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Audio Blast: Eastern Electric Minimax DAC

Updated: 3/24/2011

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I should point out that I just upgraded my Kingsound King ESL speakers, too – with the Minimax DAC. I enthused about the King in my review, but it has much more to offer in its capabilities. I adjure panel speaker fans to conjure up a 32 bit DAC sometime to try with their rig. Those with high-end ESLs are really in for a treat. I’m guessing you will adore the newfound open-world perspective to the music. With the Eastern Electric DAC in the rig I do not feel as though a new window to the music has been opened. I feel as though a construction crew came in overnight and removed the entire wall of my room, allowing me to wake up to an unhindered, expansive view of the landscape.

Eastern Electric Minimax DAC circuit board

Peachtree Audio has a 24/96 ESS9006 chip in the Nova, which I have used in my big rig intermittently for a comparison of budget components to more costly designs. Even though the same company is behind each of these DAC chips, the Nova’s digital is a thin comparison to the workings of the mighty 9018 chip. The difference between the Nova and the Minimax DAC in digital signal treatment is significant – significantly in favor of the Minimax. The salvation for the Nova lies in the fact that it’s a tube DAC and integrated amp, a marvelous budget component in its own right. It remains a lovely one-box solution.

My declaration here is not to be construed as being primarily about brands or specific components; it is a “shout out” about technological development. In one sense, this is a review of DAC chips, and the ESS ES9018 Sabre Reference 32 bit is the standout. The Minimax DAC I am enjoying immensely. It’s inexpensive, and I would not be surprised “one bit” if it will leapfrog the 24/192 player you are currently using. Like other Eastern Electric products I have used I would anticipate it to be very reliable. The sound shoots past that of the respectable Monarchy NM-24 Preamp/DAC which I have found such good a value. It is simply a tough comparison for even well-received digital-to-analogue conversion equipment when put against the power of 32 bits. I see manufacturers having to migrate toward this new standard, or suffer immeasurably as their designs are increasingly neglected in the High-End market.

If I had a megabuck player I’d get a Minimax DAC, or similar, pronto and use the player as transport. It may seem incredible, but likely it would handily outperform the player alone, even if the player upsamples to 24 bit/192 KHz. I don’t need two months to assess the technology, the difference is clear to anyone with ears. I’m very slow to get worked up over subtle, nebulous “improvements” to rigs. When I suggest this is a big change, it’s a BIG change! An audiophile friend with his $3K 24/192 DAC heard it and decided in one evening he’s upgrading to the Minimax. Sadly, in one fell swoop all current players will be valued less because of this development. However, most happily, soon there will be a slew of 32 bit designs coming your way! How do I know? Consider that the following companies are already working with ESS chips – Oppo, Simaudio, McIntosh, Krell, Wyred4Sound, Peachtree Audio, and Eastern Electric. Yes, that’s a small sampling of the audio designing world, but among them are some names with some staying power and serious reputations to protect. They have the foot in the door early, but eventually everyone is going to battle it out with 32 bit upsampling, whether from ESS Technology or competitors’ chips.

Is the EE DAC better than other 32 bit comers in the price range? I don’t know – yet. Is its digital-to-analogue conversion performance better than 75% of all players out there? I can’t say definitively, but from what I’m hearing I wouldn’t doubt it. Is it worth developing as a technology for all digital two-channel treatment? I’m not an engineer, but I’d say “of course”. Is it worth the money to have the sonic improvement now? I can authoritatively weigh in on that, and I say absolutely! In fact, I don’t care what other units are out there now, if they are slightly better or not; I’m not being without this technology a day longer than I have to. I’d buy this in a heartbeat, reviewer or not. In time, I’ll be making comparisons, and I’ll have my eyes open for more costly, more refined designs with the ESS chip. Until then, the Minimax DAC is my stepping stone to an exhilarating future in digital two-channel.

Economical Extravagance

Eastern Electric products I have reviewed and used have not been at the top of the sound pyramid. They should not be expected to, as they are made at a stringent price-to-performance ratio. Alex Yeung has been called a golden-eared designer, but he is designing to a very tight economical tolerance. I have been impressed at the overall build quality and consistently pleasing sound of his designs.

In addition, Bill O’Connell at Morningstar Audio, distributor in North America for Eastern Electric, is attentive and punctual in my dealings with him. I liked the M520 Amp and BBA preamp, both of which I reviewed. I love what the 32 bit ESS Sabre Reference chip in the Minimax DAC does! Maybe in a year or so I’ll love more what another player or DAC does having 32 bit capabilities. That will depend on who gets their hands on the chip, which is in short supply, and what they can do with it. Top designers will eventually roll out a product which will sonically best not only the current generation of Redbook players and DACs, but also this first crop of 32 bit DACs. The market will end up flooded with 24/192 players, but a lot of people won’t want them because the sound differential with 32 bit is so good that it’s worth the price of admission. The salvation from the glut of 24/192 players on the used market will be the fact that a fine transport makes a critical difference in the performance of the Minimax (I assume other 32 bit DACs as well).

Bill is aware of the following. When I visited him to pick up the DAC, I heard his home system. At the time I was secretly frustrated, as I thought I had a good handle on the quality of the gear he had assembled, and I felt it sounded much better than it should. That’s no sleight to Bill; he has a fine rig, but I thought I knew what the limitations should be given the equipment and room, and they were being exceeded by a large margin. That bugged me;I did not know what was causing the unanticipated elevation in quality. Though he spoke well of it, I did not think at the time the Minimax DAC could contribute that much to the system’s success. Now I know it was a gigantic influence in Bill’s system because it has jacked up the quality of my rig such that I keep thinking, “This is unwarranted! The result far outweighs the expected potential!” The same sense of preternatural purity and completeness which was abundant in Bill’s rig is now all over my system.

Emotional Overflow

Eastern Electric DAC internals

After the second night of listening to the system with the Minimax DAC through the Kingsound King speakers, I came up the stairs and gushed for ten minutes straight to my wife. She doesn’t really care, but I don’t care that she doesn’t care; I had to share! That sounds like Dr. Seuss. I then noticed I had goose bumps. I don’t recall ever previously getting goose bumps from discussing audio gear. My body was physically displaying the excitement I was trying to convey. It was an extraordinary moment, as I realized this was the most excited I had allowed myself to get over a component in many a year. Over a $750 DAC? Overreaction? Emotional instability? Remember, it’s the technology allowing the otherworldly listening experience which is thrilling me! Hear it and decide for yourself. I will not play the Let’s-Pit-Analogue-Sound-Against-Digital-Sound Game here. What I will say unequivocally is that in the ESS chip, digital has moved dramatically closer to the qualities sought in great sound reproduction by analogue lovers. I encourage vinyl-philes to give a listen and see for themselves. Which direction would I point an analogue junkie if he/she had to suffer with digital? Right in the direction of components with the ESS 9018 chip, and in my limited experience with it the Minimax as one superb expression of it.

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