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Wyred 4 Sound DAC2v2SE 10th Anniversary review

  • FOMO. Fear of Missing Out. It’s a rather interesting phenomenon that’s probably always existed, but didn’t become part of the lexicon until fairly recently. Blame our increasingly social world. With more opportunities than ever to connect, one can easily find oneself overwhelmed with options – and paralyzed by the thought of not making the best possible choice.

    FOMO certainly exists in the world of audio enthusiasts. Head over to Audiogon and marvel at the quantity of new and used gear up for grabs. I’m not just talking about total count of items for sale, but also the abundance of different brands. There are hundreds of firms represented, large and small, many of whom offer at least a few different models. And that’s just Audiogon – merely one outlet among many. The mind boggles!

    How can one possibly hope to evaluate each and every option before making a purchase? And how does one find confidence in the final choice? With such a staggering amount of contenders, it would easy to settle for “good” while overlooking “great”. Or at least to think you may have done so. That’s FOMO in action, and it’s been greasing the wheels of audio classifieds and high street hifi stores for decades.

    It’s important to differentiate this feeling from plain old fashioned gear lust. Buying a PS Audio Stellar DAC whilst wishing I could afford their far-more-expensive DirectStream is a whole different matter. FOMO would apply if I buy the Stellar DAC, love what I hear, yet find myself agonizing over potential missed opportunities. “Maybe something else in that price bracket would have been even better”, I think to myself, drowning out the beautiful music being made by my new component. This ultimately diminishes my enjoyment of the device in question, and for that matter, every future device I may ever own.

    This leads me to my review of the new Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2v2SE 10th Anniversary Limited Edition. That name is a mouthful, but the concept is quite simple – start with the highly-respected Wyred 4 Sound DAC platform and go crazy with upgrades. Leave no stone unturned in the quest for extreme performance. The final product will sound so darn good that FOMO just won’t get a look in.

    From where I sit, designer EJ Sarmento totally nailed that goal. What better way to mark a tenth birthday?

    Wyred 4 Sound DACs have been making sweet music for quite some time. Roughly eight years ago, their DAC-1 and DAC-2 were among the first offerings to sport the ES9018 D/A chip – flagship of the then-new Sabre line from ESS Technology. Back then, our editor gave the DAC-2 a spin and declared its sonics “colourful but uncoloured”. Many years and numerous iterations later, the series culminates in the special 10th Anniversary Limited Edition – about those same words remain surprisingly apt.

    From the outside, the 10th Anniversary DAC looks familiar yet distinguished. The chassis remains structurally unchanged, but the champagne silver finish and commemorative graphics set it apart from lesser models. It also gets fancy lathed aluminum footers which I find quite fetching, and a red display which better matches the overall theme. The silver finish is very obviously a premium touch – it looks like something you’d find on an exotic car – but this still isn’t the most flashy DAC ever to grace my audio rack. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either; the US$4499 asking price is relatively low in the world of top-level DACs, and I’d rather see that budget allocated where it matters most.

    Wyred 4 Sound calls this their “most advanced, best sounding DAC ever”. How did founder / lead engineer EJ Sarmento and co. and get there? Since this 10th Anniversary DAC builds on the existing platform, let’s start our discussion there and work our way up.

    Highlights of the standard DAC-2v2 include the new ESS Sabre 9028 Pro DAC chip, a fully balanced design, proprietary discrete output stages, galvanic isolation, and a quality USB implementation capable of PCM up to 32-bit/384KHz PCM and DSD256. The overbuilt power supply sports a rather large toroidal transformer and 88,000uF worth of filtering from the W4S low-ESR super-cap. That’s a well-rounded package for the US$2299 asking price.

    Stepping up to the DAC-2v2 SE brings a swap from 9028Pro to the flagship 9038Pro. The Femto clock, a $125 upgrade option for the base model, comes standard here. Custom Vishay Z-foil resistors, premium inductors, ultra-fast recovery Schottkey diodes, and Wyred’s proprietary ultra-low noise discrete regulators are all part of the package. Wyred claims these upgrade bring performance to a significantly higher level – as they should considering the price bump of US$1500.

    Aside from the previously mentioned aesthetic upgrades, going all-out for the 10th Anniversary Limited Edition doesn’t bring a massive laundry list of additional features. Rather, it hinges on a smaller collection of significant tweaks and optimizations, making it tougher on the marketing folks to brag about, yet very beneficial for end users.

    Sarmento explains: “The boards are totally redesigned with new parts and better routing techniques. Everything from power regulators, caps, output transistors, and USB interface were changed. The USB interface is a newer design with optimized galvanic isolation from the previous gen. The new version does the clocking on the DAC side of the isolation for improved signal integrity.”

    Next comes the meticulous hand-matching of all components – a tedious process considering the plethora of discrete parts employed in the device. This, plus the various upgrades mentioned by Sarmento above, allows Wyred to squeeze every last ounce of performance out of their existing design. Nearly ten years of digital adventures come to fruition here –  the best DAC Wyred knows how to make in the here and now.

    Before discussing sound, I have to mention the fact that Wyred 4 Sound offers something few competitors bother with these days: an upgrade plan. If you’ve got a prior model from Wyred, it can be brought up to current specs for a reasonable fee. This appears to extend all the way back to the original DAC-1. The 10th Anniversary DAC works a bit differently – Wyred call it a trade-up scheme where the majority of earlier DACs retain 70% of their original purchase price. That seems to me an extremely favorable option, outpacing the usual fifty percent trade-in deals found on the second hand market. I would love to see this become a common practice in the ever-evolving world of digital conversion.

    The 10th Anniversary DAC faced a tough challenge right off the bat. It slotted into my system in place of the COS Engineering D1, a beast of a DAC whose US$9000 asking price – double that of the Wyred unit – puts it up there with the likes of Bricasti Design, Meitner, and some of the entry-level designs from Esoteric. Surely even the overachieving Anniversary DAC doesn’t quite belong in that elite company…or does it?

    The system was assembled with some of my most resolving gear (which doesn’t necessarily mean my most expensive gear). An Equi=Core 1800 balanced power conditioner anchored everything with clean power, whilst the Euphony PTS music server (running Roon, of course) fed by a Wyred 4 Sound PS-1 modular power supply, plus a Wyred 4 Sound Recovery (also powered by the PS-1) made up the front-end. The Anniversary DAC sent a balanced signal out to the Violectric V281 headphone amplifier, initially driving a modified/balanced Sennheiser HD800 but with numerous other headphones in the queue. Cabling was a mix of Cabledyne Silver Reference and Better Cables Blue Truth II. Again, not the most expensive equipment out there, or even the most expensive I own, but nonetheless highly revealing of DAC differences both large or small.

    Stepping down from COS to Wyred resulted in a fairly notable change in presentation quality but perhaps not in the way one might think. This was actually an improvement – and a significant one at that. Tonal density took an immediate turn for the better, imparting a proper sense of “chugging” to my metal collection. The D1 played it more politely – appropriate for something like Black Label Society’s unplugged album The Song Remains Not the Same, but not so much for their usual heavier fare. I wouldn’t necessarily call the D1 thin per se, though in comparison to the Anniversary DAC a certain lack of body and grunt could be called out.

    The Wyred DAC also produced a more startling snare drum SNAP! on Steve Miller Band’s classic “Take the Money and Run”, and handled Minor Tapes by Electronic Noise Controller with clearly superior drive, texture, and impact. The D1 seemed more at home playing Amber Rubarth and similar wispy singer/songwriter material, portraying vocal sweetness and transient decay very convincingly. To be fair, the Wyred DAC also performed superbly with that sort of “audiophile” stuff, teasing out more body and resonance from acoustic guitars whilst also showing top end delicacy with aplomb. In short, the COS Engineering D1 made beautiful, somewhat polite music which worked better on some genres than others. Despite the massive price discrepancy, it was simply outclassed by the more affordable Californian counterpart, whose sonic prowess showed considerably greater genre independence.

    Was this some anomaly? Is the COS Engineering DAC just a dud, thus making the Wyred Anniversary DAC look better than it otherwise would? Not at all. Wyred 4 Sound really has built something capable of standing toe to toe with digital heavies yet costing significantly less. In a world where new flagships tend to push the cost ceiling ever higher, that’s something to be excited about.

    The Anniversary DAC has a wonderfully palpable tone, particularly in the presence region, which helps balance out potentially clinical systems or recordings. I switched around my gear to build a deliberately lean setup, starting with a long-in-the-tooth OPPO DV-983H (dragged out of storage). Spinner lashed to DAC via TOSLINK which tends to be the least impressive interface. Rupert Neve’s brutally honest RNHP headphone amplifier, as good as it is (review forthcoming), promised to deliver “just the facts” with no hint of added warmth, while a trio of somewhat lean sounding headphones rounded out the system – the Enigmacoustics Dharma, MrSpeakers Ether, and (unmodified) Sennheiser HD800.

    While the Wyred Anniversary DAC did not transform these relative lightweights into smooth operators a la the comparatively warm/dark Audioquest Nighthawk, it nonetheless helped firm things up in an otherwise washed-out system. From more eclectic acts like DAT Politics and Nils Petter Molvaer to straight-ahead rock from The Mother Hips or Beardfish, the result was full-bodied, fun, and surprisingly non-fatiguing. Vocals, potentially glassy and grating on these headphones, instead gave a well controlled, authoritative tone, in the end being undeniably listenable with the Wyred DAC in place. Swapping in alternate D/A converters from Benchmark, Mytek, Chord, or Grace Design robbed music of this pivotal quality.

    Lest you think the Anniversary DAC is yet another member of the “rose-tinted-glasses” school of DAC design, I have to clarify how resolving and transparent it really is. The warmth, body, and fluidity I’ve spoken about comes not at the expense of accuracy, as seen in many otherwise enjoyable designs; see Metrum’s early models, or any number of tube-equipped NOS DACs to get my drift. Better examples in that camp aren’t merely rolled-off but instead favor a relaxed presentation when it comes to transient attack or leading-edge snap. Again, Wyred’s crown jewel doesn’t fall into that trap – I want explosively-dynamic drums and brilliantly-biting trumpets, just as those instruments play in real life, and that’s exactly what I get with the Anniversary DAC. It possesses a brilliant resolving ability, particularly with respect to top-end purity and air. Very rarely have I heard such beautiful finesse from the voices of Marta Gomez or Rachel Z – there’s certainly no blunting of the high-end to be found here. But neither is there an artificial sense of “detail” we often hear from DAC makers trying to out-resolve one another. The Wyred 4 Sound Anniversary DAC, to my ears at least, hits the balance just about perfectly.

    Whilst maintaining a very high standard across the board, Wyred does give us several ways to tweak the DAC for individual flavor; starting with your choice of multiple digital filters for subtle fine tuning. Night and day differences? Nope, but a bit more noticeable than I’ve experienced with other DACs. The default setting – Apodizing fast roll-off linear phase – is probably the most universally appealing choice, but I also quite enjoy Slow roll-off minimum phase and Hybrid fast roll-off minimum phase.

    These bring to mind the film simulation modes on Fuji’s excellent mirrorless cameras. Provia nets the most technically accurate results, making for a sensible default setting. Velvia makes for more vivid shots, with increased saturation for a more dynamic look. Classic Chrome switches to a smoother character with enhanced contrast. None of these transform a wedding “fauxtographer” into Yousef Karsh, but they do offer a welcome change in flavor when used in the right context.

    Next comes the variable jitter reduction function – a rare option amongst digital processors. Users can choose between 8 stages of jitter reduction from the ESS Sabre chip, or disable it altogether. The Anniversary DAC thus accommodates everything from poor quality transports to reference rigs and everything in between – tailoring the jitter processing to ideal levels in every case. I find that turning it up to max really helps clear up imaging and spacial cues when using a basic laptop as transport. On the flip side, using a high-quality transport like my Euphony PTS or the overachieving Cayin iDAP-6 allows jitter reduction to be deactivated completely. This brings improved layering and superior timbre to the presentation. Other sources, like my SimAudio and OPPO disc spinners, sound best with the setting somewhere in the middle. Between this option and the digital filter selections, there’s quite a bit of mix ‘n match action to be had. Again, you won’t transform the Anniversary DAC into an entirely different animal, but you can emphasize certain aspects of its character should you wish.

    As for inputs, I find them universally excellent with one exception: the I2S input is by far the pick of the bunch. Use it – do not hesitate. I2S over HDMI is not a universal standard, so there’s no guarantee of compatibility with every device. Thankfully Wyred 4 Sound saw fit to use the same pin format as PS Audio, making it compatible with their PerfectWave and DirectStream transports. For those who no longer bother with physical media, the previously mentioned Cayin iDAP-6 is a winner at US$799. Or, for just US$379, the Matrix Audio X-SPDIF 2 will convert any USB output to an I2S signal the Wyred can work with. Again, it’s quite clear from my testing that I2S is what you want to shoot for. All other inputs sound quite good, but once you hear I2S you won’t want to regress.

    Comparisons become tough when something performs at this level. In my mind it simply outclasses favorites like the Resonessence Labs Veritas, PS Audio DirectStream, and B.M.C. UltraDAC. But it’s not as simple as “better bass” or “more resolution”. The B.M.C. comes closest in terms of signature, yet Wyred 4 Sound takes things a step farther by sounding – for lack of a better word – more analog. I fully realize that word means different things to different people… for this listener, it describes a lack of stereotypically digital sound. There’s a sense of ease, tonal weight, and liquidity which many (most?) DACs miss out on to some degree. The B.M.C. UltraDAC does a fine job already – it’s among the best I’ve ever heard – but the Anniversary DAC is even better. No small accomplishment considering both units fall well-short of the upper-end on DAC pricing.

    Unfortunately, I can’t fully compare the Anniversary DAC to my reference, the Resonnesence Labs Invicta Mirus Pro because of its recent departure to be upgraded to Signature status – whilst in the middle of evaluating the Wyred DAC – and have not had enough time to fully flesh-out the consequences. I suspect the Resonessence Labs unit may ultimately remain my reference, but it’s not a slam dunk by any means. The Mirus Pro Signature version sells for nearly double that of the Anniversary DAC, so the two don’t necessarily compete directly in the first place. Thus far I can make this (flawed) analogy: the Resonessence unit is more like a top Stax electrostatic earspeaker, while the Wyred Anniversary DAC is closer to the best Audeze planar magnetic headphones. Both make exquisite music yet focus on somewhat different areas. Choosing a winner really comes down to individual preference and system matching more than any inherent superiority. That’s about as far as I’m prepared to go until I get many more hours of listening under my belt.

    Wrapping things up: Tone. Body. Organic warmth without sacrificing resolution. Stunning imaging and speed. This is the 10th Anniversary Limited Edition DAC from Wyred 4 Sound. It’s just a superb performer, showcasing the full potential of EJ Sarmento’s DAC platform. I would – and did – happily put this sub-$5k thoroughbred up against all manner of more expensive competition. Ultimately I can say this DAC has challenged my view of what can be accomplished for less than five grand – spending more doesn’t tend to achieve tangible benefits, and in most cases I’d choose the Wyred option hands down. It’s that good.

    Initially planned for the year 2017 only, the project was held up for various reasons and will now be available for at least a portion of 2018. Beyond that, it will be gone forever. FOMO certainly applies in this case – once it’s gone, it’s gone.

    Further information: Wyred 4 Sound

    John Grandberg

    Written by John Grandberg

    John Grandberg is a US-based audio journalist who has been immersed in the scene for over a decade. A recovering percussionist, he has a particular affinity for headphones and associated gear, about which he also contributes to InnerFidelity on a regular basis.

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