Review: Ultra Fi DAC-41 DA converter

Category: Digital

I was talking with a friend the other day about the DAC-41, especially its qualities and what we liked about it. We were listening to it at the time. He was playing a wide spectrum of performers and genres: Evans, Habib Koite, Mehldau, Tosca, Kruder and Dorfmeister, Radka Toneff, Neil Young, Ottmar Liebert…just to get a sense of the range and characteristics (if any) of the DAC.

As we listened, our conversation drifted into our audio preferences, our essentials as they reflected our personal and specific music preferences. These are things we care about and notice most of all. Things that bring pleasure, particularly those we enjoy about music reproduced by a good system rather than listening to an audio system and its components for the audiophile “Wow factor” often heard at shows and in showrooms.

I found it interesting that we found ourselves talking about the experience of music, rather than the experience of a DAC or sound system.

Time and again, we returned to the topics of the essential nature and qualities of listening to musicians playing together, their aural spaces and vocal and instrumental relationships within the song or composition, the importance and value of the perception of place, say a church with an acoustic guitarist, or a trio in a club or on stage with an audience in a hall. And what such things contributed to the listening experience.

At one point he commented that he thought that the length of time a person spends listening might have a lot to do with the components they have selected. That the “Wow Factor” often plays well for twenty minutes or a half an hour, but over substantial listening periods he found himself fatigued. And I agree. Things that for short periods of time seem fresh and clean and invigorating over time can seem clinical and tiring.

The DAC-41 does some remarkable things, no doubt about that. One of its great strengths is providing the listener with lots of involving, deeply involving, listening time. So if you value that kind of experience, this DAC is the one for you. I’ve found that each time listening to music files with the DAC-41 is a new discovery of the music I didn’t know I had.

Days later, I realized that in many ways what we talked about is like certain types of friendship.

Some friends are spectacular. Splashy, stylistic, vital, energetic, fresh, so now: a great vacation, a new hybrid, a skydive, a recent great hike or bike ride, an iPad2 and a Starbucks too, etc. Such friends are great fun to go out to coffee or clubbing. Yet when you spend time in conversation, the quirks, the latest exclamations of speech and slang, the cool body lingo, the pronounced tilt of attitude and personality: all of it eventually gets tiresome, and quickly.

But with other friends, more time spent leads to more involvement, more understanding, more comprehension, a deeper sense of relationships and timing, a deeper sense of character and essence, a deeper appreciation for the essential things we value. We part from friends like this wanting more. And that’s the best: wanting more time. If you value this kind of experience, that is what the DAC-41 is all about in music. Wanting more time listening with it rather than wanting more midrange, or treble and bass extension.

I have a friendship with Larry Moore’s DACs that has lasted over five years now. This began with a completely accidental introduction to his first DAC, the iRoc. I was visiting an LA designer and manufacturer of high-end speaker and interconnect cables a month or two after CES and noticed this little Ultri Fi iRoc box on the rack in the studio. Ted said they used it to demonstrate their USB cables at CES and that it was a great little DAC.

I called Larry Moore, he sent me one for an audition, and long story short, I ended up buying three of them: one for each of my systems. Time passed, DACs improved and became much more common in the audiophile market place, I tried several others, but none under $1500 competed with the iRoc; several over that money also could not compete. The usual experience: great detail, but musicality? Not so much. Or, wonderful sense of PRAT and musicality, but detail… not so much. So I stayed with the iRocs.

Until about a year or so ago when dbaudiolabs began to market the Tranquility and Tranquility SE DACs. Both were designed by Larry Moore.

I was very skeptical, but auditioning them, I was surprised to find that both exceeded the detail and musicality of the iRoc, so I ended up buying a pair of Tranquility DACs, one an SE and the other the base model. I kept one iRoc on a non-critical surround system (used in 2 channel playback) on which it is outstanding, a perfect fit.

In the process of owning the Tranquility, I discovered the virtues of SSD HDs and increased RAM in the MacMini 2010, of high quality USB cables and careful selection of peripheral HDs, and many other related things. Everything I preferred in music reproduction was now living in my home. Detail, musicality, image depth, relationships in space between and with instruments and voices, timing. An amazing liquidity and flow. Wow, I was pleased.

And then one day I got a call from Larry Moore asking me if I’d be willing to listen to something he was working on. He said it was a prototype, not yet ready for commercial. He just wanted my opinion.

A nice looking black box he cryptically called DAC-41 arrived… I set it up on my most revealing and finicky system. (Simply put, if this system doesn’t like a source component, I’ll know right way.) He said the DAC was broken in, but I let it run for a couple of days without listening to it. In my experience, the whole system has to get used to a new component. Everything has to find a new fit when something new is brought into the “ecosystem.”

And then I listened. It seemed this thing had nested itself into the system so seamlessly, a clear and effortless stream of music. I cannot say I’ve ever had a similar experience of surprise and astonishment.

I listened for hours. I got tired of sitting, but not of listening. I can’t recall that happening recently. Even on my TT setup.

The thing I notice most of all is how the DAC-41, on well recorded music, tracks so deftly and liquidly the fine line of detail and musicality. And its realization of the sense of space between voices (voices are just magical), between instruments (especially acoustic), between voices and instruments, and the palpability of aural space when the music is recorded outside of the studio: the air around the music being played is now part of the whole experience. It was there all along; just never had a DAC that released the space within music that way.

One strong music preference for me is the sense of music being played by human beings. Things like the touch and texture of hands on drumheads are important to me. The feel of bass, particularly acoustic bass. The slide and pluck of fingertips on strings, the almost visual sense of the strings and fingers, the occasional breathing of the bassist, the sense of the bassist’s body wrapped around the instrument, a part of the timbre of the instrument. Viola de gambas, cellos, violins, mandolins: the touch or strike of the bow, the bow on strings, and the finger tips sliding to positions. The amazing tonalities of horns. Hearing the brass in the brass horn. Sensing the reed, its texture and vibe, in the sax or clarinet. These are many of the things I value in the musical experience.

The DAC-41 makes possible these things and provides that conversation I mentioned earlier between good friends, the ones we are sorry to end the conversation with, the ones with qualities we look forward to, continuing in our next meeting.

I recommend it highly.

:) listening,

Thanks for sharing but would you be able to clarify a couple of points?

1. This appears to be a review of the prototype. Since you are obviously impressed by the DAC-41, did you buy one? And if so, is it sonically identical to the prototype? Is it even better?

2. Can you please describe more objectively how the DAC-41 improves on the Tranquility and the Tranquility SE and to what degree? Does it have better extension? More detail? More liquid midrange? Is it a 5% or a 20% improvement? Is it as big of an improvement in your opinion from the regular Tranquility to the SE? We know you dig Larry's DAC designs, and no offense, but your review reads more like a romance novel and is rather umm... sensuous. Is this considered audio porn? :P

I have to say this DAC is quite a step up from the signature. I've been living with the Tranquility for about a year and had the opportunity to listen to both the signature and the 41 for a week. It took me a couple days to really pinpoint the differences from the Tranquility to the Signature, but after the 41 it took 2 songs. It is amazing how clear everything became. The sound stage focused. A superb presence of each instrument in its own space, width and depth. But the most amazing part is how natural (real) vocals sound. Yes, it was there before in the other DACs but not at this level. It is like a veil was lifted. Not only in detail but in the air around every word, every breath. I was not expecting such a dramatic difference. Trying to put a percentage on the sonic difference is tough. If we are talking DACs only and the Tranqulity is the base, from tranquility to signature was 15% change, it wasn't an immediate sonic difference, but when you AB them it was easier to hear the clarity and smoothness of the signature. Going from signature to the 41 would be 40%. I instantly heard the difference and could blindly pick the DAC everytime. This is only my second week so there is still is a lot of listening to do, but after the 41 I can't go back to the others (which are pretty dam good already).
I promise I’ll get to your concerns and requests, but while I have your attention, please indulge my thoughts for a moment or two.

My review might seem to be side-stepping a direct head-to-head contrast/comparison of the Tranquility SE DAC and the Ultra Fi DAC-41. And, in writing it, to a certain extent I was.

I wanted to avoid as much of the left-brain chatter that intrudes into this sort of thing as possible. If only to avoid the consumerist mentality that is supported by that kind of thinking. Yeah, I know, this is audiogon, not the tao of audio. Nevertheless, if not here… where?

Listening to music when we are there to enjoy the music and nothing else… is similar to what happens when we read a novel that takes us into its world, its people, its conflicts; we cease noticing that we are reading black and white blocks of letters and words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters on the page; in other words, instead of noticing word choice, sentence patterns, usage, style, etc. we are propelled into our imagination, and we imagine that world. The same is true of film. We walk into a building after having paid for our ticket, smell the smells of popcorn, elbow our way through the crowd, find a seat, sit looking at a screen among many people also taking their seats, and talk with one another. We are in this world. When the lights go down, the commercials and other junk pass, and the world of the film opens and is sustained, we cease to notice the projection, the screen, the crowd, the seats, in fact, we forget we are watching a movie, we are in its world.

We are perceiving in that imaginative world.

Ideally, when we listen to music for the music the world of audio disappears. If you are asking, does the DAC-41 disappear the audiophile’s left brain world into the imagined world of musicians and singers performing, similar to that of a good novel or film… well, in a minute.
Listening to music for the music involves both left and right brain processes, and one of the things that I think is very limiting in audio, time and time again, are left-brain focused reviews. Very linear, and very either-or, A vs. B evaluations occur 100% of the time when our audiophile ears are on or heads.

A implied argument in my review is the suggestion that this is not what is going on when we are listening for the music.

Is the imagined world created by Shakespeare better than Tennessee Williams in a head-to-head contrast/comparison? Is the imagined created by Bill Evans better than the world of Beethoven? I hope you can appreciate the absurdity of making such A-B evaluations.

Is the imagined world created by the DAC-41 better than that created by the Tranquility SE? I’ll get to that…

When we listen to music to experience what we value in music that left-brain linearity diminishes and is replaced by something else, which I find for the purposes of this review much more interesting and valuable. So, my fellow left-brainers, one of the things I wanted to attempt in my review was different approach. Whether that is a success or not, I’ll leave to you and interested Audiogon members to decide for themselves.

One of the things I have come to realize in the reproduction of recorded music, aka audio, is that what makes a pleasing listening experience pleasing is made up of many factors different for each system and listener. So much is subjective, something I tried to predicate in my review.

But you have asked about the differences between the Tranquility, the Tranquility SE, and the DAC-41.
Having said all these things (and remember that I am in praise of Larry Moore’s designs and products and his evolution from the iRoc to the DAC-41)… on my best system, the difference between the Tranquility SE and the DAC-41 is equivalent to the difference between the iRoc and the Tranquility SE (and more). It is an amazing step into a non-digital sounding, lifelike quality in recorded music. Bad recordings remain bad recordings. But on well-recorded music, the life-like sense of flow is amazing. And at Larry’s price, a bargain.

Understand, I have high praise for the Ultra Fi iRoc, the dbaudiolabs Tranquility and the Tranquility SE. I have lived with these DACs for a long time listening to them day in and day out, and in the case of the iRoc, for five years. The iRoc, the Tranquility, and the Tranquility SE on many systems should be outstanding fits, and the greatest capabilities of the DAC-41, particularly bass and treble extension, might be entirely lost on those systems that are optimized by those other DACs.

In order to hear all of what the DAC-41 is fully capable of, it needs to be on a system that allows the revelation of those capabilities and qualities.

On my two other systems which also have DAC-41s, (btw, my review was based on the commercial DAC-41, not prototypes), the DAC-41is just amazing, much better in bass, treble, midrange, liquidity, depth, and presence than the Tranquility SE, the Tranquility, or the iRoc. But because of the limitations within those systems what the DAC-41 brings to them is less than what is revealed on my most revealing system.

On my most revealing system, the DAC-41 makes my preamp’s medical grade Telefunken 12AX7s and Brimar 6060 T 12AT7s strut and swag their upper register extension in ways I’ve never heard before on my system. The bass extension is, likewise, as they used to say in the 70’s, “not too shabby.”
I fully realize that if I had amps, a preamp, speakers and cabling of far better quality than I currently own, the DAC-41 would probably reveal qualities in music which are currently unavailable in my system. So, in my opinion, the DAC-41 is mispriced. It is a bargain.

I don’t know Electromatic who posted above this reply, but I agree with his comments entirely. I’m not too enthusiastic about percentages in this context, but I agree with his conclusions.

Now as to “audio porn” that highfinut604 brought up… That, I had never thought of.

Immediately I thought of the possibilities:
in reviewing cabling, single-ended verses Xlr;
in reviewing speakers, the o qualities of woofers and tweeters; the big bad bass and tiny tweeters (“I like champagne glass tweeters myself’);
in reviewing amps and preamps, tube vs. solid-state;
in reviewing speaker cables, naked connections vs. banana-plug…

ah, the endless possibilities… so little time… so much possibility!

but thanks for the inspiration.

It made me think of that famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his remarks regarding the case known as Jacobellis vs. Ohio in 1964 when he said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…” (from Wikipedia).

You must have known it to see it; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc. etc. etc…

Get your hands on DAC-41; in my humble opinion, you’ll love it!

:) listening,

One other thing I thought I might add to my comments.

I attend house concerts on a frequent basis. Friends who have connections in the music industry book musicians and their groups to play their music in someone's home. We all pay up equal shares to meet the costs of the gig.

So I have a great familiarity with sitting in very close proximity to musicians playing and singing, usually unamplified aka acoustic.

When I listen to my best systems with the DAC-41 on board, and I listen to these same musicians whom I have heard live, I have that distinct sense of "being there."

I know the proxemics of a live performance and their effects on music. The DAC-41 replicates that for me.

Hope that answers a few questions!

:) listening,

Ed, as a regular concert-goer I appreciate how your comments are based around the context of real music and musical enjoyment. As an audiophile, however :-), there are some things I would like to know. In my searching I have not found any information about even the basic I/O of this new DAC. The picture on AC (and on the Ultra website)is only of the front. What sort of conectivity does the DAC-41 have? Does it have a built in PS or an external supply?
Hi Tonyptony, I can't answer all of your questions; you'll have to ask Ultra Fi that; perhaps Larry will see these posts and get back to you. You could also email him through Audiogon.

As to I/O and connectivity: The DAC-41 has a single USB connection, a single pair of LR single-ended connections for output, and a single IEC AC power input. No LED as wtih the Tranquilities.

I am experimenting with power cables on the DAC-41 and so far PCs seem to make less of a difference than they did with the Tranquility and Tranquility SE. I think I recall in a phone conversation with Larry that the PS is built in, and is substantially different than the Tranquility or Tranquility SE.

Get your hands on a DAC-41; I think you'll like it.

:) listening,

Thanks for the additional comments from Istanbulu and Electromatic. I don't like assigning percentages either, as it is such a subjective valuation but how noticeable the DAC-41 A/B's with the previous designs is a good indicator of performance. I understand that you guys have high praise for Ultra Fi's designs. One additional question I have is whether you have tried other highly regarded DACs in the price range or even state of the art ($5K+) designs?

For the record, I own the Tranquility SE and I do like the sound. I think I have a pretty revealing system ($20K amp, $13K speakers, and about $12K in power distribution and cabling if we were going by retail numbers) and I have so far reluctant to invest big in digital because it apparently advances so fast. A few weeks ago, this would have been an inexpensive upgrade given the DAC-41's extremely aggressive pricing. However, with the current fire sale on Tranquility SE's, the upgrade has become more of a stretch. I have flashbacks of years ago when I was into computer gaming and picked up the new top of the line video card, and they come out with one twice as fast 6 months later for 3/4 the cost!

I can't dispute the claims on the DAC-41 because I haven't heard one, but to me, it is seems rather incredible that in under a year, the magnitude of refinement of iteration 41 (of presumably the same NOS DAC design) can far surpass the previous 2 iterations over a 5 year period. Typically, it is harder and harder to to extract further performance from an iterative process. It's like a car tuner being able to squeeze 400HP from a performance engine five years ago, 425HP two years ago, 440HP last year, and then 500HP this year, from basically the same engine, and it's 25% cheaper and 30% more fuel efficient to boot. Very hard to believe.

I will believe without a doubt the DAC-41 beats the previous designs, but my only question remains on how it would fare against the top current designs from the competititon in the $1K market, for instance, the new Eastern Electric Minimax DAC Plus...

I'm hoping that some guys can organize a DAC shootout of the current best efforts from the major players. :)

I'm glad the new DAC has brought such musical joy to those who have heard it.
Hi all,
I'm believer when first hear the Tranquility SE from friend's system.
Then I bought from Larry the new Tranquility SE 2 which turn out to be DAC 41. I start selling all my CD players and Dacs that I have in 2 systems and "the back up" as well :)
Recently, I bought the old Musicstream and older IROC to compare with DAC 41
In my system, all tubes, the Musicstream is sound smoother, wider stage, more musical than DAC 41. System synergy?
I'm talking about a good margin here.
I use dB audio labs, Ridge Street, and RAL cryosilver.
The IROC is a couple steps below these two, but one heck of value when you can find an used one here :)
Sorry, I'm not good at audio cliché but I like what I hear
BTW, my Mac Minis are tweak with SSD, upgrade RAM, PureMusic, and the whole list from Eric :)
Finally got a minute of breathing room what with the preparation for RMAF to respond.

First off, thanks so much Ed for the wonderful review. It's always nice to have your work appreciated.

And, similarly, thanks to Electromatic and Thuan98 for your follow ups.

Tonyptony, I think Ed answered your questions; but, if not, gimme a ring and I'll be more than happy to spend whatever time is necessary with you.

Hifinut604, I love your horsepower references being a car guy myself. Remember a few years ago when that age old E36 M3 placed extremely high overall at the 24 hours at Daytona? A car design that was some 20 years old?? Pretty cool stuff.

As to your comment on design, I wish it worked as you suggest, and I think once upon a time it did. However, practicing intellectual property law for some time now has taught me that today, it just doesn't quite work that way anymore. The days of "Eureka!" we have something new are a bit passé I'm afraid. Not to say it doesn't happen; but, we've just done a lot more things now and that makes it harder for that to happen.

Today's developments are more a matter of continuous iterative improvement of a particular item resulting from intense study and labor over time rather than wholesale changes or the Eureka moment I described earlier.

Design development is more of an institutional/corporate endeavor rather than spark from an individual in their garage....

That said, I think much of my DAC development mirrors this view.

I'd also like to add that many of the things, though certainly not all, I included in the DAC-41 were presented for consideration to what is now dB Audio Labs. For whether reason(s), the decision to include them in products were not made. So, I can see why you might conclude what you did.

In any event, thanks for your thoughts.

Thuan98, look at the free Snow Leopard OS optimizations that can be found on my website. I think there may be some things in there that Eric may not have told you.

Larry D. Moore, Esq.
Ultra Fi
(513) 417-0130
Hi Larry,
Thanks for the guide - From Eric's note and other Mac Mini owners, the "best" USB is the second from the right if look from front

Your guide mentioned the best is furtherest left if look from the front
We're talking about 2010 Mac Mini here
Honestly, my ears are not "golden ears" to detect the differences
Any comment?

I really don't know where Eric's USB port selection came from. Didn't even realize he was still around. You sure you're not confusing the 2009 mini or earlier? System specific?? Dunno???

I use the latest version of the Ridge Street Audio Enopias USB cable and stand by what I wrote. Moreover, I've verified this in a couple of other high resolving and musical systems and arrived at the same results as was found in my reference system.

I guess YMMV,

I am a new DAC-41 owner. Boy, this thing is pretty amazing. I got it as part of my effort to downsize my audio system. I've only had two nights of listening by my initial impression is that it rivals my old Marantz SA7, the best digital source I have heard to date. It's in the same camp as far as liquidity, flow, and tone go anyway.

Despite what some say I do not think it (& by extension the Tranquility which it must have a lot in common with) rivals the amount of musical detail you get with a good LOMC vinyl setup, but what it is in its own right is quite impressive indeed.
With 500 plus hours on the DAC41, I assembled 7 audio/musician friends aged 28 to 68, all with favorite music genres. The common thread among the group is the love of live music and the desire to have like dynamics in our audio rooms. Switching the Tranquility SE and 41 in and out, both with Mr Moore's new power side isolated USB cord produced a unanimous and profound preference for the DAC41. Why ? Many differences. The stage had a new resolution, one most hear when room treatments are working well. The stage had a correctness as the music was decidedly more focused both dimensionally and dynamically. Instruments were audibly more correct in the sense of tone and the music followed a more natural presentation. A surprise was the bass. This was a bass with character, made of components, not the usual summation of basal noise most audiophiles misconstrue as "slam". Seek a respectable concert, and witness the bass tones are individual, discrete, building to multiple point of strike and pointed decay. This is not a point source noise, a low level smear, but an audible assembly of low tone instruments in concert. Rock types may not discern differences, but trained ears do. Two among us are pianists. Passages from Keith Jarret, Bob Long, George Winston soon brought smiles. My concert pianist smiled, "I've never heard the key thump, before the notes"..... a revelation shared amongst us all. Here is a DAC capable of subtle differences, provided by a succinct black background. Barely an audible nuance escapes the ear. Yes, perhaps a trained ear, but a joy for those looking for true dynamics, not noise better described as distortion. This was without Moore's new USB cable. Once installed and A/B'd with the SE, the DAC 41 trumped. Note separation and air became more remarkable, staging that much more alive.

Mr Moore has followed up with some science behind the DAC design. Chip power supplies can be the champ or foe of chip design and the resultant musicality. A new dual purpose supply board is apparently available in this non FET design that is the UltraFi DAC 41. Eliminating the two previous supply designs into a new surface mount has stepped the ante up another notch

We were all quite pleased, NOS at it's best !

Thanks for the kind words - it's always nice to have your work appreciated.

Also, I just want to let everyone know that that the DAC-41 now ships with the TWIN REG upgrade. This is a really nice addition and makes the DAC-41 even better still.

Larry D. Moore
I haven't upgraded with the Twin Reg yet, but I just wanted to say that the DAC-41 just keeps improving over time. Everything about it gets more musical, and the music space around the speakers grows much, much larger... more involving and detailed. This thing is just awesome imho!

:) listening,

I went from a Tranquility SE to the DAC41 a few months ago and last week took Larry up on his Twin Reg upgrade offer. I immediately noticed the bass was better behaved, intruding less & had more character.
I don't have any musical abilities, can't even whistle but I'm more involved than ever before.

Update: Several months back, I posted above re my UltraFi DAC41 review. Recently, I had Mr Moore add in the new Twin Reg output. I'm not one to have much to say, unless improvements are remarkable. Safe to say, this modification is hugh ! I'm running open baffle with servo bass. Vocals are more pronounced with a sense of fullness. Enunciation has increased depth and focus, with a pleasant melodic firmness. Then, a big surprise, bass instruments, even those orchestrally buried, have a new sense of presence. The DAC's improved focus has a profound resultant resolution. With this, I find the bass instruments blooming with a sense of depth, strike, and decay while resolved within the musical content. This is REMARKABLE !! I'm really intense about classical, it's now better than ever. If you haven't done the upgrade, it's time, you simply owe it to your ears. No need to go second or third party with modifications, Mr Moore is the consummate designer, don't mess with a good thing. Great job !!
I'm more or less with Tasar. Made the five hour drive to Larry Moore's studio a month or two ago. Took my 41 with me to have the Twin Reg put in. Got to do a direct comparison between a 41 with and mine without the Twin Reg. My 41 without the Twin Reg is a great DAC but, when we put in the a Twin Reg'd DAC, after a few notes I just turned and looked at Larry as if to say 'You gotta be Sh%#ing me!' Seriously, for the money, this is a 'no brainer' for an already great DAC!

I compared this to a $10,000 Ayon Skylla 2. The Dac-41 was better for 1/10 the price, and at about 1/10th the size and weight.

Very musical. Very transparent. DEAD NEUTRAL. Definitely stressing the macro over the micro even though the detail is excellent. calming to the ears- and more emotionally engaging than the best tube equipment I ever owned.

I have the new version with async. USB input.