This is not a review but will be somewhat long, so I’ll provide the summary up front – I tried a lot of DACs over the last 3-4 years including Schiit, DENAFRIPS, Mojo, Lumin, Luxman, Marantz and a few others, and finally settled on the Weiss DAC 501. Features and ergonomics do come in to play as well in my decision, so the point is I am not stating blankly that the Weiss is better in all regards for all people. For me it was the best in terms of sound quality though, which is the most important to me. I’m writing this for two reasons: one, to try to get the word out on this great DAC which doesn’t have the cult following some of the other ones do, and two to write down some sonic comparisons with some of these other DACs that some audiophiles may find useful. As always, I’ll repeat the caveat that this is in my system, room, with my ears….etc., etc.
Other DACs in the system: Schiit Yggdrassil (Unison, A2), Mojo Mystique V2x and B4B, Luxman D08-U, Marantz SA-10, DENAFRIPS Terminator I and II, Lumin T2. I owned all of these DACs and had lots of time with them in my system, though only 2-3 of them at any one time. Best for the money? Probably the Lumin (especially since it does not require a streamer), and Terminator, with an honorable mention goes to the Marantz if you can pick one up at a discount.
Streamers used: Aurender N200, N20, Lumin U1. (This is not a streamer review but if you have a DAC that uses SPDIF, the N20 is really great especially with its upsampling features). System: Luxman C/M900, Magico A3, Harbeth M40, M30. I downsized my system (M40s were too big for my room so I now have the M30) throughout the process; in doing so I also diversified my electronics to Line Magnetic, Benchmark, and Primaluna - with the Harbeth the Luxman were a bit too smooth and I wanted to downsize my system as well. I was not in a frantic search for the ‘best’ DAC but through these trials was just having fun and trying out different things. Ultimately I did want to find something I could live with permanently.
My methodology was to leave the DACs on all the time, listen to them for long periods of time, then switch, as well as quick A-B’ing from time to time, always level matching. Whilst downsizing my system I found I wanted something with a built in streamer (Weiss is Roon ready, like Lumin, the others require a separate streamer), so this is partially where features played a role in my decision.
Here’s some basic notes about each:
Luxman D-08u - smooth, somewhat dry compared to the Mojo, excellent transport (the Mojo sounded better with the D08 as a transport than it did running with a streamer), excellent mid-range layering, good bass. I also borrowed a D-03x at one point from my dealer, which was good but was way too smooth for my tastes.
Marantz SA-10 – a little more alive than the Luxman, great overall, very good CD/SACD player but I couldn’t get past the fact that it upsamples everything to DSD. Every piece of gear that upsamples to DSD (like the Lumin, which is optional, but the Marantz is not) I do not like PCM upsampled to DSD, it just cuts off some of the high frequency information in my experience. Very smooth high frequencies is the upside of the other side of that coin.
Schiit Yggy – best bass I’ve heard from any DAC; fast attacl, clean and excellent clarity. There was just something about it though that didn’t work for me. It was somewhat sterile. Not as musical overall as the other DACs.
DENAFRIPS Terminators – the TII is as advertised from the TI – a little more detailed and clear while retaining all the musicality/spaciality of the TI. These are great DACs. When I got the Terminator for the first time I was in a stage where I was looking for something to replace my Mojo, which had replaced the Luxman. Nothing could touch the Mojo (I was trying $3-4k DACs just to see) until I found the Terminator, though it does things a bit differently. These DACs throw a great soundstage, are excellent all around. This was the DAC I found best reacted to the N20 capabilities with SPDIF and upsampling (read the Computer Audiophile review of these DACs, I agree completely with him on this. The Terminator using upsampling itself, and fed an upsampled input from the N20 was spectacular). I could have kept the TII and been very happy but still wanted to get rid of the extra box. Though having tried the Weiss I still prefer the sound quality of the Weiss overall.
Mojo Mystique B4B – excellent DAC. I won’t mention the little brother V2x other than to say it is a great value for the money – I tried it to see what the fuss was all about in R2R DACs (this was first DAC I tried after the Luxman), and based on what it did I got the B4B. I believe these handbuilt DACs will go down as classics – 20 years from now they will be like a 60’s McIntosh tube amp and sell for big bucks, they are so exquisitely built. As for sound, it remains the most ‘organic’ sounding DAC of the bunch, great texture and tonality, which is important to me. The highs were a bit truncated for my tastes, not quite as detailed as something like the Schiit or the Weiss. I did prefer the Terminator over the Mojo. The Terminators had more of those audiophile attributes like soundstaging and I thought they were slightly more musical overall.
Lumin T2. This was the first DAC I had of any of these. It is a little rough around the edges perhaps (not as smooth as some of the other DACs) but overall just does everything right. Its features to upsample/downsample, and do other things is an awesome and useful feature set. When I was looking at the Weiss I considered picking up an older Lumin S-1 or even the X-1 which have similar feature sets. Some day hopefully I can compare the Weiss to the Lumins. I would say if you like what the T2 does you’ll love the Weiss, they’re similar in features and sound.
Weiss DAC 501 – I’ll skip the feature set other than to mention its ability to use an equalizer can be really handy and in my experience doesn’t degrade the sound quality. But otherwise just talking about sound quality, this DAC was exactly what I have been searching for. It has the clean-ness and clarity/detail of the Schiit, the musicality and soundstaging (though perhaps just slightly a bit less) of the Denafrips, and is just rock solid in its presentation all around; it doesn’t do anything wrong. The review by the Alpha Audio puts it that every track just seems to ‘sound right’ or the way it was supposed to be heard through the Weiss (though they weren’t sure why), which I agree with. Also. the Sterophile review of this DAC does a better job of describing it than I can and I agree with their assessment. It is detailed while being smooth, musical, clear, and plays with authority. Of all the DACs I’ve owned this was also the first one that was clearly discernable in a much greater way than the others (some DACs can sound somewhat similar, have to listen hard for differences). That is its positive attributes in comparison to other DACs were more obvious.
Honorable mention: I did not own it but my dealer let me try out the Line Magnetic DAC (I forget the model, I think there’s only one), but for $2k this is a ‘wow’ DAC – especially if you replace the tubes (I tried a pair of new Genelex gold lion). When I tried this DAC I was searching for a replacement to the Mojo, and this one came the closest from DACs like the Luxman D-03, Oppo-105, and a couple others I can’t recall.
A bit more about methodology if you made it this far. Testing DACs is not easy. Some say they can hear a clear or ‘huge’ difference between DACs, or one “blows the other away” or is not in the same ballpark, etc. These hyperboles are not the experience I’ve had for the most part. Living with the DAC for a long time, getting over the initial “new toy syndrome”, is paramount, and DACs tested against each other over time reveal true differences in my opinion. One test I do I call the ‘Oppo’ test. Some audiophiles like to denigrate the Oppos but they are great DACs, especially for the money. I will always keep an Oppo in the house (if not just to play DVDs and SACDs!). After living with a given DAC for a while and being duly impressed with it, I would then fire up the Oppo and compare the two, only to find that the Oppo sounded pretty good in comparison, which helps to present a value consideration for the other DACs. For example, believe it or not the Oppo was somewhat similar and close to the Mojo in terms of tonality and some other traits; but obviously you get what you pay for, the pricier DACs are smoother and do other things better.. The Oppo is a bit rougher (as opposed to smooth) and has some compromises that always appear in these comparisons. But with this test I found to use the preamp to switch between the two DACs under consideration and forget about which one is attached to which input, you can really start to hear differences without a lot of the bias coming in. With some of these DACs I could guess about 50% of the time which was the Oppo, some less, some more. The musical selection used often played a big role – some selections sound the same on DACs for some reason, some different.