Denial is a powerful force. As much I've tweaked and nourished my vintage Muse model two DAC (circa 1996) — you know, with sheets of ERS paper to block EMI/RFI, dollops of AVM (Anti-Vibration Magic) to dampen soldered connections, Boston Audio Designs footers and a great JPS Labs Digital Power Cord — it has long been suspect of being the weakest link in my chain. Not from the standpoint of durability, as it had been powered on almost continuously except during thunderstorms for all these years, but technology continues to march forward. So when I covered the TAVES 2011 show in Toronto in September, I was seriously in the hunt for a new one. Why not? The time was right. With the high-end zinging toward computer based music files there has been a lot of development in DACs and hybrid components incorporating them. Now, I'm definitely not l a computer geek, but the idea of integrating my laptop with my audio rig was floating on a rising tide of curiosity. For a guy whose oldest vehicle dates back to the 1800's, storing music on a computer is stretching the parchment.
What I stumbled upon in Toronto was the Calyx DAC 24/192. In my show report I wrote:
"A silver DAC from Calyx Audio, a Korean company that has evolved from making parts to now include its first complete component, caught my eye. Bernard [Li] showed me a black sample that was built like a tank and felt like a brick. It runs off a wall mounted DC transformer or USB power and features the Sabre chip that is such a hot topic these days. I was so impressed I asked him to wrap it up for me."
Actually, I'm not sure I knew it had the Sabre
chipset until I began reading the literature once it was up and running. The
published specs were certainly impressive — THD +N 0.0005%; SNR 124 dB,
A-weighted; Channel Separation 140 dB @ 1kHz, 130 dB @ 20 kHz; Input Resolution
and Sample Rates from USB: 24bits with everything from 44.1 to 192kHz and from
Coax working with up to 32bits from 44.1 to 192 kHz. With numbers that good you
might expect it to translate song lyrics, too. (I'll come to that in a moment.)
The ESS Technology ES9018 Sabre Reference 32-bit DAC chip has certainly garnered
fabulous acclaim in other DACs — notably the OPPO 95 universal player and the
Wyred4Sound DACs — but we all know that it takes more than a great chip to
make a great DAC — power supplies, filters, USB input stages and analog output
stages being prime areas for consideration. Could this be the DAC that lifts my
system to the next level?
The Calyx is the first complete audiophile
component from Digital & Analog Co., LTD, a company that has previously been
making Class D ICs for unnamed OEM companies. This opened the door for
speculation on how good this DAC might be. One thing is for sure — they've
fired their opening volley into an arena that is a hotbed of activity in the
high-end. More recently they have introduced the Kong USB Headphone Amplifier,
Coffee USB DAC 24/96, The Integrated, a 200 wpc integrated amplifier with the
same footprint as the DAC reviewed here, Calyx 500 monoblock power amplifier and
the AL 2-way powered speaker. This bevy of products should keep the buzz going
long enough for them to gain a foothold in the North American market. I was
excited not only because this was a new company exploding onto the playing
field, but because in the grand evolutionary media scheme I sense the
traditional CD format is blossoming in much the same way as the LP entered a
Renaissance after being displaced by the CD. Time will tell, but in the ‘here
and now' I needed a good (preferably great)
DAC that would keep my boat afloat in this sea of transition.
Does The Shoe Fit?
I started the reviewing with the wall wart running into a Synergistic Research QLS-6 power strip which was run off the outstanding Synergistic Research PowerCell 4. I also tested to see if things sounded better if the PowerCell 4 was by-passed by plugging the power supply directly into the 30A dedicated line. It sounded worse. The thin unshielded power cord running from the power supply to DAC ran counter to what I thought I had learned about the importance of High End cables, but since it is a captive cord, there wasn't anything I could reasonably do about it.
Tweaking The Set-Up
The Sabre chip is known to be a great suppressor of jitter, so I tried a variety of digital interconnects to see if the implementation of the Sabre chip would minimize the importance of spending big bucks on a digital cable. The least expensive (maybe $25/3') was the Video Brilliance 1506 by Belden, a vintage 75 Ohm shielded coaxial cable that might still be in production. I then stepped up to the Black Cat Veloce ($123/1.23m) and my reference Audio Sensibility Statement S/PDIF ($219/1.5m), both 75 Ohm cables. And finally, seeking more transparency, I tried an Onda Kyra 2 mostly silver interconnect which was not a 75 Ohm cable ($500/1m, per cable). While the improvements were noticeable and trended in the same direction as the increasing prices, the differences were small. Even the almost generic Belden cable delivered an acceptable performance, but you will probably want something better. The Audio Sensibility Statement represents the elbow in the performance/price curve, here, but the difference in performance between the least and most expensive of these cables was not as great as the benefit of adding a good set of footers beneath the unit. And the difference among the footers themselves is more pronounced than the differences among these cables. The footers contact the bottom of the DAC, which I noticed was the only removable side of the chassis and probably the thinnest.
The Calyx gives you the mix that's on the
recording. Listening to test recordings from Ray Kimber's IsoMike
TESTS 2005A using a special "flying" microphone suspended above the
audience that records in surround mode from nearly a single point was very
revealing. Of course, using a stereo DAC with stereo front channels does not
give the same experience as the full surround experience from the IsoMike
recordings, but it was really, REALLY
good — almost as good as I recalled hearing it at CES a few years ago with a
full surround sound rig priced in the several hundred thousand dollar range. The
Marching Band tracks gave a real sense of being
there as the band marched forward and the sound became louder and
more highly resolved. Likewise, the Orchestra tracks conveyed the experience of
music in a real hall with the reflected sound blending the instruments as you
would actually hear them if seated mid-way back in the venue. Tracks of String
Quartet were similarly convincing, as was solo Piano tracks. The take away here
is that the Calyx will give you what is on the recording, revealing the most
subtle detail and getting you as close to the live experience as the recording,
your listening room and the rest of your rig will allow.
The Tekton subs gave the music substantial
authority and added low frequency room tone that escapes most loudspeakers. The
bass was solid and the room tone present in live recordings contributed to the
sense of reality. Audience applause, while mostly above the bass region, became
even more realistic. Timbre on large drums was equally impressive. But to test
the really deep bass I pulled out John Marks' compilation of organ music, Pipes
Rhode Island. Not only were the churches alive with music and room
tone, but the organs on really deep passages were reverberant and tuneful — no
one note thumping with the Calyx. To further substantiate these perceptions I
disconnected the Tekton monitors, raised the crossover on the subs to about 100
Hz and cranked the volume up. Weird — all that room tone and deep organ notes
down to possibly 16 Hz — but enlightening. I've heard tighter deep bass, but
only from bass units costing many tens of thousands of dollars. The Tekton subs
(at maybe $600 each) acquitted themselves quite well and suggested the Calyx is
quite accurate all the way to the bottom. With only a 200 watt BASH amplifier in
each sub, it did not rock the house at these lowest frequencies, but the quality
and substance of what I heard was far more enjoyable than the silence at the
deepest level from the Kharma.
The Output Levels
Unlike the comparison of the digital input cables
where the differences were small, the interconnects used with the Calyx made
more significant changes. The Onda System cables were the most transparent, most
focused and most dynamic interconnects I've had in my system. Using them at the
front end of the rig took the entire system to a higher level. The Onda cables
also required more listening energy to process all the additional music
presented as a result of its increased focus and transparency.
Computer Sourced Music
Another shortcoming can also be laid upon the
wall wart. When I switched from CD to hi-rez files the increase in resolution or
focus was dramatic with the Calyx. But the transparency, while also improved,
did not reach the same exalted height achieved by the increase in focus. A
higher grade of USB cable might help out, as evidenced by the many offerings of
USB (and HDMI) cables from major High End cable manufacturers. A series of
articles in recent publications points in that same direction. I'll admit
I'm on the learning curve here and my experimentation was not in depth.
Nonetheless, it was easy to perceive different levels of resolution from the
samples on hand, 24/96 and 24/192 primarily. Moreover, I felt like a kid tasting
candy for the first time. I liked
it! Though you're probably not surprised.
listened to my compilation CD on your system last night, it didn't seem to sound
as good as I remember it sounding in the past. In particular, both male and
female vocals seemed colored. They sounded "chestier", as though there
was a mid-bass resonance. I'm not sure what might have been causing that. I
don't think that it would be the DAC since it didn't do anything like that on my
system. Or maybe I heard the compilation CD a few days ago on the JM Reynaud
Offrandes, which spoiled my ear for anything else."
Three things had happened since he last visited. First, I was not using the Synergistic Research PowerCell 4 and Synergistic Research power cables. Second, I was using the MiG footers and third, as he mentioned, we had each visited Bob Neill at Amherst Audio a week apart and heard the JM Reynaud Offrandes in an extraordinary system featuring a $10,000 Blue Circle 501ob DAC with LOC upgrade. So he was quite right. Things sounded different now — a different sound in my system, and a different point of reference from the Blue Circle/JM Reynaud system. Tom continued:
the Calyx DAC in my system, and comparing it to my old Bel Canto and my DACmini,
made me realize that I need a better DAC. But there are several reasons it won't
be a Calyx. First, the problem with the input selector switch being on the back
panel.... I would want to be able to use my new DAC with both my SACD/CD
player and with the music PC and I don't want to have to fumble behind the unit
to switch between the two."
Two small high quality toggle switches are located on the back of the Calyx DAC. One switches between using the external power supply and drawing power from the USB connection. The other switches between the S/PDIF digital input (RCA) and the USB connection. I've always owned components with power switches on the back side of the unit since my Musical Designs SP-1 preamp back in 1991, so this is not so scary for me. The switches are small, however, and a little white dot taped to the top of the DAC above each switch would facilitate locating them without having to peer behind the unit. Familiarity over time will breed competence, assuming you have clearance above the unit to reach the switches. And since the unit is not very deep, it may be easy for you to peer and reach in from the side.
Calyx doesn't have a sample rate display. That's not an issue when you're using
a DAC with a CD player, because it's always 44.1. But when using it with a
computer, it's really helpful to know what sample rate the DAC is receiving.
It's fairly easy to get the configuration settings in the computer wrong, so a
high res file gets down-sampled to lower res. Or vice versa. Having a sample
rate display on the DAC lets you know what's going on so you can correct
problems like that."
I assume that he has a valid point here, as most computer oriented DACs seem to have this feature. I believe a sample rate is visible in the driver you can install in your computer, but I'm not sure how relevant or convenient that may be. There is a small LED in the center of the face of the DAC that glows violet (a combination of red and blue LEDs, presumably) when the signal is locked, and red when it is unlocked for want of valid data. But it doesn't tell you at what frequency it is locked. In keeping with the minimalist design of the unit, the LED is just large enough to be visible from the listening chair, yet small enough to be unobtrusive when listening in the dark. And his final point:
and most important, I didn't like the way it sounded in my system. It had a
large soundstage with lots of depth. It was also very transparent — too
transparent, I think. When James Taylor sang, it sounded like a
semi-transparent, ghostly image of James, not a real flesh-and-blood person.
I've heard that characteristic described as "physicality of the
image", and it was a problem in my system. The same CDs played through my
Marantz sounded better. I listened for that problem last night on your system
and didn't hear it. So for some reason the Calyx seems to work better in your
system than in mine."
I can't explain the difference for sure, but I
suspect the Synergistic Research PowerCell 4 and power cables might have
something to do with it, or possibly the MiG footers. I understand what he means
though, as the Calyx was not well fleshed out before the break-in. Perhaps it
needs to be left powered on for several days before it comes to life — a
luxury Tom did not have given the short term of the loan. I left it on pretty
much constantly during the entire review period. In any case, the Calyx seems to
respond to different cables and footers, so you will quite likely be able to
fine tune it to your preference.
Calyx Linear Power Supply
The attack of notes with the Calyx DAC does not
overshadow the body of the notes. The notes simply appear, and then decay. There
is no damage to brain cells, no headache inducing coarseness or edge to the
music. Pace, rhythm and timing are so perfect they do not call attention to
themselves. With the addition of the power supply there is an even greater
disconnect between the desire to analyze the sound quality and the desire to
simply bathe in the experience of the music. Listening to Live
Rust by Neil Young & Crazy Horse through the Muse DAC could give
me a headache if my mind was not in a good place. With the Calyx DAC the
improved resolution and transparency allowed me to not only revel in the detail
that was previously hidden by all the ‘noise', but also experience the
personality and emotions of Neil Young. If I wanted the stage to be brightly
lit, I could use the Onda power cord; if I wanted a more relaxing presentation,
the JPS Labs Digital Power Cord did the trick.
Adding the CLPS also shifted the soundstage
bringing the central performers closer to the listening chair almost up to the
plane of the speakers. The soundstage retained its great depth and width, but
that is commonplace with my mid-field listening position and the speakers
aligned five feet in front of a very long wall. Dynamics were also improved
somewhat but not to an extent that it drew my attention away from the music.
More importantly, your power cord of choice will affect the presentation.
One thing that still perplexed me with the CLPS was the captive cable from the power supply that plugs into the DAC itself. My audio engineering friend Rich tells me that DACs require very little current, but the 20 awg unshielded miniature zip cord seems like a gross oversight in comparison with the military grade cables with screw-down collars that Israel Blume uses with his massive power supplies. Perhaps I should try wrapping it in strips of ERS paper. But their website mentions that the DAC has a "clean power regenerator inside" so maybe that takes care of any noise picked up along this thin captive power cable.
Compared To What?
On the other side of the coin are a several noteworthy components, namely the OPPO 95 universal player (about $1000) which also features the ES9018 Sabre Reference 32-bit DAC chip for stereo reproduction. Additionally, the OPPO features a lot of video and surround sound technology using a second Sabre chip and includes a transport as well, all of which has received rave reviews. At $1500 there is the Wyred4Sound DAC-2 which also uses the Sabre chip and has received very good press. At a much lower price, the Musical Fidelity M1DAC A ($749), a recently introduced updated model, is said to be an exceptional value and may deserve to be used in much more expensive rigs than it will likely call home. Sorry to say, I have not had an opportunity to hear any of these to the best of my recollection.
As I said earlier, a lot will depend upon how a given piece may or may not fit in with what you already own or need. Price-wise, the Calyx DAC with its large power supply will cost $1950 or $2149, depending on which side of the Canadian border you buy it. These prices fall between the two groups above in a middle ground that is home to the reasonable adventurer — someone who is willing to spend a little more on a new brand that will likely prove much more than adequate for their needs, but who is unwilling to spend large on known entities whose potential may never be realized due to shortcomings in the room or other parts of the rig. For many, in these times of economic uncertainty, being reasonable and living within your means, is the way to go.
Ground Round ‘n A Side Of Fries, To Go.