I’ve given some thought recently to what sonic features/quirks/annoyances might constitute the ‘Sabre DAC sound’. I’d previously concluded that Sabre-charged DACs offered quite a distinct sonic signature, or at least some common traits that would allow one to pick a Sabre box blind. Since spending some time with the Peachtree DAC*iT (AU$449), I’m no longer so sure. However, one truth remains reasonably consistent: if detail retrieval is your priority, Sabre-toothed beasts seem (currently) have the most bite.
Before we get carried away with ESS the chip numbers, it is worth repeating that power supply handling and analogue output stage are at least as important (if not more so) as the DAC chip deployed therein. That said, the ESS chip model number can point the way to the nature and/or quality of sound expected. The 9023 has recently supplanted the 9022 as the standard offering at the lower end of the ESS range. Both the 9022 and 9023 embed a 2Vrms op-amp driver on the DAC chip itself making it easier for DAC manufacturers to build lower cost models. Unlike the superior 32-bit Ultra (9016) or Reference (9012, 9018) chips, no additional output stage is required with 9022/9023 implementations – 2V comes straight off the chip. Clever, clever.
On rotation here at home in, I’ve been tucking into the following decoding boxes, each of which are built around the new(ish) 9022/9023 DAC + output driver chips:
- JKDAC (€500, ESS 9022)
- Peachtree DAC*iT (AU$499, ESS 9022)
- Calyx Coffee (AU$299, ESS Premier 9023)
Whilst the Calyx Coffee and the JKDAC are USB-only, Peachtree give us three input options: one each of USB, optical and coaxial. Nice and simple. However, 24/192 only functions via the coaxial input – USB and optical top out at 24/96. No biggie, but worth noting. Possibly the biggest single compromise Peachtree have made to keep this product under AU$500 is the external switch-mode power supply. You’ll have to move up the line to the $999 Peachtree iDac if you insist on linear (from which you’ll also receive a digital iPod dock into the bargain).
Aesthetics aren’t just for girls. Steve Jobs hammered that point time and again. The DAC*iT is a solid, heavy-ish metal box with a rubber base (that shares visual genetic code with the MacMini); it doesn’t slide around. Note the better-than-average separation between source selection buttons for those shaky of hand or fat of finger. Ascertaining signal lock can only be done by ear as the circular blue lights do not flash gently as per the iDecco and iNova.
The remote control is a real boon at this price point. Those with multi-sourced rigs can switch inputs without hauling ass. When watching TV, I enjoyed not having to get off the couch to switch between WD TV Live (optical) and Audiophilleo-pimped MacMini (coaxial). This isn’t simply a matter of laziness, it’s one of comfort. No-one likes surrendering the comfort sweet spot on the couch, especially if it takes time to find it. I digress – what can I say? I like my couch.
Sonically, the DAC*iT is a bold sounding unit, rich in tonal colours. There’s scant evidence or that brilliant-to-blinding golden-sunshine inner illumination of the Eastern Electric Minimax. There’s still a shade of that lower-treble liveliness but the DAC*iT is softer, more gentle. It’s washing powder with inbuilt conditioner. Counterbalancing: it’s also (clearly) less resolving than the more expensive JKDAC (more on which below).
The DAC*iT offers excellent imaging. It’s not as wide or tall as the ~AU$1000 Metrum Octave (which isn’t too troubled by the Peachtree unit).
The sound quality from the USB input met my (low) expectations halfway. The widely touted inherent jitter rejection/clean-up of the Sabre chip and (in the case of the DAC*iT) Peachtree’s own galvanic isolation don’t take things far enough. That’s not a criticism – that’s just a reminder of what could be done with more money. The DAC*iT is built to a price, aimed at those curious about a first DAC purchase.
More seasoned digital audiophiles should note that the USB-funnelled sound couldn’t run from the musical joint rigidity and reluctant engagement that is generally typical of AU$500 units. Cheaper DACs tend to lack an audible suppleness and overall coherence and the DAC*IT is no exception. However, in converting USB to S/PDIF, the Audiophilleo rights some of these wrongs: it removes some tension and adds a greater depth of excitement.
My pro-USB convertor argument here runs a broader circuit: unless your manufacturer get its USB implementation sounding (close to) that of Audiophilleo or JKMK3, USB on the box itself is rendered little more than functional. Functional, slightly better-than-average USB sound is what we have with Peachtree’s DAC*iT. Similar-but-*weaker* USB-only designs like the Calyx Coffee (AU$299) remind us that things aren’t as sonically neutered or sterile on the USB front as they could be; maybe it’s the need for bus power that lets the Calyx down? The USB-S/PDIF adaptor is the emergency exit for boxes with coaxial inputs (of which the DAC*iT is one). Opting for a multiple input device at the budget end of the DAC market gives one opportunity to clean up the feed with a JKMK3 or Audiophilleo down the line. Or sooner.
My hands on time with numerous decoders points ultimately to a more nourishing and enjoyable sound when shaving money from one’s DAC spend so that the aforementioned USB convertor tech can be factored into the digital front end budget. In some cases, a $500 DAC + $500 USB convertor will sound more pleasing than a straight up $1000 DAC. The DAC*iT is as good as any prosecution witness (for this way of thinking). Even at the budget end of this decoding game the diet you feed your DAC still matters.
Please forgive the diversion – this is not a reprise of the Audiophilleo review – it’s a reminder that such devices are sufficiently few in number and can bring BIG improvements to DACs such as the Peachtree DAC*iT. I’ll continue to beat this drum until DAC manufacturers start including such technology into their DAC designs. Alex Yeung of Eastern Electric has gone this route with the revised Minimax model – M2Tech wizardry inside – and John Kenny is a well-respected DIYer who’s also fronted his first DAC with similar USB reclocking tech.
With this in mind, DAC*iT/Audiophilleo pairingwas pitted against the 9022-ing JKDAC. The latter might be USB-only but it is LifePO4 battery powered with an M2Tech Hiface baked right into the DIY design. The DAC*iT/Audiophilleo concedes some musical insight to the single box rival – the JKDAC digs much deeper for details – but the DAC*iT/Audiophilleo reveals an instrumental body with a greater meat-to-bone ratio. Here, the DAC*iT is pudgier, the JKDAC a bone-lean athlete. The JKDAC’s soundstage is a shade wider and deeper; those musical layers working in an illusory three dimensional space that’s more easily ‘seen’. Considering the two side-by-side from an aesthetics point of view, the Peachtree box wins hands down. One must also remember to switch off the JKDAC between listening sessions so that it recharges. The set-it-and-forget-it point here is awarded to Peachtree.
The Audiophilleo was then substituted out for the JKMK3 USB-S/PDIF converter. Also from the John Kenny’s stable, it’s a battery-powered Hiface flying solo (without the digital-analogue conversion). The results were both surprising and unexpected: here was a sound with all the detail of the JK DAC running free BUT with greater warmth and liquidity. Vocals also take half a step forward enhancing the illusion of front to back movement. This certainly mirrors my results of Audiophilleo vs JK MK3 pushing the ones and zeroes into a Metrum Octave. The JKMK3 imbues the Octave because with a palpable tenderness. Ditto the DAC*iT. Not everyone will enjoy this. The Audiophilleo nearly always infuses proceedings with more head rush excitement and a punchier bass. A reminder: for these listening sessions, I had a REDGUM RGi60 (solid state) amplifier pushing into Zu Omen loudspeakers – a big, bold sound that doesn’t want for any more of the same. For long-term residence, more kindly, softer front ends need only apply.
If you’ve previously found Sabre DACs too dry and/or lively, the Peachtree DAC*iT could be the one to show you that not all Sabre-chipped models sound alike. It’s more backwards in coming forwards and far less eager to please than both the Anedio and the Eastern Electric. Don’t turn your nose up at the price either; in the case of the Peachtree DAC*iT there’s nothing wrong with the lower end of town.
Moreover, I didn’t find it unnecessarily unkind to poorer quality sources. Few audiophiles are prepared to put their head above the parapet in forum land to proclaim their regularity with MP3s – there’s too much temptation for the haters to shoot them down – but I’m confident that many, many digital dawgs still listen to MP3s on a daily basis. I know I do. It’s predominantly FLAC ’round these parts, but hey, no-one’s all good all the time. This Peachtree box is for folk like me (and you) – it doesn’t murder your ears when fed compressed files. You can’t say that about Messrs Yeung and Kenny’s units – poor quality files shred the air. The DAC*iT is also one of the few Sabre units I’ve heard that doesn’t sound better — to these ears — behind the enthusiasm-rounding of more laconic tube amplifiers. To whit, I’d previously described the Anedio D1 as “all tits and teeth”. The DAC*iT moves us from the brashness of Los Angeles toward a more reserved Santa Monica. It’s less glitzy and this isn’t so much in-yr-face local colour (as LA) but it’s easier to live day to day; the coastal vibe ain’t as tiring as the neon glow.
Peachtree’s entry level decoder is a home for first time buyers and – perhaps – the disillusioned/homeless. It’s been made with care and doesn’t feel/look cheap. It’s subtly more engaging and downright more humanthan its nearest 9022/3 rival – the Calyx Coffee – and it easily bests the analogue output of the Squeezebox Touch. Case closed, job done. In the Sonos/Squeezebox ameliorating context alone (but especially in that of its sticker price), the Peachtree DAC*iT is a worthwhile upgrade. The DAC*iT is a more than capable performer that offers no hint of dryness or over-eagerness. The remote-controlled source selection and the non-slip rubber base ice the cake. Tasty, pleasant and easy to digest.
- Squeezebox Touch
- Mac Mini 2010 w/ Audiophilleo
- Calyx Coffee
- REDGUM RGi60
- Zu Omen
- ProAc Tablette Reference 8
- Burson HA-160
- AKG K-702
- The Smiths – Meat Is Murder (2011 Remaster)
- Various – Dream Injection 5 (1997)
- Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)
- Grant Lee Buffalo – Fuzzy (1993)
- Peter Gabriel – Plays Live (1983)