Music is life, music is love, music is emotions. Don’t let your hifi take it away! The Audio Note DAC 5 Special may be costly, but even though it’s a killer DAC, it keeps the music alive!
A year has passed now, since the Audio Note DAC 4.1X graced my living room, and boy have I missed it! Audio Note have, in their mercifulness, handed over a beauty from their uppermost level, and I listen to the DAC 5 Special with awe. Note that there are still a couple of DAC models above this one in the AN portfolio, but we’re already at a level where the potential buyer normally have stopped asking for price. I do admit feeling a bit saddened by the fact that a normally paid music lover never can afford an item like this one, ’cause this unit is actually made for dedicated music lovers, not oligarks. Still, the latter will probably be over represented among the customers, I’m afraid. So let’s hope they have both time and passion for the music, even when they have come to an economic level most of us can only dream of. Me? I cling to the test object as long as I am allowed, this is my glimpse into paradise!
The huge DAC 5 Special is filled to the rafters with expensive parts, whereas a major part of the 22 kilos is made of the cleanest silver you can dig up. This is a no feedback design, pure class A, single ended, and, in the digital domain AN have taken away just about everything normally used for removing trouble. In other words, you’ll find no filtering, no oversampling, no noise shaping, no re-clocking. Crazy shit, bro. Send this to Amir at Audio Science Review, and he’ll fall off his chair in disbelief and laughter, I can foresee that much. Then again, I guess he and his followers won’t find any reason for listening to the DAC 5 Special, anyway, some people just don’t dare to take a walk on the wild side! When putting so much care and high quality parts into a DAC, it’s a pity that it only accepts one input source, but that is the way Audio Note build DAC’s, period. On the output, you can choose between balanced (XLR) and Single Ended, in my own set-ups I have used the SE, while in some other places I have visited, the balanced has been used. Also, several CD drives have been involved, from the sensible Audiolab 6000CDT, but also much more advanced designs have been used, C.E.C. and other esoteric gear have served the ones and zeros to the DAC 5.
Many people say AN makes simple designs, that they do no product development, no real innovation, just recycling of old ideas, connected to an immoral price tag. As already indicated, I have my views on price bracket, but I have visited AN on several occasions, and, I will emphasize again that the ongoing research and development is in a league of its own, compared to other hifi factories I have visited. Further, the way AN plays speaks for itself; all the way from the Zero’s and upwards, there’s a certain natural and liberated way of presenting music. It is about being able to convey the emotions, the small changes of coloration and minor pressure changes when a person sings, or plays an instrument. Early 90’ies, Audio Note’s owner, Peter Qvortrup wrote: The basis for my idea is that there has to be a price to pay in all attempts to improve, “correct” or manipulate the signal, regardless whether it is done in the digital or the analog domain, and I have always thought that the digital filters with their oversampling, re-clocking, noise shaping, jitter reduction and whatever else are no different in their fundamental properties to the corrective feedback systems employed in the analog domain, in that they also try to “stop” or reverse time, so their deteriorating effect on the sound must be similar. His idea is truly followed to this day, still they’re working hard to remove obstacles, rather than introducing new ones. Kind of undressing the sound, maybe? Yes, the measured values audiophiles normally try to improve, go straight down the drain in AN’s workshop. Still, some of us get the immediate and indisputable moment of realization as soon as an AN DAC starts playing. This is it!
It is interesting, to the edge of intriguing, actually, how the DAC 5 Special always presents the music au naturel; this may be subtle, but still. Each and every musical piece I hear through this DAC serves me something new, something I did not know before, and this something makes the music come more alive than ever before. The lyrics are clearer. The bass is more precise. The stage is larger, more spacious. The dynamics hits harder, more explosive. The timbres… oh, the timbres, on this aspect Audio Note carves out a niche of their own, bringing the ancient wood veneer back into the cello, the chest back to the singer, and the Marshall back to the Fender. On top of that, the veils are removed. The result is pure musical communication, a holistic presentation of the musician’s input. Some say all of this comes from higher distortion. More noise. Yea right. I remember seeing Michael Johnson smashing the 400 meter world record back in 1999. The time was 43.18 seconds and the record stood for 17 years. He ran very different from all the others, kind of leaning backwards, and, it’s like saying he beat his competitors so much, because he used wrong running technique. Pure logic, not. Over and over during the long review period with the DAC 5 Special, I just shook my head in pure disbelief over the realism and connection between artist and listener. To me, there are no logic way to explain this; extremely knowledgable hifi-constructors tell me over and over it is an illusion, it is fake, just artifacts. I don’t believe them, the more I listen, the longer away I am from believing their explanations. The results are beyond what ever the usual measurements can unveil, this is musical freedom, this is anarchism, this is the real McCoy!
So let’s start the music, we take off with an old and well known piece for me, you can say I have played it to death, I know every millisecond of Lars Erstrands’s “The talk of the town”, splendidly recorded by Opus 3 in Sweden. Oh. My. God. This is a time capsule, man. There are unbelievable timbres and atmosphere here, the sax more vivid and colorful, way more realistic than I ever have heard it before. And the timing… Emotions comes through so convineceable, much due to the fabulous micro dynamics. The Xylofon too comes across totally marvelous, distinct and realistic. The piano has been given a kind of dwelling presentation, the human input becomes so indisputable, the melody is living, foot tapping and captivating. What a start!
So let’s just go for “A dramatic turn of events”, this is Dream Theater, of course. Not really music filled with emotions, rather more in direction of technical exercises for skilled musicians, but still extremely interesting. And a great recording! Even though I have discovered that the DAC 5 Special pushes me in the more soft jazz direction, it excels in the heavier areas, as well. Again, new aspects show up; I have always loved “Bridges in the sky” from this album, and I have played it a lot every time I try some new products. With the DAC 5 in front, the stage is set for new discoveries. A dramatic turn of events, indeed! What an insight! More relaxed, still extremely on the mark when needed (which, on this recording, is constantly!), sharp rhythm, filled with details and a great spectrum of colors, add to that an enormous stage, yes, this is just astonishing. And, while we’re at it, let’s go for “I play bass” by Diallo, this is sheer and raw power. Surely the most precise and detailed I’ve heard on this example, and, with a good margin, too. Not hard, not chaotic, just filled with reality and presence and distinction in a huge space. One of the examples I have used through the years to describe my affection for Audio Note in general, is “Hunting humans” by Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow; a mediocre recording, that in AN’s capable circuits is transformed into a threatening, thunderous experience. With the DAC 5 Special in front, the song comes across even heavier, with even more power and might. Not harsh or hard, clear vocals, great control. Depth and room exceeding all I’ve heard on this before. This is raw magic!
Change of stage again. Let’s listen to the splendid Linn recording with Barb Jungr, and her intense version of “Quartier Latin”. The room! The touch on the piano, the timbres of the surroundings! And then comes the voice, oh my god, this is exceeding all I have had of equipment visiting my set-up. And, again with a comfortable margin. The piano notes are so distinctive, so precise, so dynamic, each of the notes live its own life, this is not like anything I’ve had the pleasure of listening to before on this song, it totally wins me over. Further, the recording I have of the Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate and his “Zigeunerwiesen” is nothing special, neither musically, nor the recording, but still the timbres stand out in a complete new way, with a realism to die for. The dwelling way of “being there”, of transmitting the emotions, it is all new, like the composition has more energy just waiting in there for its release. And the violin, the strings, the feeling of something lifelike is backed by fantastic control of the room, the instruments, the dynamics, the freedom. Tops all I’ve heard on this one, hands down.
Being Norwegian, I also like to bring in a couple of examples from my own country, first out is Odd Børretzen visiting on Vamp’s fantastic album “En annen sol”, recorded in Ryvarden lighthouse out in the wild Norwegian west coast. Their song “I noen timer” is again transformed almost into something divine. The details are so present, the small emotional messages any voice gives away becomes obvious, the small breath after finishing the sentence, the lips, alle the signs of close mic’ing are there. It’s like a huge opening into the reality, where the emotional flow is not restrained in any way, more realistic than “conserved” music normally is. Just distortion? Only made up by an overly creative valve circuit? Bullocks. Over to Norsk Utflukt, and their album “Med lyset på”, and the song “Pere Lachaise”. This band is unique, it is intense, this is distilled emotions. Happy me, that have seen them live twice, and I promise that is a very rare happening, indeed. The album is recorded in Oslo 1992, and, another unique musician, Bugge Wesseltoft is the producer, and the result is really special. No, it is not the best ever, but it is somehow close and honest, giving insight to the musicians’ emotional input. And, the DAC 5 Special makes this its own. This often sounds sharpish, but here it is just music and sense of being there, I love this album, and never have I loved it more than now!
If I let a standard, low priced, streamer bring the signal into the DAC 5, again I discover something new. It is truly clear, agile and lively, I have used this streamer (Michell & Johnson) as digital source for a lot of DAC’s, and, one of the many interesting things is, when the distortion question is brought into the discussions, how on earth this DAC always seem to dig out all of the inner details from all sources. The dynamics, the layers of sound in the most complex musical passages, the silky smooth presentations of the most demanding pieces, and the fantastic differentiation of all recordings. One musical piece showing this better than most, is Hans Zimmer’s monumental “A Dark Knight”; I just love this piece on a good set-up, it is huge, enormous, demanding, filled with all challenges your hifi can meet. The DAC 5 Special again moves this 16 minutes long piece into new landscape, mark the word landscape here, people, ’cause that’s what you actually can “see” in front of you in all its darkness and drama. And this is when using a mediocre streamer and Spotify Connect as source, remember. Try telling me again that all of this is made by distortion! When moving on to Jon Lord and his dreamlike album “Pictured within”, I made an important discovery. Can’t remember exactly where, when or what set-up I first heard this record, but initially I struggled to differentiate Miller Andersons vocals from Ian Gillans in the first phrases; before checking the liner notes, I honestly believed it was Gillan singing on the opening song “Sunrise”. With the DAC 5 Special in the system, this is no longer even a question, ’cause all of a sudden Miller Anderson takes a huge leap away from Ian Gillan, carving out a niche of his own, establishing his own personality. This is important, because if it really is this way, that distortion and poor constructions shows differences much better than the “perfect” products, what the heck is the point with “perfection”?
Now, the thing is, I find this DAC so special, so intensively different, so communicating, that I think it’s a shame if I will be the only one to experience it in my own set-up(s) in my own room. After all, the Audio Note DAC 5 Special is unique in several ways, and, as I’m just a simple man in a small country, I’d like to collect more reactions than my own. Therefore, I bring it along to some good friends, to check out what they think about this experience. First, to one of my former hifi-writer buddies from around 20 years of Norwegian magazines “Audio” and “Fidelity”, Mr. Jan “Myregubben” Myrvold, who is experienced both within valves and transistors, vinyl and digital. Today, he enjoys a rather strict system, consisting of the Norwegian high end Hegel HD30 DAC, fed into Audio Research SP20 pre amplifier, and the Norwegian power house Adyton Cordis 1.8 Silver power amplifier. We tried the AN DAC with two very different speakers; the expressive Magico S1, and the sonor Fyne F502 SP.
We started off by listening to a few recordings on his set-up, before, installing the AN DAC, and my own, very short conclusion is that the end result was significantly larger and with w-a-a-a-y more natural timbres. And oh, what a voice and presence! Now over to the owner, he played some French classical music, and, after listening a while in silence, his statement was clear enough. – This is in another class, altogether! I hear a better definition of the hall and the acoustics. Also, there’s more space between the instruments, it’s just like a new piece of music, a different arrangement. This is so beautiful that I just don’t feel like changing the record!
And, when playing the 1962 recording of Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Roots”, the owner utters: – It’s when you hear things like this, it feels like hell going back to what you’re used to. I have never heard this record this way before, you can actually hear the nails rasping along the guitar strings on the strike of each chord!
So to Birger Hojem, his house is filled with Border Patrol gear, fed by a beautiful Audio Note TT2 record player and a DAC that is a heavily modified mixture of an old AN Kits DAC with BP output, beefed up with BP power supply. Evetually the music is shared with the listeners by a heavily modified set of Klipschorns. Not that there is much Klipsch left; the owner has made serious investments of money, time and splendid handcraftship on these speakers, no doubt. As a unit, this is a set-up with high clarity and stunning speed and dynamic capabilities. The owner says he has kind of jumped off the bandwagon, just enjoying music, no longer listening for differences or weaknesses in the equipment. Therefore, he says, he will not necessarily be very occupied with changes after installing the DAC 5, either. To my ears, the set-up sounds very tight and quick, hard hitting and dynamic. We browse through a row of records; Johnny Lang, Marius Müller, Alison Krauss, King Crimson, Buddy Guy, Ken Hensley, David Gilmore, Bob Dylan… I can definitely hear that the fabulous and vivid colors from the DAC 5 flows through also here, now in combination with a crystal clear steel glove control and a tremendous hard hitting snap in the midrange. And it becomes also obvious that the enormous headroom comes to a full right in a set-up like this one. It’s limitless! The owner noted that there was an unheard clarity and energy in the mid, a serious punch and slam, topped by a myriad of details. All in all, the DAC 5 Special fitted well and truly into also this kind of specialized horn set-up. I am not surprised, though.
So, how can I distillate all of the above? In this case, I’ll end this fantastic journey by telling what happened the first time Stevie Ray Vaughan visited Europe. Ill advisedly he had his first European gig at the posh Montreux Jazz Festival, where Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble ended by being booed off stage. That jazz snob audience was not at all ready for a young, hungry axe-man from Texas! Later, Vaughan and his band were invited to do a show case in a basement in the city centre, where celebrities and musicians in generous numbers had gathered to party. Among them being parts of Rolling Stones, and, when young mr. Vaughan discovered who were among the clientele, he was scared stiff, so afraid to go on stage that he tried to calm his nerves by a chemical mixture one can barely dream of. Well, he was already acquainted to the sort, so it did not necessarily affect his playing in a negative way, besides he was literally on fire when entering the stage. They put off one hell of a show! Towards the end of it, even the blasé audience was going totally wild, hardly believing what they just had seen and heard. Vaughan felt so high and brave that he dared asking his hero, Keith Richards, to enter the stage and sit in with them for the final.
And hereby, as my final conclusion, I’ll have to make Richards’ words to mine: What can I possibly play after this!?
Audio Note DAC 5 Special, fully valve equipped DAC with one input. Price level: Very high. Check with your local Audio Note dealer. (Norway: Stereofil, Oslo)