Review: Accustic Arts DAC1-MK4 DA converter

Category: Digital

I had auditioned many very good sounding DACS, this history can be reviewed on my thread, Reference DACS: An overall perspective, before finally settling on the Accustic Arts DAC1-MK3 for the last year in my system.

I then became aware recently that the designers of Accustic Arts had been working on for the last year a totally new DAC that would be the first to use an upsampling rate of 66/1536! Accustic Arts is a German company and you can see the craftsmanship in the build quality of the MK4. My MK3 was very much a reference piece for me, it's performance was terrific across the board, as I shared when I posted a review here on the GON last year. However, I was quite curious/excited to find out what this totally new design would offer in comparsion to its older sibling in the Accustic Arts stable.

I prefer not to spend alot of time sharing details regarding the technical aspects of the piece I'm reviewing because you can go to the manufacturer's
website and gather those aspects on your own. As I stated above, the quality of the German engineering can easily be seen in the visual beauty of the MK4.

On to the most important part of any review, what was the sonic performance of the piece being auditioned. So here it is.

1) The MK4 developed the largest soundstage I have ever heard in my system. It also offered wonderful natural layering on this "stage" with air around each individual player. Not a "HIFI" perspective, but a very three dimensional portrayal of the players in real space.

2) Timbres are very important to me because I mostly listen to acoustic Jazz. The MK4 offered more lifelike timbres then the MK3, which was pretty damn good at this in its own right.

3) The top end offered more "air" and even greater details that allowed my MG-20's ribbon tweeter's to really sing.

4) Microdynamics and decay trails were more easily heard because of the total transparency/clarity that the MK4 has to offer.

5) The MK4 has a much improved sense of slam/macrodynamics over the MK3.

In my system this extraordinary DAC offered many of the virtues of details/clarity/dynamics that I have heard in other great digital front ends, like Meitner,Ensemble,Esoteric, with the musicality/organic/natural "flavor" of the non-upsampling references such as Audio Note and Zanden. It's the best synthesis I have heard with my own ear's so far. I'm not saying this is the best DAC in the entire world of reference digital front ends, but deserves to be put on that praiseworthy list now. It's a great piece and I hope that other Gon members will have a chance to audition it as more become available in the near future here in the states.

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Nice review Teajay !

I like the way you describe the sonic attributes, plus it's a fun read.

You and a few other GoN members would make great audio reviewers for a living !

Is the MK4 a complete departure from the MK3 in the sense of an upgrade ?

Agree about the looks and build quality.
Rx8man, thanks for your kind words regarding my review.

To answer your question, the MK4 is a totally new design, so a MK3 cannot be upgraded to a MK4. The MK3 is so good in it's own right, it's very interesting that Accustic Arts was motivated to develop a totally new DAC, but I'm glad they did.
Just wanted to share that now that the MK4 has over 150 hours of break-in, that it has blossomed even more with greater "liquidity" and with a finer and "sweeter" top end, but all the fine details and timbres are still terrificly present.

I also have become more aware of the total lack of any noise floor with this DAC, not a "dead" background that would get in the way of dynamics/prat, but a black background that the music just floats/emerges from.
Have you ever heard a Dodson 218? I haven't, but do own a 217 Mark II D with 218-like upgrades. Reason for question is purely to get info, as one of the Accustic Arts DACs has been mentioned favorably by another person who also holds Dodson in high esteem. I'm pretty sure that person was talking about the Accustic Arts MK3, however. He did mention that he had listened to several other high end DACs, and that these two were his favorites.
Mdhoover, I wish I could be more helpful, but I have never had the pleasure of auditioning any of the Dodson DACS at all. I have heard very good things about them, but none of my audiophile friends have had one in their system and no retailers in Chicago that I know of carry the Dodson pieces.

There is an on going thread that I started entitled, Reference DACS: An overall perspective, that has had people inquire about the sonics of the Dodson DACS, but no one has ever posted sharing what they think about the performance of the Dodson, it would be great if you would share your opinion regarding your DAC's performance.

Any comments I make need to be taken in the context of the fact that the unit I own, as great as it is, is not even the company's flagship. That would be the 218. The 217 Mark II D DAC with 218-like software and isolation transformer upgrades sounds quite spectacular when inserted into signal chain between the player (Onkyo Integra DPC 8.5) and the preamp. It seems to do just about everything right, including dynamics, soundstaging, timbre, detail and smoothness. It truly improves all of these things, including both detail AND smoothness, when compared to the player alone. The sound is qualitatively different, and considerably better, with the Dodson.

Pardales has owned the 217 and the 218 and has said that the 218 does all of those same things, just "more" of it. It must be a fabulous unit. I've never read anything bad about either unit. I personally think that Ralph Dodson is a genius.
you are not by any chance a dealer, or the US-distributor for Accustic Arts, are you? Because Martin Schunk of Accustic Arts mailed me today that they have not yet started official distribution, and that so far "we without exception only distributed DAC 1 Mk4s for trade shows". Not even German dealers have the Mk4-version yet...
Hassel, no I'm not a dealer/distributor for Accustic Arts, just a lucky audiophile who got to audition one of the few MK4's in the US.

I believe the US importer/distributor for Accustic Arts, Artistic Audio, will be showing the MK4 at the Stereophile show this up coming weekend on the west coast.
Today, was a busy and fun one in that two very knowlegdable audiophile friends, one old and one new, came over to spend time listening to music and giving their opinions regarding the sonics of my system.

My old friend was very experienced with the sound of the Accustic Arts DAC-1 MK3 in my system and the new friend's reference in DACS is the the full stack DCS gear.

Both, were very impressed with the the performance of the new Accustic Arts DAC-1 MK4 in my system. They listened at different times, but both used descriptions such as, great detail but musical at the same time, the best dynamics I have heard, and finally , just sounds more like real music.

As I stated in the review on the MK4 their is no BEST, but many wonderful pieces of gear to enjoy based on personnal taste and system synergy, but I do believe that the MK4 is one of the better sounding DACS around today and is offered at a much lower price then other world reference DACS.
I have to agree with the others, your review was excellent and a joy to read. I am awaiting my 1st mk4 and will be mating it with Einstein's Light In The Dark stereo amp , Einstein's The Tube preamp ,and Acapellas LaCampanellas. I am lucky enough to be the exclusive dealer in Arizona for these exceptional products and having not had the opportunity to hear the dac mk4 yet, your review was even more interesting to me. Hope to see another of your reviews soon.
Sincerely Dan Curtis
Curtis Hi-Fi
Dan, thanks for your kind words regarding my review of the MK4 DAC. It would be a pleasure to hear back from you what you think of the performance of MK4 in the context of your own system.

Friend and I auditioned the AA combo today (Mk2 transport, Mk4 DAC in a all AA system, Elac speakers). It's really the best balance combo I've heard in the last 2 months : Esoteric X-01,X03SE, Metronome CD4, CEC TL0x, Audio Aero, Audionet G2

The balance between vocal performance, resolution + texture of instruments, air between notes, musical cohesion and sound stage is fantastic; maybe slightly less on the punch / dynamics side (compare to Esoteric)

However, my friend is a diehard Esoteric fan and so a question we argued about is whether using Estoeric as transport with AA MK 4 DAC will give even more details without breaking the balance ... what would be your view ?
Pyro2005i, it appears you have been busy auditioning some great digital gear recently! It's quite a complement to the Accustic Art combo that you think it was the best sounding compared to the other pieces.

To answer your question regarding what would happen sonicly if you used the Esoteric transport instead of the Accustic Arts transport with the DAC1-MK4, my hunch would be that you would lose some of the synergy, what you called "balanced" what I call a "musicality" in the overall performance of the DAC1-MK4.

Accustic Arts built the DAC1-MK2 to get the very best performance out of their new DAC, and I believe that synergy would be lost with the Esoteric matchup.

When I have auditioned Esoteric pieces I have found them to be great with macrodynamics/slam/details, but not as "organic/musical" as the Accustic Arts combo. I never found them, as some people do, ruthless or to forward or bright, just not as natural sounding as other digital gear.

Thanks very much for your comments ! Hong Kong is really audiophile heaven because you can audition any product from most parts of the world (Europe/US/Japan) and most locations are only 20-30 minutes away, no need to even drive (take subway) ! Problem is there is no return policy like US (but no sales tax)

For AA, I am holding out until I also test Burmester 052 / 061 as some friends have these units, was told AA is in the same character sound group by dealer. Maybe the SIM Supernova... also. Otherwise AA is destiny ($$$$$$$$) and no, I won't have money left for a car !

A little more of what I learnt from the above excercise:

SoundStage/Instrument Resolution
I found the French machines (e.g. Metronome) has good resolution but typically has a more backwards presentation, perhaps due to this and the tube tuning, the imaging / soundstage is not as sensitive to the original recordings. The sound stage between my test pieces varies much less for Metronome CD4, Audio Aero Prestige(probably misconfig & not burn in), CEC T51 or the TLOx when compare with the Audionet G2, AA or Esoteric X03SE

Vocal Performance
My problem is I must have decent voice & want to hear the original musical intentions (classical guitar player; tube amp fan). It doesn't have to be tubey but I am not interested in rubber ducky, unrealistc voice either.

While Esoteric put out the very textured bass, most life-like violin performance I ever heard (on SACD), with fantastic clear soundstage and details, I cannot suffer its vocal performance (even with the G0 clock etc), and the sheer details make me lose sight of the PRAT / flow more often than I like. Some recordings are annoyingly plastic (electric guitar) and unpleasant (clapping hands), perhaps to mating issues with the JM Lab speakers. There is some un-naturalness in the overall presentation to me that I cannot decipher... so I start to hear more European/US makes

For voice the Metronome, followed by the AA clearly wins. CEC has something to offer for voice but the other aspects is below pass marks in our listening sessions (maybe it is the setup). The Audionet G2 is a bit dry and distant for vocals

For test pieces, we used a few locally produced hifi vocals / SACD discs, reference recording Mephisto (usually use Saint Saens's Danza Macabre), Chesky jazz sampler test discs (Vol. 1, Sara K)

Happy Listening !