Audio Note DAC 5 Zero Oversampling
Plus ça change,
Plus c'est la meme chose
The more that things
The more they stay the same.
Review By Steven R. Rochlin
here to e-mail reviewer.
Whenever you have a meeting with
the President of Audio Note, Peter Qvortrup, you can guarantee a long
discussion about the "state-of-the-art" in "high-end" audio
and how it has long left the real path of serving the music. i for one
agree with some of his statements as long before the zero-feedback single-ended
tube rebirth in America came about i had already owned the now legendary Audio
Note Ongaku. The Ongaku is much like the Audio Note DAC 5 Special ($33,000) in
that it is a design built to produce the ultimate of musical reproduction, then
costs factored in. Sure there was the more expensive Gaku-On ($250,000) just as
there is the DAC5 Signature ($55,000). Before sticker shock sets in, let me
For those looking for the bottom line costs, the Ongaku
integrated amplifier with it's 27 watts per channel would set one back a
jaw dropping $89,200. Of course once your ears heard the glories of music
with the Ongaku in one's system your jaw would drop once again as the ease
and incredible transparency would wash through your soul. Consider it the
Ferrari 360 of the line. While no 12-cylinder 550, the 8 cylinder 360 is
nothing to pass off as a second rate automobile either.
i shall make no excuses for the extreme pricing of the
Audio Note DAC 5 Special as a Ford automobile would surely get you to the
store and back, though it is nowhere near the same experience as driving
my, er um, a Ferrari for a "leisurely tour" around the
countryside. Consider the difference of watching a great love story on
television versus living it for oneself. In one situation you do get a bit
involved, yet your soul is not fully satisfied whereas the other situation
is a deeply satisfying experience... Enter the Audio Note DAC 5 Special.
Tubes, Transformers And A Temptress In Disguise
Audio Note has long been known for going against the grain, so to speak,
and coming up with new ways to implement old, possibly forgotten
technology. This technique seems to be winning many converts as their DAC
Kit 1.1 reviewed over a year ago (back in February
2000 to be exact) and did favorably over the then fave by a few
reviewers comparably priced MSB unit. The basics montra here seems to be
in the elimination of filters and the associated over sampling in the
digital to analog conversion while using tubes in the output stage and
silver/copper transformers in virtually every place possible. Enter the 1
times "oversampling" as used in the critically acclaimed DAC Kit
1.1 and also their DAC 5 Special.
To take some quotes from the owners manual i received with
the unit "Extensive research into the fundamental properties of
the data stream itself have shown beyond doubt that regardless of the
theoretical and measurable advantages of the signal manipulation employed
in all currently available digital products, such as higher over sampling,
noise shaping, re-clocking or jitter reduction. All these corrective
measures greatly interfere with the critical time domain requirements of
the signal, based as current theory is, on an assumption that music is
similar to book keeping data which off course it is not.
Music is a time continuum from start to end, which when broken is
irreparably damaged and no amount of clever manipulation can ever restore
it to its original time-frequency-amplitude duration or relationship,
regardless of what the theorists may tell you.
As a result we have developed a way of excluding or bypassing all these
corrective measures, to allow the conversion from digital to analogue to
be done without any manipulation whatsoever. All we do is to reformat the
data stream to allow the converter chip to be able to interpolate the in
coming information properly.
In other words, the Audio Note™ DAC 5 Special has no over sampling, no
jitter reduction, no noise shaping and no re-clocking, it uses the highest
grade Analogue Devices AD1865, 18Bit stereo converter chip because we
found this chip to be the best sounding available (yes, even better than
the 20Bit versions!!), the digital power supply is an exceptionally low
noise, shunt-type. Having removed all the digital filtering that is part
of the over sampling, all filtering in the DAC 5 Signature is done in the
analogue domain where is appears to be easier to retain good wide band
phase-frequency and dynamically coherent behaviour than in the digital
Of course like all top end products from Audio Note, there
are many filter-interface coils/transformers wound with their pure silver
wire and extremely high content nickel mu-metal cores. As you can see
above there are a total of twelve coils/transformers. Top-grade Elna power
capacitors are used for the main power supply (center) while the tubed
analog boards (bottom left) use very expensive high-quality Black Gate
capacitors. The usual bit and pieces (or at least usual for a top-range
Audio Note product) grace the remainder of the unit. This, plus a very
sturdy case brings us to a weight of 22 kilograms (almost 50 lbs.)! Most
multi-bit Japanese CD players weigh in at around two pounds total. Make of
that as you will.
In contrast, the top rig DAC5 Signature ($55,000) is all
silver, has "better" Black Gates, silver wire everywhere, plus
an improved power supply and Audio Note carbon resistors plus the silver
wires super interface. Back to our story...
The DAC 5 Special analog section employs an upgraded M6
Line pre-amplifier output stage with two anode followers after another
using a single 5687 double triode per channel. Of course this is coupled
to an output transformer, though this time one with copper wire on a High
B C-core which they claim is equivalent to the quality of the cores in my
previously owned Ongaku! Alas, the Ongaku now resides in someone else's
home as my personal finances took a nose dive a few years back. i miss it
Analog outputs appearing on the rear of the unit include
both unbalanced "single ended" (RCA) and balanced (XLR and LEMO)
operation. My review sample as seen above included two sets of female RCA
jacks and one pair of LEMO for analog output as appear on the rear, center
of the unit. To the right are the digital inputs that include both RCA and
BNC jacks. The balanced output via the LEMO connectors is truly
symmetrical via the usage of an inter stage transformer which is
symmetrically wound to provide symmetry of the positive and negative
waveforms of the signal at all amplitudes (signal levels) but also provide
wide band impedance conversion.
There is no provisions for the considered less than
optimum TOSlink or better AT+T glass fibre. A separate ground post on the
far right is for those looking to unify their grounding scheme. On the top
left is the power on/off switch with a standard IEC power jack plus two
fuse holders below it.
Separate dual channel power supplies and double choke
filtering plus vacuum tube rectification is included to insure not only a
very high isolation between the digital circuitry and power supply, but
also in supplying the analogue signal paths with an extremely clean power
source. Did i mention the use of Audio Note Tantalum film resistors?
Installation is easy as you simply insure the DAC 5
Special is powered off, install your digital and analog cables, then turn
the unit on. While the technology inside may be extremely diverse and
cutting edge, hooking it up is almost easier than logging on to AOL or
installing new mouse software on a MAC.
Play, Music, Then!
Nay, You Must Do It Soon.
-- Shakespeare Love's Labours Lost Act 5, Scene 2
After the usual 100 hours of settling it was time for some
serious listening. While the unit sounded quite good out of the box, it
was previously broken in and therefore hard to say what the true
fresh out of the box sound is. Starting out in a more mellow mood, on went
David Chesky's Club de Sol (JD33). My favorite two songs are
"Sunrise" and "Morning Mist" (tracks five and six).
Track five is basically a wonderful piano solo which goes smoothly into
track six that adds acoustic bass, various percussion and acoustic guitar.
This 1989 recording in RCA's Studio A still holds up very well today
sonically with Bob Katz as the main engineer.
The piano has wonderful body and, in my room with the
Audio Note DAC 5 Special, what seems to be a near appropriate size. Of
course the "size" of the piano is very dependant on the
loudspeaker's position (separation) and where one sits within their
listening. What really matters is how even each note is from the lowest to
the uppermost register with the adding "human touch". After all,
playing a piano is (usually) a human event and here we have the best, most
human feeling sound i have heard from this piece of five inch
polycarbonate. Notes seemed to float more freely and the inner sound of
the piano's. From the hammers striking the strings to the body (and soul)
of the piano's soundboard.
Moving on to "Morning Mist" the sound of the
accompanying guitar to the depth of the bass were more apparent than i
have previously heard. This is not to say they were augmented but to
confirm my longtime suspicion. The way we humans hear seems to be that the
very initial first few milliseconds are either clean and clear and has the
brain work less at deciphering the data (read: music), or the first sounds
heard are not as defined and therefore makes the ear/brain work harder to
distinguish the incoming data. With the DAC 5 Special the entire musical
pathway is clean in such a way as to make one's ear/brain work less to
make sense of the music. In turn the inner resolution is also more
apparent adding in a more relaxed musical presentation. My only real
complaint was that the chimes' seemed a tad bit rolled off at the upper
extreme. This might also be due to my usage of the Max Rochlin Memorial
cable that i personally "invented" and was designed with a
slight touch of uppermost register roll off (click
here to see the cable's design).
Moving on to Classic Record's Clasic Compact Disc of
Billie Holiday's Songs For Distingué Lovers (VSCD-6021) really set
me back emotionally. Make no mistake, my favorite classic female voice is
Billie Holiday to the extant that i named my lifelong pet Severe Macaw
Small and subtle inflections and timing cues are what separates teary-eyed
listening sessions from the robotic electronica so popular today.
While this is not a "state of the art" recording
by any stretch of the imagination, and my vinyl records of Billie bring me
more musical bliss (or sadness as it were). i'll cut to the chase here, no
the DAC 5 Special did not equal the sound i get from my (almost same
priced) analog rig playing the Classic records vinyl version (MG VS-6021).
It was close, yes, though the nod most certainly goes to the vinyl. Could
be due to slightly different mastering of the two different formats,
though they were re-mastered by Classic Records during the same period.
While this album is stereo, my feelings are Billie-philes would be better
served getting the now out of print (and out of business) Mobile Fidelity
vinyl Billie Holiday recording Body and Soul (MSFL 1-247). While
monophonic, for me emotionally it is much more satisfying. Yes, the DAC 5
Special is vinyl-like in the way it takes the digital pits and transforms
them into analog. Analog is still King in my book for high software
availability consumer replay. But then we have DACs like this...
Going for something more classical in my collection, in
went my fave Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (Teldec 4509-90201-2). This is
the best recorded, and more importantly, performed version of 1812 i have
heard after trying some 15+ different version on CD. This 1992 recording
shows how a great conductor, such as Zubin Meta here, can really bring new
life into a piece that has been more than butchered by many others. The
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs here with a great sense of phrasing
and timing. Not to be missed! As for how it sounded through the DAC 5
Special, in a word glorious! Ok, so it is an all digital recording, but do
not hold that against it. The strings and horns sound very natural while
the apparent soundstage and hall's acoustics seemed to be captured in a
brilliant balance. usually i find that the French horn gets butchered with
digital. In the right hall and recorded well, the French horn has a
cutting sound with unique harmonic structure that is both full-bodied and
resonant. Not tinny nor overly muted. With this DAC in my system there was
a wonderful sense of 3D space that filled my listening room.
To add, the flutes were also very well rendered. My many
years of continually enjoying live music, and also performing it, is of
great benefit here. If there was only a great recoding of steel drums...
Note to readers: if you know of a great recording of steel drums please contact
Lastly, for this review, is the newly re-engineered HDCD
King Crimson Holland pressed Lark's Tongue in Aspic (EG Records
with the UK being CDVKCX5, rest of world LC 03098). Crimson heads surely
visit the website Elephant Talk
and have heard the big buzz about the new re-masters. This CD offers
dynamics from subtle and quiet to fully blown mayhem! Of course this being
avant-garde music for musicians, would you expect anything less than
spectacular musicianship with a stunning array of "textures" and
"colors"? While the DAC 5 Special does not decade using HDCD, i
found this to not be detrimental to my "Frankenstein" DAC that
can decode the now Microsoft-owned format.
As the music contained on this CD is so diverse as to give
any blow-by-blow comments would be washed away by the next 36 measure
phrase as to make the preceding 36 bars seems like a different musical
experience... let alone song to song differences! In the end my feelings
are that the DAC 5 Special can easily handle music from the most simple to
the most intricate while making each instrument within the composition
easily discernable to the others. The DAC 5 Special never, ever seemed
grainy unless the music dictates or the recording is horrible. Smooth,
clean and clear with a musical sense only a well-mastered musician can
Wilt Thou Have Music?
Hark! Apollo Plays...
- Shakespeare The Tempest Act
5, Scene 1
Many long hours have been spent listening to the DAC 5
Special. Lost sleep, missed dates, and those glorious 3am Pink Floyd
rendezvous. To say it is the highest performing DAC my ears have ever
clapped on to would be an understatement. Ok, so i have read other
reviewer's glowing statements about this unit in their formal analysis,
though it is hard to prepare oneself for this type of dramatic improvement
to what many feel is the dreaded old 16-bit/44.1kHz CD format. SACD?
DVD-Audio? What about the many millions of CDs available today? Sure you
can fall into the hokey upsampling ballgame, but why? Upsampling is really
nothing new, but it makes for great marketing eh?
For those who have the ways and means to own the DAC 5
Special, or bigger brother DAC5 Signature, i would humbly suggest you put
it on your short list of must audition before trying the proprietary and
limited availability SACD format. DVD-Audio is another can of worms with
also limited software availability at this time. With the many thousands
of CDs in my collection i can only mourn sending back the DAC 5 Special
knowing what is really residing in those old-school silver pits. Until
then it seems their lower end DAC Kit 1.1 (or upgraded version 1.2) is in
my foreseeable future. Of course in the end what really matters is
Enjoy the music,
Steven R. Rochlin
PS: Back in late 1998 Peter Qvortrup wrote an essay of
sorts about their using 1x oversampling technology. Please click
here to read it.
Weight: 22 kilograms
Dimensions: 145mm x 450mm x 425mm (HxWxD)
1.6A anti-surge (110/120V supply)
800mA anti-surge (220/240V supply)
Output Impedance: 600 Ohm Balanced (XLR)
Reference Output: 3.2V RMS
Channel Balance: Less than 0.2 dB
two 5687WB, standard Philips/ECG
two 6X5WGT, standard Philips/ECG
Digital System: 18 bit analogue devices AD1865N
with Crystal input chip with 44.1kHz, 48kHz, and 96kHz
input capability, future upgradeable.
Price: £19,500 UK, US price approximately $33,000
Audio Note (UK) Limited
Unit C, Peacock Industrial Estate
125-127 Davigdor Road
East Sussex, BN3 1SG
Tel: +44 (0)1273 220511
Fax: +44 (0)1273 731498