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|How is your architecture different from other solutions in the market?
The main obvious things are the Master Clock SuperClock output, the balanced use of battery power, the galvanically separated grounds between digital and analogue schematics and the extremely short hand-made signal paths. Add to this the customization possibilities according to your budget and needs (asynchronous resampling option, three master clock frequencies, wordclock output, NOS option). Then there is the layout which no robot could possibly solder together. We use the PCM 1704 which is no longer in production. You can say goodbye to the last great DAC chip before the world went the cheaper and worse-sounding path of Delta/Sigma.
At the risk of ad nauseum repetition, many of these concepts are fleshed out more fully on the truly outstanding website. Lessloss offers a variety of audio cables that were used in addition to others in the review. I had 3 filtering power cables, 2 digital interconnects (1 9-pin), and 2 RCA interconnects. They are extremely well made, sounded great with the gear and appear to be reasonably priced for their quality.
|The unit is standard rack size, less than 3" high and should fit just about any reasonable rack. Clearly, this DAC is a purpose-built machine. While it can operate as any standard converter, it was designed to stretch its performance legs with a transport capable of disabling its own internal clock in favor of that in the DAC. Currently, the CEC TL-51X (CD transport only) is the preferred alternative. A translated review of the analog-capable CDP in these pages was recently published here. This transport costs around $1,400 shipped in the US. The CDP version which includes analog circuitry is about $1,800. This top-loading piece uses a 9-pin connector for its clock input, which engages automatically when the unit detects a clock signal from a DAC. If no clock is found, the unit assumes it will provide its own timing cues. Of course the 9-pin-to-RCA cable is a necessary piece of its connection with the 2004. Lessloss provided such a cable for the review and sells them of course. Other options certainly could be found though it would likely be a custom order.
I also had on hand the previous spinner solution, a Lessloss-modified Rega Planet. This unit was initially used during the review period but timing being what it is, Lessloss settled on the CEC in the middle of the review and there was a hiatus while a CEC unit was dispatched to Chez Smith. However, many CDPs can be modified to allow the DAC-master path.
A couple of other interesting choices - the Slimdevices Transporter has a wordclock input that should connect directly though the 50 euro upcharge for wordclock circuitry would be needed to do so. I also chased down the possibility of disabling the clock of my Squeezebox 3. I found that this can be done through the standard Superclock circuit but this is a semi-permanent operation disabling the Squeezebox's normal operation. In this configuration, the SB will no longer play through its analog outputs nor will it run a standard DAC. It must have an external clock signal to play at all.
|For the review, I generally ran the CEC to the Lessloss-supplied 2004 for one input to my Lamm preamp and my Squeezebox to my personal Lessloss unit (conventional clocking arrangement) in another. Tick tock, how much can I write about clocks? I found Liudas to be generous with his time answering questions about the product and would encourage the seriously interested reader to contact him. Many of the ideas Lessloss presents related to digital audio are new to many audiophiles. Suffice to say that however they arrive at their final sound, it works very well.
What could be executed in a mess of switches and levers and guessing is actually simplicity itself. Turn on the components. The CEC automatically recognizes the clock signal output and temporarily disables its own internal clock. Without an incoming clock signal, it retains its own. In either scenario, the operation is transparent to the user, i.e. there's nothing to think about. By way of reference, the previous Rega solution required selection of internal vs. external clock signal on the rear of the unit (gasp!). Let's be glad they swept that little unpleasantness under the carpet.
A very slick sliding door on top of the CEC reveals the belt-driven transport mechanism, begging for shiny plastic love. A heavy brass-and-felt weight is placed on the center pin, door closed - presto, motion and sound ensue. The plastic remote for the CEC is perfectly boring and functional. For this review, I used the unbalanced connections exclusively.
When first turning the DAC on, it seems the first couple of tracks show a bit of hardness in sound. As with many things, I questioned my perception of this but it was consistent. A few songs was all that seemed necessary to bring the DAC to full voice. I would be surprised if a 10-minute warm up is a deal breaker to anyone but there it is.
Now for a wine analogy: reds are a product of so many factors and design choices. One of the primary choices is the level of ambition the vintner seeks. Of course this is a great balance as going too far can yield spectacularly bad wines. A simple table red will be just that - good with food and boring without. Similarly, some digital designs are satisfied to be not irritating while others doggedly pursue resolution, digging out the pits and bits. Players seem to jump off the pursuit at different places as continuing down that path of ambition at some point reveals undesirable artifacts.
There is a lot of information on those little plastic discs. For a long time, extracting the most possible from them has been the prime directive of digital designers. And, for a long time dissatisfaction with musical flow has been at the fore. The decreasingly unconventional solution for the last several years has been non-oversampling DACs which compromise some level of detail but reward with 'whole fabric'.
Point? The Lessloss 2004 DAC is a mightily ambitious product yet remains coherent and never strays into classic digititis. Having owned three non-oversampling DACs and considering myself an adherent, the Lessloss 2004 DAC is surprising. Oddly enough, I found this product through Charles Altmann who recommended looking into the PCM1704 converter. Mr. Altmann makes my favorite non-oversampling DAC and agrees with Lessloss that sigma-delta chip sets are more challenged to promote relaxation - so maybe the 1704 here is a big part of the missing link.
I like bass. One of my tests is to play stand-up acoustic bass and try to visualize the instrument. Brian Bromberg's Wood has some fantastic solo bass work well recorded. The 2004 allowed not only string plucks and honest decays but definition of the instrument itself, its woody resonance and texture. Percussive knocks on the body gave honest illusion of paralleled, near-instantaneous shock waves.
|Synthesized bass on Yello's The Eye was phenomenal. This DAC has no limits of lower bass, period. No lumps, no bumps, just pure power and control. If your system isn't delivering the goods, don't look here. Articulation and pitch definition through the range, even sub-40Hz, was stellar. The 2004 isn't "the most" bass I've heard from a DAC but it is even-handed, eminently musical and spelunks the deepest, darkest caverns of any music collection. Pipe organs anyone?
Treble performance is excellent, with shimmer, sparkle and fireworks. However, in my system it did occasionally show elements of hardness that I associate with digititis. How bad? Not bad at all. In fact, upper frequencies are presented exceptionally well. Why bring it up then?
Some believe that Redbook is doomed in the treble, positing that 16-bit resolution at 44.1kHz cannot accurately portray cymbals and the like. This has been mathematically postulated and squarely adopted as fact by some vinyl aficionados. Of course, we cannot know since conversion technology continues to improve - state of the art today will most assuredly be topped tomorrow. I focus much attention on the high frequencies when assessing digital components, as they are most commonly askew. Whether empirical fact or convenient scapegoat, digital's gremlins lurk in the attic.
|Leading edges can be strong but trailing notes often crunch into blackness instead of effervescence. Mechanical tonality and detachment from the whole are other common errors. Non-oversampling solutions generally reconcile these maladies but trade loss of resolution, dynamics, focus and extension. In the simplest view, these lie at opposite ends of a teeter-totter where raising one set of strengths equates to dropping the other.
Honestly however, treble performance of the Lessloss 2004 DAC is outstanding. Integration with the whole allows a relaxing yet highly resolved portal to the recording. The usual complaints about digital treble are minimized to such a degree that I would be very surprised if anyone shopping in this price bracket would find fault with it.
However, it isn't perfect. Compared with the rest of the musical spectrum, it is somewhat less convincing. The recessed 'static' lying underneath the primary treble signal has not vanished. It is below the ordinary level but not eliminated. By contrast, the Altmann Attraction DAC has banished this coloration but does not dig into the pits as completely. Overall, the balance point of this design is commendable. I was continually impressed by its resolution yet the negative side of the ledger never caused irritation.
High-school music aficionados (contradiction?) pursue music from the extremes. They want thunderous bass and piercing treble. Win the local car-audio Blastout and wear that badge straight to your 21st birthday. High-efficiency pursuit is the inverse - start with the middle and work toward the edges. I know. I've been both. As a current hi-efficionado, nothing is anything without sonorous mids.
Happily, the 2004 presents a clear, nimble and honest midrange. I listened to a lot of Patricia Barber (cliché for sure but she kicks ass) during the audition. Her sound varies from vulnerable and smoky to chaotic. Some sections are so filled with sound that it's a wonder any gear can keep it straight. Never during the audition did I feel instruments were being merged, forgotten or homogenized. Each horn, string and skin sang with its own voice and accompanying vibrations.
On acoustic guitar such as Iron and Wine's Our Endless Numbered Days, sharp string and breathing body of the instrument cohabited the soundscape, separately identifiable but wholly integrated. Every setup can capture strings, it's the sympathetic afterglow that defines mettle.
Separation between Mark Knopfler's and James Taylor's voices on the title track of Knopfler's Sailing to Philadelphia was clear but not chiseled. This is an outstanding recording, beautifully served by the 2004. On Best of The Doors' "Riders on the Storm", the overdubbed whispering of Morrison's voice was absolutely clear. Male voices were honestly delivered.
|Female voices were also outstanding but there were traces of sibilance in some Patricia Barber songs. Overall, I thought the errors were minor especially considering the level of resolution offered.
I do not particularly value soundstage/imaging in my audio gear and do not spend time listening for it. However, dynamic relationships are very important both on the micro (swing) and macro (jump) levels. The 2004 felt very honest to the recording, accelerating, breathing and stopping realistically. I felt this was a particular strength of the unit. Radiohead's OK Computer has startling dynamic passages that demonstrated outstanding dynamic prowess throughout the frequency range. It is a ballsy and challenging recording with loads of information from the top to the bottom of the audible range. The DAC presented all parts with one voice and no identifiable overhang anywhere in the range.
Band context is another of my primary criteria. I do not want to hear interlaced individual performers, rather the entire band should be grooving as one. This can be taken too far with a loss of resolution but again, the Lessloss delivered the entire frequency range with one voice despite its ability to mine the pits. If I were to choose one facet of the DAC's performance that shone especially brightly, this would be it. Lyrical unified flow was simply outstanding. Its ability to perfectly organize the most intense passages in a relaxing yet resolved way allowed for multi-hour listening sessions without a trace of fatigue yet continuous wonder about its detail retrieval.
Previous to engaging this review, I already owned a 2004. As part of the review, another was sent along with a Rega transport which was superseded by the CEC transport on Lessloss' request. During the review period, I listened to the CEC using the DAC as clock master and also to my own personal DAC as slave with the Rega, a Modwright-modded Music Hall CDP or a RWA-modded Squeezebox-3. I ran these setups into different inputs of the Lamm preamplifier for comparisons on audibility of the clocking differences.
Most importantly, the overall character of the DAC does not change whether used as clock master or in a conventional arrangement where both transport and DAC clocks are active. What the additional digital (clock) cable provides is an additional sense of focus similar to having a second, fine adjustment on a telescope or microscope. In standard configuration, the 2004 DAC is an excellent performer. There were no consistent disparities between the three transports I used. Using the clock-master arrangement, clarity increased along with resolution yet paradoxically some tension was removed. Without direct comparison, the standalone unit could not be faulted yet performance was consistently superior when clock-linked.
|During our discussions prior to this review, Liudas compared the linked/not linked differences to a manual vs. automatic transmission in a performance automobile. This did not make sense at the time but does now - everything feels tighter with the clock link in place.
Again, the standalone unit is excellent, enough so that I was motivated to review it after already owning one. I have investigated the possibility of clock-linking a Squeezebox to be the digital slave and this is possible. As far as I have been able to gather, it would be costly to allow switching between slave/master within the SB3 but comparatively easier for a competent modifier to directly bypass the clock with a dedicated clock cable output. The obvious downside is that the Squeezebox would only be operable with a proper clock input from an external DAC. This is a significant limitation but one that I will pursue since the clock link is an audible improvement.
I did some auditioning with the included volume control on the loaner unit. It did not noticeably color the presentation. Many listeners are building simple single-source systems connected straight to amps. Some of these systems are using digital volume controls with a potential to degrade sound. In these setups, going to a high-quality analog control could have significant value. Whether it is worth the price can be answered only by the individual buyer.
Other niggles? The 2004 is not a tubed unit and will not simulate glowing bottles. It is neutrally voiced and does contain the necessary harmonics if the system is already voiced to suit. It is impossible to know which of a designer's ingredients conjure magic or fall flat, probably a sum total defying convenient distillation. Transport/DAC clock linkage makes a lot of sense to me, as do the power supply and conversion chip choices Lessloss has made with this converter.
Would I buy it? Well, I already have - and I ain't selling it. The Lessloss 2004's myriad strengths combined with no practical downsides make it an easy recommendation. Combined with the CEC TL-51X transport (or TL-51XZ CD player) which natively accept external clock signals, this DAC would likely be embraced by nearly all who hear it. Some may prefer a non-oversampling voice or tubed output stage to achieve a certain balance or compensate for system issues elsewhere but this piece walks the musical/accurate line incredibly well. I don't know of any offering from any other company with clock-linked capabilities at this price.
Currently, Lessloss does not have a North American presence. To get their converter requires a direct order from Lithuania. This may change as they certainly have an excellent product deserving more exposure. In short, the Lessloss 2004 DAC is a seriously musical piece of kit. Please do check it out.
As is the format for Outside, the review components (Rega transport, Lessloss DAC) next moved through the circle of associated listeners whose follow-up comments are posted on the following page. Mike meanwhile remains available for online discussions on AudioNervosa - Ed.
Quality of packing: Flight cases, not stock.
Reusability of packing: N/A
Ease of unpacking/repacking: N/A
Condition of component received: Review piece was used but in excellent condition
Completeness of delivery: Includes owner's manual and warranty card.
Quality of owner's manual: Perfectly adequate.
Website comments: Incredibly well done with exhaustive explanations and excellent photography
Warranty: 3 years, with each year thereof slightly altered in coverage
Global distribution: Company manufactures in Lithuania and sells direct.
Human interactions: With the owner exclusively! These guys were great to deal with when I bought my DAC and subsequently with the review as well. Liudas speaks perfect English.
Application conditions: Won't play vinyl.
Final comments & suggestions: Sing it from the tallest building - this is a seriously sweet DAC!