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,

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.