Valab NOS USB DAC - First impression

I just received the Valab DAC last night. After reading about how great this $200 device performed, I had to try it.

I had been trying to get the music files from my Mac Mini to sound as good as possible. Since the Mini did not have any other built in audio output, I had been limited to using the mini toslink output into a Musical Fidelity TriVista 21 DAC. I had believed that the digital output of 1's and 0's would allow me the present all the original information from the lossless audio files on my hard drive to the MF TriVista, and then up to my Jadis Orchestra Reference. I thought this should have sounded as close to the original as possible, but the results were disapointing. It did not come close to playing the original CD in my CAL Delta transport through the MF.

I experimented with all the formats (wav, Apple Lossless, MP3) I could find, and tried different recording frequencies as well. I set the MF to 192khz and then to 96khz.... still sounded poor. I was thinking that the problem might be either in the hardware ( optical cable, optical output from Mini, or optical input on MF).

While troubleshooting my weakest link, the Valab arrived. I unpacked and examined it. Looked small, but fairly solid and had a serious, no frills demeanor to it. I quickly hooked it up.

OK... cabling was this:

From Mini's USB port I used just a cheap computer grade USB A to B cable about 6 foot long.
I used a pair of 1m StraightWire Serenade IC from the Valab to the Jadis.
I used the same heavy OFC Silver-plated Audiophile Power Cable that had been on the MF. This looked like overkill, but what the heck.

The Jadis then feeds a pair of Dali Helicon 800 speakers via a pair of Synergistic Research Tesla Accelerator cables. And that is my basic system at this point.

OK... the moment that I played my first file I knew that I was on the right track. The range seemed expanded on both the high and low ends, and the air between the instruments was much more definite and some of what I heard people describe as grayness seemed to disapear. The music was clear and crisp. I was smiling and listened to a few different files that I had been experimenting with. Everything sounded terrific.

At this point, I believe my weak point may lie in the optical output of the Mini. I will report back on the later.

As far as comparing the quality of the music delivered by the 2 DACS, I cannot comment on that, as both sound extremely excellent to me, and I don't feel that I have enough experience with writing about audio equipment that I could give you a fair report in this area. But at this point I am thrilled with the sound from both.

I wanted to contribute something back to Audiogon because I really feel that I found a great group of very unselfish music lovers who have already helped me improve my listening pleasure. I hope this may help someone building a system like mine.

Thanks! - Matt
Thank you for this...I've been tempted. Keep us updated for sure.
I have been listening to the Valab for about a week now, and I still like it. I am wondering if anyone has compared it to any of the other low cost DACs with USB interface. I know I got my $200's worth, but being a newbie makes me wonder if my ear is not trained yet to listen for the best musical sound possible.

I like the soundstage and clarity of the files coming off my hard drive. The highs and lows are terrific, but beyond that, I am confused on what to listen for.... and I'd love to learn.

I am going to find a HiFi group in the Chicago area to see if I can learn more about optimising my music. Any reading care to recommend a group?

Thanks again - Matt
Matt, in my experience the Valab sounds good during break in but after about 180 hours it settles down opens up and smoothes out.
Thanks Phill,
So far it sounds great. I just added the Telefunken 12ax7's and they seem to have opened it up also. Are you using USB in your setup?
I'm not sure what you mean by adding 12ax7's, there are no tubes in the Valab dac, it's solid state. No, I'm using coax and toslink.
Sorry about the confusion. I swapped out the 12ax7's on my Jadis, not the Valab. The soundstage is really something else.
Phil, did you try the USB to a computer yet? I just used Exact Audio Copy to get a Telarc Fantastic Journey to a wav file and then played it through the USB port to the Valab..... really sounds so nice. Some great sound effects that play out nicely in your soundstage.
The USB port was the main reason that I purchased the Valab.
I'm using a Valab DAC myself. Right now it has less than 20 hours of playing time on it but i'm very impressed with it. I agree with the OP, The Valab seems very extended at the frequency extremes. I'm still trying to figure out whether the spot on images are a product of the DAC or my preamp but it images beautifully. The Valab has also a beautiful midrange, and deep bass which is something my Paradisea + didn't. Last, it's a lot quieter than the Paradisea +. This could be a byproduct of the tube in the Paradisea against the solid state design of the Valab. Cons ? Well, the first time I hooked it up to my DVD player it dropped the signal about three times in two hours. I was extremely dissapointed at that but to my surprise, it's been two weeks and almost 20 hours of continnuos play whithout a hiccup. Strange indeed. At $200 I cannot recommend the Valab enough.
Well, I have been running it for 2 weeks now. It still sounds very good between my Mac Mini and my Jadis. It does seem to run pretty hot even though it is loaded up with a huge heat sync.
I still prefer the sound of the Musical Fidelity when it comes to listening to CDs, but the Valab is the only way I have to listen to music files off my hard drives. I am very happy that I bought the Valab NOS DAC for $200 on EBAY. It adds a huge amount of convenience to selecting music.... much easier than loading CDs into a transport. For the time being, it is a keeper as far as I am concerned.
The Valab in my system beats the Bel Canto DAC3 for sheer musicality. It is perhaps the least hi-fi sounding DAC I have tried. It is nicely balanced and smooth sounding but presents details nicely. It is not hi-fi spectacular but it is "musically" spectacular where everything sounds right. Listening to music with it is equivalent to taking a musical shower where you're just relaxed and soaking in the musical message being presented. Excellent DAC!

Kenobi -
I am going to temporarily replace my MF TriVista 21 with the Valab over the weekend. It should be a great test because I have some new gear that I have just hooked up and haven't gotten used to yet, even though it blows the doors off what it replaced.

On the TriVista, I am listening to some Dido right now, and she has some really interesting electronic sounds smoking through her tunes. The soundstage also seems to push her drummer further back and softer in volume, but more clarity in the various drums he is tapping.

I like your description of taling a musical shower, soaking in the musical message. My description has been that when the music takes over control, I close my eyes and drift into space with the music swallowing me. It surronds me and relaxes me to the point that I seem to 'wake up' after a track or two have played. It completely takes me away.

Anyway, I will relay my thoughts after swapping in the Valab.
Well, it is really hard for me to tell the difference between the Valab and the TriVista DACS. Both sound very good. I may have too much new stuff introduced at the same time right now.

I am going to try another experiment, taking both DACS at the same time, using one to play cd's through a Teac VRDS and the other to play files through the Valab. That should be informative.

Any suggestions on how to test and evaluate these components will be very welcome.