Circular 4 - A Series of Parallel Narratives: My Take on The Mytek... A DAC
The Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC
Computer audio is an especially hot and opinionated topic at the moment. The following observations are a recounting of my experience with one of the hottest: The digital to analog audio converter known simply as "The Mytek".
The Mytek Digital Stereo192-DSD DAC offers a jack-of-all-trades feature set and outstanding sound through its incredible array of inputs and outputs. The beating heart of this DAC is the now popular ESS 32-bit Sabre chipset which provides decoding of high-resolution audio up to 32 bit/192kHz as well as native decoding of Direct Stream Digital files to DSD128. In order to play back this wide range of digital formats though its Asynchronous USB2.0 input, you need proper computer hardware and audio playback software. In my case this is an inexpensive Asus K55A laptop running J River Media Center 18. This account of my first few months with The Mytek should not to be confused with a review, so readers who are totally unfamiliar with this DAC should bop on over for a virtual visit to the Mytek Digital website: http://mytekdigital.com/hifi or find more about the DAC here at PF by doing a quick search.
And So It Begins…
I first heard the Stereo192-DSD last March at the AXPONA show in Chicago. The Mytek Digital room sounded quite amazing while using three DACs to playback DSD files in 5.1 surround sound. Mytek president Michal Jurewicz was on hand and explained to me their mission to create a high fidelity DAC with nearly every option at an entry-level price. Michal set me up with a new black "preamp" version to bring home. After placing the small, yet surprisingly hefty Mytek on my rack and hooking it up. I downloaded drivers and set up Windows 7 and J River Media Center 18 per Mytek's User Guide. Expecting great things, I turned it on and pressed Play. Nothing happened. Nada, nutin', zippo… And then my computer crashed.
The Grim Blue Reaper
Not once mind you, but multiple times my computer BS-OD'd after clicking "Play" in J River Media Center. I am not a computer expert, but I am not a complete digital moron either. I knew there was a computer issue. Over the next few evenings I tried every fix I could conjure up: I added RAM, updated drivers and motherboard chipsets and BIOS firmware, yet still the Blue Screen of Death appeared. I was dumbfounded. While playback did, at least, work after my updates, the sound was laced with high frequency hash and tonality issues. James Taylor sounded as if he was imitating Psy galloping about on Bad Karaoke night and that is not a good thing. To make matters worse, this was not a consistent malady, but rather an insidious infection starting deep within the bowels of the system and continually worsening until the sound was unlistenable. Cycling the power on the laptop would improve the sound for only a short time until the progression started over again. All roads led to the not quite year-old Asus i5 Gen 3 Intel Core based laptop's USB 3.0 port and its associated drivers. At The Moment of Greatest Disgust (the instant preceding the decision to smash the lap bastard to smithereens then ceremonially bury the remains in the backyard), I saw no way out other than a clean install and migration to Windows 8…
The Aha! Moment
As you might expect, these complications were truly unsettling. I had used this exact set up with Halide Designs, M-audio, Human Audio, and Bel Canto USB DACs without issue. What then was different? After yet another round of Blue Screens caused by Microsoft's own "Automatic Update" which un-updated my updates effectually screwing the Lap-pooch again, I took solace in one thing. I had a consistent BSOD error pointing to the IUSB3xhc.sys driver and because so, I decided to take one more shot at finding a solution before flinging the rectangular Intel Frisbee airborne. After more web searching, I found a nameless computer audio forum where others—many with Asus machines—were complaining of similar USB difficulty. There was general forum agreement that merely disabling the Intel 3.0 Extensible driver through the Windows Control Panel was ineffective and the only way to prevent the problem was by removing the USB 3.0 driver with the Uninstall Utility—losing, of course, USB 3.0 functionality. According to those who had attempted this fix, there were two possible outcomes. Either all USB ports would default to USB 2.0, or they would all cease to work. I was good with those odds. After uninstalling, I found all ports to work like a champ. I can't say whether all my previous modifications were pointless, but a Windows restart was all it took to finally hear the true Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC.
Holy Cow what a difference!
There was a clarity and tonal richness to the music that had eluded it for weeks. Aha!
[Sidebar: From my limited research, it may be that whatever sinister goblin caused this issue in Win 7 has been banished in Win 8. I will report my findings once I take that step. For now, all is working well, so making changes is not in my short term plan.]
The Disinformation Highway
There is an improbable amount of info about this DAC on the various audio forums, much from knowledgeable end-users. There is a Mytek thread on Computer Audiophile's website so exhaustive and technically detailed that CA started a beginner's thread just for me! After reading the contrasting commentary of PF contributors Andy Schaub and Andre Marc in Issue 66; I realized just how polarizing the Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC has become: Read ten articles or forum posts and you'll get ten different opinions on its relative goodness. Being a pragmatist wrapped in an idealists clothing, I like to toss the most negative opinion: This thing sucks. It is the cause of global warming! As well as the most positive view: The Mytek is the greatest audio invention ever. It will solve global warming! Instead, I try to focus on the 80 percent who choose to love (or hate) the Mytek DAC for what I've found it to be; a high value audio component with tons of flexibility, excellent sound, and a few speculative warts depending on the direction of your viewpoint.
The Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC was designed by an engineering team deeply rooted in the professional sound world. What may be intuitive functional design to a sound pro took a bit of getting used to for me. The display is a bit difficult to read (the manual helps) and the multifunction turn/push controls are powerful, but somewhat confusing. I still press the wrong button now and then, but I'm getting the hang of it. As did Andre Marc, I too purchased the $19 Apple remote. It works marvelously well, but I learned quickly to be cautious when using any of the volume options without first stopping playback!
YOU'VE BEEN WARNED... LOUDLY!
The USBpal driver control panel is a bit of a mystery to me too; it is perhaps so simple that it is difficult. I don't think I was supposed to mess with it… Crap… Too late! I uninstalled and reloaded it several times. Now I don't touch it and it seems to work... Go figure. Lastly, and most importantly, the higher than "normal" single-ended output voltage of the Mytek has been a well-documented difficulty for some and even for me until I got it set correctly for my system. I've tried this DAC with J River's Internal Volume control enabled and disabled. The DAC's volume control options in Digital, Analog and Bypass; the Volume Trim enabled and disabled; and every conceivable combination in-between. I use the single-ended RCA outputs and the higher output voltage is a bit hot, so per the manual, I set the internal jumpers to lower the overall gain by 6dB and ultimately set the Volume Trim to -14 dB—the lowest gain achievable without resorting to external methods or modifications. Without these settings, I can easily drive my tube amp into clipping, but set up properly, everything works fine and the latest firmware update fixed the front panel meters so they operate correctly too.
I have been using the Mytek primarily as a USB DAC to play a mix of FLAC files in many different resolutions and bit depths via the ASIO driver as well as the odd DSD download via native DSD bitstreaming. I do use the unit's built-in digital and analog volume controls occasionally—both work and sound very good—but with my current system I don't use the analog preamp or headphone amp all that often. Those options will be used more once I get my revamped system completed. I have found I enjoy the DAC most when its volume is in Bypass mode and I am controlling it with my long-time reference Audiotropic Moebius preamp or Slagle Autoformer Volume Control. While I do enjoy the directness of the AVC, the Moebius and the Mytek have formed a symbiotic relationship of the best kind.
There are so many myths surrounding The Mytek that I have taken it upon myself to address a few. As always, these comments reflect my experience with the DAC in my system. Your mileage may vary:
Myth? The Mytek does not sound good with 44.1 PCM Files.
I don't get this one. Okay, I'll give you that it may look out a different window than say, the Bel Canto 2.5, but doesn't sound good? Balderdash! It does take a certain amount of set up to get the best out of it and you may not like the view, but it plays PCM just fine, thank you. In fact, I've enjoyed all my old classic rock recordings as much with this DAC as any I've had in house. It is perhaps a little less smooth than I'd like at very top, but detail, dynamics and resolution are all outstanding. System matching is certainly a key, but then again, isn't that true with all components and systems?
Myth? The Mytek is good at bass, but its stage is flat and two-dimensional.
Especially green out of the box, the Mytek does sound less airy and three dimensional than the best digital playback I've heard; but it has an exhilarating and dynamic presentation on well recorded music. Depth is very good and there are solid images between the speakers. As the unit burned in and I gained insight into its sound, I began to notice more air around the notes and staging beyond the boundaries of the speakers. My version of the truth: The Mytek may put less emphasis on spatial audio imagery than other DACs I've heard, but does stage and image very well and can be quite dimensional with the right gear and recordings. And yes, the bass is really, really good!
Myth? The Mytek is a truthful, neutral DAC.
Yes, I believe the Mytek is a fundamentally honest DAC. I can easily discern the differences between almost every recording. I now fully understand why some prefer to hear the whole and nothing but the truth. To paraphrase Lynn Olsen, why do you want digital to sound like analog? (Well okay, so maybe I do in some ways.) So is the Mytek honest to a fault? No, I believe it is relatively balanced in its honesty. It is musical, not brutal, and I like that... A lot.
Myth? DSD is not worth the trouble.
I do not yet know if DSD is worth the trouble, but I certainly hope it ends up being so. I only own a small basketful of titles and they are all still in SACD format. Once I get them ripped I will let you know if they sound incredible. From my limited exposure to DSD with my old Sony SCD-777, I think it positively can, and perhaps even should, sound incredible. The few DSD downloads I own do sound fantastic through the Mytek. Perhaps DSD capable DACS will be the catalyst for Direct Stream Digital to finally show its true promise to the mainstream. Obviously I am rooting for DSD downloads to take off, but it will likely be a slow slog. Heck, we are just now seeing a reasonable catalog of hi-rez PCM. That is a very good thing because—unlike my old Sony—the Mytek plays high resolution PCM very well, thank you. Come on DSD!
Conclusion to Date
6-15-13: I am now running the latest published beta Firmware and the newest USB 2.0 driver. Internet buzz body-slams indicate some have had difficulty installing these software updates. I had no such issues; all updated without drama and came back online as they should. As an added bonus to the hardware operational tweaks, the damn thing sounds better too. More relaxed, clearer, a tad bit more slam, better low volume listening and a noticeable improvement in rhythmic timing—that old toe-tappingly mysterious quality called "PRAT".
Late to the table in this storybook, is the addition of a pair of Channel Islands Audio D100-B monoblock amps to the system mix. I can now attest that the Mytek does play well with amps other than those of a tube variety. There is no additional stridency or grain, only a wonderful clarity that says as much about the CIA amps as it does about the DAC. The Mytek is a very capable PCM DAC and sounds quite spectacular on the (very) few dsd downloads I have acquired. There are certainly better DACs than the Stereo192-DSD, but it is just as certain that there are very few as fully-featured and finer sounding for the money as "The Mytek".
We all know how the digital revolution works. There will be a slew of new products coming out each quarter of the year until the next rev-evolutionary design turns the audio world upside down. Undoubtedly, one or more of these designs will "one up" this DAC in one way or another, yet I do not believe the Mytek is in any way, a flavor of the day. It is a solid piece of audio engineering that should serve its owners well for a very long time. That would include me.
The Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC is a complete departure from every other DAC or CD player I have had in house. What little it gives up in airiness and three-dimensionality it makes up for with bass extension, excellent resolution and dynamic wallop. In my system, it does seem to like a little fire in the belly to sound its best. There is an unapologetic honesty to the music and yes, a bit less of the spatial trickery that I have stated in print turns my crank, yet this little DAC does have panache of its own. As PF editor, Dave Clark, put it in an email to me some time ago, "… it's a whole lot of fun." That's an undisputed fact in my book.
Mytek Digital Stereo192-DSD DAC