As high-end consumer audio systems become more like pro studios and higher bit-rate digital files on hard drives become more common, it should come as no surprise that the differences between pro audio gear and consumer audio gear are shrinking. Some companies such as Bryston, EMM, and Manley have been creating components for both markets for years. Another name on this pro/con manufacturers list is Switzerland’s Weiss Engineering.
Daniel Weiss founded Weiss Engineering in 1985. Based on his experience working on digital products for Revox, Weiss decided to concentrate on the design and manufacture of equipment for mastering studios. Weiss’ first product, the 102 system, is still current with 96/24 capabilities. In the early 90s Weiss Engineering brought out its Gambit Series, which included a stand-alone equalizer, de-noiser, A/D unit, D/A unit, and sampling frequency convertor. Sony, BMG, EMI, Warner, Hit Factory, Abbey Road, Teldec, Telarc, Gateway Mastering (Bob Ludwig), Bernie Grundman Mastering, Masterdisk, and Sterling Sound, all use Weiss units in their mastering suites. In 2001 Weiss introduced its first consumer D/A, the Medea, followed in 2004 by the Jason transport. To support this level of innovation, Weiss Engineering Ltd. employs five full-time employees in its engineering department.
The DAC 202 is the second consumer FireWire DAC from Weiss. The first was the Minerva DAC. The Minerva was a glorious flop—beautifully made, wonderful sounding, it sold like ice water in northern Alaska. The reason for its lack of sales was simple: The Minerva was a Weiss DAC 2 with a different front panel. Everything inside the Minerva was identical to the DAC 2 and the DAC 2 was $2000 less. Anyone who wanted a Minerva bought a DAC 2 and naturally Minerva sales suffered as a result. The DAC 2 is still part of Weiss’ professional line-up, while the Minerva is not.
How does the DAC 202 differ from the DAC 2/Minerva? According to Daniel Weiss, “The DAC202 has a completely different analog section. In addition the DAC 202 has a remote control, headphone output, and a digital word clock input/output. The DAC 2 lacks all of that. But the DAC 2 and 202 do have some of the same digital parts, including the 32-bit DAC chip.” The 202’s analog circuit uses an ESS 9018 DAC chip configured for two converter channels per one analog audio channel. It’s coupled to a minimalistic signal path that uses only current-to-voltage converter and a balanced driver as active devices.
Setting up the Weiss DAC 202 was simple. After downloading and installing Weiss’ latest FireWire driver, I connected the Weiss to my Mac Pro via a standard FireWire cable and then connected the DAC 202 to my amplifiers via analog XLR connections. Next I selected the Weiss as my audio device via Apple’s Sound preferences in the system preferences file. Finally I opened iTunes plus either Amarra or Pure Music and began playing any and all of the digital music files in my library. The setup for Windows is a bit more involved, but not demoralizingly so. If you insist on using a Windows machine, the DAC 202 can oblige. If you don’t have a FireWire-enabled computer you can still use the DAC 202 via its S/PDIF RCA or AES/EBU digital inputs.
My ergonomic impressions of the DAC 202 were overwhelmingly positive. During its time in casa Stone the 202 has had zero connectivity issues. This was a pleasant change from the Minerva, which I used prior to the DAC 202’s arrival. Frequently the Minerva would mysteriously become unselected as an output device and silence would ensue. Correcting the problem required resetting the computer’s audio device preferences and disconnecting and reconnecting the FireWire cables. But the DAC 202 exhibited none of this squirreliness. Amarra, Pure Music, and, most importantly, Mac’s audio midi set-up control panel immediately recognized and supported the 202. Unlike many so-called plug-and-play devices, the DAC 202 really does work correctly the first time and every subsequent time you use it.
Controls on the front panel are as minimalist as you can get. There’s only one knob, an LCD display, and a headphone jack. If you push the knob in it switches from user mode, where it serves as a volume control, to menu mode, which gives you access to the 202’s settings and adjustments. The 202 also sports an IR remote control, which is far easier to use than the front panel knob. More than occasionally when I tried to adjust the DAC 202’s volume with its front panel volume control nothing happened. That was because the 202 had slipped into menu mode instead of volume mode.
Employing the remote solves this user-error problem. The remote includes controls for volume, input source, and mute. It also gives you the ability to change absolute phase and switch from digital filter A to B. Depending on the source, switching absolute phase can have an audible affect. Some audiophiles claim that over 10% of all commercial recordings sound better when their absolute phase is inverted. The digital filter is an upsampling filter. According to Weiss, “Filter A has a steeper frequency response than B. Future DAC 202 software will offer even more filter choices.” The audibility of your filter selection will depend on the source as well as the other components in your reproduction chain.
The DAC 202 is chock full of proprietary digital technology, which you can learn about through several white papers on the Weiss Web site. Rather than parrot Weiss’ excellent technical description of its Jitter Elimination Technologies (JET) Phase Lock Loop (PLL) jitter-reduction system, I’ll direct you to its site, which also has the DAC 202 instruction book in PDF form, the latest FireWire drivers, firmware, and test files for determining if your computer is producing bit-perfect output.
On the analog side Weiss has come up with a clever way to optimize its digital volume control. The DAC 202 has four “coarse” volume levels that are set via relays. Fine level adjustments are done with a rotary encoder in the digital domain. This design reduces the operating range of digital volume control so it never has to do very much attenuation, and therefore remains within its optimum operational parameters for lowest distortion and resolution loss.
The Sound of The Recording Studio
For you readers who’ve skipped the first half of the review to jump to “the good stuff,” I will give you this incentive to read further—the DAC 202 is the most transparent DAC I’ve ever reviewed. And it’s not merely transparent on high-resolution sources. Even MP3s benefit from its ministrations. Here’s an example: I tuned into the Internet radio station Folk Alley and it was playing Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Twilight” at 128k bits per second. I have this song in my iTunes library in 320kbps MP3. When I went from the Folk Alley stream to my own file it was immediately obvious how harmonically threadbare the 128bps stream was compared to a 320bps MP3. Also the 320kbps MP3 version had substantially more inner detail and low-level information. But even the 128kbps stream was more than merely listenable through the DAC 202, although its limited resolution and harmonic shortcomings were obvious.
Although the DAC 202 has that “pro sound” (i.e. low distortion and coloration), it is not dry or sterile. In the past many audiophiles avoided pro gear because they felt that it lacked the bloom and musicality of top-shelf consumer gear. I didn’t notice any of these sonic phenomena through the DAC 202. Instead, it was a nearly perfect window opening onto the “house sound” of whatever I was listening to. Here’s a good example of the DAC 202’s transparency and fidelity to original sources; on Nickel Creek’s fine album Why Should the Fire Die, the tune “Somebody More Like You” uses a combination of well-recorded acoustic instruments and studio effects. The separation between the acoustic instruments and the studio effects, such as the out-of-phase synthesizer wash, was immediately obvious through the DAC 202. Also the differences in soundstage size between the acoustic instruments’ environment and the larger artificial space where electric instruments reside was more apparent through the DAC 202 than through any other DAC I’ve auditioned.
But is the DAC 202 musical? My answer is a resounding yes! One sign of the DAC 202’s musicality is that it never got fatiguing, even after days of marathon listening. I’ve been recording my bluegrass band’s live gigs lately using a Zoom Q-3 in 96/24 mode and editing with Audacity (which had no problems recognizing and interfacing with the DAC 202 at higher bit–rates), and some of these recordings aren’t exactly pretty. The DAC 202 made me aware of just how unpretty they were, but I never felt like my ears were getting shredded. Even the rudest takes were still listenable.
Whenever I receive a USB or FireWire DAC for review I invariably run “the Amarra test” on it. The test is simple: Turn on the iTunes software, plug-in Amarra, and see if the sound improves due to Amarra’s bypassing of iTunes audio processing. I also performed the “Pure Music test” using the Pure Music software package which implements a similar bypass of iTunes and Apple MIDI control audio functions. The DAC 202 revealed subtle but pervasive sonic improvements with both of these software packages. Dimensional solidity, inner detail, and overall musicality all moved up a notch. For all my critical iTunes listening through the DAC 202 I used one of these iTunes augmentations.
Every summer I try to attend the Rockygrass Academy in Lyons, Colorado. For the last couple of years I’ve been permitted to make recordings from the mixing board during the morning mini-concerts. I used my Korg MR-1000 to record in DSD format and then use Audiogate software to make 96/24 WAV files. Last year I had an opportunity to record Darrell Scott’s morning set. The results were outstanding. His cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge For Going” was a sonic knockout, even if it was a mono mix. But even in mono the three-dimensionality of each instrument and the separation between instruments were astounding. Sure, they were all piled up in the middle of the soundstage, but even with this center-stage monophonic traffic jam each instrument occupied its own unique spot in the mix, both spatially and harmonically. Bryn Bright’s acoustic bass came rumbling up from the back of the soundstage, like a caboose at the back of a big ‘ol musical train.
Because of the lack of extraneous mechanical and electronic noise, even the spaces between instruments seemed better defined through the DAC 202 than with other DACs I’ve used. This lack of noise and grain also heightens dynamic contrasts, especially in the micro-dynamic domain. Subtle dynamic differences that were obscured in DACs with noisier analog circuits came through with far greater clarity because of the DAC 202.
Macro-dynamics were also outstanding through the DAC 202. My Darrell Scott recording was done with no limiters or compressors, and the dynamic contrasts are scary. When the entire band leans into the final chorus the DAC 202 still managed to preserve the not-so-subtle dynamic variations from forte to triple forte without getting harder sounding or losing any of its finesse.
And how did the DAC 202 compare with its predecessor, the short-lived Minerva? The DAC 202 had less electronic grain so it sounded less mechanical. The DAC 202 was also less fatiguing after all-day nearfield listening sessions. Both DACs dredged up equal amounts of information and detail and as sonic tools they were both superb. As I mentioned earlier in this article the DAC 202 has a completely different analog section, and the sonic differences I heard between the DAC 202 and the Minerva were a result of the DAC 202’s analog circuitry—surprise, surprise.
Since I live to do comparisons (and you love to read them), I listened to the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 3 USB DAC connected via its S/PDIF coaxial output to the DAC 202. On 44.1 material played through iTunes without using Amarra or Pure Music, I could not hear any noticeable differences between the Off Ramp 3 using USB and the DAC 202 using FireWire. I wanted to try this test using either Amarra or Pure Music, since they both offer a higher level audio quality than iTunes alone, but they “capture” the audio stream and prevent you from changing the sound device in Apple’s Sound Preferences control panel while they are running. This makes A/B testing far less do-able. Moving on to higher bit-rate 96/24 files played through Audacity, I couldn’t discern enough differences between the Off-Ramp and the DAC 202 to have a preference. On some material I felt the Off-Ramp’s presentation was slightly softer and more euphonic, but on most commercial recordings I really couldn’t reliably tell which unit was playing in A/B tests.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the DAC 202’s excellent headphone output. The DAC 202 has its own dedicated amplifier, separate from the 202’s main outputs. It sounds just like the DAC 202’s line-level outputs—clean, powerful, solid, and still highly musical. I used it with both Grado RS-1 and Sennheiser HD-580 headphones. In both cases the sonic personalities of the headphones, not the headphone amplifier, were the most prominent components in the signal chain. With both headphones the DAC 202’s headphone amp supplied ample power, dynamic drive, and control. The bass was well articulated through both headphones. And while a headphone can never deliver the visceral qualities of an in-room transducer, especially on lower frequencies, the DAC 202s headphone amplifier lets you know the bass is very much alive and kickin’.
Maybe It’s Time to Turn Pro
It’s difficult to remain complacent when you review a component that outperforms anything you’ve reviewed in the past. The natural tendency is to go into rave mode and turn the review into fan-boy screed. I have gone to considerable lengths to avoid this, even though the DAC 202 is good enough to cause a meltdown of any reviewer’s critical facilities. As to whether the DAC 202 performs at a level equal to Weiss’ $19,000 Medea or other manufacturers’ mega-buck DACs, I don’t know. I suspect at worst the DAC 202 will come very close, especially via its FireWire inputs.
But if you want to personally experience what the creators of some of your favorite albums hear, I can think of no component that will get you closer to a mastering suite than the Weiss DAC 202. If your computer has FireWire capabilities and you want a reliable, ergonomically elegant, and superb-sounding DAC, the Weiss DAC 202 is here, waiting for you.
SPECS & PRICING
Digital inputs: XLR, RCA, TosLink (optical), two FireWire.
Supported sampling frequencies: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz or 192kHz on any of the inputs, except TosLink
Digital outputs: XLR, RCA, two FireWire
Analog outputs: Balanced on XLR, unbalanced on RCA
US PRECISION AUDIO AND VIDEO
12277 Arbor Hill
Moorpark, CA 93021
Sources: EAD 8000 Pro CD/DVD player and transport, CEC TL-2 CD Transport, MacPro model 1.1 Intel Xeon 2.66 GHz computer with 14 GB of memory with OS 10.6.4, running iTunes 10 and Amarra 2.0 and Pure Music 1.6.1 music playing software
DACs: Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 3
Preamps: Reference Line Preeminence One B passive controller
Amplifiers: Bel Canto S-300 stereo amplifier, Edge Electronics AV-6, Accuphase P-300 power amplifier, Modified Dyna St-70 amplifier
Speakers: ATC SCM7s, Paradigm S1s, Aerial Acoustics 5Bs, Role Audio Kayaks, Earthquake Supernova mk IV 10 subwoofer, NHT S-00 and M-00
Cables and Accessories: Locus Design Polestar USB cable, Locus Design Nucleus USB cable, PS Audio Quintet, AudioQuest CV 4.2 speaker cable, AudioQuest Colorado interconnect, Empirical Audio Coax digital cable