ADD: After hearing the D3 for just that few moments I'm feeling that the D2.5A is too laid back and devoid of details, again.
Looks like I won't be giving up on the D3 just yet.
I realized my review of the D2.5A vs D3 wasn't ever finished. But that's not stopping me from writing this post.
For a few times I AB-ed between the D2.5A and D3 and the D2.5A constantly won. I decided to do it again today, with the same result, but with one more important observation:
There are people saying that the CS4398 chip is warmer. And then there are people saying that the AD1852 chip is warmer. They are both correct. So are the people saying that CS/AD has better bass and highs.
The conflicting accounts is due to different perception of warmth, good bass, and good highs.
With the AD1852 of the D2.5A, the sound is more mellow, laid-back. Some may refer to this as warm. With the CS4398 of the D3, the sound is more forward, there are more mids, and it sounds fuller also. Hence also warm.
And hence "warm" is an excuse of an answer to hide the fact that one doesn't have good enough hearing to listen out for specific qualities in audio, or to convince oneself that his system is good. ("Warm" is usually associated with good sound, as opposed to "cold")
Back to AD vs CS, this time the highs. The AD chip seems to have more a higher-reaching highs and more space compared to the CS chip which is more crowded. After a few listenings and some thinking I realized that it's the CS chip that has better highs instead. The AD, because of the more laid-back character, has some of the highs not able to be heard, and hence the feeling of a lower noise-floor, separation, greater extension, and more space. Up the 4-8khz spectrum on the AD chip a bit, and it sounds uncanningly similar to the CS, but still rather constipated. The CS just has too much detail compared to the AD. And this cannot be gotten back via equalization.
And so you realize that certain simlar reasoning can be used to explain the bass performance. Yup, because the AD chip has less mids, the bass sounds more and cleaner and extends more, but the CS chip has more impactful bass. Reason? The hitting (or tight) part of the bass spreads out over a range of frequencies in the mids, reaching above 125hz which would be crossover point for bass in a decent system (or 300hz for the not-so-decent, but never mind it reaches past that too).
Ignoring the sonic differences, the CS4398 is undoubtly the better of the two. But I'm guessing more people (including me) would prefer the AD's more musical character. The CS chip would be good for producing and monitoring though.
Onto the performance in the DACs and setup, taking into consideration the difference between the two DACs. The AD, having the OPA-Earth HDAM, has a big advantage. Else it wouldn't have been able to compete with the CS chip on the highs. So for a while I was hoping that with the OPA-Earth I might get the best of both worlds with the D3 - musical sound that is full of detail.
But one thing suggests that to be impossible. Because of the mids, the CS4398 sounds very constipated especially with a poor recording. It sounds muffled, the rusty-grainy-loud-high-frequency kind. The AD is also muffled, but the laid-back-gagged-in-the-mouth kind. The latter is definitely more pleasing. This is the CS4398's natural sound, because I didn't have any op-amp at the output this time round, and the OPA627 is fairly transparent. I remember what happened when I replaced my LM4562 with the OPA-Earth: sound is brought more forward, soundstage is flatter, not good in terms of space. And I'm not the only person with this observation. The ones that do not are the fanboys.
Hmm... maybe I should try back the LM4562s.
That means, if I try the OPA-Earth with the CS4398 D3, I'm going to get even more constipated sound. Since they will definitely amplify this weakness of each other.
That may explain why the modded (Zapfilter, OMZ) Zhaolus are better with the AD chip. Or sound better. Since they are all using discrete op-amp output.
So the modded chips "sound" good because of reasons stated above. Whether that is good or bad, you make the decision.
But I'll never be going to spend USD$599 on the OMZ.
The Zhaolu D3 is definitely a good DAC. At stock it's definitely worth the money ($299 in MO). It has a lot of performance, performing even somewhat close to the next-higher-class DACs. But it is sunk by the fact that it uses the CS4398 chip that sacrifices too much musical qualities for the details. What we need the next level is musical qualities + details, hence the Citypulse 2.03E using discrete output. In the meantime, look for an op-amp that will make the D3 sound more musical yet not remove it of its details (sorry no OPA-Moon here, if you're reading this. You know who I'm talking to).
Maybe LM4562 will make its reappearance.
W A R N I N G !
W A R N I N G !
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