As we end off, let's close with a discussion of subjective impressions developed over many evenings of listening (about a month or so). I've described the soundroom previously in some detail and for the two channel system, the main amplifier is my home-assembled Hypex nCore NC252MP, main front speakers are the Paradigm Reference Signature S8 v3, and dual subs (main Paradigm SUB1 with the little Polk PSW111). The Topping D90SE feeds my Emotiva XSP-1 preamp. All cabling is balanced XLR from DAC to amplifier (no need to fret, inexpensive Monoprice Stage Right XLR runs are all ya need, feel free to spend more on cables if you see fit of course).
I listened both with and without DSP room correction activated; generally I prefer with DSP. Knowing the frequency response characteristics (flat to 20kHz) and setting to "Fast Roll-off Linear" (Filter 5) allows me to use the same DSP settings for my room interchangeably with the RME ADI-2 Pro FS Black Edition without need to remeasure (equivalent frequency and time-domain performance). As discussed before, one of the benefits of a high quality DAC is that we can have even more headrooom with DSP processing whether it be full room correction or applying volume normalization like ReplayGain.
For a size comparison, here's a peek at a stack of DACs in the sound room with the Raspberry Pi 4 "Touch" streamer on top:
|DAC Stack: TEAC UD-501 (2013), Topping D90SE (2021), RME ADI-2 Pro FS R Black Edition (2020). Notice the Topping is about the same width as the RME, but deeper and flatter.|
A. A few (obvious) comments about subjective impressions...
Before I begin talking about how the D90SE sounds to me, I think it's important to just say a few things as hopefully obvious reminders by now. Subjective listening and write-ups can be a bit tricky not only because these are not blinded (so they're not controlled) but the comments said can be construed as being "authoritative" yet in reality are just ephemeral impressions and generally cannot be taken as "fact". This is why I always start reviews with the objective tests - that's more apt to be factual, reflect the true performance, than flights of fancy and expressed emotions.
IMO, unless a DAC these days has serious deficits that mess up sound in an obvious fashion (which also means it can be measured and verified), I think it's important to just be mindful of human limitations to perception and not think that subjective opinions need be held with conviction. Listening impressions are generally "testimonies", nothing more. While they might be accurate, always be mindful if there are undertones to the message and "read between the lines" for potential bias. Be mindful of whether the device being testified about came as a result of a relationship with the manufacturer. Is this a (potentially longterm) "loan"? Is the review produced with the intent of monetization? The usual caveat emptor rules apply as with any kind of potential advertisement in an unfiltered online world.
Many times, I remember walking away after a listening session with a negative impression of a certain device and a couple of nights later experience the opposite using the same hardware. Did the hardware "break in"? (A convenient explanation with many audiophiles over the years believing that hundreds of hours of break-in is needed for solid state devices or even passive components like cables!) No, I bet more than 9 times out of 10, it's because I've changed. Perhaps better mood, less stress, better night's sleep, less sinus congestion, ear wax shifted; all manners of potential changes in the cognitive, emotional, and biological machinery affecting the human mind.
I seriously hope that readers, viewers, reviewers all can acknowledge these simple facts about being human so as to put subjective claims and reviews in the right context. As far as I am aware, there are no "professional" listeners doing audiophile subjective review write-ups where their main career is as a meticulously trained listener. This idea is even more important when we're talking about things with little potential mechanistic effects - cables, bit-perfect digital streamers, bit-perfect software, etc...
While I do have a playlist of songs I can use as "standards" when listening to new components, it would be rather boring I think to just spend time discussing a handful of tracks or albums; the same ones each time I stick a component in the system!
Instead, it's much more fun to run through a number of albums I've bought recently or revisited and make some comments about the sound of the system and discuss the albums which some readers might also be interested in. That's what I'll do here with an eye to considering the D90SE's performance.
B. So how does the Topping D90SE sound? Let's have a listen to it in the sound system...
As usual, I listen to a device before I run measurements for a couple of evenings before putting it on the test bench. This allows me to have a listen to it brand new without any "break in". Since I know some audiophiles have a strong belief in "break-in", I purposely let the DAC play on loop with a playlist of rock/pop tracks for about 70 hours after the objective testing before doing more critical listening over the next few weeks. The discussions below were primarily with albums I listened to after that 70-hour "break-in" (no, I do not believe this made any difference to the sound).
First up, I received a couple of new live albums the other week; Donald Fagen's The Nightfly: Live (2021, DR10) with tracks recorded at the Orpheum Theater Boston and the Beacon Theater NYC during shows back in 2019 (pre-pandemic), and Tears For Fears Live At Massey Hall, Toronto 1985 (2021, DR8).
The sound quality from live recordings can be hit and miss. It's nice on recordings like this to listen for the atmosphere in the live venue. Can we hear that sense of "space" and how the crowd noises come across to extend that feeling that one is "present" at the time of the recording?
For the Donald Fagen album, I was certainly impressed by how "clean" the live recording sounded! Right from the start, in my soundroom the crowd noises in "I.G.Y." surrounds me and with the D90SE playback. I can hear the low level background noise of the venue and the audience, even picking out individuals in the crowd. Like with Becker/Fagen Steely Dan albums in general, the studio recording of The Nightfly was immaculately produced. It's quite impressive how good the live band sounded here compared to the studio work in the original album! Notice that the sound of the live recording is not as "sizzly" as the early digital recording. The DAC is able to convey the nice deep kick drum on "The Goodbye Look" and wonderful pacing on "Green Flower Street" (percussion, xylophone). Donald Fagen would have been around 71 years old when the live recordings happened and his voice is still quite strong on these recordings. Overall, an enjoyable album if you like The Nightfly.
The Tears For Fears live album is a very different beast. This is an analogue tape recording done back in 1985 and then remastered for release, in the process it has obviously been moderately compressed to a DR8 value to sound relatively "modern".
Notice the peak-limiting applied to this live recording with little stand-out dynamics. This implies a loss in some of the nuances of the performance and this is what I hear with the playback. It's alright, the spatiality of the crowd cheers are there and there's a sense of 3D space with the band. But there's a bit of harshness in the sound, the tonality is tipped up and not as neutral especially on Roland Orzabal's vocals compared to The Nightfly Live. I've always loved the deliciously dark lyrics wrapped up in a lively, almost joyful package in "Mad Word" which sounds great in this performance complete with '80s sax. "Broken" provided an example of rendering of spatial depth through the sound system where one can imagine facing the stage, a crowd standing/sitting around you, lead vocals a bit closer, percussion in the rear, and electric guitar left front, keyboard stage right. The complex mix of instruments and vocals easily differentiated through the digital playback.
In the top picture showing the "DAC stack", notice the black cover image of the album I was playing at the time - Kanye West's Donda (2021, DR6). Admittedly I'm not a big fan of rap or Kanye. This album named after his deceased mother unfortunately is a bit of a mess IMO. Massive amount of religious allusions in the music but it's simply not "deep" or particularly insightful. Rather, we're looking at superficial allusions and pop references thrown in here and there.
Yeah, the usual themes are there including poverty, crime, drugs, suicide, disrespect, vague thoughts around redemption through faith, etc... I certainly have no problems with these themes, but it's just not done well and I don't think West's antics over the years have helped create a sense that these ideas are at all genuinely expressed. For example, I kind of enjoyed "Jesus Lord" with its multiple layers and themes sonically, but it's also filled with clichés and pop references which will not stand the test of time. Having said this, there are some enjoyable "sounds" to be heard on this album. The intense bass thumps on "God Breathed", digital stereo expansion effects, and shift towards an ethereal layer at 45 seconds with background chorus sounds pretty cool. IMO, there's nothing "masterpiece" about this and comes across as the work of a superficial hedonist with pretensions of emotional and spiritual depths. I doubt I'll be returning to this album much, far from The College Dropout or Late Registration of West's younger years when he made more sense.
Feel free to have a different take of course, such is the subjectivity of music appreciation. Highly compressed and synthetically produced albums like these certainly sound fine through the D90SE.
Next up, to clear my auditory palate, I had a listen to TakéDaké & John Kaizan Neptune's Asian Roots (1998, DR14). The track "Japanese Roots" is part of my AMPT test recording and I think is just a wonderful "audiophile"-type track to highlight dynamics, decay, soundstage, and tonality of an acoustic performance. I love the articulation and mastery of the Shakuhachi flute shown by Neptune and the precise "attacks" on the percussion instruments are "to die for" as some audiophiles might say. ;-)
It's recordings like these where you have subtle nuances ("Angklung Journey" is a nice example) along with impactful dynamics, and "space" in between notes where one can appreciate the purity of the silence one can achieve in a high-fidelity sound system where a quality DAC like the D90SE excels. This reminds me of Miles Davis' comment that "in music, silence is more importance than sound". This ability to achieve at times explosive dynamics then pure unperturbed silence is like achieving infinite "black level" with the best video displays in a home theater.
As a general rule, a good sound room, low ambient noise level, clean yet powerful amps, good quality speakers with full frequency response and balanced cabling are all highly recommended, if not essential, to extracting the best of the technical abilities of a DAC like the Topping D90SE.
Also within the "world music" theme but more along pop lines, Ladysmith Black Mambazo's The Best of: The Star and the Wiseman (1998, DR12) is a lovely, uplifting album.
The human voice provides a great test of sound system tonality especially with multiple a cappella overlaid parts on the title track "Inkanyezi Nezazi" as a great example. Another standout track for me is "Rain, Rain Beautiful Rain" with its dynamic nuances, sudden spontaneous utterances, and wide soundstage presentation. This sounds fantastic with the D90SE. Highly natural rendering of the voices without harshness or artificiality, enough detail to pick out individuals in the choir.
On one of the evenings, I enjoyed Hélène Grimaud's Memory (2018, DR12). These were piano performances at the Himmelfahrtskirche Sendling church in Munich. No, nothing tremendously innovative or challenging here dynamically for the DAC to reproduce although the analytical mind could focus on the quality of the attack/decay/sustain/release envelope of the piano notes and recognize the technical proficiency of this recording and the D90SE DAC's ability to retrieve these temporal and microdynamic details.
Rather than being analytical, I listened to the album after a busy day at work with the intent to meditatively flow with the melodies and rhythms, taking the opportunity for the spirit to connect with the music and explore whether the sound system components are able to take me to that place of emotional and spiritual engagement. Yup, no problem. These are some of the best times I've had in the sound room and the Topping D90SE integrated into my system had no problems bringing me there.
Let me mention The Shawshank Redemption (1994) which just came out on 4K UHD Blu-ray and was a wonderful movie to share with the family the other night (trivia - Shawshank is the highest rated movie on IMDB.com at 9.3/10 with 2.5M votes).
The soundtrack and score by Thomas Newman (1994, DR11) is likewise a wonderful complement to the movie which I revisited with the Topping D90SE. There's a nice mix of musical styles in this soundtrack ranging from folk Americana like "May" and "Workfield", to the orchestral "Shawshank Prison [Stoic Theme]" and "So Was Red", to slow piano-driven "New Fish", the melancholic "Brooks Was Here", and "Zihuatanejo", to mixed acoustic-synthetic tracks like the quizzical "Rock Hammer". Interspersed among the score are a few vocal tracks like The Ink Spots' "golden era" sentimental "If I Didn't Care" (mono, 1939), honky tonk Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues" (mono, 1949), and the soaring exotic operatic vocals on Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro: Duettino-Sull'aria" done by Deutsche Opera Berlin in this album. The sound system negotiated these tracks with grace and accuracy. There's surprisingly deep bass on "His Judgement Cometh" and "Shawshank Redemption" that woke up the subwoofers and I can't help but be moved by the simple, sweet, graceful, majesty of "Suds on the Roof".
A beautifully deep movie, and likewise varied soundtrack.
Finally, I want to thank Mario Martinez of Play Classics for his generosity to the folks on Audiophile Style. As I've expressed over the years (for example back in 2014), high quality audio production is an essential part of audiophile experience which I think we should be knowledgeable about. This cannot be understated as audiophiles because no matter how great we feel our hardware might be, or how awesome the acoustics in our sound room might be, unless we can feed speakers in that room (or our headphones) with seriously good sounding recordings, we might as well be driving a luxury car down country roads, never experiencing the comfort and smoothness of the ride.
I applaud engineers like Mario and his team in the incessant desire to optimize his recording / producing / mastering techniques with the intent to create recordings of utmost "truth" to the artistic performance. While there might not be an actual "performance" when it comes to complex studio productions or electronic music, with acoustic recordings of classical music with actual performers in a real "space", there is at least an opportunity to capture as "true" as possible in 2-channels what the performance might have sounded like if one were present in that space. Mario can say this better in his thread on Audiophile Style where he not only discusses his intent, the various iterations of his "Truthful Recording Technology" method, but also offered readers an opportunity to try out the recordings.
I took up his offer and as you can see in the picture above, downloaded the Olga Yakushina & Elizaveta Yaroshinskaya Around The World with Kreisler for a "spin" (24/96, 2021, DR14, available on Spotify, Apple Music as well).
Let's just start by saying that this is the "real deal" in terms of a "hi-res" recording:
|Compare the look of this waveform plot to the Tears For Fears as an example of what "natural" looks like (and also sounds like).|
So how does an album like this sound with the very accurate Topping D90SE as source of the analogue signal? In a word fabulous on my system and soundroom.
On this album are 13 "violin and piano miniatures" (<6 minutes each) channeling the performances by the celebrated violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) who back in the early 20th Century performed regularly with friend Sergei Rachmaninov as his piano partner. The performances here by Yakushina (violin) & Yaroshinskaya (piano) are expressive, dynamic, and energetic. Emotionally the music is joyful and uplifting; a real pleasure when you just don't have time for full symphonic compositions!
As audiophiles who appreciate the "sound" of the recordings, we can explore the lush tonality, spatial "bloom" of the two complex instruments. Have a listen to the warmth and appropriate stridency** of the violin attacks, the complex dynamic envelope of the piano, surround ourselves within the "soundstage" captured in this recording. For the most part we have the violin placed to the left, piano on the right, and can experience the notable relative depth between the instruments with the piano sounding further back beyond the dimensions of my room and violin closer to the listener "sweet spot". Make sure to have a listen to probably the 3 most well-known of Kreisler's compositions "Liebesfreud" (Love's Joy), "Liebesleid" (Love's Sorrow), and "Schön Rosmarin" (Lovely Rosemary) in series (the Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen "Old Viennese Melodies"). The playful interchange between piano and violin on "Poupée Valsante" (Dancing Doll), speed and technicality of "Tambourin Chinois Op. 3" are also highlights for me. Oh yes, for the pop music listeners, you'll recognize "Preghiera" in Eric Carmen's "All By Myself" (check it out on The Best of Eric Carmen).
Thanks again Mario and I wish you many opportunities to bring your recording skills and experience to other amazing projects ahead! The trick is really to capture the performers and performances that will appeal to audiences at a time when there's just a lot of music out there.
I mentioned in Part II that the ESS DAC's DSD performance had variable noise floor issues depending on DSD rate. I did not bother listening to DSD128+ simply because I don't have any music of the "hi-res" DSD variety unless I did something like upsample PCM (I don't see the point in doing so)! However, I did listen to some DSD64 tracks including selections from SACD rips of Jorma Kaukonen's Blue Country Heart (2002), Telarc's 1812 Overture (2001), and Gaudeamus/Paul Halley's Sacred Feast (2000). I selected these as original DSD recordings that highlight different elements of sound - acoustic vocals, dynamic classical, and complex choral recorded in a resonant 3D space. The D90SE sounds great with these especially the mid-range fullness of the Gaudeamus. Even if not objectively as spectacular in resolution as PCM, I can't complain!
All-in-all, I think the Topping D90SE integrated well into my sound system, one aiming for neutrality and transparency. To me, there is no such thing as sounding "too hi-fi". Bring on the details as far as my hearing allows, and if an album sucks because it was recorded/produced/mastered poorly, I want to know about that too - because in my worldview that's what honest audiophile-quality sound systems do! Not just try to make everything sound "nice" (which is impossible anyway).
C. Topping D90SE AMPT
So, you want to have a listen to the output quality of the Topping D90SE with CD-resolution playback? Well, here you go:
While the RME ADI-2 Pro FS ADC is not capable of the precision of the E1DA Cosmos ADC when running measurements, it's easily able to record the output with better resolution than the source "standard resolution" 16/44.1 music fed into the D90SE. Also, for standardization of the recordings, this ADC will be a controlled variable.
Feel free to compare with the AMPT recordings from other DACs!