S-Audio Focus DAC/amp with binaural DSP

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by ReAlien, Jan 14, 2020.

  1. ReAlien

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    I would like to acquaint you with a rare audio beast — S-Audio Focus DAC/amp with binaural DSP.

    It is less known to a wider Western audience due to a number of factors. One is that it was conceived and made by a DIY engineer from Ukraine, Nazar. He is renowned in the ex-USSR DIY scene, among other things, for devising a simple but great Class-A headphone amp for DIY enthusiasts as well as for designing a FIRDAC, a unique DAC which uses Finite Impulse Response filter to provide authentic digital to analog conversion with no post and pre-ringing artifacts. Nazar has no marketing team to promote his products, that is why his devices are known mostly to DIY community members only. Yet he has a strong fan base nevertheless. I have become one of such fans recently because, after many years of development, Nazar managed to produce a device that combines his skills in making pristine sounding headphone amps and DACs with a unique self-made binaural DSP software. I am no technical person and would not dare to go into technical details. For this, you can read the information on Nazar’s website: http://s-audio.systems/focus/?setlang=en. It has an English language page.

    After a short listening session with his A-Class headphone amp, I was so impressed that I decided to sell my THX 789 immediately and buy it. And I would have done that but I’ve heard about his binaural DAC/amp and decided to give it a try. I am happy that I did so as it helped me to achieve a holy grail of any audiophile — a state of satisfaction with my sound system. Now, let me tell you why I am in love with my current setup.

    FIRDAC used in Focus DAC/amp is the Nazar’s brainchild. Pls. read full details on Nazar’s site, I will allow myself to quote him a little: “Unlike standard schematics, where the DSP is necessarily used with asynchronous sample rate conversion(ASRC), "Focus" uses much more refined DSP, so there is no need for ASRC. That eliminates the inevitable deterioration of sound quality due to its use. Custom upsampling Digital Filter is implemented with a minimal phase apodizing FIR filter. Unlike the half-band digital filters typical for all DACs, this type of filter fulfills the requirements of the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem, namely, it completely eliminates aliases (free from spectral overlap), thereby reliably restoring the audio signal...Introducing the apodizing filter into the playback chain does not remove any audio information, instead, the filter removes pre-ringing and post-ringing of all half-band DFs, while preserving the integrity of the original audio.”

    This DAC sounds much more authentic to my ears than any other DACs I’ve heard. A friend of mine, a professional audio engineer, told me it sounds like RME ADI-2 or professional soundcards. It is very neutral sounding. Many of us prefer the color to their sound, that is why Nazar’s DAC in regular mode might sound a bit dull to those who love expensive R2R DACs. Yet for me, after Maverick D2 with V6 Vivids, it was like a revelation, a true fidelity of sound. I immediately fell in love with it, both at the headphone and speaker systems. The bass is so detailed and accurate that it gives me goosebumps from time to time. I would have bought it for the DAC itself but, hang on tight, it is not a highlight of this device!

    Nazar introduced his own binaural DSP into Focus to imitate an experience of listening to a speaker system at 45 degrees while listening to headphones. I have not heard other crossfeed systems, but Nazar and some Focus owners are adamant that Focus DSP is the best implementation of this idea in their experience with such binaural devices.

    The main idea is that, when you listen to headphones, your left ear hears only left channel sounds and the right — only right channel ones. Yet, in a real word and while listening to a speaker system, our ears hear both channels almost simultaneously, with a little delay. This delay helps our brain to identify the location of sounds. In order to imitate this in headphones, part of the right channel information is fed to the left ear and vice versa. It undergoes certain mathematically calculated modification to the frequency-response characteristic in order to emulate the 3-D sound (there is a picture at Nazar’s site to demonstrate that). Yet one has to understand that it is a game with our brain, therefore some time is needed for our mind to get accustomed to the binaural sound (and not all records are made to sound correct in this mode). Nazar recommends a three-day binaural trial period. From my experience, you get used to it by the end of the first day. At first, when I turned binaural mode on (you can do it with a front panel switch), it seemed that some important parts of the music were hushed and sent to the background. After a long listening session, however, when I try to switch the binaural mode off, I hear that some unnecessary elements of the music are annoyingly brought forward and the whole music is flattened into a wall of sound inside my brain. While in the binaural mode, I feel as if I am placed among the musicians, there no impression that music is played inside of my skull.

    Yet the wide and deep soundstage is not the only benefit of binaural mode. The instruments start to sound as if they obtain a body, become 3-D like, as If I am literally brought to a live performance by some magic. The binaural mode gives the music life, authenticity on a new level. Yes, some critics say that HF range sounds a bit simplified in binaural mode compared to non-DSP mode and I do agree with that. However, while the non-DSP mode sounds like a precise reproduction of the sound, an aerial view of the music in detail, the binaural mode makes you feel the music, brings natural timbres to the instruments and vocals as if you’re experiencing it in the same room. For me, binaural mode fully justifies a minor loss in HF detail.

    Another great experience is to watch movies in this mode, it really gives you the feel of the scene. For example, when you hear an applauding audience, you have no impression that all these people clap their hands next to your ear – you hear a full-sized audience clapping around you.

    I did not want to make this text immediately after falling in love with the device so that I could avoid a first-time wow effect bias. I am writing this after listening to the device for two months. I can tell that it has grown on me even more with time. Now, I am even more into the binaural sound than before and I never turn it off (when I listen to speakers, the sound is fed to the line out without any DSP, of course).

    So, to summarize, I want to tell that this is a unique device that sounds like no other device on the market today. Some people love it, some people don’t. But even the most active critics admit that Focus sounds very good, musical and detailed. And absolutely all of them praise the outstanding design of the device from the engineering point of view.

    Luckily, one of the popular audio reviewers who enjoys Focus in his own system has already made a video about it, you’re welcome to watch it: https://porta.fi/s-audio-focus-headphone-dac-and-amp-review-the-engineer-approach/

    DISCLAIMER:

    - The binaural mode requires the use of neutral-sounding headphones to achieve maximum effect.
    - I have sold my THX 789 and Maverick D2 with V6 Vivids to buy Focus (its cost is 800 USD but you can try to get discount for batch orders) and I am a happy camper for that.
    - I am in contact with Nazar but I am not related to him in any way. I do not get anything from the advertising and have paid for my device with my own money.
    - I do understand that it is quite hard to get this device for a listening test, which is required to assess the FIRDAC sound and binaural DSP effect, but I feel that the world should know more about this truly game-changing device.

    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2020
  2. Dzerh

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    The amp is really interesting.
    I contacted Nazar about 1.5 year ago when Focus become first available as a prototype board. But various small obstacles (like payment, 220V AC, the case for the amp) made my laziness overcome my curiosity.
    Also Nazar didn't strike me as commercially oriented type.
     
  3. ReAlien

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    Yes, Nazar is an engineer, a pure enthusiast of his craft and treats it as a hobby. Maybe it's a plus for those who wish to listen to a device made not for commercial reasons but for a master himself.)
    Payment is a problem because PayPal does not allow Ukrainian nationals to receive money at their accounts. But I managed the purchase process for audio buddies in Russia and we have found a number of ways for them to pay to Nazar, i.e. Western Union.
    The case is good, sturdy and aesthetically nice. And its footprint on my table is really great.)
     
  4. ReAlien

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    I forgot to mention the headphones/IEMs I used for testing:

    Hifiman HE4, HE500, Oppo PM3, Dita Truth.

    All of them sounded good, but HE500 sounded less attractive than I expected, maybe that is due to HE500's uneven frequency characteristics. Dita sounds great in low gain mode but with other IEMs you might encounter a noise as Focus was not made for sensitive headphones. IFI Match corrects this properly as per the info I got from other owners.

    My main headphones are custom-made isodynamic over-the-ear Final Carbons by MaxNANO (Ukraine), but none of you know what they are (there are only 4 of them worldwide at the moment), so there is no reason to use those as a reference.)

    Other owners that I know happily use their Focuses with Ananda, Empyrean and Ether CX headphones.
     
  5. ReAlien

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    I forgot to mention that other Focus owners report that fatigue from listening headphones is dramatically reduced if you listen in binaural mode. I never had such fatigue with normal headphones, so I cannot comment.)

    Also, today, I have been contacted by another Final Carbon headphones owner who decided to buy Focus, the reason he stated as follows: "I just can't stop listening to my headphones!" I do understand him.) When I listen to Focus I feel less likely to skip to another track, I get so involved in the act...
     
  6. ReAlien

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  7. ReAlien

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