Comparison of Mid-Fi DAC/Amp Combination Units (Grace, Schiit, iFi, LH, JDS, etc.)

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by Marvey, Oct 30, 2015.

  1. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    Comparison of Mid-Fi DAC/Amp Combination Units (Grace, Schiit, iFi, LH, JDS, etc.)

    @Will (Massdrop) was kind enough to send us the Grace m9XX for evaluation with no strings attached. Almost immediately someone mentioned JDS The Element, and I mentioned the GOV2 and proposed a comparison review of several DAC/Amps a la the car magazines. Will was like "DO IT". So now we are here.

    First of all, this comparison will be done stream of consciousness blog style. Every now and then when I feel I have enough material, I will add to it this thread. This thread will remained locked (or I will move posts) until I finish this series. Keep in mind that because this comparison review will be done stream of consciousness style, my opinions may evolve or I may find tweaks or settings that work better. If you guys have questions or things you want to me look into more, please post them in this thread: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.or...p-comb-units-grace-schiit-ifi-lh-jds-etc.411/ No promises I will explore every avenue as I know at least one of you guys will ask something super demanding.

    As a little twist, I will be adding my wife Julie to the evaluation. I know she's not deaf, she can hear as well as me, but I value her perspective because she doesn't have the biases I've built up over time (those who know me well know that I can be dismissive in 5 seconds upon hearing something I don't like) and she doesn't have quite the audio vocabulary (which is a good thing, as this provides a fresh perspective.)

    The approach will be both subjective (broken down into categories) and objective (meaning I will take measurements). The gear to be compared are as follows:
    1. Grace m9XX
    2. LH Labs Geek Out V2 Infinity
    3. JDS The Element (just ordered)
    4. iFi iDSD Nano
    5. Schiit Modi 2U / Magni 2U
    DSC_2018.jpg

    Technically the Schiit stack is not a combination unit; but I thought I'd throw it in here because the desktop footprint is about the same. The Schiit stack isn't quite as transportable as the others because we need to carry around two wall transformers. The Geek Out V2 Infinity is by far the most transportable, being a small box that can directly plug into a computer, needing no USB cables. The Grace m9XX offers an optional USB port (which can be plugged into a USB charger or powered hub) that will increase the power of the built-in amp significantly. The tests will include the use of this extra power line. I believe the JDS uses a single external 16VAC wall transformer.

    The gear will be evaluated primarily with the HD650 (my modded pair). I will also use the HD800(z28 mod) or the HE-560 (Focus-A pads).

    MEASUREMENTS: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.or...p-comb-units-grace-schiit-ifi-lh-jds-etc.427/
    SUBJECTIVE COMPARISON: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.or...s-grace-schiit-ifi-lh-jds-etc.401/#post-11101
     
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2015
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  2. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    Grace m9XX First Impressions

    One thing I'd have to say is that Will is feeling pretty confident. (He's been texting me.) It took me a little while for me to get the m9XX working as I found out that volume indicator LED needs to be around 70-80 to get any sort of decent sound volume with the HD650. One my cats, Baron Von Schweikert, jumped on top of it and sat on the knob for more than three seconds which put the darn thing into an alternate configuration mode. No manual in the box. No problem. Quick google search redirects me to the Massdrop site with the manual. A quick change from to (toslink) on U (USB) display and I was good to go.

    Pressed play in JRiver Media Center. OMFG. What is wrong? Weirdly bassy, warm, bloomy, and reverby. This is a POS. WTF Will?

    (to be continued)
     
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2015
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  3. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    My bad it turns out. Evidently the cat turned on the crossfeed as denoted in the LED display "C.F." I spent some time through a few settings in Windows and JRMC to get it to do what I wanted. The m9XX forces 96kHz sampling when using DirectSound. In the end, I set up JRMC to use WASAPI and output a proper 44.1kHz to the m9XX. Using these settings, I must say that the m9XX sounded pretty good.

    Exceptionally good? No. But decent. Pretty good in fact. And very far from bad. (To put things in perspective, keep in mind how many other portable DAC/amp units, some over two thousand dollars made me go huh?) There were no odd treble characteristics (it's the new AKM chip after all, and I don't think AKM has ever made a nasty sounding DAC chip). A little bit on the warm and relaxed side.

    As for the crossfeed implementation, I am not a big fan of it. It sounds like a bloomier version of an ancient Rockbox implementation on my old iRiver "Soviet" iPod player, except even more bloomy and reverby. As an aside, I think HeadRoom probably had the best hardware crossfeed implementation (on their top tier amps) ever. I also like JRMC's software crossfeed (I know the JRMC crossfeed isn't the best solution, it's still an acceptable one.) I am not against crossfeed in general and frequently use the JRMC implementation on headphone systems which could not project depth in the soundstage. I am however against subpar crossfeed implementations, and it should be obvious where I stand in terms of the m9XX's crossfeed solution. In the end, not a big deal. None of the other gear being compared have crossfeed at all.
     
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2015
  4. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    Well, I've been re-assessing the crossfeed (CF) feature of the Grace today. Before I say anything more, I'd like to layout two things I expect from CF: 1) To push the soundstage from inside my head or my around the plane of my eyeballs out in front of me. This important for certain headphones that don't present a stage with good depth. For example, I frequently ran CF with HE Audio Jade electrostatic headphones; 2) To not mess with the frequency response. Many CF implementations tend to warm up the sound or make it bassier. Note that the HeadRoom Ultra Desktop Amp had an EQ switch to compensate for this. Lastly, it's crucially important the understand that different pieces of gear will inherently present the soundstage differently. For example, my turntable is able to present a palpable stage that seems five feet in front of me with the HD650s! At least I am able to fool myself into hearing it that way.

    Using HD650 headphones (not known for their stage depth), the m9XX (CF off) presents the center of the soundstage just right in front of my eyes with the edges of the stage quite wide to the left and right, just in front of my ears in terms of depth. With the CF turned on, the edges of the soundstage collapse to just between the ears. Unfortunately, the center image isn't pushed any more forward, and the edges of the stage actually lose depth to right one the plane of the ears. The CF implementation is slightly bassier and warmer, but not as bad as I initially heard it. It could have been that I have acclimated to it. Still, I do not like noticeable FR changes with any CF implementation.

    The Magni 2U / Modi 2U actually presents a stage out front without any CF with the HD650s. (The Schiit stack wins the soundstage category among the gear tested so far. JDS has not been evaluated so far).

    stage1.png

    Finally, YMMV. One thing I've noticed about perception of soundstage is that it differs from person to person, sometimes greatly. Coming from speakers, hearing soundstage in headphones is something that I've had to learn in the past few years. This is all Maxvla's fault. BTW, the JRMC CF is superior to the m9XX's implementation. I know this doesn't help Mac users. Sorry. :(
     
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  5. jexby

    jexby Raised by Carthusian Monks - Friend

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    love diagram Grace m9xx CFon- it's like your head is being smothered in sound. a picture says 1000 words,
    thanks Merv.
    :D
     
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  6. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    It's not a bad effect for me because I dislike overly wide stages. Still, I've heard better CF implementations and/or gear with better staging capabilities.
     
  7. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    Subjective Impressions / Technical Factors
    Here it is finally. The results of subjective listening for technical factors. I apologize that this came late and after the expiry of the m9XX Drop. I'm sure there will be another drop soon. Next time it comes down to the wire, just ignore the pressure and buy a motorized scooter and helmet instead. It will be much better for your mental health.
    Subjective Spider Chart.png

    Important Considerations:
    Notes:
    1. All numbers are relative to each other in this comparison.
    2. Micro-detail / Plankton / Low level Information should not be confused with "detail". Saying something sounds "detailed" doesn't mean much to me.
    3. Macro-dynamics / Impact does not only consider bass heft, but also overall explosiveness throughout the audio spectrum.
    4. There was a lot of one-to-one comparison to see whether a single step (e.g. from 5-6) or a larger step (6-8) was warranted. It should be noted however that differences are rather small and probably not discernible to less experienced or untrained listeners.
    5. It probably wasn't fair to include the iFi Nano since it is priced less than the others. Nevertheless, it is included for reference.
    MEASUREMENTS ARE HERE: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.or...p-comb-units-grace-schiit-ifi-lh-jds-etc.427/

    OPENING UP THE THREAD TO QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS
     
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2015
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  8. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    Tonal Signature Notes
    Tonal balance and headphone synergies may play just as strong a role as the above technicalities, especially if one listens to mostly compressed MP3s or recordings of marginal quality, or uses headphones which are extremely bright or bass heavy. This should not be discounted.

    LH Labs Geek Out V2 Infinity

    Tonal balance lies somewhere between the Schiit stack and the Grace. Neutral to warm. The FRM linear phase filter was used. (I wish LH made a fast cut-off filter for this instead of the slow roll-off). Although a Sabre DAC, the GOV2 surprisingly has a very un-Sabre sound. The smoothest and least digital sounding (in FRM mode) among all of the DACs here. Agreeable with every headphone I've thrown at it.

    Grace m9XX

    Slightly warm with a bit of bloom. Delicate (but not rolled) treble. Agreeable with every headphone I've thrown at it. Brighter or leaner headphones like the HD800 or MA900 work particularly well. The is a good sounding unit, and I had no problems with the HD650.

    Schiit Magni 2 Uber Modi 2 Uber Stack
    Neutral to slightly lean. Really good extension on both ends. The slightly lean sound comes from the Modi 2. The Magni 2 Uber is what I would consider a good reference for a neutral amp. Some digital grain in the treble, but well within the limits of my tolerance (I can listen for hours without a problem). Good match with my modded HD650s (brighter than stock), HE-560s with Focus-A pads, and modded HD800s (less peaky than stock). Might not be a good idea with brighter headphones.

    iFi Nano iDSD

    Laid back. Extension at the extremes not as good as the others.

    JDS The Element

    Deep bass. Lots of air. Extension at the extremes is excellent. However the extremes seem a bit overemphasized compared to the midrange. Digital nasties (better after the unit is left on for a day) in the form of glare and hardness become evident after 30 minutes of listening (even with HD650s.) I listen to vinyl 90% of the time now, so I have zero tolerance for digital nasties.
     
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2015
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  9. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    Commentary to the Spider Charts
    I would like to reiterate that differences are rather small and probably not discernible to less experienced or untrained listeners. I feel I could pick out the differences in a blind test, but it would be difficult. Might be fun to level match and try a blind test.

    Schiit Magni 2 Uber Modi 2 Uber Stack
    I was a little bit surprised here because from memory, I thought the GOV2 Infinity would be better on almost all counts. Best stage of the bunch. The deepest, but not overly wide. Crisp controlled attacks and transients with good bite. Despite bass being a tiny bit leaner than the others, dense tones, and nuanced with excellent gradations of sound levels.

    Grace m9XX

    All rounder in performance not really excelling at any one thing, but also not having any major weaknesses. My wife commented (listening to Eva Cassidy) that reverb was more blended and bass textures less evident compared to the MMU and GOV2. I noted not quite the ability to carry a steady paced long crescendo as the best, but still quite competent to the task. A delicate touch to the treble and easy to listen to.

    LH Labs Geek Out V2 Infinity (Balanced Output)

    The most resolving of low level information of the bunch, but tended to be grayer and softer sounding than the others. Very involving and sucks you in. With the FRM filter, also the smoothest of the bunch. Three digital filters, but only one of them (FRM) was listenable to me (regardless of headphone). Your experiences and opinions may be much different from mine. I listen to vinyl 90% of the time now, so I have zero tolerance for digital nasties. The soundstage is wide and open, but not as deep as the MMU stack.

    JDS The Element
    A exciting first listen, and without comparing to the others, we've never would have thought there could be anything better. However, digital glare and hardness soon wore me down. It sounds "detailed", but ultimately lacked the fine resolution and microdynamics of the above. The midrange seems buried compared to the low bass and mid-treble on up which tend to scream look at me. Seems to tick at the right boxes, but ultimately as my wife commented: it seemed to simplify the music. I noted that the JDS seemed to always be loud and shouting, lacking nuance.
     
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2015
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  10. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    Intangibles

    JDS The Element
    1. Wow, absolutely stunning industrial design. Bigger in terms of width and depth than the others. A nice weighted volume knob illuminated by LED lite from below. If you swirl your finger around the knob, you can make a nice ringing sound like that of a wine glass. Definitely sexy.
    Grace m9XX
    1. More transportable than expected. This is something I can easily throw into my bag for my international trips. SECRET: If you use efficient or high-impedance headphones, you DO NOT need the extra power USB. The Grace provides enough power to most headphones from just the USB. With the HD650, there were no differences in sound quality. There were also no differences in measurements.
    2. The volume knob on top is super nice with detentes for each volume step as shown in the LED display. For most headphones, I gotta crank up the volume from 70-80. It took me a while to figure this out since I was wondering why there wasn't any sound with the volume display at 25. A tap on top of the button gives you mute - this is very handy. Volume level can be set to the remembered.
    3. Pre-amp capability built in. One of the two headphone jacks will disable the RCA output.
    4. Good heft and overall nice design.
    Schiit Magni 2 Uber Modi 2 Uber Stack
    1. Nothing special. Utilitarian design.
    2. Not as easy to transport as the others. Needs two fairly big wall transformers and extra set of RCAs. I recommend the Pyst cables, but I keep forgetting to buy them. This stack is really meant to be a small form factor desktop amp. Yes, I've tried throwing the stack in my bag for travel, but it doesn't quite work and I end up with tangled cables.
    3. A little bit harder to adjust volume compared to the JDS and Grace units. I never had a problem in the past, but when someone else comes out with a better design, particularly in the ergonomics areas, it's noticeable.
    LH Labs Geek Out 2 Infinity
    1. Cheesy little plastic thing with a sheen that looks like it was covered with lube which makes the markings hard to see. I have no idea why LH Labs didn't stick with their awesome machined aluminum from the V1.
    2. By far the most transportable unit, but not the easiest to use. No external volume control. Volume control is via mouse on the computer screen. I suggest using the GOV2 with a short cable to prevent risk of snapping something off the USB port.
    3. Balanced output and high gain was used throughout the tests. The GOV2 sounded the best this way. A TRRS cable must be obtained from third party sources. LH Labs dropped the ball on this since the GOV2 sounds much better from its balanced outputs.
    iFi Nano iDSD
    1. Just a little bigger than the GOV2 and it was a volume knob.
    2. I don't like how the mini phono jack is just to the left of the volume knob. Ergonomic fail.
     
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2015
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  11. lm4der

    lm4der A very good sport - Friend

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    First what's TBD? Taco Bell Dump (like when you eat too much at the T-Bell)?

    My interpretation of that 7D graph is that the Schiit MMU stack wins? Beats the GOV2?
     
  12. M3NTAL

    M3NTAL Friend

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    http://lmgtfy.com/?q=TBD
     
  13. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    The MMU stack wins overall on technical counts. However, tonal balance and headphone synergies may play just as strong a role as the technicalities, especially if one listens to mostly compressed MP3s or recordings of marginal quality. The GOV is easier to throw into my bag when I travel.
     
    Last edited: Nov 6, 2015
  14. AustinValentine

    AustinValentine Friend

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    Depending on your listening preferences and use case - yep. And IMO it shouldn't be at all unexpected really.

    If I had to guess, they moved away from the amazing machined aluminum case because too many people were butt hurt about the heat. That includes some reviewers who will go unnamed.
     
    Last edited: Nov 6, 2015
  15. imackler

    imackler Friend

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    And that's how we buy both!
     
  16. jexby

    jexby Raised by Carthusian Monks - Friend

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    the GOV2+ (battery model) is getting a machined metal case in the next 1-2 weeks.
     
  17. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    Heat correlates strongly with good sound quality.
     
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  18. snuze

    snuze Rando

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    MMU stack has the lowest noise floor of the bunch? Am I understanding the graph correctly?
    Can you compare it to an iphone? Also, could you compare it to the original MM stack? I mean both in regards to the noise floor, thanks!
     
  19. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    1. Noise floor was not measured. The blackness / cleanness aspect is difficult to describe. These factors were purely subjective. It amounts to something like the shade of the canvas upon which the sounds are painted upon. Or like the black or dark grey levels of LCD screens (where older LCDs really sucked.)
    2. The iPhone does not compete as it cannot drive certain headphones like the HD650, K712, HE-560, HD800 well.
    3. I can't compare to the original MM stack as I no longer have an original Magni.
     
  20. Psalmanazar

    Psalmanazar Friend

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    The Element essentially has an ODAC Rev B in it so you're in a tradeoff war with the Modi (treble glare vs exaggerated treble, slightly cleaner vs fatness) but at least the Uber Modi has a wart for the same price. If the Element is V-shaped compared to the ODAC+O2, then something's up with the Element amp portion even if it doesn't have the stock gain issues of the O2. The only way to test this is if bought The Element with an RCA out from the DAC part and feed it to an O2/Magni or something.
     

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