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Review of the Purepiper DAC A-1 - An excellent 24/96 budget DAC

Posted by Amine Slimani on March 8, 2010 at 11:10 AM

Preamble:

 

I was asked by a fellow head-fier (on behalf of Purepiper) if I were interested in reviewing a DAC from a Chinese company I have never heard of before.

After accepting, Purepiper sent me pretty quickly their DAC A-1 and I received it about 2 weeks ago.

 

 

Packaging and Build Quality:

 

The Purepiper DAC A-1 came in a nice and professional package. In my case, Purepiper sent along with the DAC their usb to spdif converter (usually sold separately).

 

However, before even powering it up, I was curious to see the insides of this DAC. After opening it up, I was very impressed with the quality inside. It looked very tidy and well organized inside .

 

 

The first interesting thing for a DAC that is going to be selling for $170 (as I was told) is that it has 2 separate transformers inside: one for the digital section and another for the analogue section. This is a nice touch for an entry level DAC.

 

For the digital section, it uses the DIR9001 digital receiver. It is limited to 24/96 but it is has a lower jitter than the CS8416 commonly used in other DACs (40ps for the DIR9001 vs. 200ps for the CS8416). By the way, I have had the opportunity to try both digital receivers in the same DAC and I can attest that the DIR9001 is sonically definitely superior to the CS8416.

 

Anyway, while 24/96 (hi-rez) can provide an improvement over 16/44 (cd quality), it is mainly because it makes filtering easier. Anything beyond 24/96 is just marketing. So it is nice to see that Purepiper has not chosen the easy way (24/192) and preferred to offer a 24/96 that actually sounds better than the 24/192 one.

 

As for the DAC section, the DAC A-1 uses the CS4398. It is the top of the line Cirrus dac chip. It also uses the OPA2604 for the digital filtering. It is an audio grade opamp that is supposed to be better than the well known OPA2134.

 

As for the output stage, the DAC A-1 uses a discrete output stage with what seems to be 4 big output capacitors.

 

Overall, the choice of components is quite impressive for a unit sold at this price. I cannot but help to compare the insides of some commercial and well known DACs. The insides of the much more expensive PS Audio DLIII looks empty (and cheap) in comparison with the Purepiper. So even if the components used by themselves do not mean much, it is nice to see that a company is not cutting costs everywhere.

 

 

Setting-up the DAC:

Inputs/Outputs:

 

The DAC A-1 has only 2 digital inputs: a coaxial and optical input. It doesn’t have a usb input which is a good thing in my opinion and here is why: In most DACs I have tried, the usb input was an afterthought and its performance level never approached that of the coaxial input. Even by using very cheap external usb to spdif converters, the performance is usually better than using the internal built-in. The reason behind that is because most built-in usb do not offer galvanic isolation from the computer. However, by using an external device and using the spdif inputs, you are providing the DAC with galvanic isolation (if the DAC or the usb to spdif converter are using transformers which they do most of the time). Also most built-in usb inputs are limited to 16/48. Only a few high end companies offer good usb solutions built-in into their DAC (Ayre, Wavelength, DCS...) but they never come cheap.

 

To cut it short, the DAC A-1 doesn’t have a usb input but it shouldn’t be discarded for that reason. Purepiper offers a usb to spdif converter that sells for $22 but it is limited to 16/48. For those who want to have 24/96 capability, they can probably go towards the Teralink-X2.

 

Tweaks:

 

The Purepiper DAC A-1 was not extremely sensitive to tweaks (change in transport, digital cables, power cord). This is a good thing for an entry level product because it means that it should work pretty much near its full potential in most cases. This is contrary to the experience I had with the Audio-gd DACs which require a lot of care/tweaks before they sound their best. However, for the sake of consistency and fairness, I used the same source, digital cable, power cord, platform support... when I was comparing the DACs.

 

 

System Used for this review:

Main Chain used for this review:

 

Foobar v1.0 --> Kernel Streaming --> M2Tech hiFace BNC --> Oyaide DB-510 --> Purepiper DAC A-1 --> Artisan Cables "Ultimate Silver Dream" (or Kimber PBJ) --> Audio-GD C-2C (or Little Dot MkIII) --> Artisan Silver Cables --> Sennheiser HD-650

 

Power related accessories:

Hi-Fi Cables & Cie PowertransPlus Power Cords (x2)

Hi-Fi Cables & Cie SimplePower

Bada LB-5600 Power Filter Plant

Essential Audio Tools Noise Eater Parallel Filter

 

Vibration Control:

E&T Spider Rack, Maple platforms, Sandboxes, Brass cones, Acrylic and Fiber carbon sheets, Yamamoto footers, Herbie's Audio Lab Tenderfoot, SuperSonic Component Stabilizer

 

Some of the reference tracks used for this review:

 

Mozart Violin Concertos - Marianne Thorsen - 2L - 24/96

Sol Gabetta - Schostakowitsch Cellokonzert Nr. 2/Cello

Vivaldi - Concerto for 2 violins - Carmignola/Mullova

Keith Jarrett - Paris / London - Testament - 24/96

Glenn Gould - The Goldberg Variations 1981

Hans Zimmer - Gladiator Soundtrack

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Take Five

The World's Greatest Audiophile Vocal Recordings - Chesky - 24/96

Diana Krall - Live in Paris

Norah Jones - Come Away With Me

Patricia Barber - Companion

Soundrama - "The Pulse" Test CD

Head-fi/Chesky Sampler - Open Your Ears - 24/96

 

 

The review:

 

Timbre & Tonal Balance:

 

Before getting into the description of the sound, I have to note that the Purepiper DAC A-1 is voiced a little differently than the audio-gd DACs I have been using these last months. It has a more upfront presentation that took me a little while to get adapted to.

 

Straight out of the box (before burn-in) the sound was thick, warm and soft (not very extended on top). After 200 hours+ of burn-in (mainly using the Isotek Burn-in CD and some 24/96 files during that time), the sound became a lot clearer and more extended on top (those big output coupling capacitors probably need a lot of running before to settle-in). By the way, I only listened for a few minutes at a time during the burn-in process, so it was the component and not my ears that burned-in.

 

Overall, the sound balance is rather on neutral side: it is neither bass heavy nor it is treble lifted. But it has a slight upper mid/lower treble brightness.

 

The extension at both frequency extremes is pretty good (better than the EMU 0404 usb, audio-gd DAC A-100/Compass DAC). It is only when directly compared to a better DAC such as the DAC A-19mk3, that you feel that it is missing that last bit of extension in the deep lows and deep bass.

 

However, I have one (small) complaint about the tonal quality of the DAC that I didn’t realize until I listened for a few hours. While I first thought that it was more detailed and extended than the twice more expensive Audio-gd FUN, I kept feeling that something was missing.

 

That missing thing hit me when I played the “Use Me” from Patricia’s Barber “Companion” Live album. The Bass playing at the beginning of the track sounded wrong. I listened to the same track with the DAC A-19mk3 and FUN, and I realized that it was much drier through the Purepiper DAC A-1. Once I put my hand on that lack of richness of tone, it became quickly apparent on other tracks as well.

 

However, that relative dryness can be quickly overcome: when using the warmer Kimber PBJ interconnects (instead of my reference interconnects) or when using the Little Dot MKIII headphone amp (instead of the C2C headphone amp), the missing warmth reappears but at the expense of other qualities (soundstage, low level details...).

 

That relative dryness of tone was small enough that I still did most of my listening with the Artisan Silver Cables and C2C amp (the Purepiper is a tonally richer sounding DAC than the EMU 0404 usb for example). But it would be probably a bad idea to pair the Purepiper DAC A-1 with bright/sterile equipment as it could become quickly fatiguing.

 

To sum up, I would say that the Purepiper DAC A-1 has a nice frequency extension at the extremes, it is relatively neutral (with the exception of that slight upper mids emphasis) and the best tonal balance is achieved when paired with neutral or slightly warm components and interconnects.

 

As a comparison, the Purepiper DAC A-1 is clearer sounding DAC than the Zero DAC but it is not thin sounding like the EMU 0404 usb for instance.

 

 

Soundstage & Imaging:

 

I was very impressed by the size of the soundstage and the quality of the imaging.

 

In my headphone set-up, the soundstage extends well beyond my head regardless of the transport used. Some DACs are very dependant on the quality of the transport (CD Players, usb to spdif converter, sound card...) and can sound constricted with a jittery source. This was not the case Purepiper DAC A-1 as it has a nice a big soundstage regardless of the source.

 

I also have to note that the size of the soundstage varied from one track to another. Some components can give you a big or small soundstage regardless of what is recorded. The Purepiper DAC A-1 is good enough to let you hear reliably if the recording venue was big or small or if the recorded event was in a studio or live event....

 

The imaging was also pretty good and better than expected from a unit of this price. I remember than when I compared the dac19mk3 against the €3000 Audiomat DAC 2.6, I was surprised with the poor imaging of the Audiomat where everything sounded diffuse (in space).

 

If the equipment downstream is good enough, the Purepiper DAC gives a pinpoint location of instruments/performers in the soundstage in both the width and depth directions. What it fails to do in comparison with better (but also much more expensive) DACs such as the dac19mk3 is to give you 3D/hollographic representation.

 

Dynamics:

 

The Purepiper DAC A-1 has good macro dynamics with no discernable compression. When listening to the demanding Battle track from Gladiator, the DAC A-1 doesn’t run out of steam. In comparison, listening to the same track with the EMU 0404 usb, the track sounds compressed.

 

However, I have to note that the way it portrays micro dynamics is not the Purepiper DAC A-1 biggest strength. I felt that the Purepiper did a better job handling macro dynamics than it did from the more subtle micro-dynamics.

 

However it is important to note that those sonic characters are subtractive and not additive. What it means is that you can be pretty much satisfied with the dynamics unless you listen to better equipment.

 

 

Transparency:

 

It is a relatively transparent DAC: it respects what is on the recording. The sonic signature is relatively minimal as it respects the tonal balance and soundstage differences between recordings. What it means, is that you don’t get a constant sound signature with the Purepiper DAC A-1. When recording are overly smooth/warm, you hear it and when they are forward or over processed you also hear it.

 

The slight emphasis in the upper mids and lower treble increases the “perceived” transparency. The voicing gives it a vivid sound signature. In a resolving system, it can become tiring but in most entry level systems, it will be probably give it the edge in A/B comparisons.

 

When listening the head-fi/Chesky sampler, you realize that there is a little simplification of the message and you don’t get that “you are there” feeling. However, at now time the message gets confused or anything. So the Purepiper DAC A-1 has a achieved a good trade-off between transparency and tonal density. The makers of the DAC A-1 could have probably made it more “transparent” (by choosing another opamp for example) but the result would probably have been a thinner over-articulated representation of the sound.

 

It is also important to note that it behaves better with high quality recordings and with lossless files. On poorly encoded (and/or) files, the Purepiper can increase sibilance. This excessive sensitivity is not a sign of real transparency (in my opinion) but more of a characteristic of the most sigma-delta dac chips (the Purepiper uses the CS4398. For example, while the dac19mk3 (which uses a mutlibit R2R dac chip) is a more resolving dac, it is also more forgiving towards low quality files.

 

Anyway, it is important to feed the Purepiper DAC A-1 at the very least high quality MP3 files (256 or better), or better lossless/high rez encoding.

 

 

Conclusion:

 

While I might have sounded critical, I just wanted to give an accurate picture of what to expect from the Purepiper DAC A-1. When buying audio components (especially the budget ones), it is always a compromise. That is why I tried to describe as accurately as possible not only the strengths but also the weaknesses. While the qualities are what catch our ears at the beginning, the weaknesses are what we have to live with the long run.

 

At $170, the Purepiper DAC A-1 did a great job at maximizing the qualities and minimizing the weaknesses. I have listened to many DACs and CD players that sounded “broken”. The Purepiper DAC A-1 is definitely not one those DACs.

 

Given that the Purepiper DAC A-1 is likely to be used with entry level amps and headphones, I would say that it is likely to be overkill for those situations. Overall, the Purepiper DAC A-1 offers a tremendous value for the money in my opinion.

 

 

Follow-up – 04/04/10:

 

Last week, I took the decision to upgrade my former reference system by replacing the older audio-gd dac19mk3/C2C combo with the newer offering: dac19dsp/ACSS/C2.

While waiting for the delivery of the dac19dsp/c2 combo, I had to assemble a temporary system with what I had on hand.

 

I first thought that I would settle on the Audio-gd FUN alone but after doing a little bit of experimenting, I found out that I got the best subjective (and most satisfying) results by running the Purepiper DAC A-1 into the Audio-gd FUN headphone amp.

 

So during these past few days, I have had the opportunity to listen a little bit more to the Purepiper which motivated me to write this little follow-up.

 

After re-reading my review, I realize that I described many times the Purepiper DAC A-1 as having a slight mid treble brightness. While that was clearly audible with the C2C headphone amp, it is far less audible with the FUN headphone amp which is more forgiving (and less resolving) than the C2C headphone amp that I used for the review.

 

My test set-up for the review (a revealing amp, pure solid core silver interconnects and headphone cables, high end power cords...) was probably not very representative of the situations that the Purepiper would likely to be used with. When using a slightly less resolving headphone amp, most of those sonic faults disappeared.

 

Does it mean that I can live happily ever after with the Purepiper DAC A-1?

The answer is no simply because I spent many months with a better DAC which made me aware that it is possible to have a better sound from a digital source.

 

However, if I were coming from an entry level gear such as the Emu 0404 usb, the Zero DAC or a regular soundcard, I would have been extremely happy with the Purepiper DAC A-1 as it represents a tremendous value in the hi-fi arena. In fact, in order to not limit the performance of the DAC A-1, one would have to use high performance interconnects that usually retail for a higher price than the DAC itself.

 

Overall, I am once again impressed about the performance level of this DAC that is selling for so low. I highly recommend it for those looking for a sub $200 DAC.

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1 Comment

Reply kboe
4:34 PM on February 4, 2011 
Great review. The best reviews are ones that leave me with the feeling like I've listened to the component itself, and this one did just that. Bravo. If you still have it, it would be interesting to see how it matches with their new amp.