LessLoss • Echo's End Digital-to-Analog Converter

by Vance Hiner | September 14, 2017


Herding cats -- I hear it’s a difficult job. They’re 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 it’s 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, you’ll 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 you’re trying to convert digital code into believable music.

I hope that this context helps you to digest the Echo’s End DAC from LessLoss, an audio manufacturer based in Lithuania. To the untutored eye, the Echo’s 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 it’s on or even a small display to show that it’s functioning properly. The lion’s share of the production budget went into critical technology as opposed to the DAC’s exterior, although LessLoss does indicate that the oak wood was selected for its sonic benefits. Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper would have loved the Echo’s 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 IFC’s Portlandia: on display at a lumberjack-themed electronics store where everything looks like a block of wood. It’s definitely weird -- in a cool sort of way.

I’ve never designed or built a DAC, so I’ll let Louis Motek of LessLoss explain what’s 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, Echo’s End's discrete resistor ladder networks utilize the world’s rarest and most precise resistors, as well as the company’s proprietary Firewall technology. Those who are familiar with resistor ladders will know that they’re 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 LessLoss’s meticulous selection of only the most precise and stable resistors available ensures that the Echo’s 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 Echo’s 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 Echo’s End exclusively during the review process.

Setting up the Echo’s 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 DAC’s 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. I’d 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 Echo’s 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 Echo’s End is also a bit fussy about the sequence in which you power up the DAC and the source you’ve 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 Echo’s End. When I powered up the Echo’s 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, I’m 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 Shunyata’s Anaconda AES/EBU cable. Whether it was Red Book, 24-bit/192kHz or 2x DSD files, the Echo’s 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 Echo’s End before at least a hundred hours of continuous operation. If played directly once it’s 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 DAC’s transformation at around 120 hours particularly surprising. I wasn’t prepared for the sonic bloom and realism of Thelonious Monk’s At the Five Spot streamed from Tidal via my Auralic Aries. Right then, the Echo’s 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.

Sometime after this listening session, I was reviewing the LessLoss marketing materials and noticed that Motek is particularly proud of his DAC’s "reverb tails and truthful ambient information." Based upon my time with the Echo’s End, Motek’s pride is justified; the Echo’s End is exceptionally good at detail retrieval.

As I listened to Chet Baker’s Chet [Riverside/Concord RCD-30183] through the stock Echo’s 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 Baker’s 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 Mulligan’s baritone sax can sound.

These differences reminded me of a friend of mine who owns a Samsung HDTV. When I visit, I’m always struck by his preference for the Samsung’s vivid picture setting; he says it’s 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 Echo’s 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 Echo’s 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 End’s rendering of the nasal tone in Roger Miller’s 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 Echo’s 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 Motek’s e-mails to me and his company’s 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. I’ll 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 Echo’s End. I thought I’d 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 LessLoss’s 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. Here’s how Motek describes what’s 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 Echo’s End itself.

I can’t argue with Motek’s description of what the Firewalls do. Immediately upon connecting one 5x Firewall to the Echo’s 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 Baker’s horn were back.

The addition of LessLoss’s 5x Firewalls to the equation brought the Echo’s End much closer to my reference DAC. With each Firewall costing $1122, the total cost for a tricked-out version of the Echo’s 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, that’s a dangerously tempting proposition.

It’s worth mentioning that the Echo’s 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 Echo’s 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 Echo’s 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 it’s like to compare exceptionally good phono cartridges. The Echo’s 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 Torrey’s 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.

Selling 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 they’ve 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 don’t 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 Echo’s 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 I’ve had in my system. First, its stage via USB presented music in a far more organic and three-dimensional way than what I’ve come to expect from this interface. I’ve 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.

Price: $5342.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

LessLoss Audio
P.D. 1231
Kaunas, LT-46005
+370 698 48706

Associated Equipment

Analog: Rega RP3 turntable, Moth RB300 tonearm, Rega Elys phono cartridge, Bryston BP-1 phono stage.

Digital: PS Audio DirectStream and Audio Research DAC9 digital-to-analog converters, PS Audio PerfectWave transport, Auralic Aries Streamer Bridge with Purer-Power linear power supply, Roon Labs data-management service and MacBook Pro running Core music-library software and Channel D Pure Music software, AudioQuest JitterBug USB filters.

Preamplifier: Convergent Audio Technology SL1 Renaissance (Black Path Edition).

Power amplifier: Conrad-Johnson Premier 350SA.

Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Sasha W/P Series 2.

Interconnects: Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Anaconda.

Digital cables: AudioQuest Carbon USB, Shunyata Research Venom USB, Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Anaconda AES/EBU and S/PDIF.

Speaker cables: Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Anaconda.

Power conditioners: Shunyata Research Denali 6000/S, 6000/T and 2000/T; Shunyata Research Defender used in associated wall outlet.

Power cords: Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Alpha and Sigma.

Equipment rack and supports: Solidsteel S3 Series and S4 Series equipment racks, Shunyata Research Dark Field Suspension System, IKEA Aptitlig chopping blocks, Stillpoints Ultra SS speaker risers and Ultra 5 isolators.

Accessories: Acoustic Revive RD-3 disc demagnetizer, UltraBit Diamond-Plus Digital Systems Enhancer.