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DAC - 3 DACs compared - January 2017

3  DACs  COMPARED



I-INTRODUCTION :

In this long awaited review, we deeply compare and evaluate  3 of the currently most regarded DACs under 1.000€.
We want to :

  • achieve a serious review for our readers,
  • compare the selected DACs on a high end system in order to have a full evaluation of their real capabilities and performance : therefore we have reviewed them in our Reference System #7.
  • provide our readers with a deep / complete / honest evaluation : we remind you that ThresholdLovers is 100 % independent of any advertising budget….
  • evaluate the influence of the cables and clock accuracy (via a « reclock accessory », see below) on the final result. This is important for you because the performance that you will get may vary if the DAC is sensitive to these two parameters, (meaning the quality of the USB signal) because your digital source will be different than ours in most cases.


For these reasons, it is obviously impossible to simultaneously review an important number of DACs: it took us many weeks just to deeply compare these 3 DACs. Consequently, we do not believe at all in the reviews where a dozen (or more...) devices are tested : this approach cannot be based on a serious evaluation process, and is very similar to an “hidden advertising” than a serious review...

We have NOT evaluated any other feature than the COAX and USB conversion features related to the CD format : we have simply ignored the preamp capabilities or headphones support, as well as we have limited our tests to the 16 bits / 44.1kHz format delivered from a CD Drive, the oustanding Metronome Technologie T2A Signature, and from a NAS hosting the CD dematerialized files (WAV files only).


II-THE 3 DACs THAT WE HAVE REVIEWED.

We have chosen to review 3 of the most regarded DACs on the market : we know that a lot of our readers will have these 3 DACs on their list if they search for “the best DAC” in a reasonnable budget. These DACs are:

 


The DACs had been burned in during a few months, except for the CHORD 2Qute that was received 2 days before this contest. This might be a disadvantage for the CHORD, but we will see that it is not the case at all.

All of them have been deeply tested and compared one against each other, and of course compared to our Reference DAC, the WADIA 9 fully (really fully…) restored and upgraded.

 

  AUDIOGD DAC-19 USB CHORD 2Qute NUFORCE Icon HDP
DAC chip

PCM1704UK

+USB=AMANERO

FPGA (Xilinx) Masked (NuForce branded)
Inputs RCA / BNC / USB / Toslink BNC / USB / Toslink RCA / Toslink (+Analog inputs RCA)
Outputs RCA + mini XLR RCA RCA
Power Supply type Inside the chassis Wall plug (12V) Wall plug (15V)
Price (€) 900 990 450





Associated equipment and accessories :
 

  • The associated equipment can be seen in the detailed description of our Reference System #7. From time to time, we have switched between the THRESHOLD SA/6e class A monoblocks and an AUDIORESEARCH D70-mkII with the best available tubes.
  • The USB cable was the same and unique WIREWORLD Platinium Starlight for every DAC reviewed (in order to avoid any difference due to a difference in the USB cable quality).
  • The power supply has been picked up from the Blacknoise outlets for every DAC reviewed (in order to avoid any difference due to a difference in AC quality).
  • The same interconnect cable has been switched from a DAC to the other in order to avoid any bias due to a cable change (in order to avoid any difference due to a difference in the interconnect cable quality).


In order to have a deep evaluation of how each DAC is sensitive to the quality of the USB signal received from the computer via the local network, we have reviewed each DAC both with and without a « reclock device » : we have used the excellent device made by SOTM : tX-USBHubEX.
This device has been provided by MAGIC MASTERING, and we finally decided to keep (buy) it.

 

Here is a photo of the sources used for this comparison, without the amplifiers and loudspeakers:

chord dans systeme reference 7B_small.jpg

 



III-THE MUSIC USED DURING THE LISTENING SESSION :

We have used many physical CDs, all of them are known for their excellent recording quality, such as the Test CD #6 specially recorded for tests purposes by the French magazine « La Nouvelle Revue du Son ».

as well as a large collection of uncompressed WAV files also known for their excellent quality, stored on our NAS (from an error-free rip of our physical CDs that we own) :


The listening sessions have been done with at least 2 persons (Nounours + Florent at least) to be sure that the judgement is totally shared and not biased by an unknown reason.


IV-COMMON RESULTS ACHIEVED BY THE 3 DACs.

The first idea that came to our mind during the review is : « the progress achieved by the recent DACs over the old DACs (except a few state of the art DACs) is incredible ». The performance that we have got from these DACs is quite equivalent to what we got 10 years ago from the DACs costing around 15,000$...

With the condition of an appropriate setup (see above and below), these 3 DACs are capable of excellent results when using their USB input, that were just a dream 10 years ago : as we all know, the USB input as always been considered as a poor quality input (compared to the RCA / BNC / ST inputs).


The major surprise of our listening sessions  relates to the USB conversion: we can all afford truly capable DACs for a very reasonable budget.

But as always, there is a hierarchy , so :

  • what is the hierarchy between these DACs ?
  • how do they compare one with each other ?
  • how to they react to the quality of the USB signal ? This is a very important point because our experience shows that it is very difficult to get a 100 % clean USB signal…



V-THE HIERARCHY BETWEEN THESE DACs.

V-1-.AUDIOGD DAC-19 USB AMANERO :


It has the biggest chassis of the 3 competitors,
Front view:

audiogd_dac19_front.jpg

 

Rear view:

audiogd_dac19_back.jpg

 

 


and offers a complete set of inputs : RCA/BNC/USB/Optical.

Once again we regret that the optical input uses the CRAPPY Toslink standard whereas the ST standard is the only serious optical standard.
Shame on AUDIOGD.
At ThresholdLovers, we will always blame any manufacturer using the Toslink standard whereas the ST one becomes more and more afordable : even if the ST standard is less common and therefore less universal than the Toslink one, we will always explain that a manufacturer using ST is a very serious manufacturer who cares about quality.
And therefore we blame all the 3 manufacturers because they have all chosen the crppy Toslink instead of promoting the quality through ST standard, like WADIA did in the late 80 when they issued a few DACs with only ST inputs…
And by the way, we also blame WADIA because their current DACs are also equipped with the CRAPPY Toslink inputs, even on their very expensive DACs…
Shame on WADIA too...
Mr Wadia HOSES would have never accepted this kind of choices when he was alive...

Well, this has been said !

This DAC is equiped with the famous PCM1704U-K (the « K » suffix means the best quality chips amongst the PCM1704 chips), has the USB AMANERO card onboard, known to be one of the very best asynchronous USB card on the market, and as an outstanding build quality.

It is also the only one amongst our 3 competitors to offer XLR outputs: this could be useful is used with a high end preamplifier offering XLR inputs.


inside view:

audiogd_dac19_inside.jpg



The build quality is outstanding, far better than the 3 other ones, and certainly shows that AUDIOGD cares about quality : not so common for a Chinese company…
And it is easy to understand why most of the Forums, websites or magazines, are very positive about the AUDIOGD DAC-19 performance.

Threshold Lovers verdict:
At its current price (<1,000€) the AUDIOGD DAC-19 is an excellent DAC, both on its RCA input and on its USB input.

The inside jumper “NOS” must be positionned ON, meaning that the chassis should be opened and the jumper installed: this improves the performance of the DAC-19. It becomes more natural, more opened, cleaner, etc…, but do not be wrong: the DAC-19 is already very good even in its factory configuration.

The DAC-19 provides a clear sound, a realistic soundstage, a lot of transparency whatever the kind of music that you send to it.

The high frequency are very good, the mids too, and the bass … too.

This DAC has been carefully designed, no doubt about that, and has its place in a high end system.

Its USB input is surprisingly good: when it comes to the dematerialized music, the DAC-19 USB is one of the very best DAC available on the market, regardless the price. The AMANERO USB card confirms that it is one of the very best asynchronous USB card, and therefore ThresholdLovers confirms that the DAC-19 is excellent on its USB input.

Its RCA/BNC input is also very good, even particularly good for a less than 1.000$ device, even provided that the number of DACs performing well on a RCA/BNC input is higher than 5 years ago…

Sensivity to the AC Power  quality:
The DAC-19 like all the DACs that we have reviewed these last 10 years, can be improved using a good AC Power cable, as well as a Blacknoise outlet.
ThresholdLovers believes that any serious audiophile should care about the AC quality…

Sensitivity to the USB signal quality:

Once again we confirm that an excellent USB cable must be used : this is the same with any USB DAC that we have reviewed these last 10 years… The DAC-19 seems a bit less sensitive than most of the other DACs probably because the AMANERO Asynchronous USB card is truly excellent.

In addition, we have tested if a “reclock device” such as the SOTM  tX-USBHubEX can improve the performance of the DAC, and if yes, to which extend.


The result is that the  tX-USBHubEX does improve the performance of the DAC-19. Lightly but in every aspects: it brings a bit more homogeneity, a bit more relaxed sound, a bit more transparency, a bit more etc…
The cost of the  SOM tX-USBHubEX is less than 400€: you can use the DAC-19 without the SOTM and with a lot of pleasure. But if you can afford the SOTM, than do it, you wll get a bit more of everything…

We say thank you to MAGIC MASTERING for his advice.

This confirms that the AUDIOGD DAC-19 is an excellent DAC, and merits our 5 Stars award.


V-2-.NUFORCE ICON HDP.

The cost of the HDP is 450€, it seems that it has been discontinued, but it is still easy to found.
At only half the price of the AUDIOGD DAC-19, does it offers only the half its performance ?

Surely not : the HDP is also very good, not so far from the AudioGD, but with a slightly inferior performance. When comparing these 2 DACs, the hierarchy is not surprising the AUDIOGD is better), but the performance of the NUFORCE is very surprising regarding its price.
The RCA input of the NuForce provides better results than its USB input : this is probably because the NuForce does not have a sophisticated USB card, contrarily to the AUDIOGD DAC-19 that hosts the excellent AMANERO.

The RCA performance of the NuForce is outstanding for a less than 500$ DAC !
The NuForce is equiped with the CRAPPY Toslink optical input : Shame on NUFORCE (even if we can understand this on a less than 500$ DAC...)

The USB performance of the NuForce is still very good, not equaled at this level of price, but not exactly as good sa its RCA input, and not in the same league than the AMANERO of the DAC-19.

Sensivity to the AC Power  quality:
The NUFORCE Icon HDP, like the DAC-19 and like all the DACs that we have reviewed these last 10 years, can be improved using a good AC Power cable, as well as a Blacknoise AC outlet.
ThresholdLovers believes that any serious audiophile should seriously care about the AC quality…

Sensitivity to the USB signal quality:

The NuForce REQUIRES an excellent USB cable : it is less tolerant than the 2 other competitors to poor quality cables, and without a high quality USB cable you will probably be disappointed by its performance.

Contrarily to the AMANERO DAC-19 card that seems able to deal with a “non perfect” USB signal without degrading too much the music, the NuForce absolutely needs an excellent USB cable..

Similarly, a “reclock device” such as the SOTM  tX-USBHubEX has a greater effect on the NuForce than on the DAC-19 / CHORD 2Qute, and appears more necessary.


The cost of the  SOTM tX-USBHubEX is 400€, meaning more or less the price of the NuForce itself. But if you already own the NuForce and do not want to buy another one, then the SOTM will give you a bit more of everything… But do not forget that the total cost is therefore similar to the price of the AUDIOGD DAC-19, which seems a more clever investment for the long term.
If portability is a must have for you, then we suggest you to read the herebelw CHORD 2Qute review, because the CHORD 2 Qute is also a better investment than the NUFORCE.

Overall Performance:
The NUFORCE ICON HDP is an outstanding device for 450€ : if your budget is limited to < 500$, it is probably one of the best (if not the best) choice, providing both audio performance and portability, particularly on its RCA input.
Its USB input is bit below performance wise. It can be improved by adding a “reclock device” such as the SOTM, but the total cost becomes equal to the AUDIOGD DAC-19 AMANERO, or the CHORD 2Qute, which are both a beter long term investment than the NUFORCE.


V-3-.CHORD 2QUTE:

The CHORD 2Qute is a truly portable DAC: it is housed in a small and elegant chassis, making it a perfect friend when portability is a must have.

Chord 2Qute_image2_small.jpg



Its electronic design is different and based on a FPGA, rather than the regular conversion chips (Burr Brown Analog Devices, TDA or others…).
To our eyes, this is promising because all the worldwide best DACs that we know use a FPGA (WADIA 9, THETA, dCS, etc…). But getting a FPGA based DAC for less than 1,000€ : this is just unbelievable, and such DACs costed the same price than a sport car 20 years ago…

Like the NUFORCE and the AUDIOGD, the CHORD is equipped with the CRAPPY Toslink optical standard: Shame on Chord.

The CHORD 2Qute is small (like the NUFORCE or many other DACs under 1,000$), noticeably smaller than the AUDIOGD. We did not expect too much from this CHORD 2Qute, because it is small, portable, has a Wall Power Supply adaptor, and has significantly less parts than the AUDIOGD DAC-19, and it was not burned-in at all contrarily to the 2 other competitors.

So we connect the CHORD 2Qute, using of course the same Coax / USB cables, the same Blacknoise outlet that we used for the 2 previous listening sessions, the same physical CDs and the same dematerialized files.

Chord 2Qute_image1_small.jpg



Immediately the verdict appears clearly and without any doubt to all the listeners : the CHORD 2Qute is the best of the 3 DACs, and by a significant margin !
The CHORD is superior in every aspect of the musical reproduction, proving once again that the FPGA based DACs are the only ones capable to reach the Nirvana of the musical reproduction.
Its bass range is much better than what the 2 others deliver, deeper, dry, precise and varied. It provides a credible foundation to the music, pushing the performance a bit beyond what the 2 other competitors can achieve.
The mids and highs are also more precise, more palpable, more vibrant, etc… “There is more meat around the bones”….

The CHORD is the winner : no doubt. But what is absolutely outstanding with this CHORD is the level of excellence that it reaches: it is hard to believe that a “so small device” can achieve a so high level of performance.
Particularly on the dematerialized files (USB), the CHORD can be inserted in the best high end systems: to date, the CHORD 2Qute is the best USB converter that we have reviewed, whatever the price. It becomes our new USB reference DAC and we have decided to keep it in our Reference System #7 for the dematerialized music.
The CHORD is less sensitive to the quality of the USB signal: inserting the SOTM between the PC and the CHORD improves the sound a bit further, but the performance without the SOTM is already the best of the 3: you already get outstanding results without the SOTM.


The AUDIOGD is not far from the CHORD: it is very close but not exactly at the same level than the CHORD. If the CHORD would not exist, it would have been the winner, but unfortunately for AUDIOGD, CHORD has achieved a “tour de force” with the incredible 2Qute…
Honestly, you will have to spend  much more money to beat the CHORD : and we are not sure that beat it on the USB input will be easy !


On the Coax input (BNC), the CHORD is still the best of the competitors : its FPGA give it an advance clearly audible : a bit better on every criteria.
On the Coax input, the CHORD is not the best DAC in the world: our (fully restored and fully upgraded) WADIA 9 is of course better with its ability to push at 1st row of a concert, like it will obviously be the case with a dCS for example. These DACs are the State of the Art., the cream of the cream.
But the cost of a WADIA 9 (restored and fully upgraded as ours) or a dCS is totally different than the cost of a CHORD ! You have more of a  dozen of CHORD 2Qute for the price of an (entry level) dCS…

And are you sure that the rest of your system is excellent enough to justify the price difference between a CHORD and a ‘dCS or WADIA like’ DAC ? Is your wallet thick enough ? Won’t you get a bigger improvement by investing the price difference somewhere else in your system ?

But the conclusion regarding the CHORD is that this 2Qute is THE revelation of the year: we arrive to this conclusion after an extensive review conducted in a high end system, with a lot of care to  the “details”, multiple A/B comparisons.

Considering its moderate price, the CHORD is a miracle.
But the incredible thing is that without considering its moderate price, the CHORD is also a miracle because its level of performance surpasses the AUDIOGD DAC-19 that is known to be one of the best (reasonably priced) DAC available out there, it reaches the frontier of the best performers on its Coax input, and definitely belong to the cream on its USB input.

The NUFORCE is also a very very good performer. If you lesson to it, you will be positively surprised, but it is more sensitive to the quality of the USB signal, it is more sensitive to the quality of the RCA signal, and cannot reach the top performance of the AUDIOGD, nor the exceptional performance of the CHORD, but if you have no more than 500$, you will not be disappointed.

CONCLUSION:

The NUFORCE Icon HDP, that was a reference amongst the low cost DACs (<500$), is still a reference in this low cost DACs. The change comes from the fact that a very few other DACs priced below 1.000€ are able to reach a superior level of performance. Theprice is doubled, for sure, but remains at a reasonable level.

The AUDIOGD DAC-19 AMANERO currently considered as one of the best DACs and as a “star”, confirms its reputation: this DAC merits its place in a high-end system. You must care about the quality of the power supply, the quality of the coax cable and the quality of the USB cable (depending on the input you use), but no more than with any other high quality DAC.
It benefits from a “reclock acessory” such as the SOTM, allowing it to improve a bit further its performance, but it will deliver a lot of satisfaction when used alone.

The CHORD 2Qute is the unexpected miracle in the world of the moderately priced DACs: it is the winner of this competition by a significant margin. You should not be influenced by its small size, nor by its price around 1,000€, and therefore believe that it does not comply with the high end systems requirements: you would be wrong !
The quality of the power supply, the Coax cable and USB cable (depending on the input you use) must be checked of course, but no more than with any other DAC.
Despite its price and size, the CHORD 2Qute is able to bring an exceptional quality of reproduction even into a high end systems.
When used with its USB input, it is one of our preferred  DAC, and we recommend to use it into a high end system for reading the dematerialized files because we believe that it will be very difficult to find a better USB DAC.…
We even suspect that its performance can be improved by using a better power supply than the wall adapter bundled with it : we will check this in the coming weeks and will issue an update to this review if needed.

Finally, do we have any bad point to give to the CHORD ??
Yes we do !
This 2Qute is so exceptional and able to deliver an incredible audio quality (when set up with high quality power supply and cables) that we cannot accept the Toslink standard chosen for the optical input ! At least, CHORD should propose the ST optical standard as an option ! If the 2Qute could be equipped, let say as an option, with the ST optical standard, then the 2Qute would even more suitable for the high end systems that use very often a ST optic fiber from a CD drive… This is as well a criticism than a compliment : we complaint because the Chord is so good that it merits the ST optical standard, at least as an option !

This bad point is a complaint because the 2Qute is just a miracle….


 

NUFORCE

Icon HDP            

TL_4.jpg

 

AUDIOGD DAC-19

merits 4.5 stars

TL_4.jpg


 

CHORD 2Qute

on its COAX input

TL_5.jpg

CHORD 2Qute

on its USB input

TL_5stateart.jpg



This article has been written by Nounours and Florent - January 2017.


Creation date : 04/02/2017 @ 18:13
Last update : 15/03/2017 @ 18:14
Category : DAC
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Reactions to this article


Reaction #2 

by Nounours18200 14/03/2017 @ 09:45

Pour Dominique:
Le prix que vous indiquez est le prix en France qui est surévalué de 30% par rapport aux prix que l'on trouve ailleurs en Europe : c'est une mauvaise habitude des importateurs français qui en est à l'origine, et qui touche beaucoup de produits.
Vous trouverez le Chord 2-Qute à moins de 1.000€ (comme nous l'avons indiqué) chez la majorité des revendeurs anglais par exemple, donc sans aucun frais de douane supplémentaires.
Contactez-moi directement par mail et je vous donnerai les coordonnées de plusieurs revendeurs si besoin, mais l'immense majorité le vendent moins de 1.000€.
Et il n'y a pas à hésiter: c'est le meilleur DAC actuellement disponible en USB, même à beaucoup plus que 1.000€...

Reaction #1 

by Dominique 08/03/2017 @ 06:06

Bonjour et merci pour ce BE très intéressant. J'ai bien envie de faire l'acquisition du Chord.
En revanche pour le prix de vente annoncé du Chord à 990 €, j'ai beau chercher, il est à 1290 € chez tous les revendeurs ! 
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