Canor DAC 2.10 Digital-To-Analog
One of the things Enjoy the Music.com's Creative Director Steven R. Rochlin and I have in common is that we were both Heathkit kids. Decades ago Heathkit was widely known for offering electronic kits that were, generally, easy to build and of very high quality. I made some simple projects when I was young and then graduated to more sophisticated things like a shortwave radio and electronic timer.
Although what I built paled in comparison to my dad, who assembled our first color television, I kept the skills, so later on, I was able to make simple repairs to my JoLida amp and other components. Two years ago, I built my loudspeakers. Last year I started working on a Zen amp clone before I had a bit of a nervous meltdown and halted. (Note to self, never work on a challenging project again during a pandemic and a record snowstorm).
While I put the Zen Amp project on the shelf, I decided to take on a less challenging project, a phono preamp. One of the schematics I had my eye on was the tube-based Siren Song, which was presented in Sound Practices. I had heard it years before and considered it a gold standard. During the new DIY phase of my life, I reconnected with a friend from high school whom I consider an audio master. He and I got into an interesting discussion: tubes or solid-state?
Each type has its pluses and minuses. Solid-state components are easier to build, but it's tricky finding good audio quality JFETs or ICs. Tube preamps seem to have more headroom, but they are more expensive to make and take some fiddling to get quiet. In the end, I took the easy route and chose a solid-state Pete Millet design. I love it, but someday I might build the Siren Song.
Why am I talking about phono stages when this is a DAC review? Because designers must make the same decision. Most DACs use a solid-stage amplification stage, but there are some that have chosen tubes. Audio Note was one of the pioneers in this endeavor. Some premiere examples reviewed in this magazine recently were the Audio Research DAC9, and the LampizatOr Baltic 3 Hi-Res DAC. I hadn't a chance to listen to any of those choice pieces of equipment, so I was all in when Steven offered a chance to review the Canor DAC 2.10, which also has a vacuum tube output stage.
Canor is not new to Enjoy the Music.com. Their AI 2.10 Hybrid Stereo Integrated Amplifier was reviewed by Ron Nagle last year. If you missed reading it, Canor is a high-end audio company based in Slovakia. They have in their stable amplifiers, CD players, and phono preamps. The DAC 2.10 is their first stand-alone DAC and it's chocked full of features. For digital inputs, it has USB 2.0, TosLink optical, S/PDIF coaxial RCA, and AES/EBU XLR. It has both balanced and unbalanced outputs. Two ESS9038Q2M 32-bit digital processors in dual-mono configuration. The output is a differential stage plus cathode follower utilizing four 6922 valves.
The unit can decode all sampling rates of PCM and DSD and fully supports MQA. The DAC 2.10 also features eight switchable digital filters and a re-clocking function. All of these features are accessible through the front panel or an included remote. Also on the front panel is a monochrome display with variable settings. The fit and finish are beautiful. It is an amplifier-size DAC with dimensions of 435 x 118 x 420mm and a mass of 10.8 kgs.
For the lion's share of my reviewing time, I used the DAC 2.10 to listen to Redbook compact discs. Unfortunately, the streaming device I have in-house doesn't have a digital output. At the end, I did use my laptop to connect via USB.
The majority of my music collection is CDs, so I'm always excited to listen to them through a new device. My iFi Audio iDSD has been in loyal service for quite some time, but I know I've reached the limits of what it can do. As soon as I put the Canor DAC 2.10 into my system, I realized I was in for a totally different experience. During the break-in period, I don't make any critical observations. I just play something to have in the background when I go about my business. Sometimes I sit in an off-axis comfy chair with my laptop to do some work. On one of those occasions, I was writing my review for the Entreq Grounding Box and had Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" [Capitol Records 509992 65784 2 2] playing for inspiration. I was clacking along when I heard something that awakened my inner meerkat.
No, I didn't stand straight up in my chair, which would be foolhardy at my age, but I did crane my head over the laptop screen to focus on what I was hearing. "Cemeteries of London" was playing and the full band had kicked in. All of a sudden they sounded tight. I meant TIGHT. Like a band that had been playing together for a long time. I know, everyone uses Pro Tools now. But this was different. In the pocket. Rick Simpson, who has produced them, says they're so good at laying down tracks together that he normally goes straight to tape. So I'm choosing to believe it's the real deal.
A couple of tracks later I had another "Meerkat Moment" when "42" went into full swing. One of the problems I've always had with "Viva La Vida" is it can sound quite muddled when the full band is playing, but for the first time, those moments sounded clean and clear. The acoustic guitars had new urgency, the drums were forceful, and Chris Martin's vocals cut through. That, my friends, is what I call a promising beginning.
One of the problems digital playback has suffered from since the early days is the reproduction of the higher frequencies. My first CD player was awful, but the Dynaco gear I was playing it through softened the blow. With each digital upgrade, I was able to improve things. The insertion of the Canor DAC 2.10 into my system made another leap forward. One of the problems most audiophiles have is that most popular music is equalized with a little bump in the two to four kHz region. This helps it sound exciting during lower-quality playback but can make things unlistenable on a high-end system.
The DAC 2.10 doesn't completely eliminate this edge but tames it so it doesn't cut right through your forehead. It's not that the highs are soft, they're just more relaxed. Moving coil aficionados would relate. With the Canor, I was able to listen to Snow Patrol's brilliant Eyes Open [A&M Records B0006675-02] without fearing the worst. "Chasing Cars" is one of my favorite songs of all time. Now I could crank it up and relax.
It's not just popular music that benefits from the improved reproduction of the highs. All of the instruments with significant high-frequency overtones sounded more nearly correct. High-hats sounded cleaner and less brittle. The high keys on pianos sounded more like the real thing and less like Schroeder's toy piano. Even massed strings, one of the hardest sounds to reproduce, lost their edge. Ralph Vaughan Williams' symphonies are some of the hidden gems in the classical repertoire. Andre Previn did the whole cycle with the LSO in the early seventies. One of my favorites from that collection is the Third "A Pastoral Symphony" [RCA Victor Gold Seal 60583-2-RG].
Vaughn Williams really knew how to write for the strings. So it's a little bit saddening that this recording has some of what I call the ‘violin shriek". Yet listening to it with the Canor, I was surprised at how sweet the strings sounded. This allowed me to enjoy this amazing symphony even more.
As I spent more time with the Canor DAC 2.10, I found myself looking forward to listening to discs that I thought I knew inside and out. I had always thought the song "Hyperballad" from Bjork's Post [Elektra 61740-2] ended with a click, but now I was able to hear the sound of the stylus quietly being lifted. Listening to "For Absent Friends" from Genesis's Nursery Cryme [Rhino Records R2-516780] I suddenly realized it was Phil singing, not Peter. With "Penny Lane" from The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" [Apple Records 0946 3 82465 2 7] I could clearly hear the clever production and all the different horns involved. Yes, these are all audiophile things we geek over, but all of these little nuances add meaning to the music.
Let's go back to my meerkat experience while listening to Coldplay. What made me react that way? It was the two strong suits of the Canor DAC 2.10: dynamics and timing. This goes back to the discussion my friend and I had when choosing a phono stage. It's the tubes, man. A 6922 needs around 100 volts across the plate in normal operating conditions. Think of it as the stored energy in the tube, waiting to be released. This allows the tube to effortlessly produce large swings in voltage, which translates into dynamics that lets the music to flow in an organic and energetic way. Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden's collaboration Beyond the Missouri Sky [Verve Records 314 537 130-2] demonstrates this perfectly.
This album is just the two of them playing together. When jazz musicians get that flow going, it is a wonderful thing. It's that swing. Pat and Charlie had it. On "Two for the Road", Pat's acoustic and Charlie's upright do a slow tango together. While the rhythm ebbs and flows, they are always in sync, not only rhythmically, but dynamically as well. For "Cinema Paradiso (Love Theme)", they swirl around each other with their take on one of Morricone's most famous melodies. The final track, "Spiritual" they are locked in with that old-time gospel feel. The entire album is simply glorious.
Feeling in the swing of things, one of the last albums I decided to listen to critically was Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet [Columbia CK 40585]. With all the crazy time signatures, these fellows had to be together, or there would be a train wreck. On the signature "Take Five" it's Brubeck who keeps the steady beat with piano, while everyone else is allowed to riff in 5/4 time. Of course, the features of this song are Paul Desmond's from-another-planet saxophone and Joe Morello's unconscious drum solo. Hey, it only took over 20 tries to get it right! Probably the grooviest track on the album is "Kathy's Waltz", which despite switching between 4/4 and 3/4, has the band sounding more like a free-flowing jazz quartet. Instead of tightly gripping the beat, Brubeck plays it loose and carefree. On this track, you can feel this quartet play off each other.
There is so much more I could say about the Canor DAC 2.10, but then I'm afraid I would be droning on. The DAC 2.10 made every disc in my collection more enjoyable. Cringe-inducing discs were made listenable while great discs were mind-blowing. With every listen, I connected to the music in a meaningful way. For me, it was the first fulfillment of the promise made by digital so many years ago. I haven't had a chance to listen to some of the ultra-high-end DACs out there, so I don't have a frame of reference, but considering the DAC 2.10's price, you should check it out before you look at more expensive options.