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,

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 :)