When I was a kid we couldn't buy toys, we had to make 'em!
If your grandfather was/is anything like mine you heard a line like that at least once. It was usually followed by some other muttering about having to walk 12 miles to school every day - in the snow - uphill - both ways. As unlikely as the second line was, I understood the first. As a kid the best fort on the block was not the pre-fab plastic one the dentist down the street bought his kid, but the one we built ourselves using scrap wood, baling twine and rusty nails. Well, Sonic Frontiers has tapped into this idea with the Assemblage kits in their Parts Connection division. However, unlike our childhood fort, their Do-It-Yourself (DIY) kits are not of the scrap wood, twine and rusty nail quality.
If Sonic Frontiers in the kit business surprises you, some history is in order. The company began in 1987 as a parts reseller, and in 1989 their first in-house product was an amp kit (the SFM-75). Since then they have expanded the corporate banner to include four distinct lines. The Sonic Frontiers appellation is reserved for their "reference" retail products. Anthem is a new label for their "affordable" products. Parts are now sold under The Parts Connection (TPC) name, and pre-packaged kits are available from TPC under the Assemblage badge. As you might guess, this results in a lot of cross-pollination among the Sonic Frontiers family. For example, the original Assemblage DAC-1 was also available in an assembled form from Sonic Frontiers under the name TransDac (and at a higher price). One other advantage of this family of companies is the volume discounts they get when purchasing parts. A single manufacturer cannot equal the volume of a parts company, so being the parts company helps control costs on the manufacturing side. This shows repeatedly in the parts quality/price ratio of all of the Sonic Frontiers family of products.
As for more history, my grandfather was right as far as the early days of Hi-Fi. In the 50s and 60s, if you wanted a good one, you built it yourself. However, somewhere along the line audiophiles lost the DIY mentality, and today most of us cannot tell the different between the smell of hot solder and the smell of the burning kitchen table where the iron accidentally got laid (that's it, wives ended DIY!). This is one point Sonic Frontiers has not overlooked. It seems that we are intimidated by DIY. So, to allay the fears of the tyro all Assemblage kits are designed such that just about anyone (yes, this includes you) can put one together in a couple of hours, even if you have yet to buy your first soldering iron. In addition, SF/TPC promises that if after trying you cannot get it to work, they will, guaranteeing that your first DIY project will be a success. And they also include a 30 day money back guarantee on the sound quality as well.
You mean I really get to take the lid off?!?
The Assemblage DAC-2 is actually an amazing little box. For $499 you get an HDCD equipped, dual 20-bit DAC. Unlike many other, far more expensive DAC's, the mandatory 6dB non-HDCD attenuation is performed in the analog domain, so full digital resolution is retained at all times. The case, while small (9.5 inches x 7 inches x 2 inches), is very nicely constructed. The clean front panel (.25 inches thick!) has a green led to indicate signal lock, a red HDCD led, a phase toggle and a toggle to chose from among the 3 inputs. The rear panel has RCA analog outputs, a detachable power cord and the three input jacks, TosLink, RCA and BNC. The fully assembled main board is well laid out and easy to work with, with two exceptions (more on that in a sec). As I mentioned earlier, Sonic Frontiers must have a sizable volume discount because parts quality on the board is outstanding, Holco metal film resistors in the output stage, machined and gold plated IC sockets and the like.
The kit comes with all the parts you will need, including the solder. The manual is exceptionally well written (this from someone who writes and proofs software manuals) and is clearly illustrated. For the neophytes among us the manual includes a section on wire stripping and soldering. The actual assembly is shown with 30 photographs to cover the 16 step process. As far as ease of assembly goes, this kit gets a solid A. The only two comments I have are, first, in Step 5 the IEC AC filter module is attached to the main board where it spends the next 7 or so steps flopping around. Be careful. And second, if you want to defeat the non-HDCD analog attenuation, do it between Step 7 and Step 8 (call TPC for instructions before you attempt this). While this is not an overly complicated process, the jumper location is in a crowded location, close to the boards' edge and thus difficult to do after you have assembled the unit. Those small caveats aside, the kit went together very well and very quickly. Even though Sonic Frontiers has done all the hard work, I've got to admit they hooked me. While it would be a good looking unit had it come pre-assembled, having had a hand in making it gives it a special shine. True confession time. I did have some apprehension when I plugged it and waited to see the power light spring to life. And when it did, followed shortly by actual music coming out of the speakers I startled my wife with the Frankensteinian howl, "It's Alive!" Believe me, that alone is worth $499. Well, that and the fact that I'm sure Grandpa is looking down with a big smile as well.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled show
After letting the Assemblage break in for 100 hours, I sat down to listen to my handiwork. One thing that was immediately apparent about the DAC-2 was its lively and up front presentation. Rather than a middle of the hall presentation, the DAC-2 placed me in row B. At times this gave a very engaging window on the music. Listening to "California" from Joni Mitchell's Hits compilation (HDCD encoded, by the way), the DAC-2 put Joni closer than I'm used to. The added closeness gave a bit more of an emotional edge to Joni's voice, accenting the longing in her vocal. On the debit side, this closeness could also be a bit much. Elysian Fields' Eponymous EP is a wonderful, and wonderfully intimate disk (the full length CD, Bleed Your Cedar, while good, is a bit less wonderful). Jennifer Charles delivers the emotionally and sexually charged lyrics with a perfect blend of ennui and desire. The Assemblage moved her slightly too forward, removing some of the ennui and slightly damaging the balancing act needed to pull the mix off. While not serious, this forwardness was present on all recordings.
The liveliness was also consistent. Live jazz recordings, such as Kevin Eubanks Live at Bradley's certainly benefited from this. I found myself drawn into the spirit and feel of the music, in fact, the DAC-2 did a superb job with this disk. Other live disks, such as recent Bill Evans Turn Out The Stars set, also benefited from the DAC-2. As for the accuracy of this attribute, I would guess that in absolute terms the DAC-2 is editorializing rather than passing on exactly what is in the bits. However, the deviation is slight - and while this is no excuse, it is also very enjoyable.
As you can guess, the lively and up front presentation also combined to deliver the impression of a lot of detail. While never analytical or sterile, the DAC-2 did serve up a lot of musical tidbits. The Assemblage was able to extract the sound of guitar fingerings, piano and sax keys being pressed, vocalists breathing, etc. Best of all, this detail was never spotlighted, rather it was revealed as part and parcel of the performance. For some this detail can be the talisman that creates the illusion of real musicians. As for me, I found the DAC-2's ability in this regard was very welcome.
Tonally, starting with the bass, the Assemblage was both accurate and a superb timekeeper. The bottom end was tight, tuneful and flat out on the beat. Whether listening to jazz, rock, or ambient/techno, the DAC-2 found the beat, locked on and rode it for all it was worth. For example, ZZ Top's newest, Rhythmeen, is a return to their earlier, grittier style. The DAC-2 practically forced me to get up out of my seat and boogie with the boys whenever I played this disk (by the way, anyone else notice that the chorus on "What's Up With That" is a pure rip-off of the Staples "Respect Yourself"? - Hope Pops is getting a royalty for that one). This ability to accurately portray pace also made classical music more enjoyable as subtle dance rhythms were also communicated with ease and clarity. The only real flaw here was the lack of the DAC-2 to reach all the way into the last octave. The mids were almost the equal of the bass, lacking only a little harmonic richness. The highs were fast and detailed.
The Other Shoe Falls
From the above you can tell that I am impressed by the DAC-2. It has detail, clarity and rhythm. Tonally, at least as that pertains to the first burst of musical intention, it is also superb, especially for $499. Still, the DAC-2 falls short in a couple of areas. While not grainy, the top end is a little bright in absolute terms. Also, harmonics are a little shorted. As presented by the DAC-2, the initial attack of a guitar or piano is full and powerful, it is only after that first wave that things get slightly wispy. For example, the rich harmonic envelope that can surround a tenor sax, such as that which accompanies Joe Henderson's solo version of "Lush Life" from the album of the same name, is diluted enough to be noticeable. Please take this criticism in context. The DAC-2 is a $499 processor. In this price range we cannot expect near perfection, and the errors of the Assemblage are minor, at least compared to its strengths and its ability to communicate meaningfully.
To place my comments in perspective, my current DAC is the Audio Alchemy DDE v3.0, a somewhat of a rival for the DAC-2. Like the Assemblage, it is HDCD compatible. Unlike the Assemblage it has an upgradeable power supply. I usually use one the upgraded power supplies, the PS3, which goes for an additional $259. This puts the combo up over a grand, more than twice the price of the DAC-2, however the street price of a DDE v3.0 and a PS3 is lower than the retail price, the DAC-2, being available mail order only, has no "street" price. So, to even things up a bit I spent some time listening to the Audio Alchemy unit with the stock power supply.
When I first switched back from the DAC-2 to the DDE v3.0 (using the standard power supply and with the remote control dithering CPU removed) I was somewhat surprised to discover that the differences between the 2 DACs were not as great as I had thought. Switching the DDE back to the PS3 I found where some of the richness in the DDE's presentation had come from, and perhaps where the DAC-2 was being let down.
One thing I had noticed early on was the DAC-2's extreme sensitivity to power cords. Besides the stock cord, I used an Audio Magic Sorcerer cord, the WireWorld Aurora and my reference MIT Z-cord. In each case the character of the individual cord was clearly and immediately revealed. At first I chalked this up to the clarity of the DAC-2. After switching to the DDE v3.0, and then the v3.0 with the PS3 I began to re-think this. When using the lesser power supply with the Audio Alchemy it sounded very close in many ways to the Assemblage. Switching power supplies on the DDE v3.0, while not altering the essential character of the DAC, greatly improved its quality, its refinement and its ease. In many ways this is exactly what the DAC-2 needed. It excels in all the extroverted skills - liveliness, detail, staging, pace. Where it lacks is in the more introverted, refined ones - the exact skills the Audio Alchemy picks up when fed a cleaner and beefier jolt of juice. The sensitivity of the DAC-2 to power cords, while possibly a result of the unit's clarity, could also be a product of a power supply in need of all the help it can get.
and in the end
In some ways the three DACs I have on hand are an excellent object lesson in lower priced high-end products. Each offers something its lower priced counterpart doesn't. The $295 Cal Labs Gamma is extremely tuneful and relaxed, but lacks the involvement and liveliness of the DAC-2. The Assemblage, at $499, delivers much more of the detail in recordings. This is a good thing since it does so without becoming sterile, cold or harsh. The increased detail comes as a natural result of the DAC-2's superb clarity and fine resolution. And the DAC-2 is very close to the stock, $795, Audio Alchemy DDE v3.0. That, in part, has to be chalked up to the economics of the do it yourself Assemblage. It is not till you pop for the upgraded PS3 (as well as the $149 remote control CPU chip) that the DDE v3.0 pulls clear of the DAC-2, adding refinement, and harmonic richness. Please keep in mind that a DDE v3.0, PS3, remote controlled combo is more than twice the price of the Assemblage.
At $499 - for any component - you have to ask a critical question. How much should I expect? To me it is unreasonable to compare the DAC-2 to state of the art processors such as the Levinsons or the top of the line Thetas. However, placed in context of its peers, the little Assemblage more than holds its own. The build quality (in spite of my involvement) is excellent. It looks solid, feels solid, and best of all it sounds good. If I had to choose between it and a stock DDE v3.0, I'd take the DAC-2. Yes, it has errors, lacking some harmonic fullness and being a little bright. However it scores big points for its clarity, staging, liveliness, tonal accuracy and superb timing. These are details which make music exciting and involving. They also make the DAC-2 exciting and involving.
Click Here for Todd's May 1997 update with the DAC-2 Upgrade Kit
Price: $499 USD
The Parts Connection Responds:
First of all I'd like to thank both Todd and yourself for the excellent review of the Assemblage DAC-2. I have to agree with Todd's opinion that the DAC-2 is a very detailed and revealing D/A processor, especially considering its quite reasonable price.
We believe that a properly engineered, accurate audio component should reveal the differences between recordings without imposing a characteristic sound of its own. This neutrality can often put the sonic characteristics of associated equipment into stark relief. While Todd did not mention in the article what transport/cable combination he was using, it has been my experience that RCA terminated digital cables can lead to the slight brightness in the DAC-2 that Todd noted. We recommend that a true 75 Ohm BNC terminated digital cable be used with the DAC-2 whenever possible, and we carry some reasonably priced but very capable co-ax video and digital cables from van den Hul, Illuminati and DH Labs. Any of these cables can provide excellent results with the DAC-2 when terminated with proper 75 Ohm BNC connectors.
We also have a parts upgrade kit available for the DAC-2. This kit consists of upgrade parts to replace or supplant some in the standard unit, and includes Telefunken high speed soft recovery diodes, Wima by-pass caps for the main power supply caps, Linear Technology adjustable regulators for four of the eight power regulation stages, Caddock resistors and MultiCap capacitors for the output stage, Analog Devices AD811 I/V convertor chips (optional), Kimber silver and Illuminati hookup wire, Kimber RCA jacks, Soundcoat damping material and EAR isolation feet. This kit is $149.00 U.S. and offers a very significant improvement in the performance of the DAC-2, improving its dynamics and low level detail retreival, while not making the unit too analytical. It might be worth a new comparison between the upgraded DAC-2 and the DDE v3.0 with the PS3! If Todd is interested, I can send an upgrade kit to evaluate next week.
Once again, thanks for the excellent review, and hopefully we can see a couple of The Parts Connections upcoming Assemblage kits in the virtual pages of SoundStage!