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After 200+ hours of break-in in a silent system, I put the Chameleon DAC back in my downstairs system. Going from memory, I heard more air, depth and detail but no difference in bass performance or dynamics. Overall, I would not call it a huge improvement but it was still quite noticeable. If you look at the thread, you can find some who are actually installing the very expensive Dueland caps.

The next trial for the Chameleon was in my upstairs Bastanis Prometheus system.  I hauled the Vecteur D-2 transport up too since the Quad CDP-2 I use there has no digital output. I also recently replaced my Slagle autoformer volume control with a Bottlehead Foreplay tube preamp. Playing Josh Stone’s Mind, Body, and Soul [EMI 7243 5 94897 2 8] the vocal was great and there were decent bass and dynamics but it still left me wanting for more. This is from a bass-heavy CD too.  Since the Bastanis have a separate control of the bass output from the plate amp-powered woofer, I could easily compensate for the lack of bass this way, however I don’t think it is appropriate to write a review based on equalizing the output of a component.

So with the bass level control set in the same place as it was with the Quad CD player, the bass was noticeably weaker. The Chameleon does fare better overall on my Bastanis Prometheus speakers because they are naturally more open and dynamic. Still, when you put the Audio Note in to replace it, the midbass and bass come back in spades. In short, the same sonic signature prevailed in my upstairs system.

During the above listening trials, I was also waiting on delivery of a significantly modified Chameleon from Bill Allen, one of the main contributors to the discussion thread. He finally decided to send it to me although the upsampling board was not working so he removed it, leaving it to play and output at only 16/44.1. Here are the mods done to it:

1) Direct Input Mod – take the S/PDIF input wire that runs from the back of the RCA jack to the board, unsolder it from the board and solder it directly to the input of the pulse transformer. That bypasses a number of solder joints on the board, the switch for Toslink and some caps, lowering jitter and making the signal path shorter.
2) FIRM mod – recycle the two 10uf Wima coupling caps and use them as a 20uF film capacitor power reservoir just prior to the input of the 8VDC power supply to the DAC chips. Later they added a 1000uF Black Gate FK and bypassed it with a 0.1uF polypropylene film cap.
3) Install Black Gates FK 47uF/16volt decoupling caps in the holes provided next to the DAC chips. These replace the stock 10uF surface mount caps.
4) Replace the 10uF Wima output coupling caps with 5uF Jupiter beeswax coupling caps.
5) Replace stock I/V resistors with 175ohm Vishay bulk metal foil resistors.

Listening to both units in my downstairs system, the modified unit was markedly better even without the upsampling board. The main benefits were in the fluidity and richness of the sound. Minor increases in bass and dynamics were detected but nowhere near enough. For a change of venue I decided to take both units over to my friend Dan’s house to put into his system (Northstar 192 transport/192 DAC with Empirical Audio mods, Gill Alana preamp, Cello Duet amp, Bastanis Apollo speakers, Bastanis cabling).

Again this was putting it into a very high-end system. Most buyers arguably would not be doing that. Of course I did not expect it to compete with the Empirical Audio-modified Northstar. Suffice to say then that the same sonics were heard in Dan’s system as in both of mine. Dan’s Northstar has never been a champion in bass performance or dynamics (it fell short of my Audio Note DAC Kit 1.2 in comparisons in both of our systems) but it still outperformed the stock and modified Chameleon DACs in these specific areas.

Keeping in mind its price and putting the Northstar out of our minds, we agreed that the modified unit sounded pretty good. Listening to George Benson & Al Jarreau’s Givin’ It Up [Concord Records/Monster Music CCD-2316-S2], it was pleasant and very easy on the ears. The modified unit showed a little more soundstage dimensionality, cleaner vocals and again slightly more bass and dynamics than the stock unit.  However, we agreed that the main weakness was in insufficient bass and dynamics. The intro bass lines in cut 3 Long Come Tutu illustrated this clearly. Going back to the Northstar DAC on this cut, the bass pressurized the room and you could feel the impact.

I understand that a number of the modifiers on the thread claim that certain mods do increase the bass and dynamics of the Chameleon. All I can say is that the mods present in Bill’s unit did not do enough for either Dan or me. My feelings on the stock unit are that it might be suitable for 1) low-cost systems with smaller bass-limited speakers, 2) systems with full-range speakers that are heavy in the bass, or 3) speakers that have an adjustable bass level control like the Bastanis.  In this context, the full-bodied vocals and overall smooth sound would be a relief compared to some of the compromised sound that is often found at this price. To no surprise, I could not recommend the stock unit for a high-end system. The modified unit could be comfortable in a somewhat higher-end system but I would still want to be able to increase the woofer output level.

TeraDak is obviously a company who listens to user feedback. After all, that is how the Chameleon came to be. I’m hoping that they take my criticisms in a constructive manner and address them in the next version of their DAC. It is possible that the DAC really does need an output stage to achieve proper bass and dynamics. It may also be a power supply issue. Some modifiers are experimenting with upgraded power supplies. The designer (ID is Teraguy on the discussion thread) even commented that "…maybe in the future, there will be OPT, tube outputs or active outputs.  However, these are not new ideas for the DAC."  If such an output stage can provide more bass and dynamics without raising the price too much, then they will have a very desirable product for the lower end market. For the potential higher end market, the modifiers are still going at it. In the time since Bill did the mods to the unit he sent me, there have been several additional mods that users feel are increasing performance:

1) replacing the stock 24.576MHz TCXO clock on the upsampling board with a Tentlabs XO clock. For even lower jitter, additionally replace the 12MHz TCXO on the digital input board. The designer commented on the Thread that "…the stock TCXO is not expensive but good enough for most consumers. Many use it to upgrade their consumer CD player or DAC. However, it may not be good enough for specific users. From the wm8805 and Dir9001 datasheet, they all offer  50ps jitter accuracy." Reported improvements by one modifier are "…much more transparency, tighter bass, less grain."
2) replacing the surface mount 0.1uF bypass caps for the DAC decoupling caps with 0.1uF polyfilm caps.
3) installing naked Z-foil Texas Components I/V resistors.
4) replacing the stock DC-30 power supply with the Paul Hynes SR1-MR power supplies & Z17 3.3 regulators.

At this point, I cannot draw any firm conclusions about the ultimate performance of a modified unit. That is because the unit I received from Bill Allen was missing the upsampling board. Also, it did not have the latest mods as outlined above. In a sense then, this review is incomplete. Bill promised to send me another unit with all of the latest updates and I hope to write a followup at that point.
Quality of packing: Simple and effective, heavy duty cardboard with the two chassis nested in molded foam.
Reusability of packing: At least three of four times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Very easy.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Complete.
Human interactions: Prompt and courteous email replies.
Pricing: Inexpensive!
Final comments & suggestions: None.

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