Review Fantastic 4 - 4 USB DACs Face Off

Reference System
Jamo R909 di pole speakers
Bel Canto 500 digital mono block amps
NAD multi ch pre/pro
Furatech signal cables
Nordost power cord
Cardas USB cable
Mac Mini

Examining DACs for those compelled to run a digital only array is one absolutely compelling ‘must do if and when possible’ event. Ordinarily I’d say only extended listening sessions can truly reveal the distinct and subtle desparities between likewise or relatively likewise pieces of gear. Ordinarily, that is, but audiophiles aren’t ordinary folk. They think they know it all or believe they do. This is quite aggravating to those of us who really do know it all! lol

One of the must haves in this trek is listening honesty. Patience is another virtue. Real wisdom comes from the litany of experiences we endure and enjoy along our way. A nifty shortcut is learning from other’s wisdom that have gone on before us.

Strickly going all digital all the time is one arena where things still continue to speed towards the nexus of analog equality… if there is such a thing. As such, wisdom among the difgital ranks ebbs and flows. Staying on the bleeding edge of design technology is for the deeper pockets crew, pseudo brainiacs the odd ‘drive by poster’, and forum bloggers, but hands on trials equate to a much better degree of education. One can end up Magna Cum Laude, or one can figure out how to graduate as a ‘Ma gig Sounds Beta’, club!

One ever present euphemism in the audio realm is this… “If you don’t know, then by Gosh, you simply do not know! Or in simpler terms, Ignorance is bliss.

As much as this does indeed make sense I’ve found myself ignoring the precautionary wisdom there and proceeding head long into areas I’m best be letting alone in years past. Primarily my “contempt prior to investigation”has set me onto dangerous footing.. But no more I say! Hence forth I’ll find out for myself! I’ll pry open my welded shut mind and try those things others say are better… even if I’m a card carrying, died in the wool, disbeliever some new whiz bang gizmo will aid my system tremendously.

Just as concrete and true is the age old adage of “Everything matters in a audio system” Everything. Trust me.

It is as alive today as it ever was and can be a pricey deal for the closed minded or inexperienced lot. Some say “Ignorance when applied to High End audio”, remains a two edged sword. Saving on one hand greater expense, and on the other, hamstringing performance levels.

So, in the final analysis, it pays to do exactly this, just listen. Experience new ideas and concepts. First hand on site experience is preferred. In any case though, grab onto whatever new listening affairs as you are able. Whenever possible. Especially if all is being played back in a nice to exceptionally nice outfit.

A local Bay area club THE Sun coast Audio Society came up with this nifty notion, Llet’s do a sordid, ‘down and dirty’, let’s hear a bunch of DACs, shooting from the hip party at our next meet up.

I was quite priviledged to rejoin the society as I had been a former member but my current health and other conditions have prevented me from attending regular meetings. So I go when I’m up for it and am able. Every time I’ve been in attendance has been a most gratifying situation and the people in the club are simply put, top shelf people, front to back.

This meet up was scheduled a month ago, and no one could have forecast Debbie, a local tropical storm would take up a lengthy residence just off our coast and deluge us with enormous ruinous downpours for days. The meeting fell directly in the middle of a non stop 3 day rainfall which doused the West central coastline, covering a couple hundred miles. Although much damages were scattered about the landscape, we faired very well, and all came and went safely.

Storms?Water Spouts? Tornadoes? No prob for us delirious audio hobbyists, designers, manufactuers, former musicians, and just plain old music lovers. All of which made up the SAS membership in attendance. Some coming from well over a hundred miles away!

I am quite familiar with the particular audio system used for this latest ‘let’s see’, and the , reference rig in which all the DACs will contend for top pick. It is owned by a personal friend I’ve known for some time. Being the host for this month’s episode his system was relegated to handle the duties of being our reference by default. It’s a very good one for that duty to be sure.

As it stands the ref system meets with a goodly amount of audio satisfaction, though it is not a no holds barred outfit. Based on the Speakers first ideal, It is the more reasonable sort of upper range audio system that has enormous potential yet reveals a more than pleasing reproduction of the music itself. A truly an utterly non fatiguing outfit which routinely hands out glimpses of audible illusiary reality. Sorry. That term just formed in my head but seemed apt enough of a top tier arrangement to enlist our reference rig into the ranks of higher end audio. It is a rig which can and will reveal nuance and subtlety as adeptly as it does dynamic surge and explosion.

With the usual two speaker set up, I found near right off there is absolutely no need for the addition of a sub woofer in this rig. Adding a subwoofer with this outfit is indeed optional. Few rigs I’ve heard validate themselves in the lower cellar region as well as do the Jamo R909s.

Being a point source cone driver addict and almost never moved by panels of any sort, hearing di pole speakers up close and personal in this context gained for me new ideas and concerns. Yes, they can boogie. They do Rock. They just don’t slap you in the face or the side of the head when they do it. Put another way, Jamo is now on or near the top of my wish list. At around $15 – 16K a pair, they’re definitely wishbone material for me. The only caveat I’d offer is they need power to be at their best… yet will play even with 300b’s! To get them really jumpin’ and jivin’ just add watts. 6 or 700 will do nicely. These Jamo’s were sipping on some 500 watt at 4 ohms Bel Canto 500 monos. Cool. That’ll work.

The list of proposed candidates included Ayre, Meitner, Resonessence Labs, and Bel Canto. Of these the Resonessence Labs units owner, myself and the ref system’s landlord all got together a few days earlier that week for a look see and a evening of listening. It was a convincing introduction to the Invicta. That night I found the Invicta DAC fascinating. Containing a wealth of flexibility, and very strong recital prowess. Acquitting itself handily that evening with but the Ayre QB9 192 DAC as it’s sparring partner, the Invicta took that bout on a very early T.K.O. I felt a little sadness coming away from that session for hearing these two DACs, especially the Invicta had rekindled the flames of my own audio psychosis. My head began to spin up the treadmill yet one more time… thinking exactly how much $$$$ can I nab quickly?

Just when you think you’re out! They drag you back in! or you drag you back in. same difference I guess.

Super. jUst super. It was too late, my appetite for more was whetted and for once in some time, I was again living amongst the afflicted.

The entrants into this heat were;
Ayre’s QB9 24/192 USB DAC ($2500)
Meitener DAC ($7,000)
A Renassance Labs Invicta DAC ($4,000)
John Stroncher’s, Bel Canto DAC 3.5VB ($2,995) This version of the 3.5VB came with the big VB power sup ($1400)
the BC DAC 3.5 also used Gordon Rankin’s Wavelength 24/192 USB to BNC converter ($900) with a high end BNC cable reputedly valued at $1200. That sure seemed a ton for the Stereovox looking skinny little thread of a wire. All total for the BC DAC 3.5 conflagration? Roughly $6,500.

There was no effort made to do all the listening at determined exact same electronic levels as no one gave it much thought nor did anyone have the energy or meter to connect to determine electrical outputs of this crowd of DACs.

This made it much more like any other self declared end user audiophile would do it any how. Set ‘em up. Plug ‘em in, listen to the same music on each piece, over and over again, and see what happens! Nuff said for accuracy in measuring electrical and auditory dissimilarities amongst the self proclaimed Doctors of Audio. Suits me. If there is a true and obvious winner let it declare itself the old fashioned way, by how it sounds! Let the ears choose by golly!

As much as I felt a goodly bit of warming up was needed for each DAC, I was soon proven wrong there again! Each DAC got the same measure of use and warming up. Virtually none.

Soon as the group conscience and it’s owner could figure out how to get them to work in someone else rig. On average? About a half hour or so in between +sessions. typically.

Plug & Play ain’t always fast. The Plug part was… it was the Play part which gave some pause. Things would have gone quicker and sooner had we not tried to be so picky and only ran one channel, or turned around to make up for the reversed channel association. Eventually all were integrated perfectly into the stereo du jour..

A Mac mini was the server for all of the files being transmitted. An assortment of Red Book, 24/96, 24/192, etc.,files were used. Some AIF, some WAV, some AAC & MP3s, enough of a diversity so everyone could relate. Pop, Jazz, World, Classical, Rock, and some tracks I’m just not going to attempt to lable.

I recall one of the software players being called “Pure” something or other and one more Mac media player was on hand and used as well but it’s name escapes me. It’s a commonly used one by Mac owners, though not iTunes and not amarra.

First up, the encumbent…. Ayre QB9
The Ayre QB9 192 USB ver., is a nice DAC. Easily recreating music in a comfortable interesting fashion. It’s quite doubtfuil that your collection of files when played back thru this DAC will dissolve into thin air never to be heard again,for this unit cries out to have it fed more and more recordings. I’ve yet to hear this DAC divine a recording adversely. Every file played back on this piece was in a range of good to outstanding quality.

I found this DAC one which allowed everyone into the party. Old not too well done recordings gained little notice apart from the great memories they evoked . Fun is another word for this DAC. It genuinely makes listening to your system fun again, if it isn’t. I’ll go out on a limb here and say every track, every genre, well done or poorly finished cuts won’t make you jump to grab the NEXT button on your remote, or click onto another file. This DAC is all about music and it’s enjoyment. It’s not the final word on resolution and detail yet it delivers sufficient enough of that data to thrill and please. It might even alieviate the clickity clickitis devotees of file server playback, can contract once a large library of tracks is at their disposal. Maybe.

Very well done recordings are recreated as they should be. Exceptionally well received. Again, a darn nice sounding DAC that won’t truncate your collection to only 20 or 30 albums that are listenable. Of course, those poorly done albums will reflect their lack, yet still remain tracks one can take pleasure in put another way, I love Classic R&B, MoTown. Hearing Marvin and other major MoTown groups thru the Ayre QB9 192 sure involved and utterly snatched my attention while putting a big grin on my ugly face.

The QB9 manufacturer too is taking a very nice consumer friendly position with all of it’s setup and background info on PC audio which the link above will direct new owners to. Even if you know nothing at all about the world of Personal Confuser audio, the pages there will inform you in a direct helpful, and easy to understand manner.

The QB9 192 USB DAC represents itself solidly at it’s retail price tag indicating, again, for it’s owners a pretty nice value. It uses only USB inputs but accommodates 16/44 to 24/192 formats and has growing clutch of proud owners. It is a pure DAC for sure. Only USB in, and no Volume controls. Simple. Useful and capable of providing an involving performance in which one is not accosted by errant musical displays. It’s rendition of the music reveals much but not all of the files information.

Without side by each comparison to more competent DACs, an owner can be very easily satisfied with what the Ayre lays in front of them. Time and time again. I’ve enjoyed listening to the Ayre and it’s very musical voice when at my friends home.

Our second entry… Meitner Audio
I have one embarrassing admission here… I’m not exactly sure of the model that was on display at our shoot out. The Meitner web site indicates the MA – 1 as it’s first production model DAC. No other models could I find posted there while perusing those web pages either, but the info at the listening session I gained was that DAC had a different emblem… as someone read it out to me. Also the owner mentioned a loftier cost for it, at nearly $10K. However the Meitner web site says their one and only DAC (MA – 1) sells for $7K MSRP. So be it Until otherwise informed I’d have to claim the DAC in this marathon was the MA-1 selling for $7,000.

OK! Just how many audiophiles does it take to plug in and out USB DACs, and do a channel check?

About 28.

It took a little bit of time to ensure the Mac mini or it’s software saw the Meitener DAC. Ultimately, once the Mac was finally rebooted to recognize it, the Meitner came on like gang busters. Kicking ass and taking names…. And it was all out of pencils.

This is no one trick USB pony and the only DAC which I know of that enables pure DSD to be conveyed along a 2.0 usb interface. SACD? On USB? Cool.

It has no volume control, but accounts for all the usual inputs and comes with a remote which will select among it’s six sets of inputs. All of the other features can be found here:

When a truly impressive item is injected into your system, you know it immediately or almost immediately. But you recognize the elevation of your rig has occurred. The MA-1 began right off revealing much more of the information contained within the tracks being repeatedly played for our examinations. Instantly I could not help but notice more of the bandwidth was on display. Darn right! There should very well be another dimension unfolding here given the additional five grand more or less you’ll need to lay out in order to bring one of these puppies home with you using the Ayre DAC as a base line for cost comparisons sake!

Yes siree, there was more musical information a plenty to be engulfed by. It felt good being swept away with the Meitner notion of how D to A conversion should take place. As transparently as is humanly possible to accomplish. There was significantly more upper end resolution. More bottom end control. More vividness in the midrange. Noticing a taller degree of presence on hand was easy. The structure of a live recording, when those items were enclosed in the recording, demonstrated themselves often. There was more steel in the guitar strings. Sharper declaration of the fingers picking and releasing of them. Clearer notice of the musical cues within the performance were handed out with greater dexterity but not at the expense of or by banishing tonal naturalness. A heartier formation of the singers physical stature and position became the norm quickly. Jimi Hendrix, Eva Cassidy, Mary stallings all had not just mouths but throats and upper torsos. Saxiphones especially were just brilliantly conveyed. Startlingly soin fact.. Pianos were palpable. PERCUSSIONS WERE DONWRIGHT ERIE REAL.

Truly a huge step up in audio presentation were now issuing forth from the Jamo’s transducers and their twin 15 inch woofers. Like I said, a sub is optional.

The Meitner site benefit story says the MA1 eliminates jitter as the result of the built in design technology. They won’t get an argument from me on that topic.

Checking out the heads that were nodding positively, I felt the crowd was overwhelmingly enjoying the latest runner in the field of 4. I found that aspect a tad bit astounding all by itself. A throng of audio nuts in more or less, agreement?

Fascinating. Must have been a Eclipse.

Of course, one should expect such WoWs! And Ooohs! To come forth from the mouth of a $7,000.00 DAC! And there was! Add to it all that this DAC is as simple as it gets to use and enjoys ‘plug & play’ status, and the wow! factor looms larger. It has USB port in the rear which enables it to be updated. A lot of thought and intense forward thinking designs went into this converter and I applaud Ed Meitner for what he has slammed onto the D to a table. It should get a lot of positive buzz and deserves it.

But $7K ain’t just Cracker Jacks & Bazooka Gum change. Well, not yet anyhow. $7K too isn’t what the majority of afflicted audio nuts will outlay for their initial DAC, as a rule. However, and to it’s credit, the race in great digital sounding gear has begun to reach performance levels a lot more palpable so people can afford them, thanks in no small way to designers like Mr. Meitner & Mr. Stroncher, among others.

As much as the MA-1 had resolution and details in abundance they never felt edgy or hollow. There was more of a sense of reality than of bleached out images. Each snipet of each previewing track as it came and went at once was something I could nearly see with my ears. Great placement in space, fine tone control regardless the tune. Be it the down deep thumps and bumps which came across quite tuneful, or a quick smack of percussion or a blast from the brass section in the middle, or a symbol, vibraphone, or the sparkling star dust cast out into the audience on fancy jazz tracks they enjoyed a free flowing passage into our midst . the top end was congruent and coherent to the point of seamlessness with the midrange.

The melodies streaming thru the Meitner dAC and out of the Jamo R-909s were all welcomed without any thought of overt criticism. At least from me. It was far easier to find rightness than to nab something resembling an artifact. Ample loads of reality and non fatiguing sound to boot what else do you want? Eggs in your gbeer? I found the Meitner a pleasure to listen to in that system. So immense was the revealing nature of the Meitner I kept awaiting some stringent thread, some characature of leading edgte info, but none came forth. It stopped just short of those areas instead, it kept handing out big gobs of musical honesty which was indeed a real pleasure to hear. There was a sense of intense strength underlying all of the music. An ability akin to how bigger amps handle cone drivers better than do smaller amps, all the while.

In short, lots more “You are there” & “a lot more they are here” was going on following the Meitner insertion into the system.

Strong, real strong demo! Very Quick and sure footed and as well, nimble to the point of acrobatics when necessary. The Meitner sound wasn’t lush and romantic, it was more sincere and grounded in harmonic truths. It did an awful lot right. So much so, I felt a bit let down when the fire was removed beneath it’s footers and another DAC came onto the stage to show how high it could kick!

As another contender was being integrated into the reference rig, I pondered briefly and quietly to myself, this one will win. If it does not, well, I’ll shave with a rusty busted up vegetable can lid! Or a throw away razor I’ve used at least 3 times if I’m wrong. They’re about the same I think… and I do so enjhoy tiny bits of pain now and then. One must if one is to be a card carrying audio nut who lives on the ‘bleeding edge’.

Our 3rd party to the mix…. The Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC

The Invicta reappeared and I had hopes for it since I’ had that earlier peak previously that same week. Sonically, the Invicta DAC did come close to the Meitner DAC concert. It revealed roughly 90% of the info within the files being played that the Meitner illustrated still deeper. The Invicta continued to sing, showing it’self proficient at providing a close up perspective to the original musical venue.

The Invicta’s outright misses or near misses became realized in the lower region and upper midranges from the sheer contrast of these two latest thrillers. Way up on top a some what less filled out series of details was being recreated by the Invicta.

For instance, during the Genius loves Company albums cover of “Fever”, the slowly exuding steam wasn’t found to be as strong and appeared as but a slight hissing and not free flowing real steam to these ears.

Thru our one after the other idea for evaluation, the Invicta’s flaws were sadly , better detected. It showed me a less than capable firmness in the lower region and a strident representation of the upper end were plainly in evidence. Ordinarily I would discount such errors to the recording, or to a lack of power line conditioning, or even to the sibalence which raises it’s ugly head in the upper mids and lower trebles showing great harshness and often arriving when a simple ground loop in your cable TV hook up exists. But no, that wasn’t it.

No other DAC made the exact same mistakes at the exact same place in the recordings. A tad more wooly sounding double bass, and a A near bare bones upper mid range rendition reflected less glowingly on the audio strengths of the Invicta DAC as the result of our back to back demos.

Are these subjectively noted audible shortcomings or disparities from the Invicta to the Meitner, to be expected? It sure isn’t much of a reach to think so in my opinion. There is definitely some wisdom still in the notion, “You get what you pay for”.

But, my prematurely awarded winner in this DAC dash costs $3K more than the Invicta! So remember that, please. If you forget you’ll recall it as you reach for your check book.

Neither does the Meitner boast so much flexibility or so great a feature set as the Invicta DAC. The Invicta appears to have been designed for use as one’s audio hub, as it were. Handling the D?A duties, the volume control, feeding of image info into a video display, and enabling one private listening sessions via head phones. Singularly or in tandem.

Your usual Swiss Army Knife DAC. A one size fits all solution which does a lot of what it promises, and quite well indeed.

Making such claims from my listening to the Invicta it does seem harsh to say them as I have, I suppose. Be mindful, these summations are the direct results derived from back to back evaluations, and from my garnering as much objectivity and listening honesty as I could. I’m also dismissing many of it’s other amenities and judging it strictly on it’s voice, via USB.

Not every USB DAC I’ve run across does it’s USB duties as well as it does some of it’s other interfaces. My Bel Canto DAC 3, for example, yields it’s best melodies while being fed from my Lynx AES 16x card’s AES interface. I’ve tried each and every interface the DAC 3 possesses. In various configuations, with various cables. The AES input on the BC DAC 3 is the best door for music to enter thru and emerge from.

Although I really don’t have a dog in this hunt, I’m always open enough to see clear cut performance improvements when they land right in my lap.

I should remind all, just days earlier I was pondering what means would be required of me to join the Invicta fold. What do I need to sell, and how much more would I need to save up? So the Invicta is definitely no deadbeat DAC offering a ton of frills and fancies, but won’t be musical when push comes to shove. Not true. It simply is not AS musical as another much higher costing DAC. That’s all.

Without having to stand up under the light of these one after another comparisons? It’s truly a decent competent converter. Priced at $4K direct to you from the website, it is something I’d have to think about for a while. Other’s with deeper pockets will find the Invicta their next step up or their first one. Perhaps their last one. All by itself in a competent thoughtfully built stereo rig, it will sure put grins on your face and new dimensions in music will be demonstrated In the sound scape it paints for you.

I do feel, if you don’t have some other $7K DAC laying around the house, with which to do some A/b ing ,and only have $4K in the budget for a new USB DAC the Invicta should at least get a shot at an in home audition to see for yourself. Your DAC shopping journey might be a very short one. See the Resonessence Labs site for more info:

otherwise, and I contend enthusiastically the Meitner DAC is simply a superlative appliance for digital conversion if you can reach that mark with your DAC getting funding.

Our last entrant…. The Bel Canto 3.5VB DAC
Finally, and following a lengthier than the Meitner set up enigma, another involved trial of setting up and figuring out of the Bel canto 3.5 + began.

Noting we still had less than 30 audiophiles about the place, I mentioned maybe someone should run out and grab another dozen or so to get this show on the road! I didn’t get much support on that notion. Must have been the rain. So we enjoyed a lengthy respite to cleanse our ears with instead.

About an hour later the BC/Wavelength flock were up and soaring towards the Heavens. At this point I’m ruminating about the DACs I’ve previewed over the past years, and now these past few days including my own Bel Canto DAC 3 non VB affected unit. After some superb DACs have presented their wares publicly and with much applause and appreciation it was BCs turn at the helm. Well let me tell you it/they really took off!. And I do mean took off! Enchantingly. Amazingly as one other member put it.

Addressing the link from personal confuser or server to the audio system is no longer too much of a trick. Using USB was fueled by it’s simplicity and cost effectiveness alone. Then audio people who aren’t satisfied for long as well as some audio gear makers who see a way to make money quickly found a way to goof things up for everyone. But not in a bad way. First came the USB cable debates. Whew! Than came how much info could you shove down a USB 1.0 throat? So what USB format to use? The current norm is USB 2.0. WITH usb 3.0 already out and available on the latest computers, stand by for stil more confusion. USB 2.0can really deliver the goods. But still arguments abound over USB vs. IEEE or “Firewire” as it is refered to. Then there’s a second Firewire no les! Let’s toss in Ethernet from server storage, and the hits just keep on coming.

It’s daunting for sure. But we must dedicate ourselves to the task. Music has to be integrated somehow into our stereos!

Why is that?

I don’t really know, but someone online somewhere said we had to do it so I’m just following along like a good audiophile is supposed to do. SHEEP! I’m reduced to being a sheep. I guess it could be worse, I could be dinner.

So the better the interface the better the sound. Right? Absolutely. Either get yourself a DAC which will handle all that biz inside, or get one which allows (or commands) you to be more creative & esoteric with your contraptions.

Many have used PCI & USB sound cards out to AES, BNC, or SPDIF, to their resident DACs. Some use Squeeze boxes and other uses are everywhere. It comes down to these items, budget, ability, and means.

How fancy one gets is up to them as with anything… the sky and now the edges of the known universe are your limits, apart from the aforementioned. So get to it! You’ve already done your share of waiting. Get in where you fit in.

Back to B. C.
I felt one has to see the BC D 3.5 challenger as a whole of several pieces, and still in all, approaching the cost of the Meitner DAC just auditioned. In fact, I just wasn’t feeling too good by that late in the day, and had pretty low expectations as to how this unfairly arranged DAC is going to sound anyhow.
So I sat slumped in a chair well off the demo floor grumbling to myself and feeding on my prejudices and contempt priror to investigation were out and running wild. I still could not dismiss the Meitner sound still reeling on my audible memory. But wait… what’s that sound? Beginning with the first abbreviated test track I heard encroaching on my deliberations? Hmmm. Listening more closely I noticed a DAC and it’s converter rig doing better sonically than what all other candidates had yielded previously and I sat up attentively & quickly.

This was an attention getting gang of music rendering gear! I happened to be sitting well off axis at nearly 180 degrees from the sweet spot and the music I was hearing was approaching magical levels, even there! I stood up and gravitated towards the mass of folk being held in it’s sonic grip slowly and quietly. The closer I got the better off it revealed itself to my ears. The rightness of the performance the BC – Wavelength conclave was exuding was scary. Goosbumply. Satisfying. Really! The sound was just remarkable. Solid. Harmonically organic. Sweet! Revealing. 300b-ish but with more authority. Inject what ever glowing adjective you wish to inject, for this contraption was handing out ear candy at will. I found it markedly the best overall and my personal favorite of the day. I have no further adjectives to adorn that sound with. Feel free to come up with your own now.

Following this triumph the BC Wavelength grouping was used as a digital preamp using balanced interconnects into the BC 500 mono blocks. Now this adventure was not as was the setup criteria for the shoot out per se, but then it had not conformed to being a true USB DAC to begin with.

The BC DAC 3.5 doesn’t have a USB interface any longer. Hmmm. Wonder why?

Using the BC 3.5VB as the digital preamp was just an afterthought. It was however a very good after thought. The outcome was yet more fascinatingly true to timber and all the wile alarmingly musical! My own surprise was due to the entirely digital streaming and reproducing arms of the reference system.

Yeah. My contempt again enters the fray.

I’ve always been of a mind to have tubes in the signal flow somewhere. Such has been the digital state of affairs, and my own personal prefs. Only tubes allow a right illusion of audio to become 3 dimensional. Generally. I will routinely employ a preamp for that purpose. There were none in this display what so ever and the reproduction was engagingly interesting and most fulfilling. I found nothing errant or untoward. No thinness or wooly bottom ends to accept and attempt to ignore. The lower register was solid. Well built and substantial. It’s midrange facsimile was clean, clear, and musically natural. The upper mids too were without edge or brittleness. The top end air was quite evident and fascinatingly developed, easily denoting the space and relative positioning between musicians at their venue (s). An example was one demo cut I refered to earlier, “Fever” from Ray Charles’ “Genius Loves Company. In it, the steam slowly emerging in the backdrop as Ray and Natalie were debateing for attention, was just flat eerie , but way cool and appropriate to hear. The Ayre did not so reveal this, and the Meitener gave it less body and more sizzle, by contrast. It could be argued to the point where both the Meitner and BC 3.5VB were declared a toss up in the ‘steam’ debate, so close were these two.

Yet one more layer of the onion was getting peeled off the veiled forefront of the presentation by the BC combo now running the showas both volume minister and D/A converter. No NAD pre/pro. Simply BC to BC amps, and then into and out of the big Jamo’s.

All in all the BC – Wavelength ‘USB > SPDIF/BNC ‘bridge’ & well up the pricing ladder BNC cable handed out a command performance when used sans pre/pro. I found muyself considering just what could I sell to grab that little pride of digital rendering lions for my own.allowing myself the priviledge of changing my own mind, but not letting go of how impressed I was with the Meitner. Just in case of course.

Overall now, the sound was simply put, marvelous. Look Ma’, no tubes! Yep no tubes. If a fifth DAC was to be introduced, I no longer cared. I found enough satisfaction in what I’d just previewed to last me for a while.

follow up thoughts….
Everyone has heard this array or that setup which they could not forget and we banter bhack and forth about who’s sounded best and so forth. I’m not sure if the BC DAC 3.5VB inserted into my friends home audio and theater system was it or not. All I can actually say based upon what I heard that rain soaked day and in that setup do was amazingly pure. Attention getting and to a degree, more so than did the Meitner MA-1. But the Bel canto DAC had a good bit of help. A virtual DC off the grid power sup, a dedicated & upscale USB to SPDIF converter, and one even for me, costly BNC cable for the final interface leg to the DAC.

too bad and too late, I wondered just how that Meitner would do supplied by the Wavelength enterprise had it all been connected to it? Well, for $2,100 we can find out!

following my earlier thoughts on how the BC entry might be an unfair or at least less pure DAC to DAC hearing, I could not dismiss the Built in synergy. Synergy between itself and the BC monos and their grip on the Jamo top of the line reference speakers. No tube pre? Insane. And just how much more did that synergy separate the BC group from the Meitner, or did it really? Reflecting back now it well may be that each contestant yielded but another face to the music. An each to their own appraisal. Though in all, I can’t rid myself of the facts. The all BC setting got my attention to a deeper persuation than did the Meitner + BC amps had gone. So there’s that.

Greater and closer impedance matching could be the undefined factor and I tend to think it was to tell the truth from speculation. But when connected via the NAD pre/pro, it still had a fair edge on how it conveyed the notes and their residence in the bandwidth. That’s the rub in audioland. Always there is some inconsistency, some undefined factor, some mystery in how the system build should go, and the human factor stuffs itself into the fray making things still more gooey. Do recall folks, the $900 Wavelength gizmo could have been attached to the Meitner, but no one ever thought to do that I’m aware of. Is it the missing link? Did Gordon infuse some more magic into that converter than the BC DAC 3.5VB could muster all on it’s own??

Ultimately, I’m now picking out and splitting the best hairs I recall to unearth equipment truths. Those goose chases aside, I’ll always attempt to confine myself to the sound. Which one I prefer, or preferred, and which one if there were no other could I live with and dig for all time. To this end, for me, I’ll call it a toss up between the Meitner and the B.C., and try not to regret which side of the coin lands face up.

For my money, that event gave me far greater insight into just how far along ‘digital music’ has come now hearing the Invicta and Ayre QB9 1952. I got a reminder of how important synergy is to winding up with a great system or just a nice one. I actually feel now digital hasn’t much further to go if any, given the proper insertion and mix of audio components being produced and employed today. The future looks very bright for budding audio nuts as competition wars wage on, the cost for such D/A conversion will relax and sink them to saner numbers.

So which DAC is actually our winner here?

I’ll leave it to you. You folks go make your own picks, I’ve got enough on my own DAC plate now thanks in no small part to the Sun coast Audio Society’s most recent meeting. I both hate them and thank them for it and am truly appreciative of how the day was done and hosted.

It was a real top drawer afternoon!
Wow! Quite a mouthful, but as the attendee with the Invicta DAC in tow, I think you really nailed it with this comparison. IMHO, you should be writing reviews for fun and profit! The Bel Canto and Meitner (BTW, it was the Meitner Designs DAC2) definitely presented a more percussive "attack" than the Invicta and Ayre QB9, albeit at higher price points. However, those latter two were still very much "listenable", if not a tad more "organic", with both redbook and 24/96 tracks. FYI, I just found out the Resonessence Labs engineers are working on alternative digital filters that *might* yield a bit more "bite" to the Invicta's otherwise detailed and realistic soundstage. If so, this "swiss army knife" design may yet prove to be a killer value down the road. Time will tell!
Thank you for the extensive report Blindjim. I think that digital is just starting to realize its potential. I think we will see significant improvements in digital sound for years to come.
Blindjim, impressive report! Many thanks for taking the time to compose it.
For the past few days I've had the opportunity to directly compare the Invicta to a Bel Canto DAC 3.5VB (with VBS1 power supply and Reference umbilical) in my home setup. Turns out, the Bel Canto has a bit "hotter" RCA output (2.5 V) than the Invicta, so volume matching was our crucial oversight at the above mentioned "Shootout."

Once that variable was eliminated, I've found both DAC's to be virtually equivalent in providing a highly detailed, non-fatiguing, and musical soundstage. The Bel Canto has a very slight edge in overall percussive attack and treble extension, but the Invicta's new "Minimum Phase IIR" (beta) filter pretty much evens out the score. The Invicta gets the nod when it comes to low-level detail, and bass tightness. Both serve up an equally expansive soundstage and superb natural tone.

IMHO, the price differential ($4000 vs. $6000+) and additional features of the Invicta (headphone outs, USB and SD card playback, and potential future DSD playback capability) make it an overall much better value. I predict the Invicta will achieve more critical acclaim in the months ahead, as the Resonessence Labs engineers continue "tweaking" the filters and software interface, and more audiophiles get to audition it. Regrettably, I'm sending mine back to Kelowna, B.C. Canada for the time being, as we're starting a 3-4 month home remodel, and my listening setup is going into storage. However, I will be following the continued development of this unique DAC, and it will remain on my "short" list for future upgrades when my system is up and running again (hopefully by years end)!
Guys, the only Meitner badged DAC is the MA-1 (MA-2 is now limited release and is a player/DAC). The EMM Labs DAC2 is quite old (an only upports up to 24/48 on USB), and the brand new EMM labs DAC is called the DAC2X, is $15k+ and requires hundreds of hours of break in (released about 2 months ago so not sure it was this DAC). I own the MA-1. The nomenclature is clearly on the front face...Which DAC was this??
I rechecked the photos, and it was, indeed, the older EMM Labs/Meitner Designs DAC2. The original poster mistakenly thought it was the Meitner MA-1. It would have been great to have had either the MA-1 or DAC2X in the lineup, but we were limited to what club members had on hand. Current generation DAC's, at a minimum, need to have 24/192 capability for all inputs (ideally, with native USB support, which the Bel Canto lacks). All other things being equal, DSD support would be a major "plus." The DAC2X supports DSD via USB, whereas that's only a planned upgrade for the Invicta. However, the Invicta is ~1/4 the price of the DAC2X.
This was one of the best dacs comparisons i've read. Wish you are able to compare more models in the future :)
I'd love to read some DAC shootouts that compare some well reviewed <$1000 DACs like mhdt or BEnchmark with others at various price points including a DCS DAC, which I suspect is one of the best.

That might really get some folk's dander up though I suspect.
Sleepy and I compared the Invicta to my Audio Note recently in a separate listening session.

I think it's a little difficult to compare gear in your system to other because to some degree you get "used to" the sound your gear delivers, it becomes your de facto reference. And of course we try to balance the other components of our system, tune them to each other.

That said, here are what I felt were the differences between the two:

-- the Invicta was very forward, to my ears perhaps somewhat "aggressive" even and very resolving.

-- by contrast I found the AN to be more natural, more relaxed, I think sleepy used the word organic, a bit less hi-fi and the more musical of the two. In other words instruments and voices had the qualities I'm familiar with in real life.

-- the Invicta seemed to offer more extension into the bass, and possibly a little into the highs. Highs were harder to tell, they were similar. However where I found the AN to be natural in the highs I found the Invicta a bit harsh.. The Invicta had noticably tighter, deeper, faster bass. The AN bass in the regions the Invicta got to seemed more a suggestion than detailed.

I think since the comparison was done sleepy has reported new software for the Invicta and improved results. I couldn't live with the Invicta on it's original software, it was not a relaxing, pleasing experience to me. But again my ears are tuned to the AN. It was clearly a better DAC than many I've heard, offering more detail, good extension, and slam, especially down low, but I'd stick with the AN, for my tastes.

As far as 96 vs 192 I think the jury is still out, I've seen enough questioning the value of the extra resolution to not be convinced yet, and I am really happy with the 96 the AN delivers, and in fact have 44 bit recordings I find more involving and realistic than some of my hi rez; so much still depends on the recording and will imo for the foreseeable future. Personally, Id choose the unit with the sonic profile I like before worrying about 96 or 192.