Observant readers may have noticed an interesting piece of equipment thats occupied space in my review system: the Stello DA220 digital-to-analog converter from April Music of Korea. This DAC is interesting because few people have heard of the Stello brand name, and the company behind it is based in a country thats not well known for producing high-end audio equipment.
Even though the Stello brand and DA220 DAC are new, April Music is not. The company was a sizeable importer of high-end-audio products into Korea. Recently, though, April Music has turned its attention to manufacturing and is spinning out two brands: Eximus, an elite high-end brand with components of considerable size, weight, and complexity that are set to debut in fall of 2004; and Stello, a sleek and stylish range of affordable electronics available now. Fellow SoundStager Tim Shea has the Stello DP220 in for review -- a combo DAC/preamplifier that can be outfitted with an analog-to-digital converter and a phono stage -- while I was sent the DA220 standalone DAC. With Stello, April Music claims high performance at a reasonable price.
The DA220 review sample came directly from Korea, and I was impressed the moment I cracked it out of its box. I never expected such a sizeable, great-looking, well-built product for the $1195 USD price April Music is asking.
The first thing I did was look closely at the metal work -- silvery with an elegant brushed finish on the chassis cover and a light texture on the faceplate. Next I lifted the DA220 and turned it. It feels substantial -- it measures 17"W x 3 1/2"H x 13 3/4"D and weighs 16 1/2 pounds. If someone told me that the DA220s price was $3000, I wouldnt have doubted it -- there are components selling on this side of the ocean for that much and more that dont look as nice at the DA220.
The DA220 isnt all looks, however; its loaded with features, too. April Music uses true 24-bit DACs, AKM Semiconductor AK4395, dejittering via an internal phase-locked-loop (PLL) section, separate transformers for the analog and digital sections, and a fully balanced, class-A analog output stage.
The back panel sports four digital inputs: two coaxial (both RCA), one AES/EBU (XLR), and one TosLink. Then there are the digital outputs -- one coax, one AES/EBU, and one TosLink -- for connection to an external digital recording device. There is one set each of single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) analog outputs. Finally, theres the main power switch and an IEC receptacle for the power cord.
Turn the DA220 around and youll see a surprisingly feature-rich front panel. Just off to the right of center is a bank of twelve buttons, grouped into three vertical sections of four. The left-most buttons are part of the Record section, which allows you to select which input will have its signal routed to the digital outputs on the back. The middle buttons comprise the Input section -- the selected digital source for playback. Finally, the right-most buttons allow you to switch between three upsampling options -- 48kHz, 96kHz, or 192kHz -- or bypass upsampling altogether. Off to the right of the dozen buttons is a lone Phase button that will flip phase 180 degrees when pressed.
The DA220s operation was as flawless as its appearance. I plugged the DA220 in, turned the back-panel switch on, and the DA220 defaulted to a "standby" state with the left-most LED in red. A push of the power button on the front turned the LED green, and with nary a hiccup or obtrusive sound, the DA220 was ready for action.
I discovered early on that the DA220 performed to such a high level that I quickly incorporated it into my reference system -- I used it to help me evaluate Paradigms new Reference Studio 20 v.3 and Reference Signature S2 loudspeakers. Other electronics used with it included a Zanden Audio Model 600 integrated amplifier, Theta Data Basic transport, and Assemblage D2D-1 digital interface. Nordost Valkyrja interconnects were used between the DAC and amplifier, while speaker cables alternated between Valkyrja and Crystal Cables CrystalSpeak. Digital interconnects were an i2Digital X-60 and a DH Labs D-75. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner/regenerator.
Right from the start, I was impressed by how detailed and non-fatiguing the DA220 sounded -- precisely why I had no trouble putting it into my reference system where the amazing Zanden Model IV DAC normally holds court. No, the DA220 isnt quite the Zanden for a fraction of the cost -- the 5000 Mk IV is $9800, just so you know -- but the DA220 certainly held its own.
The DA220 is a good DAC -- really good -- and not just good for the money, either. To rehash a well-worn reviewing phrase that I hope to retire once and for all after this review, the DA220 allowed me to rediscover my music collection. But, no, Im not saying that just to say it -- the DA220 really did do that. I started digging through hundreds of CDs to discover how this DAC would portray them.
Even great musicians who have recorded prolifically usually have just one or two albums that most would consider their masterpieces. For Canadian Bruce Cockburn, I would choose his 1980 release Humans. Musically, its phenomenal; sonically, its a mixed bag, varying quite substantially depending on the format you use for playback. The original LP was OK, but the original CD release was dreadful. Luckily, in late 2003 True North Records resurrected Humans on CD [True North TND 317] and remastered it to modern-day standards. It sounds pretty good -- flawed still, but better than the LP (which I just listened to again at Jason Thorpes place) and way better than the original CD release.
The DA220 doesnt hide any of Humans flaws. The soundstage is still a mess, although its an exceedingly precise mess played through the DA220. Cockburns voice is still not present enough, although the DA220 allows you to hear every nuance and detail of that engineering flub with painstaking accuracy; and the drums are still too rubbery, even though with the DA220 you can hear that the bouncy character is not the fault of your audio system.
Surprisingly, all the things that I heard through the DA220 -- the "problems" in the recording -- are central to why I like this DAC so much. The DA220 doesnt impart a sound of its own, and it doesnt obscure things through limited resolution as some other lower-priced DACs do. The DA220 performs at an astonishingly high level -- it's refined and sophisticated, yet revealing of every nuance and detail from a recording while adding no signature of its own. To me, thats precisely the purpose of a great source -- a good DAC shouldn't pretty the picture up and caramelize the sound to make it more palatable. High-end components are there to reveal, not obscure. Thats one of the things that the DA220 is so good at -- something I would have never expected at its rock-bottom price.
But put on a great-sounding recording and you wont be as inclined to pick out the flaws. Just as it can show you whats wrong in a recording, the DA220 can just as readily show you whats right. And when it does, you will probably be scrambling for favorite recordings just to hear them again.
Ani DiFranco is another great folk artist who, in recent years, has put out some near-masterpiece albums (I believe her true masterpiece is yet to come) that also happen to sound fabulous. Not a Pretty Girl [Righteous Babe RBR007D] has long been a favorite of mine, and the ninth track, "Hours Follow Hours," has a vast, intricately set up soundstage with splendid width and, providing that your source conveys it well, outstanding depth. Overall, the tonal balance is very good, with natural-sounding instruments and voice. Its also not "tipped up" in the way many modern recordings are. In the pop vein, Not a Pretty Girl is quite spectacular.
Through the DA220 DiFrancos soft voice is beautifully rendered -- center stage and with pristine clarity. On lesser sources sibilance can be an issue with this track, but theres none of that with the DA220. The DA220 gets the midrange exactly right. It has outstanding clarity and definition with no exaggeration whatsoever. The same goes for male voice, like Cockburns, which is not overly resonant or chesty-sounding. Its just there -- hovering between the speakers and breathing with detail.
Bass-wise, the DA220 isnt a thunderous, weighty-for-the-sake-of-sounding-weighty kind of DAC. In other words, its not overbearing. But it is vivid, and it certainly sounds quick, too. You can hear the percussion on "Hours Follow Hours" clip along with precision. And when theres impact -- the heft of a kickdrum, for example -- the DA220 has no trouble giving you all of it. Its certainly not bass-shy.
The highs are just as good as the rest. "Hours Follow Hours" was as extended and airy as Ive heard. Theres wasnt a smidgen of hardness or edge to the presentation. Complaints? Zero. And even on Cockburns "What About the Bond" from Humans, where the cymbals have quite a hashy sound inherent in the recording, the hashiness is not obscured, but its not added to, either. The DA220 doesnt contribute one bit of additional brittleness and edge as some other lower-priced digital sources do. I think this is what helps make the DA220 sound so detailed -- this DAC lets you hear everything, but adds no aberrations of its own. Audiophiles who believe that this level of playback is only the domain of really expensive digital gear are going to love the DA220.
If someone is going to quibble with the DA220s sound, it isnt going to be because the DA220 doesnt sound neutral. It will likely be that it doesnt add anything artificial to the sound. There are people who like some romance and bloom to their sound. Ross Mantle over at Ultra Audio feels that any good piece of audio gear should sound "voluptuous," because music by definition is that way. People who use tube amps of yore, for example, to get that big, luscious tubey sound, probably feel the same way. I dont -- audio equipment should sound like nothing at all, and simply be a conduit for the recording. Thats the DA220.
But theres more -- upsampling. No review of this DAC would be complete without mentioning it. Upsampling, after all, has been touted by some as the thing that can allow CD to sound like the high-resolution formats like SACD and DVD-A, while others have sidelined it as a bogus technology, not any better, or any different really, from oversampling, which has been with us for a long time.
Whats April Musics take on it? I was a little surprised to read in the DA220s owners manual that the company doesnt claim that the higher upsampling rates will necessarily produce better sound. April Music simply recommends listening to each setting and choosing your favorite -- probably why it's user-selectable with the DA220. So thats what I did.
Just as surprised as I was to read the remarks in the manual, so, too, was I surprised to hear just how subtle the differences were -- even going from the extreme of bypassing upsampling altogether and then contrasting it to 192kHz. The first few times I did the switch and heard how close each mode was to the other I knew I was going to have to clean my ears and concentrate as though I was studying for a final exam to get to the bottom of what was happening. I did all that, and the differences were still subtle, and rather inconclusive, too -- more or less as the owners manual indicated.
Although Im sure that there will be some people out there who will hear wild differences among the sample rates -- the kind of differences normally associated with speakers -- I will say that all settings sounded pretty much the same to me. And so they should. Upsampling wont change the tonal balance, frequency response or any of that. The signal should have the same overall character -- exactly what I heard with the DA220. Where I heard a consistent difference was in the extreme top end -- mostly when I switched between Bypass and 192kHz, less so with the 48kHz and 96kHz settings. The difference was an ever-so-small cleaning up of the highest treble, also resulting in a touch more spaciousness. I didn't hear it on all recordings, but it was there with some of them -- the "Hours Follows Hours" track, for example. Still, this was slight -- really slight -- and that must be stressed. Over the long haul I left the DA220 set to 192kHz and was content not to fiddle with it one bit, but if I had left it on Bypass, I would have enjoyed the DA220's sound just as much.
While the DA220 offers across-the board topnotch performance, and, obviously by my comments, is nothing short of a stone-cold bargain, there are DACs that do cost more and can do some things better. I happen to have one of them in my listening room: the Zanden Model 5000 Mk IV that Ive already discussed in this review. The 5000 Mk IV is about eight times the DA220s price -- quite a contrast, but necessary to show you just how significant the DA220 is.
The DA220 looks great, but the Zanden Model 5000 Mk IV looks incredible -- thats one of the things you often get when you go the cost-no-object route. The Model 5000 Mk IV delivers looks and build quality without compromise. The gorgeous, sculpted chassis is closer to a piece of art than a piece of audio equipment. Feature-wise, the DA220 takes a healthy lead over the 5000 Mk IV. The DA220 has loads of features, where the Model 5000 Mk IV has almost none. Surprising? Not really; its actually quite normal in high-end audio. Theres a certain coolness factor -- not to mention the implication of unadulterated signal purity -- when a component has fewer doodads. The 5000 Mk IV is a model of simplicity, while the DA220 offers a bevy of niceties.
Sonically, the DA220 has great resolution, strong bass, outstanding clarity, and highs that are never fatiguing. Overall, the DA220 comes extremely close in sound to the Model 5000 Mk IV -- the sonic differences being far, far less than the difference in price would indicate. The extreme top end of the 5000 Mk IV, for example, is just a touch sweeter, even when the DA220 is in 192kHz mode. Just a touch, though; keep in mind that the 5000 Mk IVs treble outdoes that of every digital source Ive heard, regardless of price. Given this, the DA220 performs astonishingly well, and to me sounds cleaner than some other units Ive heard that cost two or three times its price. And the 5000 Mk IVs mids project just a little more than the DA220s, giving voices more presence and immediacy. Take Cockburns deep, resonant voice, for example. With the 5000 Mk IV the thereness is just subtly more there. Its slight, mind you, but its the kind of thing that some audiophiles will spend big bucks to obtain. In the bass range, though, Id call it a draw between these two outstanding DACs.
The final areas in which the Model 5000 Mk IV edges the DA220 are soundstaging and dimensionality. I found that the DA220 could cast a large, well-defined soundstage with an admirable sense of width and depth. If you never heard the 5000 Mk IV, youd be thrilled with what the DA220 does. But its when you hear the Model 5000 Mk IV play something like the choral-based soundtrack to the movie The Mission [Virgin Records 86001] that you realize the DA220 doesnt quite have the endless sense of depth of the 5000 Mk IV. It also doesnt have the 5000 Mk IVs dimensionality -- the superb way of giving performances roundness, weight, and heft that makes the DA220 sound a touch sterile in comparison.
Finally, theres one area in which the DA220 cant be touched. It is priced ridiculously low for all that it offers. In fact, at double the price, and maybe even a little more, Id still love the DA220 -- thats how significant it is.
Some say that the market for PCM-based DACs dried up a few years ago when people started opting for single-box CD or universal A/V players. I think, though, that the Stello DA220 and products just like it offer two important things to entice audiophiles: low price and high performance. These can rejuvenate interest in outboard DACs. After all, CD still rules on music-store shelves, and every audiophile still needs to get the most he can out of this format. The DA220 does just that.
The DA220 is one of the most impressively thought-out products I have come across in some time, and is the best product debut from a new company since Amphion first offered its Argon2 loudspeaker. The DA220 is a wonderful DAC. It's rich with features and approaches cost-no-object sound -- both for a bargain-shoppers price.
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