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Audio Note DAC 5 Special Review

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 Audio Note DAC 5 Special

I would like to start by thanking Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note UK (henceforth Audio Note), and Joe Cutrufelli, a former Audio Note dealer. Without Joe introducing me to Audio Note and without Peter’s enthusiasm for it, I might have never discovered my love for how much like music a really good SET amp could sound. It was also through Joe that I discovered how great Audio Note’s DACs sounded. So having said thank you to those two, let’s talk about the Audio Note and their DAC5 Special.

Hiroyasu Kondo started Audio Note in Japan in 1974. Peter Qvortrup began to work with Hiroyasu Kondo in 1979. By the mid eighties, Peter was making Audio Note much more accessible to the western world. Then in the late 90s, it all fell apart between them, and ever since Peter’s company and Audio Note Japan, or as it came to be called Kondo, have been two totally different companies. I don’ want to talk about or bring up a lot of old gossips. I had rather given both these men the credit they deserve for their hard work. They each did much to bring about the world’s well-deserved infatuation with hand-built Japanese SETs and other very specialized tube products.

I would think it would be safe to say and really an understatement to say, that Peter Qvortrup, president of Audio Note, is seldom if ever influenced by the fads of audiodom. He loves to write and talk about how high-end audio is no longer really centered around emotionally enjoyable music. I’ll admit it, I agree with his general philosophy if not every detail of his supporting arguments. I have owned several Audio Note products; never a level 5, but a couple of level 3s and one level 4. One of the best things about Audio Note’s cost-no-object Level 5 products is it really is one of the places that “trickle down” really works, at least in audio. So while I can’t, and maybe neither can you, afford this Level 5 DAC, don’t disparage; there are much more affordable Audio Note DACs that sound incredible also. Thus, I am not going to make excuses for the extreme pricing of the Audio Note DAC 5 Special.

Peter’s Theories About Digital Sound Reproduction

I find it ironic that Audio Note, under Peter’s leadership, has become so well known for their DACs. Everything I have read and heard tells me that Peter is first and foremost a lover of analog and vinyl music reproduction. My friend Joe Cutrufelli, who didn’t own a single LP, went to England to visit Peter. He said all he heard at Peter’s house was vinyl, and that he had never seen such a record collection. Come to think of it, that is probably the very reason he consistently releases the best-sounding redbook digital sound I have heard. I have on hand at this moment an early DAC One Signature and the DAC 5 Special that’s in for review. These are surely on the opposite ends of the price spectrum, but what they both have in common is they can take redbook digital that admittedly is not my favorite format for music-listening, and turn it into a very musical sound. In the case of the DAC 5 Special, that is a bit of an understatement as you will see.
The DAC 5s were first released in 1997. According to Peter’s theories about redbook digital, it would have no over-sampling, no jitter reduction, no noise shaping, re-clocking, etc. He says it only gets you further away from the purity of the music. In fact, from as early as 1993, the people at Audio Note began to ask, “Could it be that the use of DSP in removing out-of-band energy in the digital domain was also responsible for the unnatural sound of CDs? Could it be that oversampling really might not be that much different than applying feedback to amplifiers?” Thus, Audio Note chooses simply to use the highest grade 18-bit stereo converter chip that they can find based only on sound, the lowest-noise power supply they can build, and they move all the filtering to the analog domain.

Peter thinks the way to the best digital sound is by using the same lessons he has learned from building amps and preamps, that is using the very best components to create a musical sound. His company also developed the proprietary “1xoversampling™ Direct from Disc™” topology which he claims is more capable of preserving the low-level details and dynamic headroom.

In the DAC 5 Special, Audio Note utilizes very stringently selected AD1865 chips. The DAC 5 Specials are given Audio Note’s patented copper-wired “magic” I/V transformer interface, which actively couples the DAC chip’s output to a powerful transformer. In fact, it is totally transformer-coupled throughout. It uses the highest quality parts such as “Black Gates”, an assortment of Audio Note™ tantalum film resistors, Cerafine capacitors, silver connectors and Audio Note silver wiring throughout.

Audio Note uses NOS double-triode tubes in the analog output stage and couples it to a powerful C-core transformer. This enables them not to use any negative feedback in the analog circuit. The current version of the DAC 5 uses the newest AN Perma 50 nickel C-core output transformers designed and made by Audio Note. They are claimed to be capable of reproducing a bandwidth approaching the 5 ~ 200kHz frequency range. It has separate dual-channel power supplies with double choke filters.

As I mentioned, the DAC 5 Special, like many of Peter’s upper-tier products, are completely transformer coupled. Peter believes that transformer coupling brings a linearity to the entire dynamic envelope of the music. He says resistors and capacitors, no matter how expensive, all alter the relationship between amplitude and frequency that a correctly designed (and in this case, incredibly expensive) interface transformers do not. Transformers have the side benefit of keeping output impedance low without using feedback. Like most designers of Single-Ended Triode amps, Peter believes in the use of no feedback in his circuits.

Tubes

Not only are the Audio Note DACs “1x-oversampling” DACs, they are also tube DACs inclusive of the use of tube rectification. Yes, all of the Audio Note DACs, and for that matter amps and preamps, are tube-based.

Are the tubes the key to their sound? Well, I’ve heard other tube DACs and CD players and they don’t sound anything like the Audio Notes. So, I think we have to say it’s the tubes plus: Plus the design, plus the insanely high-quality parts, plus the transformers, well you get the idea. A lot of Audio Note devotees are big time tube rollers, and with the kits and level one, two, and three components it makes a lot of sense. When you get to Audio Note’s level five components, it just doesn’t make sense to me though.

At this level, Audio Note’s staff spend so much time and effort matching the components, including the tubes, that I feel safe that they have already found the best-sounding tubes for the DAC 5 special. Per Audio Note, “the 5687WB double triodes used in the DAC 5 Special’s line stages should provide a useful life span of about three years if the DAC is operated on a 24 hours per day basis. As the tubes continue past their working life, the DAC’s sound quality will soften and become less focused. At this time, we suggest that tube replacement is required. “if you can’t help yourself and must tube roll Peter gives you a whole list to try in the owner’s manual. He also mentions in there a peculiar truth that I have also noticed over the years. He says, “In fact, it seems to be a rule that the best sounding valve types generally are more microphonic than less good sounding types . . .” Now Peter wonders why this is?

Review Systems

Most often Audio Note equipment is used in all or almost all Audio Note systems, and I can understand why. I think the answer is twofold. First, after one discovers Audio Note and the sound of their equipment, people develop an understandable commitment to Audio Note. Second, I think it has to do with eliminating the possibility of messing up the wonderful sound you have just discovered. Mike Zivkovic of Teresonic likes to talk about the danger of too many choices and he’s right, every time we add a choice we add another chance to mess up the sound.

Still, there are those of us who just can’t leave things well enough along. We just can’t quit playing around with different sounds. So Constantine thought it would be a good idea for me to review the Audio Note DAC 5 Special in a system that has nothing else Audio Note in it; not even a single piece of Audio Note cable. So let me tell you about the systems I listen to it in.

I basically used two different systems to evaluate the DAC 5 Special.

System 1:
I used it in a system with the Oracle SI 1000 integrated amplifier driving either the Teresonic Ingenium Silver speakers or the B&W 805S speakers. I used Shindo Silver interconnects in this system and Auditorium 23 speaker wire. I tried several transports from Audio Note, Sony, and Oppo. In the end, I liked using a Slim Devices Transporter playing WAV files from a hard drive; in fact I liked it considerably better.

System 2:
The other system I used for the review was a Shindo Masseto preamplifier with a Wavac EC-300B amplifier driving the Teresonic Ingeniums II speakers. As above, I did most of my listening with the Slim Devices Transporter playing WAV files from a hard drive. Cabling in the second systems was all Teresonic Clarison cables, by the way I feel these are the best kept secret in all of audio.

For the last half of the review I settled on System 2. This is the most musically involving digital system I have ever had the privilege to live with and the DAC 5 Special, I am sure, was the major reason. For comparison purposes, I used a VSEI-modded Sony SACD 777ES, the Transporter, and a Clearaudio Anniversary AMG Wood CMB Turntable, Clearaudio Satisfy Carbon Fiber tonearm, and Benz Ebony TR cartridge.

The Sound

Manufacturers like for a review to showcase their technical prowess. A lot of readers like comparisons. What I always wanted from a review was to hope I could tell how the product might sound in my system. I know this is the most subjective approach and is dependent on lots of variables, but it’s all I really cared about in a review. So when I started writing reviews, that was my goal. That’s why I break down the sound into different areas as well as a whole. For this review, I’m going to add a new category I’ve never used before. So, let’s start with it.

Listenability

Vinyl is just so easy to listen to for hours on end. Really good SACD players, such as the VSEI mods, or the Meitner units, come a little closer in listenability, but I have never heard any redbook digital that I did not grow tired of after an hour or so. Thus, digital is basically used in my system only for music I love that I can’t get on vinyl. Some of the less expensive Audio Note DACs have come closer, but none made me willing to listen to them for hours while I work.

Well, let me set the record straight: the Audio Note DAC 5 Special is very listenable. Truth is, with well recorded digital, it is just as listenable as my vinyl rig; but with some of the poorer recorded music that I love I still find vinyl easier to listen to. Don’t make too much of this statement. The DAC 5 Special is very listenable, and unlike vinyl, I never run into nicks, pops, inner grove distortion, nor do I have to get up and flip the record over. Now, don’t think I’m saying the DAC 5 Special sounds the same as the vinyl rig. It certainly does not. It sounds different from analog with its own strengths and weaknesses which we will discuss below. I am saying that the DAC 5 Special was a revelation for me. I had no idea that a redbook-based system could be this easy to listen to and enjoy music on for hour after hour.

Emotional Involvement

I was also very impressed with the DAC 5 Special’s ability to get me emotionally involved in the music. This is an area that makes or breaks it when I consider whether or not I’ll buy a certain piece of equipment. I just have no interest in listening to music that doesn’t move me. The DAC 5 Special passes this test with flying colors.

Top End and Midrange

The midrange is the glory of most of Audio Note’s products and the DAC 5 Special is no exception. Yet, it is more than the midrange though. There was a beautiful coherency between the midrange and the top-end. Even after a month of listening, voices, strings, and horns all sounded so clear and you could hear all the air and nuances that made them sound so real, but it never sounded clearer than life. On the contrary, the DAC 5 Special sounded very right and very natural. I highly value the ability of equipment to let me hear the air and nuances of music. The DAC 5 Special excelled in these very abilities.

I loved the way voices came to life in my listening room with this DAC. They had a stunning presence in my room. I would go so far as to say voices were as good as I have heard with any source. They were very palpable and gave the beautiful illusion of actually occupying space. Voices had nice air and presence without any over-emphasis or sibilance.

The DAC 5 Special came very close to the Clearaudio Anniversary AMG Wood CMB Turntable (the magnetic bearing Clearaudio tables are the most transparent source I have heard) in transparency which is to say a lot, a whole lot.

The dynamics, scale, and size were stunning; as good as any source I have ever heard. It can create a truly life-size sound with a driving, lifelike pace to the music. As dynamic as the system was, the micro-dynamics and coherency of the DAC 5 Special moved beyond what I thought was possible from a redbook source.

Bass

I wrote of one of my favorite redbook CD players, that “it goes very deep and has real impact. I think most would describe it as deep, fast and quick. What it doesn’t have is the kind of nuance and decay that bass can have with SACD and vinyl.”

Well, I can tell you that the Audio Note DAC 5 special on really well-recorded material can hold its own with any format with bass reproduction. Having said that, I must mention that with at least 75% of the digital recordings I have, the bass still seemed to have that one-note quality and lacked in air even with this great DAC. Again, this is no reflection on the DAC 5 Special, but on the sad state of many digital recordings.

Imaging and Soundstage

These were just what I would expect from an Audio Note product. That is the DAC 5 Special has a lifelike, coherent soundstage. The kind of soundstage I love; it is musically and emotionally satisfying while never distracting you from the performance. If you’re looking for the kind of soundstage where you say or think things like, “Did you hear that? It sounds like it was three feet outside and five feet behind the left speaker…” then the DAC 5 Special may disappoint you. It’s not that something like that might not happen sometime, but when it does you will wonder why did the sound engineer do that? You will have gotten use to a more lifelike soundstage, one that occupies air and space, not one that floats around in thin air. All Audio Note gear I have heard gives you this kind of coherent, organic soundstage and, I for one, think it is correct. The DAC 5 Special images like it soundstages, that is precisely, but not in a way that brings attention to itself.

P.R.a.T.

Other than Naim and Audio Note, I have never heard any digital music that really could carry the pace and rhythm of music. Since both of these are almost always played in systems with their own electronics, I have never been sure if it was their DACs that had P.R.a.T. or just how really good their other electronics were. Well, I still don’t know about the Naim, but now I have had one of Audio Note’s level 5 DACs in a totally non-Audio Note system. So do the Audio Note DACs really have P.R.a.T.? The answer is a resounding yes. Even if they don’t have quite the pace or rhythm of the best vinyl setups, they still have plenty to make music come alive in your room.

Comparisons, Digital Vs. Vinyl In General

It’s not really fair of me to compare the DAC 5 Special to Vinyl. Heck, I know of no bigger lover of vinyl records than Peter himself. I don’t think Audio Note set out to make a vinyl-beater, but just the best DAC they could make and I just want to say in my opinion, they have made a DAC that produces far and away the best music I have ever heard from any redbook digital device.

This has been a real learning experience for me. There is no doubt that this is one of the most elite and musical-sounding redbook DACs ever made. So, to have spent so much time with it let me learn something about the basic differences between really good redbook and really good vinyl. There seems to be some differences at the very core even on the very best recordings. There is no doubt in my mind, after extensive listening to redbook digital on both the DAC 5 Special and the VSEI modded Sony 777, that music played back over them is more controlled than it is when played on a turntable. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of opinion I guess, but I think I would consider this a plus for digital.

One of the most often complaints about redbook digital is that the upper midrange and top-end sound strident and edgy. This is often described as a product-sounding digital. Let me just say that with a good digital recording and a good player this is just not the fault of the redbook recording medium.

There is also no doubt in my mind that there is a basic difference in the way bass is played on redbook digital verses vinyl or SACD; some describe this as the redbook having tighter bass. I always thought digital bass had a bit of what audiophiles used to refer to as “one-note bass”. That is, it gets the leading edge right, but does not let you hear the harmonics and decay of the bass instrument. I still feel this way, but want to say that the DAC 5 Special almost eliminates this problem.

Head to Head with Vinyl

All of these comparisons were made with the Audio Note DAC 5 Special in conjunction with the Slim Devices’ Transporter, with music in WAV format on hard drive for a transport. All the vinyl was played on a Clearaudio Anniversary AMG Wood CMB Turntable, Clearaudio Satisfy Carbon Fiber tonearm, and Benz Ebony TR cartridge. All comparisons were done with System 2. These comparisons are made to let you know something about the sound of the DAC 5 Special and are not meant to be general comparisons between digital and vinyl.

Rickie Lee Jones’ “Pop Pop” and Art Garfunkel’s “Angel Glare” – These two albums are a good place to start. The Rickie Lee Jones album is beautifully recorded, and both the redbook digital and the vinyl sounded wonderful. If I had an absolute mint vinyl copy I might prefer it to the digital, but it would be close. I know with my vinyl copy that is not mint but more like “very good plus”, I would rather listen to it through the DAC 5 Special. This is the first digital setup I have had where I can say this.

Garfunkel’s album is a totally different story. I paid a quarter for the vinyl and could only be graded as “very good”, but I had much rather not listen to it through digital, because not even the wonderful DAC 5 Special could get rid of the midrange glare. The digital rendition sounded thin, and plastic-like. I love the music and would listen to it if this was the only way to get it, but I would much rather put up with a few nicks and pops on the wonderfully natural vinyl.

Truth is the DAC 5 Special stood up to my vinyl setup very well and occasionally surpassed it. It often did everything better, in addition to delivering quite the same level of pace and rhythm. In the end this comparison demonstrated what I said above about the DAC 5 Special, that on great recordings it was as good and sometimes better than vinyl, but on a lot of recordings it could do nothing to help them from sounding digital and fatiguing. I’m not blaming the DAC 5 Special. It was even on these recordings that the DAC 5 Special was by far the best digital I have ever heard. No, I’m blaming the medium and the many wretched recordings of popular music that were and are still being produced with little or no concern for their sound.

Head to Head with SACD

It was a lot of work to get a chance to audition a really good SACD player while I had the DAC 5 Special on hand, but I just couldn’t imagine relying on my memory for this important comparison. I was surprised but the DAC 5 special held it’s own with the best SACD has to offer. I wanted to go disc-by-disc, but will just say if I owned this DAC I wouldn’t worry about owning something that would play SACDs.

Conclusion

I started the review by thanking Peter and saying I would make no excuses for its price, but as I recall how I listened to music day after day on the DAC 5 Special, I’m changing my mind. “Curse you Peter!”

Of course I’m kidding; I just want one so much but could never justify spending so much on both analog and digital. I don’t know how a music lover could listen to a DAC 5 Special and then go back to any other digital device without going through real withdrawal. The DAC 5 Special does cost more than my Shindo Masseto preamplifier ($11,500), Clearaudio turntable/tonearm with Benz TR cartridge ($17,000), Teresonic Ingenium Silvers ($14,500), or my Wavac EC 300B amp ($29,000). In fact, take the Wavac out of the equation and it cost almost as much as the rest combined.

Heck, it costs twice as much as I just paid for my two-year-old Mini Cooper convertible. I shouldn’t make such a big deal over the price, because I know, to most people, my system is just as out of reach to them as the DAC 5 Special is to me. I can’t afford the new Jaguar convertible, so I drive a Mini Cooper. That doesn’t mean others who can afford the Jag shouldn’t also try to get a Rolls. Now tell me why I can’t be that logical about audio equipment. (Sure Jack can afford a Jaguar, like many of us we can, as soon as we give up our audio hobby. –Ed)

In response to a letter from a reader about which Shindo Preamp to buy, I answered, “it’s simple, buy the best one you can afford, but if you love music, buy one.” My experience with Audio Note DACs says this is good advice about them as well. Every Audio Note DAC I have heard is sonically cut from the same cloth, but the DAC 5 Special is certainly a cut above the others I have heard. If you can afford it, I can’t imagine a better way to listen to digital music.

Peter Qvortrup On Digital

Jack: Peter, please share with us your opinion on the basic differences between CD and vinyl sound.

Peter: My view is that digital cannot resemble the original because of the inaccuracies introduced at the point of entry in the digital domain. The errors and omissions introduced by all current and past methods of conversion are so great that, at best, all we get is a card board copy of the original and it is clearly audible, as a quick comparison between a decent turntable and even the most expensive CD replay set up will quickly reveal.

This is because much like the flawed assumptions used by mathematicians to create the financial “innovations” which lie at the heart of the current financial crisis, the fundamental assumptions that created the way we digitize the analogue signal also fail to describe the content of dynamic wide band signals and the way they flow. The end result is a set of mathematical formulas that are sadly lacking in their ability to model the full range of variables in a music signal, and as a result when we come to make the analogue to digital conversion process, the bar is set at a level which is lower than it needs to be, resulting in conversion technology which does not do justice to the analogue signal it is being presented with, resulting in an anemic digital version of the analogue original.

It is therefore no major surprise that the digital medium, as we know it, lacks authority, authenticity, immediacy, instrumental medium and density, dimensionality, and overall presence when compared to its analogue version, to the point where even some digital recordings sound better on LP than the CD (the reverse is of course also occasionally true, but for sake of a proper comparison, we should always compare early all-analogue recordings on LP with their CD counterparts from the early to mid 1980s, my experience has always been that AAD recordings generally sound better than ADD, and ADD generally sounds better than DDD), which leads me to believe that the signal damage goes beyond merely the digital conversion process itself, as it would appear that the longer the signal stays in the digital domain the more damage it suffers, which may also explain some aspect of what I hear in music servers.

The high “resolution” formats like SACD and DVD-A are no better, just different versions of the same problems that beset Redbook, but unlike standard Redbook, the SACD/DVD-A converters are virtually impossible to improve upon as the 1Bit system they use do not allow removing the oversampling and digital filtering, for example, so we are reduced to playing with component choices and power supply configurations, which is like putting lipstick on a bulldog, to use a currently popular phrase!

Jack: Then Peter, how did you come to build some of the most musical sounding CD players, DACs, and Transports?

Peter: Well, from the onset I disliked CD with a vengeance, but over some years I was increasingly faced with the opposing choices or dilemma if you like, of preferring the quality of the purely analogue source but also a great need to be able to hear a lot of the music I liked that only came out on CD. So, I had no real choice but to try to work out how one makes a digital-analogue converter that does not completely sucks the life out of any musician’s best efforts, including when the recording engineers have also not done their greatest job, which of course many LPs also suffer under, but which to me at least manifests itself as far worse when it is on CD than LP.

I always felt that the main improvements were available in the DAC, so that is where our main efforts have been concentrated. However, recent development work has shown that the CD transport has equally great potential for improvement, so considerable efforts are now given to find out how far the CD transport can be taken: We now employ a valve power supply in our best CD transport for part of the circuit!

Perhaps a little history?

In 1991, I set about with my engineer at the time, Guy Adams (of Voyd Turntables fame!) to develop a digital-to-analogue converter which has a less digital signature. This work led to the use of a transformer as the I/V interface, a practice we patented across the world, and the DAC3 was born in 1993. I have always been doubtful about techniques that purport to improve the signal, so sometime in 1994 I asked Guy whether it was possible to remove the oversampling and digital filters from the converter. Guy felt it was not feasible after speaking to various people at Burr Brown, so in late 1995 I mentioned it to Andy Grove, and Andy said he would look at it, a prototype was made a week later and the sound was a revelation, although it needed some fine tuning to get rid of the out of band interference.

We released the first non-oversampling (we call it 1xoversampling) design as the DAC5 Special in July 1997, and the rest is really history. We have spent the years since then refining the circuit, I/V interfaces and power supplies.

We added dedicated 1xoversampled CD players in 1998 and started work on CD transports in 1997, the first one being the CDT Two, unfortunately the Korean manufacturers who were building all the CD products for us went under in 2000, and it took us another 4 – 5 years to develop a replacement for the CDT Two. The CDT Two/II was released in late 2004.

Jack: One last question Peter, what are Audio Note’s future plans for digital playback?

Peter: We continue to refine the circuitry and power supplies and we keep discovering incremental improvements to add to the circuits, components and materials. As an ultimate statement, Andy has been working on two major projects, the first is an all discrete 20 – 24 bit converter, and the second, which is more interesting, is a completely new conversion system which we originally designed as an out-of-house project for a company that does investigations into molecular resonance in materials; initial experiments look promising, so we shall see.

On the CD transport side, we are finishing development of the CDT Five, where a couple of valve in part of the power supply has shown that even here, valves are superior to semiconductors.

I think that covers it!

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