There is a new breed of hifi enthusiast on the loose on internet fora: the Armchair Audiophile. More than any other product, the DAC has served to nurture the Armchair Audiophile’s unflinching self-belief that he is able to correctly judge the sonic prowess of a product based solely upon a quick perusal of the specifications sheet. Nothing gets the Armchair Audiophile’s opinion juices flowing more than phrases such as “Asynchronous USB” or “PCM1704″. The Armchair Audiophile is so desperate to be part of the DAC conversation that he will kick up a merry stink if a manufacturer kindly declines to reveal what is (essentially) its intellectual property. The Armchair Audiophile feels he has a right to know the inner workings of a DAC before he spends his (often theoretical) cash. ”What has manufacturer X got to hide?” is a phrase that will easily flow from the Armchair Audiophile’s keyboard. It is doubtful that the Armchair Audiophile would subject loudspeaker or amplifier manufacturers to the same level of scrutiny – one rarely sees the Armchair Audiophile demanding to see the circuit schematic or component breakdown of a loudspeaker crossover. In an interesting irony, it is also even more unlikely that the Armchair Audiophile would apply similar scrutiny to the food he eats. ”I have a right to know how much salt is in this pizza before I drop my $20!”…..nope, I didn’t think so.
I feel for Eric Hider and his dB Audio Labs team. Upon launching the Tranquility USB DAC at the beginning of 2010 he sought to limit the hypothetical pre-judgements – specifications were (mostly) off limits. After all, on paper, peanut butter and jam looks as though it will taste horrific…until you TRY IT FOR YOURSELF. It can’t be easy promoting a product with the niche appeal of a USB DAC. Of course, a 30-day money-back guarantee could be one way to maintain one’s intellectual property and call the Armchair Audiophile’s bluff on his theoretical coin.
dB Audio Labs’ theory is that USB is less of a tangled mess than S/PDIF and even the very presence of the S/PDIF inputs can degrade the USB signal. I contacted Eric Hider – who heads the dB Audio Labs operation – to gain further insight into the design philosophy at play. Eric believes the USB to be the superior digital audio funnel if it’s is optimised properly: power supply regulation and optimisation, receiver chip optimisation, NOS chip optimisations, discrete output stage, Mundorf Supreme capacitors. In fact, sit the Tranquility SE (US$2395) next to the recently review Wyred For Sound DAC-2 (AU$1950) and it begins too look positively monastic, an exercise in less-is-more restraint: input connectivity is restricted to USB which can only accommodate Redbook (16/44) audio. Some digital audio folk will see that as an affront to the inexorable march of hi-res digital audio, others will see it as a stake in the ground: “This is where we stand”. I fall into the latter camp.
Eric sees it like this, “The precipice for us not offering a high rez dac sooner comes to the fact that high rez dac chips and filters DO NOT handle Redbook data nearly as elegantly as NOS dac chipsets that can have no filtering whatsoever. Redbook playback having more harmonic information correctly transferred with a simple 16 bit dac and no complex filtering seems something that has not been reported or recognized thus far. It is a technical fact with solid foundational basis none the less. SPDIF inputs also are not as elegant as USB (when USB is done correctly…which rarely happens mind you) for data transfer.”
At the time of writing, the Tranquility SE isn’t even an official product. Due for release proper in the coming weeks, it remains the subject of forum folklore and few boxes have made it out into the wild. Eric and his team remain committed to quality of service over and above shifting more units.
During our email exchange, Eric informed me that the differences between the standard Tranquility and the SE are significant. Yes, they’re both built around the same NOS chip and housed in the same DIY-esque box, but…take it away, Eric: “The SE’s Interior circuit board is entirely new. The SE is not just a stock Tranquility with a few boutique components added. For instance – We’ve doubled the size of the power supply. Enhanced the bridge with new rectifiers. Improved the DC R. Both were developed with new blind A/B testing. We tweaked the regulator circuits with power supply has changed and then added capacitance via listening tests. Lastly, we’ve further refined the impedance interactivity and reduced reactance through some circuits. And the most important part that is the “heart of the Signature”…….we incorporated (and patented) a very special circuit that is residing directly after the DAC chip. This circuit actually eliminates non-linearities and micro-voltage interactivity issues by a HUGE factor in comparison to textbook audiophile DAC designs.”
A few days before the listening sessions for this review began in earnest, I heard a similarly-priced DAC being fed twice: firstly, by a Marantz CD transport and then again by a 2010 Mac Mini. The Marantz clearly had better dynamics and a wider soundstage. This was the second rude lesson in transports for this reviewer in as many months – yes, computer audio offers tremendous convenience but it has yet to achieve more than ~90% of some of the best CD transports feeding S/PDIF into an external DAC. This doesn’t keep me awake at night and (personally) I don’t think it a prudent use of time to endlessly pore over OS X configurations to extract another 0.1% of performance from the USB DAC at hand. Audiophiles have a propensity to fuss too much at the margins. I judge a product from the average consumer point of view: plug, play, rock and roll.
My test systems are less costly than the one in which I heard the Marantz transport crush my computer audiophile delusions: a couple of modern Tripath legends (Red Wine Audio, Virtue), an 8wpc SET (Trafomatic) as well as loudspeakers from Omega, Wharfedale, Usher, Mordaunt-Short and JohnBlue. I took a mix and match approach, utilising several combinations throughout the test period.
First up onto the audition bench, the Trafomatic Experience Two pushing JohnBlue JB4s with a MacBook Pro as transport. The NOS personality traits that I enjoy in the TeraDak Chameleon (AU$580) were abundant in the Tranquility SE: midrange clarity and an overall fluidity that I’ve yet to hear from non-NOS varietals. The duelling acoustic guitar butterflies of The Blue Aeroplanes’ “Jack Leaves/Back Spring” presented as detailed and spritely. Soundstaging was tall and concisely echoed the fat, warm sounds of Gerard Langley’s band’s early 90s peak. I don’t recall the last time I enjoyed Beatsongs quite as much. When promenading side by side with the Tranquility SE, the TeraDak Chameleon is stooped (less detail) with hunched-shoulder dynamics.
The Tranquility SE made no attempt to contest the notion that NOS DACs are midrange focussed. Cleaner and fresher than the internal DAC within the Squeezebox, the Tranquility SE’s version of High Llamas’ mini remix album was wide-eyed and confident – there was no evidence of congestion or digital artefacts. That it sounded better than the stock Squeezebox would be obvious to even non-audiophile ears.
As we have seen time again with Apple products, refuse to equip the end user with what he desires and he will soon find workarounds to make good on a product’s shortcomings or restrictions. (I can hear Eric Hider wince as I type this but) I used the USB port on my Squeezebox Touch to feed his Signature Edition Tranquilty. Not to be wilfully difficult, but with two synchronised Squeezeboxen to hand, I set-up an DAC A/B testing bay with each transport feeding the Tranquility SE and (initially) the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2. The Squeezebox Touch’s in-built OS is a Linux derivative and close enough to OS X for my tastes. (If that last sentence has you seeing red, it’s probably time for you leave the house and take a stroll). For those keeping score, each DAC was connected to the amplifier with the same make and model of interconnect (Morrow MA-1).
Bass reproduction is the most obvious major point of difference between the two DACs. The W4S is for those who prefer more weight and punch – the JohnBlue JB4s certainly sounded fuller. With the Wharfedale Diamond 9.1s, the W4S over-egged the low frequency pudding. Other differences between the two DACs were subtle and took time to reveal themselves. Whilst comparable in detail retrieval, team db Audio Labs’ gymnastics renders its detail retrieval the more effortless pursuit. Team Wyred 4 Sound’s DAC remains seriously impressive but it thinks just a little too much. It’s slightly more uptight, more anal-retentive, more determined, more MUSCULAR. The Tranquility snatches a higher score from this reviewer by being more lithe, more supple, more nimble. The Tranquility SE is also softer on the margins.
Comparing the Tranquility SE to the (also NOS) Red Wine Audio Isabellina LFP-V edition (AU$2000) yields fewer points of difference. The Tranquility is the softer sounding of the two and it’s tough to split them on the beat-crunch detail retrieval of Kanding Ray’s Pruitt Ego EP. The Isabellina is more forward, more eager to meet the listener – its bass awareness sits somewhere between the W4S and the Tranquility SE. The Tranquility SE sounds the more free-flowing of the two and offers richer tonal colours.
Widening the zoom to take in the broader contexts of sound and functionality, the Wyred 4 Sound sounds more anxious than the Tranquility SE, but it certainly trumps dB Audio Labs for features and connectivity. The Tranquility’s sheer liquidity – think mercury, not water – will prove tough to beat at any price point, but the DAC game moves quickly so never say never. The Red Wine Audio is the compromise solution: a fluid NOS sound with good soundstage depth AND the all-important S/PDIF connectivity; which doubly underscores the Tranquility SE’s possibly only shortcoming. A lack of S/PDIF inputs is the ONLY reason it doesn’t score the 5 stars that its sound quality commands.
At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I want/need S/PDIF inputs on my DAC – no ifs, no buts. If you’re a manufacturer concocting a neat-sounding black box, why not be as inclusive as possible? Not every digital audiophile wants a computer in their hifi rack. I don’t (yet). Without a coaxial or optical input, those wishing to upgrade the sonics of their CD player, Sonos or Squeezebox are left waving at the aeroplane from the tarmac. That Eric Hider nigh on insists his customers make use of the Tranquility SE in tandem with a Mac Mini funnels the niche appeal still further.
However, if USB is your only concern and you’re eager to deploy your computer as a digital transport, you will find much to love (and little to fault) in the Tranquility SE’s simplicity. Digging out my MacBook Pro again to front a Red Wine Audio amplifier feeding Omega Super 6 XRS loudspeakers, the dB Audio labs box sounded more pleasing than ever. This is a DAC that seems comfortable in its own skin, even with a stock-standard MacBook Pro pushing out the ones and zeroes. It has all of the extensive detail offered by the competition without any hint of digital glare or musical “indifference”; a true endgame product. If it sounds this good with my humble MacBook Pro, then the improvements (promised by Eric) from using a Mac Mini as transport would knock the ball clear out of the park. The Tranquility SE rewards the listener with a sense of ease that makes the equipment easy to ignore – the single highest accolade in my book. As George Clinton once opined, “free your mind…and your ass will follow”. Despite only serving the niche of USB-equipped transports, dB Audio Labs’ Tranquility SE is a king among men in the court of DACs.
- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- MacBook Pro
- Red Wine Audio Isabellina LFP-V edition
- Red Wine Audio Signature 30.2 LFP-V edition
- Trafomatic Experience Two
- Virtue Sensation M901
- Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2
- TeraDak Chameleon
- JohnBlue JB4
- Wharfedale Diamond 9.1
- Omega Super 6 XRS
- The Blue Aeroplanes – Beatsongs (1992)
- The High Llamas – Lollo Rosso (1998)
- Kanding Ray – Pruitt Ego (2010)