WADAX VERSUS DCS VIVALDI APEX
In every match except the SW1X thus far I preferred the contender to the Apex. Not on every track, but, overall, I preferred the contender over the Apex.
To my ears the Apex has a consistent sonic signature of a touch of coolness, thinness, dryness -- the sonic sensation of menthol. It is more apparent on some tracks and less apparent on other tracks. On some tracks it really is not apparent at all.
Idiosyncratically I am very, very sensitive to this kind of sound. It is a dealbreaker for me personally. This genre of sonic signature, broadly-speaking, is the reason I have never cottoned to digital playback in general.
The Wadax equaled the stunning, ultimate resolution of the Apex, but without the Apex's sonic signature of slight coolness and thinness. The Wadax sounded a little bit warmer, a little bit richer and a little bit more resonant in comparison to the Apex. I think the Wadax exhibited slightly greater decay on acoustic instruments than did the Apex.
Put another way I found the Wadax to be a Pareto Optimal improvement over the Apex: at least one sonic attribute was improved, with no other sonic attribute being degraded. The Wadax sounded less digital and more natural to me than the Apex while, to my ears, maintaining the same resolving power of air and ambience and details and low frequency punch and frequency extension as the Apex. The Wadax’s elimination of the Apex's coolness and dryness did not come at the cost of, or any diminution to, any desireable sonic attribute.
ARIES CERAT KASSANDRA VERSUS DCS VIVALDI APEX
The Kassandra, the entry-level DAC from Aries Cerat, at about half the price of the Lampizator Horizon, brought me back to what I liked about the Lampizator Horizon: the sonic liquidity and the greater body and the soundstage dimensionality of tubes. I think the Horizon took these attributes even a step further than did the Kassandra, but, since we did not hear the Horizon side-by-side with the Kassandra, I cannot be sure.
If the Kassandra gave up anything to the dCS in ultimate resolution it was a minor sacrifice, and — to me — well worth the trade for the slightly greater liquidity and warmth and dimensionality of tubes. I think the dCS reproduced the detail and the texture and the punch of the lowest frequencies better than did the Kassandra.
MSB SELECT II VERSUS DCS VIVALDI APEX
An important development occurred between the departure of the Aries Cerat Kassandra and my audition of the MSB Select II: pk_LA fiddled with more of the filters on the dCS Vivaldi Apex, and figured out how to smooth out the sound a little bit so the Apex wasn’t truncating decay as much and was not highlighting detail and the leading edge of transients as much. This reduced the dryness and improved the listenability of the Apex for me, and narrowed — once again — the differences between the Apex and the other DACs. My personal sonic issues with the Apex were not eliminated, but they were further reduced in intensity. By the end of the survey the Apex sounded materially different than it did in the beginning.
The MSB Select II did not match the slight liquidity and slight dimensionality advantages of the tube DACs, but it definitely is my favorite of all of the solid-state DACs. The MSB just has a more relaxed and calm sonic quality to it. I also heard this relaxed sound from KeithR’s MSB Reference compared to his MSB Premier. (I suspect the Reference is the sweet/value spot in the MSB line.) This calm or relaxed quality is a little hard to describe, but it’s definitely there, and it allows me able to sit and listen to music without fatigue.
The MSB has a fuller, more “dense,” and more analog-type sound than any of the other solid-state DACs, I believe. Of course I can’t be sure because we no longer had the Wadax in house for a direct comparison.
Before pk_LA smoothed out the Apex, I was hoping the MSB would pick up two points of desirable sonic warmth and musicality, while sacrificing less than two points of resolution. After pk_LA smoothed out the Apex I think the MSB was just as resolving as the Apex. From my point of view this meant that the MSB was smoother and warmer and more musical, than the Apex, but without sacrificing any resolution to the Apex.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
From the the tube end of liquidity and warmth and dimensionality on the left to the solid-state end of resolution, detail and leading edge precision on the right I would place the top contenders as follows:
Lampizator Horizon -- Aries Cerat Kassandra -- Infigo Method 4 -- Nagra DAC HD -- MSB Select II -- Wadax -- dCS Vivaldi
The SW1X DAC III Special is on a different indifference curve because I feel it gave up too many points in resolution for the points in smoothness and warmth and analog like sound it delivered.
Across these comparisons I believe that the Horizon, the Kassandra, the Select II, the Wadax are on the same indifference curve.
I put the Apex on a slightly lower indifference curve only because, except possibly for system-matching reasons, I don’t see why anybody would prefer the dCS over the Wadax.
The two extremities of this curve are tube liquidity and warmth and musicality at the one end, and maximum resolution, detail, dynamics, crisp transient response and sharp leading edges at the other end of the curve. What a surprise! Tubes versus transistors yet again!
I think the differences between and among most of these DACs is relatively minor. If I had to make up a number I'd say something like 10% to 25%. This feels like the right (if intellectually indefensible) quantification of order of magnitude.
I believe there is no sense in which one DAC is 50% or 100% more highly resolving than any of the others. I feel there's no sense in which one DAC is 50% or 100% more musical or smoother or more analog like then another. I think any claim to the contrary is partisanship of ownership, and hyperbole.
If I were choosing for myself, I would get the Lampizator Horizon if I wanted a tube DAC, and I would get the MSB Select II if I wanted a solid-state DAC.
If somebody wants to maximize resolving power and detail and dynamics without any signature of dryness or coolness or menthol quality, and without any emphasized leading edge transient response, then I recommend the Wadax.
If somebody wants to maximize liquidity and dimensionality and naturalness and “musicality,” then I recommend the Horizon. If you prefer the technical design or the aesthetics of the Kassandra, then get the Kassandra. I think the sounds of these DACsare in the same direction, but the Horizon goes a little bit further in that direction.
If somebody wants to stay with solid-state and seeks a denser, slightly warmer, slightly more analog-like experience, I recommend the MSB Select II on the expensive end (with no sacrifice in resolution) and the Infigo (and the MSB Reference) in the $30,000 to $50,000 range.
Thanks, again, to pk_LA for allowing me to join him on this incredible survey of state-of-the-art DACS!