Just as the Tea Party is a reaction to what its constituents see as a runaway tax-and-spend government, so the resurgence of do-it-yourself and “high-value” products reflects a rejection of price-no-object components by audiophiles of modest means. I empathize with this viewpoint. Over the years I’ve become less and less enamored of products above my own completely personal price-points. I won’t dispute that new stratospherically priced components often deliver a technological edge. But chances are good that the new methodology will be licensed to other manufacturers and incorporated into less expensive products in a matter of months. And then there is this: No matter how expensive and beautifully made a five-year-old DAC may be, its performance will be challenged by many far-less-expensive current-production DACs. Sorry, but that’s the way technology works. For me, it makes more sense to spend big money on components that will not be eclipsed in six months or a year, such as a power amplifier or speakers, rather than a DAC.
Then along comes the $1499 Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2. It’s certainly priced attractively. Yes, it’s way more than a HRT Music Streamer II USB DAC ($149) or even a Music Streamer II+ ($350), but way less than a Weiss DAC 202 ($6670). Psychologically, $1500 is a figure that divides “might buy’s” from “hell no’s.” And when you factor in that the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 includes a very well thought-out analog preamplifier that can replace a separate preamp in an all-digital system, the DAC-2’s obvious value and reasonable price makes it even more enticing. The DAC-2 can serve as the control center for either a high-end near-field desktop, a two-channel room system, or even in a multichannel system, which means that most, if not all TAS readers could easily find a place for a DAC-2 in their systems.
Tech Tour—Parts Ain’t Design
As I enumerate the stuff inside the Wyred 4 Sound DAC, please consider that just because the DAC-2 uses an ESS 9018 Sabre32 32-bit DAC, doesn’t mean it will sound identical to other units that use this same part. DAC parts only have a “sound” within the context of the hardware and software in which they are employed.
Wyred 4 Sound’s designer, EJ Sarmento, began with that Sabre chip and then formulated a fully balanced design around it. The Sabre is an eight-channel device that can be configured as a quad-differential circuit with four differential DACs per phase per channel, which delivers 132dB of dynamic range. Because jitter is inevitable in a S/PDIF digital stream, the DAC- 2’s Sabre ESS 9018 deals with jitter in a clever way—by disregarding the clock signals coming from the source. Instead the Sabre re-clocks by instituting a discrete digital delay that can affect either the positive or negative edge of each duty cycle by up to 50%. The processor accesses the width of each digital pulse, compares it to past pulses, and assigns the pulse a particular quantified width. Then the device processes each pulse in turn with no attempt to re-time the clock, it merely time-stamps the information and passes it downstream. According to Wyred 4 Sound, this methodology makes it possible for the DAC-2 to accept up to 50ns of random and 200ns of sinusoidal jitter with no audible affects. Technically, this is an asynchronous system, since the data flow is controlled by the DAC, not the computer. But this is not the same asynchronous methodology used by Wavelength, which focuses on the interface between the computer and the DAC.
Other technical features of the DAC-2 include automatic 386x oversampling, an oversized toroidal power transformer, 35-amp bridge-rectified power supply with 88,000uF filtering, proprietary low-ESR “super caps,” Schottky bridge rectifiers, fully discrete output stage using a dual-differential input amplifier stages and Dale RN55d resistors, and a 32-bit digital volume control. All the circuit boards—digital, analog output, and USB input—are designed so they can be upgraded to allow for some degree of future proofing.
Physically, the DAC-2 is compact, taking up only a half-rack width of 8 ½ inches. The front panel features a matte-finished face available in either black or silver with three buttons (up, down, and powe), and a vacuum fluorescent (VFD) display. The remote control is an inexpensive plastic job with volume, balance, power on/off, input selector, phase, mute, and HT bypass. This last button lets you route a two-channel analog signal through the DAC-2 so it won’t alter the volume of that input.
On the back of the DAC-2 you will find an on/off switch, two RCA coaxial S/PDIF inputs, two TosLink inputs, one AES/EBU input, one I2S2 input (via HDMI), and one USB input. The DAC-2 also has one pair of balanced XLR outputs, one pair of unbalanced RCA outputs, and one pair of “Bypass” analog inputs. The DAC-2 is capable of accepting up to a 192kHz 24-bit signal. It accomplishes this via a proprietary asynchronous USB driver. If you’re a Windows user, you’re already familiar with drivers, as it seems that virtually every hardware device requires one be installed prior to operation. Mac users may be less at ease with drivers, as most come pre-installed in the Mac OS. Being primarily a Mac user, when I first set up the DAC-2 I didn’t install the driver, with the results being dead silence. After glancing through the owners manual I discovered the driver’s CD, installed the driver, and then all was well.
Set Up and Daily Use
Most of the time the DAC-2 remained in my near-field desktop computer audio system (see Associated Equipment for specific list of gear), but it also spent some time in my large room system. In my computer system I set up the DAC-2 so that it received a USB input from the computer, an AES/EBU input from the output of an Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 3 being fed USB, a TosLink S/PDIF input from the computer, and an RCA coaxial S/PDIF input from my Oppo DBP-80 universal player
During the 60+ days I had the DAC-2 in my systems it never malfunctioned in any ergonomic or performance parameter. My only ergonomic quibble is that the acceptance angle for the remote control is rather narrow, especially in the vertical plane. Unless I lowered the remote so it was on a nearly parallel with the faceplate its commands were not acted upon. A domed rather than inset IR receiver might solve this little problem.
Front panel design always comes down to a battle between visual simplicity (fewer buttons and knobs) and the complexity of commands needed to make a three-button system work with the fewest sub-menus. The DAC-2 has only three buttons, so you need to do a double-button push to get into the settings menu. To switch from volume control mode to input control mode you must push the “power” button, which in this case doesn’t power down the DAC-2, but switches it between these two modes. Simple? Well, sort of. Just a note — if you push the power button fast, it will change between volume or input mode. If you push the button and hold it down, it will power down the unit. My problem was that it was far too easy to be in the wrong mode and instead of adjusting the volume, I’d be changing inputs. My advice—stick with the remote control.
Nestled in the set-up menu is something called “IIR bandwidth.” No, it’s not for adjusting the frequency of your remote control. Instead it means “infinite impulse response,” and it adjusts the filter’s bandwidth. You may choose 50k, 60k, or 70k. You also have a choice of two roll-off slopes, fast and slow, brightness level for the front panel display, and the option for each individual input to be either a fixed or variable output source.
Sonically the DAC-2 delivers on its promises. The overall sound has a solidity and weight that is both arresting and involving. Much of this sonic goodness stems from the DAC-2’s lack of low-level noise and digital artifacts.
A good part of the DAC-2’s apparent clarity comes from its ability to portray both lateral and dimensional information unambiguously. I never found myself wondering exactly where an instrument or sound was within the soundstage. One of my reference cuts for imaging precision is “Punchbowl” off the Punch Brothers Punch album. Since the sessions were recorded live with five musicians clustered around one main stereo pair of microphones (similar to how you would record a string quartet), it is a good test of how well a system can preserve and uncover dimensional and locational cues. The DAC-2 captures the interplay between the mandolin and fiddle as they play identical lines and how their decays trail off differently based on their physical location, reverberating off the rear and sidewalls of the recording space.
While the DAC-2’s presentation is certainly fast and incisive, it never leads with an electronic edge. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the DAC-2 is tube-like since it adds little, if any, harmonic warmth or additional depth to the soundstage. The DAC-2’s analog section presents music with a clarity and precision that will keep your left-brain fully involved. On The Band of Heathen’s tune “Let Your Heart Not Be Troubled” from their One Foot in the Ether album, the DAC-2 had no difficulty unraveling the complex multi-tracked parts for my listening pleasure.
As with other USB and FireWire DACs I’ve reviewed I spent lots of time comparing the iTunes with Amarra, Pure Music, and AyreWave players through the DAC-2. In every case it was easy to hear the superiority of these software solutions over iTunes through the DAC-2. The three D’s—depth, definition, and dynamics—all improved. I was especially aware of this step up in quality on orchestra recordings, such as my own high-definition recordings of the Boulder Philharmonic (down-sampled from DSD to 96/24). Although the overall soundstage and image size didn’t change appreciably, the spaces between instruments were more pronounced and each instrument seemed more palpable and three-dimensional. Also all three programs preserved more of the delicacy and air in the string sections and woodwinds than iTunes could muster.
I installed the DAC-2 in my large-room system principally to see how it compared with my longtime reference Meridian 568.2 controller on two-channel digital sources. Since the Meridian 598 transport has RCA coaxial as well as Meridian’s proprietary MHR (Meridian High Resolution) connectors, I was able to do closely matched A/B comparisons. The DAC-2 and Meridian 568.2 sounded much more similar than I expected. The 568.2 was slightly darker harmonically with less upper-frequency air and shimmer. The Meridian also had less upper midrange dynamic contrast and speed, and the faintest haziness around individual instrument outlines. Soundstage size and depth through the two units was identical, yet the DAC-2 was more incisive in terms of locational cues and subtle dimensional details.
Because I’m a glutton for punishment I also placed the DAC-2 in my small-room system so I could compare it to the Lexicon MC-12 HD on two channel sources. I ran the TosLink output from an Oppo DBP-83SE to the DAC-2 and its RCA coaxial output to the Lexicon. In comparison to the DAC-2 the Lexicon sounds somewhat “grayish,” with less sense of dynamic life and contrast. Although their soundstage sizes were very similar, it was easier to locate parts and listen into the mix through the DAC-2. The Lexicon wasn’t murky, but it didn’t have quite the clarity or ease of the DAC-2. When I switched inputs so the DAC-2 got the RCA coaxial and the Lexicon got the TosLink, nothing changed; the DAC-2 was still audibly superior.
Some of the sonic differences between the Wyred 4 Sound and the Lexicon could be attributed to the fact that the Lexicon’s output was from its single-ended rather than balanced main outputs, because the DAC-2’s bypass inputs are only single-ended. Years ago, when I first installed the Lexicon in my system, I compared its single-ended RCA outputs to its balanced XLR outputs and found that balanced was clearly superior in terms of depth, dynamics, and overall musicality. So some of the “grayness” I was hearing from the Lexicon was because of the single-ended connection.
Moving the DAC-2 back to my desktop computer system I compared the DAC-2’s USB input with the performance of the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 3 USB converter. Using Amarra 2.0 in its new “stand-alone” mode, where it operates without iTunes, allowed me to do relatively fast, but not instantaneous, A/B comparisons. I still had to shut down Amarra, change inputs on the DAC-2, change output devices in OS X’s sound preference panel, and then re-open and restart Amarra—a process that took me about 30 seconds when I got all the moves down pat. Given that this was not an ideal A/B setup, I still heard some subtle differences between the two front ends. The Off-Ramp had a slightly more distant perspective, with greater sense of ambience, but not quite as much immediacy. It was as if I had been moved back three or four rows in the concert hall. On the 176.4/24 high-resolution recording from MA Recordings, La Segunda, (which was played back at 88.2 by the Off-Ramp due to its 96k upper limit and at 176.4 through the DAC-2), the DAC-2 had better depth recreation and a more solid feel. Rarely have I heard a recording and playback that sounded more like a live microphone feed.
Finally it was time to compare the DAC-2 to the Weiss DAC 202, the “big dog” in my DAC stable. Since I had to physically switch the two DACs in and out of my system, I couldn’t do any matched-level A/B comparisons—all my notes are from long-term listening sessions. Where the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp seemed to render a more distant perspective than the DAC-2, the Weiss DAC 202 seemed to provide a more close-up view of the event, as if I’d moved up a couple of rows. The DAC 202 also managed to retain more spatial information, with an even greater sense of dimensionality and depth. I must stress that the level of difference was subtle, and more on the order of the differences you’d hear between two comparably-priced premium cables than between a $1500 DAC and one that costs $6500. After extensive time with both units it was clear that the DAC 202 bests the DAC-2 in all audible performance parameters, but the DAC-2 is so close to the performance to the DAC 202 that most people would be shocked to learn that there was a $5000 difference in their prices. Even more importantly, I never felt that burning desire to return to the DAC 202 while I was listening to the DAC-2, which gives you an idea of how good the DAC-2 is. For $1499 this DAC-2 is nearly a giant-killer.
Since The Absolute Sound is a print publication, there ain’t no way (except in rare occasions) we’re gonna be the first to “publish” a review of a component as au courant and in-demand as the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2. The question on my mind, when I read other extremely positive reviews, was, “Have these folks ever heard a state-of-the-art DAC to compare against the DAC-2?” Because I know full well what happens when you’re confronted by the best you’ve ever heard—you get a wee bit overenthused.
After my time with the DAC-2 I can’t help but be impressed with it. Wyred 4 Sound has combined a rich feature set with remarkable performance at a price that makes it hard to beat. While I haven’t heard every DAC (who has?), I have yet to hear any USB DACs under $1500 that I like better, and I doubt that you will either, at least for the time being. Factor in the DAC-2’s current 192kHz high-resolution capabilities and built-in circuit-board upgradability, and you have a DAC that will remain au courant long enough to make it a savvy and satisfying purchase, regardless of how much more you can afford to spend. Will the DAC-2 get you back in touch with your first seminal high-fidelity experience? There’s a high probability that it will.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: USB/SPDIF DAC with built-in volume control
DAC: ESS Reference audio (ES9018) 32-bit DAC
Inputs: Two coax inputs, two TosLink inputs, one AES/EBU input, HT Bypass inputs (via DC trigger,) 24-bit/192kHz asynchronous USB input
Output impedance: 100 ohms
Driver: Proprietary for 32/64 bit windows XP, Vista, & and Mac OS above 10.4
Dimensions: 8.5” x 4.125” x 13.5”
Weight: 16 lbs.
WYRED 4 SOUND
2323 Tuley Rd Unit A-C
Paso Robles, CA, 93466
Source Devices: MacPro model 1.1 Intel Xeon 2.66 GHz computer with 12 GB of memory with OS 10.6.4, running iTunes 10.0.1 and Amarra 2.0 music playing software, Pure Music 1.65a music playing software, AyreWave music playing software,
DACs: Weiss DAC 202, Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 3
Amplifiers: Bel Canto S-300 stereo amplifier, Edge Electronics AV-6, Accuphase P-300 power amplifier
Speakers: ATC SCM7s, Silverline Minuets, Paradigm S1s, Aerial Acoustics 5Bs, Role Audio Kayaks, Earthquake Supernova mk IV 10 subwoofer
Cables and Accessories: Locus Design Polestar USB cable, Locus Design Nucleus USB cable, Wireworld USB cable, PS Audio Quintet, AudioQuest CV 4.2 speaker cable, AudioQuest Colorado interconnect, Empirical Audio Coax digital cable.