Sonic Frontiers SFD-1mk2 Vintage DAC for $750 That Stomps Most Modern DACs

Discussion in 'Digital: DACs, USB converters, decrapifiers' started by purr1n, Nov 9, 2015.

  1. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    I STILL OWN THIS DAC, SO I FIGURED I'D COPY THE CONTENT FROM CHANGSTAR OVER TO HERE.

    Many of you would never have guessed, but I’ve been listening to the Gungnir (1) instead of the M7 (2) DAC since I’ve gotten the Ragnarok racked up in the speaker rig. Speaker listening presents a slightly different set of criteria than headphones. The power to sensitivity ratio with speakers is much lower than with headphones, therefore any kind of dynamic compression inherent in the DAC will be made much more obvious. Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of the M7 is macro-dynamic capability. The M7 is good, well above average, but not excellent in this area. Also, speakers, assuming they are set up properly, have a much greater potential for demonstrating soundstage depth. Most unfortunately, with stage depth from the M7 is mediocre at best, even with the whizz-bang USB gadgets employed to improve this.

    Basically, what I am saying is when DACs are within closing distance of each other, there is really no such thing as A is better than B and B is better than C. It really depends on the situation. Of course there are situations where D is simply not in the same league. For example, the Hugo DAC does not merit discussion here. The only reason I bring up the Hugo is because people keep reminding me of the Hugo. How popular the Hugo is. How the Hugo can actually compete with full sized desktop DACs (it can’t). I just want to let it rest and go about my way; but no, someone had to remind me, yet again, that I was being too harsh in judging the Hugo’s sound quality just three nights ago. So I figured I'd say shitty things about the Hugo DAC again.

    DSC_2020.JPG

    But enough of the Gungnir; as this is really a comparison between the M7 and the Sonic Frontiers SFD-1mk2. By the way, Sonic Frontiers no longer exists. The only way to obtain an SFD-1 is through the used market. Every now and then they do pop up on the ‘gon or at pcX. Good luck if you want one. I used both speakers (Fostex 6” Sigma wide range drivers in a back-loaded horn enclosure) and the Sennheiser HD800 from the Schiit Ragnarok for this comparison. The speakers were augmented by a slightly modified Hsu subwoofer. Room modes in the bass region were accounted for in the subwoofer processor. Parametric EQ in JRMC19 (3) was applied to the frequency response at the listening position to meet a target similar to Figure 5 on page 6 of this document:http://www.bksv.com/doc/17-197.pdf

    Let’s get right to it shall we? The SFD-1mk2 has replaced the M7 and it only took two nights for me to make that decision. (It took me about a month to decide if I wanted to replace the PWD2 with the M7.) The first night, I tested both the singled ended SPDIF coaxial and AES3 balanced outputs from the OR5. I didn’t have a digital AES3 cable on hand, so I resorted to re-purposing an XLR patch cable for this task. The balanced XLR connection sounded best, so I went with this arrangement. Yup, upon initial listen, it’s an UltraAnalog module based DAC alright: http://www.changstar.com/index.php/topic,1801.msg48465.html#msg48465 Craig Uthus (Eddie Current) two Moth HyperDACs have UltraAnalog modules. He used to bring one of those DACs to the headphone shows. Donald North brings his SFCD-1 to the headphone meets. My experience with these DACs, especially with Donald’s Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1, was instrumental in my quick decision to nab one right after DaveBSC informed me of its availability.

    The SFD-1 was on another level of smoothness compared to the M7. The M7 has always had some level of minor upper midrange harshness or lower treble stridency. This can be easily heard with the earlier USB firmware versions. The use of the OR5 mitigates this issue tremendously, but it cannot completely remove what is inherent. Since the M7 was my reference DAC, I had already adjusted to his behavior (it's an extremely very minor issue) and really did not notice it outright until a friend pointed it out. This was of concern to him because he wanted to be sure that the Ragnarok was not the cause of it. In the end, we both concluded that the slight harshness was probably the fault of the M7 and not the amplifier. (It should still be noted that on a relative scale, the M7 with the OR5 is still smoother sounding than almost all other modern DACs.) The SFD-1 smoothness only confirms this conclusion. Finally, we are not talking about the artificial, dull, or intrusive kind of smoothness which glosses everything over.

    The SFD-1mk2 achieves a deeper tonal density that even other new production R2R DACs such as the Metrum do not have. The tonal density reminds me of the M7 running in NOS mode bypassing the DSP. Except in the case of the M7, bypassing the DSP collapses the stage depth and eliminates a significant amount of low level information. I don't know if the SFD-1 is a non-oversampling DAC or not.

    I did not begin to truly appreciate the SFD-1 until the second night where I used a "real" balanced digital cable. No, I did not buy an expensive cable. Instead I terminated some CAT5e Ethernet cable with XLR connectors. (CAT5/6 Ethernet cables are magical and make excellent speaker and headphone cables as well.) Awesome. A huge difference and now we are talking.

    Let's first start with how the M7 is better. The M7 is cleaner. The SFD-1 sounds a little "dirtier" in comparison. The M7 has more delineated lines and precise imaging. The SFD-1 isn't quite as precise. Not really unexpected because of the tube output. However, I do want to point out that the SFD-1 does not sound tubey. At least with this setup including the OR5, cables, and Philips JAN 6922 tubes. If I hadn't had known tubes were in the SFD-1, I could have just as easily assumed that it was a solid-state DAC. Despite the "dirt", the SFD-1 manages to have a blacker background than the M7. ("Blackground" was another M7 weakness, made much better by the OR5.) As an aside, I hate overly tubey DACs. The California Audio Labs DAC I heard about twenty years ago made me assume anything with tubes in it was shit for the next twelve years.

    Surprisingly, the the SFD-1 resolves low level information as well as the M7, at least with the Ragnarok, which is incredibly resolving for a solid-state amp. I had to go back and forth a few times to confirm. Initially it seemed that the M7 reproduced more microdetail, but every time I went back to the SFD-1 for a reality check, there never seemed to be any less microdetail. It could probably be accurate to say that the M7 brought up the volume level of the microdetails or perhaps accentuated it with a certain sharpness (more an effect of tonal balance, timbre, etc.)

    Now in terms of macrodynamics, microdynamics and soundstage depth, the M7 gets spanked by the SFD-1. As I've hinted at above, ultimate macrodynamic capability in terms of hitting hard was never a strength of the M7, and thus why I had been spending more time with the Gungnir (at least with speakers.) Ability to slam and hit hard was something that I missed from the PWD2; and in retrospect, I've always felt the PCM1704s (the chips in the M7) were kind of soft. In terms of microdynamic contrasts, the ability to make small changes in volume and to swing or throw sound with speed and authority, the difference between the DACs is even larger. The M7 sounds flat, almost lifeless, in comparison. Finally, although the SFD-1's imaging isn't as clear, the three dimensional aspects such as depth and even height is far superior. There's a spooky quality in how the SFD-1 throws sound from the stage towards you.

    Tonally, the SFD-1 doesn't seem more bassy than the M7. (I think it's fair to say both DACs are on the bassier and warmer side.) I did have to bring back the super tweeters with the SFD-1 which seemed a touch more rolled in the last octave. I almost want to say that the SFD-1 has a thicker sound, but that would implying something negative. For reference, the SFD-1 certainly does not sound as thick (even muddy) and rolled-off as the one Moth HyperDAC that Craig brings to the meets. (With the SPDIF or the makeshift AES3 cable, the SFD-1 did sound more like that. I'll stick with the tonal density thing. I mean, I'm hearing guitars, bass, piano growl. I mean fuck, no modern DAC I've heard has ever growled that like. Low notes on piano have this weight, this body, where you actually get a palpable sense, the shaking of the sound board inside the piano doing its job in magnifying the sound of the strings. Violins and harmonicas would shriek with deep tones to make the hairs on my back stand up. Now that's music. A bunch of colors and textures and tones flying all over the place. The M7 does not quite do these things. The modern DACs do none of these things.

    Finally, getting back to tonal balance, the SFD-1 is more similar in tone to the Gungnir than the M7. Mainly less strident and more forward (upper-mids) than M7. Absolutely the least digital sounding DAC I've heard yet in the past decade or so. What's amazing is that the SFD-1 does so without removing microdetail, like the nature of the little grains in tape or guitar pickup noise.

    What's really sad and depressing is that in the last twenty years, we've generally moved backwards in DACs with all this cost-cutting delta-sigma shit.

    (1) The Gungnir DAC this time around was vastly superior to when the initial DAC-Off tests were conducted with the PWD2 (upgraded 1), Invicta, X-Sabre, etc. The USB receiver was upgraded with the Gen 2 board. The Wyrd USB power cleaner and data reclocker was installed in line. The DAC and Wyrd were plugged into a power condition. These efforts removed harshness and “tension”, increased microdynamics and microdetail, and deepened the soundstage.

    (2) Audio-GD Master 7 DAC. The i2s interface was upgraded with a custom-built HDMI interface by DACLadder. Digital output was from PC USB to an Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 5. The HDMI i2S interface and used from the OR5 to the M7.

    (3) J River Media Center 19.
     
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2016
  2. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Yup. SFD-1 was running off the USB-SPDIF triple majick stack.

    Hard to say against MSB Analog - too long ago and too many things changed. This has cured my itch for the MSB, so that's good. No need to shell out $10k. I also prefer SFD-1 to Bricasti M1. Bricasti stricks me as very much as delta-sigma DAC, although it does do quite a few things better. M1 is the best I've heard of the modern DACs.

    The comparison with the Bricasti is difficult because they very different sounding DACs taking almost opposite approaches. The Bricasti M1 is one of the best delta-sigma DACs.

    The comparison with AGD-M7 or Metrum DACs is more apt because they are along the same lines in terms of sound.

    Also, make sure you have a decent transport or USB converter to get the best from the SFD-1/2. Tubes do matter. I may opt for some of the more neutral/brighter Telefunken 6922s, but I will replace the caps first. Some tubes can make the SFD-1 sound thick and bassy - reminiscent of some other UltraAnalog DACs I've heard. The SFD-2 has larger and higher quality caps than the SFD-1 I believe. I've had issue with the SFD-1 driving certain amps with low input impedance because the coupling caps were too small.

    It's hard to say because the DACs of that era are really different sound. I'm just being reminded of it now. Heard lots of them but I couldn't afford them 20 years ago. Even my wife, who doesn't care that much about this stuff, asked me if I changed something in the middle of the night when I was listening: "something is different, did you change something?"

    At first she wasn't sure she liked it. Found all the textures, growling, dense tones "annoying" and "distracting". We did a blind test (not like she knew which was which), and ultimately decided that it wasn't even close among SFD-1, Gungnir, and M7

    photo (4).jpg

    Shhhh, majikal rock - makes music sound good. I sell to Changstarians for $5 + shipping. Normally priced at $777.

    The SFD-1mk1 had the NPC 5803 filter chip. The mk2 had the Pacific Microsonics PMD100 with HDCD. I think I have maybe one or two HDCD CDs. Anyways, a lot of people preferred the PMD100 chip.

    If you guys recall, Audio-GD was making a limited run of PCM1704 based DACs with the PMD100 chips, up to a certain point where he stopped making them unless you supplied your own PMD100 chip. To this day, some people swear by the PCM100 digital filter, not for the HDCD, but for its sound. Personally, I have no idea.
     
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  3. Bill-P

    Bill-P Level 42 Mad Wizard

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    LOL majikal rock.

    Marv, I have some felt pieces that you can put on your Wyrd that I'll trade you for the majikal rock. :D

    (Okay, seriously, though, Wyrd mod thread will be opened as soon as my extra components come in)
     
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  4. steve

    steve Rando

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    Tried your wyrd mod during the meet, what a surprise!

    And for SFD, have heard many good things about it but haven't got a chance to try. I believe there is one on the market right now in case if anyone is interested. :p
     
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  5. Andre Y

    Andre Y Friend

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    Interesting comments about the PMD100 filter chip. I still have a very lightly modded Parts Connection (it was the DIY parts offshoot of SF) DAC-2, which is a PCM1702-based DAC with the PMD100. I haven't listened to the thing in a while.
     
  6. Luckbad

    Luckbad Traded in a unicorn for a Corolla

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    @Marvey was right. The Sonic Frontiers SFD-1 MKII is everything I wanted the Audio-GD Master-11 to be. I loved that DAC. Now that I have the SFD, I'll never need a Master-11 again.

    I guess I'm kissing high res files goodbye at home.

    With how much I like it, I'm springing for maxed out upgrades.

    Once I discovered what non-oversampling dacs could sound like, I didn't think I'd ever enjoy a dac with oversampling again.

    I was wrong. This thing has absurd soundstage depth and excellent musicality without a touch of harshness.
     
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2017
  7. Luckbad

    Luckbad Traded in a unicorn for a Corolla

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    Mirroring something I said in PM to someone because it comments on this DAC.

    I'm always curious about new sound. I've exhausted the majority of my interest in DACs at this point, which is actually kinda nice.

    I discovered my love for R-2R dacs when I got an Audio-GD NOS-1704, then verified it with a Reference 5. The Master-11 was a step up in all directions from the Ref 5 without diverging much from the overall signature.

    I eventually decided I didn't need such an endgame rig at home since I listen to music for 8-12 hours a day at work, so I sold that and got two setups, both with tube amps (which I also discovered I preferred over solid state--another reason to sell the M11 since I wanted a tube amp).

    I kept tinkering with my setup and found that the Mutec MC-3+USB made significant strides in the right direction, improving the sound of my MHDT Labs Atlantis.

    At that point, I realized that the main thing preventing me from getting a vintage dac (a good USB->S/P-DIF converter) was no longer in the way. So, grabbed an Assemblage DAC-2 to get a sense for what Sonic Frontiers/Parts Connexion/Assemblage made back in the day, as well as what PCM1702 sounded like.

    It was surprisingly good, especially for the price. So, of course, I sold it.

    Then I sought out the Sonic Frontiers SFD-1 MKII...
    • R/2R? Check
    • Tube output? Check
    • Non-oversampling? Pretty sure that's a nope.
    But heck, people praise it and say it is better than most dacs built today and would be endgame if not for the existence of the more detailed Schiit Yggdrasil (which I've already mentioned I dislike because I find it too analytical and not terribly enjoyable).

    I was skeptical. But I found one and thought I'd give it a try. And holy crap is it incredible! It's built like a tank. It dwarfs my amp. It weighs something like 28 pounds and has a 1/4" steel faceplate. It makes the Atlantis seem positively dainty physically.

    The sound... The best soundstage of any dac I've ever heard. Smooth, musical, organic, euphonic, dynamic, detailed. The tube output stage allows one to dial the warmth up or down to taste. I have only used 6N23P-EV tubes in it so far but see no need to try anything else. I tend to like Russian military tubes anyway and the sound is pretty much perfect. I have zero plans to let this thing go ever. That said, I want to experience the best it has to offer, so I'm sending it to Parts Connexion for an $800 upgrade (more than I paid for the dac).

    It already is better in many ways than my modded MHDT Labs Atlantis. Not necessarily better it all ways, though. That said, I'm going to end up selling my unmodded Atlantis in a month or so and I'll move my Atlantis+ to work. The Atlantis is a bit smoother and more musical in some ways than the Sonic Frontiers, but it's less dynamic and the soundstage doesn't have nearly as much depth. Still an incredible price for a modern dac that does 192kHz and uses the famed AD1862N-J dac chips.

    At this time, I've landed. I really have nowhere I need to go.

    My chains are as follows:
    • Home: ESI [email protected] XTe coaxial out to Mutec MC-3+USB (frankly, the Mutec via USB is just as good--this just solves some audiophilia nervosa I have and I have the card for measurements anyway) -> Sonic Frontiers SFD-1 MKII via AES (upgrade to maxed out version over the next couple weeks) -> ampsandsound Mogwai -> Sennheiser HD650
    • Work: Mutec MC-3+USB -> MHDT Labs Atlantis+ (modded with suggested improvements from designer Jiun himself), -> Garage1217 Project Horizon III -> JVC HA-DX2000
    I have my tubes in both dacs and both amps figured out, my sources both figured out, man... it's a good feeling. All I have on tap are the max level upgrades to the SFD-1 MKII, a linear power supply for the Garage1217 amp when those are available, and that's pretty much it.

    This is a really long ramble, and I can't even remember my point.

    I think what I'm getting at is that your audio journey is your own. You will have unique preferences. Some people will nudge you in the right direction, while others will nudge you in the wrong direction. My curiosity has, more often than not, led to disappointment. However, sometimes it has led to personal revelations about what I was looking for.
     
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  8. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    The UltraAnalog shit is legit. I think the PMD100 sounds surprisingly good as well, if some of my guesses are correct. I got a lot of magic from the Classe DAC-1, but, unfortunately, something about their design made it sound pretty dry, rough, and bright. I would really like to hear the SFD-1...if anyone wants to send me one. ;)
     
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  9. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    Also, heard that one from you before. Who wants to place bets on how long it will take @Luckbad to put it up for sale? :p
     
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  10. Luckbad

    Luckbad Traded in a unicorn for a Corolla

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    I really want to hit the Dislike button! :p
     
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  11. Greed

    Greed Friend

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    Why not get the SFD-2 instead of spending the $800 for the upgrades ;)
     
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  12. Luckbad

    Luckbad Traded in a unicorn for a Corolla

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    Have you heard both? I thought the SFD-2 was more for true balanced operation and sounded brighter.
     
  13. Scott Kramer

    Scott Kramer Friend

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    This inspired me to try some old digital... haha guess it goes both ways.

    If this is what I had to go on, we've made awesome progress! :D Pulled this out of storage just now:

    Put the Hue lights on red (the strange lighting)

    Enjoy... the "digititis" comes over nicely thru earphones!

     
    Last edited: May 20, 2016
  14. Greed

    Greed Friend

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    More detailed, tighter sound, less euphonic (more neutral, still warm sounding), and soundstage is even more expansive. Really no downsides unless you purposely want something more musical and euphonic sounding. I don't think you lose much tonally using the SFD-2 SE, but you definitely lose some staging, detail and blackness. The comparison gets more fair when using the SE, but it is still a better DAC overall.

    I'm only bringing it up because I see the SE+ as a supreme rip off. Without getting too much into anything to derail this thread swapping for fancy RCA jacks, tube sockets, isolation feet etc. is in the same realm as cables imo. The way I see it there are severe diminishing returns with "upgrades" like that. Caps, resistors, etc. are probably worth it if you don't plan to move to anything else any time soon. Those type of changes can be done pretty cheap and the parts themselves will only cost $150-200 (?) or so. It is not like they are putting Duelands caps or any of the ultra expensive stuff in there.

    Like other tweaks, sometimes saving that money for a better DAC might be a smarter way to go. Also, it makes your rig somewhat future proof if you end up with a balanced amp.

    I don't make it a habit of telling people how to spend their money, just a friendly reminder to be cautious when spending that type of dough on something that may or may not bring much improvement in your system.
     
    Last edited: May 20, 2016
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  15. Enigmatic

    Enigmatic Friend

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    Had spent a couple of days with the SFD-1 MKII now. It's no Gungnir Multibit which was originally what I wanted, but from where I come from, the Gungnir Multibit is 3 times the price I paid for the SFD-1 MKII. I have plans to propose later this year so I am being careful with spending, at least for the short term (e.g. ditched the UE4 plan, held back on the Andromeda, decided to wait a while for the Mutec MC1.2, closed my eyes off all those tempting FS stuff).

    Admittedly I do not have extensive experience with DACs, but the SF is simply at a whole different league compared to what I have heard thus far, the most memorable being the Lavry DA-11 (does very little wrong but did not wow me) and the MHDT Stockholm (nice grit and tonality but faulted by its lack of ambience and intimate staging). The SF just sounds... Different, in a good way.

    My vocab with audio had deteriorated over the past years so it is hard for me to put to words how the SF sounds - It's harmonically rich, not rich in the sense of being exceptionally warm/slow/chocolatey, but there is a surprising amount of detail into everything which makes thing sound so real. You get impact and dynamics, speed, body, spatial presentation is mind blowing (which was my qualm with the Stockholm else I would had bought it), resolution, transparency.

    A word on transparency. During the initial days of listening, I found that two of my CDs focusing on female recording sounded better on my Marantz CD6004. First I suspect tonal coloration on the SFD1, but it appears the Marantz was glossing over and making some badly recording CDs sounding more acceptable unless you are paying attention. With the SFD1 I could make up nearly immediately that there is a slight veil to one of the disc consistently across all tracks, and the other just sounds bright and lean. This surprises me as I first thought, tubes + old vintage DAC = warmth, euphoric, slow, not transparent. But the SF just gave me a middle finger with that.


    With this, I am pretty much happy with where I am with headphones, being the SFD1 > Asgard 2 > HE-560. Maybe a Mjolnir 2 or a cheap Mjolnir, but I really don't have any itch for that now. Once my Primare amp is back from repairs, I am going to start looking at speakers instead.


    PS: Note that my unit comes with opt-st, coax and toslink, so I am using coax. Those who have AES mentioned it sounds even better. I won't know.
    PPS: Stock unit, power filter caps replaced as they were bulging. With Philips JAN 6922 tubes.
    PPPS: I never knew I had HDCDs in my collection!
     
    Last edited: May 21, 2016
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  16. Luckbad

    Luckbad Traded in a unicorn for a Corolla

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    I just swapped out the 6N23P-EV for some GE 5670 Tripla Micas with an adapter. They work perfectly fine, but they don't sound as good as the 6N23P in this DAC.
     
  17. Luckbad

    Luckbad Traded in a unicorn for a Corolla

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    Starting to think about downsizing in cost and space. Going to mention to you folks here before I list it that I might have a Sonic Frontiers SFD-1 MK-II going up for sale shortly. Gold face with matched pair of 6N23P-EV from Parts Connexion and I believe a matched pair of JJ as well. Inputs are AES, TOSLINK, and coax S/PDIF.
     
  18. Wfojas

    Wfojas Friend

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    Hahaha, @Hands For obvious reasons, your prescience made me smile. :)
     
  19. Luckbad

    Luckbad Traded in a unicorn for a Corolla

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    Yep. There's a 5% chance I'll hang onto any piece of gear, even if I like it, for more than a few months.
     
  20. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    I am glad you've accepted your true nature. :)

    (Hey, whatever works for ya!)
     
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2016

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