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3 Dimension Audio DAC18 Review

Watch the Super-Picky Jack Roberts pick apart this $3,999 tube D/A converter

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Inside the 3D DAC18

Making It In My System

For a piece of gear to stay in my system, it has to get at least three things right. First, it needs to get plucked strings right, especially a stand up bass. Then even more importantly, it must get the nuances of the human voice right. Last, and most importantly, it must allow the music to move me emotionally.

Feeling the Music

So let’s start by talking about how easily and beautifully the DAC18 conveys the emotions and nuances of music. As I said, the way a piece of audio equipment coveys the emotions of music is an area that makes it or breaks it for me. I just have no interest in listening to music that doesn’t move me. Well, the DAC18 coveys the emotions of music beautifully, and it also reveals the nuances of a performance. My experience tells me that, for me to be able to emotionally connect to the music, a system must be dynamic, have excellent PaceRhythmAndTiming, have good micro-dynamics, and have a very organic sound to it. The DAC18 sends a signal into my system that allows me to easily make that emotional connection.

The Human Voice

One of the reasons, after 30 years in audio, I have drifted into using SET amplification, crossoverless speakers, and vinyl for a source, is that I love the way these systems provide an illusion that voices just appear in the room with you. By the way, if they can do this with voices, they can also do it with most solo instruments, though not necessarily a piano. This is one of the major downfalls of almost all Redbook digital based systems I have experienced. Now don’t get me wrong, voices on Redbook can sound very nice, they just seldom sound quite like they are really there with you. To do this, a system must be very transparent, very revealing of inner details, have great micro-dynamics, and at the same time be very organic and alive sounding.

The only Redbook DAC I have heard that pulled this off really well are the very best Audio Note DACs, the Meitner DACs, and the Level 5-and-above VSEI Sony digital systems. The DAC18 comes very close here, closer than any DAC costing less than $5,000 I have heard. I think that’s quite an accomplishment. One of my favorite recordings to listen to and to evaluate voice on is Verve’s Louie and Ella, by the way, it happens to be a mono recording. The contrast of Ella’s and Satchmo’s voices is thoroughly enthralling on a good system and rather irritating on a lesser system. The DAC18 plays this recording in a way that highlights both the difference and beauty of their voices. I’d say it passed this test with voices with flying colors. That leaves us with talks about plucked and bowed strings.

The Sound of Strings

Whether it’s Ray Brown or Janos Starker, I love plucked and bowed strings. I especially love the sound of the bass and cello. What I’m looking for is the ability of a system to get the leading edge right, and then the decay. I also want to hear the air around the instrument and the air coming from within the instrument. The DAC18, like the Audio Note DAC 5 Special on really well-recorded material, can hold its own with any format when it comes to playing the bass or cello. These are the first two Redbook DACs I have been able to say that about. The only problem is that with at least 75% of the digital recordings I have, the bass still seemed to have that one-note quality and lacking in air, even with these two DACs. This is sad commentary on the state of Redbook digital recordings.

My experiences tell me if your system can get the bass and cello right, then the rest of the bottom-end follows. This is true with the DAC18 as well. The bottom-end and mid-bass was very quick and tight. Whether it’s a bass drum, tympani, or a piano, the instruments just sound more real than with most Redbook digital. It does a wonderful job of portraying the natural warmth of the instrument and still sounding neutral in its presentation. The DAC18 does an excellent job of balancing the line between organic richness and letting you hear the inner details of the music.

Of course, there are strings that aren’t bass instruments. The DAC18 is quite good with these, too. Both the violin and mandolin sound sweet, organic and all together musical. There is a beautiful purity of tone to these string instruments that invites long term listening. Well, we ought to talk about a few other things. Let’s start with:

Dynamics and Micro-Dynamics

The DAC18 has excellent dynamics and very good micro-dynamics. It is here though that this $4,000 DAC does not quite hold up to the $38,000 DAC5 Special, but doesn’t that just about sum up how good this DAC is?

I mentioned in the introduction that sometimes micro-dynamics can be confusing when comparing Redbook to SACD, or even analogue. The fact that Redbook gets the leading edge right, but often missed the decay and air can sometimes trick the ear on a quick comparison into thinking the Redbook has better micro-dynamics. Of course, if you have a Redbook DAC like the DAC18 that gets most of the decay and air, the same mistake can be made. As you listen for a more extended time, you will discover that it is the quality of the micro-dynamics that allows you to hear the decay and air. Without a doubt this is the second best Redbook DAC I have ever heard in this regard. Having said that, I should admit I have not heard any of the Audio Note DACs in the four- to ten-thousand-dollar range. Still, that doesn’t take anything away from how exceptional the DAC18 is.


The DAC18 lacks very little in the way of accuracy, yet it allows music to come alive in your room in a most convincing way. It’s one of the few Redbook digital components that lets you experience the emotions of a performance. I know you want to know if it’s a giant slayer. If your giant is the Audio Note DAC 5 Special, then the answer is no; but if your giant is the non-musical sound of most Redbook digital DACs and players, then the answer is a resounding yes. The DAC18 is a remarkable value offering you more than just a little bit of what the very best and most expensive digital sounds like, regardless of price.

Hold the Presses

Just as I was about to finish this review, the $4,999 Signature version of the 3 Dimension Audio DAC18 arrived. The Signature version uses 99.99% pure silver wire in the signal path and Cardas copper wire on the ground. Then, there is the change from solid-state rectification to tube rectification in the power supply. These may not sound like major changes to you, but you would be wrong.

Anyone who has experienced the difference, as you move from one level to the other with Audio Note products, can tell you the difference that changing to 99.99% pure silver can create in a product. In the case of the 3 Dimension Audio Signature DAC18, the sound is simply more, by that I mean you hear more information, the music flows better, the bass has more air and decay, and the top-end is silkier and more extended. The midrange has more energy and yet sounds more relaxed at the same time. These are all qualities I seldom hear from Redbook digital.

As for the 99.99% silver wire in the signature version, we have the addition of tube rectification that I mentioned. Many tube amp aficionados love to tell you about the profound differences that tube rectification makes. Rectification, simply put, is the process of turning AC power into DC power. As I said, tube rectification is said to be preferable by many tube gurus. One of the biggest benefits claimed for tube rectification is that it avoids the noise induced by solid-state switching diodes. Others just think tube rectification just sounds more like live music. Tube rectification also is touted to give you “big tone” and “super dynamics” by some tube equipment designers.

To be honest, I’ve heard great amps and preamps that use both solid-state and tube rectification, but most often I have found amps with tube rectification are simply more organic and sound more like real music. One thing for sure though, there is no doubt that the Signature DAC18 has much cleaner and less digital sounding highs than the non-signature version. It also sounds more organic and richer, much more alive, has better dynamics and micro-dynamic. Thus, the Signature version just sounds more like live music to me. Highly recommended for its price.

One Response to 3 Dimension Audio DAC18 Review

  1. charles says:

    I have heard this dac for many years on many systems, not to mention the current ces 2014 perfect8 technologies the rack owned by Leon.
    I am his friend and would have to say the model 18 is a great dac.
    We heard a new power cable make his system sound even better,it was used on the model 18 and wow we were almost analog. It is in initial testing but from what we heard it is a jaw dropper.

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