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Due to low distortion I believe the sound of the DAC-04 seemed slightly warm. I wanted to prove that this was no primitive trick as some tube amplifiers do it. This seemed a justifiable approach because the upper bass somewhere at the crossing to the midrange was slightly stronger than the vocal band. If I had to compare it with something else—and strong lower bass should be added to the equation—it would be Ayon’s CD-1s or the Cosecant v3 USB DAC from Wavelength Audio. The bass guitar from Dire Straits and the contrabass from e.s.t.’s Viaticum were softer in their higher registers, their energy not as potent there.

This was a slight deviation from neutrality and linearity. There was no doubt since my Prime played the same material evenly. I had similar complaints with Benchmark’s DAC-1 USB. Here and with the Ayon, the lower passages were not as well controlled as over the Accuphase DP-500. The Ayon’s bass was bigger and more impulsive. Some reader feedback on this player pointed to this element as a bit problematic while others accepted it as is. I think this is also how one should approach the DAC-04’s bass. I believe its designer lacked precise full-range speakers like my Harpias, otherwise he would surely have heard this soon enough. And I have no doubt that he knows what he is doing.

I talked about this element of the sound a bit more not because it is inferior in absolute terms but not as good as the midrange – but only when compared to units costing about 10000zl and more. Two other DACs less costly—the Benchmark and Audionemesis DC-1 Up-grade—rendered the lower octave in a similar fashion. This was highly interesting as these are all different with regard to construction details and sound philosophy. But let’s return to the treble which is strong and full, reminding me of the DC-1 Up-grade but far more resolving.

At first I thought that the energy of this sub range was close to that presented by the Prime and DP-500 but after a longer session I was certain that the Stelaudio DAC has a darker treble whose amount of information is lower. There is something ‘vintage’ about it because the earlier Mark Levinsons sounded similar which is not bad. Again we reference the 10000zl region even though the DAC-04 is far cheaper. Yet there is something about cymbals and the upper vocal registers to suggest a not so precise reproduction, a not completely resolved connective tissue due to reduced differences between reverb, sibilants etc. Those are not fully elucidated. It is why all discs sounded at least pleasurable while one remained not fully aware of what is on them and why. And thus I return to the opening. The best area of this DAC is its midrange. This is an outstanding achievement and for those who aren’t bass fanatics or have smaller speakers, it will be the main decision maker. This DAC sounds a bit like a tube-based device in terms of lacking annoying distortion and offering instead harmonic fullness and richness.

The unit sounds slightly different when connected to a computer via USB cable. As I showed in the Cambridge Audio Dacmagic review, this is no easy task. Only specialized USB converters like the Wavelength Cosecant v3 or Brick are able to fully show the quality of music collected on a hard drive including high resolution files. Over the DAC-04, USB sounded a bit plasticky by underlining the upper midrange which still remained under-resolved. This is also how the Cambridge sounded and although Mr. Stelmach’s device handles tonal balance and dynamics better, discerning high resolution files from their 16/44.1 versions is very difficult if not impossible at least for me. It is not that I discourage the USB input, mind you. I am just saying that to extract everything a USB output can deliver, we need far more expensive solutions and special treatment of the link - like placing the USB receiver in asynchronous mode where the sampling frequency and word length are determined by the DAC rather than computer. The DAC-04 in USB mode is not bad but the outstanding quality of its sound using the S/PDIF input raises the expectation threshold to such a level that USB won’t reach it.

In conclusion, this is a splendid machine for little money. Besides the Audionemesis DC-1, for me it is the benchmark DAC for less than 5000zl, which can nonetheless compete with units costing up to 10000zl. But one must absolutely provide it with a high-class transport. My Prime with the CD-Pro2 LF is the minimum. I must now add that Stelaudio is a small micro company. If I were an amplifier manufacturer like Struss or even bigger, I would not hesitate to acquire this project or at least begin a cooperation with Mr. Stelmach. It would be an ideal supplement for his circuitry if a better enclosure were provided with a display for sampling frequency, word length etc. Then the machine would easily sell for 5000zl. I would do this before somebody else snatches up either the design or its designer. Just don’t spoil his project.