A review of the modded Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11

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mcgsxr

A review of the modded Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11
« on: 8 Mar 2015, 04:16 pm »
I initially purchased this DAC in December of 2014.

This link leads to a thread I posted about my impressions of the stock unit - http://www.audiocircle.com/index.php?topic=131003.0

I later had an old friend take a look under the hood and see if there were any places that some mods might be done, with an eye on increasing audio quality.  You may recall AC member Wayne1 from his time running his own audio business, though these days I understand he is deep into beer making.

I was willing to give up some of the flexibility of the device in order to amp up the sound quality.  Ultimately it was determined that pulling the volume pot out of the signal for all but the headphone output would work for me and my goals.  Various caps (Sonicaps) were replaced in the signal path, and some mods (caps and hexfreds) were done to the power supply.

Another change is that some of the caps used are so large that the stock lid no longer fastens to the DAC.  I have a dedicated media closet, so I don’t have to look at the “naked” DAC anyway.  I may determine if there is a simple lid I can DIY to help keep dust out, but I am not that concerned.

I still retain the ability to use different inputs, and all outputs are active but no longer volume controlled (other than the headphone output as stated above).

Some may find that this makes the device less appealing, but for my system goals, a good DAC is what I was after, and I liked the stock unit enough to make some investments in the signal path.

It was broken in for around 150 hours before shipping back to me, and I have had it up and running 24/7 for another 100+ hours now here at home.

My setup remains the same from the stock review I did of the TubeDAC-11 in December of 2014.  I even used the same playlist, below:

1.   Duke Ellington – Blues in Orbit – Pie Eye’s Blues
2.   Everything but the Girl – Best of – Apron Strings
3.   Massive Attack – Protection – Better Things featuring Tracey Thorne
4.   Rebecca Pidgeon – The Raven – The Raven
5.   Rebecca Pidgeon – The Raven – Spanish Harlem
6.   Rebecca Pidgeon – The Raven – You got me
7.   Jerry Mulligan with Jane Duboc – Jazz Showcase – Paraiso
8.   Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Winton Marsalis – Plays the Music of Duke Ellington – Jump for Joy
9.   Ali Farke Toure – The Source – Cinquante Six
10.   Eva Cassidy – Live at Blues Alley – Stormy Monday
11.   Alison Krauss and Union Station – Lonely runs both ways – Gravity
12.   Cowboy Junkies – Trinity Sessions – Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)
13.   Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes – Oliver James
14.   John Mayer – Continuum – Gravity
15.   54-40 – Radio Love Songs The Singles Collection – Ocean Pearl
16.   Beastie Boys – Ill Communication – Get it Together
17.   Cracker – Kerosene Hat – Take me down to the Infirmary
18.   Groove Armada – Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub) – Superstylin
19.   Jack Johnson – Brushfire Fairytales – F stop blues
20.   Cheryl Crow – KBCO Disc 1 – Favorite Mistake
21.   Eva Cassidy – Songbird – Fields of Gold

I was without the device for around 10 weeks given the shipping both ways, the ordering of parts, and the actual modifications.  During those weeks I was using a stock Logitech Touch via the analog outputs.  I am currently using the Touch via the spdif output to the TubeDAC-11.  I also tried (and preferred) my hacked Pogoplug running VAMP from Vortexbox via the USB input.

So – how does it sound?  Was it worth it to invest in modding an entry level DAC?  Would I do it again?

Let’s start with the sound.

Right out of the box I am reminded of the reasons I liked this DAC to begin with.  It still provides a good level of detail without sharpness.  It still gets the tone of acoustic guitar and sax right and has a black background.  It still offers a taste of tube mellowness without being too syrupy.

The things I thought about the stock unit that may have held it back were around transients and inner detail.

When comparing the stock DAC-11 with an Audioquest Dragonfly V1, I had felt that the Dragonfly held the advantage around inner detail.  I am now finding that there is plenty of detail available, and you can choose to focus on some of it if you want, but when I really just relax and listen, I am hearing an organic presentation of real music.

When comparing the stock DAC-11 with an HRT Music Streamer II, I remarked that transients, especially sax, were superior using the HRT.  Listening to Ella singling “All the things you are”, the trumpet flares and sax parts jump as they should.  I find it is a recording that deserves a bit of volume to really engage me.  When at that volume, if a DAC gets the dynamics wrong, or sounds flat I am out.  At present, I am hearing excellent placement of the instruments across the soundstage, and when the brassy parts kick in, it is dynamic, but not hard on the ears.  Tube mellow perhaps, but the inner detail is there for enjoying too.

Listening to Cracker’s “Kerosene Hat” the sustain on the guitar just flows out and hangs.  I can hear the skins on the drums during the fill around 2:15 or so.  Cymbals decay with a lasting effect that just draws me in.  Over and over again I am struck with how there is music in this room.  Often that music sounds like some other room where the music was recorded.

There are things that stand out now, and soundstage width has been improved I have to say.  There are songs where I have always heard music outside the speakers, but now there is depth and width that draws me in.

Lots of people have posted about the relative value of modifying a device, especially an entry level one.  I am firmly a subjective guy, so if that curdles your milk, I guess we are done!  For me, it comes down to value for the $ and that value is defined by liking what I hear – or not.

So, let’s imagine that you own a $350 DAC and are wondering what the next step is.  I had thought about it myself.  I could have sold the TubeDAC-11 and invested $ in a different DAC.  What struck me though, was all the things that the stock GF piece did right, and I had tried a number of entry level DAC’s in the past 3 years. 

The DAC in the GF piece is a good one.  There are other higher end DAC’s that use the Tenor TE7022 USB receiver and the Cirrus CS8416 DAC chip.

The power supply and analog portions of any DAC are critical, and in my experience having mods done to those sections bears fruit.  I have to say that the addition of the Sonicaps, hexfreds and power supply caps seems to have added some good flavor.

One point of comparison is the Benchmark DAC1.  A friend has one, and I had considered buying it in the past.  He was kind enough to drop by yesterday and we were able to bake off the 2 DAC’s.  His commentary is likely more important than my own, since he owns the DAC1 and is more familiar with the sound profile.  He commented that the modded Grant Fidelity DAC offered a smoother, more musical presentation than his own DAC.  He could still hear the details, but was more inclined to lean back and just enjoy the music using my DAC.  We both noted a more forward presentation from the Benchmark DAC, and with my Totem Model 1’s we felt that might be a little too much.
 
Hardly a complete, professional comparison, but a data point for consideration for those of us shopping in the sub 1K DAC market, either used or new.
 
Hard to argue the value!

Last question I posed (to myself oddly!) was whether or not I would do it again.  I think that listening to this DAC I would.  It may not be for everyone, and I am sure there are other ways to make advancements to your musical enjoyment, but finding the right upgrades to a piece you already like can be a satisfying way to keep after this hobby.

There are still things this DAC cannot do – anything above 24/192 if your collection includes those.  No DSD either.  However for 16/44.1 redbook or any of the 24/48, 24/96 or 24/192 recordings (via spdif output, the usb is limited to up to 24/96) there is lots to love with the modded Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11.

Currently listening to Taj Mahal’s debut album, the “Statesboro Blues” track, and the blues guitar is just howling along with his unique voice.  This just flat out makes good music.

Happy listening out there folks!
« Last Edit: 29 Dec 2016, 06:21 pm by mcgsxr »

Mortsnets

Re: A review of the modded Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11
« Reply #1 on: 8 Mar 2015, 06:39 pm »
Nice review.

Any downside?  Do you find any of your less well recorded music is less enjoyable after the mod.

mcgsxr

Re: A review of the modded Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11
« Reply #2 on: 9 Mar 2015, 11:56 am »
Other than having to pry open my wallet, I see no downside for the strategy I employed.

While I wish I could say that my less well recorded files sound better, I would be fibbing.  One of my fav badly recorded albums is an old one by The Stone Roses - Garage Flower.  It is still trebly and I don't love to listen to it at home.  It works fine in the car etc.

Playing with tubes now, I have Gold Lion's and Voskhod's in addition to the stock tube included.

JLM

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Re: A review of the modded Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11
« Reply #3 on: 10 Mar 2015, 12:13 am »
Thanks for the review!

So Mark, how much money/time was invested in the mods? 

From what I've read, the old Benchmark DACs are now considered "rough around the edges" (not as musical) yet still more detailed compared to current leading off the shelf $300 DACs.
« Last Edit: 10 Mar 2015, 11:04 am by JLM »