In this corner, we have the LiTe DAC-Ah weighing in at $175, while in this corner we have the Baddymod LiTe DAC-Ah, tipping the scales at $1,250. Yes, that's no typo. A modified DAC at seven times the price of the original. What's going on here?
Well, when you take a $1,000 CD player, and upgrade its internals with another $1,000 worth of top quality components, then you are doubling the price. Let's ignore labor costs and margins to keep this simple. The simple math of the matter is that if you take a very inexpensive component like the LiTe DAC-Ah, and upgrade it with $1,000 of top quality components, you get this seven to one ratio. The question is why you would start with the $175 DAC-Ah in the first place. That's the question I want to ask Jeff Poth of Poth Audio, the modder in question.
Replacing cheap op-amps with the best available
If you take one look at the box, one thing sticks out immediately, and I mean that quite literally. The box hasn't changed but there are a couple of Jensen transformers proudly sticking out the side. This is an unexpected cosmetic twist. The idea I imagine is to lower the noise floor on the signal and to provide impedance matching. I can confirm the noise floor is really black now, much lower than the stock unit.
The DAC-Ah will win no prizes for industrial design. The rectangular black metal box is as basic and you can get, with just one control up front, the power switch and a small blue indicator light above it. There's a single control at the rear too, a toggle switch to select the input — either Toslink or Coaxial. You will also find the 110V AC power input, the two inputs and the RCA output jacks on the back panel. The Baddymod DAC offers upgraded RCA jacks and an impressive looking coaxial connector, but foregoes the front indicator light.
The Meridian has seen off many contenders, including much more expensive CD players such as the Shanling CD T300 and the Esoteric DV50. Not only does it provide excellent performance, but also as a single unit player, it holds advantages that separates can seldom overcome in the low jitter connection between the digital signal and the DAC stage.
So how do these two external DACs stack up against each other, and against the reference? Do you want the good news first, or the bad? The good news, and there is a lot of it, is that the bog standard DAC-Ah is quite the performer. Dynamics are quite good, distortion is low, and the output is unquestionably musical. If you have an older CD player, this may be just the ticket for relieving the digital nasties that can make extended listening so tiring. The soundstage is not really three dimensional, and you do get that hole in the middle feeling if the speakers are widely spaced. Extension, both top and bottom, is quite strong, and this DAC preserves the rhythm and pace of the music.
Now the Baddymod DAC-Ah goes well beyond the limits of its junior partner. The dynamics are the first thing to strike you, then the greater space between the instruments and the increased level of detail. Everything the stock DAC offers is trumped by the Baddymod, so much so that it is hard to go back to the stock unit after you've been spoiled by its big brother. But interestingly, it's all a matter of degree. Everything I like about the Baddymod is there in the stock unit, but now it's bigger and better, more spacious, more musical, and the music breathes more easily. Transient response it much improved, so jazz sounds more jazzy, the piano has more weight, and vocals are more intimate and exciting. I could live with this unit.
Now I did tell you there was bad news. The first bit of bad news is that you are certainly paying for the privilege. For $1,250 you may expect something that not only sounds the part, but looks it too. With the external transformers, this is far from the elegant Grace Design Model 901 Headphone Amp / DAC or even the Benchmark DAC-1, two strong competitors in this price range. The second is that the Baddymod comes up well short of the high water mark set by the reference Meridian G08.
The Leif Ove Andsnes recording of Haydn Piano Concertos [EMI Classics 724355696021] does a good job of highlighting the differences between these DACs. The string definition is more pronounced and realistic as you move from the stock DAC-Ah to the Baddymod and slackness in the bass disappears. The piano tone is similar in both but the articulation improves with the upgrade, while the image expands to fill the gap between the speakers. The Meridian brings greater definition to the strings, sparkle and precision to the piano while deepening the soundstage and expanding the dynamic range. Now you sense that the piano lid is open and the orchestral playing somehow seems more alert.
On a slightly smaller scale, Piazzolla's Vuelvo "Al Sur" from Tango Piazzolla [Music Club MCCD 1665] reveals a similar picture. The Meridian provides the best instrument location, the strongest presence to the singer's voice, warts and all. That same voice exhibits some sibilance on the Baddymod, more still on the stock DAC-Ah, and the soundstage recedes towards the speakers as the price tag drops. The Baddymod retains the piano's weight but not its energy, while the stock unit does not do the piano justice. The bandonéon does sound equally clear on all three DACs, which just goes to show why reviewers frequently use recordings of piano music to the party - piano is just the devil to reproduce.
If you're not happy with the sound of your CD player, cosmetics are not that important to you, and you have $1,250 burning a hole in your pocket, why not try the DAC-Ah in your system? You'll get a warm spacious sound with low distortion, a strong pulse and a wide soundstage. Yes the Meridian is better all round, but it will cost you $4,000.
I am delighted to see that Poth Audio will sell you the stock DAC-Ah, a screaming bargain at $175, or this new Baddymod DAC-Ah, and will stand behind it with a full two-year warranty. You don't often get a warranty like that on modded equipment. Kudos to Jeff for that decision!
Interview With Jeff Poth Of Poth
Jeff. The DAC-Ah comes in at a very nice price point. Many DACs are good, but the DAC-Ah follows with my design criteria much better than any, especially at the price. I very much enjoy the sound of it, and it has a number of features that fit within the Poth Audio philosophy.
Phil. Will the Jensen Transformers sit externally in production models?
Jeff: Yes. There is no room within the chassis for the output transformers. While it's not pretty, it was done this way because it allowed us to use higher quality transformers. Re-casing the unit would have added unnecessary cost; we were trying to put every dollar where it actually mattered for performance.
Phil: You have changed all the external connectors. Can you give me some details here?
Jeff: Yes, we upgraded the connectors, which is something one might expect from a fairly high-cost modification package. The digital connector is the most crucial. It had to be relocated to allow the use of the digital input transformer we like, a silver-wired unit from Audio Note.
Phil: What have you changed inside?
Jeff: Internally, we make a number of changes, including ultra-fast/soft-recovery rectifiers for every power supply (there are 3, each with individual windings on the transformer), coupling capacitor and op-amp upgrades (we use pricey select grade OPA627s for this task; they mate well with the sound of the stock unit), and of special note is the use of premium transformer coupling on both the digital input and the analog outputs. There are some other little tweaks as well.
Phil: How long has it taken to finalize the design of the Baddymod LiTe DAC-Ah?
Jeff: About 6 months.
Phil: Will you offer a range of mods, and if so, where does the test unit fall in that range?
Jeff: Yes, we have been offering a modified unit at $550, which includes many of the above changes, as well as the review unit, which is top-shelf at $1,250. A far cry from the $175 of the stock unit, we know, but it's done right, and the right parts aren't cheap, nor is the time to do it right. Constructing the rectifiers alone can take quite a while, as it requires a special physical adaptation, the stock rectifiers are not of the same form factor as the replacements.
Phil: Poth Audio started with cables, and now a DAC. What can we expect from you in the future?
Jeff: Poth Audio has worked on a number of items. We have custom produced amplifiers, preamplifiers, power filters and distribution systems, and are currently spending most of our R&D time working on a high sensitivity speaker system. You can expect it to have a minimalist crossover, combining acoustic and electrical slopes, 97dB or so efficiency, and a flat 8-ohm load with fairly linear phase behavior. We are kicking around the idea of active bass, to keep the overall cost and size down, while retaining good bandwidth (deep, high sensitivity bass is not cheap or easy or small). But I better stop here, as I get so excited about speakers I talk for hours, and don't want to make this boring for anybody. Suffice it to say... it will have a Pothy flair and is a ways off yet (it's going to be a very serious system).
Phil: Thanks Jeff, and good luck with the speakers.
Thank you for taking the time to review the Dac-Ah and it's big brother, the "Baddymod" Dac-Ah. Poth Audio has in the past focused upon the cable market, occasionally doing custom work. But we felt that there was a severe problem with most digital playback on the market- it wasn't listenable. Hence, we set out to design a dac which offered a more natural view of the musical landscape, and stumbled across the Dac-Ah.
This unit is produced for us in China, with component and build quality which are both excellent, but a much smaller price tag than could be achieved using USA production. The strength of this unit, which uses an unconventional architecture, is listen ability. You can enjoy music through it all day, never getting fatigued, disinterested, or worrying about whether it's performing right. We chose to use a unit which didn't focus upon audiophile criteria such as imaging, but rather one which made music that intuitively sounds right.
This is not an approach for everybody, but nothing is. Our customers are almost without exception thrilled with the unit, and we're happy to provide it for them. As a fairly small organization, we strive to offer products that offer value. As time goes on, we push towards the lower pricepoints, as evidenced by the stock Dac-Ah and the "Poltergeist" cable line. The "Baddymod" version offers improved components, a revised filter topology, and a critical feature (which is expensive to implement)- transformer electrical isolation. This allows the Baddymod Dac-ah to perform free of noise issues in most any environment, where other units might cause ground loops or have ground currents, or RF resonance induced, or any number of other beasties that galvanic isolation such as ours prevent.
We hope that this review offers people insight into the units, and would like to remind people that every pair of ears and every system is different. Some people will surely dislike this unit. Most seem to love it. Thank you all for your time, especially the amiable and articulate Phil Gold.
Baddymod LiTe DAC-Ah