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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog Source: Rega P9 turntable, RB1000 & Hadcock GH Export arms, Rega Super Elys & Garrott Bros Optim FGS cartridges
Digital Source: Accustic Arts Drive 1/Audio Aero Prima SE DAC
Preamp: Bel Canto Pre2P
Power Amp: Art Audio Carissa, Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and Canary CA-330 monos, Cyber 211 monos [on extended loan], Musical Fidelity A5 Integrated
Speakers: Tidal Audio Pianos, Hørning Perikles, Thiel CS 2.4, Ohm Acoustics Walsh 4 with 4.5 mk.2 upgrade
Speaker Cables, Interconnects and Digital cables: JPS Labs Superconductor 3
Power Cords: JPS Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC, Aluminata and Kaptovator
Powerline conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with ZCable Cyclone Power Cord
Sundry accessories: Sound Mechanics Performance Platform, 2-inch Butcher Block platforms with Quest for Sound Isol-pads, Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Ultra & Heavy Z-Sleeves, Viablue QTC spikes under speakers, Auric Illuminator, Gingko Audio Mini-Clouds
Room size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review component retail: Maggie Autoformer Volume Control $430; Charlize Amplifier class-T $340, Monica DAC $300

No doubt about it, the world is getting smaller all the time. It must have been close to ten years ago just as I was getting started writing. I received an email from a kid majoring in electrical engineering at the Michigan State University. I don't remember the exact details of our audio discussions or his system other than that he was looking into getting his first quality yet budget-conscious rig. But I do remember a lot about the kid. He was in the US on a student visa from Malaysia. We talked a lot about audio but also other things such as failed long-distance love affairs. Upon completion of his schooling, we e-mailed our good-byes and he sent me a little memento of his home country - a little pewter plaque. Good kid. I never heard from him again. Until about six months ago.

CW Yeo -- or simply Yeo as he calls himself -- apparently returned to Malaysia where he discovered a way to combine vocation with avocation. Along with two partners (EW CG and CK Kok), he started producing commercial DIY kits. While I lost touch and was looking the other way, DIY Paradise was born. As a matter of fact, it was just after my own reading of one of Michael Lavorgna's Road Tours wherein he made mention of the DIY Paradise Monica DAC that Yeo contacted me. What timing. The context of the road tour system with his DAC told me just enough to suspect that perhaps DIY Paradise was worth taking a look at. At $1,070 combined for a package containing a passive line stage, a DAC and a chip amplifier, I wasn't looking at spending a lot of our readers' money. If the rest of his pieces were as good as the reviews of the Monica DAC let on, it could be a lot of fun - and hopefully an easy recommendation.

The girls from -- DIY -- paradise
In fairly short order, the three components arrived packed in a FedEx box. Each component was securely enrobed in layers of bubble wrap, then secured inside the box by compacted wads of crumpled paper. Not exactly the most modern of packaging solutions but we are talking about very modestly priced DIY products from Malaysia. To be honest, there was a certain cottage industry charm about the entire affair.

Once I started photographing the components, the large digital files on my monitor revealed to these aging eyes blemishes that had gone unnoticed before. To be blunt, I was a little taken aback by the fact that several of the pieces featured scuffs and the DAC actually a fairly significant ding in its wooden casework. My natural assumption was that DIY Paradise had packed up a few of their workhorse pieces and shipped them off as temporary review loaners. Upon investigation I learned that this was not the case. I was shipped three mint pieces. By way of possible explanation, it was theorized that customs may have opened up the box and perhaps was responsible. I did a little enquiring elsewhere and couldn't find an example of another reviewer's products undergoing such damaging US customs inspection. Yet I was provided with a photograph said to be of this very component stack taken before being dispatched flawless. As of yet, the mystery remains unsolved. From a few feet away, the components appear to be flawless. As Forrest Gump would say - that's all I have to say about that.

The digital to analog converter under review is called the Monica and was designed by Yeo himself, to currently be in its second iteration. It's a non-oversampling DAC using a TDA1545A chip. The Monica can be yours for the feeble sum of $340 plus shipping.

CK Kok designed the 10wpc class-T amp that goes by Charlize. It utilizes a Tripath TA 2020 chip and sells for $340. Like the Monica, the Charlize doesn't arrive with the typical IEC power inlet or even a captive power cord. Power input to both pieces is via 12 VDC and achieved by wall-wart switch-mode power supply and a long thin power cord. Power on/off from a front-mounted rocker switch is indicated by an LED that glows orange when the amp is powered down, green for up. Very logical. Around back is the 12-volt power input, a pair of nice quality RCA input jacks and two pairs of utilitarian yet sturdy plastic-capped 5-way binding posts. Considering the price, the Charlize is nicely built and finished even if it only measures 8.5 inches wide by 7 inches deep by 2.25 inches tall. The wooden casework is nicely done, with a very hand-made quality to it. The vertical black panels seem to be a sturdy high-gloss plastic and the top and bottom of the components are sturdy powder-coated sheet metal.

Requiring no power connections at all is the Ew CG-designed Maggie, a passive autoformer attenuator with C-Core transformers wound in house. I'm told these C-Core transformers were selected after testing various types. C-cores were found to be superior due to flatter frequency response, tighter bass, greater high frequency extension and reduced magnetic leakage leading to lower inductance. A 22-stop stepped Alps attenuator has a very sturdy feel and features front center. Not your usual wiper-type resistive potentiometer, volume is controlled by connecting each click stop directly to one of the C-Core's various autoformer taps. Around back are connections for a single stereo input and output utilizing the same RCAs found elsewhere. The price of the Maggie is $430.

Of course, for the true do-it-yourselfer, DIY Paradise will sell you the Monica PCB module for $135 plus approximately $30 shipping, the Maggie autoformers for $260 and the Charlize amplifier module for $110.

It was my original intent to introduce into my system each of the DIY components individually and comment on each separately. With the Monica DAC, I was off to a very good start and impressed by several aspects of its performance. But when I introduced the Charlize amplifier, Monica weirded out. Tethered between my Bel Canto Pre2p preamp and Accustic Arts Drive 1 transport, I suffered seeming grounding issues, not the kind that induced system hum but the kind that completely interfered with the DAC's operation. Most of the time, I couldn't get signal lock as indicated by the blue LED on the front of the DAC. When I was fortunate enough to achieve lock for very brief periods, the sound was much akin to an extremely weak FM station - no bass and a very noisy signal. Almost instantaneously, I'd lose lock again. I spent a lot of time thinking I had a bad power connection to the DAC. It has no pilot light or anything else to indicate a proper power feed and the blue LED only illuminates with signal lock. When DIY Paradise suggested that I bypass my own preamp and insert their passive for a front-to-back DIY Paradise system (still using my own transport), things straightened right out. I never was able to get the DIY components to work with my system with its multiple components, grounding points and the DIY component' ungrounded wall-wart power converters. Thus, my plan for a component-by-component review was stricken from the menu.

I was, however, able to listen to just Monica within my own system and I must say, she sounded surprisingly good. At $340, she's certainly Blue Moon Award material and a completely caveat-free recommendation. She's warm and she's smooth. She's extremely musical. She's not quite as open and spacious as my 14 x as expensive Audio Aero but the difference makes it very difficult to justify the cost differential. She's not quite as insightful either but it's insane to compare the two. It's much more reasonable to compare her to typical mass-market CD players, many of which sell for more than she does and most of which she'll trounce. At the very least I was expecting some hardness on top, the kind you almost always find in inexpensive digital. Alas, I was disappointed - an excellent thing in this case. Monica may not stand up to the very best of its more expensive competition but it'll bury anything I know of in and around her price class. Therefore Monica gets a universal recommendation to all those looking to take their mass market CD players to the next level and to serious listeners looking to assemble a system on the cheap. The size of the DIY components makes them an unbelievable candidate for a desk-top or bedroom system by the way. But the Monica is also a worthy contender for far more ambitious systems.

After this universal recommendation for Monica, things got murky. At only 10 watts no matter how good its sound, the Charlize amplifier can't achieve any universality. But if you have highly efficient speakers or listening tastes and a room that'll allow you to get away with 10 watts, you can do a heck of a lot worse than the Charlize for the money. Like the Monica, it completely avoids all the hard solid-state nasties of most amplifiers and receivers in its price range. Don't even give a thought to reservations over sibilants or edginess. It's just not a problem. As compared to my own reference gear, sure, it lacks the sophistication -- the liquidity and finesse --but it sounds very good. It slightly shrinks the stage in all dimensions compared to my gear but again, what a price difference. It's ludicrous to even compare them at all. But when you do, the little amp still sounds amazingly competent.

The only failing in the system was one of amplifier gain or DAC output voltage depending on how you view it. The Maggie is a purely passive device without gain. The Monica DAC has a maximum output of 300mv and the Charlize amplifier has an input sensitivity of 550mv. In my room and seat, the three DIY pieces teamed into my 96dB efficient speakers only mustered enough gain for peaks averaging 90dBs or so. This was very program dependant. Some CDs are mastered hotter than others to play louder. I would quickly point out that with my speakers and in my room, I had all the volume I generally needed and while the Maggie's volume control was advanced to its max, I never ran short of power. I wasn't out of power, just gain.

What else doesn't the DIY Paradise stuff do? Well, sex appeal for one. Three small, mostly wooden boxes aren't going to impress your friends. No half-inch polished face plates here. But what these components lack in sex appeal they surely make up for in wife acceptance factor. They're so small, you can just about stow them under the sofa if need be. They produce no heat so behind a closed credenza door isn't a problem either. As it turns out, WAF is a lot cheaper than sex appeal. Who knew? If you do insist on impressing your friends, don't tell them what you paid until after you wow them with some music first. And I have to add that I find the hand-made wooden enclosures an aesthetically warmer touch than the even less sexy extruded aluminum enclosures used by other T-amp makers such as Trends and King Rex, to name just two.

There's not much room for tweaking here, either. Forget aftermarket power cords. Too bad, too. As good as this system sounded, I couldn't help but wish to try some of my own cords as I marveled at how well it did without them. Of course, most of the cords in-house retail for more than the entire DIY system. How's that for perspective? It's the price we audiophiles pay to wring the last iota of performance from our components. Some may gravitate toward the DIY products just because they squash such temptations. Satan, be gone.

Nor will you get a backache lugging these things around. None of these little boxes tipped the scale at much over a few pounds. In fact, my JPS Labs Ultraconductor interconnects and Opera Joplin speaker wires weighed more than the components which were hard pressed to stay in place once connected up. I opted for these more commensurately priced wires and interconnects in part because my JPS Labs Superconductor 3s would have been an impossible proposition due to the relative weights involved. As it was, a two-quart bottle of Nitty Gritty record cleaner fluid was called into service to sit atop the stack and stabilize things.

What you do get is very nice across-the-board performance with no glaring faults. The Horning Perikles aren't the last word in deep bass extension but as far as they go, Charlize kept things taut and tuneful—no slurring here. The bass line from Dave Grusin's "She Could Be Mine" from GRP's Digital Sampler Volume 2 [GRP-D-9529] did an excellent job plowing the way for Grusin's piano and the various percussion instruments. The soundtstage was big and airy and reminded me greatly of the Cayin A 88T, a KT88 tube integrated. The presentation was light and open with nice microdynamic bite. Not the last word in harmonic saturation -- nobody will mistake Charlize for an EL34 amp or my own ICEpower based analog switching Bel Canto Reference 1000s -- but by no means were we talking dry or sterile. When "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" commenced, I had to put pen and paper down for the duration. A composition of mostly strings and piano, it really put the midrange performance and overall balance of Charlize to the test and considering the price and class involved, she faired absolutely brilliantly. All things considered, there was little room for criticism but if I had to pick a nit or two, I could have wished for a bit more soundstage depth.

It wasn't that the stage was of only two dimensions; the graduations from front to back were obscured. Width was very good and about three minutes into the song where Grusin's tickled ivories are located entirely to extreme stage left only accompanied by Abe Laboriel's bass lines, the DIY components did a heck of a job making the piano plainly visible about half the way back on stage. To say that the DIY components don't do depth is an overstatement. When things get frenzied, they simply don't keep things sorted as well as more accomplished and expensive components do. "Mozaik" and in particular the snare drums and piano sounded a little more whitish, a little splashy, lacking the body my reference components produce. The opening and sustained bass lines from "Dolphin Dreams" didn't convey the same sense of sustained power or grace I'm used to, either. I could almost hear the little amp running out of steam.

But now I'm really digging. That these minis stood up at all to such comparisons speaks volumes to the fact that they're basically very good components that commit none of the sins of commission of mass market gear of like price. Scratchy or brittle highs? Not. Constricted and collapsed soundstage? Nope. Even if the midrange got just a little muddled during complex passages, it still did a very good job even under duress, all things considered. I should be complaining about far more egregious problems but here I am splitting hairs on how these dwarves don't measure up to components that generate sales tax figures on par with the asking price of the DIY components. If you're willing to put in the time and build your own components around the even cheaper DIY Paradise modules... well, the mind boggles at the value factor.

The DIY Paradise components didn't exactly provide any revelations during listening sessions except for the fact that such good overall performance can be had for such a paltry amount of money - if you're willing to forgo the eye-candy aspect and can live with only 10 watts of power. I can honestly say that listening didn't involve nearly the compromises I expected. My biggest frustration during the review process was the lack of a phono stage and having to restrict all my listening to digital while the magnificent Merrill-Scillia Research MS2 turntable sat motionless off in the corner. Far too much time without vinyl but I can't hold that against the DIY products. Just bad timing.

The more I listened, the more impressed I became with the dynamic performance of this DIY stack. Though completely passive, the autoformer-based Maggie preserves the snap and dynamic contrast of the music to keep up the fun factor. I found that a little surprising coming from a system utilizing a no-gain center but there it was. While head-banging volume levels were beyond my reach, as loud as the system did go, it preserved the individual dynamic textures extremely well and far beyond expectations. Maggie had all the transparency you could ask for, too. My Bel Canto Pre2p is amazingly not there, sonically speaking and when replaced by the Maggie, there was some shrinking of the otherwise expansive soundstage but outside of that, the sonic differences were minimal. Of course, I was now restricted to just one input and I did lose remote control. Considering the cash difference, for those with a single source in their system, it may be a tradeoff many will be willing to make, especially for that second system or those highly efficient minimalist rigs.

Owners of extremely efficient speakers such as products from Zu, Rethm and Klipsch who must be mindful of noise
may want to take particular notice of these DIY products. With no music playing the system was dead quiet through the 96dB efficient Hørning Perikles. Those familiar with such high efficiency speakers also know that the taper on the preamplifier's volume control comes under close scrutiny. With highly efficient speakers, many products only allow a very small amount of play on the volume control before output levels get excessive. When I first brought home the Shindo Partager preamp for use with my Art Audio Carissa on the Hørnings, I had so much gain in the preamp that I couldn't advance the volume control to the point where both channels balanced before the music was just too loud for nighttime listening. That wouldn't be a problem for the DIY products. Most likely, neither would be the lack of overall system gain. I'll bet these components could drive the daylights out of a pair of 105 or 104dB Klipschorns or La Scala IIs. And the DIY products' clean, glare-free and surprisingly transparent midrange performance would be icing on the cake.

I'm aware that these DIY components have competition out there. Where class-T amplifiers are concerned, I've already mentioned Trends and Kingrex, already reviewed on 6moons as well as Sonic Impact, Red Wine and others. How the DIY Paradise Charlize compares I can't say as I haven't used any of the competition. I'm also aware that some of the competition is asking for even less coin than DIY Paradise. I will add that DIY Paradise products can be ordered in at least two different styles of wooden boxes and you can assemble a complete system (with the exception of a CD transport) with matching cosmetics. That'll be worth something to certain buyers. No matter how you look at it, these components represent real value. When I accepted the DIY Paradise review assignment, I didn't have a clue how good these class-T amplifiers could sound.

I can confidently state that within the parameters of the caveats pointed out -- which in the right system could actually be benefits -- the Charlize, Monica and Maggie each present the potential buyer (or DIY builder) with very solid performance and a value quotient that's off the charts. With each subsequent listen during the review period, I found myself more and more impressed. No, in absolute terms they weren't giant killers - they weren't better than or even quite as good as my reference components. They are, however, products of extreme value. Where they fell short of my gear, they did so in esoteric areas of performance. As a system, the DIY components weren't quite as liquid, not quite as detailed and insightful and they did shrink the scale of the presentation to a minor degree. But at their price, they came much closer than they had any right to. I can't imagine this amount of money buying a better performing DAC, passive attenuator and power amplifier package. But until I have more experience with class-T amplification, I'll have to reserve judgment as to just how award-worthy the Charlize amplifier actually is. However, there's no doubt that in the extreme low-price category, the Monica DAC is a clear Blue Moon contender.

Quality of packing: Though lacking in the kind of form-fitted foam that stabilizes the units within their boxes, I would have predicted that the bubble wrap would have sufficed. Unfortunately, the finish of the components did suffer some superficial blemishes in transit.
Reusability of packing: Completely reusable.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Very easy.
Condition of component received: Superficial damage to the wood finish.
Completeness of delivery: Very complete except for...
Quality of owner's manual: ... a complete lack of any manual whatsoever.
Website comments: The website is short on specs but provides access to lots of other information including a forum discussion group, a blog and even an on-line store featuring non-DIY paradise products.
Warranty: 1 year
Human interactions: Relatively responsive emails during work week.
Final comments & suggestions: DIY Paradise does not represent the day job of those involved and is instead more of a hobbyist venture.

DIY Paradise comments:
Thanks to 6moons and you, John, for your excellent write-up! Wow! It has been so many years since we last talked, eh? I still remember your "Advice to a Friend on a Budget" which set me on the right course in audio. My eternal gratitude to you for this.

Until now, we still can't understand what caused the scruffiness on the wooden chassis but we'll be extra careful next time. I'm definitely aware of the issue of lack of signal level from Monica. When I first introduced the Monica module 2 years ago, she was intentionally made small so that she could fit iside any active preamp out there. With most amps with 100mV sensitivity, I figured she won't need any gain stage. Also, I haven't found a gain stage I could live with so I'd rather go without one. Well, since the day we sent the "ladies" to you, we have been working on many fronts and I have now added Mr. Rudolf Broertjes' solid-state current-to-voltage gain stage to add more "oomph" to Monica. My eternal thanks to Mr. Broertjes for his willingness to share his design with us. Such generosity! Not only does the gain stage increase the output level but the dynamics improve too. I'm sure you'll love Monica with the gain stage even more.

I should also add that Charlize's gain is set to x 12 and though we could go higher, we didn't want to do so as the higher gain also translates to higher noise. We use surface-mount components which are more difficult to build but we can hear the difference (especially with regard to noise level) and the result is a very quiet system, as you noted.

It's really unfortunate that you were not not able to try each component piece by piece if your system. That was our aim when sending all three ladies to you but alas, the timing was off.

If used all three in conjunction, of course without the active gain stage for Monica, Charlize never reaches its full 10wpc of power. This is why even at full volume, you don't get your desired loudness. As you correctly pointed out, you didn't run out of power, just gain. Thanks for seeing this.

Our Maggie passive preamp consists of C-core autoformers, wound by our Mr. CG Ew. Yes, she preserves the dynamics very well and she sings utterly transparent.

I also noticed the more you listen, the more you like the girls. Well, as the girls run in longer, we are sure they'll conquer your heart! [For the technical minded, the running in is really required. We use non-polarized Black Gates in Monica and Charlize and Maggie is wound with Japanese C-core iron.]

Lastly, as you can see, with our products, we don't want to get in the way of your enjoyment of music. We should be listening to the music, not the system.

Manufacturer's website