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MHDT Labs Balanced Havana NOS DAC review

  • It’s easy to get caught up in the obsession for more and more detail from one’s hifi system. Full disclosure: hearing audience murmurs in live recordings isn’t the most paramount concern to this reviewer. The long-term enjoyment of music reproduction for me comes from those three elder statesmen – pace, rhythm and timing – as much as it does being able to hear the drummer cough mid-song. However, if a you’re stickler for razor-sharp detail, sound-staged with pinpoint precision, you can safely stop reading this review of the MHDT Balanced Havana (AU$1380) right about HERE.

    Compared to the standard, single-ended Havana (AU$1050), its balanced brother is larger and furnished with fancier aluminium casework; it looks awesome. The face plate retains MHDT’s trademark smoked plastic but this is by far the most sturdily built and impressive looking of the three MHDT DACs; possibly the only one not to connote “DIY project”. The additional AU$300 brings you twice the circuitry for a true, no-bullshit balanced design. Along for the ride comes BNC input connectivity – in addition to the standard Havana’s USB, coaxial and optical. Hi-res file buffs might also want to stop reading HERE. The receiver S/PDIF chip (CS8414) maxes out at 24/96 input, the USB at 24/48, but my Squeezebox Touch threw a 24/96 DVD-A rip of Talking Heads’ Little Creatures at the Balanced Havana. It still played nicely, but as a down-sampled, Redbook (con)version.

    This review started as another one drew to a close. I’d been listening to Thomas Dolby’s “Dissidents” in a friend’s system; the MHDT Balanced Havana was on decoding duties (via single-ended inputs). We switched back to a Lenehan Audio PDX (~AU$2600) and with it instantly came improved overall clarity and better bass definition. I’ll announce it early: the Havana’s single (and only real) flaw is its uncertainty with lower bass notes. It’s a tad woolly at the edges. If bass tightness and distinction (with crisp edges) is mission-critical to your listening pleasure, you can stop reading HERE.

    Lack of low frequency clarity can be mitigated somewhat with tube rolling. The stock unit sees two GE 5670 valves rule the discrete output stage – no op amps here. Or digital filters. The DAC chip of choice is an R-2R variant: the lesser-known Burr Brown PCM56P. Two of these sit in the signal path of each channel to accommodate the positive and negative signals required for a true balanced output.

    I’ll let another secret out: if you don’t intend to use the balanced outputs of this DAC, save some coin and go for the standard Havana. They sound pretty-much identical. I reckon so, as does the Australian distributor, John Pham (of Coem Audio). The MHDT website even reads, “In RCA connection, this dac is the same as original Havana Dac”. The Balanced Havana is for those who MUST make a balanced connection with their amplification.

    If you didn’t know so already, the MHDT Balanced Havana is a non-oversampling (NOS) DAC. I lived with the standard Havana for several months during 2010 so the snap-and-fold timing of Nicholas Jaar electro rhythms came as no surprise – there is a “rightness” that precious few other DACs offer. Be forewarned: MHDT’s cadence isn’t immediately apparent. One would rarely refer to the Balanced Havana as demonstrable. Much like a dietary switch from white to wholemeal bread, a couple of weeks’ adjustment is required before the protagonist will notice the benefits of a more fibre-rich food choice. The MHDT diet is one of vitamins and roughage when compared directly with the E-numbered zeal of the Violectric V800 (the nearest delta-sigma to hand). Like the previously-reviewed Paradisea, MHDT DACs bring no immediate sugar rush – they are low GI products that sound earthy and organic.

    Let’s do some listening and talk specifics. There’s a naturalness to the (sampled) piano work on Lindstom and Prins Thomas’ rolling “for ett slikk og ingenting” that keeps it will away from sounding plinky. Good word, huh? The intergalactic funk groove buried deep within the track is more prominent from the Balanced Havana than the Peachtree iDecco. The MHDT box brings more toe-tap, more swing. It also offers that hard-to-nail midrange liquidity (so very NOS) and a sweeter, more analogue cymbal rush than our ESS Sabre-toothed friend.

    In the world of Mathematics teaching, there are those that know their subject matter inside out, upside down and communicate it in a manner that’s matter-of-fact and scientifically rigorous. Nothing wrong with that – some folk learn best with that approach from their teacher. That’s the Violectric DAC V800 right there. For the non-linear learners that demand analogy and metaphor, they might see speedier progress with a more unusual approach to teaching – from a teacher that’s not afraid to say “I don’t know, I’ll find out” or “Pythagoras was a drunk”. That’s the MHDT Balanced Havana.

    Again with Thomas Dolby’s Sole Inhabitant live album, the Havana is both (paradoxically) spacious and dense. Soundstage depth is the best I’ve heard from ANY DAC at this price point. Yes, deeper than the Lite DAC-83. Although, the MHDT can’t match the Lite’s propensity for inner detail retrieval. MHDT rely more on overall coherence to convey musicality – the Havana’s presentation is rich and tonally dense. That’ll be the tubes at play. If we imagine the soundstage as the visual representation of a galaxy – the Havana’s space mission is thick with stars. Each instrument’s location can be pinpointed with reasonable accuracy via a rather more indefinable twinkle. Twinkle, twinkle little star – how I wonder where you are.

    Taking the planetarium analogy further, let us picture a kick drum as a spherical planet that sits front and centre in our galaxial soundstage. The bigger the planet, the lower the bass frequency. Bass clarity via the Havana can sometimes sound indistinct at the edges – there is some subtle blurring at work. However, this is more pronounced with Usher S-520s than the full-range Hoyt-Bedfords. As per my extensive experience with the TeraDak Chameleon, the Balanced Havana does little to dissuade me from a previous assertion: NOS DACs are ideal for single-driver loudspeakers. The Hoyts expose the mid-range indifference of the Violectric at near-first breath and they perform well in masking the smudged edges of the lowest bass notes of the Havana.

    This is a minor complaint when considered in the context of the Balanced Havana’s very deep soundstage, snap-PRaT and sumptuous midrange. I think of it as a souped-up TeraDak Chameleon: dynamically reserved with liquid flow. Detail retrieval on the Havana trumps the TeraDak every time. This NOS sound might not be to everyone’s tastes but this is in no way a niche product. It’s an affable digital-to-analogue dreamweaver with an easy-going nature that’s as comfortable with musical intimacy (Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth) as is it with albums that demand the majesty of distant galaxies (Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon). But what about the balanced output?

    I needed an amplifier with balanced input. I phoned a friend. The Xindak XA6200 isn’t the best integrated in the world, but neither is it the worst. It’s a better-than-average contender with plenty of dynamics and power (100wpc). The Balanced Havana was connected twice to the amplifier: single ended with a Morrow MA-1 interconnect and balanced with some home-brew XLR terminated cables. Abrupt switching between the two was now only a remote click away. Unsurprisingly, the balanced output is superior to the single-ended: louder, more dynamic, of blacker background and an altogether fuller musical experience. David Gilmour’s guitar notes showed more flesh and greater clarity, Roger Waters’ voice thicker with throaty resonance and treble extension took transient edges to produce a greater level of musical engagement. Impressive stuff and – for once in the DAC game – a night and day difference.

    Those seeking the very last word in exacting (spacial) detail should probably put their cash elsewhere, but those tracking for a more musical experience on the southerly side of AU$1500 might consider the MHDT (Balanced) Havana to be a pleasant and engaging place to rest awhile, maybe even put some roots down. Fans of more acoustic fare will revel in the richness on offer, as will those who seek to rejuvenate poorly mastered guilty pleasures from the eighties. However, the Balanced Havana offers something even more unique: a NOS DAC with a tube output stage, this time WITH the requisite XLR sockets for audiophiles who swear by the power of greyskull that balanced is better. With this DAC, it most definitely is.

    Associated Equipment

    • Squeezebox Touch
    • ME 240
    • Eric McChanson DIY SET
    • Usher S-520
    • Hoyt Bedford Type I
    • WLM Stella floorstander

    Audition Music

    • Thomas Dolby – The Sole Inhabitant (2006)
    • Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth (1984)
    • Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
    • Lindstrom and Prins Thomas – II (2009)
    • Nicholas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise (2011)

    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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