To Garrett Hongo,
First and foremost, I would like to take the time to tell you that I have truly enjoyed reading your reviews for the past year or so; with all the massive amount of audio publications out there I can honestly say that I find your reviews/columns refreshing to read. There are a lot of reputable writers, but sometimes they seem to get way too technical about what they’re writing or reviewing. On the other hand, you seem to kind of just sit back and let the music that you’re very accustomed to speak for itself, but still keeping in mind that you have a job to do, which leads me to a favor that I am about to ask of you: I am currently pulling out whatever hair I have left, trying to decide which DAC will fit my budget and musical taste best. I have about a $3000 budget for this dilemma, and as for my musical background, I grew up listening to ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s rock, blues, and some jazz. Since I work for a custom-guitar builder here in Los Angeles, my musical surroundings tend to lean closer to the guitar-driven spectrum. My current audio setup is a mix of vintage and modern equipment, but mainly tube-powered amps from the mid ‘50s called Altec 1530A (70W mono), my preamp is an Audible Illusions M3B, speakers are Sonist Concerto 2 bookshelves, I have an oldie-but-a-goodie California Audio Labs CL-15 CD player, and all components are paired with FMS cables. I hope that this helps you to give me at least an idea of which DAC will suit me best. I would really appreciate any input or recommendations.
Thank you for your kind words about my reviews. It's always nice to hear feedback on what I do and how it strikes folks. Glad it pleases you!
As for your system, I know all the gear firsthand except for your cables and the Altec 1530A amps, which have a serious reputation in the vintage world. Weren't they originally for the Voice of the Theater systems in the movie houses of the ‘50s? I'd sure love to read your characterization of how they sound! The Sonist Concerto 2 speakers you own were my first review subject for the SoundStage! group of publications, and I've also auditioned other speakers in the Sonist line in my home system. Your Audible Illusions preamp is one I've also had in, pairing it with vintage gear like the McIntosh MC240 and Dynaco Stereo 70 amps. Finally, the Cal Audio Labs CL-15 was my very first high-end acquisition and it transformed my life. I still have it, too. Will never let it go.
Regarding the two DACs I reviewed most recently, the Hegel H25 and T+A DAC 8, the difference in sound varies, as the DAC 8 has several filter settings that can alter its sound depending on the recording. In this way, it's very "flexible." It can also serve as the center of a digital-based system, acting as a preamp, as the sound of it directly driving amps is terrific. The volume control on it is superb -- very transparent. It's too bad the CL-15 doesn't have S/PDIF or AES outputs, though, as without them, you can't run a signal from it to the DAC 8. In general, I found the sound of the DAC 8 more refined and resolving than that of the Hegel H25, which makes it better for classical music and opera, say. But the H25 proved more thrilling for jazz and rock, with more saturated tonal colors, more heft and weight, and a slight warmth that was very pleasing. Don't get me wrong, it was good on classical music too, particularly for orchestral string sound, but I preferred the DAC 8 on classical and opera for its better refinement and various filters. Finally, the DAC 8 can act as a headphone amp as well. The HD25 cannot.
Just to throw a wrench in the works, though, I want to mention the Eximus DP1 DAC, which can also function as a headphone amp and preamp, capable of directly driving an amp. Though I found its sound generally leaner and less refined than either the DAC 8 or HD25, its sound on rock could be better than both. It's punchier, speedier, more responsive to rhythmic changes and complexities, and therefore, I think, more thrilling. It's not going to give you the richness of the HD25 or the refinement of the DAC 8, but it splits the difference between them in retail price. It's $2995, the HD25 is $2500, while the DAC 8 is $3250.
If you have a dealer, I urge you to see if you can get take-home auditions of these various pieces and listen for yourself. However, for your system with the tonal warmth it already has because of the Sonist speakers, my recommendation would go to the T+A DAC 8 as the most flexible unit with good sound across the board in terms of multiple genres of music. If you want the best DAC for rock 'n' roll, I'd recommend the Eximus DP1. For sumptuous jazz and classical, the Hegel HD25, though its own slightly warm signature may be too much of a good thing, given your speakers. . . . Garrett Hongo