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Monday, January 18, 2016

Audiophile DAC Review!
TEAC UD-503 D/A Converter/Preamp
“New Flagship Way Above Price Point”

Price $999
Likes: Smooth, high-end projection
Dislikes: Lacks word length/bit status
Wow Factor: TEAC hits a D/A home run
More info: TEAC UD-503

by John Gatski
  There are numerous good sounding hi-fi  DACs in the high-end hi-fi marketplace, but I have been impressed with TEAC’s run of low-cost converters over the past four years. For example, the UD-501, with its DSD via DoP and the ability to resolve up to 32-bit integer/384 kHz sample rate PCM, is a first rate DAC/preamp/HP amp.
  Its new flagship sibling, the UD-503 is even better, selling for under $1,000, boasting an expanded DSD compatibility (up to 11.2 MHz) — as well as PCM up to 384 kHz and 32-bit integer word-length decoding

  The key to the UD-503’s impressive performance is the use of the AKM VERITA AK4490 DAC chip. This new, lower-cost DAC boasts great specs, yet costs a lot less than some of the premium chips from other manufacturers, such as ESS. The AKM chip has the ability to resolve even the most intricate audio detail — with the smooth definition of the ESS D/A chip. It is a significant upgrade in the audio output’s subjective refinement over the UD-501’s Burr-Brown DAC/analog section.
  The key to the UD-503’s impressive performance is the use of the AKM VERITA AK4490 DAC chip. This new, lower-cost DAC boasts great specs, yet costs a lot less than some of the premium chips from other manufacturers.

  Starting with the toroidal core power transformers, which feature the ability to supply stable current, and the high-performance VERITA AK4490 DACs, the UD-503‘s dual-mono design has a complete mono circuit for each channel — optimizing headphone amp performance, which is quite good.
  Furthermore, by processing the output signals of each channel completely with a differential signal from immediately after D/A conversion to the final output stage, common-mode noise is removed.
  The UD-503 looks very similar to the UD-501; the black unit is quite snazzy in its appearance. The unit is 3/4-rack sized with mini-rack handles on either side. Front controls include the power-on toggle switch, input selector, volume control, and the menu selection button, which is also pushed to activate menu functions. The 3-inch x 1-inch display is not particularly large but it has enough resolution to reveal the menu settings, sample rate, filter status, volume level, etc.
  The UD-503 includes a nice, full-feature remote that mimics most of the front panel functions: volume, input, up conversion filters, etc. The large remote is a refreshing package, considering the move toward smaller and smaller remotes for audio products these days.

Just enough connections, including word clock

  Like the UD-501, the UD-503’s display  reveals the sample rate, but not the word length, a feature I have been pushing all DAC manufacturers to implement. The UD-503’s front panel also includes an extra optical input (mini-barrel), as well as a digital clock input indicator. The headphone amp section features twin 1/4-inch inputs
  The back panel is packed with connectivity, including analog unbalanced RCA I/O, balanced XLR outputs,  and SPDIF coax, TOSLink and AES/EBU XLR and USB digital inputs. The digital clock input terminates via BNC.

Filters and upconversion
  The UD-503 features a number of adjustable parameters that are enabled through the Menu button. Once the Menu is engaged, rotating the input selector toggles through the various options, while a push of the knob engages the desired option. The options include: unbalanced/balanced/active ground headphone operation, PCM upconversion  (2fs, 4fs, 8fs or DSD); PCM filter (FIR sharp, FIR slow, SDLY sharp, SDLY slow and filter off); DSD filter cutoff (50 kHz or 150 kHz); clock sync on/off; line-out options (balanced or unbalanced RCA); and display brightness.

The heart of the UD-503: AKM AK4490 DAC chip

  All the functions are easy to access and I confirmed their operation. The ability to turn off the anti-alias PCM filter is atypical of digital audio converters, and the unit automatically turns off the filter at 352 kHz and 384 kHz. There are designers who believe that the anti-alias PCM filter creates undesirable artifacts in the DAC’s subjective performance (even if it measures better with the filter in place). If you are one of the filter detractors, the TEAC gives you the option to turn it off at all sample frequencies.
  Versus the UD-501, the functions and controls are similar, though I noticed that the UD-501’s volume control has minimum and maximum stops, while the UD-503’s control is continuously variable (it keeps turning after it hits the maximum and minimum).

The set up
  I was fortunate to have the UD-503 in for review when I had numerous other DACs on hand for comparison, including the UD-501, Benchmark DAC2-DX, Mytek Manhattan, Oppo HA-1, NAD C5105 and an Essence HDACC. All these DACs featured the ESS Sabre DAC chip. The aforementioned TEAC UD-501 utilizes the Burr Brown chip.
  Other components in the test rig included: Rogue Audio Medusa digital/tube hybrid amplifier, Coda High Current solid state preamp and MartinLogan Montis electrostatic loudspeakers. For headphone listening, I plugged in my AKG-K702 Anniversary edition, the new AKG K812 flagship, Shure SRH1840, and the Oppo PM-1.
  All line and speaker cables connectivity were courtesy of the Wireworld Eclipse 7 cable line. All components were plugged into the AC via Essential Sound Products Essence Reference II power cords and an Essence Reference II power distribution strip.

The audition
  When connected to the audiophile rig, I was immediately impressed by the UD-503’s qualitative sonic improvement over the UD-501. In direct comparison, the UD-503’s sound  was much smoother with an accurate airiness in the instrument spacing. Bass was tight and balanced, the imaging first rate. The UD-501 is a quality D/A, but the ‘503‘s smooth factor makes it much easier to listen to.
  My initial impression is that the AKM-chip equipped TEAC’s overall sound quality is on par with the high-end ESS Sabre DACs.  The ‘503 exudes a deep soundstage and upper end detail without a hint of harshness. For example, the drum cymbals on the track, “Autumn Leaves,” from the Warren BernhardtSo Real SACD (a Tom Jung recording that I converted to 24/192), sounds about as good as I have ever heard it. Metallic without being exaggerated — with tons of air, very similar to what I hear with The Benchmark DAC2 and Mytek ESS-equipped converters.
  Switching to the first movement of Marianne Thorson — Mozart Violin Concerto in D  (2L 24-bit/352 sample rate download from 2L), the UD-503, again, sounded superb, the violin’s harmonic structure was live like in its presentation  — without the smearing you get from lesser converters. The complex overtones are the sum of
  And the smooth descriptor is entirely appropriate for the Mozart track as well — not a filtered smoothness that detracts from transient projection of the recorded audio. It is more of a natural ease without harsh digital artifacts. The instrument sounds as it should: dynamic, complex and complete. And this is a sub $1,000 converter!

Bring on the ultra-high fs DSD

  Shifting music genres, I played the Acoustic Sound’s download of Waylon JenningsHonky Tonk Heroes LP from 1973; the high-res 24/96 RCA transfer reveals a minimalist, eight-track analog recording that is a Country Music gem with great separation  between the electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, pedal steel guitar and, of course, Mr. Jennings booming voice. I downloaded the album to a SanDisk Extreme USB drive and plugged it into the Oppo BDP-105, which was connected to the UD-503.
  As I listened to the “Anything You Ask Me To” track, I could not get over how well this converter conveyed the rich analog textures of Ralph Mooney’s pedal steel guitar and its lush reverb. I must have listened to the track ten times in a row.
  As a preamp, the UD-503 is pretty darn good as a one-input analog source, as well as the DAC input. It is competitive with a lot of $1,500-$2,000 preamps, but not as transparent as the best analog preamps. However, as a fixed output DAC, it is quite a performer and at a bargain audiophile price.
  I switched to headphone listening and was even more impressed with the UD-503. I focused on HPs using the free TEAC HR Player software for Mac, which though not as full featured as J-River or Audirvana, is their equal in sound quality and ability to play ultra-high res tracks in DSD and PCM. My 2014 Macbook Pro was connected to the TEAC via a Wireworld Starlight USB interconnect.
  I plugged in the Oppo PM-1 balanced headphones (utilizing an adapter to correctly mate with the UD-503’s dual-TRS balanced scheme) and listened to Channel Classics DSD download of Florilegium Telemann - Suite in E Minor / Rejouissance. The Baroque period music sounded splendid on a high-end DAC — with a revealing sense of musical space created by the 10-piece string and woodwind ensemble.
  Completely shifting gears, I put the HD Tracks download of Van Halen’s “Running With The Devil,” from the a 24/192 transfer of the band’s debut album. Holy smoke! is this a great transfer —  better than the LP, CD, etc.

The UD-503 does EVH proud in 24/192

  Listening through the AKG K812’s open back HPs, the succinct delivery of Eddie Van Halen’s  overdriven rhythm guitar track in the left channel, vocals in the center and that killer EVH lead in the right channel. And with all this going on, you can still fear the drum cymbals and cow bell as clear as a, er, bell. I have heard this track on dozens of converters, but I have to say that the headphone output delivery of the UD-503 is up there with the big boys.
  Delving deeper into the subjective assessment of the UD-503, I played my own recordings, including a very familiar 24-bit/352 kHz, stereo recording of a Taylor 810 acoustic. The recording was originally made with a pair of Audix SCX-25 microphones, a True Engineering P2 discrete microphone preamp and Antelope Eclipse A/D, recorded via  the Macbook Pro.
  Played through the TEAC HR software player, the UD-503 relayed the stereo image with a nice, wide spread, and I could easily hear the intricate pick attack against the guitar’s phosphor bronze strings, via the alternate picking and strumming. On this track, through the HPs, the ‘503 was not quite as open as the Oppo HA-1’s discrete HP output, but not as far off as I assumed it would be. And it lacked the extra color of the Mytek Manhattan’s velvety analog attenuator, but I liked the 503's ability to resolve the musical truth, For under $1,000 the HP performance is amazing! The Manhattan costs $5,500; the Oppo. at $1,199. is a closer in product pricing parity.

Balanced assessment
  So as you can tell, I like the sonics of the DAC, but what about all those menu options designed to enhance connection flexibility and the listening experience. The headphone menu item allows for unbalanced, balanced and active ground termination.
  I sampled the balanced connection on the Oppo PM-1, and as well with the unbalanced cable. I could not hear a difference between the two connections. Audiophile with different headphones and cables may be able to hear subtle differences, but I could not with my setup. I did not have an active-ground wired headphone to test.
  The upconversion mode allows PCM to be upconverted from 4X-fs to 8X-fs PCM, or  alternatively, 2.8MHz DSD. Normal high-res, to my ear, does not benefit from the PCM upconversion. A 16-bit/44.1 CD does seem to gain a little space when upsampled to 192 kHz, but it is not a major league difference.
  The UD-503 steps up the sonic performance feature set over the previous flagship: the UD-501. And, as important, the UD-503 is as good as much pricier DACs on the market. With its vigorous space presentation and clean, easy-to-listen sonic persona, the UD-503 earns the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award

  Upconverting PCM to DSD makes the most audible difference depending on the music. On several 80s new wave/pop CDs (Til Tuesday, Elvis Costello, Tears For Fears), the DSD smoothing that occurs via the upconversion often made the music more listenable, but with a slight reduction in upper-end detail and focus. sometimes, the trade off was worth it. I will leave it up to the owners to make their own sonic observations of enabling upconversion.
  As for the adjustable digital filters, those options also impart very little sonic difference. With 24-bit content, I preferred to leave the filter off. There is a slight openness and smoothness that I hear with acoustic instruments when the filter is turned off. With the various filters engaged, I could hear no major difference between them.

The verdict
  So there you have it: my headline is “TEAC makes a super, fully featured DAC for less than $1,000.” Using the latest AKM DAC chip, dual-mono design and with lots of connectivity, including balanced HP amp and XLR output, the UD-503 steps up the sonic performance feature set over the previous flagship: the UD-501.
  And, as important, the UD-503 is as good as much pricier DACs on the market. With its vigorous space presentation and clean, easy-to-listen sonic persona, the UD-503 earns the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award. Its relatively low price is just gravy.

 John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 EAN Awards Announced!
Everything Audio Network

©Everything Audio Network

by John Gatski
 For 2015, EAN has selected its Product of The Year Award winners. Most audio products reviewed on this site are top-notch audio components, but there is just a bit extra within the products that we chose this year, either in their performance, utility or value or a combination of these factors.Hope the folks who bought the gear are happy with their choices. We sure enjoyed reviewing them!

Audiophile Cable Product Of The Year
Wireworld Eclipse 7
Unbalanced RCA/Balanced XLR
  I have been using Wireworld Eclipse 7 RCA ($450 for 1-meter pair) and Eclipse 7 balanced XLR interconnects ($450 for 1-meter pair) for reference listening for three years. Almost all review components in for testing are linked using the Eclipse 7s. Though there seems likes a million cables out there to choose from, I find the Wireworld’s very neutral and balanced with a rock solid center image and no hyper-exaggeration in the L-R and front to back presentation. A perfect cable for hi-res listening.

Audiophile Luxury Product of The Year:
Pass Labs X350.8 Stereo Amplifier
  Pass Labs took one of the best big power high-end hi-fi amps and made it better. Borrowing from its hyper Class A XS line, the .8 version of the X350, priced at $14,200, offers smoother mid/treble character without losing its detailed soundstage and incredible bass response. Yeah I got on one in my system. Read the review!

Audiophile D/A Product Of The Year:
Mytek Manhattan DAC/Preamplifier
  The versatile $5,500 Mytek converter/preamp/HP amp serves up the most analog sounding D/A units out there, thanks to designer Michal Jurewicz’s custom attenuator. And the features are deep (DSD direct digital input, upsampling, adjustable filter);  you can even get it with a phono preamp. Lots of analog I/O as well. Read the review!

Audiophile Speaker Product of The Year:
Paradigm Prestige Series 15B Two-Way
  These mid-priced small bookshelf/stand-sized speakers ($799 each) are an amazing bargain. Plenty of bass, and a three-time the price midrange/top end sonics that are super accurate. Hi-res music is a revelation through the 15Bs compared to many similarly priced speakers. Read the review!

Audiophile Preamp Product Of The Year:
Rogue Audio RP-5 Stereo Tube Preamplifier
 Rogue Audio’s new standard bearer RP-5 ($3,495) features much more efficient microprocessor control, improved S/N and distortion performance to give it one of the most accurate tube pre out there. Phono pre version is better than numerous standalone vinyl pres out there. Read the review!

Audiophile “Best Bang For The Buck”
Product of The Year: Essence HDACC D/A 
  I can’t gush enough about the Essence DAC. At under $500, you get an ESS DAC chip, a built-in A/D to digitize your vinyl, good headphone amp. If that was not enough,the feature list includes HDMI input and numerous other analog/digital I/O. There ain't’ an all in one that can touch this for so little money. Read the review!

Audiophile Portable DAC Of The Year:
Oppo HA-2 D/A For Smart Devices
  The $300 Oppo HA-2 USB DAC, equipped with ESS Sabre32 mobile chip, is so good that you can use it for a standalone audiophile DAC for headphone listening. Its headphone soundfield is heads above most portable hi-res players, plus you get all that smart device connectivity and the ability to charge your phone from the DAC. Read the review!

Audiophile Vinyl Product Of The Year:
Luminous Audio Arion Phono Preamlifier
  Designed by Mike Bettinger, this Arion phono pre ($6,395) is built that way I like em. Super accurate. with my Benz cartridge and a VPI Scout, this pre does not hype the sound, it makes the best cartridge and LP sound  as open and spacious as the source. Very low noise as well. Read the review!

Audiophile Hi-Res Portable Player
Product Of The Year: TEAC HA-P90SD

  The HA-P90SD, street priced at $599, gives you native DSD playback via DoP, and up to 24/192 PCM in a solidly built, easy-to-operate package at way less than most of its high-end competitors. Headphone amp sound is detailed, wide and deep. Read the review!

Audiophile Headphone Product Of the Year:
AKG K812 Open Stereo Headphone
 The $1,995, built-in-Austria AKG K812 has about the most expansive soundstage I have ever herd from a mass produced headphones. Bass is tight and accurate; the transients are spot on for hi-res listening. And you get that AKG open air comfort that I crave. Read the review!

Home Theater Product Of The Year:
Yamaha MX-A5000 Multichannel Amplifier
  Balanced or single ended, the $2,995 150-wpc MX-A5000 is an excellent multichannel amplifier that competes with some of the best esoteric 5.1-plus channel amps. A deep soundstage and a smooth, tight midrange/treble projection makes for a impressive movie soundtrack or hi-res surround listening. Up to nine channels of output. Read the review!

Home Recording/Live Setup
Accessory Product Of The Year:
Audix MB5050 MicroBoom
  The MB5050 MicroBoom system, at $599, is a handy way to place microphone in an unobtrusive manner for a variety of music applications, including choir, drums, organ, etc. The extendable boom is perfect for instrument-sized mics to record those intricate instruments in hi-res. Read the review!

Home Recording Multichannel Interface
Product Of The Year: Prism Sound Titan
  The $3,995 Prism Titan is a fantastic, eight-channel, USB recording interface with an easy-to-use computer DAW mixer GUI and excellent converters. I have never heard better from a $3,000-plus integrated computer DAW interface. Mic preamps are aces. Read the review!

Home Recording 2-Channel Interface
Product Of The Year: TASCAM UH-7000
  For just a few hundred dollars ($399 to be exact), this stereo recording interface is quite good with very good A/D and D/A performance. Mic pres are quiet and dynamic, and we like the onboard controls and meters. Read the review!

Home Recording/Audiophile D/A Converter
Product of The Year: Benchmark DAC2-DX
  Take the ultra accurate PCM/DSD DAC2 converter add AES/EBU and dual buss output and you now have the ideal studio or hi-fi DAC for headphone or speaker listening — the $1,995 DAC2-DX. And no DAC measures any better. Read the review!

Home Recording Budget Microphone
Product of The Year:
  At its street price of $299, the PGASTUDIOKIT4 is a great value for the amateur and working professional musician/engineer who wants a quad set of really good microphones. Even home recording audiophiles will be happy with the results. Yes, we said under $300. Read the review!

 John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via