Resolution & musicality

In loaded terms, this is what the DAC2 offers. Until its capacitors form through break-in, you'll live in temporary bass city. Not bloated or boomy, the two lower octaves are simply overemphasized. Think top subwoofer from Aerial, REL or Thiel over-dialed by 3 or 4dB to impress the neighbors - tight but overly obvious. You like such an imbalance? Enjoy it while it lasts for, like the Caliph's famous ring reminded him in pain and pleasure, "this too shall pass". The prominence withdraws to enfold seamlessly into the overall spectrum after a few days' use.

Compared to the Zanden DAC, the 1/7th-as-expensive DAC2 merely lacks the former's preternaturally long-lived decay trails and the kind of buff body that feeds on overbuilt power supplies and extends a larger time-domain aura from the elongated sustains. There's a reason, after all, why the Model 5000 MkII is far more expensive. Ditto for Stronczer's forthcoming $8,900 Universal player. It'll use paralleled DAC2 architecture for multi-channel applications. It too is coupled to one such take-no-prisoners power supply. In conjunction with not having to incur reclocking issues by going off-board, it promises performance that, while based on the same conversion technology as today's box, will still eclipse it. As well it should, considering the fiscal ramifications.

< The new set-up, with 68" tall windows 4.5' up behind the speakers. With the blinds closed and the brocade curtains, towel-style, hung on either side of the rack, the usual propensities for glass-induced reflections and bass suck-out are mitigated. But getting good photos even with center fill weighting still is too tricky for this amateur picture snapper.

The differences between cost-no-object and "faux" cost-no-object daccing? Not drastic at all. Take Miguel Poveda's stunning debut album Viento del Este [Nuevos Medios 19995, 15675] and look at the album cover. You know what they say about men with big mouths? Big mouths, huge - voices. In 1993, Miguel's won the most sought-after Flamenco vocal award, "La Lampera Minera" in the 33rd Song Festival de las Minas de La Unión while winning another three awards -- La Cartagenera, La Malagueña and La Soleá -- during the same festival. He now follows in the footsteps of El Potito and Duquende. Consider the opening tangos "Y yo que culpa tengo", with Moraito Chico on guitar and Carles Benavent on bass and mandolin. His young high voice slices the air like Samurai steel, crystalline, pure, in intense full-attack mode, projecting the uncensored fury of jondura, the echo of emotional agony.

The DAC2 portrayed Miguel's and Moraito's leading edges with greater sharpness for a more near-field contrast setting, giving more zing to strings, more fire to the no-holds-barred high notes. Despite this slightly more charged atmosphere, the DAC2, even at front-row levels, never singed the ears to require turning the volume down. To hear the dying hall reverb at the end of his opening solo was child's play. More importantly, you could also hear it inside the progressive notes while Miguel was still singing. Not so much as an overlap, this -- too weak for that -- but as a slight swelling and timbre alteration right after each tone first appeared from out of the darkness.

The more pronounced leading edges also grew apparent in Benavent's more crisply chiseled bass lines to make the Zanden DAC sound a bit softer, more mid-hall, with heightened reverb times expanding the gray zone of audibility just above silence. Where the more expensive converter took a small but perceptible lead -- rather than simply drawing a different matter-of-preference perspective -- was in the body of notes. If each tone were captured on a monitor as a time-freeze blossom, the DAC2's tones looked like "o"s while the Model 5000's resembled Collagen-enhanced "kissy lips". The edges of the lips added little triangles to the "o" on either side for longer, less sudden decays, slightly less sudden transients. Actually, the "o" portion was closer to a zero, less round and taller for enhanced dynamic envelope. On this recording, this was most notable on the guitar, reasonable in retrospect since, unlike a voice, an undamped struck string exhibits long sustains and more unfettered rise times.

During the vocal background chorus, the DAC2's sharper separation suggested the effect of turning a color photograph into a higher contrast black'n'white. By eliminating the distraction of multiple color values and their soft muting, it made certain details more apparent while not adding any pixel data per se. The presentation became somewhat starker, more noticeably resolved which, arguably, perhaps also slipped a few degrees into hyper-realistic territory, i.e. better than live (unless you had absolutely ideal seats). All this by way of hinting at the Bel Canto's uncanny ability to resolve low-level information without turning edgy, simply the equivalent of a row 5 center seat. Its wide-open top end captured the metallic extension of cymbals, triangles and strings without causing inner-ear ringing, a sure-fire indicator when something's too hyped, a common error in the search for ultimate resolution. Not here. The DAC2 is very easy to listen to, something you'll appreciate as the hours slip away and the first faint twilight of the morning reminds you to that it's time to hit the shower and get ready for work (or to bed if you're nocturnally self-employed).

To report more on the Bel Canto's bass quality, I cued up an audiophile must-have, Curandero's second album Arás [Silverwave SD911] that reunites Míguel Espinoza and Ty Burhoe on the original guitar/tabla team but adds bass monster Kai Eckhardt and banjo brujo Bela Fleck. "Segue" is a devilishly funky jam that gives each musician time to solo, with particularly brilliant riffs by Eckhardt who growls, glissandos, slams, speed-slaps and, throughout, does a strange octave-doubling bass line wherein the lower note kicks in slightly behind the higher one. Having played this track since its debut in 1996, I use it as a literal scale to weigh bass heft. How weighty and solid are those second-half low notes? On the following "Embrujada", how much air does Ty's over-sized frame drum displace?

The verdict? The DAC2, despite its diminutive dimensions, dishes out prime USDA-approved bass by the generous pound, in no way bested by the Japanese über-DAC, merely sounding a bit drier, hence on the "slammier" rather than "bloomier" side of the fence. Most listeners seem to prefer that, and it was massive fun on the complex "Man of the Shadows", with its convoluted 7+7+5+7+5+5 beat pattern that has Ty seemingly aim for popping either a few blood vessels or his drum skins.