The Orb Jade 2 and the CEntrance DACmini DAC and
Headphone Amps: Two Classic Computer DAC's for the Home or Workplace
Nights in white satin, never reaching the end,
–The Moody Blues
So what make the Orb Jade 2 DAC and headphone amp so wonderful? Well, just about everything. What makes it so annoying? Well, the fact that it doesn't support the 88.2KHz sampling frequency, mainly; however, its direct USB input sounds so good that I don't really care. I was glad to invest $79.00 in an application called Sample Manager that let me downsample "Kalerka" from Rebecca Pidgeon's The Raven from 24/176.4 to 24/96. I also upsampled all of Elvis Costello's North from 24/88.2 to 24/96 and played the entire album on my main system with my reference Sonicweld Diverter/Rega DAC combination (yes, that's right, I said the Rega DAC has become my reference; it just sounds more like music). Now let me explain that the Rega DAC sits in good company, specifically the Locus Design Cynosure USB cable, Core S/PDIF cable, Keynote power cable (anchored to my Quadraspire stand by a block of African Black Wood) and the amazing Parable analog interconnects which at $5450.00 for a three foot pair remain ridiculously overpriced for the Rega DAC, and yet it works.
I put the Orb Jade 2 into my main system using a Keynote power cable of its own and my standard test cables, the Kondo Sound Labs KSL-LP because they are so pure and neutral. I connected the Cynosure USB cable to the Jade 2 and queued up several high-resolution downloads and ECM CD's I had imported, putting iTunes in "repeat" mode and running everything through Amarra 2.1.1. Over time, I would say 24-48 hours, I noticed a warmth and depth developing that I have not heard from most USB-based DACs; and whether I used my Sennheiser HD650's with Moon Audio's Silver Dragon cabling or actually played the DAC through my mostly Audio Note system, I found a musicality developing that I don't normally hear in DACs costing less than $2000, or in USB-based DACs at all. (The Jade 2 retails for $1799.) It's odd to me that most people I know think of this first as a decent headphone amplifier which happens to have a DAC built in; whereas, it remains one of the best USB-based DACs I have heard at any price.
Another option, despite the very high quality it offers, is to use an external USB-to-S/PDIF converter and use the S/PDIF input on the Jade 2; I tried two, the KingRex UC192 with its external power supply (i. e., a real power supply, not the unattractive "walwart" that accompanies it by default) and the Audiophilleo1 which despite earlier comments to the contrary, sounds better than the KingRex I think. Once you add the Audiophilleo1 into the mix, the total cost gets close to that of the Ayre QB-9; however, the combination of the Audiophilleo1 and the Orb Jade remains really quite musical and perhaps a bit less gossamer-like than the QB-9. I think the strength of the Jade 2 really remains in its ability to serve as the classic "computer DAC". You can plug into via something like a Locus Polestar into your 27" Quad Core iMac (or your Mac Mini/Mac Book Pro). Then, pull out a good pair of headphones like the Sennheiser HD650's (I experimented with both the Moon Audio Blue and Silver Dragon versions, ultimately preferring the uber warm and lush sound I got from the Blue Dragon cables) and just play music. If you ignore the lack of support for 24/88.2 and > 24/96 USB signals, the Orb Jade 2's direct USB input sounds much better than my dCS Debussy, or a least much warmer and richer if you like that kind of sound.
So what do you do if even $1799 is too much? I have an answer. Consider the CEntrance DACmini, designed to simulate the look and feel of the Mac Mini. In my case, I connected it to my 27" Quad Core iMac via a Locus Design Polestar USB cable, and, running it through iTunes and Amarra 2.1.1, this little puppy sounded really good particularly when you use the built in headphone amplifier and, say, a pair of Sennheiser HD650's with the Moon Audio Blue Dragon headphone cable. Like the Orb Jade 2, it only goes up to 24/96 via USB, but it does support the 88.2kHz sampling frequency. Playing Bach's Mass in B minor by the Dunedin Consort, which I downloaded, from the B&W Society of Sound, I was impressed by the depth and breadth of the sound. There's not a trace of grain of digital grunge and while it doesn't quite have the resolution of the Ayre QB-9 with the Locus Design Axis USB cable, Audience powerChord "e" and Audio Note AN-V interconnects going through my Tri KT88-based integrated amp into the Woo 22 headphone amp, it does sound extremely musical and for $995 that is quite an accomplishment. It also supports S/PDIF input up to 24/192, and although I didn't test it in that mode, because it impressed me as being designed for desktop listening, I could see myself building a work music system around this DAC/headphone amp combination with a Mac Mini, inexpensive monitor, keyboard and mouse. Listening to The Astounding Eyes Of Rita by Anouar Brahem ripped from the ECM CD, I was moved by an almost analog-like quality I got from the DACmini; in fact, I found myself enjoying it so much that I paused to finish the entire CD, even though I had quite a bit to do that day.
To explain an earlier comment, in the process of testing my Rega DAC, I needed more than one USB to S/PDIF converter capable of 24/192kHz resolution; unfortunately, I only had one, the KingRex UC192. With its outboard power supply it sounds very good, but is known to have had some problems at 24/176.4. So I ordered an Audiophilleo1, which arrived quite quickly, and discovered that it mated very nicely with the Orb Jade 2 in my main system as a reference-quality digital music playback system. For that reason, I can recommend the Jade 2 for applications where a warmer sounding DAC is preferred, even if you bypass its excellent direct USB in and use the Audiophilleo1 (as one example) to convert the USB signal to a S/PDIF signal. In fact, although I found the sound of the Rega DAC to be more open, problems with my particular unit at the 24/176.4 sampling frequency led me to conclude that the Orb Jade 2 might be the perfect overall computer DAC used either on its own with lower resolution material (or 24/96), or conjunction with something like the Audiophilleo1 to support all sampling frequencies up to and including 24/192. In the Tone Audio review of the Rega DAC, Jeff Dorgay writes, "Where the Benchmark and Ayre DACs tend to be slightly on the analytical side of neutral and the Neko Audio DAC […] is slightly on the romantic side of neutral, the Rega is very close to dead center." I would agree with that and say that the Orb Jade does sound slightly warm and sunny; but I'm okay with that, far better that than an overly analytical sound (although I am extremely fond of my Ayre QB-9). So I would have no problem making it my reference DAC if it came down to it. How's that for $1799? As far as the CEntrance DACmini goes, again I see that as primarily a desktop DAC. When I put on my Blue Dragon HD650's, swallowed a wee dram of a 1993 Lagavulin Distiller's Edition single malt whisky, and leaned my chair back, I felt all warm and mellow; and I didn't have that much whisky. So either way it's difficult to go wrong.
–The Moody Blues
Orb Audio Jade 2
Orb Audio Jade 2
Orb Audio Jade 2