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TotalDAC | APL NWO-M | Antelope Zodiac Gold/Voltikus: The Japanese/Bulgarian joint effort split the difference between TotalDAC and Antelope but at that nestled closer to the TotalDAC. Mindful that in these leagues and component category offsets are narrow to make writing about them aggrandizement by necessity, sonically the Brient and Peychev machines were very close. The NWO-M had a little more treble effulgence and brilliance when called for. Conversely the TotalDAC added some pounds of tone color. If the Peychev machine was an ultra-refined aesthete with Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the entry, the TotalDAC was a man's man with full garage tool kit to hodrod the car. Now subtract verbal excess to return to real and voilà. Accompanying the added degree of gutsiness or grittitude, the French machine still mirrored back the aforementioned mellifluous gestalt. This had the NWO-M somewhat more striated. One might say that Alex Peychev did his utmost to obscure any remnants of Delta-S(t)igmatization. In that he comes surprisingly close to a true resistor-ladder scheme—certainly more so than the other Bulgarian of Zodiac Gold—but a fundamental if subtle difference remained.

The Antelope machine excels at quite holographic soundstaging infused with light and aeration. In these qualities of bubbly esprit it was strongest of this lineup. It also was strongest in a slightly metallic 'resolution-primed' digital flavor if we choose to call the TotalDAC's more organic presentation analogue. Circling the wagon on a different horse to apply illumination vs. earthiness, the TotalDAC was the earthiest followed by the Octave, then NWO-M, then Zodiac Gold. Changing horse once more to talk excitement and impressiveness instead, I'd anticipate most listeners to first pick the Antelope. This has echoes of the 'theater' setting on our Sony Bravia television. Sony probably anticipated users going gung ho on contrast and brightness to never find their way back to natural. This remote feature acts like a factory reset. It's been deliberately optimized for a movie-projection type experience. It's rather darker and mellower but also richer and more natural than what televisions get dialled for at Electric Avenue. There flickering walls-o-tellies need the brightest most aggressively detailed model to stand out. In a far from obnoxious way, the Zodiac Gold had some of that wowie factor but only by comparison in this particular company.

Streaming the NOS way: Don't input anything higher than 96kHz or unpleasant distortion will result. You will probably notice that any upsampling in player software like PureMusic does not sound as good as playing at native resolution, i.e. common CD rips at 44.1kHz. I'm not sure how I managed initially—I probably had PureMusic set to 176.4kHz before defeating its 64-bit upsampling—but the TotalDAC suddenly played completely undistorted at too high a pitch (but nowhere near double speed which then would have had an explanation). Switching back to the Zodiac Gold proved this without a doubt. The French was in the wrong key. A few minutes later its voice had dropped back to normal. This was peculiar and novel but I subsequently could not make it repeat that behavior to ascertain what caused it. Chalk one up to inexplicable temporary weirdness. Since the TotalDAC lacks a USB/Firewire input, you'll need a D/D converter if you want to run those transmission formats. From the KingRex U192 to the M2Tech hiFace, Audiophilleo 1, Halide Bridge and April Music U3, there are plenty of affordable 'retrofit' choices.

Second opinion wrap: As I learned with the Metrum Acoustics Octave detour, there's more to the NOS concept than the all-discrete route. The offset between €700 IC-based and €3.850 fully discrete converter was very small compared to both sharing the same dominant core qualities versus the 'standard' examples. In generalized terms, the NOS sound could be caricaturized as No Obnoxious Sibilance. It is characterized by a darker, mellower, materially heavier more relaxed mood. Emphasis is shifted from detail to context, from articulation to flow. This also abandons the transient/treble-sharp gloss of conventional digital with its enhanced contrast settings. Those used to all that might relate to the zero-sampling approach as duller and less exciting or energetic at first. A shift of focus and priorities is definitely involved to come to grips with, then appreciate and possibly prefer the NOS presentation.

As a quasi second or third wave after the original 47lab & clone phenomenon, contemporary support for the discrete R/2R scheme is growing. Ryan Mintz from Core Audio Technology for example announced "a discrete 24-bit R/2R DAC—no DAC chip—with 96 laser-matched .01% resistors for high-resolution playback. It contains roughly 55 separate power supplies and a 48-channel bit-matched attenuator micro controlled to match the voltage perfectly. This not only allows us to move the controller to the output but creates a truly digital amplifier with only one stage of conversion and a bit-perfect line-level output right before the speakers. No separate amplifier and a truly high-resolution NOS DAC. Just below alien technology."

I don't know about 'alien technology' except as a throwback in the face of cheaper fully integrated solutions which since have become the modern hi-tech norm. It wouldn't be the first time that certain criers in the hifi wilderness insist that we've lost our way to skip over past accomplishments we shouldn't have skipped. Vincent Brien's TotalDAC makes a compelling argument for it. Lacking buzzword compliance, it seems quite outdated on paper but the sonics are anything but. I'd expect that vinyl-over-CD lovers who find digital too thin, white and bereft of gravitas would find zero-sampling digital rather more palatable. Ditto Zu-type speaker listeners who value tone density over extreme detail and illumination. Ditto SET hounds who'd gladly trade the last words in treble and slam for greater tune/tonefulness, flow and richer colors. I think it's all of them who Vincent Brien had in mind with his TotalDAC.

That's the bigger picture. For finer details, click here for Joël Chevassus' feature review...

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