NOS DAC Journey - SW1X DAC III STd


I wanted to share the journey I recently took in search of something which was missing from my sound. Earlier in 2018 I had purchased a replacement amp + preamp (SST Thoebe II and Son of Ampzilla 2) and yet felt there was a thinness remaining that bothered me. My speakers (Philharmonic Audio Phil 3 are full range and very flat to around 25 Hz) and are not known to be described as “thin” anywhere in the mid bass regions.

Disclaimer:

I have often wondered about the many debates regarding cables, whether amplifiers sound different/same, etc. So when I write about an experience it truly is applicable only to me and I am never in any way saying another person’s experiences are not valid for them. I figure we all see colors differently and we all smell scents differently, we taste the same foods differently, so it stands to reason we probably hear the same sounds differently. Just trying to say I am not seeking a debate about cables, etc.

I changed most of my cables (ICs and speaker cables) and for me this resulted in a noticeable improvement. Yet…… something was still missing. And I am truly NOT the type who “squints” his ears trying to find every little bitty nuance I can find. I enjoy listening to music and falling into the sound. So the missing whatever was very easy to sense.

I listen primarily through a music player/streamer (Atoll MS-100) and FLAC files stored on locally attached media. I had a CD player (Esoteric K-07) and it also showed the same “thinness”. I was using the esoteric DAC for my Atoll but also listened using the Atoll DAC and the DAC built into the ThoebeII. While each DAC sounded uniquely different the thinness remained.

One day I read about the Denafrips Terminator DAC and I got really interested in discovering more about it. It seemed to be well regarded leading me to wonder if perhaps I should try a different DAC. The Terminator had no options for me to hear it without full purchase and given the price tag I did not feel the risk was worth it. But this was where I first saw the acronym “NOS”.

At some point in my reading I saw some posts made by Ron aka Wig about a NOS DAC he had bought and the very favorable experiences he had . I’ll spare all the details but his posts led me to emailing him followed by me emailing Dr Slawa Roschkow  (http://sw1xad.co.uk/products/) . He responded quickly to my emails and explained things very well. I still remember vividly one of his early responses when I mentioned a competitor’s model and he asked succinctly “why would you want a DAC with filtering when you could listen to one without oversampling and filtering “ (not a direct quote.

Dr Slawa offers a generous in-home trial period without risk and his many emails along with corresponding with Ron helped me to wrap my brain around what Slawa was saying and what he was building. And I certainly am not going to suggest other DACs are not good, not great, superb, etc. But I was very curious about someone building a DAC using new but old parts, keeping things 16 bit and non-oversampled/filtered, It sounds crazy on the surface.

But I also had experience in the past when In created oversampled FLAC files via software and really disliked the sound that resulted. I wanted an accurate reproduction of what was actually recorded. Most of what I listen to is live recordings. While the various DACs I owned played clearly with great detail, etc. they never gave me the sense of being “Live!”. The Esoteric I had owned was the best DAC of my lot but I had sold it.

I decided to purchase an SW!X DAC III Std, the same model Ron had purchased. All of its technical details are on Dr Slawa’s website. Production of mine took about 8 weeks and it arrived late in the day on Christmas Eve. That night I connected things and powered it up, wanting to let it burn in for a few hours before listening. Which I did on Christmas morning.

There are times I read reviews from people and sense perhaps they are somewhat over the top regarding how huge the sound stage has become, etc. etc. So, I try to buffer my adjectives to ensure the words are accurate and that I stay within some degree of reality.

The first notes I heard were simply unreal. It was not lacking in detail in any sense of the word but the detail was not grainy, bright, or boring. I want to hear music, not notes. With my previous DACs background music tended to be very detailed yet more or less like a mono wall. Guitars, pianos, etc. were all there but most played at the same volume. With the DAC III each instrument was present but played as it had originally been played. Decay sounds were incredible. Live music sounded live, as if I were there in the place it was recorded. The sound structure of the music now had many layers, each blending while remaining distinct. And this was at the very beginning.

Over the next 3 weeks I noticed “step changes”. One night I was very focused on my main hobby (digital photography), totally engrossed in editing a photo in photoshop and I suddenly stopped what I was doing. My ears said WOW. I had to stop and listen. A song I had heard 90,000 times before suddenly caught my attention.

I am playing a live guitar solo by Patty Larkin as I am typing this and thinking how wonderful it sounds. Is funny hearing a 16 bit Redbook recording sounding so real. The sounds are without words to be honest. It just sounds live as it should sound. And the thinness? What thinness? Everything plays full these days.

It honestly took me a while to wrap my mind around the concept of NOS and being filterless and that it could actually sound this good. And I am not saying those who enjoy DSD, MQX, etc. should do anything differently. If it works, enjoy it. But for anyone wanting digital to sound a bit more like a really good turntable, or perhaps they feel their music is missing something I would very much suggest reading about NOS DACs and what they can do. Slawa has DACs priced at multiple price points to fit many budgets, and with his 14 day in home trial period the risk is low.

I do know I am enjoying music as I never have before. And I am not using phrases such as huge soundstage and so on. It goes beyond that. Even though the detail is very very high I am now simply immersed in the music and not “squinting” to hear if something sounds different. Music now sounds like music and is a joy to listen to. I would type even more but this Patty Larkin recording is begging me to sit back, close my eyes, and join the crowd. John


DR Slawa has a lot of information regarding his work on his web site. 


jdavis37
Awesome review and an Outstanding DAC!

Wig :)
I like this... new technology, in my opinion, doesnt mean better. The guitar amps I play are 40+ years old... the tone and feel are better than the new technology by MILES...
Wig,

Agree to outstanding DAC.. without your original post and subsequent emails I most likely would never have discovered this one. And for me it proved to be the "it" that was missing. Words do fail to describe what I am hearing but without question the music is simply alive, and the sounds simply "make sense" to my ears. While the soundstage is deep and wide and all the usual things we desire in music, it is actually more in the sense I refer to the sound as "layered", and it unfolds as it is meant to while I am falling into it. Smooth while retaining all the detail yet never bright harsh grainy, or flat.
Cap,

Exactly. A lot of stereo gear made in the 1970s and early 870s were made like the gear we now pay a king's ransom to own. And while I will never say old definitely means better, but there is something beautiful about equipment made with the advances offered by time while using components made in the yesteryear. Elegant simplicity. In the end it comes down to what sounds good versus what is impressive on paper. 
They look very nice. Can’t seem to find a price list
I looked into this dac as I am a NOS fan. The only reason I am not purchasing it, is that it’s not a balanced dac and my system is fully balanced (no se inputs on my preamp). But by all accounts, this seems like a magical piece of music making equipment. Congrats!
tlong, the price list can be found here:

http://sw1xad.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/SW1X_UK_price_list_2017.pdf

lordcloud... I somehow lost my first reply which may be of benefit since this one will likely be shorter! I had gotten to know "Wig" on here so I trusted his comments and descriptions. Still, I do know at times people go a bit over the top in their enthusiasm so I wasn't sure how I would respond to Slawa's DAC (Dr Slawa was EXTREMELY helpful before during and after the sale). The first time I listened to music through this DAC I stopped in my tracks. It was just that much different. I thought at first it was a sum total of numerous subtle differences. In time I learned that was wrong. The differences are not subtle at all. Without question foreground vocals and instruments are rich, fluid and detailed.. but the background sounds are really incredible.. each instrument and voice plays at their own individual volumes.. the layers coming together. I am enjoying listening to music I had not listened to in a long while to see and experience the differences. Slawa has built an incredible beast!

I would suggest emailing Dr Slawa and asking if he can build something fully balanced. Mine has RCA and AES/XLR inputs but only RCA outputs. My guess is he can change the outputs but no idea about the fully balanced part. I do truly enjoy this thing!
Too cool, guys!

Far off in the distance and in time, I sense a new entity taking shape; a piece added here, a solder point there, a black face plate, a low serial number....could it be yet another new SW1X DAC III STD being assembled for a needy soul somewhere in the Willamette Valley in <still> beautiful Oregon? Hmm. Yes, I think it is. I can almost hear it...I must remember to breathe slowly and deeply lest I grow dizzy from  anticipation.

Thanks for your help, J and R! 



jdavis37 ;
Very nice review .

This thing sounds pretty nice but is out of my price range !
However the DAC 1 is in my price range .
Has anyone been able to compare the lesser models to the DAC III ?

Thank you .
saki70
Saki, PM wig820 (post above) about the DAC II Std. He also made a good post about the DAC II in this forum a while back.

Dr Slawaw has an excellent upgrade policy as well should you go with a DAC I and later want to upgrade it.

This is a DAC 1 Signature review:

www.hifiwigwam.com/sw1x-audio-design-dac-1-signature-a-review-by-kevin-fiske/

I would suspect there is a strong family resemblance but am just guessing. Dr Slawa actually advised me to start with the Dac II first (I decided to go with the III as I had the money now but who knows about down the road). You could also email Slawa. I believe he will be very forthright about the comparisons.

In hindsight I might have kept my Hegel H300 integrated amp had I bought the DAC III first. This DAC has been the single biggest improvement made to my system. 
jdavis37 ;

Thank you for the review link , a nice little comparison .
Saki,

Most welcome. Buying audio devices based upon what others say is difficult. When I bought my speakers it was actually having never heard them and they were NOT returnable if I did not like. It was very unsettling for me to do that simply because i work hard for my money, save it and cannot afford to waste it. The speakers worked out for me.

Wig helped me feel better about SW1X as did the owner Dr Slawa. I had several emails with Slawa during the evaluation phase and then I truly wrapped my head around the NOS non filtering aspects of his designs. This type of DAC may not be for everybody same as another DAC out there. No one solution fits every person.

At the end of the day the only person something truly matters to is the person making the purchase. How it sounds to them, in their home with their gear. Dr Salwa offers a very risk free home trial period of 14 days. Only risk is shipping costs . With Wig's story and Dr Slawa's emails and web information I felt good about the purchase. When the DAC arrived and I started playing it I realized what the missing thing was I had been hearing, or not hearing however you want to look at it.

I listen almost exclusively to redbook CD music (converted to FLAC). And now I have a device that knows how to make 16 bit 44.1 kHz sound magical. Good luck in your quest and journey, whatever you decide upon. I just know I have not listened to this much music in 25 years and am enjoying hearing music, old and new, for the first time all over again!
>> Too cool, guys!

Far off in the distance and in time, I sense a new entity taking shape; a piece added here, a solder point there, a black face plate, a low serial number....could it be yet another new SW1X DAC III STD being assembled for a needy soul somewhere in the Willamette Valley in <still> beautiful Oregon? Hmm. Yes, I think it is. I can almost hear it...I must remember to breathe slowly and deeply lest I grow dizzy from anticipation.

Thanks for your help, J and R!<<

Oregon, as beautiful as it is in and around the Willamette Valley, is about to become more beautiful when your black faced (identical to mine by the way) DAC III  arrives!

As much as I sincerely try to downplay hype and over the top descriptions where soundstages are in the neighbor's yard and extending upward into the heavens, this darned thing just about does all of that!

One thing Ron has mentioned and I seem to be writing over and again is the proof in the pudding sort of thing.. I simply listen ton music every chance I get. And I have had this thing long enough for new shiny to start to fade.

The other fascinating thing is I had read where many described NOS DACs as lacking some of the detail of their DS counterparts. Of course I want to hear the music and not the individual notes.. but all that said I do not sense I have given up ANY detail. It is there and tibres/resonates in different ways. It always comes back to the layers I sense and how they unfold and play. And I am still willing to gamble Ron's audio system that you will love this thing!
Very interesting and intriguing.  Has anyone compared or have experience both with SW1X versus a comparable Metrum DAC?  Both are high on my radar but no clue how they compare.  Thanks. 
Soix, I hope someone can help with the Metrum feedback. Once I met SW1X at the dance I fell in love and had eyes for no other :) Bad analogy but its late. I have Pink Floyd's The Wall playing now.. old recording and it just sounds.... like I have never heard it before :)

Hopefully a Metrum owner can provide their experiences. I know when I bought my DAC III it felt good knowing Dr Slawa accepts returns in the event it just did not tickle my ear drums. Music at the end of the day is personal to each of us and it has to sound good to us. So it was nice having that reassurance.

But after about 8 seconds of playing the new not burned in DAC III and I knew I had made the right decision for me. It is still changing some and often I'll have something playing while working on something else and I'll just stop and perk up. For me that says something.
I reviewed the II Signature here: https://www.hifi-advice.com/blog/review/digital-reviews/spdif-dac-reviews/sw1x-dac-ii-special/and can only agree with what people are saying. If you look at the site you will see Christain Punter has also reviewed the Level I as well.
I compared it to the Metrum Octave and no contest I am afraid the SW1x  is much better. It has a more a 3D soundstage with the music flowing in a more natural way and it is the antithesis of the usual detailed but paper thin voices/instruments. The SW1x is a real gem of a DAC and if you like what it does Slawa can upgrade it at a later date.

Thanks for the replies.  I was hoping to hear from the perspective of at least the Metrum Onyx or preferably the Pavane Level lll.  I wouldn't expect the Octave to be competitive with the SW1X, and it's not one of their models on my radar.  At some point I have to compare costs between the two as well, but the SW1X seems to do most everything I'd hope for in a DAC.  Really like that there's a trial period -- to me that speaks to confidence in the product.  Thanks again. 
Soix,

The trial period was paramount for me. Some manufacturers don't offer such (and I can understand not wanting to deal with returned merchandise) but given it is difficult to hear things in your own house/system, etc. for me it was too risky to buy something that was mine regardless.

Within minutes of listening to the DAC III I wasn't worried about returning it or wondering what else might be better. The latter can certainly drive a person nuts if they allow it. Dr Slawa was incredible upfront, answered all my questions and concerns, and did his best to explain to me what his philosophies were. As did "Wig" on here (much thanks to both).

Yet it was when I started hearing the music that things made sense. I have had the DAC for about 6 weeks and often will stop what I am doing as my brain has heard something significant. At the end of the day though I find myself listening to music each day for longer than was typical. And it exactly that.. music. I'm not hearing detailed notes, or perceiving thinness in the bass and so on. Old recordings suddenly sound new and alive. I keep hearing "layers" to the music I had not heard before.

Anyhow, it sounds like the DACs you are considering are all nice. Perhaps  aMetrum owner will chime in regarding their return policies and trial periods. I know Dr Slawa offers 14 days and the only risk is shipping costs.

The ability to do future upgrades is also nice. Start with a DAC II Std and it can be future upgraded to a Signature level or DAC III, etc. Good luck!
Thanks @jdavis37.  Everything I'm hearing about this DAC is exactly what I'd be looking for.  I especially appreciate your depiction of how "layers" of sound become more evident and that you focus less on details bet more on the overall presentation of the music.  I frequently find that those DACs that can delineate a believable 3D stage are a bit etched or hyper-detailed in sound, whereas those that are more "musical" or organic sounding tend to gloss over some details or overall transparency.  The SW1X seems to be one of those rare breed of DACs that can get out of the way and actually do both.  To me, this is the holy grail of digital reproduction and I look forward to hearing one in my system.  Unfortunately my amp crapped out, so I have to sort that out first.  Anyway, thanks a lot for the very helpful info!
There's also the NOS Holo Spring dac, which is a very similar dac to the denafrips. I did a review of it here. 
https://www.stereo.net.au/forums/topic/256748-holo-spring-dac-level2-review/?tab=comments#comment-40...

Cheers George
I'm almost positive Metrum allows 30 day trial.

Anjo at Metrum was very helpful with my purchase. 
Soix,

Good luck with your amp.. hopefully isn't anything major! I would say your description of my SW1X DAC is very accurate. It does not hide from detail nor does it smudge over anything. However, first and foremost its focus is musicality and it unravels what was recorded very well. I know I repeat this often but I don't want to sound like a homer nor imply other DACs do not do  a great job. But Dr Slawa's DAC III (and I understand his DAC II is similar) does get out of the way and allows me to hear the music. I do often hear details I had never heard before and placement of those sounds are well positioned. I have enjoyed this journey thoroughly and am enjoying music in new ways.
justjames.. thanks for posting the metrum info for those wanting to hear a comparison, etc. Offering in home trials shows a lot of confidence but I also know I just could not risk that much money without some form of safety net. Luckily it took all of 3 notes for me to know I would be keeping it!
@jdavis37 that's a great feeling!! I'm a happy Metrum Onyx user, but would love to hear your item as well. It's price tag that suggest that it may or may not compare with Metrum Pavane III.  Hard telling. 

What amp do you use?
justjames.... I am solid state on the amp end. Spread Spectrum Technologies (SST ) Thoebe II preamp and Son of Ampzilla II amp."Wig" on here has same DAC and is running with very nice tube gear. It has made both of us extremely happy.

I find it difficult to compare price points especially when 1 company is very small like SW1X and others have a larger employee footprint. And I have absolutely no experience with the Metrum line though they appear to be very nicely made. I remain amazed at the layering effects the DAC III std produces. I had read where NOS DACs rolled off highs or had smoother but less detailed sound and neither of those descriptions apply. The difference now is I am less focused on the high detail and simply find myself falling in to the music. The real key for me though is numerous times when I am fully engrossed in editing digital photos, etc. and I will suddenly stop because I have heard something unique and special.

For those who love redbook music and enjoy what vinyl brings to the dance Dr Slawa has hit  a home run. I only have a single 24 bit 96 kHz recording and the DAC played it just as wonderfully so I don't want to imply that it is limited to redbook. But with redbook sounding so wonderful there is no urge to look elsewhere! I do hope more people have the opportunity to hear Dr Slawa's DACs (and similarly made NOS non filtering DACs). The thinness that I had at one time been annoyed with is completely gone.