How does the DAVE stack against other state-of-the-art DACs?

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All equipment was attached to a PS Audio P10 Power Plant.

Setup:

  • 1 TB SATA Drive USB -> Lumin S1 -> Audience AU24 SE Balanced XLRs -> Simaudio Moon Neo 430HA -> Stock Abyss cable -> Abyss headphones
  • Shunyata Alpha Zitron Digital PC & cheap USB cable from MSI GS40 laptop -> DAVE -> Kimber Silver Streak w/Ultraplate -> Simaudio Moon Neo 430HA -> Stock Abyss cable -> Abyss headphones
  • MSI GS40 laptop -> Chord SilverPlus USB -> W4S Recovery + Teradak Linear PSU -> Chord Hugo TT -> Kimber Silver Streak w/WBT-0147 -> Simaudio Moon Neo 430HAD -> Stock Abyss cable -> Abyss headphones
  • MSI GS40 laptop -> Chord SilverPlus USB -> W4S Recovery + Teradak Linear PSU -> Alpha USB -> Berkeley Alpha Reference –> Audience AU24 SE XLRs -> Simaudio Moon Neo 430HAD -> Stock Abyss cable -> Abyss headphones

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Vs. Chord Hugo TT

  • For many tracks, it does sound like they’re from the same family with a very similar sound signature but that’s where it ends.
  • Much flatter than the DAVE and the Lumin S1
  • A bit more sterile/analytical sounding compared to both the S1 and DAVE.
  • I feel the Lumin S1 to be a much better sounding DAC vs the TT. The TT sounds a bit artificial in comparison.
  • For some studio recordings, they sound similar. For others, they sound like completely different recordings.
  • DAVE gives you an accurate sense of space and time. Amazing.

In the end, the TT just can’t compete with the DAVE or Lumin S1. It just lacks the energy, sparkle, visceral impact, and air. That said, it’s still a great sounding DAC, especially at this price. If you isolate the TT, you think to yourself “How does it get better than this?” then you plug in a DAVE/Lumin and have your mind blown.

With live recordings the DAVE kills it. Very visceral and impactful compared to the TT. It’s better in every way. DAVE is more dynamic, more holographic, more even-handed, accurate, and precise. The TT carries the same DNA but seems to hit a dynamic ceiling and can’t achieve the same amount of sharpness and refinement to give a clean sense of delineation and separation.

DAVE = “You’re there” and Hugo TT = “This song sounds really good”

msb-analog

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Vs. Aqua Hifi La Scala MK2, MSB Analog w/Quad USB

  • I didn’t have these DACs for a side-by-side comparison but I did have an in-home audition with both for a few weeks. Against the Lumin S1’s DAC, the MSB Analog is better. Long story short, I don’t think an A/B is required as I found the DAVE to something entirely different. You really don’t realize how much depth and realism is missing from the recordings until you hear the DAVE.
  • I found the La Scala to be an extremely detailed and borderline bright DAC (Stock). It caused a bit of fatigue on my setup but it’s obvious it’s a fantastic sounding DAC, especially at that price point. It’s technically better than the Chord Hugo TT in some respects but my ears still preferred the Chord. It just had a more even-handed presentation that was easier and more enjoyable to listen to.

Lumin

Vs. Lumin S1

Streaming from Roon to the Lumin with my Asus wireless bridge produced a lower quality sound so I duplicated the exact music files onto both my laptop for the DAVE and on a USB disk for the Lumin S1. This meant I used the Lumin app on the iPad instead of Roon. The sound of the same files played directly from the Lumin’s USB sounds much more dynamic and tight (as opposed of streaming the same file over Roon). Roon was used for playback on DAVE.

  • The Lumin had a bit more low-end presence and weight but the DAVE had tighter control.
  • The Lumin S1 is much flatter. The DAVE sounds a lot more holographic.
  • I have to say…the Lumin S1 does sound like an end-game DAC. I’m sure the engineers actually listen to their design. Very natural, realistic, and addictive sound.
  • The Lumin seems to have a little more meat to the bones vs DAVE. Warmer for sure.
  • The DAVE is far more transparent than the Lumin. The Lumin has that fun organic bloom, soothing vocals, kinda reminds me of the Berkeley Alpha Reference. It’s very seductive. The Lumin sounds colored but in a good way.
  • The DAVE is very delicate and has much more realistic levels for the players in the recording. There’s no over-emphasis on any part of the spectrum, feels like you’re there with the band. The Lumin doesn’t have that effect but is musical.
  • Lumin S1 = mid-forward, DAVE = balanced & realistic

I enjoy the low-end presence of the Lumin S1. It really does gives the performers a warm body. It has this yummy organic bloom. It has good low-end atmospherics and does most things well. I could imagine most getting a Lumin S1 and being done with it. It really does sound fantastic.

The DAVE is like a window to the music…without the window. I don’t think the artists or sound engineers even realize how much detail is actually in these recordings. The DAVE not only delivers on the detail but does it in such an eerie and spooky way. You really don’t know transparency until you listen to the DAVE. The DAVE is much more resolving, you could hear the air and reverb around the snares and drums and guitars in crazy microscopic detail. The Lumin presents the general sound but the DAVE gives it to you raw. After listening to the difference between these DACs, if you’re just looking for something that sounds good, the Lumin is a fantastic choice. It does most things well (“good enough”). But if you want to hear the song exactly how it was recorded without missing the details, DAVE can’t be beat. The ability for it to resolve transients and even vocal and resonances cues is amazing. Timing! Even during objective listening, you don’t think about the technicalities of the music…you just hear a genuine rendition of musical truth.

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Having heard/owned a few high-end DACs such as the Chord Hugo TT, Lumin S1, MSB Analog, and Aqua HiFi La Scala, I wanted to step it up a few notches.

The Berkeley Alpha Reference DAC is regarded by some to be the best sounding DAC, regardless of price. I know a few who even prefer it over the DCS or MSB Select II stack. Who knows?

Vs. Berkeley Alpha Reference DAC

  • What the Berkeley does well is coherence, tight organics, and very natural sounding female vocals. Reminds me of the Lumin S1, but much better.
  • The DAVE has something that can’t be corrected with higher quality components and that’s a realistic sense of space, timing, depth, and air. It was more tonally balanced where there wasn’t a star of the show. The sound also has this richness to it. Whether you want that or not, up to you. For me it was almost like a Mojo vs Chord Hugo comparison. Euphonic vs Accurate.
  • Overall in this comparison, I felt the Berkeley was more smeared while the DAVE had more of an outline for each component of the song, as well as it’s own acoustic space. Layering (partially due to the DAVE’s amazing capability of portraying depth so well) was also much better on the DAVE.
  • DAVE I felt also had more accurate imaging. The Berkeley felt a bit congested at times and I couldn’t quite get a sense of how big or small or how far each player was in the recording. With the DAVE you get this immediate eerie sense of space and resonance.
  • The DAVE is also more resolving and better textured. During fast transients, it does not falter.
  • The descriptors “delicate but accurate” popped into my head on almost all recordings with the DAVE. I guess this could be condensed into “faithful.”
  • You can’t really hear the faults of the Berkeley until you do a direct comparison with the DAVE. You get more details on the vocals and it leads to a more emotional experience.
  • The only fault I found was a bit of a glassiness on the treble for the DAVE. I have a feeling it’s the Abyss cable. I didn’t get any bit of this harshness with the Berkeley.
  • Those who prefer a warmer sound would like the Berkeley more…but it doesn’t make up for the holographic sound you get from the DAVE. You could actually picture in your head the size, distance, and movement of the pieces in the recording. Whether it be a piano hit or a strum of a guitar. You really don’t know much more immersive your recordings could sound. Ignorance is bliss applies heavily here.
  • DAVE excelled with live recordings…as well as studio recordings. At a minimum, you still get a slightly better sense of layering not only due to its ability to present depth but timing and acoustic cues.
  • Now I get what is meant by timing. Everything has it’s own resonances and reverb in space and time. When a drum hits, it should bounce along the walls of the venue or studio. The Berkeley had a difficult time conveying this realistically. You get an “idea” but the DAVE shows you exactly how the sound reflected off the walls.

The Berkeley Alpha Reference is an incredible DAC. FWIW it sounded MUCH better than the MSB Analog and Lumin S1. It just has this natural presentation that draws you into the music. The only gripe I had with the DAVE was this harsh glare in the treble. I don’t hear this with the Lumin S1 or Berkeley. I’m not sure if it’s because the DAVE is so transparent it exposes the treble bump on the Abyss or if the Berkeley just does a better job at painting a more realistic picture for female/male vocals. One thing is apparent however, the DAVE does everything else better.

So if I had to pick one, it’s obvious from the “raw notes” below which one I would choose. The DAVE just redefined what I thought was a holographic and transparent sound. You hear so much detail while maintaining a balanced and realistic presentation. It’s delicate but firm and faithful to the recording in ways I never thought possible. If you’ve ever experienced a movie in Dolby Atmos where all the speakers are discrete and carefully positioned, the DAVE was like that. All other DACs sound like a decent 5.1 setup. The DAVE is by far the best DAC that has ever graced these 34 year old ears.

The tears exploding from my face while my body trembled with seizure-like fervor as this DAC transported me back to a time in my youth when Inga, the lovely exchange student from Austria gave me my first kiss. – Romaz

Yes, Roy.

Raw Notes for TT/Lumin:

The Modern Jazz Quartet – Belkis (24/192)

  • DAVE
    • Could be the balanced output of the Lumin but a bit more low-end off the lumin. It could also be the DAVE just has a tighter contorl of the bass.
    • Lumin much flatter, not as much dimension, roundedness
    • DAVE a lot more holographic. sounds like a different song on the Lumin.
    • Lumin is more forward, warmer, more sub-bass presence. Lumin does sound quite nice. I could see many being happy with this.
    • Lumin seems to have more body.
  • TT
    • vs. DAVE
      • Much flatter, but I do hear some of the DAVE’s DNA.
      • Not as much visceral impact as the other two.
      • Not as much meat around the bones on the TT
      • For this recording, the DAVE sounds like the TT with a holographic touch and more realsim, clarity, and energy. TT sounds a bit dull in comparison.
      • Low-end on the DAVE much tighter. Much much more musical and engaging.Warm bodies.
    • vs. Lumin
      • The Lumin wipes the floor with the TT.
      • A lot more realism, more 3D, more warmth, more like music. TT sounds flat as a pancake in comparison.
      • I like the sub-bass presence more on the Lumin than the other two.
      • the TT doesn’t have that snap, crackle, and pop.
      • TT sounds a bit compressed, not dynamic, kinda soft and gentle. Not energetic.
      • TT = matter of fact with no fun. Strict teacher. Very detailed though.
      • Doesn’t sound like a live performance, no depth.
      • Lumin is a bit fuzzier around the edges but sounds more real than the TT

Norah Jones – Come Away With Me (24/192)

  • The Lumin is much better sounding than the TT. TT has a bit of a artificial tinge to it.
  • The more I listen to the Lumin the more I think this could be a great end-game DAC in the top 1%.
  • The Chord’s do have a similar sound for this track.
  • The Lumin has much better warmth than the other two, very organic and natural sounding IMO.

Madonna – Holiday (24/192)

  • The DAVE is much more holographic and engaging than the TT but you could hear the signature. Like watching a movie in stereo or in surround sound.
  • DAVE has a better low-end response than the TT
  • DAVE more realistic than TT
  • Lumin is mid-forward. The chords have a blacker background.
  • Lumin does sound pretty good, good PRaT, just not as holographic as the DAVE.
  • DAVE has better resolution over all, more detail in the vocals and more rounded.
  • Lumin is flatter in general. DAVE sounds like it’s her real voice, not flat, just her, raw. It sounds liek the Lumin does its best though.

Metallica – Unforgiven (24/96)

  • Expand everything out every which way and add realsim, clarity, and delicacy.
  • DAVE timing…pieces together very well. TT sounds a bit 2D and flat, smeared.
  • Lumin has this really delicious organic bloom to the music. Not quite a window into the music but it’s musical.
  • Most ppl would be happy with the Lumin.
  • The thing the Lumin has going for it is that it has, like the Berkeley reference, this cozy/organic aura to it that makes it easy to listen to. Good bass for atmospheric.

DAVE vs. TT

Jesse Cook – Baghdad (Tidal)

  • The TT comes off less energic and more dull but they definitely share the same DNA
  • The DAVE has a much more holographic sound. Lots more energy and precsision.
  • DAVE has more sparkle and better separation.
  • DAVE has better layering, really fun.
  • DAVE handles the transients better.
  • At the 3:00 part with the rapid drums, the TT doesn’t have that visceral impact and air.
  • DAVE just sounds more 3D, it sounds so good you don’t really think about the technicals while with the TT you could pull each piece part.
  • DAVE gives you a much better sense of the arena, I can’t even sense it with the TT.
  • They do have a similar tonality but the DAVE is quite a giant leap from the TT.

Coldplay – Adventure of a Lifetime (24/192)

  • Running into some issues with Roon and 24/192 with the TT.
  • Might be a bug with windows + roon, going back to 16/44

Celine Dion – My Heart Will Go On (24/88)

  • Much better dynamics and extension on the DAVE.
  • TT sounds almost like a radio quality voice in comparison, flat.
  • Much more air around her voice on the DAVE.
  • That extra bit of dimension helps differentiate from listening to a good recording and one that you don’t you don’t think about and just take as truth.

Blubell & Black Tie – Those Were The Days (Tidal)

  • TT much flatter but similar tonality, just without the same amount of resolution as DAVE
  • Much more clearer outline on the DAVE. TT a bit more fuzzy around the edges of the players.
  • TT a bit more dull and soft.
  • TT sounds really flat with fuzzier delineation

Eminem – Love the Way You Lie (Tidal)

  • This song, both DACs sound very similar. Tonality.
  • TT still much flatter
  • TT just lacks that rounded off sound but still sounds good.
  • DAVE better layering
  • Differences aren’t as obvious with this song.

Mahler – Finale Session BFO (DSD64)

  • With this track, the TT cannot touch the DAVE, not even close.
  • With the DAVE you could hear the acoustic space perfectly along with the acoustic space around each instrument.
  • On the TT, it just sounds really flat…just a bunch of instruments playing…and a bit congested.
  • I cannot stress how different this sounds on the DAVE, it’s almost like an entirely different song.
  • With the DAVE you get exact placements in 3D space. So delicate but accurate and even.

Kiesza – Cut Me Loose (Tidal)

  • Not only is the TT flatter, it just doesn’t have that rounded sound in all directions. Voices are flat in comparison to the DAVE.
  • TT hits a dynamic ceiling

Lindsey Stirling – Shatter Me (Tidal)

  • Tonality is similar in the sense that one is not warmer or cooler than the other.
  • FWIW, DAC direct to the DAVE sounds much more transparent, detailed, resolving, timing is amazing, clarity, etc. everything. Don’t use an amp. It sounds like it lifts a few more veils.
  • At this point, it’s obviously the TT and DAVE have the same DNA as the tonality is very similar, it’s hard to pick out the differences with studio recordings, but they’re there. The DAVE is not only more refined but presents a holographic image that I haven’t heard from any DAC.
  • When going from the TT first, you can’t help but to think “Man can it really sound better than this?” This DAC sounds great to my ears. Then you switch to the DAVE and your get your mind blown.
  • Seems like with pop and hip-hop the differences are difficult to differentiate, they sound almost the same. However, once you plug it into the DAVE directly, your world changes even further.

Taylor Swift – Everything Has Changed (16/44)

  • The differences are subtle but there. Not as extreme as the DSD recordings.
  • Recording dependent.

Raw Notes for Berkeley Alpha Reference

Berkeley Alpha Reference

  • Runs very cool but heavy

Patricia Barber – Nardis (24/192)

  • DAVE
    • Maaan…holy crap. Talk about delicate mixed with holographic.
    • Transparency is insane.
    • You could distinctly hear the different players, with their own space. They don’t step on each other’s toes. The bass doesn’t bleed into the other instruments.
    • Sounds like a live performance.
    • I’ve wondered if the DAVE artificially adds this depth..but it’s clear from this song that it’s how it supposed to sound.
    • Each hit of the piano keys, tap of a cymbal, is delineated. Insane.
    • Reverb and timing makes it sound so realistic.
    • Much more even-handed and balanced presentation. On the Berk, emphasis was on the piano, as if it were the star player, especially at the 3:30 mark.
  • Berkeley
    • Sounds like a smeared mess compared to the DAVE.
    • Too flat to be engaging.
    • Warmer
    • Instruments are smeared and lack dimensionality in comparison. Sounds like it’s missing a few hits of the piano keys. You don’t really hear the reverb of the individual presses. With the DAVE you could even hear the strength at which the key was struck. Insane.

Patricia Barber – The Thrill is Gone (24/192)

  • DAVE
    • Holographic presentation
    • Piano has its own space while the other players have their own space
    • Listening to the DAVE opens up the entire space, silences the background between the players completely, and just transports you to the recording.
    • Instruments have this clarity and accuracy to them. They sound more real and more detailed.
  • Berkeley
    • Warmer and smoother, but it’s more difficult to hear the separation of the cymbals and piano.
    • Sounds good but you don’t realize how much of the dynamics are missing until you hear the DAVE.
    • Her voice is still pretty smooth, organic bloom here but it blends in with the rest of the instruments. DAVE gives you an outline. compared to DAVE but DAVE has an incredible amount of clarity.

Colbie Caillat – Never Gonna Let You Down (16/44)

  • DAVE
    • MUCH blacker background, separation is insane.
    • Low-end is MUCH better, much more engaging, good energy
    • Sounds a bit brighter on this RCA arrangment
    • Everything has its own space
    • Tighter bass, way tighter, rounded and clear
    • Layering is amazing
    • So much more atmospherics and energy
    • They sound completely different, invidivudla space, quiet background
    • Cleaner presentation
    • Much bigger soundstage
  • Berkeley
    • A very natural sounding DAC
    • Vocals are smoother than DAVE, DAVE harsh at times
    • Flatter for dam sure, instruments are on the same plane
    • Treble comes in hot on the DAVE sometimes. Her voice has a bit of a edgy tinge.
    • A very smooth presentation, vocals are more natural sounding and easier to listen to but all the details of the voices are heard through the DAVE.
    • Sounds a bit closed in and congested compared to DAVE. the DAVE lets the music’s hair down.

Coldplay – Hymn for a Weekend (24/192)

  • DAVE
    • You could sense the size of the singer, there’s a natural outline
    • More tonally balanced
    • The intro with the birds chirping was pretty amazing, you could hear the different levels. As Beyonce’s voice gets louder, you could hear her gradually approach from afar (depth) where was on the Berkeley, it sounded more like the levels were being increased.
  • Berkeley
    • Layering isn’t as good. Actually, flat in comparison.
    • Overall, this is a great DAC, it does sound incredible. The warm overtones helps makes it more euphonic.

Kiesza – Cut Me Loose (Tidal HiFi)

  • DAVE
    • For some reason, there’s a bit of harshness to the vocals, a little difficult to listen to. Same with crossfeed 0. Could be Abyss cable and the extreme transparency of DAVE?
    • More dynamic. Extreme extension on the upper-mids.
    • More resolving, detailed, transparent. Her emotion is easily deciphered. More detail in the vocals. Berkeley sounds a bit too smooth in comparison. Different levels in her voice could be heard.
    • You could hear the reverb in the recording space much clearer. You could hear it bouncing off the area more. Accurate decay.
    • Piano and vocal separation is clean.
  • Berkeley
    • Vocals are easier to listen to. Very natural sounding.
    • Smooth and euphonic.
    • Dynamic range seems to be more constricted in comparison.
    • Sounds veiled in comparison to the DAVE, lots more detail of the space and everywhere.
    • Her voice sounds a bit compressed in comparison. The echo from the space isn’t as clearly recognized.
    • Not as emotive.

Adele – Can’t Let Go (16/24)

  • DAVE
    • Much more emotional. You could hear every detail of her carrying a pitch and exhaling. You could hear her energy exerted.
    • I do still hear a bit of the edginess/grain on the vocals though.
    • Extremely detailed.
    • Window into the music.
    • Much more air around her voice.
    • Higher energy.
    • Much more resolving. Micro-details are made apparent.
  • Berkeley
    • Sounds a bit dynamically constrained in comparison.
    • The DAVE has a bigger sound in general. More height?
    • More grounded sound. Cohesive. Smears some micro-details in her voice I didn’t even know were there but imagined they were.

Dave Brubeck – Time Out (24/96)

  • DAVE
    • Really shines with higher-res, good recordings.
    • Not sure if crossfeed is on?
    • True test of depth and space. Almost creepy.
    • Capabilities of the DAVE is realized here.
    • There’s an immediate delicacy, immediacy, and accuracy with this DAC.
    • More even-handed, no player overpowers another.
    • You could hear the sound drum slams hit the wall at the right time. The reverb. 2:30
    • Bass tighter
    • Nothing is overemphasized
    • The reverb on the space is so eerie. So much more realistic than the Berkeley.
  • Berkeley
    • Does not convey the sense of space. Not even close.
    • Much warmer, not a bad sound…just doesn’t sound real?
    • Sounds “heavier”, meatier
    • Very flat, piano and drums on same plane. Piano way to the right.
    • Doesn’t realistically place the players.
    • Could be the crossfeed on the DAVE but the reverb from the drum slaps don’t fill the space to the left channel.

Daft Punk – Get Lucky (24/88.2)

  • DAVE
    • Warmer sound…surprisingly.
    • Tons of micro-detail on the intro guitars. Meatier textures.
    • Both sound fairly flat. Studio mix.
  • Berkeley
    • Oddly enough, this song sounds better on the Berkeley for some reason. Blacker background, more sparkle.

Jesse Cook – Baghdad (Live, Tidal)

  • DAVE
    • Just crisper and tighter
    • You get an immediate sense of space.
    • The amount of detail and texture you get from the guitars is so amazing, I didn’t even know that information was there. The Berkeley doesn’t even come close.
    • The audience sounds more properly distanced, immersive
    • The DAVE is accurate and extremely precise. Delicate keeps coming up in my impressions. Even-handiness.
  • Berkeley
    • Can’t compete with the quick transients of the pluckings in the intro of this song. It sounds like a smeared mess.
    • You have no clue how much detail you’re missing on the strums.
    • There’s a sense of grace and elegance during some passages that is missed completely on the Berkeley but is fully embodied on the DAVE.
    • It has a very difficult time conveying space of the venue but also the reverb and natural resonances of the guitar.

Taylor Swift – Style (16/44)

  • DAVE
    • Better separation
    • Clarity
  • Berkeley
    • Smooth and warm
    • Flat

A Way – Lotte Kestner (Tidal)

  • DAVE
    • I still hear a bit of that grain on the female vocals
    • Definitely more micro-details.
    • A sense of clarity, layering, and higher dynamics
    • Better extension on both ends
  • Berkeley
    • Sweet, warmer, organic bloom, sound, not dark
    • It does sound pretty good anyway, not as much detail in voice but that’s OK.

Ask About Me – Ice Cube

  • DAVE
    • Better coherency
    • Much better confidence and tighter and weightier low-end
    • Realistic vocals
    • More detail in the sub-bass
  • Berkeley
    • A little lean/thin
    • Flat, not as engaging

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Does the DAVE sound better with an external headphone amplifier?


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