My paradisea was very dependent on tubes- even within "identical" tubes. I recieved half a dozen tubes from Andy @ VTS including 2 Western Electric and an RCA that he thought should have been really good. Some no name tube (re branded) won. I question the low voltage that it uses on the tubes, possibly not biased up enough or too low on the plate curve. I preferred the DIYParadise USB Monica (used with 18v smps, not battery) to the Paradisea. However my Benchmark DAC1 USB handily bests both-better bass, more detail and low level resolution. Run it balanced if you can, I use a Bent tvc, preferring it to the onboard volume or active pre. Somehow (filter?)it tames the sterility that seems to be the major complaint of the Benchmark.
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In response to 4est's impressions; I auditioned a Paradisea + against the latest Benchmark DAC1 USB pretty extensively in my system. I ended up keeping the Paradisea+ because it sounded more natural and I could listen at length with no fatigue. I found the Benchmark to be strident in the highs. Where I would agree with 4est is that it did seem to have greater resolving abilities and tighter bass, but I did find it "sterile" to use the term 4est sites. I just couldn't bear the highs...they grated on me. I was not using the balanced outputs as 4est, and I was using an active (tubed) preamp (not a TVC). Obviously systems, rooms and tastes are also different. Point is, YMMV.
Things are gonna be pretty dependant upon your tastes here. These notes on the Benchmark posted above and elsewhere excluded that DAC from my search.
The Paradasea also was considered but as both 4est and a close friend of mine said, getting the right tube match for it sometimes, can be a mite doddgy.
The Apogee too was a thought, and then the USB version of it could be had through Sam Ash music for under $900. I nearly went off for the Apogee USB too... but bought a Lavry DA 10... if the Lavry had been outfitted with a USB & remote, it would still be here.
In the end, I bought a 2 month old Bel Canto DAC 3 in 'new' condition for a touch more than your listed budget, and am very pleased with it and it's USB performance in conjunction with an ASIO driver & J River player. No fuss. No muss. Plug and play!
I can see how Jax2 felt the highs were unbearable. I am a sucker for high resolution on my electrostats and found that the highs were tamable when I found the correct power cord and conditioner (running springs/cardas to jpd digital pc)- avoiding silver interconnects helped too. What really set it in stone was when I added some bybee gg speaker tails. Laugh if you want, but those things turned that high end glare into pinpoint resolution with plenty of space around the notes and more importantly micro dynamic resolution with lovely decay (nice PRaT). Prior to the bybee's I could have agreed with Jax2 and was on the fence.
I replaced my 3500 Wavelength Cosecant with the Paradisea + and could not be happier. The Paradisea is much funner to listen to. Month since owning it I'm am still thrilled and amazed by how good it sounds. I also picked up a Constantine and it is also great sounding. I tried a couple of WE 396 tubes and far prefer the sound of the stock tube that shipped with it. I feel like this DAC is the DEAL OF THE CENTURY. I've owned a lot of digital over the years, players that retailed upwards of 10k and this is my favorite sounding digital so far.
I run mine from a Mac Mini via USB and run Apple Lossless on my rips. Also I have found that the quality of the USB cord makes a difference.
On the Paradisea - I agree it is very responsive to tube changes. I like the WE 396 as it rounds out the sound in a nice way. I think I prefer the Bendix tube (can't recall the number) for a bit more resolution and detail though. Thanks for the added input, 4est. Yes, were I able to tame the high end I think I would have liked the Benchmark far more than I did. Glad to hear it can be done - obviously many folks like that DAC including many industry reviewers who are highly respected. So I'm just adding my experience as one more bit of info in your search. If you are a detail freak it may be worth getting the Benchmark and tweaking it to your liking. I think Steve at Empirical is doing mods to that DAC and is a fan of the stock DAC. Different strokes for different folks. I really do like the Paradisea and agree that it is a great bargain. A friend and fellow A'gon member who I respect recently has strongly recommended to me I check out the April Music DAC too. Many good things about the TADAC here as well. Plenty to choose from in that price range.
Consider also the Constantine - the Paradesia with SS output. It is, frankly, hard to beat at almost *any* price. I currently own one and a Wavelength Cosecant - the Cosecant is better, but the MHDT unit is very close and just amazingly good.
I don't mean to offend anyone, but it always amazes me to find people that prefer the Benchmark over any of these NOS DACs - the Benchmark is so thin, analytical, and artificial in comparison. To me.
The Constantine+ has USB just like the Paradisea+. This is the model I have.
I bought mine here used and wasn't concerned with any warranty. It would be easy to fix by any local tech if it broke - which would be very unlikely...
If these units just looked a little more professional, man, they would really kick. Then again that would probably raise the price 2x.
You can buy his stuff directly from eBay where is rating is 100% positive after 666 feedbacks. I don't think you can go wrong. I've never heard of anyone having a problem with them, which is not to say it is unheard of. He has a new DAC called the Havana that he's pushing to Audiophiles at a significantly higher price. It uses a different DAC chipset (Burr Brown PCM56P (16 bits) DAC chip). Has anyone tried this DAC?
Paul, maybe you are right? Yet another reason to hate tubes. I have tried 2 different WE 396 tubes with the Paradisea and there is no way anyone who heard it would say it sounds better than the stock tube (the one that came with it) I was told by more than a couple of guys that the 396 tube was quite an improvment over the stock tube. I tried to like it but it just doesn't sound good.
Ejlif, you are the first person I have seen that did not like the we 396 in the paradisea+. I thought the exact same thing when I tried that tube in my paradisea+. The stock tube sounded better. If you want to try an inexpensive tube that I thought sounded great in my system, and it will remain in the paradisea+. Try a NOS raytheon 5670, you can grab a pair on e-bay now for $25 shipping and all, so it isn't a huge investment and like I said these tubes sound the best of all that I tried in my system. The raytheons that I got are from 1952.