Tim Smith
Financial interests: click here
Source (Digital): 2 TB iMac 27” quad-core with 16GB RAM, AIFF, iTunes, streamed to Apple Airport Express; Musical Paradise D-1; MHDT Labs Paradisea+; Maverick Audio Tube Magic D1; Marantz SA-8003 and SA-15S2B Limited Edition SACD players; Marantz CD5003 and 5004 as transport; Resonessence Labs Herus;
Source (Analog): Pro-Ject RPM 10.1 with Dynavector 10x5
Phono Preamplifier: Graham Slee Era Gold Mk V
Preamplifier: Audio Research LS17
Power, Integrated, Headphone Amplifiers: First Watt F5; Line Magnetic 518IA; Wyred4Sound SX-1000 mono blocs; Musical Paradise MP 301mk2 and mk3 Deluxe; Coincident Dynamo SE; Bottlehead Crack DIY amplifier, Musical Paradise MP-303
Loudspeakers: Harbeth Compact 7-ES3; Tekton Design M-Lore; Magnepan 1.7; Mordaunt Short Carnival 2; DIY with Fostex FE 103; Pioneer SP-BS41-LR
Headphones: Beyerdynamic DT 770 (32 Ohm) and DT 880 (600 Ohm); HiFiMan HE-400 with Audio Sensibility Impact SE 7N OCC cables
Cables: Audio Sensibility Impact SE; DH-Labs Q-10; Connex/DH Labs BL-Ag; Kimber Kable 4TC, PBJ; Paul Speltz Anti-Cables; Canare; Cardas; QED; Connex/DH Labs power cords; Shunyata Research Venom HC
Power conditioning: Shunyata Research Venom PS8 with Venom Defender; Emotiva CMX-2
Equipment rack: Apollo, Target, Tableau
Isolation devices: Cardas blocks; Teo Audio-supplied ‘earthquake foam'
Speaker stands: Skylan
Room size: 8.5 meters long with nook at each end; 3.3 meters wide; 2.1 meters high
Review Component retail in North America: $3'299

Recent advances in DAC technology blur the lines between well-designed products in the $3'000 to $5'000 range; and low five-figure kit circa 2010 as well as some of today's five-figured fare. It's like comparing the razor-thin garlic slices Paulie lovingly coaxes from the bud at the end of the film Goodfellas. Without a microscope, how can one tell the difference? With a few exceptions, I find it very difficult to consider one DAC in this price range demonstrably superior to another when overall quality is so high. Many of us have heard wonderful DACs by Auralic, April Music, Metrum Acoustics, Resonessence Labs, Weiss and many other producers at audio shows, in stores; or we've had some of them in da house. They all pass the Hippocratic test of doing no harm. Each one brings a finely tuned flavour to the feast. Which do you prefer? There may be ten or twenty world-class DACs in this price range that all possess the fundamental core of musicality, with minor differences at the margins. The $3'299 North Star Design Supremo 384-32 DSD D/A converter certainly belongs with these top-shelf DACs and is among the least expensive of the lot.

It also appears to be the least expensive in this range made by rich-world high-wage workers, a few kilometres outside Pisa to be precise. The Supremo delivers a surprisingly wide range of features including an OFC power inlet, USB 2.0 input at 32 bits, two RCA coaxial inputs, two Toslink inputs and one XLR AES/EBU. I saw no shortcuts, no compromises. There is one unbalanced analogue output and one balanced. The Supremo sports the ESS Sabre ES9018 chip in double balanced configuration. It offers selectable absolute phase and various digital filters, WBT Nextgen flagship RCA connectors and Neutrik XLR connectors. I played around with the filters but frankly didn't notice a concrete difference. The quality of construction appeared very robust, with rock-solid connections at the back. I did not listen in balanced mode nor did I use the AES/EBU input. With 16/44.1 I noticed little difference between USB and coax. Streaming via Toslink sounded no different and there were no clicks, drop-outs or buffering issues.

The silver aluminium front shone like a diamond in the light à la Jeff Rowland but the case appeared in some lighting situations to be a dull industrial silver-gray like the old Wyred4Sound look if with a bit more polish. A pretty face to be sure but I'm not so sure about the case. Where looks are concerned, some of the competition in this price range is sexier. The Supremo may not be a looker but it cuts no corners and wastes none of your time on superfluous bling. The Supremo is the flagship North Star DAC, three times as expensive as their entry-level Intenso whose published specs would seem to make it somewhat of a best buy. With the Supremo you get primo parts from head to toe, including organic polymer capacitors on the analogue stage, separate and heavily shielded toroids for the digital and analogue stages, discrete components with very carefully matched film resistors, star grounding, shielded wiring and many more goodies.