Review: Eastern Electric Minimax DAC DA converter
I've only had this unit a few days but I feel that given the high level of interest in this product, I should dive in and provide a review. I promise to provide updates if my impressions change meaningfully – particularly important given that the unit may still be breaking in.
I believe in providing a review that is brief but specific and as useful as possible. Some day I hope to be wealthy enough to have the time to read the “novella” style reviews (e.g. Sam Tellig in Stereophile) that start by telling you about a little town in Italy or grandma’s recipe for bran muffins or whatever….. (Do I sound bitter? I OFTEN find myself scanning a long review in print or online mumbling “Get to the point!” I’ve become expert at reading just the last paragraph and analyzing each phrase like a dusty fingerprint.)
Here we go.
Equipment used for testing: See below. Audiogon posts the list of equipment at the bottom of the review.
Space: Living room. Wood floors. Curtains over the windows. Fireplace. No carpet. Roughly 14’W x 22’L x 8’H with door-less openings to dining room and hallway. System is on short wall near the openings to other rooms. BOTTOM LINE: the room is not particularly lively or dead, small or huge. It is not oddly shaped. There is space for the system to “breath”.
Music format: Apple Lossless via iTunes on a 15” MacBook Pro, vintage 2008, with fully updated operating system and software. Identical music on cd when comparing to the Cary 308T CDP.
Music: Keith Jarrett, Anonymous 4, Mozart, etc. with a little bit of Springsteen and Tori Amos. I did very little testing outside of classical, jazz and individuals singing with small accompaniment, all of which my stereo reproduces with exceptional beauty. My stereo is nearly useless at reproducing rock and roll, which is by design – to keep the peace with my neighbors.
Why-a-DAC? (A painful pun for you Marx brothers fans :-o )
The “Touch” is my first Squeezebox, and I’ve been stunned at how enjoyable the sound is. Usually I find John Atkinson to be spot-on, but his grading this unit “class D” in Stereophile (he assumes use of analog outputs) is way harsh. I find the tonality perfect and enjoy the analog outputs a lot.
So why buy a DAC? Well, the Touch analog outs provide virtually no soundstage depth, and not much action in the other dimensions. So while it sounds wonderful, it could be more detailed and more animated in the soundstage. I find it extremely nice for casual listening but it leaves something to be desired for an audiophile hobbyist.
Criteria: The DAC that I own must provide the same high quality tonality or better than the Touch, while adding detail, speed and soundstage, with no major flaws - such as shallow or muddy bass, harsh highs, lean sound, etc.
Result: The Eastern Electric Minimax DAC via tube output appears to be locking into my system beautifully and meeting these criteria … 98%. I need to offer one caveat, which is that I (very) occasionally think I hear a slightly etched quality in the upper treble. This has occurred only when using the Audience AU24E interconnects and speaker cable simultaneously (AU24E are very neutral, lifelike, fast and VERY revealing, IMHO). Perhaps the etch is in the recording and the DAC + AU24E are just being honest? Perhaps this is due to lack of break-in of the DAC? Substituting even one length of Cardas Golden Ref or Empirical Audio cable in the chain corrects this problem, while offering a very slightly different window into the music, just as wonderful.
SS vs. Tube: I am ONLY using the TUBE output stage of the EE DAC on a regular basis. (One output stage is enough for me as long at it is tube :-). I did try the solid state output stage briefly (15 minutes) and found it just a TINY bit mechanical sounding in DIRECT COMPARISON to the tube output stage, with a TINY bit more precision than the tube output stage. I don't think that I would characterize the SS sound as mechanical in absolute terms, just very slightly by comparison to the tube stage.
So about that town in Italy…. Ok, ok, I promised you a short review.
The EE DAC strikes me as a real keeper. So far. The sound is extremely liquid and detailed and soundstage full of life. And it improves on the Touch analog outputs without introducing compromises, except, perhaps that high treble issue under certain circumstances.
Comparison 1: I borrowed a friends Bryston DAC recently (Hi Dan!) and liked the sound a lot. That is also a DAC that I could live with happily – liquid, detailed, musical, impressive soundstage – but it lacks that little extra air of life that tube amplification seems to offer. So I decided to hold out for a DAC of latest design with a tube output stage. This is purely a matter of personal taste – the Bryston is fantastic IMHO.
Caveat: My comments on the Bryston DAC apply to the SPDIF inputs used directly, and also via the USB but only when used with a preprocessor. The USB input of the Bryston DAC had a little audible distortion when not preprocessed - as is common among USB inputs of DACs (not universal). Dan lent me his preprocessor (by Empirical Audio) and it completely leveled the playing field with the Bryson between USB and SPDIF. I'd probably look at pre-processor products by Empirical or Halide if I owned the Bryston and wanted to use the USB input.
Comparison 2: My Cary 308T (tube output stage) is my personal benchmark for enjoyable cd sound. The Cary has a coherence and beauty to the presentation that is jaw dropping. And it does 44/96 up-sampling for a slight boost in detail and has HDCD as well (which the EE DAC lacks – sigh!). The Cary 308T is not state of the art in terms of detail and nuance and speed, but it is well within the “target zone” in my experience.
The EE DAC – so far – strikes me as overall equally enjoyable as the Cary – which is a first in my home – although it sounds a bit different. It does have that coherence and beauty, but not to quite the same extent as the Cary. OTOH, it boosts the detail, nuance, speed and animation in the soundstage, which are all very welcome. On balance, I'm not complaining!
So far I’ve only compared the Cary 308T to the EE DAC fed via SB Touch, which is most relevant for me. At some point I'll try treating the Cary as a transport feeding the EE DAC.
Last paragraph! The Eastern Electric Minimax DAC is fulfilling my goal of providing a substantial improvement in sound quality via the Logitech Squeezebox Touch, without diminishing the strengths of the SB Touch sound. The one very slight concern – an issue in the treble – seems to occur once in a while when using interconnects and speakers known to be “ruthlessly revealing”. And, it might be that the EE DAC is simply being honest about a flaw in the recording, or needs additional break-in time. The substitution of even one pair of warmer sounding audiophile cables eliminated this issue. And of course, I've yet to begin "tube rolling"! BOTTOM LINE: I plan to keep this review unit, which I purchased at full price from Bill at Morningstar. I am relieved that my search for a DAC, at least for the moment, is over.
Oct 9, 2010
Ps: Sam, I do love your reviews. It’s just that you make us work a bit too much for it.
PPS: Thanks to Dan for the loan of Bryston DAC and various audio cables.
System: My system is biased towards tube warmth and emotionally moving reproductions of natural, lifelike music: (I limit rock & roll to my car and iPod.):
- Cary SLI-80 integrated in triode mode
- Cary 308T CDP (tube output stage)
- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- EAR834p modified phono stage
- Silverline SR17.5 monitor speakers (one of Alan Yun’s more detailed and neutral sounding efforts, with Dynaudio drivers)
- REL Strata III subwoofer (used intermittently).
- “Cables in rotation” include Audience AU24E, Cardas Golden Reference, & Empirical Audio – all of which I find amazing by the way – and I’m NOT an easy audience when it comes to cables. (I’m planning to do a review of the stunning Empirical Audio cables which I think are being badly over-looked by our community.)
Bryston BD-1 DAC