GRANT FIDELITY TUBE DAC 11
Publisher's note: this review is a result of many of our reader's requests. You ask, we do our best to get them for you. Thanks guys! Also, thanks to Rachel at Grant Audio for providing the unit.
Grant Fidelity of Canada is not a stranger to Stereomojo as there have had several pieces of equipment reviewed: The A534b tube integrated amp, RBS-1 speakers and the CD-1000 CD player You can read these reviews here at Stereomojo to get an idea of the quality of Grant Fidelity's gear.
Grant Fidelity is not a manufacturer, but they find quality manufacturers bring in equipment with the Grant Fidelity name to their specs and design ideas. I don't know if this is a novel idea but it is a good one. The TubeDac-11 is warehoused and shipped from Hong Kong. Grant Fidelity does not charge shipping as they are passing the savings on to the consumer as they don't have to eat/or pass on the shipping charges to Canada and then charge the consumer shipping to the end destination. A good value proposition which is Grant's game.
I received my little bundle by way of stork (DHL) in short order. What I found when I opened the box was a well packed TubeDac-11 with a ton of extras. How about a power cord, RCA, coaxial, optical, and USB cables, plus a mini to standard headphone plug adapter and hex wrench. How's that for bang for your buck? However, if you want to get the best performance out of this or most any other DAC, I would recommend replacing the cables with better ones.
Grant Fidelity (from here on “GF”) lists the following as features and specifications of the TubeDac-11.It's a long list but essential to read:
Out the box you have to set the voltage, choices are 115v/230v. GF has instructed the factory to pre-set the voltage to 230v, their thoughts being if the voltage is set to 115v and turned on in Europe the unit will burn up but in a country where the voltage is 115v and the unit is set to 230v the unit simply will not power up so, don't forget to set it to 115v.
The manual is only one sheet of paper instructing you on the voltage settings, volume control precautions, and directing you to the GF web site for more detailed instructions.
I received the black unit with the one negative being, on a level surface the unit has a wobble - one leg is a little longer than the other three. When I mentioned this to Grant the lovely Rachel at Grant, she replied, "It has been brought to our attention that a few of the first production batch have the 4 rubber feet uneven - one foot may appear to be short by 1 to 2mm. As the rubber feet are parts provided by 3rd party and the factory assembly bench has a soft surface to avoid scratch to the casing, this problem wasn't identified before shipping. We recommend to use a small felt pad on one of the feet to compensate the uneven height if needed. Next production run will address this issue from factory by using a different parts supplier.
Translation: by the time you read this, the problem will have been eliminated.
My initial impressions were with the stock power cord and all other cables being my reference cables.
The DAC 11 offers the option of listening via the tube output or solid state. I started out via the tube option.
GRANT ME SOUND
The first thing that stood out was the total silent background. The noise floor was on a par if not better than my battery powered Ack Dack. Voices were very natural and the sound was balanced all around although I was wanting more dynamics. The sound stage was a little small with singers and instruments being pushed to the back of the sound stage. At first I didn't know what to think of this, maybe burn in or the stock tube. Then it came to me; change the power cord you dummy and lo and behold dynamics, wider sound stage, singers and instruments pushed to the front in a more natural position. So yes, upgrade the power cord before you do any critical listening.
I decided to use my secondary system because the cost of the components were more in line with the cost of the GF DAC but I will insert it into my reference system later.
The system is comprised of Dali Ikon 8 speakers (PNF Symphony speaker cables), Yaqin MS-20L tube integrated amp (Audio Art Power 1 w/wattgate plugs), Ack Dack 1.2e (KCI custom coaxial, Grover sx interconnects), Onix CD-88 as transport (6sons audio Spirit Wind II power cord).
Listening done with stock 6n11 tube and, as I said before, the stock power cord was replaced. I used a less expensive Pangea AC-14se which cost me all of $60. At first I had used one of my 6sons Audio Thunderbird power cords but at a cost of $575 thought it was out of balance price wise.
The TubeDAC-11's maximum output is 6V RMS thru the Tube and Line outputs, 2V RMS on the DAC Direct Out. The DAC 11 replaces the well received TubeDac 09 and talk about going back to the drawing board, take a look at the insides of the TubeDac-09 vs. the TubeDac-11.
Big difference Much cleaner and it tells in the sound.
On “I'd Love To Kill You” Katie's voice is so clear and precise as it floats on that black background and the instruments are clearly defined within their own space. The pedal steel guitar is so pure you feel the lower end as if there is an upright bass in the background not to mention that there is a separate bass line in the song. Song after song there is nothing but joy in listening to Katie, wife thought I had woman upstairs. ON the fifth track, “Red Balloons” there is no harshness whatsoever and when the bass is drum is hit there is no smear. The background is very much three dimensional you can see the instruments.
I got a kick out of listening to track 6, “Tiny Alien”. You get pounding bass, stringy plucks on the guitar and smooth vocals. This little (in size only) DAC/preamp is a joy to play with and I do mean play with as the sound is off the charts in enjoyment.
To test the soundstage and imaging ability of the Tube Dac-11 I used Roger Waters – Amused To Death.
This CD uses a technique called Qsound which enhances the soundstage and placement of sounds throughout your room. Some may say this is trickery and in a way it is but when you have equipment that also images well and enhances the soundstage you end up with something special: Surround sound via only 2 speakers.
My sound stage was extended to the side walls and higher than normal with an eerie sounding radio broadcast on my left side wall playing into my room with vocals and instruments still facing me. There were crickets sounding as if they were in the distant woods from my home. I heard a dog bark and thought it was from outside my window in the backyard. You have got to hear the stadium crowd singing on “Perfect Sense” such depth that you feel as if you are looking down into the stadium. I love this CD and if you don't have it already in your collection, I suggest you get it.
I'm loving this DAC
This is a CD I first heard at a local get together and thought the vocals and simple instruments made for just wonderful music. Throughout the CD you will hear acoustic guitar, banjo, cello, electric guitar, fiddle, mandocello, mandolin, piano, and upright bass. How's that for for a complement of strings.
When you listen to the fiddle and mandolin the highs have a light and delicate sound with plenty of air around the instruments. The upright bass adds just enough to the low end sound to make for a solid foundation. While not the lightening precise plucking and stroking detail that I have heard on some systems, the sound has a slightly warm down home kind of feel.
On acoustic guitar I do prefer some more “wood” sound but think maybe this could be helped with a little tube rolling.
All in all for this price range you get more than an ample portion of lifelike tone.
Diana Krall – Only Trust Your Heart
I decided to pick a disc to listen to just for fun. I hadn't listened to Diana Krall lately so I pulled out “Only Trust Your Heart”.
On the opening song, “Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby”, the sax starts out with a “grab you” bite to it, then comes that familiar voice of Diana's. As I sit and listen my thoughts are, nice overall balance, good toe tapping pace, and spot on tonality, with no listening fatigue. Maybe the cymbals could use a little more metallic shimmer for my tastes but still a very nice sound. The bass playing integrates very well with the piano and drums. When I get to “Only Trust Your Heart”, is when I close my eyes and Diana is here with me, don't tell my wife!, and then I'm awakened with my head swinging from side to side.
This is like a roller coaster going from mellow to bold....fun stuff!
OPTIONS NOT TAKEN FOR GRANTED
Tube outputs: I did my above listening with the tube outputs. I prefer the tube to the solid state output as it is much smoother sounding.
Solid state outputs: From the first note I did not like the sound, midrange too forward and highs a little brittle. Didn't know what to make of it, played around a little, then I turned the volume down on the DAC and music once again. I would say the difference in sound between the tube and solid state outputs would be that with the tube out the overall sound is smoother with a sweeter midrange and balance. With the solid state output there a little more bass with the upper midrange being more stringent but not to the point of being a nuisance.
Preamp/DAC: I had to switch to my trusty Usher R 1.5, 150-watt power amp to see what the Grant does. The dead silent background still sticks out but with the Usher there is more detail and clarity. The music just flows and I just want to stop here and grab a few brews to just relax. I am using the tube output as I feel it is a more natural sound. Dang! The only thing missing is a remote to change between the two modes...lazy me.
Just as I really start to get into the music something goes wrong with my Usher amp; hum and smoke. Crap happens to reviewers, too. Now I have to ship 88 lbs. out for repair. Donations welcomed.
Line inputs: I decided not to try the line level inputs as I would have had to introduce another set of interconnects and components and besides it would take away from my fun. Uh, I mean serious audiophile review evaluation time.
USB: While I don't do any listening via USB I have recently started to put music onto my laptop using MediaMonkey. Well, took me about 10 seconds to figure out how to get sound from the USB port. The sound is not bad but it is not as dynamic as the coaxial input. A little subdued sounding, I would think great for background or casual listening. Listening to the USB as I finish typing this review and it does not offend.
Headphones: Or cans as some would call them are not my cup of tea as I only have a set of AKG K-280 @ 75 ohm from the mid nineties and an inexpensive pair of Sony MDR V-600 @ 45 ohm now, but I did give it a try.
The Sony's were listenable as the silent background stood out but the bass was not as good. The rest of the spectrum was balanced. I am not sure if the bass issue is a result of the quality of the Sony phones or the DAC but I would suspect it's the Sony's fault. Now the AKG was a much different story, the bass was tight and I could hear a good deal of mid level detail with that black background the upper level detail was real nice and the overall balance was on par with what I had heard through speakers.
I have no doubt that with better grade headphones the sound would only get better. Guess I'll have to get some better phones just for reference sake.
Oh yeah. I know our publisher is looking for people who live and breath headphones to do headphones reviews. If youa re one of those, please contact him
TubeDac-11 vs. Ack Dack:
While the battery powered Ack has a black background, the TubeDac-11 has it beat in the silence of the upper midrange and high end. The Ack has a slight edge in low-end drive but with a little sibilance in the upper registers. Overall the TubeDac-11 has a smoother presentation and is much much more versatile. Being the Ack is more than double the price of the TubeDac-11, a question was posed to Ian, the head guy at Grant, about the low price of the DAC Ian stated that if the TubeDac-11 was sold through regular dealer networks that it would sell in the $750 range. Great value I say.
This DAC 11 is as one owner put it , “The Swiss Army Knife” of DACs
The TubeDAC-11 turns up to 5 of of your source players into High-End Tube Source Players. including:
CD Player, DVD Player, Blue Ray Player, SACD Player, iPad, iPod, MP3 Player, MP4 player Computer, Netbook, Notebook, Laptop, PhonoStage, SS DAC, Tape Deck, Tuner, X-box ™, Wii ™, Playstation ™, Satellite Box, Cable Box, TV, Internet Radio, Wireless Audio, Sonos ™, Airport Express ™, Squeezebox ™ and anything else with digital or analog audio outputs.
Here is a diagram of the many ways in which the TubeDac 11 can be hooked up.
Now taking the TubeDac-11 to my reference system which consists of: Usher 6381 speakers, Consonance Cyber 800 tube monoblocks, Belles 21a preamp, Virtue Audio Piano M1 CD player and various cables and power cords from 6Sons Audio, Wywires, Mg Audio Design, and Virtual Dynamics. I used the Pangea SE-9 power cable on the DAC and the KCI coaxial interconnect.
The sound is more detailed in the upper regions as I love my Virtue Audio Piano M1 for i's tube-like sound but it achieves this by slightly rolling off the highs. The midrange is bigger with the Piano but the TubeDac-11's midrange is mesmerizing. The Tube DAC 11 retains the "tubaresent" sound but is much more extended in the high end. The smoothness and the overall balance is to die for and I can't say this enough: that dead silent background just makes it so much easier to experience finer details in the music. It seems that as you introduce the TubeDac-11 to better equipment, the better it sounds.
I know baseball is an American (of the United States variety) sport but Ian and Rachael, you have hit this one out of the park in value, versatility, fun , and sound. The only two minor issues that I can think of is the unit not being level, which you have addressed, and that dang click every time the DAC locks onto the signal. Other than those two this has been one of the most enjoyable times I have had reviewing a piece of equipment.
People have differing opinions on "Made in China", but if you choose to buy Chinese, you can be very confident that Grant Audio is not a gray market dealer with dubious product and no support. In short, you won't get screwed buying from them or be forced to deal with Customs or surprise exorbitant shipping charges which is often not the case with no-name sources on Ebay, Amazon and the like.
Again thanks to our readers for leading us to a great product. The TubeDac-11 would do anyone with an entry level system justice as their DAC.
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