Our Review of the T+A DAC8 DSD

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Baetis founder John Mingo reviewed the T+A DAC8 DSD (with minor edits by Joe Makkerh):

We had been promoting the Schiit™ Yggdrasil DAC as the very best bang for the buck we know of in DACs. And we have often described the Berkeley™ Alpha Reference Series 2 as the very best DAC we have ever auditioned, regardless of price. After completing a two-month audition of the new T+A™ DAC 8 DSD. There is no way around it. We have to say that the T+A is both the best bang for the buck (and we’ll tell you exactly why in a minute), and the Berkeley Reference DAC has a new competitor.

We continue to audition DACs since we do not really trust many of the reviews we read on the subject. First, some reviewers always use their factory computer’s USB port to play to the DACs they audition and you know how we feel about such factory USB ports. Second, many reviewers, even when using a decent music server, continue to use a separate pre-amp in the chain – and this might be a mistake when talking about the very best DACs with integrated volume control. Often, the pre-amp was chosen because the user “liked its sound the best”. Often, this means that the pre-amp sounds artificially “tube-like” and, in most reviews we have read, the reviewer does not bother to listen to the DAC with and without its own volume control. One reviewer says that most music servers sound pretty much the same to him (not guessing that his pre-amp is one that has, well, a very special voice to it).

Now comes T+A, which stands for Theory + Application, a German company that is extremely well known and loved in Europe and Asia, but is relatively unknown in the U.S. T+A’s DAC sounds better through its AES input when playing PCM than through its USB input. But if you are fortunate enough to have a few albums that are high sample rate DSD (up to DSD512, which has a sample rate over 22 million Hz), the T+A will play those files at full DSD512 and do so as true native DSD, not the typical DoP (DSD over PCM) through its USB input.

Thus, the T+A can “do something” that neither the Schiit Yggdrasil nor the Berkeley can do – play highest resolution true native DSD. But more importantly — the T+A confirmed something we had suspected. We had always found that it sounded best to transcode any DSD back to the PCM in which it was mastered (since most DSD files were mastered in DXD, a fancy name for 352.8khz PCM), and then play it via our AES output. We even agreed with Cookie Marenco, the most noted producer of native DSD albums, that if it was mastered in PCM, play it in PCM, and vice versa. Therefore, we were not theoretically surprised, but empirically impressed, when we heard Fiona Joy’s album, Signature-Solo, mastered by Cookie, played via native DSD on the T+A. This DSD album sounded better than the same album converted to PCM and played on the Berkeley Reference DAC Series 2 (which does sound better in all respects than Berkeley’s own Reference Series 1 DAC).

So, yes, having a DSD capability that does NOT involve transcoding a DSD signal back to PCM is clearly important, at least for the future, as more DSD albums become a reality. But there was a second question as well — since 95%+ of all music ever recorded is mastered in PCM, how does the AES input of the T+A compare to the AES input of the Berkeley Reference Series 2? Answer – boy, is it ever close. Both DACs will allow you to hear detail you never heard before, and in a way that sounds more “musical” than you’ve ever heard before. Both yield great dynamics, especially with classical music, where dynamics are so important. Both have a similar, deep and wide sound stage. But the Berkeley Reference Series 2 is priced at $19,500 while the T+A DAC 8 DSD is priced at $4450. Is the Berkeley better for PCM? Yes. But not by much, and maybe only for 2-channel systems that involve really good (and really expensive) speakers. We’d love to hear the Reference Series 3 in comparison!

So, yes, we became one of the few T+A dealers in the U.S. and Canada. If you have seen reviews mentioning that the T+A DAC 8 DSD is priced at $3995, that was before T+A raised the price to at least partially reflect current costs of production. Good thing T+A doesn’t think and price the Dac8 DSD like most audiophile manufacturers, or the price would have risen to well over $15k!! In fact they do sell DACs that are above the US $30K price point, and they must be incredible for that much.

We think that a major contributor to this quality is the volume control in the analog domain, using a particular brand of resistors that are often termed the very best. The analog and digital domains are completely separate; galvanic isolation is used in several places. Similarly, the PCM and DSD processes are completely separate. Importantly, the over-sampling process of the T+A, like in other great DACs, can be a choice of the consumer. But the T+A proprietary “pure Bezier” process is the best of the choices, and does precisely what the maker says: “exhibits no pre- or post-echoes of any kind, and does not add coloration or timing errors to the original signal”. The fact that T+A uses 8 separate 32-bit DAC chipsets, 4 for each channel, coupled with a 56-bit DSP engine for oversampling, tells you that this is no “ordinary” mass-produced DAC. True 1-bit DSD, plus one of the very best PCM DACs, at this price, will probably generate lots of rave reviews. If you have a truly great 2-channel audio system and are thinking of spending $20k to > $35k on a DAC, we urge you to audition this jewel of a DAC. You might then be able to purchase a truly great music server – one of the Baetis Reference models with our very special SOtM USBhubIN USB non-PCI card, with separate clock board, plus our proprietary daughterboard with what some think is the world’s best AES output.

Like some other superlative DACs, the T+A allows for turning off the volume control (Line level only), and it has all the necessary digital inputs as well as both RCA and balanced XLR analog outputs. A menu reached via either the remote control or the push buttons on the main panel also does things such as L/R channel balance control.

If you think you MUST have MQA™ then you can’t wait for it in T+A, (and they have promised us this is the highest priority) buy one of the Berkeley DACs and pay an extra $615 for an MQA firmware upgrade (including for the very good Berkeley Alpha DACs Series 2 at $4995). In our auditions, the AES input of the T+A does beat the AES input of the Alpha Series 2 DAC by quite a bit. Of course, you can buy BOTH the Berkeley Reference Series 2 AND the T+A DAC 8 DSD to cover every kind of music format that the audio magazines are trying to sell you (PCM, native DSD, MQA), and do so at the level of the world’s best quality in each. That is what we’ve done in our own best 2-channel room.

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