This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Mhdt Laboratory Paradisea 3

Ah, tubes!  A truly hip little monster in its piano lacquer finish acrylic case, nearly see-through top plate with 5670 tube peeking out and an on/off toggle switch up front, the Chinese-made Mhdt Laboratory Paradisea 3 DAC is one slick looking medium-sized DAC. Okay, it measures 28 x 15 x 7.5cm LxWxH to be exact and weighs in at 3.4 lbs. A straigh-up non-oversampling operator—of all DACs on test, only the Music Hall and Benchmark offer selectable oversampling—it runs a Philips TDA1545A 16-bit chip. Round back is the usual power cord receptacle, RCA outs and USB, Toslink and coaxial digital inputs.

Though a bit sharper in tone than the apt-to-editorialize Carat-Topaz, the Mhdt upped the ante with a greater sense of air between instruments, a bigger soundstage—if you care about such things (I do!)—greater attention to detail and a slightly more open and transparent presentation. Every disc was presented as tactile, intimate and stronger through the Mhdt.

All in all, the Mhdt offered a taste of tubes though it didn’t rely on them for all its appeal. Sure I heard more overall harmonic richness but there was nothing sappy or syrupy here. This was more like SET - with a glowing revealing midrange beauty. Bass? Big on the McCluskey trip-hop and Bebel Gilberto electronica, not so much with the old Beatles tracks. The Mhdt is an honest DAC which doesn’t add much overt character of its own and creates a wide and deep soundstage. Ultimately you'll have to weigh its price tag against that of the only slightly more expensive Music Hall 25.2, a very hot unit from a domestic importer with a serious track record.    

Music Hall DAC 25.2
For sheer resolution of every note, transparency and detail retrieval, the Music Hall DAC 25.2 was the best of the bunch. Using a photographic analogy, we’re talking giant pixel count that saturates your ears with music. Every track I played offered spectacular levels of information and detail. Everything was in bold relief and first row even when using the 25.2’s basic non-oversampling setting. I could hear deep into every recording. There was nothing left to the imagination. All the information was there. Crisp. Clean. Articulate. Tart. Those are the buzzwords this rectangular coffin-looking DAC lived by.

Regarding that asynchronous argument, Music Hall offers this info—and then some—on their site: "The DAC 25.2 features the latest Texas Instruments (formerly Burr-Brown) PCM1796 24bit/192kHz advanced segment stereo audio digital to analog converter. This processor features 123dB dynamic range, an 8 x oversampling digital filter and just 0.0005% THD. To achieve the best sound, we use an advanced asynchronous reclocking and anti-jitter control system upstream of the PCM1796. For this we are using the Philips 74HC574 in conjunction with the TI SRC4192 asynchronous sample rate converter whose master clock is a high precision active crystal oscillator."

The DAC 25.2 is another tube equipped DAC using an Electro-Harmonix 6922 tube buffer for the RCA output. It features user selectable 96k/192kHz upsampling, four digital inputs—coax, optical, XLR and USB—two gold-plated outputs—RCA and XLR—a headphone output with adjustable analog volume control, a large high-current oversized R-core power transformer, a thick brushed aluminum fascia and chassis and measurement of 8.5 x 13.5 x 3.75 inches WxDxH, weighing in at 10 pounds. You play with the big boys, you get the goods.

Music through the Music Hall revealed great levels of detail and resolution jumped to the fore. It was certainly first row. The soundstage was superbly coherent and full both in height and depth compared to the previous DACs. I’d listened to The Beatles remasters on all the DACs but only the Music Hall revealed their true glory. The organ and guitar solo in "Something" was soooo creamy and rich and truly long decay trails were present for the first time.

With is palpable, present midrange, the Music Hall’s soundstage was also very SET-like. Accurate—harmonically and tonally —I would never have guessed this was a tube operator. That it never shouted out. Although I like to pride myself on hearing the difference, the Music Hall was as clear and crisp as any solid-state CD player but with greater depth, richness and just a touch of romance. The Beatles vocals in "Here There and Everywhere" were pure silk. Previously played tracks from Amy Corriera and Angela McCluskey became more intimate and immediate and not to a small degree. Drums had greater snap and punch, Bebel Gilberto’s percussion was better revealed and Radiohead was once again crisp, clean and revealing.

Though I would never describe the Music Hall’s sound as tipped up, it seems designed to reveal midrange to treble detail over serious low end. Until I played Pete Belasco that is, a NYC crooner with a bend towards jazz lounge and funk. Now the low end came into play deep, rich and room-filling though still a tad light for my tastes. Again the Music Hall was all about accuracy. If the info is not there, the Music Hall won't fake it. Though it sometimes cluttered information into the soundstage, the Music Hall was super revealing, super resolving and great fun to listen to. If ultimate detail retrieval, PRaT and a real sense of fun and discovery are on your USB DAC wish list, the Music Hall 25.2 is a must audition.

Benchmark DAC1 USB
Where the 25.2 is upfront, zesty and revealing, the DAC1 USB is slightly laid back, warm, extremely organic and as tonally correct as any digital device I had in my system. The DAC1 gets it all right. This is the sound of a live performance or as close as you get with a man-made digital machine. The DAC1’s performance possesses all the cues, dynamic shadings and subtle articulation of a live gig. Music is extremely coherent, each instrument finding its correct place in the soundstage. Once you get involved with the DAC1—a very easy thing to do—you quickly forget terms like soundstage and treble and midrange and the lot to simply revel in the music. Top to bottom, the DAC1 is nearly tonally perfect - or at least perfect for me. It presents a lovely warmth as well as excellent resolution and transparency.

The pluck of an acoustic guitar string, the low-end coil of electric bass, the long decay trail of a cymbal and the zing of a rim click were all present and organized into a totally coherent and—I hate to say it—musical whole. More so than the other DACs on test, the DAC1 presented a large and extremely live sounding soundstage when that information was on the recording. Chico Pinheiro and Anthony Wilson’s Nova would sound good through any DAC but over the DAC1 it just leapt from the speakers with riveting dynamics that helped reveal even greater information with repeated plays. Drummer Jeff Hamilton’s Symbiosis [Capri Records 74097] is another well recorded very live disc and again the DAC1 revealed all its richness as well as its percussive fire and wide soundstage.

The DAC1 includes a front-panel volume control, two headphone outputs, an LED lock light that flashes to indicate various error conditions such as being driven with DTS or ADAT data and a toggle that lets the user scroll up or down through the inputs of USB, Toslink, XLR, RCA. Output level calibration points and power receptacle complete the back. And the hting is tiny, measuring 8.5" x 9.5 x 1.725 DxWxH and weighing 3.5 pounds. The DAC1 is capable of handling 24-bit data with sample rates of up to 192kHz and includes an Analog Devices AD1896 which "regardless of the original sample rate of the data converts it to a data stream sampled at 110kHz."

For some—for me—the Benchmark is a middle weight that delivers heavyweight performance. It’s obviously more expensive yet $1295 gets you into the realm of the big players. A true pro audio product, the DAC1 is manufactured to survive many long hot hours of serious studio duties. Its silky smooth on top, warm and natural in the midrange and it plumbed the depths of every disc I put to it. A fantastic bargain for $1295—I found it for $995 at B&H Photo—the DAC1 has held its price for awhile and is a steady quality in a fast-moving world..

DACs and DACs
The Benchmark and Music Hall DACs are very competitive and I could easily live with either. Though I overall preferred the Benchmark for its warmth, astute delineation of the notes within the soundstage and its incredible allegiance to the live in-studio performance, the Music Hall 25.2 was equally exceptional for the money by presenting music in a zesty, fun and exciting way. I would imagine different listeners and music lovers with different tastes to go for either DAC and be completely satisfied.

If cost is an issue, the Styleaudio Carat-Topaz proves what can be done with a little ingenuity and enterprising drive. Though not as palatial and all-encompassing as the top DACs in this group, it boogied like mad with everything put to it and simply made great fun out of listening to music. Warm, engaging and smooth, it did most everything right for a cool $449. Ditto for the Keces, which is a clear-eyed steal, an audio bargain if ever there was one for $250 (with the right cables and ancillary equipment).

Locus Design Axis and Polestar USB cables
The good people at Locus Design lent me the Styleaudio DAC for review and also supplied two different USB cables to check out: Axis and Polestar. The latter was a huge improvement over the Kimber USB cable, offering a full rich sound and spot-on tonality. All was well. Not until I dropped in the Axis did I realize that still more information was available, albeit only to a small degree. The Axis simply fleshed out the music a bit more, adding a bit of hyper realism to the proceedings. Though it upped the ante, I am not sure I preferred it. I generally do favor more detail and transparency but this time the Polestar seemed about right if not as ultimately revealing. The two share basic tonal traits with the only difference I can hear being more resolution from the Axis.  
Quality of packing: Heavy duty Judy. 
Reusability of packing: Yes.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Painless.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: No problems.  
Quality of owner's manual: Full featured, also available online.
Pricing: Expensive, but high value.
Usage conditions: Unpack, connect, let er rip.
Human interactions: Prompt e-mail responses, solid interaction from a dedicated manufacturer.

Quality of packing
: Good.
Reusability of packing: Yes.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Painless.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Solid.  
Quality of owner's manual: None.
Pricing: Very high value.
Usage conditions: Unpack, connect, flip power switch, play.
Human interactions: Prompt e-mail responses from a dedicated manufacturer.

Quality of packing: Solid.  
Reusability of packing: Yes.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Painless.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Quality of owner's manual: Acceptable.
Pricing: A decent value but nudged hard by competition.
Usage conditions: Unpack, connect, let it play.
Human interactions: Prompt e-mail responses from a dedicated manufacturer.

Quality of packing: Excellent.  
Reusability of packing: Yes.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Painless.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Quality of owner's manual: Good.
Pricing: High value!
Usage conditions: Unpack, connect wall wart, let it play.
Human interactions: Prompt e-mail responses from a dedicated manufacturer.

Music Hall
Quality of packing: Solid.
Reusability of packing: Yes.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Painless.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Quality of owner's manual: Excellent.
Pricing: Very high value!
Usage conditions: Unpack, connect, push power button, play.
Human interactions: Prompt e-mail responses from a dedicated manufacturer.
Benchmark website
Keces website
Mhdt Laboratory website
Music Hall website
Locus Design website
Styleaudio website