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How good is the ZDAC ..... (Read 6948 times)
Randy in Caintuck
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How good is the ZDAC .....
05/25/10 at 13:27:14
 
Well ..... I have had the new ZDAC in my system for the past few weeks and have a pretty good handle on its sound and capabilities.

Bear with me as I set up the scenario for my comments …..

A lot of water has passed under the “audio bridge” over the past few years and I was in the digital game from pretty early on  ..... my first player being one of the horribly over-priced and atrocious sounding early Sony units.  I don’t even remember the model number ….. it has been mercifully blocked from my memory …..

As Will recently posted in another thread ….. “Then there is the sound. I hated CDs when I first heard them. So cold and digital sounding. But we have adapted to digital sterility with the tools we use in recording and mastering, and then with playback gear, all making all those individual bits come together more smoothly, sounding more analog and natural.”

I agree wholeheartedly with his statements.  To this day, when I try to play some of the early CD releases of the music that I loved on vinyl it makes me sick to my stomach ….. and I have found no player or DAC (including the $10,000.00 Zanden) that will make these abominations sound anything like music.

Fortunately, as Will observes, things have gotten a lot better at both the recording and playback end and I am now able to sit for hours at a time listening to CDs with a big smile on my face.  There is a lot of music on “non-audiophile” labels that sounds very good indeed ….. and some labels (such as the German Stockfisch goodies) are nipping at the heels of decent analog, IMHO.

Now, to the question at hand, how good is the new ZDAC ?  To dispense with the suspense, it is very good indeed.  Steve has plunged head first into a body of water that is infested with competition ….. some of it very attractively priced and good sounding to boot.  Having owned some of the better (and more costly) DACs and having heard many of the others that are available, I feel confident that I can offer some thoughts on the matter.  Of course, personal taste is the ultimate qualifier in this hobby.  Before I bought a Zanden 5000, I had been checking out the used gear for a period of several months on AudioGon and noticed that several of the “well regarded” CD players and DACs showed up for sale on a pretty regular basis.  I concluded that these units were probably pretty impressive on the initial listening session but tended to “wear the owner out” over a period of time.  I won’t mention any names, but if you check out the digital listings on AudioGon you will see what I mean.

I read several reviews on the Zanden and noticed that they didn’t come up for sale very often ….. and when one became available (because the current owner had to have the latest model and had $14,000.00 burning a hole in his pocket) I jumped on it.  To my ears, it was everything that it was advertised to be ….. resolving, detailed and musical while being easy on the ears at the same time.  It also convinced me that there was something special about a NOS design, when properly done.

When I developed a life threatening illness, I decided to sell off all of my expensive gear (including the Zanden DAC) so that my wife would not have to deal with it if I took the dirt nap.  It also bothered me that if service work was needed on the Zanden, it had to be shipped back to Japan.

After the doctors told me that I might stick around for a while, I started to buy some audio gear to rebuild my system.  I read some glowing reports about the MHDT Labs Havana and since it was based on the NOS platform I decided to give it a try.  I was not disappointed.  It had a lot of sonic similarities to the Zanden.  Not as good in an absolute sense ….. but very musical and easy to enjoy over extended listening sessions.  With well recorded CDs it could even approach “breathtaking” and I have no complaints with the sound, especially at the price point.  This DAC has a “near cult” status among those who own it.

So, how does the ZDAC compare to the Havana ….. which is in the very same ballpark pricewise ?

Here is what I found.  To make the comparison as fair as possible, I set my system up so that (using the same transport and Genesis Digital Lens) I could change immediately between the two with the flip of a switch.  I had a couple of assistants help over the course of the comparison so that I could remain in the listening seat and not miss a beat.  It should also be noted that my current loudspeakers (the custom built and one of a kind Parker Audio Troll Magnums with Heil Air Motion Transformers) are EXTREMELY revealing and allow me to hear a gnat fart if such is on the recording.  When combined with the ATT glass digital cable that runs from the transport to the Genesis Digital Lens I am getting a very clear view of everything upstream.  If the source is good, it can be mesmerizing ….. if the source is bad it lets me know about it within a few notes.

Steve has made a couple of statements concerning the ZDAC that have to be taken into consideration in relation to my thoughts …..

1 –  The ZDAC-1 is a 24/192 up-sampling DAC with USB, COAX, OPTICAL inputs released in April 2010 and priced below $1000.00  It has been designed to be competitive with DAC's retailing at over twice that amount.”

2 -  Modular design suggests a matching tube gain stage and a tube buffer stage may be in the future.

Concerning the second statement, the MHDT Labs DAC has a tube buffer stage.  Going head to head, the ZDAC sounded better to me than the Havana with the supplied stock tube.  There are some old stock tubes that work in the Havana that sound very, very good ….. but are unfortunately very hard to find and very expensive if you can find them.  I had been collecting tubes for the Havana and have a lifetime supply of some of the very best ones.  With the best tubes, I felt that the Havana was slightly better sounding than the ZDAC, with more bloom and texture.  Of course, it is quite possible that the ZDAC mated with a Z-Box or other tube buffer stage would equal or better the Havana.  The amazing thing to me is that the ZDAC sounds as fabulous as it does with no tube buffer and is as easy on the ears as an NOS design.  Unless a person can find a stash of the very best tubes for the Havana, the care and feeding of the ZDAC would be much easier with very similar sonic results.  The ZDAC has the ability to put the performers in the listening room, which is not an easy thing to accomplish.

Concerning the first statement, I also had Parker Audio Dave bring his Camelot Uther DAC over to see how it compared to the other DACs.  The Uther is a $4000.00 piece and the version with the Swiss Anagram stage is one of the very best digital processors available.  It is definitely in the same sonic ballpark as the Zanden.  I owned both at the same time and was able to compare them side by side.  Honestly, I probably convinced myself that a DAC that cost 10 grand just HAD to be better than one that “only cost 4 grand” ….. but the fact is that I have NEVER heard a DAC that is better than the Uther.  

When Steve says that the ZDAC “has been designed to be competitive with DAC's retailing at over twice that amount” he is not blowing smoke.
The Uther was better than the ZDAC to my ears, but the ZDAC had nothing to be embarrassed about.  For five times the money, the Uther should be better ….. and we are talking subtleties here, not day and night differences ….. as heard through a very revealing system.

The bottom line is that the ZDAC is a very worthy and musical component that will only be limited by the other equipment in the system.  It extracts gobs of detail from the recording without subjecting its owner to listener fatigue.  It is user friendly and can be “seasoned to taste” with the Decware Z-Box or a possible tube buffer and /or gain stage in the future.  I have to believe that anyone who chooses to own one will not be disappointed in the least.

If you could have been sitting in my listening seat a couple of nights ago hearing Gillian Welch putting on a private concert, you would know what I mean …..

Nicely done, Steve.

Randy
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CEC TL-2 belt drive CD transport
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Decware Model SE84C+ amplifier
Greenvalve Audio Type 10 amplifier
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Doorman
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #1 - 05/25/10 at 16:00:10
 
Randy:
Thanks for sharing your impressions of the ZDAC!
I've never had a stand-alone DAC, and am very intrigued as to how it would sound vis a vis my (stock) ZCD.
More to follow, hope you are well--
Don
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Lon
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #2 - 05/25/10 at 16:36:57
 
Don,

As you know, I'm not really a ZCD fan.  I love the ZDAC-1.  That's all I can really say on the matter. Smiley
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mpanwar
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #3 - 05/26/10 at 12:27:41
 
Not to be left in the dark but where is the review?

I mean I know it is a nice DAC ... must be ... I have ordered one.

But is that all you can say in your review ?

What about midrange with Jazz
How does the 24/96 sound compared to similar in 44.1/16?
Can u separate various instruments ?
Depth?
Sound stage?
Air over cymbals in Miles Davis?
Take Kind of Blue and tell me what you hear different!
Anything but it sounds nice !

Waiting ..
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Lon
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #4 - 05/26/10 at 13:38:55
 
Well I wrote in more detail elsewhere (including on headfi.com)

Sorry, I don't write the type of reviews you seem to wish to read.  I don't listen that way often.  I've made direct comparisons between this amp and the Sony SACD player I have, the SCD-XA5400ES, because that is the player I have the most recent experience with, and a player that I think is very hard to beat.

The midrange is excellent on the output of both. I find the ZDAC-1 to have a fuller midrange than the Sony, but the Sony is more. . . fleet?  Piano seems to move a bit more quickly on the Sony. Overall tonally the Sony seems more like vinyl to me. Just a bit less airy on top and a bit deeper in soundstage and a more relaxed imaging.  As I said in the previous posts the ZDAC-1 has a more forward, bold presentation. Both excels in image separation.  With massed ensembles, each holds its own rather well, I can find the sections and within the sections individual instrumental voices. Each outshines the other a bit with different material due mainly to their "forward" or "laidback" overall tonal and imaging presentations.  (To me "forward" or "laidback" are important considerations, and speak a lot to me about midrange and depth.)  So far I'm very lucky to have both, and the SACD output from the Sony is really something.  

I don't really feel like listening to Kind of Blue for a while, I've had that recording in one form or another for over thirty years, and listen to it often enough, I listened to it a lot last year when the latest edition came out and haven't felt the need to spin it lately.  And I really don't collect material in 24/96 that I have in redbook, so don't feel able to report on differences there.  I do NOT use a PC , and I don't use any of my Macs to stream music to any system in my house.

Okay, I tried, I'm not a professional reviewer, and I really grew tired of Stereophile type multi-page reviews of audio jewelry. I've spoken quite a bit about this and I feel I speak too much on this forum, and others don't speak enough, so I'll now await your review. Smiley  Hope you get yours soon!  My wait was about three weeks I think, pretty fast wait for a Decware product in my experience.

PS:  It's possible if you're hearing congestion in dense musical passages that you're running up against what I thought was the one limit that the original Zen amps had.  Since I've moved to the EL34 Decware amps, there is more headroom and more definition with dense material. It's one of those things that are noticed when you change amps, but not really limiting your enjoyment that much if you don't.
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« Last Edit: 05/26/10 at 15:13:21 by Lon »  

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Randy in Caintuck
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Posts: 378
Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #5 - 05/26/10 at 13:45:54
 
That is the review .....  it's the way I communicate .....

Truthfully, I'm not a big jazz fan ..... my collection is primarily folk, Americana, "old timey", acoustic blues and Celtic.

If any of these DACs were not superb in the areas of instrument and vocal separation, depth and soundstaging ..... I wouldn't bother to have them in my system.  With any of the four DACs I referred to, the soundstage extends beyond the walls of my 16' wide listening room and behind the front  wall with the loudspeakers out 7' from the wall.



I specifically mentioned "bloom and texture" ..... which are very important to me.
It is generally understood that NOS DACs (44.1/16) do not have quite the detail of an up or oversampling design, but are less prone to potential "listener fatigue".  I commented that the ZDAC was excellent at walking the fine line of compromise between detail and listenability.

I also mentioned the ability to "put the performer in the room" which is very important to me.  I savor a palpable vocalist standing between the loudspeakers singing to me.  Not all audio equipment or systems have the ability to pull this trick off in a convincing manner ..... the ZDAC does.

Sorry that my post wasn't more beneficial to you .... but that's the way we do things here in "Caintuck" .....

Take care,

Randy
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« Last Edit: 05/26/10 at 13:53:34 by Randy in Caintuck »  

CEC TL-2 belt drive CD transport
Camelot Uther / Anagram DAC
Decware Model SE84C+ amplifier
Greenvalve Audio Type 10 amplifier
Parker Audio Troll Magnus speakers
"Darth Baffles" OBs - with Hawthorne Augies, Saba Green Cones and Heil AMTs
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Lon
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #6 - 05/26/10 at 13:51:11
 
Randy,

He may have been talking to me as regarding a review, and he may not have read what I wrote about the ZDAC-1 elsewhere.
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Randy in Caintuck
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Tube be ... or not
tube be ... it's a
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Posts: 378
Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #7 - 05/26/10 at 13:55:38
 
Hi Lon,

Could be ..... I just presumed that since I started the thread that it was addressed to me .....

Take care,

Randy
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CEC TL-2 belt drive CD transport
Camelot Uther / Anagram DAC
Decware Model SE84C+ amplifier
Greenvalve Audio Type 10 amplifier
Parker Audio Troll Magnus speakers
"Darth Baffles" OBs - with Hawthorne Augies, Saba Green Cones and Heil AMTs
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mpanwar
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #8 - 05/26/10 at 15:57:14
 
Yes Thanks Lon, I was referring to you.

You have answered what I was looking for. I was just giving some examples of what I am familiar with. Unfortunately being a way way back subscriber to Stereophile u can tell what I would like to know.

Regardless. Thanks.

I understand you do not have a PC based system. Kinda like me till about two years ago when I digitized it all put it on a server and now use Media Monkey to send stuff to a DAC and bypass the PC fiddling of the data by using ASIO. To each their own. What this does for me is flexibility, search, etc.

Anyway...
Actually the Zen Select I have is used only for Jazz. My other system is where I was hearing the congestion. That is not tube based (unless at times when I throw the Musical Fidelity X10D tube buffer stage in there). I think the issue there is the VDAC. It is quite good but then only cost $250.

If u want to try 24/96 or 24/192 on DVD go to Elusive Disc. Their DAD discs play on all DVD players.  Or if u go to archive.org there is a whole lot of good free live music in 24/96 that you can download and then burn on a DVD for play in your DVD player.

Thanks Again.




Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #4 - Today at 13:38:55  
Well I wrote in more detail elsewhere (including on headfi.com)

Sorry, I don't write the type of reviews you seem to wish to read.  I don't listen that way often.  I've made direct comparisons between this amp and the Sony SACD player I have, the SCD-XA5400ES, because that is the player I have the most recent experience with, and a player that I think is very hard to beat.

The midrange is excellent on the output of both. I find the ZDAC-1 to have a fuller midrange than the Sony, but the Sony is more. . . fleet?  Piano seems to move a bit more quickly on the Sony. Overall tonally the Sony seems more like vinyl to me. Just a bit less airy on top and a bit deeper in soundstage and a more relaxed imaging.  As I said in the previous posts the ZDAC-1 has a more forward, bold presentation. Both excels in image separation.  With massed ensembles, each holds its own rather well, I can find the sections and within the sections individual instrumental voices. Each outshines the other a bit with different material due mainly to their "forward" or "laidback" overall tonal and imaging presentations.  (To me "forward" or "laidback" are important considerations, and speak a lot to me about midrange and depth.)  So far I'm very lucky to have both, and the SACD output from the Sony is really something.  

I don't really feel like listening to Kind of Blue for a while, I've had that recording in one form or another for over thirty years, and listen to it often enough, I listened to it a lot last year when the latest edition came out and haven't felt the need to spin it lately.  And I really don't collect material in 24/96 that I have in redbook, so don't feel able to report on differences there.  I do NOT use a PC , and I don't use any of my Macs to stream music to any system in my house.

Okay, I tried, I'm not a professional reviewer, and I really grew tired of Stereophile type multi-page reviews of audio jewelry. I've spoken quite a bit about this and I feel I speak too much on this forum, and others don't speak enough, so I'll now await your review. Smiley  Hope you get yours soon!  My wait was about three weeks I think, pretty fast wait for a Decware product in my experience.

PS:  It's possible if you're hearing congestion in dense musical passages that you're running up against what I thought was the one limit that the original Zen amps had.  Since I've moved to the EL34 Decware amps, there is more headroom and more definition with dense material. It's one of those things that are noticed when you change amps, but not really limiting your enjoyment that much if you don't.
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Lon
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #9 - 05/26/10 at 16:05:24
 
I can understand the search convenience, etc. But. . . I have probably close to 15,000 cds and I just am NOT going to start digitzing etc. I like my chaotic collection, and I don't want to use a computer for music.

I've decided that except for rare items that have deep sentimental value etc. I'm not rebuying items I already have.  I already have all the jazz selections that Classics, Audio Fidelity, etc. deign to release in hires formats, and I don't need to rebuy these, I'm no longer going to chase after "the ultimate sound experience" of releases in general. With the ZBox, with the ZDAC-1, with the SCD-XA5400ES, with the Torii Mk III things sound awfully damned good and more than good enough for me to just let the music flow. The ZDAC-1 I hoped would bring my TV sound up to scratch, and boy did it.  I've been buying a lot of classical SACDs cheap, and as I'm new to exploring the classical world I'm not duplicating music I already have. Sounds great coming out of my Sony.  I have a few rock DVD audio discs, may get a few more, but my listening to rock is limited.

I'm going to continue to be an old-fashioned stereo guy and use my computer for non-audio means.  If I were younger, or had less invested in both hardware and software, and/or had more money to spend, I'd probably be making that same lane change you did at the fork in the road two years ago. But as I'll probably be both returning to work and sharing a domicile with someone in the near future, my time to digitize is going to become limited and I just don't see a compelling reason to begin.

Looking forward to your impressions, hope the ZDAC-1 arrives soon!
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« Last Edit: 05/26/10 at 16:10:14 by Lon »  

Decware:ERR,HR-1,ZP3,CSP2+(2),Torii Mk III, PS Audio PWT+PWD MkII,PowerBases,PPP,AC-12 pcs, Denon DBP-A100, Denon DCD-A100, Rega RP3 +TTPSU,white belt+Exact2, VooDoo Cable IC: Evo and UL, Mapleshade:Double Heiix Samsonv2+v3 and 4"platforms,Herbie's IsoCups+Tendft
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will
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #10 - 06/07/10 at 00:45:09
 
Here's another ZDAC-1 review folks.... Roll Eyes

I feel like my ZDAC has finally become nicely resolved the last few days, and though I am still learning how to use it, I feel ready to comment. It has been in hard play (6-8 hrs a day) for 3 weeks. And from Lon's suggestion a few days ago, I left it on for a couple days, and I agree, this did something good.

Equipment compared:

Rega Apollo, Rega through ZDAC (amphenol glass toslink), Macbook Pro through ZDAC (Kimber's cheaper USB cable).

Playback system:

Decware: TORII MkIII, Styx speaker cables, Reference ICs, MG944 speakers. VHAudio DIY power cords. Brickhouse power box. And several of Alan Maher's cheaper power conditioning boxes.

Room treatments: Diaphragmatic bass trap (26x16x36)-low bass; open 703 fiber (15x15x36)-other bass; assorted corner 703 fiber; 4 Cathedral Sound room damping panels; Marigo Labs damping dots (mostly 30mm) on speakers, windows and cabinet; Synergistic System's A.R.T Basik system; and an adjustable SK Schumann Resonator (from Tweekgeek). This is cool. It puts out 7.84 Hz. Once set right, what I hear is a cleaner and more atmospheric room sound that refines the sound stage. Too much loses focus, but just a touch higher than first audible, it really brings a nice, sweet, clarity to my system. All treatments contribute to what I think is a reasonably controlled, but live sound, and my living room still looks mostly like a living room!

Cool

The ZDAC-1. Things I have learned so far:

I heard a big difference in digital cables, and though inexpensive (30 and $42 respectively) I like glass "amphenol" toslink, and Kimber USB, finding them more complete and natural sounding than the original "stock" cables I tried.

I heard a BIG improvement from a better power cable on the ZDAC1.

Also using large Brightstar Isonodes under the Rega (which the ZDAC sits on) were easily heard. They brought out clarity and detail throughout the spectrum.

ZDAC Burn in:

Trying to look at the subtle differences in my playback options before two weeks was useful, but a little like treading water as I waited impatiently for the ZDAC to wake up. For a long time it didn't offer much improvement for me. I heard a big shift days 8-10 and steady refinement since. But after three weeks, the resolution across the frequency range finally indicates to me the ZDAC1 is at least close to being burned in. No more electronic congestion in any part of the range. Now all three playback options are notably different.

The digital players. Smiley

I had a good thing going before, so the ZDAC1 did not at first appear to be a revelation, but more an advanced study in refinement.

1) Rega Apollo/no ZDAC1

Because of the ZDAC experiment, I realize my Rega Apollo, though sounding quite good, is definitely subtly colored, with a "laid back" sound (or is it a bit veiled?). Nicely, the Rega somehow isolates the players in the sound stage. Maybe the electronics chosen bring a touch of compressed midrange punch (giving the players extra body and focus) and perhaps a little upper mid and high hit, bringing a sense of presence and openness. I can't really say, but I think Rega's attempt at an analog sound worked pretty well, offering a nice "warmth" with a "live" clarification of the musicians and impressive black between them.

But after insane comparisons, I feel a little ripped off by the Rega sound tweaks. Though for the most part it makes quite respectable music, the times I hear the coloring for what it is…electronic adjustments toward a sound effect, I find it a touch tricky and crave more transparency.

2) Rega Apollo/ZDAC1:

The Rega as transport for the ZDAC-1 was very seductive. The ZDAC changed the Rega. There is enhanced punch, detail and "body." With the Rega, the dynamic transparency and relatively effortless presentation from the ZDAC appears somewhat as prowess, bringing a slight forwardness...more push. And with the ZDAC's pleasantly smooth refinement, it sounds pretty real...but a little pushy and demanding in the end, with too much of that "analog warmth" Rega created. Impressive still with the right tubes, but finally, a little false.

3) Macbook Pro/ZDAC1:

After hearing so much difference in toslink cables, I figured I needed a half decent USB cable to fairly audition the computer source. So I avoided the Mac/ZDAC until the Kimber came, and that was good. I have been using the Mac for 5-6 days.

Coming from the warm and punchy Rega/ZDAC, the Macbook/ZDAC sounded more even, neutral and transparent, but by comparison, too sterile and coolish. Then, though inclined to like the more impressive sound of the Rega/ZDAC, from hard listening, I started hearing the computer combination as potentially more "true"...enough so to dig in and see what I find. I decided to play only through the computer for a while.

File Type Impressions:

I am using uncompressed 44.1K 16bit WAV files (same as most CDs) extracted with error correction using XLD to rip, and iTunes for playback. I compared Apple Lossless to WAV and though it is very good, to me, it sounded a touch less musical. Going into, and/or coming out of this compression algorithm was somehow thinning parts of the sound. Oddly, it appeared more "thinned" in different tonal areas on different tunes. Subtle, but intentionally losing even a little fidelity would be defeating my need for the best possible musical realism. Wav files being roughly twice the size of Apple Lossless, I chose the necessity for bigger hard drives. Not too big of a deal these days.

Adjusting to the Mac/ZDAC1:

Interestingly, the USB/ZDAC sound is closest to the Rega alone but as I listened more I heard the USB/ZDAC-1 had MUCH to explore. I wanted to look at the depth of subtlety the ZDAC offers.

This new sound, with its clarified accuracy, seemed to have better potential in every way as long as it did not end up being too clean. To this end, I needed to treat it differently from the Rega alone or Rega/ZDAC sounds. Since just the right amp adjustments and tube combination brought the Rega into a sense of depth and realism, there was no reason to think this would not be the case for the Mac/ZDAC.

With my personal preference for detail and clarity, I had brightened the Rega sound. No wonder the USB/ZDAC sound began coolish, and "digital" God forbid. But the digital signal is only that….unadjusted, and the ZDAC1 seems to effortlessly and transparently bring smoothness, harmonic detail, definition, weight and body…READ CLARITY, to every aspect of the frequency range. It was a new sound for sure and needed research.

Down came the treble on the TORII, and my warmer tubes became more necessary. The combo of the day… early 60's Bugle Boy 6DJ8's, cryo'd Sovtek GZ34's (cryoset), and OB3 voltage regulators (more "open" than the OA3)…the rest stock MkIII. For most input tubes I tend to fall back to GZ34's over 5U4G's, usually preferring their tighter sound, and the Sovteks do this with warmth and detail. And I have loved this tube combination before the ZDAC, but both the Bugle Boys and Sovteks have darkish low mid tendencies, and with some recordings, they could push the low-mid/high-bass too much for me. But as it turned out, the Rega was contributing to this! With the Mac/ZDAC, I am working from a clean slate….no more guessing. And guess what? The over enhanced low mids thing has, for the most part, been "cured" by this shift.

Wink

Also with the more transparent Mac/ZDAC, the "warm" bias switch and the high impedance speaker setting on the MkIII became more usable for signature shifting. Before the warm bias was sometimes "hard" in the mids, but now, on many recordings it sounds, well… "warm." And without the forwardness from the Rega/ZDAC, the high impedance setting is really pretty nicely clarifying on leaner or flabbier stuff.

So at this point, I would say the ZDAC/Mac is sounding very, very good! Actually, in my system, the musical representation of the USB/ZDAC1 seems close to impeccable. From deep, tight bass to harmonically rich mids, and open airy highs. My older ears don't hear any roll off, actually hearing a bit more tape hiss if it is there, but I love the high extension.

And the harmonic detail that keeps getting my attention…it brings a natural timber to every instrument. Archie Schepp's breath across the damp reeds is almost surreal. And it goes low…where the vibrating reeds move metal and space giving an unmistakable sense of unrestricted harmonic depth...his horn sound appearing to have no limits. Or Yo-Yo Ma's solo cello… there is clarified harmonic texture right down to the lowest bass notes. And bass? The ZDAC handles standup bass with unpretentious authority, revealing every nuance of the wood, fingers and strings while N-H Orsted Pederson prods Schepp through "Looking at Bird." Finally, I find that all of these qualities are handled with great smoothness as the broad range of musical information seamlessly integrates and transitions.

Is the ZDAC forgiving? For me, to get the best sound out of the ZDAC/Mac, it has also become quite forgiving on lesser recordings without sacrifice to great recordings. Also after burn in, the ZDAC-1 has definitely become more "tube like" with its warm, smooth, and wide ranging harmonic detail. All without contrivance…. without any trace of trying to sound warm.

Wink

The Computer:

Though resistant, after mustering the nerve to explore the computer source for a while, there is no more question for me that this is a really solid foundation. A foundation, without particular color, while being complete thanks to the ZDAC-1. After tuning the system to this sound, it is surprisingly easy to play with, detailing the sound with simple tube, or amp adjustments. No more intense attempts to squeeze that next state of musical wonder out of my "thoroughbred" system. Now it is quite well mannered…easy. This is a profound improvement to my musical experience and though a few things have shifted within the ZDAC experiment, I attribute this transformational refinement to the ZDAC-1.

So what first appeared to be a study in refined subtlety is in fact a revelation. My system was really, really good, I might even have said GREAT. But now it is on a new level. And the ZDAC-1 is the big player in this shift, both through its own sound, but also because it stimulated me to look carefully into uncompressed, error-free computer sourcing. Without that leap of faith, I would not have gotten where I did. I would be playing my Rega as transport and been happy. The sound I have now though, is far more real and more flexible for various music, recording qualities, and tube play. So, though I resist losing my CD's, the touch and look of them, I am comforted by having reached a new level toward the most "real" sound I can get. I don't see myself going back.

Cool

Listening to Patricia Barber sing Autumn Leaves with only a string bass behind her, there appears to be nothing more to do but enjoy…..I hear every nuance from her rich and beautiful voice! I hear the fingers hit the bass strings….feel and hear the wood and body of the bass! There is detail, pace and nuance I have not heard before and it all sounds rich, textured and "right."

Are the players "in the room"? Hmmm….. At night, with my eyes closed, as I get seduced by the vibe of the tune, finding the musicians in space, amazed by meriad details…expanded by the dynamic performance as it fills the air beyond my walls…drawn into the breath and lips as they bring presence to the resonance from the stomach, chest, and Heart…And as the voice weaves its story, I feel the bass player stretch for notes as he explores his need to "speak" through string and wood…his heart entering the heart of the song…..Yes, they feel here with me. And if it is not them, it does not matter, I am loving whoever it is as I experience them playing their hearts out in my living room!

To me, the ZDAC-1 is not just a great audio tool, it is also a great teacher! With the Mac source, it is subtle and supple. It is rich without color. It is not obvious or "in your face" but clear, expressive and articulate. It goes deep and wide with little sense of effort. I could almost say the sound is so complete, that it is not there. It won't surprise me if I could say this unequivocally after burn in refinement. I guess you can tell I like it!

[Update: ZDAC-1 Day 24. I noticed yesterday the ZDAC was sounding just a little heavy. But today, it is way better than ever! Then my wife took her computer so I am listening through the Rega. It has been about 5-6 days since we stopped comparing source combinations, and several days more of burn in. I just did some direct comparisons between the Rega and the Rega/ZDAC. Though I prefer the computer for its transparency, having "transformed" my listening experience, I still would have kept the ZDAC with the Rega as transport and been pleased. It would have been a very good and worthy upgrade, though (5-6 days ago) perhaps not an "outrageous" one. I would rephrase that today! It sounds way better! The ZDAC-1 has shifted yet again, and with the Rega as transport, it is a brilliant improvement in every way over the Rega alone! The ZDAC-1 is scaring me it is sounding so good! If it keeps changing like this, it might blow my mind!]
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« Last Edit: 06/09/10 at 07:17:46 by will »  

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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #11 - 06/07/10 at 02:16:18
 
Will, thanks for sharing your thoughts and accumulating knowledge. A very nice review!

I think you're in for a surprise as I found . . . in the next few weeks your ZDAC should sound even better. In the last week mine climbed yet another stair on the way.  

This is a great machine.  Wow.
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #12 - 06/07/10 at 06:49:03
 
Lon, Thanks. From the pattern of burn in progress on my ZDAC, I had a hunch it might continue for a while and I am really glad to hear yours has. It is so good now, I am very excited to experience the next steps with mine!

Smiley
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« Last Edit: 06/07/10 at 06:58:39 by will »  

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Randy in Caintuck
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #13 - 07/08/10 at 15:29:18
 
Well ..... I know that there are more than 4 or 5 Z-DACs out there producing music .....

Does anyone else have any thoughts to share about this fine piece of audio gear ?

Randy
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #14 - 07/08/10 at 22:12:43
 
I'd be interested to read more impressions and reveiws as well.

A fine machine!

Lately I've really been fascinating myself trying to differentiate the ZDAC from my Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD player. There is a magic emotional connection the Sony gives me that is very different than what I hear from the ZDAC.  I wish I could articulate it well, and I wish I knew what was responsible for the difference (the two output sections are quite different in engineering I think). Some music is just so spectacular with the ZDAC and not quite as clear and driving through the Sony. I just listened to a CD from Aretha Franklin that makes me melancholy and reflective through the Sony, and just doesn't connect with me through the ZDAC, though it sounds superb. The Sony gives it some depth and just some sort of hard to describe aura that seems more like "analog" to me and somehow it's a more emotional experience.

Then again I have a Cowboy Junkies cd that the opposite seems true, the ZDAC makes it come alive and really speak to me, whereas the Sony makes it rock and roll but not really touch me.

Fascinating to have these two sources!  I have the Sony analog outs into one MK III input, the ZDAC into the other.  I can switch on the fly, the levels are very very closely matched if not identical.

SACDs through the Sony are the best I've ever heard the medium (and I have a DEC685!) and I've been luxuriating in classical SACDs as well.  The SCD-XA5400ES is becoming hard to find, Sony doesn't have it in stock now, and only Sony offers it online (Sony pulled their ES line from other online retailers this month). Glad I didn't hesitate and went for mine when I could.

I'm lucky, I have two affordable (in the grand scheme of things) EXCELLENT sources, and can use the Sony as the excellent transport that it ts.
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #15 - 07/09/10 at 23:26:50
 
Wow.  Got my AC fixed! A whole new whole house unit for three hundred bucks (I have a home maintenance contract that actually replaced the unit for free under warranty).

All day I've been going back and forth between the Sony and the ZDAC and . . . at the end of the day, I've decided that I'm going to listen to cds and SACDs through the Sony, and use the ZDAC to decipher the digital from my Sony BDP-S2000ES Blu-Blay player and my DVR cable box. That way I can use the coaxial input for the Blu-Ray instead of switching it out for the DVR, both on glass optical cable.

For most of the material I play I like the Sony SCD-XA5400ES sound a bit more, more reverberance, more depth, warmer bass. (all these seem distinct enough to me though hardly "big.") I could save up for another digital cable I guess and see if that's a limitation, although the Black Knight cable I'm using is very good and sounds killer with the Blu-Ray player. The ergonomics are better now, I can toggle back and forth between my two sources, the 5400 and the ZDAC, and toggle between the Blu-Ray and the DVR on the ZDAC, no more switching of cables.

Edit to add:  I feel that I have verified my suppositions in that I felt that the Sony was the first disc player I've had that was "a real source" in the sense that Steve describes the ZDAC.  It is a real source.  So the ZDAC now makes a real source (and brings real improvement) to my video and TV sources.  I have three real sources, a great thing.

When my ship comes in I can work on a few real sources for my bedroom system!
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« Last Edit: 07/10/10 at 19:10:39 by Lon »  

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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #16 - 07/14/10 at 14:52:18
 
So Randy, now that you have lived with the ZDAC and the Havana for quite sometime, is the Havana now for sale?  Any new listening impressions to offer between the two etc?

Thanks  8-)
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #17 - 07/16/10 at 20:55:22
 
Hi Davey,

Well ..... here's the deal.  For my posts to have any credibility at all, I have to tell it as I see it ..... no more, no less.

As such, the opinions I previously shared are still holding :

If a person can find a stash of the very best tubes that work in the buffer stage of the Havana, I prefer it slightly.  There is something about the vacuum tube that adds bloom and dimensionality to the music.  With the stock tube in the Havana, I prefer the Z-DAC.  The problem is that the very best tubes are getting expensive and / or rare .....

Having said that, I suspect that the ZBOX with a top notch tube would give similar results.

When Parker Audio Dave brought his Camelot Uther over for a comparison with the other two DACs, it made me appreciate why this was my reference DAC for such a long time.  It sounds better than either to my ears ..... and should ..... for $ 4500.00.

In addition to being a great sounding DAC, the Uther has built in remote volume and balance control in the analog domain with a display that shows the volume and balance settings.  This eliminates the need for a preamp or other volume control in the chain.

Also, the very latest Anagram modification for the Uther has some sort of circuit that mimics the Genesis Digital Lens built in.  It totally takes the cable issue out of the equation.  I compared budget coaxial, balanced and ST glass cables (on the fly) and can hear absolutely NO difference ..... they all sound great  This is exactly what the Digital Lens does on the output side for cables.

The Uther shows up occasionally for sale (used) and still commands two or three time the price of the (new) Z-DAC or Havana.  I was fortunate enough to find one a couple of weeks ago ..... with the latest Anagram mod.  Hard to believe.

The bottom line ..... the Z-DAC and Havana are both great DACs at a very attractive price.  I could live happily with either.  Anyone who buys a Z-DAC will be grinning from ear to ear, IMHO.  If they pair it with a Z-BOX or the possible future Decware vacuum tube gain stage, they will probably have a hard time prying themselves out of their listening chair .....

When you get to this level of performance, life is good ..... very, very good .....

I would still like to hear from some other Z-DAC owners ..... but, maybe they are too busy listening to music .....

Best wishes,

Randy
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #18 - 07/20/10 at 10:50:52
 
Thanks for your honest take and review Randy, much appreciated!...

I was surprised when I first saw the ZDAC that it didn't have a tube in the mix somewhere seeings how this is Decware after all..

Anyhow I'll keep checking back for future comments, or ZDAC option news etc..

Happy listening  8-)
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #19 - 07/23/10 at 15:28:42
 
Hey Randy, interesting results and thanks for sharing them.

I did a lot of comparing between my Sony ES SACD player (which people seem clamoring to find now that Sony seems to have discontinued it after two years) and the ZDAC.  Both make great sources.  I decided on the Sony 5400 ES because it presented Redbook material in a slightly more relaxed, "bloom" sort of way than the slightly more sharp and slightly more forward (in comparison) ZDAC. I just prefer to hear music that way.  The Sony 5400 ES is also a smidgeon more forgiving of sources than the ZDAC, and with my collection that is a plus. (And SACD from the Sony 5400 ES is just plain better sounding than any other medium I've thrown into the system yet, but that's a fish of a different type).

And I have to add (via edit) that it's the crystaline clarity and nimble power and open window that the Torii MK III brings to the music that allows me to differentiate and compare these sources. What an amp!  I've loved the Select, I've loved the Monoblocks, I've loved the Integrated, but the Torii has become my prized audio possession. That and the IT Radials. . . I couldn't part with etiher.

Adding the ZBox to the ZDAC output chain does add a bit of "bloom" to the sound.  Sometimes though, when the system is sounding its most revealing, I feel I hear a bit of a lessening of dynamics when using the ZBox in the chain (which may be because of an additional power cord and interconnects -- I always use Decware interconnects in all connectioins).  I drove myself crazy a while back putting the ZBox into the system and out of the system, and I ended up deciding that the benefit it adds to the output of the source I use in the bedroom system (a NAD T585) is really worth having in that system and so it's stayed there. Until Steve offers another tube stage component to complement the ZDAC (and it's unclear to me that he may intend to) the ZBox is a really great supplement to the ZDAC.  And if you do find yourself thinking of ordering one, consider having Steve add an additional input.

I've been reading up on my Sony ES Blu-Ray player (BDP-S2000ES) and it seems that it only passes uncompressed PCM and 24/96 and 24/192 material via its analog outputs, so I'm going to compare its output extensively to the digital output into the ZDAC to see which sounds best.  Should be a bit of fun, I hope, when it becomes frustrating I'll stop.  I even have enlisted the ears of a digital engineer I know, who used to think I was nuts when I talked about cable differences until I gave him some Decware interconnects (pre-current production) and some TARA Labs speaker cables for in his system. Now . . . he sees the light.

Good viewing and listening ahead this weekend I think! Smiley
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« Last Edit: 07/23/10 at 15:56:36 by Lon »  

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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #20 - 07/27/10 at 12:55:56
 
My conclusions from listening this weekend?

The analog out from my Sony ES Blu-Ray player is very good, comprable to that from the ZDAC-1.  However, the output of the the ZDAC produces more volume, and is welcome for that reason.  To use both the Blu-Ray and the DVR without the ZDAC-1 I have to use the ZBox and I lose a tiny bit of volume as a result. It's just not quite loud enough on some DVDs and Blu-Rays.

The output of the DVR alone is puny and inferior to the output of the DVR feeding the ZDAC-1 in both quality and volume output, so the ZDAC-1 is the clear choice for the DVR.  So I'm happy to keep the ZDAC-1 in the system for video sources.

It's a great machine.  I listened again to Redbook cd via the Sony 5400 ES and the ZDAC-1 and I still prefer the ease and ambience of the Sony 5400 ES, though sound is very good through the ZDAC-1.  I can heartily recommend the ZDAC-1 as an excellent souirce at a very reasonable price.  Very happy with this product and my viewing pleasure is definitely increased with it in the system!
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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #21 - 08/19/10 at 16:34:28
 
After a week away from my system as I traveled to Ohio and back, I decided to do another shoot-out between the Sony SCD-XA5400ES analolg out and the Sony feeding the ZDAC-1 as a transport. The ZDAC-1 has more hours on it than the last time I made a serious comparison, so it seemed due.

Interesting results. Basically the same results as before, though the ZDAC-1 is more seasoned now and the tonal balance is a bit better (fuller bass, a bit more relaxed treble, open midrange).  The defining differences between them is probably keyed to the bass:  the SCD-XA5400ES seems to have a warmer bass and this brings a bit more ambient information into the presentation, which I definitely like. (The SCD-XA5400ES is a direct coupled voltage design and with no capacitors in the signal path. Is this the fundamental difference in design that leads to the sonic differences?  Seems possible to me.) And there is a more laid-back sound to the presentation than when the ZDAC-1 is used for digital-analog conversion and analog output.  The ZDAC-1 seems more forward, the images and the sound stage are brought more forward and more in-between the speakers.

The selling point for me for more prevalent use of the SCD-XA5400ES is acoustic music such as jazz and classical and folk are more naturally presented.  The piano sounds more natural and resonant in this set up,  with the ZDAC-1 there is more of a "clang" or "sting" to the attack that doesn't really seem as accurate to ME as the presentation from the Sony alone. (And I have been a player of pianos. . . . )  Earlier I had thought that the ZDAC-1 may be the more dynamic of the two. . . but as the treble of the ZDAC-1 improved that gap narrowed, I now think they are both pretty close in dynamic presentation both micro and macro. (I thik that a bit of pronounced treble on transients was making the presentation SEEM more dynamic).

Really I think it is program material that decides it for me. For rock recordings and recordings that are heavily processed in the studio, I think that the ZDAC-1 gets selected as it brings a bold forceful presentation.  For the bulk of my listening though I use the Sony alone, it seems to represent the music with a gentleness and an ambient signature that seems very very fitting to me.

For the average listener (as I perceive that to be from years of reading on this forum) here I think the ZDAC-1 will represent a great great value and a killer source; for rock and blues and funk and pop this machine really delivers.  If jazz, classical and other less electric and electronic music is the main fare, there MAY be better sources.  The SCD-XA5400ES has really fit the bill for me for these genres, and I listen to these genres more often by far.  The ZDAC-1 really shines with the video leg of my system, and for the other music formats I listen to on cd; I'm very glad to have it. And I AM curious as to how the new linestage that Steve is about to introduce may play into this.  I hesitate to sell something and order one because. . . well I find that Steve generally likes presentations a bit more forward than I do. I think he hears as 'neutral' what I hear as a bit forward, and that's well and good, it's good to know that distinction.  If Steve were to say "the new linestage makes the ZDAC-1 sound a bit mellower," well that would signal to me that it may be just the ticket!  Looking forward to reports of that from the DecFest or earlier "adopters."

Really enjoying the music, now that I'm home. I missed my system. It's SPECIAL.
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« Last Edit: 08/19/10 at 20:36:08 by Lon »  

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Re: How good is the ZDAC .....
Reply #22 - 08/19/10 at 20:22:40
 
I just want to clarify one thing:  My ZDAC-1 was one of the first half dozen shipped, and after it was shipped Steve elected to change one of the opamps to another that in his words "has more detail and more focus."  Steve has offered twice for me to receive the new chip, but I'm of the impression that I generally prefer less detail and focus than some, and that I enjoy a slightly more forgiving and musical sound. The ZDAC-1 in the incarnation that I have it exhibits plenty enough detail and focus. I also bought the unit anticipating it was a finished design, and I don't want to open up and insert the new chip--I'm not really versed in these things--nor do I want to ship it back and be without it a while, I like it, I use it everyday. So I've elected not to change the opamp to the version that has been shipping to others since.

Please note that my impressions of MY ZDAC-1 don't reflect the ZDAC-1 that has been shipped after mine, and mine should NOT be considered the "production standard."  I don't feel that this means much of a high hill of beans personally in the overall character of the ZDAC-1, but I could be mistaken.  I'm very happy with the unit I have, as is noted by all my favorable comments above.  
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« Last Edit: 08/19/10 at 21:43:27 by Lon »  

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