in ,

Cen.Grand DSDAC 1.0 Deluxe DAC review

  • When chocolate and raspberry tasted alike? Shopping on specs and design philosophies can be a bust. In the absence of trial ops, it simply seems the best recourse to scratch buying lust. If not on looks, cost, features and brand cachet, what else should we shop on? Russian roulette? A recent assignment made a case for the shop-on-spec bust. In one corner sat the €5’990 Sonnet Pasithea from The Netherlands, a PCM DAC with proprietary multi-paralleled R2R ladders, variable reference voltage for non-lossy volume, 16Ω output impedance (8Ω with -10dB gain jumper engaged) and remote control. In the other corner was a £5’990 Cen.Grand DSDAC 1.0 Deluxe from China. It’s a DSD DAC with proprietary FPGA code that upsamples all PCM to DSD128, 256, 512 or 1’024 then sports a hi-zoot Muses variable-gain chip on the 150Ω outputs. In the world of exotic digital, these two approaches are as bananas and pineapples as it gets. We’ll leave apples and oranges for Sigma-Delta chips from ESS and Texas Instruments.

    If we shop on looks, the Cen.Grand’s full size, weight, fancier display and more luxo finish win. If we shop on cost, they’re virtually identical. Likewise for features if we focus on non-lossy volume control and omit the analog inputs of the Chinese versus the fixed-pin I2S over RJ45 input on the Dutch. If we shop cachet, Cees Ruijtenberg’s proven track record and sterling reviews go all the way back to early Metrum Acoustics. JianHui Deng’s name is mostly unknown still. Chinese origins could be a dealbreaker for shoppers who never heard of Denafrips, Jay’s Audio or Kinki Studio. Sonically, well-read audio insiders in particular will expect notable differences. The fruity spread demands it. Even engineers agree to disagree. Bel Canto and Chord take a dim view of DSD. APL Hifi, EMM Labs/Meitner, Nagra, Playback Designs and PS Audio resample all to DSD. My iFi iDSD Pro Signature’s twin engine can do native PCM up to 768kHz or resample it to 1’024 DSD. One deck, multiple flavas. Your own Baskin-Robbins on the desktop.

    Having done that plus prior DSD-über-alles decks, I concluded that their tell is fluffier more billowy spatiality, a sweeter treble, softer focus and warmer bass. By contrast, PCM pure seemed more resolved and separated if also more crisp, damped and possibly dry. While I initially listened to my iFi in early-rapture DSD1’024, I subsequently arrived at 705.6kHz PCM in what they call Gibbs Transient-Optimized or G(o)TO filter. I’d reviewed Nagra’s DSD DAC and returned it afterward. My loyalties stuck to old-fashioned R2R so a Denafrips Terminator Plus upstairs, a Pasithea downstairs. The iFi represents the ΔΣ faith on the desktop ever since I set it to hi-rate PCM upsampling.

    Accepting the Cen.Grand infidel had been predicated upon having already reviewed and then acquired their flagship Silver Fox headphone amp. If that’s what the company could do for head-fi vis-à-vis Enleum’s AMP-23R, how would they approach DSD processing? Curiosity had to know. There was subtext, too. I knew that Cen.Grand had tried to get formally licensed for the OEM Koch/Meitner DSD modules. Unlike Nagra, they failed. Instead, they minted their own FPGA approach. A photo of their factory system shows two Playback Designs models. It clarifies how their sonic standard is most familiar to the resident team. In my book all that demanded a closer look at the DSDAC 1.0 Deluxe. With a newly appointed UK distributor just one island over, I was in luck.

    Imagine my surprise when I switched from resident raspberry to visiting chocolate to taste no significant difference. Granted, that still was casual first-date mode. The fully cooked newcomer had to stretch its legs, I confirm that all worked as it should for a quick all-clear email to remove one stress point manufacturers or their agents suffer with all review items. Did theirs get forked by a lift, dropped on the head for a nasty concussion or otherwise misbehave? None of it, just a mild case of personal flu for having preconceptions challenged. Naturally, I was rather certain that if I tried hard enough, I would peel out some differences. After all, what is ever 100% the same? Trying hard simply spells serious critical listening. That’s a bit or wholly counterproductive to basking in the tunes like a relaxing massage.

    Regardless of critical mode in direct A/B/A then, the real point of today’s article remains my first impression: no significant difference to my carefully curated sound. My listening pleasure was the same because nothing subliminally or more overt pinched like a new shoe. Despite catholic vs. protestant design religion—or Judaic vs Hindu perhaps—heaven felt the same. Fruit ripe for the picking everywhere. Apple predominant but no snakes in sight. Harps on clouds. Garlanded cows, sadhus with chillums. Virgins lined up to the horizon. Oops. Wrong religions. But as my spontaneous reaction went, these very different machines were interchangeable. All roads lead to Rome is a very sloppy saying. We might end up in a Via Costi slum; or a posh room at the Waldorf Astoria on Via Alberto Cadlolo. But for these purposes, the saying fits. Radically different routes, same final destination. A complete bust for specs then?

    Not so. Wearing the critical reviewer’s cap, images with the Pasithea were more focused/clear-cut so also a bit more condensed. The Deluxe’s had frayed edges for slightly more gradual tone/space transitions which made the images bigger if also softer. Feeling more relaxed and billowy was a side effect. Pasithea also had more specific depth layering so presumably superior S/NR. Marginally softer bass and treble still factored for the Deluxe but nothing like how DSD128 truncated treble. Picking DSD256 instantly restored air and shimmer, DSD512 slightly more so. DSD1’024 seemed mostly bragging rights for a big number on the board and the eight different digital filters changing the stop band I couldn’t hear at all. No complete bust then for pointy ears but relative to a day later, enough to have forgotten all about it overnight.

    Is high-rate upsampling of DSD more important than it is for PCM? Based on this one machine, I suspect so but have no idea whether it holds globally. In this particular showing, my prior DSD fix—what I thought was its tell, fingerprint or signature—stayed but much diluted. My upstairs system uses a Denafrips Terminator Plus which previously held pride of downstairs place but then got bumped when the Sonnet moved in. With the Deluxe being such a close stand-in for Pasithea, taking it upstairs ended as expected: with a resolution victory for the DSD challenger plus the elimination of a separate preamp. That just isn’t the intended takeaway. The intended takeaway is that shopping on specs and design concepts is a very unreliable way of getting ahead in performance hifi. Even where this approach can net valid generalities, it never accounts for superior implementations or outright exceptions. As John is fond of reminding us, side-by-side comparisons and listening for ourselves really are the most important tools of our hobbyist trade. As I’ll add since this is my page, there’s really good stuff coming out of China these days. Cen.Grand is a name you’ll surely hear a lot more of as time goes by. There’s just no good reason to wait until then.

    To stop where we began, did raspberry and chocolate really taste the same? Not quite. For a blow-by-blow breakdown, go here. Today I perhaps rephrase that polar opposite approaches netted outcomes of Belgian and Swiss chocolate – very similar, equally elite and luxurious but still subtly distinctive. In this particular case, one actually could shop on looks and features alone when everything else was mostly a wash. I’d just not recommend it in general. Listening for ourselves trumps all else no matter how many hoops we have to jump through to make it happen…

    Further information: Cen.Grand

    Avatar photo

    Written by Srajan

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Chai the Bengal cat in a tiny village overlooking the estuary of Ireland’s Shannon river at County Clare’s border with County Kerry. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons and his contributions to Darko.Audio.

    The jaw-dropping results of a Vicoustic installation

    FOMO-Fi! Cambridge Audio’s Black CX Series 2