Saturday, 17 July 2021

MEASUREMENTS: Topping D10s - an inexpensive high performance basic USB DAC with S/PDIF outs. And on "perceptibly perfect" DACs.

 

Hey everyone, I suspect many of you have already seen or heard of the Topping D10s by now (~US$100-110 at time of writing). It has been out since spring/summer 2020, a DAC released during the early pandemic.

Basically, this is an update of the Topping D10 which I reviewed back in 2019 with change to the DAC chip from the ESS ES9018K2M to the ES9038Q2M with improved specs - lower noise, higher dynamic range, etc.

I bought this through the usual retail channels as I'm planning to give the D10 away to a family member. Let's have a deeper look and consider the implications of this change in the DAC chip to the overall performance.

As you can see, the D10 and D10s look almost identical:


The only difference I see are the 4 front screw heads are of a different size between the two. The rear looks totally interchangeable. There's a slight difference in weight with the newer D10s being slightly heavier by 10g (D10 317g, D10s 328g - could literally just be the 4 larger front screws!).

Size is compact with the enclosure around 4" x 5.5" x 1.25" not counting the RCA plugs jutting out or small soft plastic feet.

Notice in the top picture that the manual contains some measurements like the D10 before. Good to see that the Chi-Fi companies like Topping and SMSL embrace the objective side rather than just vague advertising speak. There is a level of accountability when a company does this since the measurements can be verified by more sophisticated end users. The very competitive prices with high performance literally define superb value.

Feature wise, this is a basic DAC and identical to the D10. USB input only. Maximum samplerates up to 384kHz PCM (the usual family of 44.1 and 48kHz multiples) and DSD256. No separate power input needed. Gold plated analogue outputs, plus both TosLink and S/PDIF outs. No S/PDIF input, no headphone out, no switches to change stuff like filter settings, no remote. Like the D10, the front amber OLED display tells you sample rate and whether PCM or DSD is playing.

One other small difference between this and the D10 is that the opamp on the circuit board can now be replaced. The stock opamp in mine is the TI LME49720; an excellent low noise, low distortion part. I would love to see if any opamp rollers can find measurable improvements; years ago, I tried out the MUSES 02 opamp in the ASUS Xonar Essence One and did not notice much difference despite hoopla. My sense is that there is again a point of diminishing returns; good enough is good enough and putting in "better" parts will not necessary translate to audible improvements.

 I opened the D10s for a quick peek one evening, here's the layout:


I see it's a "V1.4" board. The socketed op-amp is easily accessible rear right. You might be surprised by just how small the ES9038Q2M DAC chip is literally at the heart of device.

I. Objective Assessment

Let's have a look at how this puppy runs!

General measurement chain looks like this:

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ "Touch" with Volumio --> 6' shielded USB --> Topping D10s DAC --> 4' AmazonBasics RCA --> RME ADI-2 Pro FS ADC --> USB --> Intel NUC measurement computer 

Looks good on the digital oscilloscope. Channel balance excellent with a peak Vrms of 1.95V (+8dBu). This output level is a bit higher than the original D10 of ~1.5Vrms. Like the D10, Topping stayed with a linear phase digital filter:

Steep linear phase "orthodox" filter used. Notice that the impulse maintains "absolute" polarity unlike the D10 which inverted the signal.

This filter should work well in the frequency domain to suppress imaging artifacts as we can see using the "Digital Filter Composite" graph I've been using for years (based on Juergen Reis' suggestions from back in 2013).

Yes, steep filter. In fact, steeper than the D10.

Okay, let's have a look at comparisons between this D10s with the D10 starting with standard CD-resolution a.k.a. 16/44.1:



As you can see, I'm comparing the D10s with the D10, the inexpensive SMSL M100 Mk II, and the more expensive Topping DX3 Pro V2 (hard to find currently due to AKM chip issues). The SMSL M100 Mk II uses the ES9018Q2C DAC and Topping DX3 Pro (V2) is the most expensive of the bunch here, based on its dual AKM AK4493 design.

Looking at the frequency response numbers and graphs, most notable is that the D10s has the steepest filter with what looks like a bit of passband rippling on the frequency response (I can confirm this finding using a REW sweep). No worries, these are small variations less than +/-0.05dB below 15kHz (insignificant when we look at frequency response variation of speakers and headphones!). The effect of the steep "brick wall" filter right around 20kHz can be seen on the D10s' noise and IMD+N sweep graphs as well.

Otherwise, notice just how "boring" standard 16/44 measurements look even with inexpensive DACs. While I still think it's useful to run 16/44 tests to make sure we're not missing something given that most of our digital music is still CD-resolution, it's rather unusual these days to run into significant issues with any reputable DAC.

Okay, moving on to hi-res, here's the 24/96 summary with graphs:



Okay, now we can differentiate among the DACs a bit better. We still see the fluctuation in the frequency response measurement of the D10s (again, small amount and now mostly ultrasonic). The SMSL M100 Mk II's IMD+N anomaly is most obvious even though I doubt the vast majority of listeners would notice or complain (as discussed before).

Other than the stereo crosstalk being slightly higher than the D10(s), the DX3 Pro performed very well. The D10s proved all-around excellence in the measured parameters.

Okay, finally, let's quickly check out the 24/192 results:


Only frequency response and noise level graphs. RightMark needs bug-fixing when displaying crosstalk and IMD+N graphs unfortunately.

Again, excellent overall results on the D10s, the mild rippling ultrasonic irregularities in the frequency response not withstanding. Impressive how flat the old D10 frequency response is. Insignificant 60Hz hum with the D10s, excellent low noise. As usual, I'm not taking any special "audiophile" precautions like special cables or expensive power supplies; the D10s is simply connected to the Raspberry Pi streamer which itself is powered by a typical switching power supply.

DSD:
I almost never listen to DSD these days even though I still have a collection of stuff ripped from SACDs over the years on the hard drive (compressed with WavPack).

For completeness, for those who do play DSD or if you transcode PCM-to-DSD, here are some results to consider:


The DSD performance above are the results of transcoded RightMark test signals from 24/192 to DSD64/128/256 using JRiver 24, played back with the Topping D10s, and measured through the RME ADI-2 Pro FS.

The DSD results will not be as good as PCM since the PCM --> DSD conversion process will have very slight losses. Nonetheless, the results are clearly still "high res" quality.

Notice that the sweet spot here with the D10s is DSD128 (at least if you use JRiver's PCM-to-DSD conversion). Here's a look at the frequency response and noise floor with these DSD measurements:


While DSD128 has rising ultrasonic noise above 40kHz, its overall noise level in the audible spectrum appears to be the lowest. DSD256 is still good but slightly more noisy (this is a typical finding).

Jitter time:


No issue with jitter. Most obviously, there is a pair of sidebands on the 24-bit test seen below -130dBFS and close to the 12kHz signal which makes any jitter distortion inaudible (as if jitter is ever really problematic in real life). The 16-bit test looks good without gross level changes to the jitter modulation tone although we can make out a very small sideband pair at +/-4580Hz way down at -140dBFS.

For completeness, let's have a look at the 24-bit J-Test signal converted to DSD64 and DSD128:


Still see a few sidebands here and there but nothing worrisome, all below -130dBFS. Spurious ~6.6kHz noise in the DSD128 FFT.

THD+N:
Since it's commonly done, let's have a peek at the THD+N (SINAD) graph, 1kHz 0dBFS 24/96 sine fed to the DAC:

Left channel shown. I also checked the Right channel which was similar with THD+N -110dB to make sure there was no gross disparity between the sides.


As you can see, we have the detailed 1kHz signal with first 9 harmonics labeled for both the D10s and the older D10.

On my system, the D10s scores better than THD+N -110dB which is an objective improvement over the previous D10 -106dB result. As I have said in the past, when we get to these kinds of numbers, it's academic and I would not be concerned that this correlates to real-life listening differences. Nonetheless, it's nice to have more distortion-free dynamic range when we do stuff like DSP (as discussed here).

These are excellent results as one would expect with the latest generation ES9038 (D10s) family compared to the older ES9018 (D10). The rest of your playback chain, not to mention the music recordings themselves would more than likely be noisier and way more distorted than this. ;-)

Frequency & Amplitude Stepped Sine:
Using Room EQ Wizard's stepped sine function, we can examine Harmonic Distortion vs. Frequency. In fact, we can have a look at the graphs across a number of output levels from 0dBFS to -12dBFS:


Notice that at 0dBFS, we see that the 3rd harmonic predominates through much of the frequency spectrum. As we attenuate the output level, the 2nd harmonic takes over as the largest contribution to the THD. Nice to see that the harmonic levels remain consistently low across the frequencies and there are no significant irregularities in any of the graphs.

Here's the Harmonic Distortion vs. Generator Level graph using a 950Hz signal from -120dB to 0dBFS. Notice the mostly linear "curve" with no unusual "hump". THD is lowest around -5dBFS (cursor). Notice the 3rd harmonic rises above the 2nd from -3dBFS and up which correlates nicely with the Distortion vs. Frequency graphs that we just saw above.


There's a portion from -18 to -3dBFS where the 2nd harmonic features more prominently. Again, another academic observation - not that this would be audible at such low levels of course!

Using the graph above, we can have a look at the linearity of the output level and see that it only consistently deviates by >1dB below around -110dBFS where the cursor is. This could just as well be the limitation of the measurement gear with unbalanced input. I don't think the human ears/mind will complain in any event!



II. Subjective

Well, as usual, I spent a couple of nights mainly listening to the Topping D10s as a desktop DAC with the Emotiva Airmotiv B1+ speakers (SMSL SA300 Class D amp) and through the Drop + THX AAA 789 headphone amp with modded Dekoni Blue mainly, with some time spent on the Sennheiser HD800 as well.


So how does this sound?

It's excellent if you're into high-fidelity ;-). Francesca Dego's performance on Il Cannone: Francesca Dego Plays Paganini's Violin (2021, DR14) sounded fantastic with beautifully rich harmonic texture. Superb recording that sounds realistic without synthetic shrillness. By the way, there's a great section in the liner notes about the history and significance of Paganini's "Il Cannone" violin by the curator of the instrument in Genoa - I was there a couple years back, what a beautiful city!

I hadn't heard it before, but recently I checked out one of Patricia Barber's older albums Split (1997, DR14). Wonderfully propulsive pacing on "Early Autumn", nice piano work on "Retrograde", and the sappy love song "Then I'll Be Tired of You" showed off Barber's unique, at times dramatic vocals. I will need to revisit this album a bit more in the days ahead for enjoyment rather than trying to be critical about sound quality!

For a little bit of an '80s kick, I had a listen to Kajagoogoo & Limahl's Too Shy - The Singles and More (1993, DR13). Not the best audio recording but it's great to enjoy oldies like these again, hearing them knowing the "accuracy" of the audio components are way higher than I would have ever heard them before. Listening to "Too Shy" or "Never Ending Story [Club Mix]" brought back memories and even though the instrumentation sounds dated and "thin", lacking in deep bass by today's standards, the sound is as I remembered and the DAC delivers the sound from the source recording without editorializing or coloration.

Finally, this DAC has no problems with rendering bass frequencies which are plentiful on Yello's latest album Point (2020, DR10). Have a listen to "Siren Singing" or "Zephyr Calling". As usual, this is "synthpop" type stuff with lots of quirky sounds, artificial "surround" effects, weird lyrics (check out "The Vanishing of Peter Strong"), and generally just fun. Great test material for the times when a visitor comes over and you want to make an impression. For this album I also had a listen with the Topping D10s connected to my main system downstairs with subwoofers going. Nice expanded soundstage, and the illusion of "surround" from 2-channels. I see that this album is also available as a Blu-ray Dolby Atmos Edition which should be enjoyable (I have not heard it yet).

III. Summary

What DSD256 (11.2MHz, 1-bit) playback looks like.

Well, if you're in the market for a straightforward low power (<0.5W during playback, doesn't even get warm) USB DAC, have no need for fancy features like balanced output, headphone out, digital filter options, Bluetooth, or even S/PDIF input, then this Topping D10s (you might find a good deal on Aoshida) is a great update over the previous D10. The price remains very reasonable at around US$100 with a higher performing ES9038-series DAC chip. Topping's ASIO device driver works without issue on my Windows 10 machines. No need for special drivers on Linux or Mac OS.

The only feature beyond DA conversion is the TosLink and Coaxial S/PDIF outputs which could be convenient; for example connecting computer USB --> TosLink/Coax on a TV or receiver.

The only criticism I would make is with the frequency response rippling. In audio as in life, there's always a balance to strike within the limits of a device or opportunity in life. As much of a proponent as I am for sharp linear phase filtering, there is such a thing as going "too far"! That steep 20kHz filter is unnecessary. I would have preferred if Topping had just used the previous D10 parameters without the upper frequency undulations. I wonder if a firmware update can address this.

Otherwise, nice DAC performance update, Topping. Good execution on an accurate, no-frills DAC which anyone can afford. In fact, given the level of performance, I think many audiophiles will be surprised at how good this sounds compared to much much more expensive devices.

On a side note, IMO this is the kind of low distortion performance that I expected the AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt (same DAC chip) should have had. Instead, in all their "wisdom", I think AQ's engineers employed misguided beliefs about filtering plus the so-called benefits of MQA thus handicapped that product's potential. I still remember feeling disappointment when I reviewed it back in 2019. To other audiophile DAC companies: please don't be like this, and make sure not to sell products like the JitterBug unless you're able to publish data to justify why there's a need for such a thing! Needless to say, I'm very weary of questionable companies like AudioQuest in the audiophile space.

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Aligned spectra from 45 seconds music recordings from two modern, excellent fidelity, DACs of very different price using DeltaWave. Notice one of the DACs (white) has earlier and steeper filter than the other (blue). Nice example of perceptibly perfect match for human listening IMO.

Are we at "perceptibly perfect" with even $100 DACs?

Admittedly as a "reviewer", objective measurements and subjective "listening to" DACs have generally become desperate exercises in trying to find miniscule faults over the years. I'm sure you know all about "bit-perfect", and over the last decade, I believe we have arrived at a place where if we define sound quality as "high fidelity", we can easily find "perceptibly perfect" DACs capable of resolution beyond the needs of human hearing. To be concrete, what I mean is that if we take devices meant to reproduce digital audio data accurately, within the context of a volume-controlled, "blind" test where someone is unaware of what DAC is being used, I believe humans would not be able to differentiate between an accurate $100 DAC like this little Topping D10s and an accurate $5000+ DAC (take your pick).

[In fact, the other day I brought the little D10s over to a friend's place to compare with his very expensive DAC in an informal "shoot-out". Let's just say he does not want me to talk about the result. ;-]

I know... Many audiophiles will disagree with the above, but I don't think many have subjected themselves to controlled testing either to know for sure. (If you recall, a few years ago we even did a little blind test here using recorded music from different devices.)

Subjective-only reviewers (and perhaps certain manufacturers) will not want to hear this because it implies that one can no longer use subjective descriptions of sound quality to differentiate many modern products meaningfully. Such descriptions of supposed sound differences between high fidelity DACs become exercises in creative writing and imagination, not factual discriminations. This is a dangerous meme because it means audiophile magazine editors will also lose the ability to declare "Best Sounding DAC Ever?" as their lead article every few months! :-) In fact, this kind of talk also tends to get threads on discussion forums closed or even worse erased (so much for free speech), which adds to the bias against honest discussions on the Internet. This is why I prefer expressing my opinions in my own blog.

I'm of the opinion that the reviews of measurement-confirmed accurate DACs are most useful when the writer pairs objective information with discussion of unique features, build quality, usability, even esthetics rather than spending too much time describing sonic attributes which are unlikely to translate meaningfully anyways. Since I believe subjective-only claims are unreliable with good modern DACs, I'm particularly mindful about the reviewer falsely creating reader biases which I think also does a disservice for manufacturers that actually deserve to be recognized for producing high-value products. Companies like Topping or SMSL I doubt will ever be reviewed in the pages of The Absolute Sound or Stereophile yet as far as I'm concerned, sound just as good as the fancy brand names they feature, and definitely deserve more consideration than insanely priced devices or even the aforementioned AudioQuest Dragonflies which IMO are not all that special.

Assuming that a reviewer normally listens to an "accurate" reference DAC, in the event where he/she clearly hears a difference with another product, it's just as likely that this is due to inferior performance - something that sounds "different", even if "preferred" does not mean "better" fidelity. Some listeners will have a preference towards "inaccuracy" just like some folks will prefer EQ with bass and treble pushed up to levels which are clearly no longer "neutral" (that's OK if you know what you're doing and not uninsightfully claiming to everyone that this is how it should sound!). Likewise, in a more subtle way, the amount of distortion that a device produces could be euphonic for some listeners as discussed recently with the Pass SIT-2 amp (also OK if you know what you're listening to). The problem is that subjective-only reviews can't actually tell us what's going on most of the time!

As audiophiles, I think we need to think and talk about these things not purposely to stir controversy in some circles, but rather it's important to be honest and truthful to ourselves and in the service of the greater High Fidelity Audiophile Hobby. If we care about high fidelity as a primary objective, then we need to make sure that recommendations made are not simply the results of biases built on perceived luxury, or just advertising dollars at work simply in the service of consumerism.

Enough for now...

Take care everyone. I hope you're enjoying the music!

36 comments:

  1. "I believe humans would not be able to differentiate between an accurate $100 DAC like this little Topping D10s and an accurate $5000+ DAC (take your pick)."

    Which is why I'm using a $9USD Apple USB-C to 3.5mm dongle as a DAC for my desktop system. The fact that it passes the high fidelity mark for Redbook standard is unquestionably, and is all that I need for a most enjoyable listening experience.

    "Apple showed us that a bit more thought and engineering put in a dirt cheap and small audio product can produce respectable performance."

    https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-apple-vs-google-usb-c-headphone-adapters.5541/

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    1. Hey Art,
      Yeah, it very well might be that this is good enough. Certainly the old Lightning dongle was fine as well:
      http://archimago.blogspot.com/2018/01/measurements-apples-lightning-to-35mm.html

      On a desktop, yeah, that's fine. I do recommend spending a few more bucks on a separate DAC in the sound room since it does look a bit better at least and being able to play hi-res stuff is good too. ;-)

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  2. The aligned spectral graph from above is a pretty compelling visual. Really helps to put some of those minute differences between the DACs of dynamic range and distortion in context. I agree that it’s kinda silly for the reviewers to keep searching for superlatives. It’s great for consumers that it’s so much easier to find audibly transparent gear. Keep up the good work!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Doug.

      Yeah, the power of the null test is very helpful for us to discern truth around just what kind of "difference" reviewers often claim they're able to distinguish. Too many words out there to describe stuff that may or may not be true since anybody can say anything. And not enough actual demonstrations of these beliefs by too few because demonstrations take work and know-how!

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  3. 1. DACs to me became among the least interesting audio components, many years ago. I have felt no need to replace my old Benchmark DAC1 as I have little expectation of hearing any difference/improvement, even with a newer Benchmark DAC (and I believe Benchmark actually concurs). For me I'm sort of befuddled by the amount of time many audiophiles...and include the "objective/measurement oriented audiophiles" as well...spend being interested in new DACs, measuring them etc. It's almost like a phantom limb syndrome to me: the audio source was in most practical sense *for playback*, perfected long ago, but audiophiles still want to find stuff to fuss over and fiddle with. (See Computer Audiophile for an extreme example).

    Not that there's anything wrong with that :-) All of us follow our own bliss. I'm just giving my feelings on the issue.

    2. "Too Shy" or "Never Ending Story" are guilty pleasure songs. Too Shy is actually on request by my son in the car (he likes 80's stuff), but asks me to turn off Never Ending Story. I get it (even though I have a nostalgic soft spot for that song).

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    Replies
    1. Good stuff Vaal!

      First, yeah, my kids are inundated with my '80s stuff as well so they know their Madonna / MJ / Bangles / Debbie Gibson / Rick Astley / Belinda Carlisle as much as their Taylor Swift and whatever terrible sounding stuff they listen to these days ;-).

      As for DACs, while I enjoy checking out the new models and have upgraded over the years, it does get boring and if I were not writing a blog, likely would have been happy with my TEAC UD-501 from 2013. To this day it still sounds fantastic, can play DSD128 and PCM384. Even if it might not have the lowest noise floor or best THD+N/SINAD, it really is of no consequence for music lovers vs. those who collect gear as a hobby.

      That is the natural consequence for "true objectivists" of course. At some level, one mindfully appreciates that the nature of the device has achieved one's own limitations, beyond which there is no need to fantasize about.

      Just like we cannot deny our height, weight, physical attractiveness, cognitive limitations, financial limits, so too we cannot deny our own auditory acuity limits. To speak as if we are especially endowed with some type of "Golden Ears" capable of probing claims of deep "noise" levels or microscopic "jitter" (which I see some of the CA/AS folks seem to claim) would be absurd (especially I notice for some of the older reviewers and listeners who appear to be in their 60's and 70's already!).

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    2. My eldest son seemed to gravitate naturally to some 80's music. I was never a huge Duran Duran fan (though I do quite like their music), but somehow that group clicked for him and they remain one of his favorites, to the point of going to see them live on previous tours.

      And still on the subject of music: I've observed that, for whatever reason, once pop/dance music hit the 60's, and especially dance music from the 70's, it seemed to gain a staying power that earlier popular music didn't achieved. I mean, you can still play Abba's Dancing Queen at the average wedding, and everyone including the younger folks will get up and dance. If you look at the beats in lots of dance music even up until now, lots of it is similar (and even samples) dance beats from the 70's. For instance the disco beat can still be found in rave music. That's over 45 years of power to move people.
      It's hard to imagine teenagers in, say, the 1950's being enthusiastic about the dance music, much less popular music, from 1905 or thereabouts :-)

      What explains that staying power would be interesting to understand, whether it's mostly a function of how it is preserved and spread via ever pervasive audio in our lives, or whether there is something about the music and beats that allow for that persistence.

      As to this:

      "That is the natural consequence for "true objectivists" of course. At some level, one mindfully appreciates that the nature of the device has achieved one's own limitations, beyond which there is no need to fantasize about."

      Yeah, as I believe I've mentioned before, that's both the promise and the peril of audio perfection. Takes some of the fun out of it :-)

      If you look to some audio communities who are engineering/science oriented, you'll see more convergence on things like "proper speaker design" where obvious diversions tend to be rated as anything from bad to silly to even a rip off, making the consumer a "dupe" for buying it. Yet those same idiosyncratic designs have provided many audiophiles tons of bliss over the years. Reminds me of one well known audio "objectivist" (for lack of better word...it was Arny Krueger IIRC), who opined that tube amps have no reason to exist, given they have been outperformed by cheaper solid state for many years. It sort of gave me a shudder, that if that person was "in control" of what was made or not simply on his own goal, designs such as my Conrad Johnson tube amps, which have been a source of great pleasure, would never see the light of day. It's why I say that, while I am very happy that there are people trying to progress audio gear of all types to the goal of greater accuracy/lower distortion, I'm ALSO very happy to see other approaches also flourish, to fill niche or idiosyncratic desires that exist. I was listening to some Klipsch La Scalas recently and, measured objectively they could be laughed at by those aiming towards the Harman Kardon school of thought. But boy o boy did those speakers ever produce a life-like sensation of the energy put forth by the musicians! Not classically neutral, sure, but I really get why they meet the desires of those who like them and I'm glad such items are still being produced.

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    3. Again thanks Vaal for both the music discussion and gear talk.

      Indeed, there's something special since the 70's with pop and dance music onward which have the power to transcend generational boundaries. I think it might be that they are catered to our sensual pleasures with the beat, the natural desire for action (undisciplined creative body movements - some of the oldies like the remastered Jive Bunny & The Mix Masters will get young folks on the dance floor also ;-), pleasurable melodies, relational connection (love songs without going excessively sexual) all come together to enhance the social milieu and release the dopamine rush. I'm sure there must be some social sciences paper about this!

      Yes, I can see the criticism that "true objectivism" isn't fun. And I actually don't disagree if one derives "fun" from trying out different hardware. This is why I've used the term "more objective" in my blog tagline. I think it's important to be "objective" in the face of all the Snake Oil out there, but recognize that subjective preference is still important and it would not be appropriate to insist any one person like this or that.

      As usual, the key IMO is balance. Being knowledgeable enough to appreciate the objective capabilities, allow oneself the fun to enjoy whatever design even if not strictly "accurate". And insightful enough for oneself to portray things realistically so that we don't appear ridiculous in claiming something is the greatest since slice bread especially if it could end up being Snake Oil!

      Hey, despite the inaccuracies of the Pass SIT-2, ACA, Onix SP3 tube amps I measured in the last year, I can still enjoy them and there are properties which some would love, paired with certain systems especially!

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    4. (Re-submitted due to typos):

      Yes I agree about audio "objectivism." And by that I mean essentially using methods generally known to arrive at reliable knowledge - the stuff of engineering and science (measurements, correlated to audibility and subjective effects, listening tests controlling for bias when indicated, etc)

      The purpose one has for those tools may vary.

      One person may use the toolbox of objective empirical inquiry toward a certain goal, such as perfecting signal integrity, speaker accuracy, trying to achieve the most fidelity in a signal. Great stuff.

      I look to objective information to refrain from bullsh*tting myself and others. I don't necessarily have a personal quest for the most un-distorted or accurate signal. Sometimes I like some coloration.
      But I prefer to go about this advisedly. I don't want to misunderstand the world. Knowledge is power for getting what you want.

      So if I like some coloration, I want to know what devices are plausibly, audibly altering the signal. I may look to a speaker that has a particular frequency curve or design idiosyncrasy, which I may like. Or perhaps some goofy tube amps that will offer some very subtle but pleasing departure from neutral to my ears.

      I don't want to go looking for it in AC or Ethernet cables or CD transports or any number of implausible candidates, where I'd be wasting my time and money, not actually getting what I thought I paid for. People like you aren't trying to bludgeon "subjectivists" in to not buying X or instead buying "Y" so much as you are simply providing information, so that whoever chooses to can make a more informed choice. It doesn't dictate that they have to buy what you might buy, as I'm sure you'd agree. It's about getting more knowledge out there.
      (And hopefully this does lead to fewer people being mislead or ripped off - epistemic pollution is never good for any community).

      So for me the appeal of objectivist inquiry is really about keeping honest with myself and others, not being mislead, and from there I follow whatever tickles my fancy.

      (BTW, though I'm sure it appears from the way I'm writing that I'm a glutton for coloration - that that there's anything wrong with that.In fact I don't always desire gross coloration. Generally speaking I tend towards more neutral speakers, with some exceptions).

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    5. Agree Vaal,
      I think the key is as you said very well:
      "But I prefer to go about this advisedly. I don't want to misunderstand the world. Knowledge is power for getting what you want."

      In many ways, this has been the "mission" here on the blog.

      After years and years of reading mainstream bulls*it through my audiophile formative years, there came a time as a hobbyist where I had enough and needed to figure things out and break free from many presumptions I had based on all that I had read.

      Indeed, knowledge, of the objective variety is power. Whether for oneself as we proceed down the path of the hobby, or corporately as a body of hobbyists who can hopefully grow to recognize BS and Snake Oil so that we can change the audiophile landscape and weed out the bad actors out there. (This is why being critical of nonsense like MQA is important since it seemed the vast majority of the mainstream media was trying to force-feed audiophiles with this crap.)

      While objective "transparency" / "accuracy" has been a consistent goal I value highly, on these pages, I've also documented my subjective preferences whether it be rationale for an "intermediate phase" filter, or subjective appreciation of the "BBC dip" to reduce harshness, or even acknowledging that I don't mind and even can enjoy higher levels of low-order harmonics as well (like the Pass amps). Changes which are not strictly "accurate" but it's OK if we "go about this advisedly".

      By all means! Each audiophile is free to add a bit of coloration in life as the desire arises. Selling snake oil (even worse at high prices), dishonest claims of "exact sound of the studio" (ahem... MQA), biased claims of high fidelity (ahem... vinyl zealots), inappropriate attributions (ahem... exaggerated claims of jitter), etc. do need to be addressed and I believe can when audiophiles appreciate that objective tools can help provide answers and resist the advertising power of the unscrupulous.

      Each of us can make a very substantial difference in a small hobby like audiophilia!

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  4. Great review, very interesting and I love the initial coverage of the technical results with a subjective hearing assessment after.

    It would be icing on the cake if you get chance to review the balanced version (Topping D10b) - I literally saw it first available a few minutes before reading this review (manufacturers keep up a steady stream of variants, upgrades like 'Pro' versions for example !) - I have the Topping D10S which I like a lot for all the reasons you say in your review. Now my conscience is trying to stop me buying the balanced version...for no better reason than that I can afford it :)

    Keep up the good work, I have your blog generally open on my browser all the time.

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    Replies
    1. You're in luck Audiosciencereview did a review on the balanced version
      today: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/topping-d10-balanced-review-usb-dac.25094/


      thd+n 0,00021 / SINAD 118,24. SNR (dynamic range) 120 Db. Wow The thing cost only about $40 more than the D10S. I highly doubt you will hear any difference though. But if you can afford it...

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    2. Brilliant stuff!

      Nice, I'll see about grabbing one of these as this would make an amazing signal source for amplifier testing!

      Agree, I don't think my 49 year old ears will hear the difference in sound... ;-)

      Delete
  5. Very interesting as usual, Archimago. I have three relatively inexpensive DACs - a Resonnessence, an iFi, and a Chord Mojo. To my ears (perhaps not as astute as they used to be) the Chord tops them all. And the essence of all Chord DACs, of course, is the focus on tap length. Do you think that technology is in any way better? If not, maybe I should just be buying a Cdn$140 Topping D10S.

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    Replies
    1. Hey there Don,
      IMO the tap length issue is interesting from a sales/advertising perspective and the WTA filter is Chord's way of justifying their place in the market. What you'll see in the measurements is a very steep linear phase "brick wall" filter.

      I suspect in a volume-controlled blind test between a Mojo (a friend has one and I might borrow that at some point), and this D10s, if you're using it on a desktop, you will not hear a difference at all. You'll also save something like US$300+ I think ;-).

      Heck, you might even like the D10s better given the lower distortion (compared to the higher distortion found for the Mojo in the ASR review below).

      Delete
  6. The Chord Mojo got a "meh" review at ASR. It just doesn't do enough to justify the cost. https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-chord-mojo-dac-and-amp.5120/ In what way does it "top them all"?

    I've also read that there are issues with batteries needing replacing.

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    1. Interesting. Yeah... I'm always weary about batteries and deterioration over time, preferring to avoid if not absolutely needed.

      Speaking about long tap length filters and such. Let's tackle that this weekend. ;-)

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    2. That would be great. I confess to not understanding why Rob Watts thinks it's so crucial when so many others don't find much wrong with "conventional" DACs.

      Delete
    3. Talking about conventional DACs, is the steep filter in the D10s one of the ones provided by ESS or a custom Topping one? I have the same DAC chip in a Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital and that has 7 ESS filters plus a custom John Westlake one (IIRC).

      Delete
    4. Hey AudioSceptic,
      Good question about the filter itself. I don't know if it's one of the standard ESS one or if Topping decided to roll their own.

      I have ordered the D10b just now so hopefully in comes in the next couple weeks. Will be interesting to compare whether the filter looks like this one. Based on the ASR measurement, it looks like a slow-roll filter with -10dB at 22kHz which will allow some imaging but not bad.

      Delete
    5. I look forward to a piece on tap length, Archimago. Those Chord taps seem to increase in price right along with volume.

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    6. Yeah Don,
      They want to make something special out of a correlation with the number of taps!

      Not specifically talking about Chord coming up, but it does have to do with those filter taps though ;-).

      Delete
  7. In mild defence of the Chord Mojo, I will say that the battery can be disconnected, even removed, and the unit powered by USB. But it does sometimes stay warm even when turned off.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Don,
      Will specifically have a look at the Mojo a little down the road ;-).

      Delete
  8. Great review as always! This hits me to my core as I recently purchased a Denafrips Ares II to replace my Topping E30. And I have to admit that I couldn't hear the difference between the two. Or at the very least, I have to admit that the difference is not worth $550. At most, I tell myself that I like the more analog, colored sound coming out of the Ares. The truth is I really doubt that's the case. The good news is I've reached my (read:my wife's) maximum spending tolerance for audio gear. But I can say that now I know. I'll be more cautious when I next venture towards searching for the perfect sound.

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    Replies
    1. Greetings Arthur,
      Hey thanks for the testimony... Not often does one see that viewpoint/experience expressed in the audiophile news sources. Imagine the horror and pandemonium such a dangerous belief would cause if it were printed in the pages of the usual review mags or spoken of in YouTube reviews as if it's true ;-).

      At the very least there might be issues with ad revenue.

      Now if I were a pure-subjectivist, the usual retort I would drag up now are:

      1. I'm sorry, the rest of your system is not up to par.

      2. Alas, I think you better hand over your Golden Ears badge.

      3. Have you tried some Nordost cables with that Denafrips ARES II? ;-)

      Keep on keepin' it real...

      Delete
    2. Arthur, Archimago is a great source of honest, objective reviews but there is also Audio Science Review. Amir manages to test a huge number of audio devices of all types. He has shown that, with few exceptions, the correlation between price and performance is poor, and the correlation between performance and most subjective reviews is even worse. As it happens, the Denafrips is not bad at all, but why did you think it would be better than the Topping? https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/denafrips-ares-ii-usb-r2r-dac-review.11166/

      Delete
    3. Here's the E30 review https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/topping-e30-dac-review.12119/

      Delete
    4. Hey AudioSceptic,

      "As it happens, the Denafrips is not bad at all, but why did you think it would be better than the Topping?"

      It is good to see that these R2R DACs are getting good enough objectively to take on typical chip DACs especially with improving low-level linearity and noise level. Lots of work and expense of course...

      Not to put words in Arthur's mouth, but just to address why one might think the Denafrips is better than the Topping. Given the power of marketing and all the reviews in the media including YouTube and magazines, it's no surprise that something like the Denafrips has a very positive sentiment going for it even if in reality I don't think it's a big deal.

      Look at all the positive comments from Darko, Lavorgna, 6Moons, Stereophile, GoldenSound, etc... made more impressive by nice pictures of the internal board with all those capacitors and matrix of resistors ;-). Human psychology is powerful and emotions will likely beat out intellect any day of the week for most of us!

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    5. Hi AudioSceptic, yes, I'm aware of ASR. I visit it often actually. The review of the E30 you linked above is the primary reason I have 2 of them in my house. But I'm afraid Archimago nails it again. I got swayed by reviews from Darko (I know, I'm sorry), but also TwitteringMachines and British Audiophile.

      Delete
    6. No surprise Arthur.

      Of course in the big picture, the Denafrips looks well made and it's not some kind of "Snake Oil". I suspect on the used market they will maintain their value so you'll have gained the experience listening to it and it won't be a problem moving on if you wanted. (Then you'll get the budget back for other stuff man ;-).

      I find it fascinating how these kinds of R2R DACs (including stuff like Border Patrol, Holo Audio, Soekris, MSB, totalDAC...) are often brought out as models of "sounding analog". Honestly, I don't even know what "sounding analog" even mean these days other than acknowledging that there are limitations to true analog playback (like the limitations of vinyl, or issues with cassettes).

      Seems to me all they're looking for are certain types of euphonic coloration and not fidelity. If this is the case, over time as R2R DACs become even more refined, then they'll actually converge in sound if not already (as you suggested, not much difference between the Denafrips Ares II and the Topping E30).

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  9. Long time no see Archimago,

    D10s uses the ESS "Apodizing" filter. This choice is probably affected by Amir's preference in many of his previous reviews. I've pointed out there are prices to pay for such a filter several times like these:
    https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/digital-filter-game.23795/
    https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/the-new-king.21444/post-793871

    This issue although IMO, cosmetic, caused a lot of accusations against other chip makers like AKM, Cirrus Logic and TI from some ASR members without adequate technical background, as all of them default to 0.55fs stopband rather than 0.5fs. In fact, Julian Dunn had written an excellent article decades ago mentioned the importance to maintain a balance among different filter parameters:
    https://www.nanophon.com/audio/antialia.pdf

    BTW, I am making an experimental audio format, you may check this thread out periodically to see if there are new versions or not, and read the previous posts about how to use the program:
    https://hydrogenaud.io/index.php?topic=121181.msg1000953#msg1000953

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    1. Greetings Bennet,
      Nice work! Thanks for the interesting links.

      Yes, there are definite "games" that can be played with these filter settings and indeed I'm not surprised that there can be a "feedback loop" between measurement-based reviews and the manufacturers aiming to satisfy happy reviewers ;-).

      Agree that the filter issue is generally cosmetic as well; so long as we get a flat 20-20k frequency response with relatively ripple-free passbands, decent stopband attenuation, I don't think I'll lose sleep over this. (Interesting that the ASR D10s measurements did not capture the frequency response rippling I'm seeing here even without AP gear. ;-)

      Nice reference from the late Julian Dunn as well.

      Had a look at your UA-law work. Wow! Nice work there; excellent result comparing the Madoka between the .wav and ComPand.wav with superior ComP.waV lossless compression ratio of course! Will continue to keep an eye on this ;-).

      Delete
  10. It's very interesting to see you bringing up the subject of preferences, and how different they can be, even though most of us have heard live music on many occasions, and thus should know how "music should sound IRL". Of course this is also genre-dependant, as metal- or hard rock fans will most likely be more bass hungry than jazz- or folk fans are. Still, I find it a bit strange.

    My toes curl when I see a post on Facebook, with a system containing 2 stacked subwoofers to the left of the main speakers (often floor standers) and 2 more stacked to the right. Such an amount of bass is IMO exaggerated, and only bad sound engineers kill the sound of the band with over-exaggerated bass at an event. I will never forget a certain concert with a Danish band called Kashmir in a smallish auditorium in Copenhagen many years ago. The sound guy must have been deaf is what I think. The resulting sound of the very loud band was a wall of bass, so loud that it was impossible to hear the words of the lead singer, and the guitar were also completely drowned out by the way too loud bass. I had to sit down in the lobby in order to somewhat enjoy the event. But still, my ears rang for two whole days after.

    Perhaps the exaggeration of subwoofers have anything to do with the hearing capabilities of the owner, or with his preferences in music. I don't know, but I will always, and always have, strive for the most natural and most neutral sound signature when listening to music. I admit that when listening to hard rock (which I very rarely do), it's sometimes necessary to crank up the sub a little bit, as well as the volume knob, in order to get a good "live" feeling, but the other thing is beyond me. Another thing is of course that some live in houses, while others live in apartments, with neighbors to consider.

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    1. Hey there Duck,
      Yeah, I've had a handful of those kinds of concerts in my life as well back in the college years mainly. Loud, bassy, hearing-loss inducing affairs.

      I think that other than classical (or other pure acoustic) concerts/performances where amplification and sound modification can be seen as verboten, I certainly would not correlate a "natural" or "should sound like" kind of quality just because something is live. The "sound of live music" in many ways seems overblown and just used in advertising to suggest that it's somehow more "genuine". In a way this is like those who claim that "analogue" playback with vinyl records is somehow more genuine than high quality digital which is of course silly!

      Personally, I find that rock/pop/R&B/rap sounds way better in the studio mix than live and would argue that the studio recording that they play on the radio is truly what the "artist intended" if they were able to perform perfectly. The live performance is just trying to be a facsimile of what the fans know and love.

      Live performances of rock/pop/R&B/etc. are mainly IMO for the social benefits of interpersonal connection - whether it be between concert-goers or with the artist to have shared a place and time together. As such maybe the loud bass might energize the dance floor or somehow make the performance "cooler" or even more memorable with noise-induced hearing loss correlated to how "wild" the concert was! A badge of honour to have tolerated such an insult on the senses. So too the exaggerated visual effects, pyrotechnics, laser shows, fancy costumes... (BTW, I have tickets to Elton John's visit next year here in Vancouver, so I expect to be entertained to some of that with supposedly his final tour!)

      Basically, I think it would be unwise to compare the hi-fi playback of a recording with anything like what the live performance sounds like in those genres ;-).

      Delete
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