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W A R N I N G !
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Sunday, August 10, 2008
Zhaolu D2.5 w/LM4562 vs NeoMini USBDAC - some thoughts
Today I decided to do a direct AB test with my Zhaolu D2.5 w/LM4562 against NeoMini USBDAC.
Reason because somehow, because of my further-degrading hearing or running around with the Zhaolu and subjecting it to the physical abuse at the guardroom (I haven't blog about these yet), or some problem with the reconnection, the Zhaolu didn't sound as nice as it was yesterday night compared to morning.
Fearing there would be some actual sonic damage instead of placebo effects, I decided to fight it against the previously-defeated NeoMini in a direct AB comparison and use this as a measure.
Results are interesting.
Sound signature-wise, I can hear almost no difference. The sound so just the same that if you didn't know the two DACs beforehand or cannot hear the other minute differences you're sure to mix up the ABX test.
Or heck, if my setup doesn't let me switch sources in less than 0.2 seconds I probably wouldn't have detected any obvious difference either.
Everything that counts are the rest - the Zhaolu w/LM4562 has a bigger soundstage, the instruments are more pulled back (or the NeoMini is more forward), less muffled, bass more impactful, lower bass extension. But, with the exception of the lower bass extension, the differences are very small, way smaller than comparing on-board against NeoMini (that one was pretty bad), and should be smaller than NeoMini vs Audigy if my memories are correct. Even the bass extension, while that one is more obvious because you will hear it when the bass notes go low, most of the time they don't so it doesn't make much of a difference.
There's still one obvious difference though - highs response
The Zhaolu is still undoubtedly cleaner and the sound reverbs a bit, while for the NeoMini there's still some distortion and the hi-hats/cymbals sound "less round", or, the most abused term in audio vocabulary, "flat". But more "hissing" and less dynamics and space is a better description for it, if you ask me.
So some findings and some thoughts from this AB test:
- Since the Zhaolu w/LM4562 and NeoMini share the same sound signature, there's high chance that they're both just darn accurate. But then again, probably many other DACs do, but that's not a majority if you consider the number of warm-sounding Burr-Brown op-amps out there.
- The LM4562 is one heck of an accurate op-amp - the NeoMini has no op-amp, yet the LM4562 sounds so similar. This is probably why it's so popular in soundcards also.
- The designers of the Zhaolu also did a great job - audio equipment is all about how well your components work with each other, and with the default settings + LM4562 op-amp the sound is so neutral and accurate. With the output capacitors jumpered it was too bright even with the OPA2604. So yea guys, don't try the jumper mod unless you're a purist or an "audiophile". I'm not the only one who hates it anyway; so did the guys who found and tried out many mods for the Zhaolu.
- Using an external DAC with bad cabling and digital source is a big no-no. Reason because I could hear a significant difference between the on-board Realtek and Audigy and between the cheapo $7 cable, the supplied stock cable, and the current Belden 1694A. And if my current setup sounds only okay, then previously it has to be very bad.
- The NeoMini is a seriously good buy for the money. At $35/55 (Taiwan price/local price), plus soldering skill and time and casing, it put up a good fight against another bang-for-buck ~$200 equipment, and that's not including the additional cost of the Belden 1694A and Audigy.
But if you ask me, if I'd sell my Zhaolu and get back the money spent and use the more value-for-money NeoMini instead, I'd totally say no. Because the impact of the improvement with the Zhaolu is just too awesome, more awesome than that with the NeoMini from Audigy. Yes I can't pinpoint the differences, but all the subtle things add together to form something awesome.
Plus, you can't put a price on better sound. :D
In a sense in this case the NeoMini is a poorer buy for the money because it didn't seem that powerful worthy of an upgrade. But if you have an on-board and want something cheap and small and stick with it then it's your choice. :)
- The one thing that's been pulling back my Zhaolu - the $7 interconnect cable. Since the audio system will only sound as good as its weakest link, this guy is probably the culprit (I used the same type of cable for both DACs). A better cable will probably improve the Zhaolu's performance, as well as that of the NeoMini. Time to get the 89207.