Deckard: She’s a replicant, isn’t she?
Tyrell: I’m impressed. How many questions does it usually take to spot them?
Deckard: I don’t get it Tyrell.
Tyrell: How many questions?
Deckard: Twenty, thirty, cross-referenced.
Tyrell: It took more than a hundred for Rachael, didn’t it?
Deckard: She doesn’t know?!
Tyrell: She’s beginning to suspect, I think.
Deckard: Suspect? How can it not know what it is?
…this is Los Angeles, 2019, shot through the eyes of Ridley Scott. An excerpt from the 1982 sci-fi movie Blade Runner where Harrison Ford is exposing The Tyrell Corporations’s “Rachael” as a Nexus 6 replicant – a being virtually identical to a human. “How can it not know what it is?” – a deeply rooted philosophical question about what it is to be human.
The Paradisea (RRP $710) is MHDT Labs’ mid-level DAC, possessing a specifications sheet that marks it out as quite the progressive beast. Like the Havana (above it) and the Constantine (below), the Paradisea hails from the non-oversampling school of conversion from which graduates value musicality over accuracy. Rather than focus on the individual drops of water, the flow of the entire audio river is a central tenet of this manufacturer’s DAC design philosophy. Jiun from Taiwan’s MHDT Labs told me, “Paradisea is with (sic) Philips TDA1545A, it is the economic version of Philips TDA1541A or so called simplified R2R”. Furthermore, it sports a tube output buffer stage (a GE5670) partnered with an LM4562 Op-Amp that DIY-bods should know is user-upgradeable. If you insist on a fully discrete output stage then you should seek out the Paradisea’s big brother, the Havana and be prepared to be stung for an additional $300.
Connectivity options are the now-standard triumvirate of coaxial, optical and USB (which supplants the BNC of earlier Paradisea models). During our e-mail exchange, Jiun confirmed no other differences existed: “The original Paradisea and Paradisea 3 is the same in circuit. The only difference is pcb trace layout.” Casework is a point of contention between some of my audiophile buddies. Some love the “smoked glass” plastic shell, others find it tacky and constantly seek out new ways to hide it. I can’t help but think that MHDT missed an opportunity to capitalise on (possible) consumer demand for coloured variations that stray from the 1970’s aesthetics.
The first critical listening session saw a quick fire through the acoustic strum of Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. It showed this NOS DAC to have solid midrange capabilities and good treble extension. Despite having run the stock tube in for a few weeks, the bass sounded a touch woolly. This was confirmed by punching in a reference track.
Glitterbug’s “Waves” loops through an ever-swelling series of deep bass notes and the Paradisea emerged from the surf wanting, its bass control lacked poise. The stock tube also lacked some of the dynamic flair and wizardry that I’d heard from a NOS-tube-charged Maverick TubeMagic D1. This seemed a good time in the review process to roll in a better tube: a NOS Raytheon Windmill-Getter (AU$20 from eBay). Given its ease of acquisition and relative cheapness, this is an upgrade that could easily be undertaken by every MHDT DAC owner should they so wish. The faint of heart should not be alarmed! Changing (“rolling”) a tube is as easy as changing a light globe.
The tricked-up tube buffer in the Paradisea was immediately evident when switching between it and a Cambridge DacMagic (RRP $599) during back-to-back runs through LCD Soundsystem’s I Can Change Remix EP. Even with the bass reclamation of the Raytheon tube upgrade, it still withheld some bass definition and overall punch from Soulwax’s electro-heavy workout. However, I preferred James Murphy’s vocal take through the MHDT every single time – no question. The Raytheon tube offered more rounded transients than its stock counterpart. It also rewards burn-in patience with a taller/wider soundstage and a more open midrange. This particular tube roll gave up its secrets slowly and the improvements were slight but very real. One word to encapsulate the sonic amelioration? Finesse.
The MHDT Paradisea is the juice without the additives. A sip from the DacMagic glass might tantalise the tastebuds with its immediate fizz, but what of long-term dietary considerations? I suspect it might not be one of listener fatigue but one of indifference or disinterest. The Paradisea is better geared of the two DACs toward maintaining a longer-term enthusiasm in music. It was the superior emotional communicator when driving me around the urban sprawl of Arcade Fire’s suburbs. The Neil Young-esque piano riff of intro track connotes a lovely organic realism. The same sounds – possibly with greater detail – are served up by Cambridge’s box but the sentiments that lie at the core of the song ring hollow. I concede that my thoughts are only a border skirmish away from the “Musicality vs Accuracy” debate.
Having lived with the Raytheon tube for a couple of weeks, yet another NOS tube was then rolled into the Paradisea. This time a Western Electric (AU$100 from tubedepot.com). Most immediately noticeable was the WE396a’s deeper soundstage. On Depeche Mode’s Sounds Of The Universe Dave Gahan’s vocal sounded more entrenched in the mix than with the Raytheon. This hundred-dollar refinement to the MHDT brings bass control closer to that of the Cambridge. Depeche Mode’s propulsive techno-rock regains drive and momentum at the expense of some of the aforementioned finesse. The Wester Electric bottle comes loaded with darker overtures and would be ideal for systems that err on the brighter side of life.
The Paradisea is an entry-level DAC for those looking for an upstream tube-flavour injection. Whilst not as expansive in sound as its bigger brother, the Havana, it offers a deep soundstage with good detail retrieval and it certainly surpassed the Cambridge DacMagic in the musicality stakes. Thrill-seekers hellbent on accuracy at any price should spring for the latter; the MHDT will not satiate your desire to hear deep into the lungs of vocal performances. But be warned! Your inner Deckard will eventually find the DacMagic to be a Nexus 6 replicant – almost human, but not quite. The Paradisea brings a musical experience to the table that transcends a lust for pixel-perfect imagery. A musical experience that is altogether more human.
Its closest tube-infused rival, the Maverick Tube Magic D1 proves that it’s easier to kick bang-for-buck goals at $300 than at $700. However, the Paradisea IS a better-sounding DAC than the Maverick – more maturity and refinement, sweeter treble, greater soundstage depth – but I shall leave it to the buyer to judge the worthiness of the additional $400. The Paradisea’s prose is more explicit than the Mavericks’s cheeky wink-and-a-nod exuberance. There is only so long one can strive for subjectivity before personal taste comes down heavy on the scene. In the interests of full disclosure, I would personally sacrifice some small degree of accuracy if it meant gaining a little more PRaT.
Op-amps aside, MHDT’s DAC is the union of the two most organic-sounding genomes: NOS and tube buffer. The latter offers abundant opportunity for experimentation and sonic discovery – upgrades from pocket change. In a broader sense, MHDT have made a DAC that could unwittingly draw many into the world of tubes. The knowledge gained from tube-rolling a DAC could later be extrapolated to a broader set of amplifier choices. If you find yourself becoming increasingly disinterested in listening to music, the Paradisea could be the DAC to turn you around. It will give you the satisfaction in knowing you own something a little off the beaten track, something a little more esoteric. The MHDT Paradisea’s more hominal presentation reflects Conor Oberst’s less-than-perfect singing voice. When Oberst’s voice cracks midway through the ascendant final verse of Bright Eyes’ “Landlocked Blues” we are reminded that he is human (and the song is all the more moving for it). In Obersts’ own words, “Failure always sounded better, let’s fuck it up boys, MAKE SOME NOISE!”
MHDT Labs have gene-spliced the most musical of design features, NOS and tube-buffer, to produce a DAC that humanises digital audio without sacrificing too much detail. However, a tube upgrade is essential.
- Logitech Squeezebox
- Cambridge DacMagic
- LFD Zero LE
- PMC DB1i
- Depeche Mode – Sounds Of The Universe (2009)
- Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)
- LCD Soundsystem – I Can Change Remixes EP (2010)
- Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (2005)
- Glitterbug – Privilege (2010)