Building a Fire
The Weiss DAC202 has not only two FireWire ports, but also AES/EBU, S/PDIF RCA, and TosLink connections. A BNC input and output allow it to lock on to an external clock. There are also ouputs for AES/EBU and RCA S/PDIF digital signals. The narrow front panel has a largish LCD screen and a single knob, which you spin or depress to access and control any of the DAC202's menus and functions. The infrared remote control can be used to access the most frequently used functions: Power, Volume, input (FireWire, XLR, RCA, TosLink), Mute, Phase, and Filter, for the two onboard digital filters (more about those later). I found the dimmable screen very intuitive and easy to use to access every feature of the DAC202, and the remote is simple and elegant in design and feel. Also on the front panel are a ¼" headphone jack, an IR sensor, and a power-status LED. The fit and finish are good; the front panel's beveled edges look quite nice, and the knob had a sturdy yet silky feel. Still, the DAC202's looks favor function over opulence.
The DAC202's power supply uses a toroidal transformer and there are separate voltage regulators for the analog and digital supplies, a total of 11 regulators. The circuit board is laid out for optimal current distribution. The DAC202 uses the premium ESS9018 DAC chip, which allows for two digital filters (here labeled A and B) to be used. According to designer Daniel Weiss, filter A is optimized for an ideal stopband corner frequency, while filter B has a relaxed transition band that gives the optimum transient response. Jitter is suppressed with what Weiss calls a Jitter Elimination Technologies Phase Locked Loop (JET PLL), which uses feedback to lock the local oscillator to the incoming timing reference. In the DAC202, the JET PLL has two loops. One has its corner frequency set low enough to give good jitter attenuation. The corner frequency of the other loop, which regulates the analog oscillator, is set much higher. The DAC202 uses two converters per channel to increase its signal/noise ratio by 3dB, and it can accept data resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz.
While so many other consumer DACs now connect with computers via USB, the Weiss DAC202 uses FireWire, which is favored in professional audio circles and fundamentally differs from USB in a number of ways. First, FireWire has greater bandwidth than USB and can therefore transfer more data faster. Second, FireWire is a peer-to-peer protocol, which means that every device on a FireWire network is equally capable of talking to every other device. Third, FireWire is always implemented in hardware, with a special controller chip in each device; the communications load it puts on your computer's CPU is much lighter than USB's.
According to Daniel Weiss, FireWire is more reliable than USB because it offers what he calls "isochronous mode, and it lets a device carve out a certain dedicated amount of bandwidth that other devices can't touch. It gets a certain number of time slices each second as its own. The advantages for audio should be obvious: that stream of data can just keep on flowing, and as long as there isn't more bandwidth demand than the wire can handle (not very likely), nothing will interfere with it. With our products, the FireWire connection works in the so-called isochronous mode, which means that a defined bandwidth is reserved for the link and cannot be taken by another device on the bus. To use USBspeak, the transfer is asynchronous; ie, the master clock sits in the D/A converter and the computer is slaved to it."
The DAC202's volume control is an analog/digital hybrid. Via a menu on the LCD screen, four coarse volume steps in the DAC202 are implemented in the analog domain. Once a range is set, controlling the volume, using either the knob or the remote, is done in the digital domain. This lets the user run the digital volume at the top of its range, where its effect on the signal's word length is minimal. Weiss also applies noise-shaped dithering to the 24-bit volume control to maintain maximum transparency.
Setting up the DAC202 was a breeze—especially connecting it to my computer. Using an off-the-shelf FireWire cable, I hooked up my Sony Vaio Laptop (an Intel Core duo processor running at 2.4GHz with 4GB of RAM) to the DAC202, then ripped files from Weiss's supplied test disc, which contains data files of various sample rates and bit depths. I selected the Bit Transparency Test from the DAC202's menus, then played the test files from my laptop via J. River Media Center. The Weiss is the first computer-based audio product that could easily and unambiguously tell me that my computer was outputting a truly bit-transparent signal at all bit depths and sample rates. This level of onboard diagnostics should be mandatory for all DACs intended to be used with computers. Bravo, Weiss!
I used a Bel Canto Design e.One CD2 as a disc transport and connected the DAC202 directly to my power amps via the Weiss's balanced outputs. Before taking any serious listening notes, I let the DAC202 burn in for a few hundred hours.
Dance into the Fire
Describing the sound of the Weiss DAC202 is one of the easier tasks I've had to do for Stereophile. The DAC202 made music with delicacy and liquidity; its tonal balance was extremely natural, with a forgiving top octave; and it presented music with an easy grace that digital music rarely has. No matter what connection I used, which amp was in the system, or whether I was listening to high-resolution computer files or CDs, the DAC202 always retained these fundamental sonic traits. The Weiss was in no way concerned with dissecting music into its atomic elements, but instead projected its gestalt onto everything it played.
Classical music benefited from the DAC202's easy, liquid character. Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds's A Drop in the Ocean, from Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia's Passion and Resurrection (CD, Hyperion CDA67796), was conveyed with musical generosity and an expansive soundstage. The DAC202 was kind to choirs, heightening their blend and offering remarkable tonal balance, with clear, unhighlighted sibilants and no trace of hardness. Via the DAC202, no part of the tonal spectrum was ever given undue prominence
I used the Polyphony disc to test the DAC202's filters. Filter A offered a bit more extension in the high treble (I was surprised I could hear this difference), and a little bit better stopping and starting of notes. However, Filter B offered a more three-dimensional quality, greater liquidity, and a smoother top end. I felt that Filter B played more to the DAC202's strengths, offering sound that even the most digiphobic audiophile could appreciate.
The DAC202 also did a great job with hi-rez files from my computer. A few months ago I became the proud owner of the Beatles' entire stereo catalog in 24-bit/44.1kHz, complete with a green metal apple in which to house the flash drive. The DAC202 brought out the greater palpability of these hi-rez files compared with their 16/44.1 counterparts. Compared to the "Red Book" CD remasters, the panned voices in the hi-rez version of "A Day in the Life," from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (24/44.1 FLAC), sounded less like images of voices moving through space and more like entire singing bodies moving from left to right through the stereo field.
Which brings me to the DAC202's shortcomings. While it succeeded at presenting music with no trace of traditional "digital" sound, the Weiss lacked a bit of jump factor, excitement, and involvement. Sure, a component can sound "exciting" because of a tipped-up treble or harmonic dryness, but that's not what I'm talking about.
Part of what makes music involving and exciting for me is the dynamic behavior at the micro level—the subtle nuances that give each sound its own texture and life—and at the macro level—the ability to render large transients and dynamic swings with swiftness and ease. The Weiss gave up some of that excitement for a sound that valued smoothness and liquidity. The DAC202 also lacked the last word in low-bass extension and articulation—nor did it offer the greatest lateral separation between instruments in the stereo image, or project instruments into the room in front of the plane described by the speakers' front baffles.
However, I know many audiophiles who will prefer the DAC202's supple nature and be willing to give up a little excitement for a sound that lacks any hint of its digital origins. For those audiophiles, the DAC202 may be a perfect match.
I also used the DAC202 for an extended period as a headphone amplifier, using my computer as a source. The Weiss was an almost perfect match for my headphones. The liquidity and unforced musicality of the DAC202, paired with the directness and immediacy of headphone listening, made for a gratifying experience. Whereas I can usually pick apart the sound of a DAC through headphones, hearing some of its grain and electronic quality, the DAC202 stood up to the microscopic scrutiny that's possible with my Sennheisers. The lack of separation and the smoothing over of transients I heard through my big rig weren't at all apparent through my 'phones. The DAC202 offered one of the finest headphone experiences I've ever heard.
I found that I had on hand three DACs that, in my and a few others' opinions, represent the best digital audio reproduction in their respective price classes the Weiss DAC202 ($7737), and the dCS Debussy ($10,999). Each represents a major advance in the handling of digital conversion, and each is based on a completely different design paradigm in its manufacturer's quest to wrest the best from all those zeros and ones. Unsurprisingly, each also has a completely different sonic signature.
First up was the dCS Debussy. In his review Michael Fremer commented on the Debussy's lean sound, startling transients, and deep yet taut bass. That's what I heard, too. The Debussy has an uncanny ability to pick apart recordings with surgical precision. For the first few weeks, I was entranced by the dCS's sheer resolution, and the solidity and immediacy of every sound it played. However, after a few weeks—and after comparing it with some of the other DACs I had on hand—I grew slightly weary of the sound's ultra-honest but slightly threadbare quality. It's no surprise that less-than-stellar recordings were not treated kindly by the Debussy, which picked out their flaws instead of accentuating their merits. But even with great-sounding recordings, I missed some fullness in the midbass and sweetness in the treble. I also felt as if the Debussy were downplaying the ambience and reverberation around each instrument, in favor of a solid yet dry picture of each sound. Though I certainly respected the Debussy, ultimately it was not the best match for me.
I then listened again to the Weiss DAC202, which sounded as different as could be. The Weiss's sonic signature was full, round, supple, and sweet. All of the organic qualities I found lacking in the Debussy's sound were there in spades in the DAC202's. But again, this ease and grace of musicmaking came at the cost of transient snap, low-bass weight and speed, and the separation of instruments in the mix, both laterally and from front to back.
The Goldilocks DAC in this shoot-out was Bel Canto's e.One DAC3.5VB. It combined the honesty and resolution of the dCS Debussy with the soul of the Weiss DAC202. In terms of dynamics, the Bel Canto was as gripping as the dCS, though it lacked the Debussy's crazy-great bass. The Bel Canto, in my opinion, bested the dCS in terms of my involvement in the stereo image: through the DAC3.5VB, backgrounds were blacker, and instruments hung in greater 3D relief in the soundstage. I found the Bel Canto's tonal balance and slightly warmer sound to be a tad more musically rewarding than the Debussy's. And while the Weiss's tonal balance was sweeter still, the Bel Canto made up for it with grain-free clarity and impeccable delineation in the treble. I was shocked and happy that, of these three DACs, I liked the cheapest best. Though the Debussy and Weiss have received many accolades in the audio press, the Bel Canto e.One DAC3.5VB remains a relatively unsung hero.
I truly enjoyed my time with Weiss Engineering's DAC202. Its ease of use for both disc-based and computer audio makes it easy to recommend for those who want a digital system that doesn't sound "digital." The Weiss also offers a sound that will be very pleasing to many audiophiles tired of fatiguing hi-fi sound. And I found its headphone performance absolutely superlative. I think the Weiss DAC202 can easily offer Class A performance, especially for the audiophile who prizes its graceful, organic musicmaking.
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