This is sick hobby. We can have a system that sounds truly awesome to us and, of course, probably better than 99% of the population, but we are seldom, if ever, satisfied. Point in case, I have a 2011 MacMini running Pure Music and Spatial Room Correction feeding a fully loaded late model Empirical Audio Offramp 4 into a Wyred 4 Sound DAC2 running straight to 2011 ATC SCM active 50’s with some passive sound treatments around the room. Accessories include Pi Audio RevB Power Conditioner, LessLoss Power Cables, Blue Jeans ICs and Herbies footers. The sound I was getting was pretty phenomenal if I do say so myself. I still have some low frequency issues not easily fixed by software nor by any reasonable amount of bass traps. Spatial Black Hole on order, but that is a different issue.
This is a DAC review, right? The only DAC I have used since owning my ATC monitors has been the W4S DAC2. The performance and feature set for the cost is really, really hard to beat IMHO, but I felt, and heard from others (bhobba in particular) on this forum and beyond, that the high frequencies could be improved by inserting the Empirical Audio Offramp 4 between the Mini and the W4S. I traded a few emails with Steve at Empirical, met him at RMAF (great guy, very informative) and bought a fully loaded Offramp 4. This did provide a marked improvement in removing harshness in the upper frequencies without removing any detail. The presentation was more relaxed – less fatigue.
I have been pretty happy with that set up, but this hobby feeds excessive compulsive behavior, so I keep looking for ways to improve my set up. Side note, I am so happy with my ATCs that all changes are built around them. Anyway, back to the search for a better front-end. After too many hours of reading various forums and reviews I came up with the below short list:
• Empirical Overdrive
• Playback Designs DAC 3
• Mytek DSD DAC
• MSB Platinum
Now, I would have loved to have listened to all the above DACs in my system, but that was not easy to make happen, so I made some calls, wrote emails and asked questions of people in the industry that I respect.
I had to eliminate the Empirical from the running due to lack of remote. This is a must with my otherwise very understanding wife. Too bad, as I have been very impressed with the Offramp.
The Playback Designs was just more than I wanted to spend and could not run direct.
The Mytek, this was tough, really a good value from everything I read and it can handle DSD natively. I read some reservations about the pre amp capabilities and I really like running my DAC straight to my ATCs.
I called Vince Galbo at MSB as I really wanted to try a R2R-type DAC. Now their current Platinum DAC IV is more than I want to spend, but Vince said he had a Platinum DAC III trade-in he could sell me. After several very pleasant and informative phone conversations I purchased the III with the optional volume control. Well, the beast (built like a you-know-what) arrived today. Like a schoolboy I rushed home to play with my new toy. I removed the W4S and inserted the MSB (still need and use the Offramp as this MSB does not have USB input). Now, I was not sure I would hear any substantial difference given the laws of diminishing returns, but first impressions are certainly more dramatic than I expected. I have listened to Redbook, 24/88.2, 24/96, 24/176 and 24/196 and all of them sound more like live music than. More like an open mic. Much better separation between the instruments/voices. Slightly better detail. Low frequencies are more pronounced, although I am not sure better. Highs are more extended (very happy about this), but on some recordings the highs are a bit fatiguing. Maybe it is these particular recordings? Please remember these are initial impressions. I will try to report back after I have spent more quality time with this piece.
Thanks for reading such a long post.
Please feel free to comment or ask questions. I have learned so much from this site, I hope I can return something.