I’m on a Quest to upgrade my PS Audio Digital Link III DAC. I say “Quest”, because I’ve tried three great DACs so far (Ayre, Lavry DA11, and now, a Gill Audio Elise) and all three have failed to “blow me away”, or “blow [my DAC] out of the water”. That is to say, the DLII is still my go-to DAC after all these real world, in home, a/b tests.
Now, in all fairness, my modded DAC did win a Blue Moon award from 6moons — so someone out there (aside from me) agrees that this is a special DAC. Not saying that the other DACs aren’t better, but for me, they’re not enough better to warrant the upgrade.
But therein lies a story. I heard the Elise in a back-to-back with the Berkeley Alpha, both played back via a directly connected Plinius SA-Reference, which was running Gemme Kitanas and KEF 201/2 Reference speakers and all wired up with some crazy-expensive cabling. In that setup (at a local dealer), the Berkeley sounded great with redbook content — but with hi-res, it was clearly different and audibly superior. Same cut, same rip, but one was upsampled via AE Wave Editor. And a dramatically different playback experience. Enough to make me go “hmmm!”. I’m not one for hyperbole, but I loved that Alpha.
Then, an hour into the listening, we swapped in the Elise, also direct to the amp. The Elise is a tube DAC with two discrete paths for upsampling and non-upsampling — it’s 2 DACs in one, if you will, and you can choose which you prefer by simply changing to a different input on the DAC. Connecting my HiFace via an RCA-to-BNC cable the dealer had lying around into the Elise was surprising. The Elise was more relaxed. More air, as in, more “lit-from-within”. More liquid. More extended, at least in bass. And I just loved it — even more than I was loving the Alpha. Yep, I said it. I was convinced that the Elise was a better sounding DAC than the vaunted Alpha. Sheer blasphemy, I know, but I guess that’s how I roll.
So I took it home and hooked it up to my system.
I plugged it into my M16 preamp, pushed out to my SA250Mk4 and on to my Totem Shamans.
The sound was great, but wasn’t quite what I remembered it as. The liquidity no longer leaped out at me but the expansiveness remained. The soundstage was deep, wide, and eerily accurate. Sounds were easily locate-able, and well recorded music was breathtaking. So, I swapped back in the PS Audio … And ….
It sounded amazing. The soundstage was deep, wide, and eerily accurate. Sounds were easily locate-able, and well recorded music was breathtaking. So, I swapped back in the Elise …. And …. Repeated. Twice. Just to be sure.
Both are great DACs, but in my setup, they were more or less equivalent. The PS Audio, connected via USB, played a bit louder than the Elise, connected via a HiFace. I did some level-settting, and once done, the differences were difficult to separate from imagination. I picked a 3 song playlist, and played it back through both DACs. Result? Nothing to write about. Both were excellent. Out of frustration and more than a little curiosity, I ran Elise direct to the amp, a move which made apples-to-apples comparisons impossible. Was the DAC better in this config? Perhaps. Perhaps? It was great, to be sure, but was it truly different? Was it better? I couldn’t say.
Aside: the HiFace won’t play well with the RCA input on the PS Audio. Dropout city. But connected to the RCA input on the Elise, no problem. Smooth sailing. But it does make me wonder if the HiFace with the G5 driver in my home rig is what is holding the Elise back. I’m going to get a USB-S/PDIF converter from ART to see if there is another bump in performance there. Not expecting much as this is the way I was playing music at the dealer, but then, there I was using the MabBook Pro there with the latest driver, so who knows. I’ll be swapping things around next week to see what’s what.
Anyway, back to the story — this competitive scenario isn’t what I heard at the dealer. The Elise was clearly different sounding, and in a way I found appealing. So, either my DAC is “Super DAC”, or my system isn’t super system, ie, not terribly revealing.
So, I started making changes. But what to change?
First, I swapped my Totems for my Merlin VSM-Mme’s and tried the listening experiment again. Unlike the Totems, which are 4-ohm speakers with an 85dB efficiency, my Merlins are 8-ohm and an 89dB efficiency, and they have that magical/revealing Esotar tweeter. Still not conclusive. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the speakers.
I pulled my Ars Sonum EL34 integrated out and hooked everything up to that instead, completely bypassing all my Plinius gear in the process. I also plugged the Elise into the wall and not into the Purepower APS and did the same with the integrated. And yes, the differences started becoming less imagined. The Elise once again had the hint of smoothness, a touch more air, but if that was real, it was minor. The Merlins seem to love this amp, and nearfield listening at this point was a real treat. Why did I switch over to that Totem setup again? Oh, right, bass. Top to bottom, the Shamans have some incredible seamlessness and reach down to true bass. Turned up loud, those sucker rock. But the Merlins held up pretty well here, what with that Bass Augmentation module providing a 5dB boost at 35Hz. Even so, they were clearly monitor speakers, and no one was going to ever call their bass “subterranean”. But that’s not their strength. The Merlins, at least in my experience, are simply unrivaled in the 2-way space as point-sources, and the soundstage they’re capable of generating is, in a word, eerie. Fed by the Elise, a $7000 DAC btw, the sound was incredible. Fed by my $1500 PS Audio, they were similarly awesome, but now the balance was tipping to the Elise. But is that enough to warrant the 5-fold increase in cost?
Let me quantify this, if that’s possible or even makes sense. If the Elise+Ars Sonum+Merlin combo was a 100, then the PS Audio+Ars Sonum+Merlin combo was a good 95. Like I said, it very very close. And still not like what I heard at the dealer.
This whole experience says a variety of things to me.
One, most systems simply aren’t able to make the most out of one-component changes. If the gear you’re swapping is already “audiophile-grade” — and I think the $25,000 Totem+Plinius set up is definitely in this calibre — then upgrading your source, be it from a $2500 DAC or a $7000 DAC, simply isn’t going to revolutionize your listening experience. It didn’t mine. I think another poster suggested that the ULN-2 was not a dramatic difference from an old Oppo — and I for one am not the least surprised by this finding. I think that poster is having a similar “problem” to mine.
Two, amps are less important than preamps. This was an eye opener for me. I never gave much credence to it before, but the effect of a great pre is pretty profound. 25 watts of Class A power vs 450 watts of Class A power were not the game changer I had expected them to be. Lesson? Get a good amp and make sure its powerful enough — but your bang-for-your buck might be best spent on a great preamp.
Three, system synergy is a total bitch. The simple, inescapable fact is that what sounds great with some gear will sound average or indistinguishable with others, reviewers and reviews be damned. An in-home test is really the only way to be sure. Caveat emptor.
Four, I think I need to re-think my approach. Instead of investing in a(nother) great DAC and getting a marginal increase (at best) in performance, I might best be served by starting over. New speakers, new amp/pre, and only then a new source.
So, the Elise is going to go back. I think I’m going to sell my Merlins and my Ars Sonum and go get those 3.6r Magnepans I’ve been drooling over. The Plinius gear should run those just fine. Then, as I have cash, get a world class preamp. Right now, I’m thinking the Wyred4Sound STP SE, a Cary SLP05 or maybe a conrad-johnson CT5. Then, new amps, maybe some mono-blocks, like the Wyred4Sound 1000 watt Class-D amps or something. And by then, God alone only knows what magic DAC will find a home in my rig. Maybe it’ll be that Prism Orpheus that some folks are raving about. Or perhaps the Antelope. Or the Berkeley with the USB-to-(BNC) S/PDIF.
But whoever the contender, they’ll still have to beat out my lucky DAC killer, that PS Audio.
(I think Paul McGowan is laughing at me.)