FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 19
as reviewed by Larry Cox
I used to read and post to online audio newsgroups, thinking they were places to share information and perhaps learn, but the intolerant, imperious, and angry solderheads that frequent the newsgroups made online conversations combative and uninformative. It was like bobbing for apples in the mud—something good ultimately came out of it, but only at the cost of a great deal of unpleasantness. I can say, though, that with the passage of time and the stench, some of their comments had merit. Newsgroup denizens frequently complain about domestic audio products that are little more than repackaged pro audio goodies that sell for considerably less than the consumer versions. I'm not condemning this practice. Not only is there a different aesthetic in the workplace, but home users have different needs than engineers. Only a fool and a solderhead (sometimes that's redundant) will fail to see that packaging can make things easier to use.
This brings me to the Apogee Digital Mini-DAC. Apogee Digital is well known in the professional audio industry for making excellent products. The Mini-DAC is a no-nonsense, no-frills product designed for audio professionals, and is priced very reasonably. It is the Swiss Army Knife of digital tools. It can do far more than the typical domestic DAC. It will handle input rates of 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, and 192kHz, so it has facilities that typical audiophiles aren't likely to use, but it does have a volume pot, so if you are putting together a system on the cheap, you've got a DAC and volume control in one box. Even with its outboard power supply, it's also very small.
The Mini-DAC is functional, but it isn't pretty. Given all the tricks it is ready to perform, its front and back panels could be more cluttered, although they are a lot busier than those of most domestic DACs. The front panel has a power switch, an input selector, and a volume control. There is also a ¼-inch headphone jack, which I didn't use. There are two rows of four LEDs on the far left. The leftmost row indicates the input signal rate, so if you are inputting a traditional CD transport, it'll light up 44.1kHz. The bottom two lights on the second row indicate whether the DAC is locked to the source, and the two topmost lights indicate left and right signals when signal is being fed to the unit. A $200 option allows the Mini-DAC to accept signals from a computer's USB port, but my sample did not have the USB connector. Is anyone feeling a little dizzy? The Mini-DAC has lots of options, as you would expect from a professional product.
The back of the Mini-DAC conforms to the needs of the professional market. The analog output connectors are XLRs, which means the Mini-DAC will present a problem for listeners without XLR inputs on their amp or preamp. I tried the Mini-DAC with the outputs converted from XLR to RCA by a hardwired adaptor and from the XLR outputs to the XLR inputs on my E.A.R. 864.
I had no problems with the Mini-DAC. It functioned as well as I expected a professional unit to function. It takes the Mini-DAC a bit of time to lock onto a signal after being disconnected from the source or after powering down, but once it locked, it stayed locked. The time required was about the only problem I had with the Mini-DAC during the time I used it, and given my experience, I'd wager that the Mini-DAC will outlive the current audio conventions.
The Mini-DAC is only small in size and price. I used it for about two months with the single coaxial cable I had around the house, and preferred its timbre to that of the recently-departed Benchmark DAC1. Though the DAC1 was more transparent than the Mini-DAC, it had a leaner and (to my ears) unnaturally vibrant sound. Based on my impressions of the Mini-DAC, a friend purchased one with a USB port. That purchase ended up saving my bacon—more on why in a bit.
Using the Calrad XLR cables into my preamp and the sole coaxial cable I had on hand, the Mini-DAC's sound was of the mid-hall variety, with better-than-average sound quality. In my world, that means a fuller, richer sound. The digital data coursing its way through the Mini-DAC coalesced into a musical whole, if not an especially precise one. The Mini-DAC's performance was above its price point, but not in an audiophile way. The sound that many audiophiles prefer is, to me, like listening to music while humping the microphone with your ears. It's a vigorous experience, and I suppose it's a form of intimacy. There are things to be said for this kind of sound, but they are not things I appreciate.
Some inmates at audioasylum.com found the Mini-DAC to be tipped up on top. I found that it was more rounded, sweet, and organic than I expected, especially given its origin. Many people think studio equipment is bright, hard, and forward. My thought the Mini-DAC sounded even-keeled, with a warm timbre and a natural, un-highlighted presentation. I find a tipped-up presentation hard to accept. If the Apogee Mini-DAC sounds hot in your system, I'd look at the cabling or other parts of the system. I found nothing of the sort.
The sound of the Mini-DAC matches my experience of live music, in the mid to rear part of the hall. I found no music that was excluded from VIP treatment. The largesse of Carmina Burana, in terms of both size and the weight, was captured well. Tonal colors weren't squeezed, lightened, or brightened in crescendos, although I felt that there was more to be had in terms of the finest details. Still, the pace of the chanting/singing voices was not only obvious, but naturally conveyed.
Female vocal favorites like Mary Black's No Frontiers were liquidly portrayed, in a delightful way. No, the sound wasn't up to the level of the Ensemble dirondo/hi-DAC combination in terms of precision of line, but it was still pretty good. The Benchmark DAC1's musical lines were far more precisely drawn than the Mini-DAC's, but at the cost of the full spectrum of color.
I've recently discovered a recorded gem from a group of men and women with the unlikely name of Pepe and the Bottle Blondes. Their four-year-old first album, Late Night Betty, is a hoot. It's beautiful and real music that would qualify as an audiophile treat if it weren't for its sense of humor. (Ever notice the lack of humor in audiophiles?) My favorites from the album are "Unnamed," "Quizas, Quizas," "Boom Boom," and "Sing Sing," though truth be told, I love all but three of the twelve songs. The beauty of "Unnamed" is simply majestic, with swooping vocals and a gentle guitar that tickles its way rhythmically into the mix, then develops a gently propulsive beat that enters near the end of the 1:38-second song, making the end of the song feel like a warm and welcome kiss cut short. Part of the joy of listening to this CD with the Mini-DAC was the ease with which it allowed me to follow the vocal gymnastics. Check out Pepe et al. at www.bottleblondes.com.
Smaller pieces like Ry Cooder's Jazz got an intimate treatment, with a gentle hand and an excellent sense of a real voice on "Big Bad Bill is Sweet William Now." Tom Waits' voice on Bone Machine was rendered with an appropriately deep resonance. The pot-and-pan bashing on this record had the correct raw timbre, making the sound musical and listening an adventure. Ditto for the tabla on Cooder and V.M. Bhatt's Meeting by the River and the big drumskin being hit on the opening track of Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole's Facing Future, "Hawaii ‘78."
After the Mini-DAC went back to Apogee, I wrestled with a niggling feeling that I'd missed out on something. My friend who had purchased a Mini-DAC was going on a two-week ski trip, and offered to lend me her Mini-DAC while she was gone. Along with the return of the Mini-DAC came the arrival of the Oritek X-1 ($200/meter) and X-2 interconnects (projected $750/meter), and the ability to try something better than the $20 Calrad interconnects between preamp and DAC made a tremendous difference. The Mini-DAc had sounded a bit soft with the Calrad interconnects. With the Oriteks, vocal outlines were more clearly rendered, yet retained a natural "ring." The lower notes of Carmina Burana were now fleshed out, and allowed to expand in the room, yet they retained their appropriate warmth. The Blondes were unbottled, and were now more in the room, while retaining a greater sense of the seamless harmonizing of voices.
The very nice-sounding digital cable that I had used between the Ensemble DAC and transport had followed my friend's Mini-DAC to her home. Without that, I was left with exactly one digital coaxial cable. Since that $20 cable had competed with Ensemble's $390 Gigaflux cable, I concluded that digital cables didn't make a difference. I had to re-learn that almost everything makes a difference with audio. At that point, I took advantage of the resources of PFO editor Dave Clark. Dave loaned me a forest of coaxial cables, from among which I was able to tease out a few good choices. This let me know how much at sea I had been when listening through my cheapie digital cable. A Nordost and a Canare sounded the best, with good rendering of timbre and transient detail.
Now things were taking flight. I found myself deeply appreciating the Mini-DAC when I heard the splash of the piano on tracks 3 and 4 of the Ensemble sampler CD, Natural Sounds in Perspective. Lower down in the spectrum, the percussion on Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole's IZ World CD had an even better sense of being a stretched skin being beaten into making sound. The Mini-DAC pulled me out of the recording and into a "live" experience, with my ears on my head rather than being pasted onto a microphone.
Imaging took on clarity and spaciousness. The soundstage was very well defined, with a nearly square, rather than triangular soundstage. Treble extension became more precise and extended, without becoming hard or etched, though it was still not as good as that of the Benchmark DAC1 or other excellent contenders. Bass extension was again bettered by the Ensemble pairing, though not by the DAC1. With all of these improvements in the quality of the sound, I sensed no loss of tonality. Tonality, which is often a casualty of greater detail, is something I truly care about.
Whereas the Mini-DAC is quite good with a rudimentary digital cable, it clearly benefits from a better one. I cannot say what might have happened with the Benchmark DAC if I had had access to a better digital cable, but it too late now.
The Apogee Mini-DAC allows nearly all of the details of a live music experience to be present, in the way that I prefer to experience music in the concert hall. I am not obsessed with hearing every foot scrape. The Mini-DAC is for the listener who remains focused on how the diverse sounds coalesce rather than on the individual parts.
I'm still not sure that I have squeezed all of the performance detail out of the Mini-DAC. I'm a little annoyed that cabling makes such a big difference, but perhaps you're prepared for that. If the Mini-DAC were put into a bigger box with a thicker faceplate, it would easily warrant a $3000 price tag, although you'd have to include the cost of a good set of interconnects. I'm not sure whether this is the DAC for me, but it's in the running. I hope to borrow my friend's Mini-DAC again, as well as some fancier digital cables. I confess that I'm back in the market for a new digital source, and though I had been thinking of players in the $4000 to 5000 range, the Mini-DAC may be a keeper. Give it a listen. Larry Cox