Lavry Engineering recently sent me a DA-11 for review, and it's seen service in several systems in-house, ranging from a casual-listening office system, driving self-powered KRK Rokit 8s, to a reference-grade living room system. Presently it's driving an Odyssey Stratos Extreme "glass ceiling", which is roughly 250 WPC, dual-bi-wired Usher Be-718 speakers, and Wireworld Silver Eclipse 6 speaker cables. In a couple of weeks, the Stratos will be replaced by Odyssey Kismet monoblocks. All equipment is turned on 24 hours a day, and every bit of it has been conditioned for hours on end using the Reference Recording burn in track (sure speeds up the break-in process, that's for sure).
The Lavry is clearly a highly-refined product, in terms of its detailed, but natural rendition of the soundstage, timbre and dimensions. On James Taylor's Hourglass, for example, I've never heard the backup voices with greatly clarity. The DA-11 reveals all the complexity of the recording, and often there's a lot going on at once, with several performers cranking away. On the superb Reference Recording of Dick Hyman playing Duke Ellington, each key seems to be spatially separable. And on the Eleanor Rigby track of the Beatles Love remix, the closely-miked strings convey the sense of hollow, fragile, three-dimensional wooden instruments, easily differentiating violas and cellos. And this positive report is using the USB inputs, which is where I started given everyone's interest here in computer sources.
Trying out 2.0, 1.0, 0.5, and, finally, 0.1 m long Silverlight 6 USB cables (no, the 0.5 and 0.1 are not off-the-shelf parts) yielded progressive improvement in the overall sound quality. The longer lengths sound somewhat gritty and noisy, the shorter length considerably smoother and quieter. If you didn't have anything to compare it to, the sound would be quite good. The USB in this case is coming from a Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV650 multimedia laptop, using CDs ripped via losslessly-encoded Windows Media Audio at 24/96, and stored on the Qosmio's internal RAID 0 striped drives.
Results via the Wireworld Supernova glass optical fiber TOSLINK were similar to the best (i.e., shortest) USB, and a little smoother overall.
BTW Wireworld is one of the few sources of glass (not plastic) based TOSLINK, as well as having even rarer mini-TOSLINK connectors that are especially handy for Windows PCs (one of the headphone receptacles does double-duty as both an electrical and optical connection point). David Salz, CEO and lead designer at Wireworld, clearly has the computer audiophile in his sights, and has made the investment in specialized tooling to make these cables.
However, compared to regular old 16/44 PCM via RCA from a Denon DVD-5910 universal player, USB was clearly, in fact, dramatically, inferior. On the Denon, all video output was turned off, along with shutting down the display.
With USB, voices, though well-defined, also had an unnatural edge to them, while PCM is definitely smoother, and performers instantly became convincingly human. There's a much greater sense of palpable, clear space surrounding the artists. If one A/Bs the two inputs, the differences are obvious in the first second, well, actually the first one-half second. There's instant ease, as well as greatly increased detail, information, nuance, all at once.
Frequency extension at both ends of the spectrum increased via RCA, most noticiably at the lower end, where bass was radically deeper, with sharp, impressive transient impact. USB, by comparison, turned the thunder-claps of the giant drum in James Taylor's Gaia into pathetic little one-tone pops. It's really that bad, folks.
PCM via RCA reveals much more about each voice in the backup chorus, with tremendous detail coming through that simply isn't there via USB. There's a thrill to the music, via PCM, that simply isn't there with USB. In contrast, voices sounds a little hooty, hooded, and the overall sound seems somewhat strained.
These observations point out that getting top-notch sound from a computer-based media file is not going to be easy. The somewhat better results from TOSLINK, being glass, suggests that it's providing some protection from external EMI, ground loops, etc., between the Qosmio and the Lavry. Does this mean that the source of the issues associated with using the USB output of the Qosmio lies upstream? Well, maybe, but hard to say. By comparison, RCA PCM out from a high-quality transport is pretty simple.
Thus, it's clearly inappropriate at this point to speculate why USB sounds so well, but then, relatively poorly, in comparison to PCM. Are these results generally true? There are several variables. Clearly, more experimentation with other USB sources driving the same set-up will be required to tease this apart. And as soon as another high-end DAC comes in, let's see how well it does with USB. It may be worthwhile to try different encoding methods, as well.
To some it up, the improvement is in terms of sonic liquidity and continuousness, which induces a slippery, ecstatic experience that's say this is for real, rather than a artificial, music-like sound product that so many take for granted. One can hear the difference from anywhere in the house. It's music, it's alive!
Of course, the fact that the Lavry DA-11 can easily present the differences between various lengths of very high quality USB interconnect (and don't even think about using those OEM gray USB cables) and RCA is a testimony to its refinement.
After all, Dan Lavry was instrumental in the design of the Pacific Microsonics DACs, and that heritage comes through quite clearly in today's DA-11. And Lavry Engineering is a well-known supplier of gear to the recording industry. At $1850, the DA-11 is something of a bargain: As often noted here, recording industry gear often seems to offer superior value.
The main problem encountered with the DA-11 so far? It encourages one to stay up way too late, listening to all kinds of music.
Chapter 2 will deal with the DA-11's user interface, rather unusual soundstage control (for all your headphone users out there) and a promised redesign of the front panel.