Unlike some other components, I tend to be very loyal to my DAC’s. For the past 9 years, I’ve been the proud owner of a California Audio Labs Alpha DAC. For the past 5 years I’ve been playing it with Sylvania 5751 tubes, which have been the best I’ve tried thus far.
Nonetheless, in a recent upgrade I was concerned that the Alpha might be getting a little long in the tooth. Discussions on Audiogon suggested that newer DAC’s were far outperforming older DAC’s, so I decided to investigate some options. One brand that’s been receiving considerable buzz on Audiogon is Audio Horizons. So I decided to spring for their TD 3.0 DAC on clearance for $1495.
Audio Horizons is reportedly coming out with a TD 3.1 soon, which is purported to sound even better. Hence the reason for the clearance pricing on the TD 3.0.
I received a very large box from Audio Horizons. I don’t think the term “double boxing” does justice to the packing job. This could have been dropped from a cargo plane into a war zone and still survived. Just plan on taking about 10 minutes to extract the DAC from the packaging.
Initially I was a little turned off by the aesthetics of the wooden knobs when viewing it on the website, but since this was the only real option, I ordered it anyway. Let me say that the wooden knobs look much nicer in person, and I now appreciate the aesthetic appeal. There are three essentially binary switches on the front: One for power on/off, another for input selection (RCA coax vs balanced/XLR), and the other, marked “Volume”, is essentially a no-op. There is a display area on the front that lights up a blue “Audio Horizons” logo and indicates which input (RCA vs XLR) is active. The front of the unit is otherwise stainless steel with a thickness appropriate for a high-end audio unit, and overall the unit feels substantial and well-built. Even after a few days of continuous operation, the top of the DAC is merely warm.
On the back there are two digital input sources, one with an RCA coax link and the other a balanced input that works with the AES/EBU outputs on my California Audio Labs Delta transport. Notably absent is any optical digital input, such as Toslink. I actually feel that this is somewhat of a loss, because many people with a separate DAC would use it for both computer-based music and for playing CD’s. This demands two different digital inputs, and the most common are RCA coax and Toslink.
I pitted the Audio Horizons TD 3.0 against the Alpha, using a Squeezebox as the common transport. Joseph at Audio Horizons says that the DAC is very transport-sensitive, but for this comparison both DAC’s were at the same disadvantage. Besides, many of us use digital music server systems such as the Squeezebox so this was a good real-world test. The Audio Horizons received the coax link from the Squeezebox, the Alpha using a glass Toslink cable. I then hooked the balanced outputs from the Audio Horizons to the preamp (Audio Research LS-5 Mk 3). The Alpha’s single-ended output connected to a different input on the preamp with the use of an adapter, since the LS-5 only has balanced inputs. This allows me to A/B the two DAC’s in real time simply by switching the input on the preamp, and thus accurately assess any sonic difference between them. It is also understood that the Alpha has two potential handicaps, as it is using Toslink (which many consider an inferior digital input mechanism) and it does not benefit from a truly balanced output to the preamp. The TD 3.0 was using its stock tubes, and the Alpha the aforementioned Sylvania 5751’s.
Madonna’s Look of Love was first up, as this is a very well-recorded piece by a female vocalist. The Audio Horizons had better transparency, instrument definition, and layering of the instruments (drums, symbols, etc) than the Alpha. The Alpha was decidedly warmer in character.
Similarly, Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game had improved bass definition and high frequency extension on the Audio Horizons, with the Alpha providing a warmer midrange.
Next was Lily was Here, from Candy Dulfer’s Saxuality album. Here the Audio Horizons had a better defined bass and better air around the strings. The Alpha, on the other hand, had a fuzzier decay on individually plucked strings although it presented a smoother, richer sax.
The Audio Horizons had more incisive vocals in Lorena McKennit’s Mummer’s Dance, as well as better portrayed resonance and echos of the bongos. The Alpha glossed over some of the more minute details and once again had a warmer presentation.
With Susanne Teng’s use of unique contrabass and other unusual flutes, however, the Audio Horizons had the warmer and fuller, although at the same time, more detailed sound. Here the Alpha was leaner and brighter, with more high frequency glare. On her song, Lolton, the Audio Horizons did better with the minute details of the sound of rushing water in the background.
Metallica’s The Unforgiven had better drum slam and better separation of vocals with the instruments, especially the drums and symbols, than the Alpha. It also seemed more lively overall, with the Alpha a little more subdued on the strongest drum slams. The CAL didn’t flesh out the instruments as well from behind the vocals, and had less definition in the guitars.
Once again the Audio Horizons proved better at extracting nuances of the strings in Brahms Double Concerto, although at the expense of the Alpha’s fuller and richer sound in the midrange.
Overall, the TD 3.0 is a very dynamic DAC that is incisive, revealing excellent inner detail and superior performance at both frequency extremes relative to the California Audio Labs Alpha. The Alpha, in turn, generally provides a fuller, richer, warm midrange.Associated gear Click to view my Virtual SystemSimilar products
California Audio Labs Alpha
Musical Fidelity A3.24