". . . a real charmer."
erding cats -- I hear its a difficult job. Theyre wily, unpredictable and as stubborn as hell. Just about the time you get them all in one place, a dog comes out of nowhere and you have to start all over again. The folks who create digital-to-analog converters know what its like to herd cats. In fact, a good DAC designer will tell you that working with temperamental felines is a piece of cake compared to trying to get billions of ones and zeros to arrive at precisely the right location at exactly the right time, all the time, so that those numbers become something resembling a musical performance.
Yet, audiophiles and especially laypeople are frequently puzzled by how such a modest box could cost so darn much. Do a search on eBay and for a couple of hundred dollars you can buy something that will make sound from those ones and zeros. But if you aspire to something better, like getting closer to the actual recorded event, youll be forced to pay for some serious engineering. One reason really good DACs can cost multiple thousands of dollars is that, in high-end audio, everything matters, especially when youre trying to convert digital code into believable music.
I hope that this context helps you to digest the Echos End DAC from LessLoss, an audio manufacturer based in Lithuania. To the untutored eye, the Echos End is essentially a small box made of layered, lightly stained wood with the product and company names on its top, and input and output jacks on the back. It sports no LEDs to indicate that its on or even a small display to show that its functioning properly. The lions share of the production budget went into critical technology as opposed to the DACs exterior, although LessLoss does indicate that the oak wood was selected for its sonic benefits. Twin Peaks Agent Cooper would have loved the Echos End. I can hear him waxing poetic about its utter woodiness as he calls in the Log Lady for a consultation. I can also see it in an episode of IFCs Portlandia: on display at a lumberjack-themed electronics store where everything looks like a block of wood. Its definitely weird -- in a cool sort of way.
Ive never designed or built a DAC, so Ill let Louis Motek of LessLoss explain whats special about his company's approach to digital-to-analog conversion: "The most interesting and most advertised part of Echo's End is that it does not use any DAC chip. The fact that it is a discrete resistor DAC allows it to carry out the conversion at full line signal level, enabling the RCA outputs to tap the converted signal directly, without needing to go through any buffer schematics at all. No output transformers, no output op-amps, no caps, nothing of that sort. The DAC's converted signal is directly outputted through the RCA outputs. The XLR outputs do go through a buffer schematic."
According to Motek, Echos End's discrete resistor ladder networks utilize the worlds rarest and most precise resistors, as well as the companys proprietary Firewall technology. Those who are familiar with resistor ladders will know that theyre actually a relatively old invention that was used in some of the very earliest DACs but were abandoned because of the seriously prohibitive cost and/or the very daunting technical challenge of implementing them so they would remain stable and accurate in a variety of environments. Even fairly decent-quality R-2R resistor ladders are prone to linearity- and settling-time-related clock errors that can be caused by things like changes in humidity and temperature. Motek says LessLosss meticulous selection of only the most precise and stable resistors available ensures that the Echos End does not suffer from such performance problems.
The Echo's End will accept up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM through the RCA, BNC or AES/EBU inputs, and both 1x and 2x DSD are possible through the USB input. Those with a yen for MQA capability should look elsewhere. At 1.4v output, the Echos End will work with active preamps but probably not passives, and LessLoss claims that you can drive headphones directly off the XLR outputs, though I had no headphones fitted with XLR cables to evaluate this. I should also point out here that I used the preferred RCA outputs of the Echos End exclusively during the review process.
Setting up the Echos End was not quite as straightforward as I thought it might be. Sure, I was more than capable of plugging it in and connecting a Shunyata Research AES/EBU digital cable. But none of the DACs outputs are labeled, so it took some trial and error to figure out which was the left and right channel looking from upside down and sideways as one is prone to do when installing equipment in a rack. Id suggest a small "R" and "L" or red and white colors on future units to help clumsier users like me.
Einstein once said, "Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler." That deceptively simple bit of advice leads me to the single objection I have to the LessLoss design approach. The Echos End is only capable of recognizing one digital connection at a time. The only way to switch sources is to power down the DAC, unplug the old source and plug in a new one. The Echos End is also a bit fussy about the sequence in which you power up the DAC and the source youve chosen. For example, on several occasions I lost connection or experienced dropouts while sending high-resolution files from my Auralic Aries streamer library. To fix this, I had to power down my whole system, unplug both the streamer and the Echos End. When I powered up the Echos End first and then the Aries, I was unable to get the DAC to maintain signal lock. Reversing that power-up sequence got the proverbial show back on the road. I had to repeat this process whenever I wanted to switch to USB or my PerfectWave transport. Such an inconvenience would not be particularly distracting if you generally stick to one source throughout your listening sessions. As a reviewer, however, Im constantly switching sources and ended up dreading the process.
As any digiphile knows, different sources, especially those from the computer industry, sound different. When played via DACs other than the Echo's End, the USB output of my laptop sounded flatter and far less involving when compared to my Auralic Aries streamer via Shunyatas Anaconda AES/EBU cable. Whether it was Red Book, 24-bit/192kHz or 2x DSD files, the Echos End narrowed the gap considerably, sounding largely like itself no matter the source.
In terms of break-in, do not even think of evaluating the Echos End before at least a hundred hours of continuous operation. If played directly once its out of its sturdy, foam-lined plastic flight case, you will hear a sound that is flat and uninvolving, the very model of poor digital reproduction. This initial presentation made the DACs transformation at around 120 hours particularly surprising. I wasnt prepared for the sonic bloom and realism of Thelonious Monks At the Five Spot streamed from Tidal via my Auralic Aries. Right then, the Echos End produced a three-dimensional soundstage that was strikingly deep. It rendered the nightclub crowd sounds so realistically that they became an important part of setting the mood of the performance; in fact, my dog, Zorro, started barking at some of the rowdier customers seated at the bar.
ometime after this listening session, I was reviewing the LessLoss marketing materials and noticed that Motek is particularly proud of his DACs "reverb tails and truthful ambient information." Based upon my time with the Echos End, Moteks pride is justified; the Echos End is exceptionally good at detail retrieval.
As I listened to Chet Bakers Chet [Riverside/Concord RCD-30183] through the stock Echos End, connected with a Shunyata Research Sigma Digital power cord, I kept thinking of three words: clean, quiet and vivid. Those are not words that normally come to mind when I listen to this CD. I also noticed how much depth there was in the soundstage and the clarity of Bakers tone. When listening to the same CD through my reference DAC, the three words that come to my mind are: colorful, romantic and glowing. I also tend to notice how wide the soundstage is and how deep and brassy Gerry Mulligans baritone sax can sound.
These differences reminded me of a friend of mine who owns a Samsung HDTV. When I visit, Im always struck by his preference for the Samsungs vivid picture setting; he says its more detailed and engaging. Being a Sony fan, I prefer to notch things down to standard, arguing that it appears more natural and true-to-life. I suspect listeners who appreciate dead quiet and very defined leading edges might prefer the Echos End, while those who want more tonal richness, who are in love with the pleasing harmonics inherent in the Audio Research DAC9's tube stage, might choose it instead.
During my initial month with the Echos End, I found its presentation of transient attack and detail on some recordings to be so defined that it occasionally distracted me, drawing me away from the broader fabric of the music. For example, the Echo's Ends rendering of the nasal tone in Roger Millers voice during "Heartaches by the Number" from The Very Best of Roger Miller streamed on Tidal drew me repeatedly away from the midrange thrust of his backup band. The good news is that this only happened intermittently and was utterly dependent on the recording.
Make no mistake: the Echos End is a damned fine DAC. I merely point out that, like all audio products, it is characterized by a particular approach to certain audio values. Based upon Moteks e-mails to me and his companys product literature, he places great value on the idea that sound should be utterly accurate. So, one could argue that the recordings on which I noticed distracting details were simply flawed. Only a review of the master tapes would settle the matter. Ill say this: I tend to favor source components that neither highlight nor bury the shortcomings of a given recording. This is probably why I have more fun listening to the best vinyl than the best digital, even though there are selected elements of a given recording that might be better rendered by the digital platform. For me, the whole is greater than the individual parts when it comes to musical enjoyment.
So much for the stock, unadorned Echos End. I thought Id pretty much nailed down its overall character as favoring the presentation of detail at the occasional expense of some musicality. That was until I added one of LessLosss 5x Firewall modules. These are simple blocks of oak wood with a power inlet on one end and a 3" cable with a translucent 15A IEC plug that features 99.99%-pure, cryogenically treated gold-plated copper from Furukawa, Japan, on the other. Heres how Motek describes whats on the inside: "The Firewall is our own proprietary technology which exploits an elaborate multi-layer PCB technology together with special galvanic treatment developed by us over six years of R&D. This strips away noise without introducing dynamic artifacts or coloration to the audio." There are also three stacks of this PCB technology within the Echos End itself.
I cant argue with Moteks description of what the Firewalls do. Immediately upon connecting one 5x Firewall to the Echos End, I noticed leading edges were less emphasized, less digital-sounding. I also noticed that many instrumental passages came through with an added weight. When I added a second 5x Firewall in series with the first, I heard even more instrumental gravitas and some extension of the treble and upper midrange. A great deal of the warmth and glow of Bakers horn were back.
The addition of LessLosss 5x Firewalls to the equation brought the Echos End much closer to my reference DAC. With each Firewall costing $1122, the total cost for a tricked-out version of the Echos End comes in at just a few dollars above $7500, the exact retail price of the Audio Research DAC9. Motek contends that the improvements I heard can be further enhanced by adding as many Firewalls as space and finances allow. "The solution is expandable. Regarding the fear of possible 'overkill,' even having built power solutions with up to 108 Firewall modules onboard, no specific tonal coloration is evident. The sound simply becomes purer and cleaner and remains natural and lifelike." Dang. Based upon my audition, thats a dangerously tempting proposition.
Its worth mentioning that the Echos End as well as the additional Firewalls were plugged into a Shunyata Research Denali 6000T power conditioner. Just as with my reference DAC, the sound of the Echos End was more three-dimensional, and both bass and midrange sounded more substantial, than when the unit and Firewalls were plugged directly into a separate, dedicated 20-amp wall socket. This surprised me because power management schemes from different companies seldom play well together.
After adding the Firewalls to the Echos End, the differences between it and my reference DAC were now far more a matter of emphasis. My subsequent listening sessions reminded me of what its like to compare exceptionally good phono cartridges. The Echos End has a bit tighter low-end thrust than the DAC9, while the DAC9 has a more forward presentation that highlights transparency and instrumental realism. Both DACs are emotionally involving, but they are clearly coming at the music from different perspectives. The LessLoss approach is more about space and ambience. I have no means to measure, but I suspect the Echo's End with the additional 5x Firewalls has a slightly lower noise floor than the DAC9. To provide further contrast, my previous reference, the PS Audio DirectStream with its Torreys firmware, presented a more natural, grain-free rendition of upper-register material than the LessLoss DAC, but it also produced a less muscular midrange. Which is better? Only you can answer that for yourself. As for me, if I had the dough, I might own all three.
elling a high-end DAC in the 21st century is not for the faint of heart. The pace of computer technology can render audio products obsolete before theyve had a chance to pick up market steam. Ironically, anyone who has closely followed high-end audio for the past forty years also knows that the latest and greatest technologies dont always result in better-sounding equipment.
The folks at LessLoss have profited from that lesson by reaching back to an older technology and refining it with something new and modular. The Echos End is a thoroughly modern DAC that manages to sound both detailed and remarkably natural, but there are two things in particular that it does better than any DAC Ive had in my system. First, its stage via USB presented music in a far more organic and three-dimensional way than what Ive come to expect from this interface. Ive never had so much fun streaming Roon from my 2011 MacBook Pro. Second, the Echo's End's timing and pacing are downright addictive. Its above-average performance in this particular area meant that groups of musicians sounded especially in sync, resulting in an emotional, visceral reaction to the music. The Echo's End is a real charmer.
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