACs. Some are better than others and I'm sure a search of my HeadFi posts will uncover moments of whiny complaints as well as favorable compliments, probably in equal measure.
The Dave DAC, I must admit, is an impressive sounding device. It gets deep into the mix and unravels complexities with ease. It tends to be more revealing than is useful at times, but with good recordings it can be a revelation. It can also slam hard when called to do so, which might surprise as the signature can also sound thin at times - but I'm convinced Dave is mostly just showing what's in the mix, for better or for worse.
My biggest sonic complaint is that Dave doesn't usually portray timbre in a convincing enough way. And unfortunately that's a deal breaker for me. The Cen.Grand can't quite match it for sheer resolution (though it trails much closer than I anticipated) but it sounds more natural and lifelike, whilst Dave often strikes me as somewhat plastic or artificial. And I need instruments to have that realistic tonality, or else I don't really care about their other technical aspects.
I'll also add that the Cen.Grand liquidity I rambled on about earlier is pretty obvious when compared to Dave. The Chord has technical excellence but somehow it tends to feel like a bunch of puzzle pieces trying to properly fit together in order to portray a sonic picture. Meanwhile the DSDAC1.0 Deluxe is so coherent, everything just naturally lines up.
Beyond that I find the Chord pricing way overdone, the ergonomics quirky, and the physical styling not to my taste. Those are all personal things but they help cement my opinion that Dave could never be my reference DAC, when others sound and look more appealing in various ways - and for significantly less money.
I've been told over and over that I need to add the Chord M-Scaler to get the full tonal impact Dave offers. All I can say is that if a $14k DAC needs another $5k+ add-on just to sound convincing, mistakes were made somewhere. Especially since Dave existed as Chord's top offering for several years before M-Scaler came along. If both pieces are truly required for the proper experience, just bundle them together and sell a single $20k device.
Matrix Audio X Sabre 3 ($3,000)
A beautifully constructed DAC with very well done integrated streaming on board. Generally neutral sound with the default settings though it can feel a little bright at times. Using its unique SYNC mode and feeding it a steady diet of upsampled DSD material via Roon/HQplayer brings out a more relaxed and natural tonality. While not quite up to the same level as my old Resonessence Labs reference or the Cen.Grand Deluxe - not a surprise given it sells for less than half the price - this is nonetheless a very enjoyable DAC which offers gobs of bang for the buck and could legitimately be an "end-game" DAC for most sane people. My full review is here.
Wavelength Callisto ($10,000)
My time with this was unfortunately more limited than I would have liked, but from what I did experience this is a truly unique and exceptional DAC. Vibrant and rich, the sound reminded me a bit of my old Wavelength Cosine from many years ago, cranked up to an entirely new level. Both had beautiful midrange sweetness and a level of "purity" to the presentation which remains elusive in most other DACs. The old Cosine was sometimes overly dark and I did get just a small hint of that here as well, which is not really shocking considering the NOS design with triode output stage. Still, the directness and tonal purity of the sound is possibly the very best I've heard, particularly with jazz and classical music. The Callisto can also totally rock when called upon to do so, with extremely satisfying dynamics and drive. Due to the somewhat forgiving NOS nature and tube bloom, this is perhaps not the ideal DAC for evaluation purposes, with its priorities being more like that of an Audeze LCD-4 than an LCD-5 if that makes sense. But the sound is so unique and enjoyable that I could definitely still make it work for my needs.
My list of downsides really is vanishingly small from a sonic perspective, and I would happily use this as a reference even with the $10k price tag being a bit higher than I would like. Unfortunately I later found out the example I heard was one of the last ones in production. Wavelength Audio founder Gordon Rankin is a genius at building superbly engineered DACs and amplifiers, but they are all hand built in somewhat limited runs. So I had to take the Callisto out of contention based purely on my previously identified criteria of "current products" which readers could actually acquire if they wanted to. If not for that, I would love to get one of these in my system for direct comparisons to the Cen.Grand Deluxe. I feel like it would be a close competition with the DSCAC1.0 likely being more expressive and the Callisto a bit more euphonically charged - both extremely capable in their own very enjoyable ways.
I haven't seen much (or any?) discussion or reviews of this DAC in the wild. If you ever get a chance to hear it, I strongly encourage you to give it a go. This is a world-class DAC as far as I'm concerned, and a possible contender for my reference if not for the limited production run.
DiDiT DAC212SE ($4,500)
For some reason I thought this Dutch DAC was a bit larger. In reality it is an absurdly compact and well made little device, which brings to mind Nagra or Weiss Engineering in terms of its precision build, but much smaller than anything they offer. The sound is actually in that same camp as well - very fast, incisive, clear and uncolored, it is highly revealing of any flaws in the chain. So much so that I found it veering towards being slightly analytical and dry at times, depending on the music and choice of headphones of course. I've certainly heard worse offenders though, and overall this is still an impressive DAC.
With sharply defined leading edges and very accurate imaging, its technicalities approach some of the best I've heard, even if it does sometimes leave me wanting as far as tonal density is concerned. This can throw off timbral accuracy with certain instruments, which results in this DAC feeling a little genre dependent. Electronic music and metal sound great, whilst things like classical or jazz make the timbre issue more obvious. The Cen.Grand Deluxe scratches that itch for richness whilst compromising nothing in terms of speed or detail, which is why I would place it on a higher tier than the otherwise excellent DiDiT DAC. I thought perhaps the DSDAC1.0 would feel a bit dark after switching from the Dutch DAC but that never ended up being the case. Instead, it felt "just right", and only reinforced my opinion that the DiDiT DAC was a little on the thin side.
I wasn't looking for a device with integrated headphone amplification but since the DiDiT has that functionality I went ahead and tried it. Surprisingly, I found it highly capable, and potent as well! I didn't expect much from such a tiny integrated unit but this thing paired exceptionally well with the Audeze LCD-4, Meze Elite, and Focal Stellia, which were the only headphones available to me while trying out this device. Again the sound was quick, precise, and illuminating, with a bit of top-down perspective. I imagine it isn't a universally appealing sound, as it likely wouldn't synergize very well with brighter headphones like LCD-5 or Utopia. But the ones I did have on hand were deliberately curated to make optimal pairings and the result was impressive.
Like the Matrix X Sabre 3 mentioned earlier, I don't think this DAC is quite up to the level of the Resonessence Labs or Cen.Grand devices. But it is nonetheless a compelling option for those seeking an all in one solution in a very small form factor, and I would choose it over the Chord Hugo TT2 which seems like a logical competitor.
Musician Audio Aquarius ($3,200)
The Aquarius is a somewhat unique sounding R2R DAC. It's from the same folks who brought us the Denafrips devices, but has a distinct signature that is entirely separate from the established Denafrips house sound. I'd call it better balanced, more nimble, and generally more technically accomplished, whilst dialing down (but not completely eliminating) the warmth and smoothness of its better-known Denafrips cousins. That said, it is still richer and more full-bodied than the DiDiT DAC mentioned above. It's just a very capable source that works well in almost any scenario, with a gentle focus towards helping bring out the best rather than pointing out flaws.
The Cen.Grand DSDAC1.0 Deluxe shares a similar sense of ease to the presentation, but achieves it through different (and more impressive) means. When listening to Aquarius directly after the Deluxe, I am always aware of a slight treble shade, a subtle darkening to the sound of the Aquarius which takes the edge off difficult recordings - a generally welcome thing - but also limits better recordings from truly sounding their best. There's a bit of rounding to leading edges which helps tone down unruly material, again at the expense of the details which I do want to hear. This initially became apparent in direct comparisons, but once I heard it I could not unhear it. The Aquarius seemed to actively be working to make everything sound a bit better than it should, at the expense of some realism/honesty. The DSDAC1.0 is not so obvious, and manages superior extension and transient impact without losing its nuanced touch. It's hard to explain but I guess the Aquarius has more of a smooth/liquid "sound" whilst the Cen.Grand has more of a smooth/liquid "feel" if you catch my drift.
This is another one of those "value" devices that would make an excellent choice for most people - seriously, this is more than enough DAC for almost any sane music lover. It does pretty much everything right and is only overshadowed by a few particularly worthy opponents, all of which cost significantly more money. See my review for more info.
Lab12 DAC1 Reference ($3,290)
With the word "reference" baked right into the name, one could be forgiven for expecting a signature in the same camp as Benchmark, exaSound, or RME. Instead this thing reminded me of vintage Luxman gear - a warmish, soft, forgiving, romantic glow with very obvious euphonic coloration. Which makes total sense once we learn about this being a non-oversampling design based around 8 of the old TDA1543 chips plus a tube output. I can see why some people are drawn to this thing though, as it certainly is a unique sound that will stand out in a crowd - it would not be easily confused for any of the other DACs on this list. I could build a superb audio system with this device at the heart of it, but I could also assemble some pretty bad matches too, and it wouldn't be meaningful to evaluate a headphone amp based solely on how well it pairs with this unique (and at times admittedly gorgeous sounding) device.
Comparisons to the Cen.Grand Deluxe DAC don't even really make sense here. The Lab12 is significantly darker and more rolled off on the top end, lacking the same sparkle, precise imaging and borderless soundstage. It also comes across as being a bit slow and plodding, mainly in direct comparison of course. The midrange is very engaging in its way yet sometimes feels out of balance with the rest of the spectrum, and I would have to carefully choose matching components to take full advantage of the strengths whilst avoiding the shortcomings brought on by the deliberate tuning. The Cen.Grand is far more universally appealing. Again, the Lab12 is an interesting DAC for what it is, but in my mind not suitable at all for a reference component - which is fine, as that's not really what everyone needs anyway. People who enjoy quirky signatures and perhaps don't care about the usual metrics of ultimate frequency extension or inky black backgrounds etc may want to give this thing a spin.
MHDT Oolong ($2200)
Another old-school NOS design with tube buffer in the output stage, this time from MHDT Audio - a brand which was fairly popular with HeadFi users roughly 15 years ago. Back then $400-500 would get you an MHDT tube DAC with a rich, meaty presentation that sounded at times beautiful if not really all that accurate.
Fast forward to present day and we find that some things have changed while others have remained more or less the same. The Oolong is vastly more attractive and solidly built than those old models, and has a more competitive selection of inputs and output from which to choose. The low end is both deeper and more authoritative, where the old models always felt somewhat mushy to my ears. And the treble, while rolled off to some degree, is more tastefully done than any of those classic designs from way back when. Overall this is a far nicer DAC than its predecessors. As it should be considering the price increase involved.
Still, some of the same things I disliked back then are still present on the new model. While it does give a solid, punchy low end, I still feel dynamics are lacking overall, with a lack of contrast and an almost monotone feel to it at times. Soundstage is reasonably large but not particularly accurate. Tonality is warm and relaxed to the point of going beyond the Lab12 - which is already a fairly laid-back sounding DAC.
Frankly I'm surprised I enjoyed this thing at all given the amount of complaints I have. But it does have a certain charm to it under the right circumstances. The person who owned this particular unit actually had two of them: the first I heard was in his (otherwise very nice) headphone rig, and I didn't really care for the resulting sound at all. I've heard all his other components individually and know what they are capable of, so I can only conclude the MHDT was the weak link bringing everything down a few notches. It sounded closed in, lacked articulation, and felt like it crushed dynamics. I don't understand how he could possibly choose this DAC for his headphone setup, but he seemed happy with it. I won't even bother with comparisons to the Cen.Grand as there is no point - to my ears it does everything substantially better.
However, the other MHDT unit was in a speaker-based system paired with the superb Feliks Audio Arioso 300B integrated, driving a massive set of custom built horn speakers which looked somewhat similar in design and execution to the Tannoy Westminsters. That result was a much better pairing, sounding extremely tight and meticulously tuned to his room. His budget clearly allows for almost any other DAC he might want, and indeed he went through many before landing on the MHDT Oolong and sticking with it for the long term (thus far anyway). So despite being underwhelming in his headphone setup, I have to admit this DAC seemed perfectly matched in his speaker rig.
I guess the takeaway here is that no matter how poor a device might sound in one context, there may still be a home for it in some other situation. I am of the opinion that this DAC would not be to my liking in the majority of systems out there but I can't deny the fact that in at least one very specific case, it did a phenomenal job.
Atoll Audio ST300 Signature ($4900)
I haven't heard gear from French firm Atoll Electronique in ages. And when I did, it always seemed like generally solid yet unremarkable gear to me. So when a dealer suggested I try out the Atoll ST300 Signature, I was pretty skeptical. This dealer had already let me borrow their Merason DAC1 for a while, so I figured I would listen to the Atoll demo unit as well, out of politeness if nothing else.
I ended up being surprised and impressed by this thing. Yes, it's really intended more as an all-in-one streamer, DAC, and preamplifier, but it does not in any way feel like a compromise as so many multi-function devices can. In fact I liked this much more than the Atoll DAC300 which is their dedicated DAC (no streamer) using a completely different design. The ST300 Signature has a lively, exciting presentation which (mostly) steers clear of information overload. It sounds open, clear, and sparkly, yet also captures a good amount of body and solid note weight, making for a nicely balanced sound overall. Backgrounds are jet black, and imaging is very focused and precise. This thing feels like it would fit well in most systems regardless of what other gear may be involved.
I can really only find two things to complain about. First, I would say it can become fatiguing after a while, depending on the rest of the audio chain. Some care must be taken in system matching to avoid making this otherwise minor issue into a major one. It isn't as analytical as the DiDiT DAC212SE but does still lean slightly in that direction at times. Second, macrodynamics, or the "puchiness factor", are merely good but not great. Which is not a huge deal but considering the price is nearly $5k, I would have liked to have seen a stronger showing here. Especially considering how well some of the competition performs (Schiit Yggdrasil for example) at a lower price. Had it done a little better here the Atoll would have been an even stronger contender and likely a finalist on my list. (Note: I suspect the exchange rate is working against me here, and if the Atoll was priced around $3.5 to $4k it would be far more compelling. International markets can be tricky.)
Thankfully the DSDAC1.0 Deluxe is able to meet or exceed everything the Atoll does. I hear just as much speed and detail (and at times even more) without drawing attention to those attributes, and the sound is punchier, meatier, more tonally rich. This makes timbre come across as more accurate and convincing, yet the Cen.Grand remains exceptionally well balanced overall. In most systems the Deluxe DAC would have the clear advantage, though I could see a slower/more syrupy chain perhaps synergizing better with the Atoll, at least with certain music.
If someone loved the fast and ultra-resolving sound of a Rockna Wavedream but wanted to spend a bit less and pick up integrated streaming in the process, this Atoll ST300 Signature could be a great choice. I have not heard Rockna's Wavelight which sells for roughly the same price as the Atoll (but again lacks integrated streaming) so I'm not sure how that comparison would go. My preference remains with the Cen.Grand but Atoll Electronique definitely earned my respect with this experience.
Meitner MA3 ($10,500)
This is a comparison I had really looked forward to given the general similarities of the approach - both DACs use custom FPGA processing for proprietary 16x DSD upsampling followed by discrete 1-bit conversion, and both are built like absolute tanks. I had spent time with an MA3 when it first launched and was very impressed, to the point where I felt it almost beat my Resonessence Mirus Pro Signature. Almost, but not quite.
Fast forward a couple years and I figured it might be wise to revisit this device for a second opinion. I'm glad I did because this time around it was even more impressive. I'm not sure if it improved based on firmware updates or just synergized better with the gear I was using, but this time I would call it roughly on par with my previous reference from Resonessence Labs. Again, I remain thoroughly satisfied with that device in terms of sound, so the Meitner MA3 being on the same level means it could definitely qualify as a replacement. And the integrated streaming via Roon is a nice bonus too.
Compared directly to the Cen.Grand Deluxe, I hear the MA3 as being a bit softer in the bass region, which detracts from the sense of articulation on fast material like metal or trance. It's not as noticeable with other genres but still there if I listen closely. The general impression is that the Cen.Grand is a bit more full bodied and dynamic, though again it's not obvious until I listen carefully for it. Both DACs have superb clarity in the midrange and exceptional top-end extension, with the Cen.Grand going very slightly beyond the Meitner in treble clarity whilst remaining totally free of artificial grain.
Both devices are extremely fluid and organic, and both paint wide open sonic pictures, though the Cen.Grand is noticeably more well-defined when used with the best recordings and most spacious/accurate headphones. Apart from that scenario, the soundstage differences are small enough to be inconsequential.
There were some instances where the MA3 felt just slightly artificial when reproducing things like woodwind instruments, acoustic strings, vocals, or other sounds where every aspect must be just right to sound convincingly lifelike. I can't quite put my finger on what exactly went wrong, but I suspect it had something to do with leading edges combined with tone colors that didn't quite add up to my ears. Again, not a huge complaint, and not applicable with many types of music. But it still came up multiple times with the Meitner, yet not once did I notice it with the Cen.Grand.
Ultimately the biggest difference, resulting from all the small ones described above, is that the Deluxe DAC ends up feeling simultaneously more engaging and better refined. The choice then is obvious to me: moderately superior sound at significantly lower pricing? Yep, I'll take that option every time.
I did quite like the Meitner MA3 though, and definitely considered it a top finalist in my DAC search. Of all the devices I tried, it is perhaps the most similar in overall character to the Cen.Grand, which may be helpful for folks trying to understand what the DSDAC1.0 is like in general.
I have spent a little time with the significantly more expensive EMM Labs DA2 (in the latest V2 form) and I would say the DSDAC1.0 Deluxe reminds me very much of that unit. At least based on my admittedly limited impressions. My opinion at the time when trying the DA2 was that of a supercharged MA3 - similar tone but generally superior in various small ways - and that's the same vibe I get from the Cen.Grand Deluxe. But I did not get enough time with DA2 to draw any solid conclusions, nor to include it in this article, so I only mention this as a general aside.
dCS Bartok (pre-Apex version at $16,000)
I had high hopes for the Bartok but have tried it out multiple times and never been impressed. Especially considering the price involved. After yet another audition, this time in my own system, my opinion has not changed one bit. I do think the dCS folks are brilliant engineers who obviously go all out with their craft, but unfortunately the end result in this case just doesn't resonate with me at all. I find the sound entirely too "safe" and boring, lacking the engagement factor which many other DACs on this list possess. Which is strange, as the various dCS DACs I've tried over the years all had a distinct house sound which was very different from this. They were not perfect, and didn't always suit my sonic preferences, but I appreciated their unique viewpoint for what it was. The Bartok almost seems as if it came from an entirely different company altogether.
In direct comparison to the DSDAC1.0 Deluxe, the dCS Bartok feels somewhat gray and undefined, lacking in both authority and "bite". Transients come across as soft and indistinct. Resolution is mediocre. Focus is smeared. Instrument localization is decent but does not stand out. The Cen.Grand has significantly better midrange projection, superior microdetail retrieval, a much more defined sense of the performance space, and a thicker, more palpable tonality which equates to more believable timbre. There really is no competition as far as I'm concerned.
Note that the Bartok is not a "bad" sounding DAC in absolute terms. It doesn't do anything terribly wrong, per se. In fact its biggest strength seems to be a lack of truly egregious weaknesses, and if that's what dCS was shooting for, I guess they succeeded. Again, I'd call it a very "safe" tuning which does not offend but also doesn't stand out in any particular attribute. In this field of very capable devices, the Bartok just doesn't do anything to elevate itself anywhere near the top of the pack from a sonic perspective. Factor in the high price and you can see why I'm not very enthusiastic about it, apart from perhaps a build quality standpoint.
I actually think there's a great analogy to be had just by physically examining the Bartok. The construction and materials are undeniably high end, a fact which is evident to anyone who interacts with the device. In this area, it is not embarrassed by any competitor, regardless of price. But from an aesthetic standpoint it does seem a bit unexciting if not downright generic. See other dCS models like the Rossini, Debussy, Vivaldi, Elgar, or Puccini and note the unique design language each device had. Love them or hate them, they were not easily confused with any other brand. Now take a look at Bartok again. It's certainly not ugly, but neither is it visually striking or even very recognizable in terms of design theme. It's just very safe. It actually reminds me of my old Esoteric SA-10 from around 15 years ago - another very well built device with fairly anonymous styling which could have belonged to any number of brands. I know looks are very subjective but when I compare Bartok to the equally well built DSDAC1.0 Deluxe, and note the far more interesting aesthetic detail on the Cen.Grand, it really stands out to me. But of course so do the pricing and significant sonic advantages.
Note that dCS has since launched their "Apex" upgrade, but I did my evaluation before that existed. It brings the price up to over $20K. I won't comment on it as I have not yet heard it, but do I hope it transforms the DAC into something more competitive.
ModWright Oppo 205 (originally $3,795 but worth lots more now)
Modwright Instruments takes the much-loved Oppo UDP-205 universal player and totally upgrades the entire signal path for the audio side. There are tubes involved, and Lundahl transformers, and a massive outboard power supply, and many other details such as custom ModWright capacitors, all of which results in the already great sounding UDP-205 transforming into what I consider a top-tier performer. Rather than borrowing a review loaner, I actually purchased one for myself and wrote about it for Darko Audio, and I still enjoy it on a regular basis. I also have a small fortune invested in tube upgrades which helped further tune the sound perfectly to my liking.
I've always known this device to be a giant-killer, so it was interesting to contrast it with the Cen.Grand Deluxe. Both have a vaguely similar sound overall - smooth, rich, unforced, and organic, yet with excellent detail, imaging, speed, transient response, and other technicalities. My first impression was that of the pair sounding more alike than different, with both being extremely enjoyable.
As I logged more hours with the Cen.Grand, I began to notice certain things which it does in fact handle better than the ModWright. I'd say the main improvement involves even more fluidity, with a greater sense of ease to the presentation. The Cen.Grand feels more confident reproducing absurdly busy passages or virtuoso performances as if it was no big deal. Picture a world class powerlifter bench pressing what is, to their capabilities, the relatively small amount of 400 pounds. While being a very impressive lift even for dedicated gym rats, this amount is actually hundreds of pounds below our powerlifter's maximum. Thus the feat is made to look easy - almost effortless - making us forget what a huge accomplishment it actually is. The ModWright Oppo still nails the lift but you can sense it bumping up against the limits of its capabilities relative to the more accomplished Cen.Grand.
The other key difference is the treble clarity of the DSDAC1.0, which is subtly but meaningfully superior. Brush strokes, trailing edges of cymbal strikes, and various overtones of all types sound more delicate and lifelike with the Cen.Grand in the chain. This leads to a more convincing portrayal of "they are here" performers being live in the space with me. The ModWright remains exceptional but I think we are again bumping up against the limitations of what it can accomplish here. No shame in it though, the ModWright still remains competitive or downright superior to almost every other competitor in this roundup.
On the flip side, the ModWright sounds more rhythmically bouncy, punchy and bombastic. It's got more energy, more drive, whilst the Cen.Grand feels comparably reserved and buttoned-down - despite its supreme capabilities. This part is largely related to the deliberate tuning I've settled on via extensive tube rolling. After spending an embarrassing amount of money over the years, I arrived at a pair of vintage Amperex 7308 gold pin tubes in the output stage, and a Philips 5R4GYS rectifier, to dial in the ModWright just so. In this case the Cen.Grand has a more dignified presentation, as if to say it could do what the ModWright does - if it wanted to. It's got enough meat on the bones to avoid sounding the least bit thin even in direct comparison, but can't (or deliberately doesn't) match the impact of the ModWright.
Unfortunately as many readers know, Oppo Digital got out of the audio/video business a few years back. So this device is not suitable to be my reference, just based on my self-imposed criteria of availability. It would certainly be a finalist if not for that issue. Interestingly, the demand for Oppo 205 units has only increased since the company exited the market. Factor in the steady increase in tube prices lately, and this is one of the few pieces of audio equipment I own which has actually significantly appreciated in value beyond the original purchase price. To acquire a mint new UDP-205 these days (if one can even find such a thing), then do the ModWright treatment (it still appears available on their website but that could be an oversight), and then add NOS tubes of the highest caliber, would very likely cost more than double what I paid a few years back.
Esoteric N-05XD ($11,000)
I loved the old Esoteric gear from way back. I still have very fond memories of the P-30/D-30 combo from the mid 1990s, and the evolutionary P-70/D-70 that followed. The X-series of the early 2000s was similarly exceptional. After that point their sound started deviating from my preferences, and I lost interest despite still having huge respect for the brand. The build quality and appearance of the subsequent K and D series models was superb, but the sound never really clicked with me.
The N-05XD is part of a new generation of Esoteric products which starts fresh using their new "Master Discrete" DAC implementation rather than the prior AKM chips. And to my ears this is a vastly better sound. It's much more full bodied and well rounded than the previous models which always felt a bit thin and brittle to me. N-05XD also gets integrated streaming, preamp capabilities, and even a balanced headphone output, though I mainly focused on the device as a dedicated DAC.
I'd say the N-05DX does qualify as a top-tier DAC, though I'm not in love with that five-figure price tag. It has a big, bold presentation that retains enough grace and refinement to sound universally appealing. Those who loved the old Esoteric sound might find it overly brash but to me it seems far more lifelike and realistic, and I think most listeners these days would agree. Even the old flagship K-01, which sold for around $22k a decade ago, feels dry and papery in comparison to the N-05DX. Anyone who was turned off by the prior direction Esoteric went should consider revisiting if they get a chance - it's a completely different experience.
Despite those improvements, the Cen.Grand is even more punchy and flowing, with greater dynamic contrast. The Esoteric sounds very slightly rounded at times, almost in deliberate backlash against their former clinical approach. This means less transient snap than the Cen.Grand and an almost "mellow" feel to the presentation. The Cen.Grand is liquid smooth yet manages to be more insightful, with a deeper view into the mix which somehow remains fatigue-free. The only time I might prefer the N-05XD is when using an otherwise overcooked system with a sharp amplifier and bright headphones - there the greater damping of the Esoteric would come off as superior control and probably do the system a favor. In any other context I prefer the Deluxe DAC by a reasonable margin.
Still, the Esoteric N-05XD is a superb DAC overall. It's everything I feel the dCS Bartok should have been, at a far lower cost, and with a much more striking appearance. My complaints about the value proposition might be abated by using the N-05XD as an all-in-one, since the headphone output seems quite well done from my limited use. I believe the streaming aspect was co-developed by Korean firm Lumin, which means it should be of a very high caliber as well. So while it was not my first choice, this thing ranks fairly high on the list overall.
Lampizator (various prices)
I was able to demo three different Lampizator models over the course of this project: the Baltic 3 (~$6,500), a balanced Atlantic TRP (~$10k), and a Big Seven mk2 (~$10k). That represents something like the entry level to mid range of the current lineup. I believe there is at least one slightly less expensive model available, and several higher end offerings beyond the Big Seven, priced into the stratosphere. I'm also aware that Lampizator is constantly updating things and releasing newer iterations. I'm not sure if the models I heard are considered "current" at this point, but since they were all sold new within the past year or so, my impressions should still be relevant.
I came away from my Lampizator experience with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I heard a common thread between all three units, something like a "house sound" that I believe Lampizator was shooting for when building these devices. And it certainly has some charm. Warm, rich, flowing, and nicely detailed, I absolutely get why so many people love their gear. Despite trying three models, with each one being meticulously tuned with the owner's choice of specific tubes, they all ended up sounding remarkably similar, with just subtle improvements as I moved up the line to the more expensive models. I suspect the single-ended Atlantic TRP (which shaves thousands of dollars off the balanced version) may be the best value of the bunch.
That said, despite the three different models and their various tube rolling selections, to my ears all of them seemed a bit overly dull on the top end. Detail retrieval was excellent in general (particularly with the Big Seven), yet treble was somewhat pushed down into the mix, or given lower priority than I'd like. Transients felt a little rounded which made the sound less expressive overall, and the soundstage, while spacious, was less distinct than the Cen.Grand presentation. Lastly, there seemed to be a mild timbre-related issue, moreso on the Baltic but still present in the other models, where instrument tonality felt a bit off. I can't quite put my finger on what exactly caused this but I did not hear the same issue on the Cen.Grand, nor the Meitner, Esoteric, Wavelength, or ModWright units. So ultimately while I could certainly build a nice rig out of any one of these three DACs, I didn't consider them particularly compelling for my reference use.
I can already hear the disagreement now. A legion of Lampi-lovers calling me deaf or accusing my associated gear of not being up to the task. When a brand makes so many rabid followers, they must be doing something right... and yet in this case that "something" just doesn't seem to line up with my needs or preferences.
Soul Note D-2 ($9,000)
Impeccably built and uniquely styled, Soul Note DACs are highly regarded in Japan but have little exposure here in the USA. This thing has some interesting features like quad ES9038Pro chips and the ability to switch to mono mode - allowing users to run a pair of them in dual mono just like the flagship Esoteric Grandioso DAC. It's a seriously impressive device - fully balanced, dual mono, massive chassis, very complex internals, with attention paid to the finest details such as vibration control and damping. This thing seems a natural competitor for fellow Japanese brands such as Luxman, Esoteric, and Accuphase, at least in terms of design and build.
After extensive listening, my impression of the D-2 is that it does have what I've heard referred to as a very "Japanese" tuning. That means emphasis on airy, delicate treble, beautiful tone, and a somewhat polite, reserved tonality. It's a highly technical and complex signature which manages to reproduce challenging sounds like trumpets with exceptional clarity and bite, yet without sounding overly harsh. Seperation, or the space between instruments and the ability to pick them out while listening, is extremely well done. This is everything I wished my old Esoteric D-07x could have been, but wasn't.
The DSDAC1.0 Deluxe sounds richer, thicker, and more weighty in comparison to the Soul Note. It's one of those things where I don't necessarily notice how much I'm missing until I swap components, at which point the difference becomes striking. The Soul Note is beautiful in its own way, particularly with music like folk, acoustic singer/songwriter, solo piano works, or jazz trios. If that's your main musical diet, the Soul Note might be a perfect match. But I also enjoy all sorts of metal, electro, large scale orchestral works, reggae, etc, and for those genres the Soul Note feels less capable. Meanwhile I never feel like the Cen.Grand is too thick and rich to enjoy those lighter genres, but rather that it seems to balance everything very well and thus work with all music equally. And the Cen.Grand does not seem to miss any fine detail in the process, which to me is the most rare achievement of all. I could certainly work around the Soul Note sound by pairing the D-2 with suitably warm amplification and headphones, but that might miss the point - this DAC is extremely capable and deliberately voiced this way. Which for some listeners might be the ideal choice.
My other complaint about the Soul Note is that the USB implementation seems rather poor in quality. Which is disappointing since the device is otherwise so well designed and implemented. They use some unique data transfer method which requires special drivers and thus might not work with all Linux-based streamers. And even after fussing with drivers, the sound over USB feels somewhat flat and etched to my ears. I much prefer AES which is how I did the bulk of my auditioning. Given the ambitious design and the way Soul Note brags about their USB implementation, I can only conclude this was somehow an intentional choice, yet it baffles me to think that anyone would prefer this over the sound we get from AES or coaxial.
I didn't do my research beforehand, so I only discovered the D-2 having four software-selectable USB modes after the fact. Perhaps tweaking those settings would have made an improvement. Likewise I had no idea they allowed users to run the DAC in NOS mode, despite that term being right there on the front panel (in my defense, the text is quite small). There's a chance this may have altered the sonic experience in positive ways, but I missed my chance to find out one way or the other.
I've heard that "serious" audiophiles in Japan tend to run the Soul Note D-2 with fancy external clocking, and often in pairs for dual mono mode. Which may fix some of my complaints about politeness and tonal weight. But at that point we're talking at least $20k or beyond which is where I really lose interest. I remain intrigued by Soul Note in general, but the Cen.Grand feels like a superior DAC for my preferences, and for less money too.
Audio Research DAC 9 ($10,000)
I've never been terribly impressed with Audio Research DACs, and the DAC 9 did nothing to change that opinion. It's a fine sounding DAC, with a strong sense of resolution, good imaging, decent articulation, and a firm sense of low-end authority which makes for an engaging listen. It's built to the usual ARC standard, which is honestly where a lot of the price tag comes from. But as far as sound, to my ears it seems like a DAC which should cost around $2-3k rather than five digits.
I would put the Denafrips Pontus II (~$1,800) up against the DAC 9 any day and expect the Chinese contender to put up a good fight, even coming out ahead in certain areas. Ditto for the Schiit Ygdrassil ($2,699) or the Matrix X-Sabre III ($2,999). And I think the Yulong DA-1 with Power Station PSU (combined $4k) actually outshines the DAC 9 in most aspects. So it's not that the Audio Research DAC 9 isn't a very enjoyable DAC - it certainly is - but rather a question of value. If you honestly tell me that the DAC 9 is worthy of the $10k price, then logically the Cen.Grand DSDAC1.0 Deluxe should sell for at least double that. But thankfully it only goes for a little over $6k.
Audio Research makes great amplifiers and preamps. It's one of those brands like McIntosh that people tend to stick with, building out the system with visually matching gear and upgrading every once in a while to a newer or higher model. ARC users could do a lot worse than the DAC 9 - it really does have a pleasing sound to it - but they could also get a lot more for their money if they didn't mind deviating from the brand.
Rockna Wavedream Signature (non-balanced version, $13,000)
Rockna's Wavedream was already a popular high-end DAC, having been around in one form or another for some years by now. The Signature version contains various tweaks and upgrades which supposedly brings performance to an entirely new level. I haven't compared them directly so I won't comment on that, but I will say the Signature edition is a superb DAC and certainly in the top-tier of everything I have heard.
I really, really enjoyed this DAC. It has a very fast, extremely detailed signature, but also manages great realism and tonal richness. Soundstage is huge, imaging precise, and low-level detail immense. It also has superb dynamic punch, putting an energetic spin on everything it plays. All in all, this is among the very best DACs I've ever heard.
Compared to the Rockna, the Cen.Grand sounds very similar in many ways, but places more emphasis on musical liquidity rather than speed and punch. Everything flows more smoothly and has a slightly more relaxed feel, whilst the Wavedream is more lively. Both are extremely technically accomplished but the Rockna makes that more obvious or in your face, while the Cen.Grand hits you in a more organic way... yet the tiniest details are still there if you listen for them. I guess I'd call the Rockna presentation more bold and lively while the Cen.Grand is more graceful in focus, if that makes any sense at all. I could certainly be happy with either of them as my reference, from a purely sonic perspective.
When I first auditioned the Signature DAC, it was paired with the matching Rockna Wavedream NET streaming transport. That made for a dynamite combination, particularly via I2S which seemed to offer the best performance. I was later able to demo the DAC at my home with some other transports, and found the result somewhat less pleasing. It was still a great DAC but lost a little of the magic I heard the first time around. The best result I got was using my Euphony Summus music server - an extremely high quality transport in my experience - but it just didn't reach the same level as the matching NET transport. Thankfully Rockna has a mode to work with the PS Audio "standard" for I2S so it plays well with my Euphony as well as with my Cayin iDAP-6, but even so I feel the NET would be a required purchase to unlock the full magic of this device.
Factor in the significantly higher pricing, which climbs even more if you want a balanced version, and I'd say the value proposition is strongly in favor of the DSDAC1.0 Deluxe. But I would not argue with someone who chose the Rockna instead.
Merason DAC1 (original version, $6,000)
Switzerland has given us many high-end audio brands over the years. Weiss Engineering, Piega, Nagra, Thorens, CH Precision, Goldmund, Soulution, the list goes on and on. Merason is not a name I was familiar with prior to this project, but it is certainly on my radar now.
The DAC1 is an interesting device as it doesn't really do anything particularly unique as far as design goes. So no custom FPGA, discrete ladder network, or proprietary upsampling algorithm, and not even the latest/greatest DAC chip(s) on board - Merason uses a pair of TI PCM1794A chips circa 2004. The draw here is not buzzwords or emerging technology but rather good old fashioned engineering using established concepts executed extremely well. That means fully symmetrical dual-mono design, clean power via extremely well regulated PSU, discrete class A output stage, etc. And the result is something I feel challenges any new technology one might find in competing DACs.
The Merason, like the Cen.Grand, manages to combine speed and clarity with smoothness for a very high degree of listenability. I know that's probably not a real world but useful nonetheless. Both devices have weighty, authoritative tonality, both can do silky treble, and both project large performance spaces with excellent localization. Did I mention this was a very capable DAC?
In the end, I feel the Cen.Grand has the edge in a few areas, though the Merason is not without some victories of its own. The DSDAC1.0 Deluxe does even better at layering and soundstage depth, has a slightly sweeter upper midrange, and holds things together more convincingly when things get really busy. In exchange, the Merason does have a little more low-end slam, making the sense of dynamic impact greater. So it's a trade off and I could see someone choosing the Merason depending on their music preferences and system configuration. For me, more often than not I gravitated towards the Cen.Grand, but both presentations were more alike than different and both seemed to have merit.
Two examples really sealed the deal for me choosing the Cen.Grand over the similarly incredible Merason. First, the song "Le Veuve et Le Martyr" by technical death metal band First Fragment, off their superb 2021 release Gloire Eternelle. The track opens with guitars doing a sort of flamenco-inspired intro, and one would be excused for thinking they accidentally selected something by Rodrigo y Gabriela rather than a metal band. It then transitions to a bit of funky slap-bass action of the Infectious Grooves variety. Finally, about one minute in, things get going into the more expected tech-metal direction, with rapid-fire drums and soaring guitar notes. Both DACs handle this track beautifully but the Merason actually feels a little "one note" in terms of overemphasizing the drive and rhythm. The Cen.Grand has ample authority but feels more balanced across the board.
The second example is the upcoming Reference Recordings release of The Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos, with Sir Donald Runnicles conducting the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra. Playing the 24/192 FLAC version of this highly-recommended release (also available in 3-disc hybrid SACD format if you prefer), both DACs sound phenomenal, but I hear a greater sense of scale, space, and separation with the Cen.Grand in the system. It's just that much easier to pick out individual instruments, or identify their location on the stage. The Merason is certainly not bad in this regard, but I feel the Cen.Grand has the edge.
It fascinates me how closely these two DACs compete, and how much they have in common sonically. The Merason is a PCM only device which tops out at 24/192 and won't accept DSD at all. Meanwhile the Cen.Grand can only process DSD and converts everything to that format. While I ended up choosing the Cen.Grand, I would not hesitate to recommend Merason either. The brand just updated to the DAC1 to mk2 status and increased the price to around $8k. I haven't heard it so I won't comment about how much it improves and whether it is worth the cost.
Aavik D280 (~$11,000)
Getting to audition this device was a surprise as Aavik really doesn't have a big presence in the USA, despite being part of a major Danish hi-fi group that offers many high-end products under various brand names.
I thought it sounded pleasing in a sort of "audio show" way, where everything is great as long as you play Norah Jones, Stan Getz, or Pink Floyd. Very beautiful presentation, lit-up midrange, layered soundstage, and sweet treble. Also a really large, open presentation, with nicely defined imaging.
Digging into more real-world music - metal, funk, electro, punk, ambient - most of which would never fly at an audio show, and this DAC somewhat fades into mediocrity. It doesn't really do anything wrong per se, but neither does it do anything to elevate itself beyond something like a Matrix X-Sabre 3 which sells for less than 1/3 the price. In fact I would probably take the Matrix, or the Atoll, or the DiDiT, or the Musician Aquarius over the D280 based purely on sound alone, not even factoring in the cost.
Again, this is a beautiful looking and very well built DAC that screams high-end at first impression, but the sonics don't quite back it up. The performance is not bad at all, just not good enough for further consideration, and not even close to the Cen.Grand DSDAC1.0 Deluxe.
Wyred4Sound 10th Anniversary Edition ($4,500)
I've reviewed this device at Darko Audio https://darko.audio/2017/12/wyred-4-sound-dac2v2se-10th-anniversary-review/ roughly 6 years ago. Despite the years passing, it remains a very capable performer, and still ticks all my sonic boxes for a reference component. I do prefer the Cen.Grand by a decent enough margin, probably because it has a pretty similar sonic character and just takes things further in most aspects. I've always loved the Anniversary Edition, and despite the many differences in design theme, the Cen.Grand sounds like it could practically be an upgraded version of the Wyred DAC.
This DAC was a limited edition, initially only planned for a small run (hence the "Anniversary" designation). The company did extend it and release more batches over the years, but I don't know if they still ever have new units available at this point. I will see them on the second hand market from time to time, at pricing that seems very attractive for the performance this unit offers. So while I did not use this as my ultimate reference I can very strongly recommend it, no matter how you may be able to acquire it.
Bricasti Design M3 ($5,500)
This brand is one that I've flirted with owning for years. The M3 is relatively affordable compared to the bigger M1, and I actually prefer it in some ways. It trades some realism and detail retrieval for a more visceral signature that I find very satisfying. I also love the fact that Bricasti offers a Roon ready network card option, as well as an integrated headphone output on the M3h version. Seems like a great way to grab all-in-one functionality.
I don't find the M3 to be quite on par with the Cen.Grand though. It actually sounds a lot more like the Wyred4Sound Anniversary DAC that I love so much. That is to say, similar general sonic picture to the DSDAC1.0 but not as capable. If I didn't already have the Wyred DAC, and had not experienced the Cen.Grand, the Bricasti might end up being my choice for a new reference. It's that good.
I wanted to audition the newer M1S2 which sells for $12k. I've heard that model takes the technical excellence of the older M1 and bakes in some of the punchy, guilty-pleasure fun of the M3. But I wasn't able to track one down very easily.
Some others I tried got lost in the shuffle, so I don't feel confident giving specific comparisons about their sonic performance. But I do want to mention a few brief impressions of some noteworthy contenders:
*The Aqua La Voce S3 is probably my favorite offering from Aqua. I don't particularly care for their higher models and find them to have poor value for money. The La Voce S3 is not on par with Cen.Grand but remains a great DAC overall.
*I had never heard of Canor Audio, but their DAC 2.10 is a pretty decent option for the price. Lively and dynamic, it seems very flattering of poor recordings, and makes everything sound fun. Not the last word in realism, still enjoyable for what it is.
*MFE Tube DAC SE sounds very similar to the Audio Research DAC9, at less than half the price. Much more compelling in that price range, though still not enough to overcome the Cen.Grand sound. This is another brand I had never heard of but would like to try more.
*The Ideon Ayazi mk2 with their matching 3R Master Time external clocking box is a really musical, engaging device. Not the most detailed but tons of fun and really great for taming bright headphones. Similar in some ways to the Canor DAC 2.10 but with superior details and particularly a wider, deeper, more convincing soundstage. This makes me want to try the higher end Ideon Absolute DAC but the pricing on that puts it in Playback Designs territory so I probably won't bother. Plus I am not sure it can even be found very easily in my region. Still, the "affordable" Ayazi DAC is worth investigating if you like musical sounding DACs which retain good technicalities.
After auditioning several dozen worthy contenders, I can honestly say the Cen.Grand DSDAC1.0 Deluxe is the most impressive DAC I've heard. While not inexpensive, I actually find it to be a great value compared to what others have to offer, in the same price range as well as far beyond. The sound is simultaneously smooth yet transparent, wide open yet intimate, dynamic yet nuanced, to the point that I really don't hear any weaknesses.
Is it the "best" DAC out there? Of course not. There is no "best" DAC, only one that is "best" for a particular user or a specific system. For my musical tastes and associated equipment, the DSDAC1.0 Deluxe is the one, making it a perfect choice for my reference DAC.
Note that this thread started as a discussion and intro to the brand. I am now editing my initial post to reflect the full evaluation, which may cause some of the initial replies and discussion to not make sense. I can't figure a better way to handle this so please bear with me.