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Positive Feedback ISSUE41
LavryBlack DA 10 DAC
as reviewed by Jeff Day
The Computer Age
Ye Olde Positive Feedback Editor, Dave Clark and myself, have been investigating the use of computers as digital data-stream sources for the DACs in our Hi-Fi rigs for a while now. I have been impressed enough with the performance of my Apple iMac loaded with all of my CD collection that I have forsaken the use of a CD player or transport altogether. It has been a pleasurable revelation to be able to have my entire digital music library located in one place, and to use iTunes to automatically organize it by album, artist, song title, genre, composer, or whatever. I like being able to browse through my collection in any way I want, organize it into playlists of my favorite music, or to even just play through my collection randomly, with each new song being a nice surprise.
As part of our computer audio investigation Dave and I have also been surveying DACs specifically designed to interface with a computer. I have been enjoying my Mhdt Labs Paradisea+ vacuum tube USB DAC, and I was particularly impressed with the latest version of the Wavelength Cosecant USB DAC v3 that my friend Stephaen brought over for a listening session (the version with ASYNC mode, with 6GM8/ECC86 tube transformer output, the Transcendental 16/44.1 DAC module, and the new power supply—the versions with the older power supply or the 24/96 DAC module didn't do much for me).
A Black DAC for My iMac
The next DAC in my computer audio review queue was the LavryBlack DA 10. Lavry Engineering of Poulsbo, Washington, located on the other side of the State from me, is primarily known for their high-performance analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters (ADCs and DACs), microphone preamps, and sample rate converters designed for the pro audio community, where they are held in high regard.
Lavry has also been making a name for itself in the audiophile market segment with their upscale DA2002 DAC, which, for example John Atkinson reviewed very favorably in Stereophile magazine back in August of 2004. The Lavry DA2002's $8500 price tag puts it out of reach of most audiophiles, however, and as a more real-world alternative Lavry Engineering introduced the Lavry 'Black' DA 10 DAC priced at a much more wallet friendly $975 US.
The Black is designed to be a cost-effective 'dual-market' product that appeals to both the pro audio community as well as audiophiles. The DA 10 is designed to accept data streams from a computer, a conventional CD player/transport, or anything that produces an AES or SPDIF digital data stream, via the XLR, RCA, or Toslink inputs on its back panel. Also on the Black's back panel are two adjustable balanced XLR outputs (there are no RCA outputs) and an industry standard C14 chassis socket for a removable power cord (included).
On the front panel of the Black—left to right—is a power switch, a headphone jack, a set of indicator lights for data streams of 44.1, 48.0, 88.2, or 96.0 kHz, an indicator that lights when the DAC locks on the input signal, a switch to select the appropriate input, a phase lock loop selector (PLL) switch to select between three clock modes, a polarity inversion switch, a mono-stereo switch, a volume indicator, and a volume control switch.
A number of the Black's features are oriented more towards the pro-audio world than audiophiles. On Lavry's web site it says the Black "…includes a polarity switch, and a Stereo-Mono switch, a feature aimed at mastering studios." Another feature that is useful to the pro-audio crowd is the Black's ability to accept any non-standard data rates between 30kHz and 200kHz via a built in sample rate converter that is engaged when the PLL switch is set to 'wide' mode. For rates of 44.1, 48.0, 88.2, or 96.0 kHz the 'crystal' and 'narrow' modes are recommended by Lavry, the choice being which one you feel offers the best performance in your system. In my system I found the 'narrow' mode to be preferable to the 'crystal' mode as the latter periodically lost lock during normal power line switching and was particularly sensitive to static. Also useful to the pro-crowd are the XLR outputs that can be configured via internal jumpers as being either balanced or unbalanced connections. The output levels of the XLRs are adjustable via a front panel toggle switch that uses "potentiometer-free digitally controlled analog volume circuitry", and which also serves as a volume control for dedicated headphone listening.
The fit, finish, and build of the LavryBlack is nicely done and of high quality, if rather mundane in keeping with its pro-style appearance. It is unashamedly a Black box that favors performance over appearance, something that is entirely appropriate for its price point and intended market focus (i.e. a pro-audio product that crosses over into the audiophile market).
As I mentioned, I use an Apple iMac that I have loaded up with all of my CD collection, and connect it via a Lotus Design Group Polestar USB cable to a vacuum tube Mhdt Labs Paradisea+ USB DAC. I am reviewing the LavryBlack only in the context of being used in conjunction with a computer as a digital source, which the Lavry website indicates is the primary focus for its use. For an evaluation of its performance in conjunction with conventional transports or CD players (or with headphones) you'll have to look elsewhere—that's not my beat.
On its website Lavry says, "The optical input of the DA 10 can be connected directly to most current model Macintosh computers, including PowerBook laptops, and requires no addition (sic) interface. The requirement for this connection is that the computer must have a Digital Audio Output. This is in the form of a 3.5mm "combo jack" that outputs either a "wired" analog signal or an optical digital signal. The connection can be made using either a "Toslink to 3.5mm mini plug" interconnect or a "Toslink to Toslink" interconnect with a "Toslink to 3.5mm adapter" on the end that plugs into the computer."
I don't have a connector terminated with 3.5mm mini-plug on one end, and given that the Black has no USB input, I instead connected the Locus Design Group Polestar USB cable from my iMac to a "HagUsb" USB-to-S/PDIF converter, which I then connected to the LavryBlack with a SilverFi digital cable. I have found that the choice of a USB cable can have a dramatic effect on DAC performance, and both my Mhdt Labs Paradisea+ and the LavryBlack benefited greatly from the Locus Design Group Polestar USB cable. A standard issue USB cable will not even come close to the level of performance these DACs can achieve with the Polestar USB cable providing the data stream.
A couple of minor gripes: It would be nice if Lavry would include a USB input for those who prefer to use that interface. Also, it would be nice if Lavry included RCA outputs for those who prefer to use that interface. I used Cardas XLR-to-RCA adapters with the Lavry so I could to connect it to my RCA terminated Audio Tekne interconnect cables that are plugged into my Leben RS28CX preamplifier's RCA inputs.
Caution: I advise caution when determining the optimum output level of the Black for use in your system, as it is capable of prodigious output and can easily overpower the input stage of an amplifier, causing it to distort in rather dramatic fashion, as it did with my Leben CS300X Limited Edition integrated amplifier. I recommend that you set the volume control of your preamp to the position that you normally listen at, and then with the Black's volume set very low, increase its output to match your normal listening level for the preamp's volume setting. That will keep you from experiencing an unpleasant surprise. The Black's volume control also determines the level of the headphone output; so do exercise caution during your first headphone listening sessions so you don't blast your ears to kingdom come. You've been warned.
After installing the LavryBlack into my primary review system of iMac, Leben RS28CX vacuum tube preamplifier, Leben CS660P KT66 vacuum tube power amplifier, and Harbeth Super HL5 loudspeakers, I sat down for a little listening session. I was very disappointed with the sound quality and music playing ability of the Black out of the box; it was the epitome of my definition of bad digital playback: dry, edgy, sterile sounding, and musically uninteresting. I took the LavryBlack out of my primary system and placed it in my bedroom system for a couple of months of extended burn-in (and it needed every bit of it) and then returned it to my primary system for another listen. The extended burn-in of the Lavry worked miracles with it now sounding quite respectable both sonically and musically; so don't panic if your Black doesn't sound as good as you'd hoped for on first listen—give it time to develop its full potential.
To get a feel of where a Hi-Fi component falls on the spectrum of 'music-friendliness' I like to set iTunes to 'Party Shuffle' and just let it play randomly through selections of good music of widely varying—good to bad—recording quality. Pretty much any high-quality DAC can make a good recording like Led Kaapana and Bob Brozman's Moana Chimes (from the Kika Kila Meets Ki Ho'alu album) sound acceptably musical during the shuffle test, but some of those same DACs fail the music-friendliness test by making poor recordings (like many of those from the Anthology of American Folk Music) sound hard, bright, and edgy, and generally unenjoyable from a musical standpoint as they are shuffled through. A product that overtly draws my attention to the flaws or non-musical artifacts in recordings tends to limit my music listening experience to better-recorded albums, rendering the treasure trove of good music in my collection that is poorly recorded unfit for pleasurable listening, an unforgivable Hi-Fi sin in my opinion.
The good news is that the LavryBlack does well on this music-friendliness test by presenting a good recording like Kika Kila Meets Ki Ho'alu as the rapturous experience it can be, but even more importantly, less well-recorded music like the Anthology of American Folk Music is still an enjoyable music experience. The Black does this by being a touch warm, dark, and smooth, and thus softening up the crispies, edgies, and nasties of poor recordings to making them easier on the ear. The LavryBlack couples that kindness with portraying the time elements of recorded music (e.g. harmony, rhythm, melody, tempo, and dynamics) in as realistic and engaging fashion as you're likely to find, and one that kept my foot tapping to the flow and feel of the music.
Compared to the Mhdt Labs Paradisea+ or the Wavelength Cosecant (with the 16/44.1 DAC module) USB DACs for example, the Lavry is somewhat less satisfying at portraying the pitch (overtones, harmonics, and notes) and timbral elements of recorded music as richly, colorfully, or naturally. This makes the Black just a bit dry and synthetic sounding in comparison to those two USB DACs, but not to a pejorative extent—it's still a good sounding DAC. I suspect that the touch of synthetic quality in the Lavry's presentation is more a function of the particular DAC chips used, as a substitution of a 24/96 DAC module into the Wavelength Cosecant in place of its 16/44.1 DAC module lends a similar mildly-synthetic character to it as well.
I found the Black's portrayal of the rhythm, the beat or pulse of the music, to be quite exceptional. I really got the feel of the elements that make rhythm come alive: the strength of the beat, the speed of the beats, rubato (a slowing or speeding up of the beat), the grouping of beats, and beat emphasis. The Lavry could turn you into a real beat-nik with its ability to make musical sense of rhythmic elements. Music like Django Reinhardt's from The Best of Django Reinhardt album is full of amazing musicianship and lots of rhythmic textures that come alive through the Lavry to give a tremendous music listening experience. While the music on The Best of Django Reinhardt album is superb, the recording is sub-par, and many DACs can't get the music across in enjoyable fashion because of that. Not so with the Lavry, it makes the music completely accessible and enjoyable, and the only thing I'm thinking about as I listen to this album is what amazing musicians Django and his buddies are!
One aspect of the Lavry that late-night listeners will find particularly endearing is that the DA 10 can perform its musical-magic even at soft listening levels, so you can get the full musical experience late into the night without disturbing the family or neighbors. In fact the Lavry's overall voicing reminds me of the BBC inspired balance of Harbeth loudspeakers; they are designed to sound natural at low-to-medium volume levels and to produce a fatigue-free listening experience even after a long day in the studio. The Lavry also excels at sounding natural at low-to-medium volume levels. This ability allowed me to noticeably relax and feel refreshed even after long listening sessions.
It's hard to fault the Lavry's presentation of harmony, rhythm, melody, tempo, and dynamics, which along with timbre are the life-blood of the musical content of recordings. Album after album came across as very life-like musically, never failing to pull me into the music, never failing to provide an engaging listening session. From a musical perspective it's hard to fault the Lavry, and it's obviously designed by someone who's spent a lot of time in a studio setting and really knows what's important from a musical perspective – it gets the music right.
From the audiophile 'sonic' perspective of adeptness at reproducing recording artifacts like soundstage, imaging, soundspace, transparency, and detail recovery, the Black is a very good performer in that it does not exaggerate any of those attributes to an extent that diminishes the musical content of a recording. To maintain musicality a DAC requires a careful balance of its portrayal of the sonic artifacts of recordings to the recording's musical content of harmony, rhythm, melody, tempo, dynamics, timbre, and the pitch elements of overtones, harmonics, and notes. If the recording artifacts are emphasized too much it pops the bubble of perception of the musical elements that says 'This is music!' by making it obviously artificial sounding. A good example of this is perspective, a term we reviewers use to describe how near to the musicians it feels like we are seated as we listen, and is an artifact largely due to the proximity of the microphone placement while recording. In life you hear a different amount of detail and nuance from musicians and musical instruments depending on how far away you are sitting. If the portrayal of recorded music has a level of detail commensurate with what you would hear live when seated at a given distance it is said to sound natural. If the level of detail you hear from a DAC from a given distance is noticeably more or less than you would hear in a live performance it lends an unnatural feel to the reproduced music, diminishing that sense of live music-making in your listening room. The good news is that the LavryBlack does extremely well at presenting a natural perspective, making for a more enjoyable and convincing music listening experience.
The Lavry's transparency is not quite as good as the Paradisea+ or Cosecant USB DACs, perhaps because the latter do not employ digital filters in their design. The Phineas Newborn Jr. album Harlem Blues is a heck of a good jazz album, and one I find myself listening to quite often when I want to get in a little jazz listening. On Harlem Blues the Black diminishes the sense of being able to clearly hear into the deepest recesses of the soundstage, and gives a diminished sense of the separation of layers of instruments and voices in the soundstage. The soundstage also isn't quite as wide or deep with the Lavry in comparison to the Paradisea+ or Cosecant USB DACs, which both excel in that sonic attribute to a greater degree. Even while listening for sonic artifacts for the review, I couldn't help but be pulled into the music time and time again by Black. So even though you don't hear the sense of depth and separation with the Lavry that you do with the Paradisea+ or Cosecant USB DACs, neither do you in live music; which probably means the Lavry is more realistic in the way it portrays music in this regard than they are.
Likewise, the Black's imaging is nothing to write home about, with the images on the Fleetwood Mac's Rumours album having a rather homogenous overall presentation. No sharp outlines on the images, little sense of a visceral body or instrument in three-dimensions, and certainly none of the glowing sense of shimmering space around images that the vacuum tube DACs seem to so easily deliver. Speaking of space, the sense of soundspace is also diminished with the Black, such that the dominant sense of soundspace while listening is that of the listening room rather than the recording.
The Sound of Music
While describing the performance of the LavryBlack on the recording artifacts of soundstage, imaging, soundspace and the like, it may seem like I'm hitting it pretty hard across the chops. Yet in spite of all that, the Black is unfailingly one of the most musically engaging DACs I have come across, and I wouldn't hesitate an instant to grant it a permanent position in my system if I were in DAC shopping mode. It always unfailingly pulled me into a state of musical enjoyment, and I always got what the musicians were trying to get across. No, the Black doesn't have hyped up sonics in the audiophile sense, but it does have honest and decent performing sonics that will make it wear easy on your musical sensibilities over the years. The Black always does have its finger on the pulse of the sound of music, and I'd rather have that balance if I had to choose between one or the other.
Summary and Conclusions
The $975 LavryBlack DAC is an eminently enjoyable product that always brings the best out of recordings in terms of the music. The Lavry is exceptional in the way it presents the time elements of recorded music like harmony, rhythm, melody, tempo, and dynamics, and does so in as realistic and engaging fashion as you're likely to find. The Black's time prowess coupled with its tolerance for poorer recordings, is the key to its eminently musically engaging performance, and is sure to make it a hit with the music lovers among us who want the music delivered in spades regardless of the recording quality.
The LavryBlack is somewhat less satisfying at portraying the pitch (overtones, harmonics, and notes) and timbral elements of recorded music as richly, colorfully, liquidly, or naturally as the either the Paradisea+ or Cosecant USB DACs. However, if you don't have a Paradisea+ or Cosecant around for comparison, I doubt you'll even notice. I think I am perfectly happy with its timbral performance, because even though my head notices the difference by way of comparison, my heart doesn't. While I'm listening to the music with the LavryBlack I'm too into its musical charms for that difference to matter.
The Black isn't the sharpest arrow in the quiver when it comes to audiophile sonics, but it's not a dunce sitting in the corner either. In fact the Black's voicing is uncanny in the way that its sonics complement the music, it does not exaggerate any of the sonic attributes to an extent that diminishes the musical content of a recording. If the Black errs—and everything errs—it is always in the direction of serving the music, and I can't fault that approach to voicing a DAC at all, in fact I applaud it.
If you decide to buy a LavryBlack I suggest you talk to the guys over at Lotus Design Group, and see if they'll build you the sonic equivalent to the Polestar USB cable in a mini-plug format that you can run directly into the Black—it's well worth the effort if you want to hear the Black at its best. Or better yet, maybe Lavry will add a USB input to the Black in the future (and RCA outs would be nice too).
The LavryBlack is an incredibly flexible and sensible product designed to appeal to both the pro-audio community and audiophiles, and as such it is not an easy product to pigeonhole. The Black's musical competence is so great, and it is so forgiving of poorer recordings, that I give it my highest recommendation for anyone who loves to listen to music hour after hour, across a wide variety of music of various recording quality, and wants to walk away from the experience refreshed and edified. Jeff Day
Thanks for reviewing the DA10. We do understand that you are reviewing DA converters from a specific perspective, but also feel that it is important to provide accurate information in the process. It is good to know that your findings are (generally) in keeping with the overwhelmingly positive response we have received from our DA10 customers; HiFi enthusiasts and professional users alike.
Please find our response below. Rather than going through the entire article on a point-by-point basis, I provided copies of the text from the original article where there was specific information or points that were addressed in the response and simply referred to the topic in other cases.
There are a number of points that Lavry Engineering, Inc. would like to respond to in your review.
From the review:
"A number of the Black's features are oriented more towards the pro-audio world than audiophiles. On Lavry's web site it says the Black "…includes a polarity switch, and a Stereo-Mono switch, a feature aimed at mastering studios." Another feature that is useful to the pro-audio crowd is the Black's ability to accept any non-standard data rates between 30kHz and 200kHz via a built in sample rate converter that is engaged when the PLL switch is set to 'wide' mode. For rates of 44.1, 48.0, 88.2, or 96.0 kHz the 'crystal' and 'narrow' modes are recommended by Lavry, the choice being which one you feel offers the best performance in your system. In my system I found the 'narrow' mode to be preferable to the 'crystal' mode as the latter periodically lost lock during normal power line switching and was particularly sensitive to static. Also useful to the pro-crowd are the XLR outputs that can be configured via internal jumpers as being either balanced or unbalanced connections. The output levels of the XLRs are adjustable via a front panel toggle switch that uses "potentiometer-free digitally controlled analog volume circuitry", and which also serves as a volume control for dedicated headphone listening."
Lavry Engineering response:
Although it is true that some features are more oriented towards professional applications, the Polarity switch is not one of them. In an effort to avoid being "long-winded," the phrasing used in "…includes a polarity switch, and a Stereo-Mono switch, a feature aimed at mastering studios" was a bit ambiguous. The reason it says "feature" instead of "features" was because the Stereo-Mono switch was a feature that professional customers had requested.
Considering the extent to which the reviewer goes to describe subtleties in reproduced music, it was interesting that this feature was not seen as an important one for anyone serious about listening to recorded music. There are a surprising number of recordings made with the polarity inverted, and there are not many solutions to this problem that are as easy to use and sonically transparent as the switch on the DA10. The effects of incorrect polarity can range from inaudible to dramatic, depending on many factors including the listening environment, the presence of transient sounds or transients in the sounds, and the quality of other parts of the system.
The built-in sample-rate conversion offers versatility for more than the professional user, because it is also more tolerant to lower quality digital audio playback sources. The Crystal and Narrow modes have a "tighter" tolerance for the quality of the signal they can "lock" to in order to achieve more accuracy in reproduction. Crystal mode does provide the best jitter rejection and the problem mentioned with sensitivity to static and power line disturbances is not typical of the DA10. It is possible that there were issues with the test system's grounding that could have caused this problem. We have not received any reports of a problem of this nature with a DA10 that is functioning normally in a system that is properly grounded.
The ability to configure the XLR outputs for balanced or unbalanced operation is also statistically going to be of more use to the non-professional user. Dan Lavry chose to use a circuit that does not automatically adjust to being connected to an unbalanced input because it would degrade the quality of the DA conversion. These circuits, although convenient, have higher distortion than the "cleaner" design employed in the DA10. When using simple, commonly available XLR to RCA adapters to connect the DA10 to equipment with RCA inputs, the outputs must be set for unbalanced operation to avoid unnecessary distortion. This type of connection is more typical of HiFi applications than professional use.
Regarding subjects mentioned in other parts of the review:
Lavry Engineering is going to release a product that includes a USB interface in the near future.
DA10 users can use any number of relatively inexpensive USB to optical digital interfaces that are available.
Lavry Engineering also can't support your recommendation on the need for an extended "burn-in" for the DA10. It sounds better than most other DAC's right out of the box, and probably achieves most of the final quality in the reproduced music within a few days of use.
In the section of the review titled "The Music," it says:
"To get a feel of where a Hi-Fi component falls on the spectrum of 'music-friendliness' I like set iTunes to 'Party Shuffle' and just let it play randomly through selections of good music of widely varying—good to bad—recording quality. Pretty much any high-quality DAC can make a good recording like Led Kaapana and Bob Brozman's Moana Chimes (from the Kika Kila Meets Ki Ho'alu album) sound acceptably musical during the shuffle test, but some of those same DACs fail the music-friendliness test by making poor recordings (like many of those from the Anthology of American Folk Music) sound hard, bright, and edgy, and generally unenjoyable from a musical standpoint as they are shuffled through…"
These are some important points made; but this is where Dan Lavry's philosophy of accuracy, and use of a term in this review in a more subjective sense "transparency," differs from the reviewer's perspective. The quality of recordings does vary widely, but any equipment that makes the audio passing through it sound different than it did before it passed through that equipment is "coloring" it or making it "less accurate." While it is true that some coloration can be pleasing, ultimately a completely colorless DA converter will make everything sound "better" because it will simply be reproducing what was on the recording. Any color will take away some of the original information and add something that was not part of the original information, so it will not always "improve" the sound in every case. Although accurately reproducing something that is already distorted will not make it sound worse, distorting something that is already distorted almost always makes it sound worse. The exception would be if the device in question has such high levels of distortion that it covers the "sound" of the original recording, making every recording sound similar as a result.
The real test is one that the vast majority of music aficionados do not have easy access to comparing the reproduced audio to the source (before it is recorded). Many of our professional customers do, and many own DA10's. In their opinion, the DA10 (as well as other Lavry DA converters) are some of the only DA converters available that do not color the sound significantly.
So when the reviewer says:
"Likewise, the Black's imaging is nothing to write home about, with the images on the Fleetwood Mac's Rumours album having a rather homogenous overall presentation. No sharp outlines on the images, little sense of a visceral body or instrument in three-dimensions, and certainly none of the glowing sense of shimmering space around images that the vacuum tube DACs seem to so easily deliver. Speaking of space, the sense of soundspace is also diminished with the Black, such that the dominant sense of soundspace while listening is that of the listening room rather than the recording."
One has to wonder what basis there is for these conclusions regarding the "images." Did the reviewer have the opportunity to listen to the analog output of the mixing console when this album was mixed? It seems more likely from our perspective that the review has a bias towards the way he likes things to sound and thus will call something that does not have that sound "less accurate."
While it is true that many people prefer tube amplifiers or certain speakers, they all have a "sound." Dan Lavry feels it is best to leave the (pleasing) coloration to these components and to make the converters as accurate as possible so they do not have a "sound" of their own. That is Dan Lavry's idea of "transparency." Tube and speaker distortions tend to be more "harmonic" in nature, whereas "digital distortion" tends to be anything but "musical." Thus there is some scientific basis for this approach, as well.
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this review on you website.
Lavry Engineering, Inc. Technical Support