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,

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?