DACs

Wyred4Sound DAC-2 AND STI-500 Integrated Stereo Amplifier

ARTICLE INDEX

In Use

My review unit of the DAC-2 was delivered to my office, so I decided that the best way to being my testing then was with the USB input from my computer. Once connected I was prompted to install a device driver to support the 24-bit/192 kHz sample rates over USB, and then I connected the DAC-2 with RCA cables to my NuForce HDP headphone amplifier, which was driving my AKG K701 headphones.

I went straight to the track that initially showed me the strength of the NuForce, "Teardrop" from Massive Attack's Mezzanine album. I quickly heard more of a difference from the HDP's DAC than I had expected to. The DAC-2 had a quieter background, and more distinct bass than the HDP had presented. The strong bass notes during the song had far more weight and authority to them through the DAC-2 than the HDP, letting me know that the HDP wasn't letting me down as an amplifier but the DAC-2 was getting that extra bit of detail out of the music.

One of the main benefits of the DAC-2 is the ability to play high resolution music from companies like HD Tracks, 2L, and Reference Recordings. All of these companies have some demo tracks available to download that range from 24/96 to 24/192 sample rates, and even 24/352.8 WAV files. The HDP can handle up to 24/96 resolution files, but I had not had a chance to listen to 24/192 music until now. I began with the track "Beethoven: Sonate 32 - Maestoso" performed by Tor Espen Aspaas from 2L. Since this is a solo piano work, and that's the one instrument that I ever learned to play reasonably well, I knew how a piano should sound, and can listen for how the DAC-2 represented one. The DAC-2 did not disappoint, rendering the notes from the piano with clear precision.

I find soundstage to be hard to evaluate on headphones, but detail much easier to pick apart, and the DAC-2 was shining through in this regard. I listened to some of the sample tracks from HRx that are recorded at 24/176.4, and once again the detail that the DAC-2 could bring out was stunning. The HRx titles from Reference Recordings are not music that I listen to often, and so I don't want to read too much into tracks that I'm not as familiar with, but it made me long for the day when all music that I purchase will be at the same level as the studio master in fidelity. Large orchestras were rendered with more clarity than I had heard; letting the individual performances shine through instead of being lost in a cloud of muddled sound. It opened my ears up to the possibility that my previous lack of enjoyment in some music might be due to the fact that recordings have not been able to convey the power and scope of the music properly.

Moving the DAC-2 home to my main system, I was surprised at the initial difference that I heard. While listening to Fake Plastic Trees from Radiohead, I switched back and forth between the DAC-2's output and the DAC inside of my Squeezebox Touch that was providing the digital signal for the DAC-2. What I heard was a large difference in how the guitar sounded, but it was a difference that I hadn't expected. The Squeezebox sounded a bit brighter and sharper, which at first you could easily assume to be additional detail that was coming through. As I continued to listen, it was actually the DAC-2 was more accurate and detailed, with a far smoother, more natural sounding guitar. Whereas the Touch was a touch harsh and metallic after the note was struck, the DAC-2 rendered that note and it's decay far more faithfully, sounding more akin to a real guitar and not to a recording of a guitar. It made music far less fatiguing to listen to, as that harshness would tire my ears after a while.

The soundtrack to The Piano from Michael Nyman is a recording that I come back to all the time for it's pure, solo piano work and wonderful music. Listening to "The Heart Asks Pleasure First", I didn't just hear the notes from the piano, but far more than that. I could hear the weight with which the notes were being struck, and the full body of the note as it hung in the air. The best description I can give is to comparing the sound of my stereo without the DAC-2 to that of a Viewmaster, and with it to an actual 3D environment. Without the DAC you can see the width of the soundstage, and see that notes are coming from a certain location and depth, but they just exist at that point. With the DAC-2, there was a fullness and body to the notes, taking them from a 2D point to a full bodied, 3D representation. Removing it from the chain made this soundtrack sound thin, harsh, and less natural than with it being involved. I have found that past components have affected my soundstage before, causing it to shrink or expand in depth and width, but never one that gave it this added dimension of weight.

I really began to cement my impressions of the DAC-2 and it's sonic signature while taking in the recently remastered version of Abbey Road from The Beatles. On "Here Comes the Sun", George Harrison's guitar extended out beyond my left speaker with the DAC-2, and the notes were more distinct, with less blurring into the other activity in the recording and smaller details becoming apparent that I had overlooked before. With the Touch alone the guitar was firmly anchored to the left speaker, refusing to extend beyond its physical boundaries. On "Come Together", John Lennon's vocals sounded less strained than they had before, the DAC-2 removing those harsh artifacts that previously would cause fatigue as the time went by. Now I could hear what Lennon's voice sounded like during the recording and enjoy album after album.

The most impressive material I listened to was Neil Young's Live at Massey Hall album, which includes a DVD with a 24/96 stereo PCM track. This live recording brought out all the details from the concert, with the sound of his piano on the stage, the acoustics of the concert hall, and the reverberation of the notes in the open space. It sounded more like I was on stage at the show than any previous concert recording that I had listened to and it just sucked me in. Making you forget that you're listening to a recording and that you are hearing the musicians live is the ideal goal for any system, and the DAC-2 helped to bring my system closer to that goal than it has come before.

Typically I would round out my listening experiences with the issues that I encountered with the unit, but with the DAC-2 I was drawing a blank on what I ran into. The main issue I encountered is that the Wyred 4 Sound DAC's and integrated amplifiers share common remote codes, but I got around this by disabling the DAC-2's remote in the menu, and this is a problem that very few people are likely to run into themselves. I additionally had the DAC-2 and the Oppo encounter a locking error when listening to Neil Young over Optical, but this didn't happen over Coaxial, or over Optical from the Touch or SACD changer, and so I'm assuming it was just a fluke occurrence that should not typically be an issue.

As far as the STI-500 is concerned, I have nothing but positive things to say about it. Over all the reviews that I have done for Secrets over the past years, I've discovered that the component that has made the most impact on my system is the preamp or receiver. Speakers, CD players, Blu-ray players, amplifiers, and DACs have all made significant impacts, but the brains of the system really affects everything that goes through the system. Using the STI in a HT bypass mode made this easy to compare, as I could hook the DAC up to a receiver and the STI simultaneously. As both were using the same amplifier and speakers, I could switch between inputs on the STI quickly to see the difference in sound quality between a receiver and the STI.

Honestly, it didn't take much comparison to see a clear difference between the two components. The noise floor in the STI was far, far quieter than either the Onkyo or Pioneer receivers. With no music playing, the STI on its own was dead quiet but the Onkyo and Pioneer both had a bit of a hum in the background. This could be due to the amplifiers running in the receivers and some of that electrical noise getting into the preouts of the receiver, but it was clearly there. When actually playing back music, the STI brought about far more clarity between instruments and voices in anything I listened to. Soundscapes where all the instruments would typically blend together were now a collection of distinct sounds, letting your isolate the individual components and pick out details that you had not heard before.

The amplifier section of the STI-500 was quick, detailed, and very accurate to my ears. My Mythos STS speakers are not the hardest load for an amplifier to drive, but the STI really let them shine, with lightning fast responses when musical sections demanded power, and very detailed mid-range and highs. I would not describe the STI as being warm sounding, as it was very clear and accurate, but perhaps a touch dry for someone that enjoys the warm sound of tubes or vinyl. If paired with a speaker that has a bit of a warmer sound, then this sound of the amp might be colored over a bit. In my own use I really enjoyed all of the extra detail that was coming out of the speakers and never found the sound to be fatiguing or piercing to the ear.

This also affected the performance of the DAC-2. When comparing the DAC-2 to the Squeezebox Touch on either of my receivers, it was always in favor of the DAC-2, but it wasn't always a runaway decision. When comparing them both using the STI-500, the DAC-2 was far and away the winner, and so it was the platform I used for the majority of my DAC-2 listening. Extra detail that the DAC-2 could pick out of the music was often glossed over, or muffled by background noise, when using either of the receivers, but that detail shined through on the STI-500. I'm not saying that you shouldn't listen to the DAC-2 if you are playing it with a receiver, but that as the rest of your system improves, the DAC-2 has that detail and resolution to grow along with it.