19-1-2015



Audio-GD Master-7
DAC Review

by Maarten van Druten


Introduction

After doing some research (speaking with several audio designers) I found out the "holly grail" of the DAC chips is the Burr Brown PCM1704U-K.
And that the Audio-GD "Master-7" was "THE" DAC to go for, It contains 8 (!) Burr Brown PCM1704U-K chips and it should realy sound very special!
After having read also lot of positive articles on the internet about the superb sound qualities of the Audio-GD Master-7 DAC, I was of course curious to test this DAC myself!


About "Audio-GD"

Audio-GD is a company which is headed by Mr. He Qinghua, "the first prize winner" of the National Semiconductor (USA) Audio Design contest.
The Audio-GD team are professionals who create new products with great enthusiasm.
Audio-GD produces very high quality High-End audio equipment like amplifiers, dac's for very fair prices.
There are a lot of Audio-GD owners that owned expensive Krell, Conrad Johnson amplifiers before, and they all say that Audio-GD is the best amplifier they ever heard!
I expect the prices of this brand will rise,
especially with this Master-7 DAC, I shall explain why...

 


Burr Brown PCM1704, the last of the great multibit chips!

Newer doesn't mean always better, we live in time that profit is often more important than quality.
It is getting more and more difficult to find companies that are making real quality audio products.
Because quality products are more difficult to make, therefore they are also more expensive,
and with expensive products is more difficult to make a lot of profit...
 
When TI (Texas Instruments) took over the Burr Brown company the "flagship's model" DAC chip-set was the
PCM1704.
This 1704 DAC chip was difficult to make, and was expensive, therefore a newer and cheaper version was made; the PCM1795...
 
The PCM1704 DAC chip was the "State of the Art" chip concerning DAC development, and it was the last
"Multi-Bit" chip before the big manufacturers switched to developing the cheaper to produce "Delta Sigma" designs that dominate today.
 
Big advantages of this "Multi Chip" design are that they are less sensitive to jitter than delta-sigma designs and also that they have none HF noise additions.
The disadvantage is that they are more expensive and that they are very hard to match.
 
Unfortunately the Burr Brown PCM1704 is almost out of production and the prices of this chip-set are rising...
 
Why choose for a DAC with such an "old" DAC chip-set, instead of the more modern high specs "DSD" DAC?
The answer is very simple...because I wanted a DAC that sounds natural and musical.
 
I found out that the modern sold "DSD" DAC's mostly sounds ultra-detailed and analytical, but also sometimes harsh and unnatural.
Listening to them on the long term is not very pleasant...
I wanted a DAC that has both; dynamics and detail, but also sounds neutral and musical.
 
Modern "DSD" DAC chips are not only cheap to produce, (and therefore they have a big profit factor) but they are also highly integrated.
This means that the audio designer has almost no room to improve on the DAC, everything is already integrated in the DAC itself.
Because of this integration, it's also very easy to design a "DSD" DAC, and that's the reason that there are so many small companies that are producing "DSD" DAC's lately...
But putting a integrated DAC chip into a box, doesn’t make a nice sounding DAC...
A lot of other factors around the DAC chip-set are also very important, and all together they make the final sound.
 
Luckily, the Burr Brown PCM1704 chip has an open structure leaving a lot of design choices open for the audio designer.
And that is what Mr Kingwa from "Audio-GD" is very good at, designing and improving DAC's built with the
Burr Brown PCM1704U-K chip.
He has built a big reputation with DACs using this chip.
And this "Master-7" is his "show-piece".


What do other people say about the PCM1704 DAC chip?

Other people on the internet say that the PCM1704 is the "MASTER OF NEUTRALITY" and that this chip has an
"amazing imaging, great dynamics, a detail retriever freak, unforgiving to poor implementation."

This is what the audiophile company "Lessloss" writes about the Burr Brown PCM1704U-K DAC chip on their archived webpage:

"The PCM 1704 is out of production and represents the end of the era when quality was first on the minds of DAC engineering laboratories. In today's production, all remaining DAC's are of the Sigma/Delta type. These incorporate more technologies into one chip, including two channels for stereo, volume control, upsampling, and often even clock oscillators of their own. Production costs have been saved, but the issue of quality of sound reproduction is no longer the primary issue.

Many people do not know that the PCM1704 is classified into different categories of perfection. There is the PCM1704U, which is the least expensive and worst lot. Then there are better ones, which are marked PCM1704U-J and PCM1704U-K at the factory. We would like to stress that the LessLoss DAC 2004 uses only the best and most expensive PCM1704’s. We have chosen the best converter and then use only the best lot of these converters."


"Our empirical tests showed that these differences are indeed audible and that Burr-Brown's PCM 1704 is the very best converter chip in existence today. Earlier achievements in quality such as the legendary PCM63 have been bettered by the PCM 1704."

I think the text above speaks for it self, I hope I can confirm their opinion about the PCM1704 DAC after my review of the Audio-GD "Master-7" DAC which contains 8 of these Burr Brown PCM1704U-K chips!


 

Audio-GD Master-7 DAC

Today I received my Audio-GD "Master 7" DAC! but first I had to unpack and install it.



The DAC is very good packed with a lot of foam, all around.
 

The Audio-GD "Master 7" DAC is a impressive device, it weighs 15 Kg
For a DAC that's a lot!

I connected the Mater-7 DAC with "I2S" (HDMI) to my HTPC which has a "Pink Faun I2S Bridge"
and I connecterd the Master-7 DAC with two balanced "ACSS" cables to my Audio-GD "Master 10" amplifier.





Inside the Master-7, Audio-GD has designed a new DSP processor which is soldered on the main board directly for best signal transfer and faster data processing and clocking.
(photo is from the Audio-GD website)



The Audio-GD Master 7 has a lot of in and outputs (Coaxial, Optical, I2S over HDMI and...




...what a lot of people maybe don't know is that you can also order this DAC with "USB" and "I2S" inputs!
"USB" and "I2S" are the best inputs available and they both support 32bit 192 kHz.

 

Listening tests

After connecting the Master 7 DAC with "I2S" (HDMI) to my HTPC (which has a "Pink Faun I2S Bridge" PCI-E card inside) and with special "ACSS" cables to my Audio-GD Master 10 amplifier, it was time to play some music!




“ACSS” (Audio-GD Current Signal System) allows that your DAC and amplifier are connected
with the shortest signal path possible.
Resulting in a very detailed and dynamic sound.


First I played a music FLAC file of 44.1 kHz of the CD: "Bob James & David Sanborn - Double Vision
the song was called "Maputo" ...



"My God!" what a sound! a very clear and detailed soundscape filled my room.
The dynamics are very good, everytime when the drummer gave a little kick, I got "shocked" because I didn't expected this.
The music sounded also very "real" and "realistic" with very precise details.
You could really pin-point were excactly the musicans were standing.

A lot of pre-judges on the internet is that the PCM1704 chip should sound "dark"...
Now I can tell you this, I have never heard so much resolution combined with very neutral and well balanced
high tones.
"Dull sounding" ? No way, this DAC sound more livid and musical then any other DAC I have heard before! Amazing! and don't forget this is just a 44.1 kHz music file!
I didn't listened to high resolution music yet!

Time for some populair dance music: "Caribou - Our Love" with the song "Can't Do Without You"
The song starts repitive but the sound was very impressive, the sound quality of this DAC amazed me, it
made me smile! and that I have never experienced before...

This DAC doesn't only sounds neutral and detailed,
it also has great dynamics and the soundstage is impressive!



Gare du Nord, is a Dutch/Belgium jazz band that was playing "live" in my town, unfortunately I was not
able to go to the concert, but luckily they gave me a "private" concert in my living room :-)
Their live album "Lifesexy" sounded very realistic, and also very energetic on the Master 7.
I can recommend this album, it's a very nice concert to listen too.
Because the Master 7 gives a lot of information and detail, the volume can be turned down a little
and you still will hear everything.
The voice of singer Dorona Alberti sounds very clear and powerful.

 

Listening to High Resolution Audio

The Master 7 DAC can playback High Resolution Audio of 32bit 192 kHz.
And what about DSD and SACD files?
Don't worry, there is a perfect and very comfortable solution for this!
First I was thinking to convert my DSF files to 32bit 192kHz WAV files with KORG's Audiogate software converter.
But this take a lot of time...and why convert? converting audio files only makes the quality worse...
There is a much better and also easier and more comfortable way to listen to DSD, DXD and SACD ISO music files with the Master 7.
And that is playing back your audio files with: "JRiver Media Center"

This program doesn't only make it possible to playback high resolution WAV and FLAC files, it also plays
SACD, DSF and even SACD ISO's! and best of all, there is also a great remote control app available for the Ipad called "JRemote"
This app gives you the comfort to search and play your private music collection with a very beautiful album cover layout!





"JRiver" has also a very important option were you can fill in what the maximum capabilities are of your DAC.
In "DSP Studio" you can tell "JRiver Media Center" what to do, when for example a DSD, or DXD file is played.
I changed the option so that the maximum output is 192 kHz.



This nice option makes it possible to listen to SACD ISO's! (without converting them)
 
So you see, with the Master 7 you can playback all the DSD, DXD and SACD ISO music files without any problem.
I can highly recommend JRiver Media Center in combination with the JRemote Ipad app.
Together with the Master 7 (and Master 10) they are a future proof and very comfortable high resolution audio solution.
 
So don't worry about which High Resolution Audio format will win:-) you can play it all!
The Master 7 gives a much better, more realistic, and smoother 3D sound scape than every other DAC I have
ever heard. (including native DSD DAC's)
 


High Resolution listening

When listening to classical music it became clear that the Master 7 has also a pin-point accurate holographic sound stage.
You can very easily localize the exact position of instruments and artists.
If you close your eyes you almost can see the orchestra in front of you.
The sound scape is also very wide and deep.
It's the best 3D performance I yet have experienced with a DAC.
I think that also people who listen to classical music (SA-CD’s ) will embrace this DAC
because it renders the music hall with a very good precision.

This DAC also presents the musical instruments exactly how they should sound, this is very important when listening to classical music and also to jazz.
Piano music sounds very realistic, this is a very difficult instrument to render good for a DAC.
But the Master 7 has no problems with this, this DAC is very neutral,
If the music doesn't sound good, than it's the actual music recording to blame not the DAC.
The Master 7 just translates what is on the disc (or what is in the file)


"OLE BULL Violine Concertos" - 2L Recordings (24bit 192 kHz)

Concerto Fantastico: 1 Allegro Affetuosso (La Notte) has a very wide, deep and realistic scoundstage.
Here the Master 7 realy shines, the music sounds very pleasant and it's almost as you are in the Music Hall.
The dynamics are great to, sometime I jumped from my chair while listening, when there was a sudden
attack of dynamics in the song.



Final thoughts

I think personally, it's better to buy a DAC that has a very good sound quality and also has a character that you like, then buying a DAC that has great specs, and that can play all high resolution audio formats natively, but has less quality and not so nice sound character...

Listening to a DAC with a not pleasant and comfortable sound character can be very tiresome on the long term.
The Master 7 has a very comfortable sound character, and has a very accurate precision, lots of details,
great dynamics and good bass.
The Master 7 is also a very neutral DAC, so if you playback good quality sound files, the dac will play them perfectly.
But if you playback music files that are "bad" recorded in the studio, then the Master 7 will show you how bad the recording is...
You also will hear details that you never have heard before! this DAC has it all, gives it all, and it is a perfect match with the Audio-GD Master 10 amplifier (see my website for the review)
I think 3 factors are responsible for this great sound:

1) "I2S" The PinkFaun I2S Bridge is a must buy when you have the Master 7 DAC, it gives stability, and it's just
    the best way to connect your HTPC with your DAC.

2) "The Audio-GD Master 7" is a great sounding DAC, for this money it's a steal, I think you will have a hard time
    finding a better sounding DAC for this money!

3) "ACSS" ; don't underestimate this technique! I personally think that this technique is responsible for the
     excellent 3D sound scape and fast dynamics. I would really recommend to order "ACSS" cables by Audio-GD
     and connect your Master 7 with ACSS to your Audio-GD capable amplifier.
    
These 3 factors above are responsible for a perfect collaboration between these components,
together they give listening to music a new dimension.
Listening to music will never be the same after listening to this set.
Now I don't have to worry anymore about buying new audio equipment, only about having enough time to listen to this nice DAC :-)

 

Conclusion

The positive experiences that you can read on the internet are really true, the "Master 7" is an amazing
product, it stand with head and shoulders above the competition, and for the selling price around 2180 dollars, it's a steal!
I never heard a better sounding DAC, and that includes dCS and Nagra DAC's!
Advise: don't wait till the High Resolution format war is over, but invest now in the best sounding DAC you can find for 2180 dollars.
Together with JRiver on your HTPC and JRemote on you Ipad, you will have a perfect
High Resolution audio solution that gives you a lot of pleasure for years to come.
Audio-GD also gives 10 Years repair guarantee on your Master DAC! (so don't throw away the box!)
Don't wait, but enjoy high resolution music now!

 

Maarten van Druten (Audio Dandy)



Pros

- Very neutral and comfortable DAC with rich of details
- Gives a very good realism and pin point accurate holographic imaging
- Smooth and also dynamic sounding DAC (very open sound scape)
- 8X Burr Brown PCM1704U-K (!)
- 32bit 192 kHz "I2S" HDMI input
- Very well build, never seen a DAC so well designed and built before.
- In House developed DSP processor
- Zero feedback
- ACSS balanced outputs
- Asynchronous USB input (can be selected when ordering)

Cons

- Nothing really important, but..
- There is no native DSD, DXD support (*)
- Cabinet has not the same size (width) then the Master 10 amplifier



(*) this can easily be overcome by using "real time" DSD to PCM conversion of the JRiver Media Center software.


 

Special thanks to Rob & Jos from Magna Hifi for
excellent support and service!


http://www.magnahifi.com/




 


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