When we write about Chinese electronics, a part of our readers will probably turn up their nose. Chinese components have the reputation of being inferior in quality – or even counterfeit – and regardless of low price most of the time these components aren’t worth recommending.
About five years ago while looking for a new DAC I stumbled upon the website of Audio-GD and got introduced with the ideas of Kingwa, the designer of this brand and it’s brainchildren. Despite the deficient English on the website, it seemed that the man knew what he was talking about. His designs are characterized (among other things) by a discrete construction, paired components, no feedback in the output stage, class A power supplies & no coupling capacitors in the signal path. Besides, he uses high quality components and applies ACSS (Audio-gd Current Signal System, a non-feedback technology similar to CAST as used by manufacturer Krell)
After reading some positive reviews I decided to become owner of one of his creations. A choice I’ve never regret. As time went by, more components got their place in my listening room. For the moment I am listening almost daily to an Audio-gd Master 1 preamplifier and an Audio-gd Master 7 DAC. These last two components were obtained from importer Magna Hifi, who sells Audio-gd components in The Netherlands.
When I heard that a special NOS version of the Master 7 was on it’s way, it tickled my curiosity (NOS = no oversampling. In other words: no upsampling is applied to the the digital signal). The standard Master 7 can also be set to NOS mode from the inside, but most users prefer the standard settings. Then why have a separate version?
In an e-mail exchange about the subject with Jos from Magna Hifi, it became clear that this new version would be optimalized for NOS. Jos as well was very curious about the results of this new DAC. An e-mail later he proposed to send me the unit to make a comparison between the two models. This review is the result.
Because this review is a comparison, before we further explain the differences between the two devices we’ll first give you more information about the standard Master 7 DAC.
The Master 7 is the result of Kingwa’s love for the Burr Brown 1704 multibit DA converter and the idea of construction without compromise. Therefore, the Master 7 became a heavyweight of 15 kg with 8 separate 1704 DA converters.
The DAC is built according to Kingwa’s tradition: fully balanced and discrete, housing 3 power supplies with R-core transformers. These are compact low-noise transformers with a high efficiency. No coupling capacitors are used in the signal path, components are paired and there is no feedback in the output stage.
Regarding inputs this DAC has plenty of choice:
- IN1: BNC input, up to 24bit / 96KHz
- IN2: AES input, up to 24bit / 192KHz
- IN3: RCA coaxial input, up to 24bit / 192KHz
- IN4: Optical input, up to 24bit / 96KHz
- IN5: I2S input, up to 32bit / 192KHz
- IN6: USB input, up to 32bit / 192KHz support (In Non-USB version, IN6 is I2S input
For the USB input Audio-gd uses a 32 bit / 384 Khz Amanero USB-32 chip with double clock to keep jitter values low.
Regarding outputs there is a choice of balanced (XLR), unbalanced (RCA) and ACSS (mini XLR).
A nice addtion is the option to internally change between NOS, 2x, 4x and 8x oversampling.
Soundwise this DAC is very detailed and dynamic, capable of delivering a beautiful 3D soundstage and sound signature is neutral. What makes this DAC unique to me is the price/quality ratio. I don’t know of another device in this price category that is built so extremely well and has such a good sound.
NOS 7 DAC
The appearance, build quality and connectivity of the NOS 7 DAC are identical to the Master 7 DAC. The big difference with the Master 7 is the optimalization for NOS.
Oversampling is a technique that can be found in most DAC’s but there are exceptions with a preference to NOS. I’ve listened to the Master 7 with different settings. The NOS setting sounds appealing to me but I miss out on the persuading sound image and powerful bass only achieved with it’s standard setting. The new version uses better algorithms, a special DSP (digital sound processing) for NOS. So it was really a surprise what was awaiting me.
After unpacking the NOS 7 I direcltly hooked it up and gave the component time to burn-in. The set used to evaluate the NOS 7 consists of a Audio-gd Master 1 preamplifier and Lipinski L70 active studio monitors. As a source I used an Intel NUC with linear power supply and USB filter attached to the USB input. Regarding software I used Foobar2000 (with Kernel Streaming) and Fidelizer. Besides that, attention was given to proper cabling and power filtering.
For this comparison, I listened to different kinds of music, in terms of style, as well as in terms of recording methods used. I strongly recommend these albums, if you don’t already own them:
- Lambchop – is a Woman
- Laurie Anderson – Homeland
- Diana Krall – Why should I care
- Patricia Barber – Verse
- Janos Starker – Suite for Cello solo (n1)
- Doug Macleod – There’s A Time
- Anouar Brahem – The Astounding Eyes Of Rita
- James Blake – Overgrown
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating” the expression goes, so we comfortably sit down for this task and let the music take over.
Lambchop comes first with their album “Is A Woman”. The first things I notice are the degree of ease, the tranquility and the warmth of the instrumental part of this recording. In comparison with the Master 7 the phrase “more analog” immediately comes to mind. Warmth in this case could be faultly understood as a lack of details or less high frequencies, but the details in the highs are actually more easily audible. Cymbals and snares have a more natural glow surrounding them. When the voice of Kurt Wagner (singer and guitarist of the band) joins the performance, there is a homogeneous sound image apparant, that has a spacious range in both width and dept. Here the difference is that the Master 7 puts voices more up front, while the NOS 7 integrates the complete musical image more as a whole.
The cd Homeland by Laurie Anderson is an adventurous journey with the voice through different musical landscapes. She is capable – often in a minimalistic fashion – of creating a strong atmosphere with lots of attention to detail. When hearing her voice the previously mentioned warmth once again stands out. This warmth makes her voice sound a little bit fuller, resulting in a more natural presentation. The accompanying sounds and effects are beautifully portrayed and precisely placed in the stereo image. The deep low-end that is sufficiently present on this recording immediately shows me that this is a different DAC than the Master 7. The Master 7 is a bit more dry in the sub low region and seems to have a bit more power while the NOS 7 let’s the low-end roll a bit more, without loss of details.
Then Diana Krall joins my imaginary stage. The details in her voice, the different sounds of her mouth and her breathing give me a feeling that I have a seat in the front row. Sibliants are softer than with the Master 7 and just like Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, her voice is a little bit less up front.
The Jazz cd “Verse” by Patricia Barber shows yet again how musical the integral performance really is. Everything is in proportion and the quality of this recording (SACD) truly comes into play. The acoustic bass swings, the snare and pluck gestures sound dynamic and very natural.
Next I listen to one of the most beautiful cello recordings I know: J.S. Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello performed by Janos Starker. This SACD is amazingly recorded. The sound is completely seperated from the speakers. The acoustics of the space where Starker plays are very audible. Starker plays less in front of the speakers than with the Master 7, but he’s positioned beautifully into the room. The warmth of the NOS 7 comes to play on this recording as well and the complete sonic picture seems more musical than with the Master 7, with an improved audibility of the wooden cabinet of Starker’s instrument.
Even with the most beautiful setup in your living room, the recording is determinative for what is obtainable. Luckily sound engineers exist that pay greatest attention to these recording qualities. An example of such excuisite engineering technique is the cd “There’s A Time” by Doug Macleod, recorded in the studio’s of Skywalker Sound in Marin Country and released on Reference Recording, the record label of professor Keith O. Johnson, recording and audio engineer extraordinaire.
Macleod and his band members play live while the recording chain is kept minimal and pure. When I put on this recording I always have to adjust volume settings because little to no compression is used. This makes the recording very dynamic. Partly due to the lack of compression you have the feeling of looking into the studio where the original recording happened. This is sweet, honest blues that really shines on the NOS 7.
The differences with the Master 7 start to become predictable. The sound of Macleod’s guitar reflects more cabinet on the NOS 7 and his voice is better integrated with the rest of the musicians than with the Master 7. Also on this recording it is apparant how easily you can hear every small detail in the room. The dynamic range of this recording is beautifully portrayed, thanks to the completely silent background that both DAC’s possess.
I only recently discovered Anouar Brahem. This is completely my fault, because the artist already has quite an impressive album collection in his name. The 24-bit recorded CD “The Astounding Eyes Of Rita” on the label ECM has an oriental atmosphere which lets you drift away completely. Here the NOS 7 portrays low-end information beautifully rounded and defined without loosing a single detail. The Master 7 on it’s turn is a bit more agressive and direct, which gives you the feeling of a more dynamic presentation. When I turn the volume of the title track to a level close to a neighbour conflict, the amount of ease and tranquility remains while at the same time you hear the power that the NOS 7 is able to handle.
The final cd I would like to describe is James Blake’s Overgrown. This album is not an example of honestly produced instruments but rather a succesful combination of smartly created sounds that, together with the fragile voice of Blake, make for an hour of pleasant music listening.
The NOS 7 once again holds up for the task and the differences with the Master 7 are easily recognizable. What I mentioned on Anouar Brahem’s album regarding the low-end is audible here as well. The Master 7 sounds more dry in the lower regions which makes it appear more dynamic. In the extreme low-end reproduced by the synthesizers on this album the difference between the two DAC’s is easily recognizable but difficult to determine which of the two sound more realistic. The soundstage is seperated from the speakers and fills the room. Although this is not the most quiet cd, the quiteness and tranquility of this DAC strikes me again.
This was without doubt a very enjoyable comparison to make. Soundwise, on one hand both components are clearly brother and sister, on the other hand the differences are easily distinguishable.
There is no winner or loser, no good or bad. Both DAC’s are winners in terms of tranquility and ease of reproduction, a silent background, details and dynamics. The Master 7 sounds a little bit dryer which makes low-end information appear more dynamic. The sound image – in particular with voices – is notably more seperated. The NOS 7 gives instruments and voices more warmth and softness. I find the stereo image homogeneous and seperated from the speakers. The low-end is more rounded. Everything is portrayed with a nice tranquility and calmness. I think we will soon hear people talking about this DAC as “more analog” or valve like. Personally I would prefer the NOS 7 because in my opinion this DAC in most cases sounds more musical.
For this comparison I’ve used the standard settings on the Master 7 (with the addition of oversampling and filtering). When we make this comparison with the Master 7 in NOS mode, there definitely is a winner. With these settings both components have a similar sonic signature but the sound image and the amount of detail of the NOS 7 beats the Master 7.
Magna Hifi can upgrade the Master 7 to NOS 7 for € 169. If you like the sonic signature of the Master 7 in NOS mode, then I would strongly advice you to make this small investment. Be aware, after the upgrade to the NOS 7 you cannot perform oversampling anymore, unless this is done by your computer or DSP.
For the amount of € 2.329 the NOS 7 DAC is another masterpiece from the collection of Kingwa’s designs. Top class for a middle class price and definitely a recommended component. I’ve already reserved my upgrade.