Auditioning the Audio Note DAC 5 Special (a.k.a. Super DAC)
A Review Preview
Stereo Times, October 21, 2003
Constantine Soo

Specifications:

DAC: Selected Analog Device 1865N 18-bit, 44.1/48/96KHz compatible
Receiver Chip: Crystal CS8414CS
Sampling Technique: Audio Note™ proprietary 1xoversampling™ direct from disc™
Digital Input Pulse Transformer: Audio NoteTM silver-wired mumetal cored toroidal, TRANS-278 x 1, TRANS-268 x 1
I/V Interface Matching: Audio NoteTM copper wired fully interleaved Supermumetal 250 cored transformer x 2
Analog Filter: Audio NoteTM silver wired choke, Audio NoteTM paper in oil copper foil capacitor
Output valve stage: NOS 5687 double triodes x 2, in series with output transformer
Output Transformer: Audio NoteTM silver-wired Radiometal double C-core with 0.2mm laminations x 2
Digital Inputs: Audio NoteTM Silver plated RCA (1), XLR (1) switchable
Analog Outputs: 1 pair, L and R (RCA)
Weight: 22 Kg
Dimensions: 145(H) x 450(W) x 425(D)(mm)
Fuse Rating: 1.6A anti-surge (110/120v supply), 800mA anti-surge (220/240V supply)
Reference output: 3.2V RMS
Output impedance: 4 Ohm Balanced or Single-Ended, with load switching
Channel Balance: less than 0.2dB
Tube compliment: 5687WB (two), standard Philips/ECG, 6X5WGT (two), standard Philips/ECG
MSRP: $29,500.00

Manufacturer:
Audio Note (UK) Limited
Website: http://www.audionote.co.uk/

This article discusses the Audio Note DAC 5 Special’s performance with Redbook CDs within various system configurations, including SACD. Subjective comments will follow in a third article. Please refer to the Technical Background article on the DAC, plus the system preparation details.

On regular CDs in an Audio Note system

The following details the performance of the DAC 5 Special (also known as the Super DAC) in a pure Audio Note system as described in the System Preparation.

Orchestral music in its festive tones and vast dynamic range exerts extraordinary demands on equipment for faithful reproduction of the event. The Super DAC demonstrated wondrous abilities in meeting those demands.

For example, reenacting the third movement from Sir Georg Solti’s 1984 reading of Mahler’s reminiscing Symphony No. 4 (Decca 410 188-2), the Super DAC imparted the most vivid dynamic contrasts to this recording I’ve heard to date. As a result, the splendor of the brass became the most expressively and exquisitely delineated, opposite Decca’s renowned silkiness of strings in the determined and narrative playing, communicating utter anguish, occasionally confronted by the Chicago Symphony’s mournful but powerful brass.

Although the mastering techniques applied to this CD were archaic by the present day’s standard, the extent of vital musical information harnessed by the Super DAC should silence the most morbid viewpoints raised against the 21-year-old format.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s angelic rendition of the fourth movement signified quintessential Mahler lieder, which would manifest itself throughout the composer’s latter compositions in the starkly contrasting lyric of purposefully misplaced joyfulness. The Super DAC portrayed the celebrated soprano’s articulate iteration of the heaven from the heart of supposedly purest of souls, empowering the performance with a voice that was not only tonally sonorous and texturally sophisticated, but also one of divinity and love. Delineated by the Super DAC, the effect was one of awakening surrealism.

In a most notable way, the Super DAC transcended those towering works into a listening experience of compassion and solemnity.

Lastly, the dynamics of the Mahler Symphony were the most potent I’ve experienced with any DAC. The sense of pace generated by the exchanges of the brasses in their steadfast march against the purposefully eerie strings, further impressed me with a foundation surpassing what I’ve experienced with the Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 and the Wadia 27. Each frequency spectrum was deciphered and meticulously separated, and was then superimposed upon each other, finally culminating into a spectacular sonic canvas.

In dimensionality, the AN deciphered a most spectacular soundstaging from the Telarc disc of Yoel Levi & The Cleveland Orchestra in a 19-year-old reading of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet (Telarc CD-80089). The definitive anchoring of instruments provided for the first time a venue for complex reverberations and spatiality to emerge freely. In the unblemished space and time that the AN DAC conjured up, I came to appreciate the extraordinary talent and vision of the label’s engineers.

Similarly, the Super DAC’s reproduction of Andre Previn & Vienna Philharmonic in their 2000 reading of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor op. 131 (Version for String Orchestra by Dimitri Mitropoulos) (Deutsche Grammophon 463 579-2) essentially elevated the status of the yellow label in the summoning tonality. The Super DAC’s bottom-end solidity delineated the double bass of the spirited ensemble with a liveliness and whole dimensionality that was definitive and spellbinding.

Then, the maneuvering of the mighty, revered strings of the Vienna Philharmonic made their spotless sound ever more impressing via the Super DAC, as the musicians’ virtuosity became the highlight in their utterly refined uniformity and unspotted textures. The sound thus created reverberated within me with little doubt that all violinists were masters using instruments of extraordinary craftsmanship.

The Super DAC’s prowess in dynamic and tonal contrasts also imparted newfound insights into Hollywood master John Williams’ 1992 Jurassic Park soundtrack (MCAD-10859). One of the maestro’s most energetic and innovative compositions, his genius was cunningly displayed by the ingenuity and sophistication in the soundtrack’s instrumentation, formulated expertly to complement captivating harmonies amidst the generation of arresting impacts.

From the same CD, in “High-Wire Stunts” and “T-Rex to the Rescue and Finale”, the AN DAC was the first converter to bring about a most perfect, balanced rendition of the horns’ fury without losing precious perspective of a diversity of actions onstage. In retrospection, Audio Note’s own AN-E SEC Silver loudspeaker’s dynamic competency and tonal flamboyancy were utterly indispensable at conveying the Super DAC’s finesse.

In the background of the chaotic “Incident At Isla Nublar”, the Super DAC was the first to unfold the almost subliminal tribal percussion, imparting startling realism to the carnivorous horror. The Super DAC impressed with the ultimate capability of tracking all activities onstage with utmost clarity and dimensionality.

Finally, one of the most revering illuminations of the Super DAC’s level of fidelity was in the reenactment of the Japanese Fue flute in composer Toru Takemitsu’s sweeping score, for Japan’s silver screen giant Akira Kurosawa’s French-Japanese co-produced, 1985 epic, RAN. An expertly crafted embodiment of orchestral colors from both East and West, Takemitsu’s expansive composition was finally revealed to contain a ghostly haunting performances of the Fue, as during passages the instrument surged in abrupt proclamation before ceasing, as if serving the audience with premonition of events to transpire.

The Super DAC rendered the exquisite and yet chilling performance of the instrument with no tweeter breakup distortions that all previous DACs in my system fell prey to, reproducing the delicately expressive instrument with aptly forceful but precious precision that I would return to time and again.

Amidst the forsaken and surreal terrain envisioned by Kurosawa, Takemitsu’s haunting score cried the sorrow of the feudal lord and the insanity of his time. Do not watch the DVD when you are in a depression, it could stay in you for years.

Amplifications and implications

In the company of a legion of Black Gate capacitors and electrolytics embodied in the league of Audio Note’s own $3,300 CDT-2, $35,000 M8 preamplifier and $16,000 Conquest Silver Signature monoblocks, the Super DAC’s magnificent persona, as exemplified in the Loth X JI300 Review, shone with greater brilliance.

Passages of force were infused with highly differentiating shades of tonalities and transients, and moments of serenity were sprinkled with tantalizing details of delicacy and spatiality. There was a unique tonal substance to each sound, that served to provide not only superb differentiating contrasts among instruments; but also added credible texture to the otherwise lightness of the tones. Never had the conversing sections of orchestras and vocals possessed so much body and essence.

In a strict sense of comparison, the system synergy accorded by a pure AN system culminated into an advantageous platform on which the Super DAC’s various aspects could be revealed to an unprecedented extent.

For the audiophile who can afford to be spoiled by opportunities of constantly sampling the best systems the world has to offer, he or she will have no need to be diligent in steering clear of the disorientation AN’s M8 and Conquest Silver Signature will definitely impose on any preexisting standards and values. The majority of us need alternatives.

The $15,000 Loth X JI300’s specialty in dimensionality and tonal transients served the Super DAC’s conveyance of the vocalists’ projection of emotions in their meticulous intonations. On the other hand, the $15,995, to-be-reviewed Audion Golden Dream monoblocks threw an uncharacteristically potent dynamic soundscape for an SET design with a most extended frequency extremes reproduction, imparting startling realism to the uttering of instruments and voices alike.

The fact that a whole slew of factors will come into play in our quest for live sound reproduction, we must be realistic of how removed we all are in our pursuit. Regardless of the caliber of our system, there are always areas for improvements, whether it is in room acoustic, AC treatment, component synergy, parts upgrade and etc. Macroscopically speaking, any manufacturer’s claim of a 100% realization of their products’ potential is irrelevant as long as compromise exits somewhere in the chain.

Therefore, on a stringent scale of 0 to 10, if full points represents live sound, then a point above passing grade of 5 is the region where I think the sound of most of our high-end systems will fall into, mine included.

As either Audion’s Golden Dreams or Loth X’s JI300 represented significant progression in realism when driving the Audio Note AN-E SEC Silver, their contribution meant a full point in my book. Substituting the volume control-equipped amplifications with Audio Note’s regal M8 preamplifier and Conquest Silver Signature monoblocks brought about colossal, positive effects, and that warranted another point, arriving at 8. The Super DAC pushed the meter to 8.9.

In my book, the grade of 9 is contingent upon the prerequisite of a highly optimized system consisted of excruciatingly tweaked individual equipment, inclusive of the environment/speaker interface, forming an ensemble of extreme caliber. Finally, the point of 9.5 can only be reached with the perfect loudspeaker yet to be invented and 9.9 represents the theoretical limit of high-end audio nirvana.

By deviating from the AN amplification arrangement, the resultant, relative fading in tonal vividness and moderate recession in scale of dynamics nevertheless positioned the Audion and Loth X as superior amplifications in the SET family, as they continued to be audibly more detailed and musical than other amplifications I’ve used.

Therefore, either the Audion Golden Dream monoblocks or the Loth X JI300 integrated will be a final and worthy target for most of us that will induce sonic nirvana with more efficient speakers. Watch for a separate Audion review.

SACD Considerations

Playback of hybrid SACDs from Mobile Fidelity and First Impression Music contributed invaluably to meal-skipping listening sessions.

When equally supported by the M8 and Conquest SS, the Super DAC’s reenactment of the hybrid discs as collaborated by the AN system surpassed that from my Sony SACD player in the more colossally defined, and thus, more vivid instrument texturing. Although among a vast majority of RBCD digital front ends the Sony machine’s SACD playback has already been hailed as considerably more dynamic in its contrasting and more wholesome in its tonality, it immediately became distanced from the Super DAC’s performance envelope the moment its signals were deprived of the M8’s care.

By running both front ends into the passive preamp of the Reference Line Preeminence Two, the Conquest SS revealed a shocking picture as it exposed the electronic and mechanical inferiority of the Sony SACD player to the extent, that loss of dynamic potency and intrinsic instrument tonality rendered SACD playback broad-brushed and raw when compared to the sound of the Super DAC.

MoFi’s 2002 DSD recording of Lost In Space (MFSL UDSACD 2021) by the young rock artist Aimee Mann put forth unexpectedly seasoned, and skillfully crafted lyrics in refreshingly delicious tunes. Auspiciously inviting in repeated listening sessions, the sound was one of immediacy embedded with extraordinary smoothness, an uncommon attribute among rock albums.

As produced in MoFi’s proprietary “Ultradisc UHR Gain2” process, one could hardly expect less, and the Audio Note Super DAC harnessed mind-boggling dosages of timbre complexity from instrumentalists and vocalist alike, accompanied by superb rendition of the reverberating acoustics. Aimee’s portrait from the accompanied booklet did not do justice to her natural self.

Winston Ma’s FIM hyrbrid SACD Audiophile Reference IV (FIM SACD 029) provided a panoramic perspective on what his label has to offer, and I reckon that the onslaught of selections from the wide-ranging catalog would whet the appetite of audiophiles of contrasting tastes. The FIM sampler contained familiar classical and easy listening tracks such as Messiah, Fiddler on the Roof, Deer Hunter, The Look of Love and others that testified towards the unifying quality of the label’s offerings, and the sampler was a valuable asset in system evaluation.

With selections on the RBCD layer extracted from JVC’s XRCD master and encoded with Pacific Microsonics’ HDCD process, the Super DAC once again delivered a supremely revealing soundscape with superlative aural qualities. Stay tuned for more discussions on hybrid SACDs from the two labels in my upcoming reviews.

Next to my 47 Laboratory 4713 Flatfish CD transport and 4705 Progression DAC, the Sony SCD-777ES’s SACD performances were already exemplary in the sheer resolution and dynamics, and the benefits accorded to the high-rez format by AN’s superlative M8/Conquest SS amplification were evident in the superbly defined instrumental textures and dynamic realism.

Until such opportunity arises when an SACD player becomes available with comparably elaborate, separate power supplies, such as the 8-transformer impregnated Super DAC, or the twin power supplies of the PiTracer, comparison of the formats with the Super DAC augmenting RBCD playback would not be fair.

The experience also beckons the notion that latter signal handling via superior parts of the Audio Note is at least as crucial and influential on the overall sound as advanced archiving techniques as in the DSD/SACD.

My final thoughts on the auditioning of the Audio Note Super DAC will follow in an immediately following article, titled, “Summary on reviewing the Audio Note Super DAC.”

All material copyright Audio Note (UK) Ltd., unless otherwise stated