Thursday, 9 May 2013

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: TEAC UD-501 USB PCM & DSD DAC Reviewed (Part 1)


This guy arrived at my doorstep on May 7. Over the next week or so, I'll just build up this blog with TEAC UD-501 information as I gain experience with the unit.

Initial Impressions & The Basics:
By now, you would likely have seen the specifications sheet on this device if you've been researching.

It came relatively well packed in the box. I paid the current market price ~$850USD. Standard styrofoam protectors to withstand bumps and thick plastic bag around the unit itself. Inside the box is just a standard decent IEC power connector, an instruction pamphlet I didn't even look at and a really unimpressive thin zip-cord RCA cable :-).

The unit itself IMO looks great as do the line of "Reference Series" gear - utilitarian in terms of knob and display placement with a hint of the TEAC heritage with "pro" gear given the side metal handle bars - looks like rack-mount gear. Remember that TEAC [Tokyo Electro Acoustic Company] Audio is in the same family as Esoteric (consumer audiophile) and TASCAM (pro audio); depending on how you look at it, I guess it's either an upscale TASCAM without all the plastic or 'baby' Esoteric without as much of the mass and audiophile aesthetics.

The weight is quoted as 9lbs and it certainly feels substantial. It's about the size of an A4 (letter) sheet of paper (front "handles" poke a bit forward) and 3 inches high. The construction is metal all around with a nice brushed metal texture so there's no shiny bits - nice. Knobs feel very stable and responsive. The headphone knob on the right rotates smoothly and the MENU button feels authoritative when pressed (unlike the front buttons for the ASUS Essence One - just one of those subjective look-and-feel things which adds to a positive impression).

The organic electroluminescence (essentially OLED) display is easy to read, has 3 brightness settings and an "OFF" setting. I like the amber color which is non-distracting and I made sure I set the default to the dimmest setting. Great also that the amber LED for input selection isn't too bright and certainly less distracting than the Essence One's blue LEDs (not a big deal for me but I know many folks get bothered by this).

Other than to get more detailed descriptions of the menu options, the manual is quite unnecessary - it's really easy to operate... Basically push the MENU button to toggle between options, turn the left knob to change selections, that's really it. In looking over the menu selections, one cannot help but think that the TEAC engineers basically took the TI/Burr Brown PCM1795 DAC chip, looked at the datasheet - considered the undocumented modes, and created a machine that took advantage of everything this DAC chip can do! Here are the main options:

1. PCM Upconversion to 24/192 - presumably could help reduce jitter.

2. PCM1795 digital filters: SHARP, SLOW, and OFF - hadn't seen the OFF option before; an interesting mode which I believe was intended to allow the DAC chip to be mated to an external filter.

3. DSD Analogue FIR filters: FIR1 to FIR4 - I'll discuss more about this when I present the DSD measurements.

4. Analogue output: either RCA, XLR pin 2 hot, or pin 3 hot. Cannot output both RCA + XLR.

5. Simultaneous headphones + analogue line out: ON or OFF.

6. USB input power - powers off the USB port if another input being used - not sure the reason for this, actually, just power saving I guess?

7. Setting mode display: ON / OFF for the display to show if upconversion is happening, PCM / DSD, sampling rate... Very cool. I leave this ON.

8. LCD dimmer - 3 levels & OFF.

If you look at the PCM1795 datasheet, you see that it's documented to be a 32/192 part and can do DSD64 (2.8MHz) conversion. Perhaps a little known fact is that this DAC chip is capable of 32/384 PCM and DSD128 (5.6MHz) as "undocumented" features which the TEAC designers obviously capitalized on. Note that the ASUS Essence One also uses the PCM1795 and "symmetrically upsamples" to 24/352 or 24/384 depending on whether the input sampling rate is a multiple of 44kHz or 48kHz.

So far, the Windows driver 1.02 seems quite stable. No problems with ASIO PCM using foobar2000, and DoP bit-stream support through JRiver 18.0 works well for DSD. The current TEAC HR Player 1.0.0.4 (small basic music player, "portable" so no install) works to play back DSD and can stream using either DoP or "native" ASIO 2.1. If you have DST lossless compressed DSD audio, the TEAC player doesn't seem to handle these but they're fine with JRiver.

On the Mac side (MacBook Pro with Mountain Lion), it uses the standard USB Audio 2.0 driver so nothing to install. I have used both Decibel for PCM playback and the "alpha" JRiver 18.0 for Mac works essentially the same as the Windows version for DoP support.

Subjective Sound Quality:
So far most of my testing has been with the Sennheiser HD800 pictured above. I'm just going to put on my "subjective reviewer" hat for a moment...

The headphone amp sounds good. It's not powerful - rated at 100mW into 32 ohms but it drives the HD800 loud enough including some relatively soft classical test tracks I had. The amp could easily drive these headphones to ear-splitting levels with the usual commercial rock/pop/jazz/country tracks. The AKG Q701's are a bit more difficult to drive so I would avoid using these with softer classical selections with the TEAC. It's quite clear that the ASUS Essence One has a significantly more power headphone section in comparison. (Of course if you're a big time head-fi fan, TEAC would want to interest you in the HA-501 headphone amp.)

So far, I have no complaints of the sound. PCM performance is excellent. For example, a test track I often use to weed out poor systems is Tyler Bates' "To Victory" from the 300 (2007) soundtrack. It's recorded "hot" and dynamically compressed and the cacophony of sounds tends to get muddled very easily on a poor system. This track was reproduced excellently with this DAC (I also find the emotional response - that sense of dread - conveyed by this track a good personal gauge).

On the Kodo track "Niji No Nagori" off the Tsutsumi (2000) album, there's a nice build up of multi-layered drums, flute, vocals, culminating in a woman singing with clapping, percussion, and male backgrounds around 5:00. The drums sounded dynamic and "full". Bass went deep with the HD800; and thanks to the "speed" of these HD800's, it sounded precise. Again, excellent performance and I would certainly rate this DAC+headphone amp highly.

Currently, I don't have much DSD music collected yet but have ripped a number of my SACD's which I know are either DSD sourced or high-resolution analogue in origin - no PCM or worse Red Book-sourced DSD for me like in this review, thanks.

Albums heard or tracks sampled: old analogue sourced Nat King Cole's The Very Thought Of You (Analogue Productions 2010), Pink Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon (2003 remaster), Michael Jackson' Thriller (1999 remaster), Al Di Meola et al. Friday Night In San Francisco (1997 remaster), Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue (2007 Japanese SACD). They sound good overall...  Limitations of the analogue source quite evident with obvious limited noise floor on most of these. The 80's sound of Thriller is pretty dated but I think the SACD version is the best sounding 'pressing' I've come across...

Modern DSD sourced SACD's: Erich Kunzel's Tchaikovsky 1812 (Telarc 2001), John Hiatt's Master of Disaster (2005), Jorma Kaukonen's Blue Country Heart (2002), Rachel Podger's Bach Violin Concertos (2010), Stuttgarter Kammerorchester' Die Rohre (Tacet 2003). Nice, clean, great sense of space especially the Stuttgarter and Rachel Podger SACD's.

There's very little DSD128 content out there as far as I am aware...  However, I downloaded a few of the samples from 2L. They sound excellent but since they're sourced from DXD (24/352), I could also download those massive files (1GB for 10 minutes!) and play them PCM direct and be even "closer" to the performance :-). Seriously folks, I think this would be a real waste of disk space!

You may be asking - is there anything "special" about the sound of DSD - especially after I penned this piece on DSD? Well, honestly, it's hard to say... Really hard to do any kind of direct comparison since the foobar200 ABX tool doesn't work for this, and the switch from PCM to DSD results in a soft 'click' sound as well as a brief delay...  Furthermore, volume levels aren't exactly matched. All I can say is the music just sound good whichever format :-). I don't think DSD is "needed" for good sound, but it's nice to be able to play back the music in whatever the original format was without transcoding.

I'll be back this weekend with some PCM measurement results...



Links to the objective evaluations:

PCM Evaluation (Part 2)

DSD Performance (Part 3)

11 comments:

  1. Hello,
    First of all thank you for your test teac.
    I would like to have a little precision:
    How the hd 800 sounds with the teac not too dry?
    Hd 800 gives a nice musicality with this teac?
    The amp and powerful enough for hd 800?
    Thank you in advance cordially.

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    1. Yes, I can confirm that the Sennheiser HD800 sounds good on the TEAC. It sounds very precise and "musical" from my listening sessions. The amp is capable of driving these 300 ohm headphones to uncomfortable levels for me.

      Note that I did the "Anaxilus" mod to my HD800's so that helped tame a little of the high-end brightness.

      Happy listening!

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  2. Thank you Archmigo for this great review! I'm looking at a DSD DAC/h'phone amplifier at the moment to hook to my MAC. Are you likely to get to hear this as a comparison at all?

    http://www.custom-cable.co.uk/resonessence-concero-hp-dsd-dac-and-headphone-amplifier.html

    Regards

    Lucifer

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    1. Interesting units. Look very capable. Cool that they're made in my neck of the woods (British Columbia).

      I'll certainly keep an eye out for this when visiting the local audio stores.

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  3. Thanks Archmingo! Just getting back into audio. Got my 1st DAC (Cambridge A. D-Magic Plus). I am happy with the D-Magic Plus - but don't know what I may be missing sonically. DSD notwithstanding, would you trade-in my D-Magic Plus for the UD-501 as far as quality sound is concerned?

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  5. Nice review. Basic up front.. what we needed to know off the bat.... before you go very in depth with details... great stuff. I must ask Archimago .. Could you tell that you were listening to a pricey DAC (for entry level Hi-Fi) versus some $200-300 product? You see.. I am still thinking about getting this DAC because A. it has two Burr Brown 1795 chips (one on each channel). That should resolve things much better than one chip as many DACS currently only incorporate. As well it plays everything...even DSD. so while no DAC is future proof.. at least I have most of my bases covered to have a nice DAC for another 5-7 years. I also hear it sounds pretty darn good in all aspects w/o ear fatigue. I hear it is very 'easy' ... and pleasurable to listen to. Is this so?

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    1. Hi Ian. Yes. I still very much love this DAC after all these years and remains my primary "go to" DAC for listening. It's built well and I've had no complaints at all with USB/Coaxial/TosLink digital input. The objective results are impressive especially connected in balanced mode with XLR cables.

      Although you will find DACs with DSD256 and DSD512 these days, I'm pragmatic and do not see much value in those modes other than perhaps for upsampling playback like with HQPlayer. I do not believe there will be an audible difference worth the extra effort doing this.

      Like you say, it covers the bases and will likely serve you well for years...

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    2. Ian, what do you like about the Cambridge DAC? Is there anything that stands out like resolution, transparency, imaging, etc.? I can attest that the UD-501 does everything well, and the best word I would use to describe it is "refined". What does that exactly mean...

      The UD-501 is the culmination of all the things I mentioned. Resolving, spatial imagery, good timing, transparent, natural organic sound, ability to swing dynamically, and above all else, musical. Other DACs(and they are MANY, too many to list) I can attest to, have had: sharper attack and decay, more powerful delivery(usually less detail and not faithful to the recordings), more resolving(clinical), and numerous other traits that are appealing to some and not to others.

      What I am trying to say is that you can find a DAC do some things better, but it is the overall musicality and sound signature that you are buying. With the aforementioned attributes and the ability to shape the sound further through several different filters(or none at all)and upsampling, the UD-501 is almost too good to be true. While I certainly have heard some traits in other DACs that I feel are singularly better in that respect, I have not heard any equal at its price and even those costing multiples of the UD-501.

      If you want essentially the same sound, but without the filters, single toroidal core power transformer instead of two discrete ones(for smaller size and cost), one MUSES8920 Op-amp per channel instead of TWO per channel, no OLED display(LED indicators for sample rate and input selection), and while it does not list the SNR in its specifications, I would assume it lower than the 501's 115dB SNR, then I would highly recommend the 501's little brother the TEAC UD-301. You still get dual monaural configuration, XLR balanced output, and 100mW + 100mW HO. It is only $399.00USD and can be found frequently for as little as $299.00 new. Massdrop also has it at a reduced cost, though I am not sure of the savings. Probably around 25-30%.

      I purchased the UD-301 along with the HA-501 headphone amp and while I have many headphone amplifiers, the HA-501 has become my go to amp for headphones. As such, I then purchased the UD-501 as it is the same form factor as the HA-501. I would have been perfectly happy with the UD-301 but aesthetically the UD-501 is the HA-501's rightful mate, and as it turns out sounds even better than the UD-301 if only by a small margin that most would not notice listening casually. But these blogs and review sites of audiophile grade products aren't geared toward the casual listener. I would hope and assume anyone spending more than $200 for a DAC, would have the ability and inclination to hear the difference and not spend money where it is not needed and certainly not just for bragging rights. But that's just me. Audio is an extremely personal thing, and we all have our inclinations when it comes to sound, especially when one's gear extends into the thousands and ten's of thousands.

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  6. Comprehensive insight and review as always.

    Most comments about the UD-501 are not so much in regard to the performance as a DAC, rather most cite the headphone section and the wish for more power. One must note however, that the HO of the UD-501 is 100mW + 100mW in discrete monaural design, not to be confused with most 100mW stereo configurations. Others have surmised that even given the low power of the HO, it sounds better than some with many times its output. Undoubtably because of the aforementioned configuration of the unit and the loose specifications used with other(not all) units regarding both power and configuration.

    TEAC obviously designed the UD-501 to be used with its own highly regarded HA-501(Reference Series headphone amplifier). Consumers of such wares as the UD-501 DAC, generally already have a discrete headphone amp provided they listen through headphones, of course. Duplication would only result in higher cost of the DAC and less need for an amp the caliber of the HA-501. If one is so inclined, the now discontinued UD-501 has been replaced with the UD-503, which has a much better HO section albeit with Verita DACs rather than the dual Burr Browns in the UD-501. While not nearly as robust as the HA-501, it would easily drive MOST headphones as it is 700mW + 700mW in a balanced configuration and 500mW + 500mW in unbalanced configuration(both discrete dual monaural design with HCLD).

    I have auditioned all of these and own the TEAC UD-501, HA-501, UD-301, and AI-301DA; none disappoint. While no DAC nor headphone amp is ever the last word(despite what some may proclaim), the pairing of the UD-501 and HA-501(AI-301DA w/speakers) is simply sublime. I have yet to hear anything with the capability, resolution, transparency, flexibility, and musicality as this pairing. You can find others that might do one or two better, but not all as well and certainly at much greater expense. Ignore cost and 'listen' and you will not find anything nearly as good with everything available(PCM,DXD,DSD) and all genres.

    If, however, you have only need of a capable DAC for use with a preamp or amp and speakers(and still have respectable HO), the UD-501 performs well above its pay grade. TEAC has taken the Burr Brown DACs to their limits and have created something I haven't heard in another DAC, in any price range, that is nearly as accommodating as the UD-501.

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