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Audio Note UK Fifth Element/Fifth Force DAC Review

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Whether you are a tone-phile or a resolution-phile determines if an Audio Note UK DAC is right for you. While Dagogo is about providing “A unique audiophile experience,” Audio Note UK is about being “Music’s Finest Conductor.”

Audio Note UK owner Peter Qvortrup’s relentless drive to uphold Audio Note UK’s motto involves development of custom components frequently of conductivity superior to those commercially available. His is on a perpetual race of reexamining and reconstituting every element in the design of his products, both analog and digital. In the analog domain, he has broken down the analog playback system to its basest elements and then via the most forward thinking in its playback, developed such revolutionary concepts as the three-motor TT3 turntable system, a cartridge externally energized using principles of the field-coil generator technology, and speakers employing powerful AlNiCo tweeters, woofers, exotic crossover components with only two drivers for spectral coherency, for instance.

But Audio Note UK’s incursions into the digital realm is even more ambitious and extreme.

Peter believes many audiophiles and music lovers throughout generations never gave up their LP and CD collections. I am one of them as I have precious music on CDs and LPs not remastered and reissued in SACD or high-res formats to this day. Hence, despite that fact that high-resolution streaming of 24-bit 96 KHz audio quality and higher proliferate the times in which we listen to our music, the $153,000 Audio Note UK Fifth Element/Fifth Force DAC, subject of this review, employs one single 18-bit Analog Devices 1865 DAC chip circa 1999 instead. Thus, the FEFF is limited to the decoding of music signals as far as 24-bit, 96 KHz in resolution. But the DAC is currently Peter’s ultimate expression in digital playback.

Per Neli Davis of Audio Federation, the ANUK dealership in Palo Alto, CA from whom the review sample was sourced, “The cost of this Level Five (or Six, depending on how you look at it) digital to analogue converter is in line with the cost of other Level Five and Six products from ANUK.

A full Level Five / Six digital only system appropriate for use with the Fifth Element will, in general, cost between half a million and 1.25 million USD, depending on system specifics and complexity; for example, using an Ongaku integrated amplifier with the Fifth Element and suitable AN-E loudspeakers would be an incredibly simple system, appropriately matched and quite compact. A more fully fleshed system with the highest Level Six pieces will have a higher cost. In Audio Federation’s experience with Audio Note UK, when we pay more, we most certainly receive an appropriately higher level of musical reproduction. System costs include appropriate power and signal cables.”

Still, can a digital converter using a single vintage DAC chip be superior sonically to the latest flagships of other makes utilizing the likes of AKM 35-bit chipsets?

ANUK cannot be expecting bounteous sales on a $150,000 DAC. Apart from the rarity of such customers, suffice it to say only a handful of manufacturers can afford to develop such a machine, and no one would do so without empowering the machine to perform digital wizardry of the highest order and precision, packing it chock full of features, and then encasing it in rarefied, stupendous museum grade chassis. Great presence must compliment great spending. Unless you are like Peter and have a vast R&D budget in developing machines of ultimate, definitive performance via application of uber-rare and expensive parts even without first sighting of a single interested buyer, it is inadvisable and futile to attempt such endeavor. Then again, fortune favors the bold. (At the time of publish, Peter just informed me they have sold 31 Ffith Element/Sixth Force system thus far with another 2 on order. Each system takes over 100 hours to make. –Pub.)

Knowing Peter since 1999, I’ve observed his company’s increasing excursions into the exotic high-end, amidst some other brands that charged similarly exuberant amounts, albeit on products clad in expensive chassis. Unlike others, however, he directs his teams to build products using standard chassis materials. Such unconventional frugality underlines his priorities. Audio Note UK preamplifiers and digit-to-analog converters are often nothing to look at on the outside other than a black enclosure with aluminum faceplates. We can fancy an alternate reality in which Peter would imitate some examples in the industry where resources are allocated to hire an industrial designer and fabricate a construct worthy of the Louvre for his top products, all for an equally complimentary uptake of, say, 50% of the total cost. But knowing Peter all these years, he and a small group of companies enjoy opening up the sheet metal cover of their products and showcasing the quality of parts and workmanship in them and not the extravagance in chassis metallurgy or the skills of his aluminum millman or the industrial grade supremely expensive milling machines. He doesn’t follow trends or deviates from accomplishing what he believes is a solid return for his customer’s investment, flagship or otherwise. (Per Neli of Audio Federation, ANUK has an in-house automotive booth, big enough to park a car, that furnishes automotive faceplate finishes on a per-order basis. –Pub.)

His preamplifiers, amplifiers and digital converters are all built around vacuum tube amplification stages and the FEFF is unique in that it uses a tube input buffer configured “with a tiny input transformer,” quoting Peter. For the DACs, ANUK builds twelve models ranging from the $1,797 DAC 0.1x to the $17,045 DAC 4.1x Balanced and the new, $53,045 DAC 5 Special, and they are all based on chipsets of yore, such as the Philips 16 bit TDA1543 for the DAC 0.1x, and the Analog Devices AD1865 18 bit chip for all the other, upper models. All ANUK DACs decode signals up to 24 bit 96 KHz, features only one coaxial digital input and two pairs of RCA outputs. Transformer coupled XLR outputs are standard on the “Balanced” editions. The review sample was of the Balanced edition. The company’s top two CD transports employ a matching input output buffer with the tiny output transformer, constituting a “far superior” match supposedly with the FEFF than anything else.

In the years following my ownership of the then $19,000 Audio Note UK DAC 5 Special in early 2000, I auditioned a dozen or so DACs of other makes across a wide price range and found more similarities than distinctions from one model to the next. A few of them employed the increasingly ubiquitous and expensive Asahi Kasei AKM series of chipsets for DSD decoding and USB connectivity, some others adopted the Cirrus Logic variants, and etc. ANUK intensified efforts on a series of technical innovations instead that would culminate in the creation of the Galahad Power Supply.

Peter and company are a rare phenomena, because their cost-no-object execution dwarves the attempts of the next company in all parameters of considerations. For the cost-no-object designs by their competitions all have a default point at which the influx of R&D resources is stopped before the product is deemed unsellable due to ever escalating costs. Audio Note UK harbors no such restraint. As evidenced in its product history, it will continue to pour resources into refining a product no holds barred. Thus, the mighty DAC 5 is further developed into the two-chassis Fifth Element/Fifth Force at three times the cost.

Audio Note UK custom manufactures its own parts for its own amplification and digital systems. The scope and depth of the company’s design and manufacturing capability is partially expressed through its official, published list of 75 pages of parts for sale. Naturally, the most coveted section of this list, to the end user, is arguably page 65, where a list of 211-T, 300B, NOS 45, AN-branded 4242E-211 and 4300E-300B tubes is published, with the proviso that “More valves are available on request.” Other treasures include AN SOOTTO interconnects (page 5), AN SOGON LX96 speaker cables (page 7), AlNiCo Magnet 1-inch dome tweeter (page 63)! Even I, not a DIYer, am drooling over the fully discrete, a gem of a £1,265 47K 36-Step Stereo Attenuator (page 66). The ambition of Audio Note UK for absolute superiority is palpable.

4 Responses to Audio Note UK Fifth Element/Fifth Force DAC Review

  1. Ido says:

    A good review but the price is beyond ridiculous….
    Try to review more affordable gear as not many have 153k to spend on DAC.

  2. Mike Rubey says:

    The price *is* beyond ridiculous. Still, I appreciate that you were able to acquire it for review. I find unobtainium fascinating. Thank you.

  3. DJS says:

    Fascinating review Thanks… Audio Note UK definitely charting their own path! Likely they will influence many creative minds moving forward due to their ability to sell extreme gear! Looking at their amps hardly inspires but for the beautiful fact that they are obviously well built and understated with form following function. Kondo has influenced Qvortrup and many others with his single ended triode amps with select materials (silver). I have some E speakers I dearly love influenced by the Snells. I am shocked by Peter’s courage to stick to this ole dac chip from 1999 and applaud his ability to sell 150,000 USD DACs based on it! I am building an ANKits 4.1 Dac and have an up sampling dac that is very detailed and able to decode higher bit rates and DSD. Audio Note’s focus on developing parts and interest in musicality above fad is inspiring. Someone buying this gear, can hand it down to their children, and with the replacement of some tubes and capacitors the gear will continue to sing. This smartphone I am tapping this comment on… in a few years will be obsolete… like much of the extreme computer gear now made, as this stuff can hardly be worker on. My hats off to the artists strutting their stuff at Audio Note Uk. Truly inspiring! DJS

  4. Edwin Maas says:

    The price may be rediculous BUT there is nothing comparable to it.
    People at AN worked for years on it.
    They dont sell huge amounts of these type of machines.
    A Patek Philippe ( hope i got that name right ) is also rediculous when you compare it to a Swatch, but then again …..

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