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Three for Three - DACs
from LessLoss, BD Design, and Devilsound
When I first pondered the opportunity to pen reviews of the LessLoss DAC 2004 Mk II, BD Design CrazyT and Devilsound USB DAC, I didn't quite realize the implications each of these machines would have on my psyche. Yep psyche. Not to get carried away here, but considering that we are now well into the brave new ways of the world moving forward, I believe it's safe to say that the good ol' Compact Disc is practically passé as music playback medium. Yes, I realize that peeps are still buying disc en masse—however, that I think has more to do with the fact that a) downloads are still limited in quality, b) people still seem compelled to hold something substantial in their hands (note the popularity vinyl regained), c) there's simply tons of used material out there which can be had for nearly half if not less the cost of a new disc, and ultimately, d) other than a handful of high-res download sites, iTunes only offers most music in compressed AAC 256k resolution, which, given a proper playback system can become a limiting factor.
Playback is a story all together different. I would venture to say that most people come home, drop that newly purchased disc into their Mac (or PC), load iTunes and click "import disc" for distribution to their home audio system, iPod, or iPhone. I know, because that's what I do. Now, I don't use iTunes to import my music (I have some issues with tagging, sorting, and such)—Poikosoft's Easy CD-DA Extractor 12.0.8 does that for me—alas, same story, different means of getting there. My MacBook and PC both run side by side (I use the PC with it's faster and more convenient CD-ROM drive to convert all my music to Apple Lossless files) playing back my music collection exclusively through iTunes 9 (sans Amarra for now). The only time I really like to get up to change anything—something—is when I walk over to my vinyl rig to flip a side of vinyl. Creature comfort, here we come. Why not, one should ask. With my iPhone acting as remote through the wonderful little Apple app "Remote", I can quickly setup up playlists, turn to my Genius Mix selection (which works very well actually and is the perfect means by which to get a party started) and switch between tracks on the fly—why would you use a CD player?
I suppose there are several reasons. One, disc players may or may not hold the upper hand in sound quality; two, as with good old vinyl, some may feel more compelled to be drawn to their music library by having to manually insert a disc, watch the fancy drawer close, kick back and relax to an entire performance. While I have a thing or two (or three) to say about point 1, point 2 is a more subjective note: like I said, I have no reservations getting up and changing the side during vinyl playback or switching out a reel on my reel to reel deck. Alas, to each his own—suffice it to say that there are in fact some absolutely exceptional disc players on the market today, for which we simply did not have the technological where with all just a few years ago—more on that subject in just a bit.
Hence, now that we have secured our new found bliss of instant gratification, the question being pondered is the following: now what? The simpleton answer of course would be to reply with a mere acknowledgement of the issue, stating the obvious such as—get yourself a DAC. Well how about three? Thusly, I ended up with the LessLoss DAC 2004MK II (my long-term reference), the BD Design CrazyT and lastly, Devilsound's USB DAC (another long-term reference). As similar a job description as each of these puppies has, their execution and overall presentation couldn't be any different. Not surprisingly, they all sound different with their own unique sonic virtues and in one case, quibbles.
Let's start with my long-term reference, the LessLoss DAC (2995 Euros). Designed and built in Lithuania, by the cosmic team that is Louis Motek and his permanent sidekick, Vil, it was designed to be the purist amongst DACs. While I reviewed the original model 2004 very favorably, the MK II takes all that and builds upon those accolades with further refinements. For a more detailed look at the innards and specific workings of the DAC, you may refer to the superbly detailed LessLoss website, which will provide you all the information and then some. The MK II is essentially a heavily modified version of the initial model, built around such improvements as a further modified battery power supply, as well as some specific tweaks and mods around the digital and analog stage.
I remember first speaking to Louis about PC (Mac) music playback some years ago; we would trade jabs and hooks as to the pros and cons of high resolution music playback being sourced from a computer—suffice is to say that Louis is rather critical of such means, not to mention separate USB/SPDIF converters which, in his opinion, are still not close to perfection (case in point: LessLoss did offer just such a converter, although it has since been retired from production, presumably, due to it's inability to perform at levels Louis expects from such a device). None of this really impacts the overall sound I get from the MK II model: in essence and so as to not venture down the road of usual audiophile hyperbole, the MK II is a definite improvement over the first model I had the pleasure of using. Naturally, to get the benefit of computer playback, I did need to use a USB/SPDIF converter, made by Germany's Lindemann Company. A $650 device, it falls squarely in line with other similar such devices and is in fact of good value.
Loaded up with Apple Lossless music files, which I had ripped as noted above via Poikosoft's Easy CD-DA Extractor, the sound as fed by the aforementioned Lindemann converter emerged even more explosively from a digital silence—playing back particularly dynamic tracks immediately brought light to that fact. Not only was there a much tighter integration and cleaner definition of transients, but bass lines also seemed to go deeper and sound more powerful than before. It was particularly the improved micro- and macro-dynamic factors that had me tapping my toes, which isn't to say that other improvements weren't apparent as well. Sounds and voices in particular, had more texture than I recall with the previous DAC. Hall sounds didn't necessarily grow in dimension, but did prove to have higher levels of ambient retrieval. Playing back majestic orchestral pieces via Apple Lossless files or (even better), vinyl transcriptions recorded to the equally stunning Sounddevices 722 recorder at 24/96, sounded truly magical, giving the recordings plenty of space to breathe. All in all, a definitively worthwhile investment, (or upgrade if you own the previous version) considering this DAC's reference qualities. Used with the Lindemann USB/SPDIF converter, the MK II can be a true reference grade DAC, with plenty of bandwidth left for the future.
If the LessLoss DAC is designed around a traditional chassis, BD Design's CrazyT flips that conventional wisdom on its head. Mirroring a shoe box (pardon me, but I couldn't think of any other moniker to compliment it with), the CrazyT tries to follow unique lines not only with its industrial design, but even more so with it's rather unique digital properties. Whereas most other USB enabled DACs (that I am aware of) play well within either a Windows or Mac environment, meaning, their drivers have been embedded to run both platforms natively, then CrazyT is definitely going off a strange tangent—to say the least. First, this DAC is only compatible with Windows PC computers. Second, it will only decode .wav files. With all due respect to the otherwise well engineered CrazyT, I had to shake my head several times when I was first made aware of this rather limiting design choice. BD Design's Bert tries to argue that the CrazyT was meant to be the ultimate reference DAC / digital file transcription device; therefore all seemingly frivolous odds and ends have been purposefully left out of the CrazyT. Call me silly, I simply can't wrap my head around the fact that someone would eliminate all but the most popular computer audio formats, not to mention that .wav files leave zero room for tagging, organizing, etc. Wav files, which are inherently incompatible with modern day tagging features and are practically useless from a consumer perspective. Sure, you can organize .wav files in folder structures, but that really defeats the purpose of playing back your music through a computer in first place.
Furthermore, the only playback software solution CrazyT supports is BD Design's very own, which while offering standard fare disc playback options, is rather limited when compared to iTunes 9 or similar PC based solutions. Admittedly, CrazyT's resume from a usability perspective doesn't quite add up to much so far—ultimately, the question then became how its sonic virtues would add to the equation. Curiously, Bert's site makes mention of using a Mac to playback your .wav files, albeit, the Mac has to run Windows either natively through Bootcamp or virtualized via Parallels or Fusion. The question therefore begs: why not write the appropriate USB software for a native Mac solution to begin with?
Having made some special one off copies of some discs to satisfy CrazyT's hunger for .wav files, I quickly recognized the sonic virtues of this DAC. Whereas my reference LessLoss was the more present and immediate DAC, CrazyT offered a more laid back—distant—presentation of familiar material. It's not as though the soundstage was that much larger—if anything, it appeared recessed further back than what I was used to. Whereas the LessLoss DAC is the undisputed king of dynamics, CrazyT's output is more that of a renaissance man. Male crooners never sounded better, always dashing you with just that much more schmaltz and butter. Given the rest of my electronic chain, it becomes pretty evident that of the three models described herein, the CrazyT quickly became the leading man—if syrup and sweets are what your system desires. Bass was rendered authoritatively, though with not quite the vehemence of the LessLoss or—shockingly, the little fly-wheel that is the Devilsound. I wouldn't call it flabby or bloated, rather, but again a tad more laid back then my usual surroundings.
Imaging, detail, and ambience retrieval are all up to snuff—at least compared to various other DACs and disc players of recent memory. In a nutshell, the CrazyT is solid sounding USB DAC only hampered by its inexplicable lack of overall platform compatibility. It's almost as though someone designed the most flawless alternate fuel vehicle which breaks all sorts of records only to be stricken by the fact that you can only use unobtaineum fuel from planet Krypton. What good is the car without the proper resources available to drive it? I could understand limiting playback files on this DAC to .wav and Apple Lossless files—okay, fine. But limiting it to only a single platform (PC) and a single file format (.wav) seems completely out of sync with its intended use as a computer playback decoder, especially considering all the millions of iTunes users, Mac users, and those of us who feel that streaming mp3 files for background music is quite okay. I fail to see how the CrazyT speaks to all those who use iTunes as their music library front end.
Quite unlike the CrazyT, we find the USB DAC from Devilsound. Its diminutive size, the fact that it retails for a mere $399, and that it includes a built in analog output stage is a sure fire sign for this being the clincher of this trio. Built right here in SoCal, Devilsound is a rare newcomer to the audiophile genre. Headed up by two young lads is a company with future potential. Not bothered by the risk of making a mark amidst all other audiophile frontrunners, Jonathan and Aaron embarked on a seemingly simple mission to design, build and sell a genuine bridge to audiophile nirvana. Aimed squarely at the hundreds of millions of iPod / iTunes users, this little gem is supposed to elicit a certain sense of musical bliss amongst exactly that group of people, who are probably not used to truly good sounding music, or at least, that above a standard clock radio.
The Devilsound is all about plug & play—no two ways about it. The question on my mind was how it would perform, given that it's merely the size of a matchbox while containing all that it contains. Truth be told, if my long-term reference, the LessLoss DAC or the CrazyT hadn't been around, I would have been hard pressed to find any serious flaws in this design. Music flows without a sign of stress or strain; you get dynamics that are quite amazing if not superb for a device at this price point—best of all, unlike CrazyT, you can use any front-end PC or Mac, iTunes or Windows Media Player as well as any file format available. With each album that I played, I kept thinking just how these guys could manage to design such an impressive little device for so little money. This level of quality music playback would not have been possible only a few short years ago—that's a certainty.
Does the LessLoss beat out the Devilsound in key areas? For sure—without question, the Lithuanian DAC is superior in every way. Considering that it also retails for a tenfold of the Devilsound that isn't really a surprise. Same holds true for the CrazyT—except that I peg the Devilsound far closer in overall sonic signature to the LessLoss than the CrazyT. Moral of the story? There's a pea in the pot for everyone—if you are seriously considering a no frills all-star, I would consider the LessLoss DAC 2004 MK II. Its overall performance will leave you listening to your favorite discs, er, rips for days on end. A superb performer, the LessLoss will give you pretty much everything that's been captured to disc: transients, dynamics, flawless bass and extended, smooth highs. All presented in what amounts to IMAX like space and liquidity.
BD Design's CrazyT is—strictly sonically speaking—a great DAC which offers a distinctly different vantage point. The performances, though great as they sound, are pushed back and behind the speakers, which, given my current setup, sounds too far recessed for my aural pleasures. Sonic accolades aside (your system may benefit from the CrazyT) and all other things being equal, where CrazyT loses me completely is in the seriously hampered, nay, absurdly hampered user interface experience. If iPod, iTunes, iThis and iThat are all about convenience from a mass consumer perspective and audiophiles are working to embrace that culture, it makes positively no sense to decimate what would otherwise have been a great experience with crippling software. That leaves us with perhaps the ultimate "winner" of the bunch, Devilsound's USB DAC. Clever as the boys from SoCal are, this could be that breakthrough product the iTunes adopting audiophile generation has been waiting for. For less than the cost of that shiny new 64GB iPod Touch you can now get in the mix and own a terrific piece of music making history. So fine is the performance of this little thang, that I instantly decided to keep it—hey, I have tons of friends whom I have lent it to and who knows, maybe someone somewhere will actually pull the trigger on this lil' pup.
The resume is thus as follows: the LessLoss, barring any upsets from some soon to be arriving front runners, remains my top champ—it's that good. The Devilsound is definitive no brainer, which leaves poor ol' CrazyT—update the software and you have a distinctly different winner. Cheers!
BD Designs http://www.bd-design.nl