This guy arrived at my doorstep on May 7. Over the next week or so, I'll just build up this blog with TEAC UD-501 information as I gain experience with the unit.
Initial Impressions & The Basics:
By now, you would likely have seen the specifications sheet on this device if you've been researching.
It came relatively well packed in the box. I paid the current market price ~$850USD. Standard styrofoam protectors to withstand bumps and thick plastic bag around the unit itself. Inside the box is just a standard decent IEC power connector, an instruction pamphlet I didn't even look at and a really unimpressive thin zip-cord RCA cable :-).
The unit itself IMO looks great as do the line of "Reference Series" gear - utilitarian in terms of knob and display placement with a hint of the TEAC heritage with "pro" gear given the side metal handle bars - looks like rack-mount gear. Remember that TEAC [Tokyo Electro Acoustic Company] Audio is in the same family as Esoteric (consumer audiophile) and TASCAM (pro audio); depending on how you look at it, I guess it's either an upscale TASCAM without all the plastic or 'baby' Esoteric without as much of the mass and audiophile aesthetics.
The weight is quoted as 9lbs and it certainly feels substantial. It's about the size of an A4 (letter) sheet of paper (front "handles" poke a bit forward) and 3 inches high. The construction is metal all around with a nice brushed metal texture so there's no shiny bits - nice. Knobs feel very stable and responsive. The headphone knob on the right rotates smoothly and the MENU button feels authoritative when pressed (unlike the front buttons for the ASUS Essence One - just one of those subjective look-and-feel things which adds to a positive impression).
The organic electroluminescence (essentially OLED) display is easy to read, has 3 brightness settings and an "OFF" setting. I like the amber color which is non-distracting and I made sure I set the default to the dimmest setting. Great also that the amber LED for input selection isn't too bright and certainly less distracting than the Essence One's blue LEDs (not a big deal for me but I know many folks get bothered by this).
Other than to get more detailed descriptions of the menu options, the manual is quite unnecessary - it's really easy to operate... Basically push the MENU button to toggle between options, turn the left knob to change selections, that's really it. In looking over the menu selections, one cannot help but think that the TEAC engineers basically took the TI/Burr Brown PCM1795 DAC chip, looked at the datasheet - considered the undocumented modes, and created a machine that took advantage of everything this DAC chip can do! Here are the main options:
1. PCM Upconversion to 24/192 - presumably could help reduce jitter.
2. PCM1795 digital filters: SHARP, SLOW, and OFF - hadn't seen the OFF option before; an interesting mode which I believe was intended to allow the DAC chip to be mated to an external filter.
3. DSD Analogue FIR filters: FIR1 to FIR4 - I'll discuss more about this when I present the DSD measurements.
4. Analogue output: either RCA, XLR pin 2 hot, or pin 3 hot. Cannot output both RCA + XLR.
5. Simultaneous headphones + analogue line out: ON or OFF.
6. USB input power - powers off the USB port if another input being used - not sure the reason for this, actually, just power saving I guess?
7. Setting mode display: ON / OFF for the display to show if upconversion is happening, PCM / DSD, sampling rate... Very cool. I leave this ON.
8. LCD dimmer - 3 levels & OFF.
If you look at the PCM1795 datasheet, you see that it's documented to be a 32/192 part and can do DSD64 (2.8MHz) conversion. Perhaps a little known fact is that this DAC chip is capable of 32/384 PCM and DSD128 (5.6MHz) as "undocumented" features which the TEAC designers obviously capitalized on. Note that the ASUS Essence One also uses the PCM1795 and "symmetrically upsamples" to 24/352 or 24/384 depending on whether the input sampling rate is a multiple of 44kHz or 48kHz.
So far, the Windows driver 1.02 seems quite stable. No problems with ASIO PCM using foobar2000, and DoP bit-stream support through JRiver 18.0 works well for DSD. The current TEAC HR Player 220.127.116.11 (small basic music player, "portable" so no install) works to play back DSD and can stream using either DoP or "native" ASIO 2.1. If you have DST lossless compressed DSD audio, the TEAC player doesn't seem to handle these but they're fine with JRiver.
On the Mac side (MacBook Pro with Mountain Lion), it uses the standard USB Audio 2.0 driver so nothing to install. I have used both Decibel for PCM playback and the "alpha" JRiver 18.0 for Mac works essentially the same as the Windows version for DoP support.
Subjective Sound Quality:
So far most of my testing has been with the Sennheiser HD800 pictured above. I'm just going to put on my "subjective reviewer" hat for a moment...
The headphone amp sounds good. It's not powerful - rated at 100mW into 32 ohms but it drives the HD800 loud enough including some relatively soft classical test tracks I had. The amp could easily drive these headphones to ear-splitting levels with the usual commercial rock/pop/jazz/country tracks. The AKG Q701's are a bit more difficult to drive so I would avoid using these with softer classical selections with the TEAC. It's quite clear that the ASUS Essence One has a significantly more power headphone section in comparison. (Of course if you're a big time head-fi fan, TEAC would want to interest you in the HA-501 headphone amp.)
So far, I have no complaints of the sound. PCM performance is excellent. For example, a test track I often use to weed out poor systems is Tyler Bates' "To Victory" from the 300 (2007) soundtrack. It's recorded "hot" and dynamically compressed and the cacophony of sounds tends to get muddled very easily on a poor system. This track was reproduced excellently with this DAC (I also find the emotional response - that sense of dread - conveyed by this track a good personal gauge).
On the Kodo track "Niji No Nagori" off the Tsutsumi (2000) album, there's a nice build up of multi-layered drums, flute, vocals, culminating in a woman singing with clapping, percussion, and male backgrounds around 5:00. The drums sounded dynamic and "full". Bass went deep with the HD800; and thanks to the "speed" of these HD800's, it sounded precise. Again, excellent performance and I would certainly rate this DAC+headphone amp highly.
Currently, I don't have much DSD music collected yet but have ripped a number of my SACD's which I know are either DSD sourced or high-resolution analogue in origin - no PCM or worse Red Book-sourced DSD for me like in this review, thanks.
Albums heard or tracks sampled: old analogue sourced Nat King Cole's The Very Thought Of You (Analogue Productions 2010), Pink Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon (2003 remaster), Michael Jackson' Thriller (1999 remaster), Al Di Meola et al. Friday Night In San Francisco (1997 remaster), Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue (2007 Japanese SACD). They sound good overall... Limitations of the analogue source quite evident with obvious limited noise floor on most of these. The 80's sound of Thriller is pretty dated but I think the SACD version is the best sounding 'pressing' I've come across...
Modern DSD sourced SACD's: Erich Kunzel's Tchaikovsky 1812 (Telarc 2001), John Hiatt's Master of Disaster (2005), Jorma Kaukonen's Blue Country Heart (2002), Rachel Podger's Bach Violin Concertos (2010), Stuttgarter Kammerorchester' Die Rohre (Tacet 2003). Nice, clean, great sense of space especially the Stuttgarter and Rachel Podger SACD's.
There's very little DSD128 content out there as far as I am aware... However, I downloaded a few of the samples from 2L. They sound excellent but since they're sourced from DXD (24/352), I could also download those massive files (1GB for 10 minutes!) and play them PCM direct and be even "closer" to the performance :-). Seriously folks, I think this would be a real waste of disk space!
You may be asking - is there anything "special" about the sound of DSD - especially after I penned this piece on DSD? Well, honestly, it's hard to say... Really hard to do any kind of direct comparison since the foobar200 ABX tool doesn't work for this, and the switch from PCM to DSD results in a soft 'click' sound as well as a brief delay... Furthermore, volume levels aren't exactly matched. All I can say is the music just sound good whichever format :-). I don't think DSD is "needed" for good sound, but it's nice to be able to play back the music in whatever the original format was without transcoding.
I'll be back this weekend with some PCM measurement results...
Links to the objective evaluations:
PCM Evaluation (Part 2)
DSD Performance (Part 3)