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a short diary of some part of my life.

Finally…

I was not planning to write anything about me reaching audio nirvana… I am so happy that from now on, I don’t have to deal with what gear I want to buy or try, what music I want to listen to analyze the sound quality.

After a long and exhausting search, I am now able to breath easily. My brain does not have to think much other than which artist’s album I want to play, which track I want to play, and what music I want to add to my collections. This is something that I was not able to do in the last year or so. A lot of dollars have been poured as well. Audio is a very expensive hobby. But what hobby is cheap? You just need to get what you need (not want) and be happy with them. But that never works because the real problems are how much or how far you are willing to go until you are happy and how you can dismiss ‘I want the latest and the greatest’ bugs.

Higher Price Tag ≠ Better


Keep reading…

Dishonesties

Audio isn’t exactly as expensive as I thought before. I knew I was going to splurge ten-thousands of dollars into it. But what I didn’t expect is dishonesties in audiophile industry. The dishonesties include hypes, lies, and very huge margins (for mediocre performing products). This is where people lose their hard-earned money. There are very few honest personalities but they are also share their own issues. Late delivery, no email replied, and minor/major imperfections are some of the issues. Their products are superb if you are willing to give them a chance to remedy the issues. I guess you just have to patient. I have learnt the hard way and I am now well prepared if I were to purchase a new Hi-Fi product.

Sound Signature

Now, let’s talk about manufacturer’s sound signature. Most of them have their own sound signature. They can’t get away from it. Audio-gd for example, no matter how many times Kingwa wrote that their gear are wire with gain, I still find them to be dark, slow, mellow, and smooth. PS Audio products tend to be bassy, engaging, and warm. Bryston products tend to be a bit dry, a bit thin, but very neutral. They are all different in their own ways. I personally don’t mind sound signature but I prefer it at a much lesser degree and a more enjoyable way. There is no King of the Hills in term of sound signature. This is where you need to make a stance on what kind of sound signature you prefer for your ears. Only you who can make the decision. No one else could.

Superior or Different?

Then, there is sound quality, which one really is better than the others. Most high-end manufacturers’ products are often touted to perform better than their cheaper counterparts. This is not exactly true. In my opinion, there are only two major differentiations, superior and different. Being superior means a product simply sounds better than the others. Being different means a product simply sounds different (sound signature differences) but no better. This is where technical specs (+ measurements) and manufacturers’ reputation can be very useful. Ears and brain can often be misleading. A few words or so from a superb review can turn our opinion upsidedown. I think this is a real issue that plagues most audiophiles. To make it worse, most of them do not have experience with high-end gear (IMO, a high end gear is a high performance gear). They often simply throw opinion that they get from various reviews. In my opinion, superior gear should be transparent to the music. It doesn’t excel with only one genre, it excels in almost every genre. The gear shouldn’t be designed to be genre specific. That way, I can enjoy my musics however I want.

This single requirement basically throws out Red Wine Audio, Mhdt, Audio-gd, any lush sounding tube gear…

I bet some of you want to know what gear I end up keeping. Sharing is caring so here we go…
I feel that good sound must be produced from the front end. So, let’s start with the front end, the DAC…

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)

I wasn’t aware of the prowess of PS Audio before I tried the PWD (PerfectWave DAC). Luckily, I also encountered W4S (Wyred 4 Sound) with their DAC-2. IMO, they are extremely similar. I actually think the DAC-2 is a poor man’s PWD. There are also a few other high-end brands that I have tried after I auditioned PS Audio’s best DAC, such as: Weiss DAC202, Berkeley Alpha DAC, Lavry DA11. They are all very similar. They play various genre with ease. All of them sound superb. But which one really is the best. To make this simple, here are the breakdowns:

  • PWD Vs. DAC-2
    as I said above, they are extremely similar. PWD tends to be a bit warmer at times or DAC-2 tends to be a bit more engaging  and a bit more detailed at times but still retains an enjoyable degree of warmness, just like PWD. That’s it! I don’t know which one is more realistic. They are equally enjoyable.
  • Berkeley Alpha DAC Vs. Weiss DAC202
    they are extremely similar too, maybe the Alpha is a bit warmer and the sound position is centered. I bet no one could differentiate them. One advantage of the Alpha over the DAC202 is the ability to play HDCD.
  • PWD/DAC-2 Vs. Alpha/DAC202
    the Alpha/DAC202’s detail retrieval is just nuts. It is a noticeable difference but we are talking 5-10% improvements. At times, Alpha/DAC202 is not as engaging as the PWD/DAC-2. I think this is the DAC that you should choose if you like a very revealing source. This advantage can be overturned when I2S over HDMI (PWT – PerfectWave Transport) is used on the PWD/DAC-2, PWD/DAC-2 is just as good if not better in detail retrieval. Other than detail retrieval, with I2S over HDMI, PWD/DAC-2 excels over Alpha/DAC202 in almost every area.
  • Lavry DA11 Vs. Alpha & DAC202
    I got this curiosity about Lavry DA11. Two weeks passed and I found them to be very similar. Yes, a $1480 Lavry DA11 performs just as good as a $5000 Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC. The DA11 can stand on its own. You won’t be able to differentiate them, my friends and I can’t! It was a very surprising finding considering I didn’t have any interest in the DA11.

You would think: oh, the PWD or the DAC-2 is a clear winner. Keep in mind, we are talking about minor improvements. No DAC absolutely stood out, they were more variations on a theme than substantial differences. Oh and, if you purchase a PWT to be paired with PWD/DAC-2, it brings the price of the combo to Alpha/DAC202’s territory. So, which one I ended up keeping? You will have to read the following paragraphs below.

Pre-Ampllifier

Not needed. Read speaker amplifier section below.

Speaker Amplifier

Choosing a speaker amp is not as hard as choosing a DAC. The differences between various speaker amps more apparent that the differences between various DACs. Nevertheless, I still had to purchase and borrow a few amps. I’m more willing to splash much more dollars into a speaker amp than a DAC. A good speaker amp will likely outlast me. A DAC on the other hand, will likely become obsolete in just a couple of years. So, I consider this as a one-time-purchase (inferior speaker amps will be sold or returned). This has to be right. I had the following amps for comparison: Wyred 4 Sound STI-500, ModWright KWA 100, and Krell FBI. W4S DAC-2 was used as the source. FYI, STI-500 and FBI are integrated amps, so in the following comparison, the highly acclaimed Wyred 4 Sound STP-SE is used in between the DAC and the KWA 100.

  • STI-500 Vs. KWA 100
    STI-500 produces a slightly warmer sound. It does almost everything right though. The bass is a bit boomy if compared with the KWA 100. The level of detail retrieval is more or less the same. KWA 100 sounds somewhat more engaging at low volume. PRAT is where KWA 100 excels over STI-500.
  • STI-500 Vs. FBI
    STI-500 seems to be a refined version of the FBI. The Krell sounds raw. It has brute force that can sound somewhat unrefined. The bass on the FBI is pretty good, it’s definately bassy but it doesn’t go as deep as the STI-500. STI-500 presents equal level of detail retrieval. PRAT is a little better on the STI-500. It sings with almost any music, while with the FBI, it only excels in a few genres.

I think I can pick a clear winner, it’s the KWA 100. Keep in mind that it is almost twice the price of the STI-500. Recently, ModWright increased the price of their products. I also used the excellent STP-SE which cost $2K. The combo is going to set you back around $5.5K. Not to mention, additional interconnects and power cable. Wait a second, if you notice that the PWD and the DAC-2 have 32-bit digital volume control feature. You actually don’t have to use a preamp in between the DAC and the power amp. $2K is saved. That’s why these excellent DACs present very high value. They can act as a preamp and it is a super transparent one. If you introduce a preamp in between, you make the signal path a lot longer. I for one believe that the shorter the better. You can easily differentiate the sound with or without STP-SE, the overall sound quality do suffer a bit. This is with the excellent STP-SE. Imagine if you are using a lesser preamp. I couldn’t believe the amount of grunge a pre-amp adds.

Speakers

For speakers, I use a pair of Selah Audio’s top-of-the-line two-way monitors and a single Selah Audio powered subwoofer. I use monitors because I like simplicity. I dislike big-honking speakers. A couple of months ago, I brought my speakers to a local high-end audio store. The owner was pleasantly surprised. My little but heavy speakers trounce some of his floorstanders and all of his monitors. They sound bigger than they look! This was something that I didn’t expect. In the future, when I am in my 50s (I’m in my mid 20s BTW), I’ll give Rick Craig (Selah Audio owner & designer) a call. I’m going to go all out. Selah Audio is the best speakers manufacturer that I have come across.

My Choices

I think I have put too much energy and money into this one hobby. This has got to stop. Here are my choices:

  • DAC: Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2
    why: it is an excellent performer at the price point or any price point. As I said previously, no DAC absolutely stood out. Even if I remove any reference to the price, it is still one of the most honest sounding pieces I own (along with the PWD). This thing is just loaded with settings, features, inputs, outputs ,and just raw performance. You know when you pull this brick out of the box that it is all business right off the bat. No bling. No pretty touchscreens, you pay straight up for what really counts and get it in spades.
  • Amplifier: STI-500
    why: KWA 100 is clearly a better amp. But when paired with DAC-2, the major differences diminish to minor differences. EJ has clearly put a lot of thoughts into making the DAC-2. The pair is just magical.

The Wyred 4 Sound pair allows me to save some money to fund my next and final two purchases. They are one of PS Audio power conditioner and additional room treatments that actually looks good! I could have gone all PS Audio PerfectWave series, but the thing is when similar performance can be achieved in lower price point and not sacrificing one bit of the sound quality, I’m willing to do it. Besides, Wyred 4 Sound is a veteran in the business. They know what they are doing. Yes, DAC-2 is a poor man’s PWD. It has the prowess of the PWD in cheaper suit. It is also upgradable. Consider these as well:

  • I have no problem spending $10K on speakers that will be a good buy 10 years from now but I think that spending more than $5K on something with an 18 month leadership is very questionable.
  • DACs are great at improving sound from a lower quality source, but output is limited by your amp and of course the speakers. You will get bigger improvements when you upgrade amp speakers, probably in that order in my opinion. Speaker changes make bigger differences provided you have a decent amp. Then I’d consider a DAC to smooth out any remaining problems from your old source/DAC.

I won’t be buying anymore audio products (except the final two purchases mentioned above), even for my curiosity sake. It’s set and done! I will be adding more music though. Having experience the troubles associated with audiophile gear, I do not want to go thru the same path again. I’m very happy that I don’t have to deal with those hassles again. But I guess without having gone thru that path, I would not have known this and that. Although I lost a lot of money and valuable time, I do appreciate good people in the industry. Good guys from Wyred 4 Sound, PS Audio, HeadAmp, and a few more deserve more recognitions than they have now. They are not only producing superb products but also providing great services to the community. All the pain and happiness have taught me a lot of things, not just audio, but life in general.

Suggestions

Given there are too many choices in the market, I have a few suggestions for you:

  • Ask yourself, do you want to be an audiophile or audiophool? I’m dead serious.
  • Set your budget. You DO NOT need to spend crazy money to get great sound and I’ve seen a lot of people selling their gear because they need to finance something important. This is something that you will not want to experience. It proves that you don’t save enough and you have spent more than you originally intended. DO NOT put aside any $$ for ‘audiophile’/fancy cables. The general consensus of high-end audio must be expensive is WRONG. High-end audio is affordable (High End is specifically SQ related not price dependent).
  • Take every single review as grain of salt, including mine. Personally, I tend to give more weight to users comments, especially when users comments reach a critical mass. I also give more weight to negative comments than positive comments.
  • Buy from ‘real’ reputable companies. There is less chance they would screw you up. Both the design of the product and customer service are usually top notch. You will also get higher resale value.
  • Ask yourself these questions for the gear you have auditioned: Do they have their own sound signature? Are they transparent enough? Do they produce enjoyable music?
  • Avoid buying used gear when possible! I know many people recommend this way to save tons of money but the thing is when you buy used gear, you don’t know how the item that you are about to buy or have bought performs. There are many reason why people sell their gear. One of the reasons is damaged gear. I have personally seen many ‘surprises’ when buying used gear.
  • Do not attempt to modify the thing yourself and do not ask somebody (who is supposed to be a ‘reputable’ modder) to mod it for you. If you are not satisfied with the equipments you own, sell them and upgrade. If you want a better sound, sell them and upgrade.

I will post a few photos of my listening room when everything is in its right places. Right now, it’s too messy. I also need to sell off equipments that I no longer need, to recoup my initial investments.
So, I guess, this is it. Enjoy what you have and most importantly, the music!
Happy Listening!

Comments

10 Comments

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  1. Cortes #
    April 16, 2011

    Ravenda,
    I’m also almost moved after finding this entry. I’ve been around the head-fi community for years, and I’ve tried hard to find reliable reviewers without success. It’s impressive how much noise there is in this world.
    One can’t trust most of commercial magazines either.
    These are the only places I’ve been able to find with helpful information http://www.high-endaudio.com/, unfortunately this is for people with very big pockets, and http://www.digitalaudioreview.net.au/

    Could you give some sites/blogs of reliable reviewers of DACs and audio computer equipment?. There are some very knowledgeable people in computeraudiophile and digitalaudioblog.com, unfortunately is rare to read them giving clear advises, so they are in the business one way or another.

    As for equipment. A year ago I sold my Lavry DA10, to be honest I never felt impressed. I’m now looking for a new DAC to use with a laptop and in the future to build a rig in my workplace with near-field monitors.
    I’m looking at Calyx 24/192, Wyred DAC2, EE minimax, Audio GD REf7.1, or even the new coming and mega expensive AMR DP-777. Not idea what I’ll buy. I’m thinking of pairing it with a Leben C300, or Luxman 505, given I won’t need huge power to run monitors in my office. As for monitors I’ve liked what I’ve read Harbeth P3ESR, but I keeping searching.

    Another question. Seemingly the transport is key, as important as the same DAC. Have you compared your Halide bridge with Gordon Rakin Wavelink?. I would really like to know whether is worth the extra price.
    One more question, have you compared the performance of the USB of the Wyred DAC2 with respect to the Halide Bridge feeding the Wyred DAC2?.

    Thanks a lot.

    • hrl #
      August 13, 2011

      ~Could you give some sites/blogs of reliable reviewers of DACs and audio computer equipment?
      **I like most individual users’ comments and impressions. I don’t have any website/forum preference. You will get better understanding of a product if you combine users’ impressions and websites’ reviews. But nothing beats if you have the product that you want and a few competing products in front of you.

      ~Have you compared your Halide bridge with Gordon Rakin Wavelink? I would really like to know whether is worth the extra price.
      **Yes, I have. The Wavelink is ‘better’ than the Halide. Well, you have to decide it by yourself, $450 is a lot of money for a lot of people.

      ~One more question, have you compared the performance of the USB of the Wyred DAC2 with respect to the Halide Bridge feeding the Wyred DAC2?
      **Yes, I have 🙂
      The Halide is ‘better’ than the built-in DAC-2 USB input, but then again, if you have to decide it by yourself.

      I think in the very near future, USB audio can become very affordable. Look at the upcoming Schiit DAC. It’s designed by one of the fathers of DAC, Mike Moffat. If you want a USB input in it, you just have to add a mere $100 for a 24/192 USB 2.0 input. Compare that to Rankin’s offerings.
      The point is, I do not want to spend too much money for a technology that is still maturing. $100 for a 24/192 USB 2.0 input sounds like a real steal to me 🙂

      I’m looking forward for an upgraded USB input from W4S.

  2. Cortes #
    April 16, 2011

    I forgot, another honest place on headfi is headfonia.com

    • August 21, 2013

      That seems like a nice place. They now operate a brick-and-mortar store. That also looks like a great place to try out various ‘toys’. 😉

  3. Garrett Conaty #
    May 4, 2011

    Hey, how to contact you? I’m also in the Seattle area. I’m wondering what you use as a crossover for the speakers/sub. Thanks!

    • hrl #
      August 13, 2011

      You may contact me by email: hendy(dot)r(at)gmail(dot)com.

  4. Udailey #
    May 22, 2011

    So, I had commented that I prefer RE5 to W4S, PSAudio and a few others. I heard them at RMAF and was blown away by Audio-GD. Do you compare the DACs in this review to the Audio-GD DACs or do you not do so because you believe Audio-GD has some coloration?
    Uriah

    • hrl #
      August 1, 2011

      Honestly, IMO, you can’t really judge anything in that kind of environment. The only way to do it properly is having all of them together at the same time and compare them side-by-side. I did compare them but I do not find the Audio-gd DAC worth mentioning with others because the sound quality alone is a step down. Not to mention their poor build quality, poor QC, and the fact that you have to deal with shipping it back to China when problem(s) arose.

  5. Miguel Casellas #
    December 31, 2012

    Hello

    I have to say i am very motivated for your suggestions and frustrated at the same time as i was looking for several months for my “perfect” DAC, i finally ended up with the Calyx 24/192 DAC among others like the W4S DAC-2 and at the moment of making the choice i was very interested on the features of the W4S DAC-2, specially for its HDMI feature that i could use for my sacd output from my Anthem MRX receiver (very well reviewed to use as a preamp and power amp) and for now i use it between the DAC and a Crown XLS 2000 amplifier for two channel music with a pair of Golden Ear Triton Two towers…so now that read your post i want to ask for your suggestions. Would you consider that i change the Calyx and Crown anthem combo and use perhaps the W4S combo instead to achieve better sound?

    please, I would love to hear what could you suggest me in this field, (also i was putting my eye to upgrade my Calyx withe PWD MKII)

    Thanks and best regards

    Happy new year!

    Miguel

    • August 21, 2013

      I don’t have any first-hand experience with the Calyx. You can’t go wrong with W4S or PS Audio.

      Now, PWD is on the expensive side. Perhaps, you could try one of Schiit’s DACs, especially the balanced Gungnir.
      I have heard nothing but good things about them and I have personally auditioned them.

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