People and Place: A review of SW1X DAC


Review of SW1X Level Two Signature DAC:


The best thing to do before reading this is to familiarize yourself with SW1X. Dr. Slawa Roschkow has provided what has to be the most comprehensive website on a DAC company ever. There are numerous articles on a host of topics that address his philosophy and give you a look into how he designs his products. This is the website: http://sw1xad.co.uk


At the heart of his DAC lineup is the approach of offering 11 levels of DACs in ascending performance grades and prices. The one being reviewed here is the level two, signature version. My DAC, then, falls sort of below mid-way through the range.


The core of his DAC technology is NOS (non-oversampling) and R2R (so-called ladder DACs). I won’t address any of that stuff since I don’t really understand it. I will add however that apparently combining R2R and NOS is a bit of a challenge since most R2R DACs oversample to make them work. It, obviously, is not impossible to pull off, since SW1X and others have done it, but there is a cost involved. I’d best refer you to the technology section on the website for clarification on that.


My SW1X DAC is something like my 10th DAC if you count CD players. I didn’t step into the big-leagues (for me) price-wise until my Yggdrasil DAC (which is R2R plus digital upsampling filtering). Aside from the Yggy, there are two other noteworthy DACs I’ve had. One is a Harmon Kardon CD player from the late 80s or early 90s that touted the new “Bit-Stream” technology, which pretty much took over the DAC world. The other is the Altmann Attraction battery operated DAC. Note that the Altmann is an R2R NOS DAC also. On that note, the DAC that succeeded the battery operated Altmann was the cheapest $99 Schiit Modi (before there was an upgrade option). I didn’t perceive any significant fall-off with that switch. That should tell you something.


I, like many, migrated from CD players to direct-out-to DAC from a computer via USB. The SW1X DACs don’t incorporate SPDIF to USB conversion hardware. This means you will need an outboard unit to perform that function if you lean toward USB. I am using the pedestrian Schiit Eitr for that job. It works fine. I have nothing to compare it with. I may at some point spring for SW1X’s own converter.


My overall impression of my new DAC is as follows: All my previous DACs sounded pretty much the same, although they all (mostly) continued to get better. Enter the SW1X. What happened was not “just better” - I am used to better. What happened was - this is different. I jumped off of the railroad tracks I have been on for 30 plus years and am now in a new world.


Words are pretty lame when it comes to talking about what I’m hearing. I scoured a handful of DAC reviews here and there and these are the sorts of descriptions you’ll get: organic; temporal coherence; drive; illumination; presence; tone density; air; space; extension; holo-graphic; accurate; relaxing; relaxed. These are endless, it seems. There are also numerous words or phrases that describe the negative side as well. Words like: glare; strident; compressed; fatigue;


Well, this SW1X DAC of mine has all those positives and none of the negatives. One negative descriptor I never actually ran into previously was the criticism that DACs can sound paper-thin. This criticism was even being levied against sound stages that had a decent 3D sound stage. That seemed contradictory or paradoxical to me. I had to admit that I hadn’t encountered that particular phenomenon before. Or at least wasn’t aware of it. All those other negatives? Sure. I’d never been able to escape the full list of negatives. But paper-thin? That was a new one.


It wasn’t until I heard my SW1X that I understood. Paper-thin in audio means that the 3D soundstage is just like a painting that does the third dimension, depth, really well. But it is still closer to an illusion than the real thing. This is an analogy. It’s probably more a matter of the degree to which the DAC is retaining the realism that was originally recorded. There is something going on in SW1X design and implementation that is just right.


My music background is primarily in symphonic performance. Consequently, that’s what I listen to a lot of the time. Opera especially. Operas have a lot going on. Lots of people. Upwards of 200. I’ve never had a DAC that could keep up. I knew it. I lived with it. I had to deal with fire-hose amounts of water pressure being delivered through a garden hose. What all my previous DACs did to that music was sad. You could tell it was supposed to be loud but what you got was closer to chaos than music. What I didn’t realize is what might be possible. I had no idea faithful big scale reproduction existed; or what it sounded like. No idea. With this DAC I now have, there has not been a single moment where the music has been lost; not a moment when it has become noise.


You can imagine, then, what this means for music that is not big like an opera or similarly large works. Take choral music for example. I can’t put into words how spectacular choral presentations are. All I can say is how much of a thrill it is to be able to hear not just Bach, for one, but to hear how much joy the singers have singing it. I seem to get an insight into the personalities of the singers. Pretty weird.


Finally, we have jazz - which is an even smaller group of people. Let’s just say here too things are very sweet. However, with this kind of honest exposure, you might find the artists aren’t as good as you once thought. That happened with Diana Krall. Her weaknesses as a singer got exposed with this DAC. On the flip side, Stacey Kent’s genius becomes even more obvious with the SW1X.


Where do I go from here? Can I go up? I could. After all, I’m slightly below the middle of the range. SW1X has a remarkable trade-in policy. I can get full value for my current DAC by trading it in for something higher up. Check it out.



seminarian
seminarian nice review and congrats on your new Dac! I've read some reviews on the Sw1x Dacs their philosophy is very akin to Audio Note which is the Dac I have. There is a lengthy thread about Sw1x started by a member here named wig, check it out:
https://forum.audiogon.com/discussions/sw1x-audio-design-dac-ii-absolute-top-tier-ref-nos-dac?highli...
Hi seminarian, thanks for your review.

Can you expound more on comparison between your SW1X unit and the Yggdrasil? I am very familiar with the Yggdrasil so that would be useful to me
Nice review!I've got an R2R DAC on the way from a different company next week and fingers crossed, I'll be just as thrilled with the new unit as you are with yours.I'll check out the SW1X site and try to gain a bit more knowledge.Thanks!
I can try a comparison but it is difficult because the two units are in two distinct setups. The SW1X is fronting a 300b tube amp and the Yggy is fronting a Pass First Watt J2. The speakers are both open baffle so at least there's a similarity there. Also, the two systems are in two different parts of the country. So I can't compare them at the moment.

But I will say this. The Yggy is very good but it bears a strong family resemblance to everything I've ever had. I think the biggest change going to the SW1X is that with it there is no end to the size of sound trying to get out through the speakers. As I mentioned all other DACs just turn to chaotic noise if the amount of (volume, complexity etc.) music being shoved through the system is too much. With the SW1X, it can handle anything and everything. Which translates to musicality. And as you shrink the stage, volume, complexity down it just reaps a corresponding benefit. This by the way was true even with some miniscule Klipsch book shelf speakers that I had before I got my big open baffles up. 

I also think the low level detail really amounts to the sound of the hall itself and not merely hearing the musicians better. The SW1X is great at conveying a place (and people) not just music. The Yggy was okay in that regard but not startling.
In my review I noted that the SW1X is not my first R2R DAC. I've discovered that there is more to the issue than R2R versus bit-stream, as if one is automatically going to emerge the clear winner. What I didn't get into much at all in my review is the true reason behind why the SW1X stands apart. It's not merely the R2R design. It is more a matter of the implementation of the circuits as well as the materials science involved. R2R doesn't automatically change much. Non-oversampling doesn't even automatically guarantee success (as was the case of the Altmann, it didn't separate itself all that much). 

Check out the SW1X website and start reading. I came away convinced that I needed to try Slawa's designs. I'm glad I did.
I did check out the very interesting SW1X website last night.I read the *Audio Hell* article last night.I'll go back and try to learn more about the actual design and implementation.One thing pointed out in the article that made me stop and think was not to rely heavily on your favorite tracks when auditioning a new component.The biases that people have can result in repeatedly choosing components that sound like you *want* those favorite tracks to sound like.
I know exactly what you mean about complex music turning into a congested mess.The dac I was auditioning last month did just that,so back it goes.
Thank you for your excellent review.  I'm in the market and this one is now on my radar.
Looking at the pics on the website it appears that there is no USB or Optical input.
It that correct?
Thanks in advance,
Bob
Right. I use an outboard USB to SPDIF converter.