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Positive Feedback ISSUE 51
wyred 4 sound
as reviewed by Kent Johnson
Wyred 4 Sound is the brand name for audio equipment designed and built in the USA by Cullen Circuits of Pasa Robles, California. For some years, Cullen Circuits was an OEM manufacturer for a number of audio brands, one being PS Audio, before starting the Wyred 4 Sound line. Cullen Circuits built many PS Audio components including the original PS Audio DACIII. When manufacture in the US became too expensive and was moved to China, Cullen began offering modifications for some of the equipment it had originally built.
The reason I mention this at the start of this review is that I have been listening to the new Wyred 4 Sound DAC-1, digital to analog converter, while using my three-year old Cullen-modified PS Audio DACIII for comparison purposes. It is very much like comparing step-children to each other. They have a large portion of their genetics in common but still differ in interesting ways. It was the fact that I had the Cullen-modified PS Audio DACIII that made the opportunity to hear W4S' new, original design so appealing. The chance to compare them was irresistible.
The new W4S DAC-1 sells for $999. My DACIII has the Cullen Circuits Stage 3 upgrade. It sold for $1,600 as a complete, modded DAC.
The Wyred 4 Sound DAC-1 uses the ESS Reference Audio (ES 9018) 32 bit DAC chip. This chip can process data streams up to 32 bits and 200 KHz via the coaxial RCA inputs. Toslink inputs can handle up to 32 bits and 96 KHz. The USB input works with data streams up to 24 bits and 96K Hz. In addition, the coaxial inputs are transformer coupled which isolates the source while insuring proper loading of the input.
The DAC-1 is fully balanced internally so that even the single-ended outputs benefit from common-mode noise rejection.
Upsampling is handled by the ESS chip; inputs are upsampled at 386 times the input rate. No choices as to upsampling rates are offered.
The DAC-1 power supply uses an oversized transformer, has 88,000 μF of capacitance, and is highly regulated and filtered. Equal attention has been paid to the proprietary analog output stages. These stages use discrete dual-differential FETs and Dale resistors. As W4S notes in the owner's manual, a great deal of effort has gone into developing "the cleanest, most transparent, and natural sounding output stage."
The DAC-1 has a set up menu that allows for changing some of its default settings. I did not change anything. I ran the DAC-1 entirely in default mode. I could have played with the display brightness, I suppose, but beyond that, I did not see any other settings—such as IIR bandwidth or PCM Roll-off Slope—that I felt any need to change. Even the display brightness was just fine as it was.
Wyred 4 Sound recommends 200 hours of break-in time before critically evaluating the sound of the DAC-1. I put more than this amount of time on it before doing any listening.
The DAC-1 sells, as noted, for $999 and comes with a three year warranty.
The W4S DAC-1 is shoe-box sized. It measures 14 by 8.5 by 4.25 inches (DWH). It weighs 15 pounds, which gives it a nice solid dense feel. The DAC-1 shares its styling with the rest of the W4S line. It is made of thick sheet metal with a minimum of decoration but a very apparent level of industrial quality. The fit of the Allen head screws into their counter-sunk holes in the chassis implies the sort of structural integrity that makes one think of Revox or Nagra.
The front panel has a small display window illuminated in what I would refer to as "McIntosh blue." This panel indicates which of the inputs is in use and the data rate coming from that input. As I used only the RCA coaxial inputs for my listening, this resulted in a read-out of 44.1K in the display.
The DAC-1 has a power switch on the rear panel that actually turns the unit on and off. There is a power button on the front of the unit that toggles it into and out of stand-by mode. Up and Down buttons allow selecting between the five possible inputs. If the DAC-1 cannot find an active input, it will scroll through its inputs twice and then go into stand-by and shut off the display. This arrangement keeps the DAC-1 powered up and ready to play music while minimizing its electrical demands. I left the DAC-1 on continuously.
High quality gold-over-copper RCA jacks are used on the rear panel. There are two each coaxial RCA and Toslink inputs. There is also a USB connector. Outputs are via either RCA jacks or Neutrik XLR plugs. There is the usual IEC power cord connection. The DAC-1 comes with a good 14 gauge shielded power cord and USB cable. I did not use this power cord; I instead used the Supra LoRad 1.5 that I have previously reviewed as well as other cords that I had in my listening room. Current draw for the DAC-1 is 25 Watts; the casework becomes slightly warm with use.
(By way of comparison, the modified DACIII has one each RCA coaxial, Toslink, and USB input. The RCA input and outputs utilize WBT NextGen RCA jacks. There are also XLR outputs. I have never used the XLR outputs lacking either the cables necessary or a preamp/amp with appropriate inputs. The DACIII offers the choice of 24/96 or 24/192 upsampling. I have listened to both and prefer the 24/96. I hear a slight dryness at the higher setting.)
My listening to these two DACS was done using only single-ended cables—.5 meter lengths of DH Labs Revelation between the DACs and my Dodd preamp. Cabling between the Dodd and my Rogue 90 amplifier was either 2 meter lengths of DH Labs Revelation or Zentara Reference. The transport was a Sony SCD-C333ES connected to the DAC-1 via a 2 meter length of 75 Ohm cable*.
I used the Fritz Speakers Carbon 7 Monitors for virtually all of my listening. These speaker's excellent detail retrieval, uniform frequency response, and speed made it possible to readily identify the differences that I heard. I listened to the W4S DAC-1 on its own and then did comparison listening to my modified PS Audio DACIII.
Jonas Kullhammar's Plays Loud for the People (Moserobie mmpCD009) is one of those CDs that, in the wrong system, can sound congested to the point where it comes across more as noise than music. Through the DAC-1, however, it was presented with a fully-packed but well-defined soundstage, big drums, and terrific bass. Despite all that was going on musically, it was still possible to follow any musical line within the soundstage. The piano and saxophone both were reproduced very naturally with excellent detail and clarity. Listening to this CD first definitely constituted an "off the deep end" approach to product reviewing but, thanks to the ability of the DAC-1 to sort out instrumental lines, it provided a number of useful insights into the DAC-1's performance.
The Naxos CD Death Valley Suite (Naxos 8.559017) also contains the compositions "Hollywood Suite" and "Hudson River Suite." Anyone familiar with Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" will immediately note the similarities between it and these compositions as there are numerous instances where the sound mimics the musical description. For example, "On the Set—Sweepers" has the orchestra producing the sound of brooms being pushed across a floor. It is really well done.
All of these compositions embodied very dynamic swings in loudness which were extremely impressive via the DAC-1. There was also a lovely balance between the sounds of quiet individual instruments, especially woodwinds and brass, against the larger forces of concentrated bass and tympani. The movement "Rip Van Winkle" from "Hudson River Suite" has massive and extremely loud interjections from the tympani yet the essentially tuneful-hollowness of the tympani themselves was never lost.
If your only exposure to Grofe is the GCS, you won't be surprised by the musical style in these compositions but you will find their expansiveness and beauty very appealing. I hasten to add that soundstage width and depth via the DAC-1 were also outstanding.
Should the Jasmine CD by Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden (ECM 2165 B0014231-02) be re-titled "Keith Sings"? You wouldn't hear any arguments from me. Regardless of how one may view Keith's vocal stylings, this is a beautiful album and I have fallen completely in love with it. The DAC-1 revealed lovely subtleties in the both the piano and bass playing as it continued to provide a lot of low-level detail that enhanced the music emotionally while also providing a solid sense of the recording environment. Haden's fingering of the bass strings has tremendous immediacy and nuance. And, of course, Keith Jarrett pretty much defines, for me at least, what a musical/emotional connection is all about.
The DAC-1 is capable of a lot of detail but it presents it in such a way that it always confluent with the music and never overshadows the music itself.
As always, I listened to a lot of female vocals. Among them was Shelby Lynne's Just A Little Lovin' (Lost Highway B0009789-02), which is not only still very enjoyable, despite many listenings, but has also become a useful reference sonically. The room reverb, vocal subtleties, and dynamic range were all there as good as I have ever heard them. At the same time there was a bit more clarity in the vocals themselves, the cymbals had a finer sheen than I had been hearing, and the emotionally charged quality of the songs themselves seemed to be enhanced. The DAC-1 took what was already extremely good sound and moved it yet farther up on the audiophile scale.
Comparing the DAC-1 to the DACIII
After getting what I felt was a very good sense of the sound of the W4S DAC-1 on its own, I did some A-B comparisons with my Cullen modified PS Audio DACIII. The differences between these two DACs were not huge. After extended comparison listening, however, I felt there were two areas in which the W4S DAC-1 was superior to its older sibling. Overall dynamics was the first of these.
I listened to both DACs at the same volume setting on my preamp. My subjective opinion was that the DAC-1 was playing slightly louder than the DACIII. To check on this, I used the Stereophile Test CD's track 20, the 1kHz tone, and measured voltages at the binding posts on my Rogue amp. Measurements showed that, in fact, the DACIII was the slightly louder; by about .6dB (by my calculations). The difference that I was hearing wasn't volume; it was dynamics. There was simply more impact, especially in the bass, via the DAC-1, giving the impression of a higher output level.
The other area in which the DAC-1 offered an improvement was in the reproduction of high treble overtones. I had already heard this on female vocals and cymbals but it was also surprisingly easy to hear on higher pitched male voices. The a cappella singing that opens "Because" on the Beatles Love CD (Apple/Capitol 0946 3 79810 2 3) sounded more natural and more interesting through the DAC-1 due to the subtle improvement in high frequency air and extension around the male voices. This same track through the DACIII just did not offer the same level of information, although it was still lovely.
Where midrange performance and soundstage width and depth were concerned, I was hard pressed to detect any differences between these DACs at all.
As to detail, I found that both DACs were extremely good at reproducing low-level information. Listening to the same tracks repeatedly, found me consistently hearing new information in the music regardless of which DAC I was listening to. In the final analysis, I cannot really say that one was noticeably better than the other in regard to detail. Detail is a substantial strength of both.
I spent a lot of time with the W4S DAC-1 and a lot of that time, I must admit, ended up being spent simply listening. I was enjoying what I was hearing too much to worry about taking notes and trying to determine just how far back in the soundstage the French horn player was positioned. It is never a good sign when a component makes it easy to concentrate on the reviewing and not the music. In this sense, the DAC-1 was a ruthlessly difficult component to review.
The time I spent listening to the DAC-1 on its own, and then comparing it to my own DACIII, left me with the very firm conviction that the DAC-1 offers some worthwhile improvements at the frequency extremes over its older, modded counterpart.
These differences are musically valuable—offering more natural reproduction of high treble information as well as better dynamics within the bass range. This is accomplished while providing excellent detail and with no loss in midrange quality or soundstage reproduction. The DAC-1 is $600 cheaper than my DACIII; a DAC which I still consider extremely good sounding in its own right. To offer an improvement in sound quality, lower the price, and still put the DAC-1 in an impressively built chassis filled with the best quality parts is a real accomplishment.
The Wyred 4 Sound DAC-1 is more than welcome to stay in my system. Its level of CD replay is extraordinarily high and equally musical.
Wyred 4 Sound is again offering a component with exceptional performance. At twice the price, I would recommend it just as highly. Buy this DAC before they realize just how much they could actually charge for it. Kent Johnson
*My digital cable may interest some readers (and possibly appall others). I am using two meters of Belden 1694A high speed video cable terminated with copper Eichmann RCA plugs. This cable may not be exotic, but I believe it is extremely close to a true 75 Ohm impedance. I would also refer you to Steve Nugent's article in PFO No. 14, "Why longer is generally better for an S/PDIF digital cable." Here is the link: