Thursday, June 20, 2024

Guides, Testimonials, News

The following is more of a catharsis than a comparison of some very exciting DAC products on the market today. These writings are somewhat of a warning to others more than a recommendation of one product over another; attempting to discover audio nirvana can tail spin quickly. Over the course of two months I auditioned the Ayre Codex, Schiit Yggdrasil, Lampizator Amber II, exaSound e32, and Ayre QX-5 Twenty, in my home, in my listening room and with my speakers. But that was not the original intent. Each piece of succeeding equipment arrived as the result of me continuing to read reviews in magazines and forums, even after making my final purchase decision. Hence my warning, purchase it and enjoy it, as there is always some other or new gear that alleges an improvement to your current setup, and chasing nirvana can take you places you were never prepared to go; especially if you find and prove the reviews to be true and accurate.

I went down a similar path several years ago when I read every review I could find and attempted to evaluate an amplifier for my system and finally chose the Classe CT-2300; but that’s a story for another day. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this particular DAC journey started three years ago when my wife surprisingly encouraged me to keep my Martin Logan powered electrostatic Vantage speakers after I replaced them with the Magnepan 3.7i’s. Apparently she liked the eclectic and artistic look of the Vantage’s even if she couldn’t hear the difference between the two. That left me with two systems. I kept the Logan’s in the den and ran them with an old Pioneer integrated I had sitting in the garage. When the 60” Samsung went out in the den the warranty company let us replace it with a wall mounted 65” LG OLED. I then felt the den’s system was deserving of something better in the audio department to match the level of video performance the OLED provided. As a consequence, and in usual fashion, I made a visit to my local Magnepan dealer in contemplation of replacing my Classe CT-2300 two-channel amplifier.

The dealer recommended that I improve my source instead of looking for a new amplifier and he insisted that I give the Ayre Codex a try for consideration. I resisted because I already have a headphone DAC and amp from Schiit Audio. Reluctantly I took the Ayre Codex home for an audition. I am embarrassed to admit that I thought the Oppo 105D was a contender against the Codex in the boxing ring of sound quality. I admit, and by these writing you will soon see, that I am an audio enthusiast and not a true audiophile. I had previously been very satisfied with the sound of the 105D and enjoyed the two-channel improvement in sound it provided over my Marantz AV7005 pre-processor. I was confident this was an act of futility but he was adamant I would hear a noticeable difference in the sound quality. I took the Codex home for audition, more so to prove him wrong and to validate my 105D purchase, than to really consider and contemplate the purchase of a separate DAC to add to my system. Secretly I had my heart set on upgrading to mono-blocks as they have always appeared to me to be the ultimate design for amplification.

So I gave the little Codex a listen, and to my amazement he was right. The Codex was extremely musical. More detail, better sound staging and more air, no pun intended, than I had ever experience in my humble system. It took me a little while to justify the purchase of the Codex because it almost rendered useless, the upgraded components that gave the 105 an auditory advantage over the 103 (especially since I now use an HDMI extractor to pull high-rez audio from my disc content). But the overall sound quality was a considerable improvement and a step, or two, or three above the Oppo and well worth the purchase. All would have been well and good, had I only stopped there.

For whatever reason I was not content with stopping there but, it was if I was hearing my library for the first time. Track after track, I would hear something I had never heard before. It was exciting and very enjoyable but I could not help but think that maybe I sold myself short. If that much of an improvement can be had with the small and semi-affordable Codex, could I have possibly left some sound quality on the table by not investigating all of the top players at a similar price point? While scouring the web, I would listen to the Codex pouring out involving and almost new samples of music as I attempted to listen to, at least a clip of, everything in my collection and on my playlists. In reading, I ran across the Schiit Yggy and felt I hadn’t given my purchase enough investigation as I already owned the Schiit Lyr/Bifrost headphone amp/dac combo and I have been very pleased with that combo, with my HiFi Man HE-500 planar-magnetic headphones. So I quickly sent off for the Yggy. I then read about the Lampizator Amber II and decide to include this unit for deliberation as they both afford a 15-day and 7-day trial period respectively.

I will anchor the remaining portion of this monologue by stating the unscientific analysis and assessments that follow are with my speakers, my system, in my home and with my collective ears, as I did confer with couple of buddies for their opinions. There were so many variables that several different outcomes could have easily resulted if the experiment had been conducted under different conditions, i.e. different interconnects, power cords, speakers, amplifiers, etc. That being said, here is how things transpired. Since I purchased the Codex first let’s start there.

The Ayre Codex comes in at $1995 and makes a very attractive offer considering the price to sound quality factor. If I were to apply a numerical value to the overall sound quality I would assign it 85 out of 100 with all things being equal. But that’s where things get convoluted; everything isn’t equal. There are so many variables when comparing and contrasting these products, but surely I thought the one constant to compare would be the sound quality. Yes sound quality of one consistent point of comparison but with what format and through which input? So I compared the sound, in general, with as many different inputs as possible but focused on the USB inputs for direct comparison. The numerator in this equation is price. This all started as an attempt to get the maximum amount of sound quality at a predetermined maximum price point. But in an effort not to leave any discernable amount of sound quality on the table, my budget range was exposed to scope creep. My fear was possibly spending $500 short of something that was sonically outstanding. Conversely I also want to avoid spending $500 too much with no audible advantage.

The Codex basically made everything sound pretty good, very appealing sound regardless to the recording. It was not overly analytical but just detailed enough providing a very good sound stage. It leaned towards the warm side with the emphasis on the midrange. It comes in a form factor that screams headphone amp/dac, until you link it into your two-channel big rig. It is very versatile for the price with the ability to serve as a pre-amp, DAC, and headphone amp, but it’s volume control does not include a remote. That would normally not be a problem except it had a better sound as a stand-alone pre-amp versus being connected via the XLR inputs into my Parasound P5 pre-amp. So anytime I wanted to adjust the volume I had to eject myself from the couch to make an adjustment or to mute it to take a phone call. A plus included the ability to see the sample rate illuminated on the dimmable LCD screen, from my listening position, without the use of my telephoto SLR lens (more on that later). Also, I wish it had a few more inputs as one USB and one optical SPDIF provides limitations when attempting to integrate it into a hybrid multi source, Home Theatre / Two Channel , combo system. And although it had an impressive and formidable form factor with high quality buttons and knobs in a densely packed rectangular case, the unnerving part is it’s required to stand upright without the option to position it horizontally. I never had it to fall but that was a byproduct of my pesky phobia that caused me to treat it like a piece of delicate crystal. From the pics you can see that I don’t have a formal audio rack to house my equipment, but I care for each piece greatly none the less. I never tried it but I read the Codex also doubles as a balanced output headphone amp. Back to my point, this unit screams headphone amp/dac combo until you plug connect it to your big system via balanced outputs preferably, but single ended RCA is available as well. If it had a remote I could have stopped there (I’m trying to convince myself, not you), but I did not.

I ordered the Amber and the Yggy and both were in production delays so I was content with the Codex until I received a strange email from DHL stating the Amber was enroute from Germany, so the excitement started to build. Because of the 7-day trial I stayed home to meet the delivery man and got the burn in process started right away. 72-hours later with the Lampizator Amber II running into my Parasound P5 preamplifier via RCA, I enjoyed an improved and a different sound presentation. But at an MSRP of $2925 USD/ $2500 Euro (the conversion rate was 1.17 at the time of my purchase but it’s a little less now) it really challenges the price to performance ratio when I assign an overall sound quality rating of 88 out of 100. I must admit this tube based format provided an almost exotic sound. It had a nice tube bloom, a warm and inviting sound bordering on mesmerizing. Unfortunately on certain tracks and after extended listening sessions the bloom would vacillate towards smearing. I also felt the Amber lost some sound quality due to the lack of balanced XLRs. The Amber is the entry level model to the Lampizator family of DACs. The base price is $1800 Euro and I went with the upgraded $2000 Euro, Tube Rectified version. I figured that it is a tube based DAC after all, so why not go tube all the way? I also added DSD256, to the tune of an additional $500 Euro MSRP, to help future proof the purchase. Afterwards I realized the Amber had the least chance of surviving this comparison as it was inadequately equipped without balanced XLR outputs which would cost an additional $1,000 Euro, and no pre-amp volume control, another +$1,000 Euro. Therefore the Amber was forced to use my Parasound P5 that possibly limited the overall performance.

The Amber II owner’s manual has a section under COOPERATION WITH THE PREAMP that reads, “The DAC with volume control should sound audibly cleaner and more direct without any preamp between the DAC and the amp. The preamp, however good, will veil a lot of the DAC’s natural clarity, speed and directness.” I am now not 1000% confident that statement is completely accurate but I did believe it then. What I heard thru the Parasound P5 cosigned that declaration. I thought, if that is a true statement, why would you sell a product with an inherit drawback? And if you did sell it with this perceived flaw, one would expect that caveat to be posted clearly on the company website, and not on page 20 of the owner’s manual. Even with the Amber relegated to run thru my P5 I still enjoyed that tubey sound. The majority of my listening includes female voices and the Amber presented a very sexy sound. I was completely seduced by the sound of those tubes. That is until the Yggy arrived.

I would be very happy with the Amber today, even without the volume control, if I had never heard the Yggy. The Yggadrasil by Schiit arrived at the end of the burn in period for the AMBER so I rushed to get it past the burn in period for a quick evaluation to make my final DAC purchase selection. Each time I peeked into the oven to sneak a listen to the Yggy there was an increasing sense of revelation. It eclipsed the Amber after 48 hours of burn in but I didn’t give it any really critical listening until it had run for a 100 hours. Gobs of detail is the major characteristic of the Yggy. I could see into the music much further and clearer than ever before. That allowed for a visceral and engaging experience, more lifelike. But I wasn’t ready to give the checkered flag to the Yggy because the Yggy lacks DSD support. The Yggy’s sound quality surpassed the Amber in PCM mode but not when attempting to resolve DSD, so that was concerning to me. The Yggy also has a formidable form factor with USB, Coaxial, BNC and AES/EBU connections, and although I didn’t test the BNC or the AES/EBU I read the sound quality may perform better thru these inputs. The Yggy did lack a headphone connection, which was a moot point for me, but like the Amber it was relegated to working thru the P5 as it has no volume control.

Ultimately I hung onto the Amber II, past the 7-day trial, wrestling with the final decision and thinking the Yggy couldn’t improve that much more. When I contacted Schiit to obtain the return merchandise authorization, they gave me 15-days to have it arrive at their facilities, so that unfortunately gave me more time continue the side-by-side evaluation. They say timing is everything and I feel all of these products need a proper 30 day trial period to give them a thorough burn in and a relaxed evaluation but in either case I feel 7 days simply isn’t enough. What further complicated things was the inclusion of a PASS LABS 250.8 two-channel amplifier. I read the 250.8 was a good match for my Maggie’s and Reno HiFi has a 15-day trial so I plunged the credit card down deeper into the abyss.

72-hours later I was intoxicated by the voice of sirens singing to me thru my Maggie’s. This audio addiction had begun to produce the euphoria I had only read about but never personally experienced; at least not in my listening room. Was this real, was this Memorex, or was I a victim of ACTUALIZED REALIZATION ; meaning, just because you are listening to $17k of stereo equipment you think you hear $17k of sound quality. If it is a placebo please don’t bring it to my attention because I am loving every minute of it! But in the silence between each sound track I begin to sober. It seems I encountered a sound quality vertigo of sorts. There were simply too many moving parts as I tried to evaluate if the improvement in sound came from the 250.8 or the extended burn in time of the Yggy and the Amber, or again, was it Actualized Realization? It took hours of critical listening to recalibrate my ears and my mind to the improved quality of sound I now enjoyed. I fully reassessed the three DACs again, including another listening session with the fellas, and we concluded, yet again, that the Codex was an outstanding product worthy of anyone’s system, the Amber was one sexy and captivating sound but the enormous level of musical detail in the sound coming from the Yggy won first place over the others. Despite the lack of DSD decoding I ranked the overall sound quality of the Yggy at 91 out of 100 and at $2300 it was the current pound for pound champion.

So now I had a dilemma that only got worse. I had the Amber II past the evaluation period when in fact I preferred the sound of the Yggy over the Amber. Ouch! So I posted the Amber for sale on Audiogon, despite the fact that I have never sold anything on Audiogon. I have bought some pieces on Audiogon but I have never been a seller, but oh well, this has been a totally new experience for me so this will just be another leg of the journey. And since I was already this far down this rabbit hole, I took another plunge which at the time seemed safe enough. The inclusion of the PASS LABS 250.8 into my system followed with the purchase of the exaSound e32 DAC from Canada, both with 15-day and 30-day trial periods respectively. I learned of this combination while reading about the award from Jonathan Valin of The Absolute Sound at the AXPONA Chicago Show (2015), awarding the BEST SOUND (cost-no-object) to: Magnepan 3.7i driven by Pass Labs and sourced by exaSound.

The e32 arrived in a box that led me to believe they shipped it too soon and forgot to include the unit in the shipping container as it felt like a completely empty box. I peeled open the shipping material nervously to find a small, attractive, silver, rectangular unit weighing in at less than 2.5 pounds. My immediate reaction was this thing does not have a chance. Ironically, during this evaluation process, the size and weight seemed to have an indication on the relative sound quality. I know nothing about the interworking of DAC technology, I only know what I hear, but it defies conventional logic that something smaller and lighter than all of the competitors would be the sound quality champion. To my surprise and utter amazement the e32 blew away everything I had heard previously. It is everything you can imagine, detailed, nuanced, warm, dynamic, electric, viscerally engaging and basically more life-like above all the others. I rated the sound at 93 out of 100. Finally, I found my price for performance sound champion. Fortunately I arrived to this conclusion before that 15th day deadline I was given, so I rushed the Yggy back to the Schiit warehouse. At last, I had my final decision and I was so satisfied with what I was hearing, or so I thought.

With my final DAC selection solidified I redirected my energies to evaluating the Pass Labs 250.8, and I matched it against the two-channel Ayre VX-5 Twenty, which is a review for another day. But in doing so, my local Ayre dealer recommended that I consider the Ayre K-5xeMP preamplifier, as I had to disconnect the e32 from the amplifier to connect the Marantz AV7005 for home theater viewing. This cumbersome process bother him, but I was completely ok with it. I was also convinced that directly connecting the DAC to the Amplifier produced the best sound and performance, just like the Amber owner’s manual suggested. I reluctantly agreed to audition the Ayre pre-amp, but the greatest motivating factor was based on my inability to see the LED display on the e32. If I could move the volume control to the Ayre Pre-amplifier I wouldn’t have to use my SLR telephoto lens to read the current volume level. For some reason that really bothered me, perhaps because it emphasized my mortality and aging eyes.

For smiles and giggles I interjected the Ayre K-5xeMP with Audience AU24 XLRs downstream for yet another amazing but incremental improvement. The pre-amp gave darker blacks and more ease to the sound, adding control and enhancing the musicality and realism to the sound. I was really moving in the wrong direction with this leg of the experiment. The original intent of this study was to find the optimal arrangement, getting the greatest result within a limited budget. However, experiencing the step up in sound with the pre-amp and high priced interconnect inspired me to try to discover just how good this system could sound, and the education would have a minimal cost of tuition, so I forged forward. It also would give me something to strive for in the future, or not. I wanted to know and understand where to place the demarcation point for the sound quality diminishing point of return.

Regrettably I was so impressed with the K-5xeMP ($5,600 MSRP) that I continued my research and decided I simply must audition it’s bigger brother the KX-5 Twenty ($9,950 MSRP) and for more smiles and giggles I want to hear the QX-5 Twenty Digital Hub/DAC/Pre-Amp ($8,995 MSRP). I did what I had to do to get my hands and ears on one. I did the math and moving the budget up this far should provide exponential gains in sound quality, right? It did not; not at first, at least. The QX-5 had a better sound quality but not befitting the 3x price tag. The e32 and QX-5 Twenty were virtually neck and neck. Granted the QX-5 did not yet have its requisite 1,000 hours of burn in to perform at 1000% but I had past the first 100 hour check point and I felt I should hear more separation between the two units.

I headed back to my local Ayre dealer confused and befuddled. His conclusion was I improved the system so much with the 250.8 and the KX-5 Twenty that I was now exposing weak points, namely the interconnects. We replaced the Tributaries and AU24 XLRs with all AU24 SX 1m XLRs ($2,400 MSPR each) and boom, the performance of both the e32 and the QX-5/20 made noticeable leaps forward! The QX-5/20 outpaced the e32, but not by a 3x margin as the price points require. I had finally reached a noticeable diminishing point of return. The musical experience enjoyed by this system with the $9k Ayre DAC, $8k Ayre Pre-Amp, with $4,800 of Audience interconnects was as close as I have ever been to audio nirvana. The musical experience now astounds me, stops me mid-sentence, as I attempt to listen to my music playing in the background while I keep my head down buried in work. With this system there is very little work being done in my listening room, as I am constantly drawn from the attention of the laptop screen to the performance on the virtual stage in this room. I was amazed that I could actually hear what the sound engineer intended for me to hear in the pans of sounds and placements of the instruments in their respective places on the sound stage. This sound was 3d, it was audibly holographic. On some classical tracks I could close my eyes and hear the dimension of the sound hall, however deep and wide; it was an optical illusion for your ears. If they were to make virtual reality glasses for your ears this would be it! It made me realize how music has the ability to live on thru history and how the artist didn’t make the music just for the fan of their day, but for the fans of my day, and for the music fans of tomorrow. But while I’m listening, I am transported back in time, I am there with them now; it was as close to sounding real as I have ever heard.

There is so much information included in CD quality music I almost felt the QX-5/twenty was reconstituting the music. At one point I was starting to accuse the QX-5/20 of using some type of technology or algorithm to reconstruct the music into something completely brand new. My reference tracks now provide information that before wasn’t present and currently didn’t seem possible. It was as if the QX-5/20 was remixing the sound. The musical experience was phenomenal, but at those price points I would personally demand nothing less for my hard earned dollar. I simply didn’t expect it to actually perform that well; I thought this was just something rich guys purchase just to brag about how much they have spent. The sound quality rating deserves a 100 out of 100 in relation to anything I have ever heard both in and out of my personal listening room. But the reality is,there has to be something better, but at what price? And then, once you find that, I am sure there is something even better than that. So realizing this cannot be the end all, be all, ultimate in sound, (or is it) I would assign it a 98 out of 100. Hearing this sound experience and being blown away by it and then understanding it is so far beyond my financial means I was disheartening until I did the math and realized I was enjoying 95% of this sound quality for a fraction of the price with the e32.

Hearing the holy grail of sound made me appreciate just how close to heavenly music I was getting from the e32. It appears exaSound put all of the production money into the sound quality with a limit on the investment into the form factor. The e32 is handsome and attractive to the eyes but it lacks the tactile feel of exquisite craftsmanship, which is not a problem for me, just an observation. The feel of the buttons, the sound they make when pressed, the contrast on the LCD screen aren’t consistent with the amazing sound this little piece of dynamite makes. I’m sure the pictures of my system support my philosophy that it’s all about the sound, the look has virtually no influence on my purchasing decision. The e32 also screams headphone amp/DAC until you connect the XLRs into your big rig. It is actually a compliment to exaSound, for me to be shocked by the sound that comes from such an unassuming form factor. It’s as if they literally did more, much more, with less, weighing less than two and one half pounds. It comes in a small and light package but the sound is gigantic and the performance is oh so powerful. It’s the best DAC I have ever heard that is less than $9k.

Here is another challenge with this comparison, when you interject a high end pre-amp into the equation it’s difficult to determine who is the true star, the DAC or the pre-amp. Without question the KX-5 Twenty pre-amp is a star, if not the star. I have never enjoyed listening to my music at average to below average volumes, as much as I have with the KX-5/20. I usually rock out with the volume even if it isn’t rock music. The KX-5 Twenty does what it is supposed to do, in as much as it amplifies the source to the next level without coloration or interference; the higher quality of source material, and the higher quality of the DAC, will result in higher quality and better sound performance, point blank and period. But when you compare DAC to DAC as standalone units, e32 vs. QX-5/20, the margins diminish somewhat when they are interconnected directly into the amplifier. The differential diminishes even more when you use more affordable interconnects. I wish I could re-run the whole experiment with all the DACs running thru the KX-5 Twenty, I am sure the Amber owner’s manual would be proven wrong. The KX-5/20 is one marvelous piece of equipment and allows everything connected to it to reach it’s full potential.

In conclusion, I just read what I wrote, trying to tie this all up and lock it down and move on with my life. Then I did the math…. I did the math again…. Ok, so the math doesn’t quite compute. I tried to interject numbers into sound because I crunch numbers for a living. It’s like trying to grade cars on the quarter mile time alone to determine the overall value of the vehicle. That math doesn’t compute. Here is what I was trying to illustrate with the computational values:

• You would do well with any and all of these contenders
• Great sound quality is universal with each of the products included in this evaluation
• Cost Is No Object only applies to 1% of the population and I’m not in that category, are you
• If your budget is limited to $2,000 buy CODEX before they stop selling it or accounting informs them to raise the price; expect that to happen soon and mark my words when it happens
• If $2,300 doesn’t break the bank and resolving your sound in PCM only isn’t a deal breaker get the YGGY and don’t look back, but realize they allow for upgrades so the future has promise
• If you can afford it, and have a penchant for the exotic, and or like to tinker and roll tubes, jump on the AMBER and enjoy yourself and don’t look back
• If $3,500 is in your budget and or you ultimately want the best sound for the least amount of money, buy the e32 before they add features you don’t want and or need, or charge more to add a form factor that doesn’t improve the sound quality
• If $5,500 is in your budget you may want to spring for the exaSound e32 and Play Point combo as that is a closer match for the QX-5 Twenty Hub, and if you do let me know how they compare as I ran out of time before I could make that head to head comparison, and it’s half the price with higher sample rates up to DSD256 and 32 bit PCM
• If cost is no object, or $9k is in your maximum budget, or you simply want the best possible sound quality, buy the QX-5 Twenty; and my recommendation is to push the budget another $8k and marry it with the KX-5 Twenty, and if you compliment the remainder of your system accordingly with a full loom of AU24 SX interconnects and speaker cables, you just might experience an eargasm, every nite, with every track, for years until your hearing starts to fail


I am sure everyone reading has a similar story. We should all go to therapy together; my name is M. James Scott and I am an Audio Addict. But writing this short story has helped me in my 12-step program to find a cure to audio alcoholism. The exaSound e32 prevailed victorious in the performance to price category and the Ayre QX-5 Twenty as the ultimate winner in sound quality, price notwithstanding. But again, I would be interested to know how much closer the e32 could close the gap if it’s sister component PlayPoint was included in the shootout. My 30 days is up with the e32 so I guess I will never know; that is if my therapy continues to be effective…

A Short Story by M. James Scott


I shipped the e32 back the day after I made the post. It wasn't until the FedX guy had the box on his side of the counter, did I truly make my final decision. Prior to that I had it in the box and pulled it out twice for one last listen. Twice... I could have made a last millisecond chance to keep the e32 and save some money, but ultimately I want to see just how good the QX-5/20 can sound after 1000 hrs. I failed to mention I received a great deal on a mildly used demo QX-5/20 with only a few hours on it, so that helped to make the final decision a little easier. If I had paid full retail, I am not sure the final decision would have gone to the QX-5/20; back to those diminishing points of return vs. disposable income challenges.


I also want to get my hands and ears on the PlayPoint as it has ROON SERVER capabilities and I can let my laptop go back to being a computer. Again, I am an enthusiast and not a real audiophile, and really closer to a novice when it comes to ROON and JRiver. Working my music files between all these apparatuses confuses the QX-5/20 and or myself at times and can get a little frustrating. I assume if I were to pick one program to use and stuck with it maybe muscle would set in for the both of us. I guess I'm saying that maybe the PlayPoint will improve the e32 sound quality and would be a better fit for me and my system as I use my stereo to get away from my work/laptop, and if the sound quality gap is minimized enough I can put the QX-5/20 on Audiogon and get most of my investment back, and still save thousands. TBD. Maybe.....

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