Now while this figure is not cheap, the design, parts quality, and sound of the Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi (henceforth the FXDAC) justify the cost despite its cumbersome name. A tubed analog output stage provides broad and deep imaging for any kind of music and allows for future tube rolling if you’re so inclined (although having heard the factory tubes, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to bother). The FXDAC offers a 1/8” headphone jack with its own volume control knob for headphone use but no remote volume control. The main RCA outputs are also routed through the volume control. The FXDAC offers the usual inputs including Wi-Fi and has DSD capability (as the name implies).
The Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi is a very open, spacious, and nuanced component. Despite lacking the amenity of remote-controlled volume, it exhibits flat frequency response, excellent dynamics, and a very wide and deep sound stage. I normally listen at low volumes and am sensitive to noise. Despite the use of output tubes, the FXDAC was completely quiet in operation and an unfailing pleasure to listen to.
Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD WI-FI
- Built-in headphone amplifier with volume control
- Multiple inputs including Wi-Fi
- Ubiquitous 12AX7 output tubes allow for tube rolling
- Confusing owners’ manual
- Plenty of gain for driving any downstream component
- Available in black or silver
- No remote-controlled volume
- 32-bit/192kHz High-Resolution PCM & DSD capabilities
Digital to Analog Converters (DACs) can be subtle, and the Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi is no exception. It distinguishes itself by combining cutting edge function (DSD capabilities and Wi-Fi input) with an almost anachronistic vacuum tube analog output section. Back in the day, I had purchased and auditioned one of the original Jolida Glass FX tube DACs. That unit tied for first place in my DAC shootout at that time, so the new FXDAC had some huge shoes to fill!
Black Ice uses high-quality parts throughout the FXDAC, including an R-Core transformer and metalized film signal-path capacitors. The new Black Ice audio designs, including the FXDAC, are managed by Mr. Jerred Dunkerson. All FXDAC products are subject to constant review and evaluation, and over time, smaller sonic improvements are incorporated into Black Ice products without specific model name changes. Customers are always welcome to coordinate with Black Ice Audio to incorporate the latest updates into their own products, or the factory can install updates for modest fees.
Black Ice currently offers a wide range of products including the F360 preamplifier, the Fusion DAC/Transport, the F-159 phono stage, the Fusion 9 phono stage, the Foz XT-R electronic crosstalk, and axial tilt corrector, the Foz SS-X soundstage expander & tube buffer, the FX headphone amp, and the F-11, F22, F35, & FX-10 integrated tube amplifiers.
USB, Coaxial S/PDIF, Optical TOSLink, Wi-Fi
Input Selector, Volume pot.
Up to 32-bit @ 192kHz (PCM &DSD)
TOSLINK & COAXIAL:
32-bit @ 192kHz
UP TO 32-bit @ 192kHz (IEEE 802.11n / 2.4GHz)
DSD SIGNAL / NOISE:
Volume-controlled 1/8” headphone jack and RCA output jacks
DAC chip directly transmits signal to SRPP tube circuit
Burr-Brown PCM1795 TI
SA-9227 USB IC DSD Support
SA-9800 Airplay Wireless Audio Module
R-Style with ferro-ceramic windings
ESA Clarity Film Capacitor Filters / Gold-plated RCA jacks
0 – 2.0 Volts (+/- 1dB, 47k ohms, SIN SIGNAL 0dB S/PDIF Input)
20-20kHz (+/- 0.5dB)
SIGNAL / NOISE:
110-120VAC @ 60Hz / 15 watts max (220VAC, 50Hz option)
110-120VAC 1-Amp. Slo-Blo; (220-240VAC 0.5-amp Slo-Blo)
Black or Silver
8” x 7” x 3” (W x D x H)
7.5 pounds net / approximately 10 pounds packaged
Chassis & Transformers = 12 months
Tubes = 6 months
DAC, Vacuum Tube, Tube, Black Ice, Glass FX, Mike Allen, Jerred Dunkerson, 2020, DAC Review 2020
The Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi delivers a lot of performance for the money. It offers the same functions as most DACs and includes a very good headphone amplifier. The volume knob, however, affects both the headphone jack and the RCA output jacks. But without a volume remote, it’s hard to use as a preamp.
One of the first challenges the buyer will face is “where to set the volume knob?” Set it too low, and you’ll be in the less accurate lower end of the logarithmic curve of the volume pot which increases the chance of a slight channel mismatch (despite the high-quality pot used). Set it too high, and you’ll risk hearing the thermionic hiss of the tubes as they age. Black Ice recommends leaving the volume control turned up all the way to provide the equivalent of a line-level output. But this could cause issues if headphones were accidentally plugged in without reducing the volume first.
But the same lack of frills that omitted the remote volume function allows the product development budget to be concentrated on higher-quality parts and construction. Note the film capacitors in the signal path, the heavy-duty transformer, and the overall high parts quality. The R-Core transformer is totally quiet – you can put your ear next to the DAC and hear no mechanical hum. This level of construction is plainly audible when listening.
On the other hand, if you’re expecting a four-color glossy owner’s manual, just get over it. At the time of this review, a xeroxed and stapled manual is what comes with the DAC. The necessary functional information is there. But the company is undergoing transition, and a new manual is under development.
Setup was simple. The FXDAC comes in a nested double-box that protects the tubes during shipment. The tubes are already installed, so even the terminally klutzy can be up and running in minutes. Wi-Fi setup was also simple, and I was streaming in only a few minutes. The Wi-Fi, by the way, sounded significantly better than I expected! For me, Wi-Fi is more of a curiosity than a feature since I don’t do mobile audio, but most users will probably find it helpful.
Since the unit I was reviewing was one that I had purchased, I promptly sent in my warranty card. The company, being small, has good customer service via phone or email.
And now to the hard part: what does the Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi actually SOUND like? On initial turn-on, there seemed to be a slightly bright treble edge to the sound, but once the tubes warmed up, the FXDAC seemed to lose that edge and began to sound both cleaner and smoother in the treble without losing any dynamics. Initially, I left it on continuously for the first 100 hours to ensure that what I heard was representative of a thoroughly broken-in unit. Those hours seemed to be beneficial.
Initially, I used my Audio-gd HE-1 stereo preamplifier to distract from the treble edge, but as the FXDAC broke in, I eventually removed the preamp, playing it through a passive volume control only. The Audio-gd preamplifier was the best I’ve ever heard at creating a holographic sound stage in my room, but once broken in, the FXDAC was able to provide the same spaciousness without help.
And that is specifically why customers will buy this DAC. The tonal balance was as good as any solid-state DAC I’ve heard with no emphasis on any part of the audio spectrum. But with no exceptions that I can think of, the FXDAC throws a sound stage in my room that no solid-state DAC has matched. Before buying it, I was using the most excellent, solid-state AURALiC Vega DAC which is absolutely no slouch at imaging. But the FXDAC, to my ears, is definitely better.
Tonally, I’d compare the FXDAC to the tubed products of carriage-trade manufacturers that typically sell for many multiples of this DAC’s price. But the FXDAC definitely throws a broader and deeper soundstage in my room than its pricier competition. I don’t know whether it’s the circuitry design, the parts quality, or just the attention to detail in the FXDAC, but I’d have to say that I really, really like the sound.
In fact, it’s always been my opinion that the fewer active electronic components that a stereo system uses, the better the system will sound (all other things being equal). Through time, this philosophy has led me to experiment with passive step-up transformers for moving-coil cartridges and passive volume controls for line-level components. Although I no longer do vinyl, I’ve found that very few DACs are good enough for me to tolerate their outputs through a simple passive volume pot; they need a preamplifier to sound their best. But the Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi can work wonderfully well even without an active preamp.
For these reasons (frequency response, dynamics, and imaging), I consider the Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi to be well worth its $799 asking price. I don’t know of any other DAC that provides this level of performance for anywhere close to this price.
And so, to specific examples:
Irving Fields Trio “Bagels and Bongos”
The Irving Fields Trio offers the whimsical “Bagels and Bongos” disc, which was so successful that they made a follow-up, “More Bagels and Bongos”. Despite the musical fun, the original Bagels and Bongos CD is recorded with a wickedly hot treble. I find the disc highly valuable as a test to see how a component handles treble brightness. Does the brightness disappear through the component? That’s a problem – “normal” recordings will sound dull. Does the brightness intensify through the component?
Also, a problem! “Normal” recordings will probably sound overly bright. The BIGFX DAC handled the Bagels and Bongos material just right. The recording’s brightness was apparent but without exaggeration.
This disc is usually the second disc I play with any new component (the Stereophile CD’s level-check, channel-identification, and phase-check tracks being the first). Having satisfied myself concerning treble levels, my second test disc was:
Norah Jones “Come Away With Me”
The cymbal on the intro to the title track is at the perfect frequency to detect sibilance. There should be only a slight hiss and significantly more sound of the cymbal’s brass (actually bronze, but you get the idea…). Many components (even VERY expensive ones) fail this test and turn cymbals into undifferentiated hissing sounds.
Also, if you’ve turned up the volume on the cymbal intro, the introduction of Ms. Jones’ voice is also a critical thing to listen for.
If the component you’re listening to has treble problems, the voice will be edgy, particularly on the leading edge of the first syllable. Any component where this is happening is just begging to have its volume reduced (and immediately!). But when the treble is right, the voice just appears (without any leading-edge issues) in the middle of the soundstage and you can relax and enjoy the music. The FXDAC handles this cut perfectly with no unpleasant brightness or vocal edge.
After I’ve satisfied myself that the treble presentation is adequate, I play a variety of bass tracks including cello solos, bass guitar lines, synth bass, and pipe organ. I want to hear how the component under test handles bass. Is the frequency response smooth? You’ll only be able to tell if you know your listening room well enough to understand where the room resonances live. Some notes will stick out and some will be recessed due to room echoes. Even with room-correction software or do-it-yourself DSP (Digital Signal Processing), some room resonances will remain. Acoustical room treatments like bass traps can help to some extent, but in general, for bass, architecture is destiny.
Suffice it to say that if you DO hear any new bass artifacts from the component under test, and you have made no other changes to the room or the system, then the changes are coming from your new component. And the good news is that the FXDAC seems to handle bass all the way down into the sub-sonics with cleanliness and clarity. I heard no bloat or muddiness as was once upon a time common in tube equipment.
The Singers Unlimited “Christmas”
And now to where the music lives, the midrange. This is the critical range for music; one can sometimes live with a slightly bright treble to get a detailed midrange or can tolerate a less-than-smooth bass to get a lower midrange with good pitch-definition, but if the midrange isn’t clean and articulate with good sound staging clues, the component is destined for recycling.
The Singers Unlimited disc “Christmas” is a wonderful blend of acapella Christmas music that is well recorded and provides plenty of spatial clues.
Any DAC that isn’t clear and nuanced in the midrange will make the voices blur. In my room, the definition of the FXDAC is one of the best I’ve heard on these voices.
I’m happy to report that to my ears, the Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi does one of the best jobs I’ve ever heard on the midrange. I’ve had some excellent DACs in my system over the past few years for comparison: The Mytek Liberty, the Schiit Gungnir ladder DAC (the “Gumby”), the AURALiC Vega and others. Although the AURALiC and the Mytek were close, the Black Ice is still the winner to my ears because its frequency response is equivalent, and its sound staging abilities and dynamics are superior.
Franz Lizst “The Reiner Sound”
One of my favorite classical performances is “Totentanz” by Franz Lizst from “The Reiner Sound” CD as played by the famous Chicago Symphony in their glory days. DACs without sufficient resolution are prone to homogenizing the orchestra so that only vague sections are audible (brass, percussion, woodwinds, strings), but the Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi unit seems to do a better than average job of segregating the individual instruments from the background mix and allowing percussion, such as triangles and cymbals, in particular, to rise above the sound of the orchestra, much as they do in an actual concert hall.
The FXDAC doesn’t compress the dynamic range here, either. The dynamic range on this CD is huge, from the softest piano passages to the full orchestra at fortissimo levels. I had to turn up the piano interludes, and then reduce the volume again for the crescendos since the FXDAC doesn’t compress dynamics.
Yet another virtue of this track is that it has absolutely thunderous bass! The bass drum should shake your diaphragm, and depending on the speakers or subwoofers that you may have, the FXDAC will let that bass right on through. This is one of the specific areas where I tend to prefer Burr-Brown DAC chips over the more common Sabre ones. I like the Burr-Brown bass (and treble) better, and this FXDAC definitely shows off that bass performance to its best effect.
- External 4TB USB HDD connected to
- A Mac Mini running Roon connected by USB to
- Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi to
- MCM Custom Audio 50-8394 IR-Remote Passive Volume Control to
- Emotiva PA-1 Class-D Monoblock amplifiers and
- Emotiva Airmotiv T2 loudspeakers and
- Emotiva Airmotiv S15 Subwoofers (2)
- NOTE: Occasionally, Dayton DSP-LF devices were used to flatten subwoofer response
- NOTE: Occasionally, an Audio-gd Vacuum HE-1 Balanced XLR preamplifier was used in lieu of the MCM passive volume pot.
- NOTE: Occasionally, an Ashly FTX-2001 Series III pro amp was used in lieu of the Emotiva PA-1 amps.
- NOTE: Occasionally, my custom Heathkit 12-watt tube monoblock amplifiers were used in lieu of the Emotiva PA-1 amps.
The BLACK ICE GLASS FX TUBE DAC DSD WI-FI is a high-end product at a mid-fi price. Don’t skip this tube DAC – it’s a bargain!
- Amazing sound-staging
- Flat frequency response
- Excellent dynamics
- Great headphone amp
- Robust output stage
- Recognized by the Roon player software
- A remote volume control
- Bypass the volume pot and make the RCA outputs fixed, line-level only
- Better owner’s manual
- Balanced XLR analog outputs
- HDMI & Ethernet inputs
The Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi is one of the very few DACs that I’ve found that has sufficient purity and transparency to be run without the benefit of an active preamplifier. If you can live with a manual, non-remote-controlled volume pot; or if you wish to add a passive volume pot with remote control, then you can save a LOT of money – good preamplifiers aren’t cheap and cheap preamplifiers (generally) aren’t good. In fact, in most cases, any preamplifier that you may insert will probably reduce the sound quality coming out of the Black Ice Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi. That’s an unfortunate fact, but it IS a fact.
I am amazed that Black Ice can offer a DAC this good just $799. The Glass FX Tube DAC DSD Wi-Fi is the best I’ve heard so far regardless of price, and have purchased mine. This one is a keeper!