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Eastern Electric Minimax Tube DAC review (ESS9018)

  • The year was 1994.  Mighty Joe Moon – Grant Lee Buffalo’s sophomore album – had just dropped into my lap and Melody Maker had concluded their review with the words “Stunning.  Absolutely F**king Stunning.”  CDUniverse’s review summary page censors the profanity thus diluting the conclusive impact of the review, but the F-word was there.  It was there.  It rang in my head like a bell.  It added gravitas to the high praise already heaped (layer upon layer) upon the album in the preceding paragraphs.  Melody Maker were so utterly right – the album was an masterpiece.  And it remains so.

    In 2010, the Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC (AU$800) drops into my lap.  It threatens a dynamic range of 129db, which trumps some of the competition at twice the price.  Donning my Armchair Audiophile cap reveals: Bel Canto DAC 1.5 (AU$1799, 122db), Wyred4Sound DAC-2 (AU$1950, 132db), Peachtree Nova (AU$1799, 120db).   Only the Wyred4Sound DAC-2 and (some of) the Audio-gd Sabre DAC implementations get close.  Not surprising really then that the MiniMax is an ESS Sabre ES9018-derived box.  Sabre-based DACs are definitely mode-du-jour and Eastern Electric have thrown in a 12au7 “true” tube output stage into the bargain.  Sabre chip and tube for AU$800 – if that doesn’t get DAC lovers salivating, I don’t know what will.

    I shot an email to Alex Yeung of Eastern Electric enquiring as to how he brought the MiniMax DAC from boardroom idea to finished product.  The reply was swift and brief, “I learned that the ES9018 is the toppest DAC chip in the market and I triggered the idea of developing this MiniMax tube DAC by using the 9018 and of course with the tube output stage which is always our strength in Eastern Electric.”

    It might hail from Hong Kong but like Audio-gd gear, only the likes of the Cambridge DacMagic bests the MiniMax’s build quality at the price point.  It’s conservatively styled for sure, but switches and pots have a solid feel.  The unit itself feels heavy in hand and the casework is sturdy.  Digital input connectivity on the rear is impressive:  coaxial, optical, USB (16/44 only!), BNC and AES/EBU.  It sure isn’t common to see BNC and AES/EBU at this price point. The output RCA connectors are standard fare.

    It’s no secret that I have penchant for NOS DACs and I’m not really one to obsess over detail retrieval or accuracy – I’d been burnt before by a Bel Canto DAC3:  after  a promising initial couple of weeks, the Bel Canto and I just didn’t gel and I turned my back on making detail retrieval a priority.  I’ve since spent months surrounded by a forest of NOS DAC:  a Red Wine Audio Isabellina, a TeraDak Chameleon and (for a shorter time) a db Audio Labs Tranquility SE.  These were my day-to-day DACs.  The MiniMax has little of the TeraDak’s or Tranquility’s midrange liquidity, but the Minimax is one helluva enjoyable listen that I found myself untroubled.  The Eastern Electric MiniMax has been my daily DAC for the past month or so.  It has airlifted me from the NOS DAC wilderness.

    It’s encouraging that Eastern Electric make few bold claims about it being the best DAC on the planet.  Of course, it’s not the best DAC on the planet, but it’s superb for AU$800.  If you like the detail of delta-sigma DACs, but none of the “remoteness” or being held at arm’s length from the music, this could be the DAC you’ve been waiting for.  The Wyred4Sound is more tonally dense – but only just. The MiniMax more than compensates by being more spritely, more youthful. AND it has an analogue volume pot, so it’s a passive pre-amp in the vein of the Maverick TubeMagic D1.

    Considering other tube-based DACs – and even trying to temper the hyperbole – the Eastern Electric outstrips the Maverick TubeMagic D1’s (AU$299) ability to communicate music and the detail buried within.  Yes, it’s more dollars down, but it surpasses even the Maverick’s impressive value for money quotient.  It bests my much-loved TeraDak Chameleon for detail and dynamics.  It doesn’t have the depth of soundstage of the MHDT Labs Paradisea and Havana, but the MiniMax more than makes up for it with sheer enthusiasm.  The MiniMax doesn’t sound as “tubey” as the MHDT Labs gear.  In fact, it doesn’t sound “tubey” at all.

    Using the toggle switch on the front panel, I couldn’t discern much difference between “tube on” and “tube off” – perhaps a soupcon less weight and dynamics without glass and gass intervention.  Still, the potential of a tube roll gives owners something extra to play with after the novelty of newness wears off.  I didn’t have other tubes to hand (an opportunity for a follow-up piece perhaps?), but again, I really didn’t mind.  I was just too busy trawling the depths of the sweeping majesty of the the Best Of Suede and bouncing along the techno tracks of Hardfloor’s new epic 303/808/909 train journey.  Being of similar ESS Sabre DAC chip heritage, it’s probably no surprise that the sound of the Eastern Electric is reminiscent of the Peachtree Nova.  When facing anything other than the easiest of loudspeaker drives, pairing the MiniMax with a AU$1000 integrated would easily outstrip the Nova’s performance (Headphone amp and pre-amp flexibility notwithstanding).

    Compared to the Audio-gd NFB-2, the MiniMax has far superior detail retrieval and more all-round joie de vie.  The NFB-2 is darker, more mysterious, more austere.  The MiniMax also serves up the superior instrument separation and spaciousness by surrendering some (relative) tonal density.  The Audio-gd is the darker olive oil, the MiniMax extra virgin and lighter.

    The Eastern Electric MiniMax is truly e x p a n s i v e of soundstage.  It fully expresses the widescreen experience of the best recordings and doesn’t grind poor recordings to dust.  Weird, but true.  It also extends its majesty to encompass Pacific Ocean bass depth and Himalayan treble extension, the latter breathing new life into the top end of a pair of JohnBlue JB4 (although, overall I still prefer the liquidity of NOS DACs with these loudspeakers).  There is detail without the dryness.  Transients bite without leaving teeth marks.  The MiniMax made light work of the (exceptionally complex) spaghetti western electronica of Trentemoller’s “Silver Surfer, Ghost Ride Go!!”, which can sound tonally hard and utterly bewildering with lesser DACs at the helm.

    And I know what you’re probably thinking: “yeah, but I bet the bass is a woolly mess with a tube in the signal path?!”.  Wrong.  Bass is generous, tight and well defined.  Lower frequencies aren’t as overcooked as they are with the Wyred4Sound DAC-2, which makes the MiniMax more conducive to prolonged listening sessions. If there is a catch, this MiniMax’s might be too demonstrable for some listeners.  Those that prefer a more romantic interpretation (and NOS tragics) should consider: a) the MHDT Labs Havana (AU$1050) – if a side order of tubes is essential – or b) the TeraDak Chameleon (AU$580) – if transistors will suffice.

    How about system synergy? The MiniMax sits well (better?) with tube amplifiers. It performed competently with an Audio Space EL34 integrated when pushing a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 9.1.  When doubling-up as a passive pre-amp with a JLTi EL34 power amplifier, it conjured a more-heart-than-head sound than the Wyred4Sound DAC-2’s cerebral versioning.  However, it is with the Trafomatic Experience Two (a 300B SET) that saw this DAC throw open all the doors and windows.  Switching out the TeraDak Chameleon, the MiniMax took top-end detail and spaciousness to new heights and brought a more taught bass presence to the party.  The Eastern Electric box worked on detail whilst the Trafomatic integrated added harmonic textures.

    The Eastern Electric MiniMax is a DAC from a different restaurant – one where accuracy takes precedence over “musicality” – and is no less tasty for it.  There is detail without the nailgun transients or the emotional nonchalance.  There is exuberance.  There is ebullience.  There is speed.The Eastern Electric MiniMax is a young wine (all lemon zest and orange peel).  It’s the synapse energy-fire of a first kiss.  It’s the pop of a champagne cork.  It’s detail retrieval with long-term commitment on its mind.  Those who find their system a little too reserved or polite or those who simply lust for more detail should sit up and take notice of the Eastern Electric’s rousing entry into sub-AU$1000 DAC field.  It’s a DAC that far exceeds expectations at the price point.  Stunning.  Absolutely f**king stunning.

    Associated Equipment

    • Squeezebox Touch
    • MacBook Pro
    • TeraDak Chameleon
    • Wyred4Sound DAC-2
    • Audio-gd NFB-2
    • Audio Space Mini-2
    • JLTi EL34 power amplifier
    • Trafomatic Experience Two
    • Redgum Sonofa’GUM 5500
    • Hoyt Bedfords
    • JohnBlue JB4
    • Wharfedale Diamond 9.1

    Audition Music

    • Hardfloor – Two Guys Three Boxes (2010)
    • Trentemoller – Silver Surfer, Ghost Ride Go!! Remixes (2010)
    • Morrissey – My Early Burglary Years (1998)
    • Grinderman – Worm Tamer Remixes (2010)
    • Suede – The Best Of (2010)

    Further Information

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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