Devialet D-Premier vs Weiss DAC202

These are interesting times if you’re in the market for a server based, high-end stereo system. Separate DAC’s, this once forsaken component category, is in the midst of a magnificent resurgence. It doesn’t end there, either: You can find any combination of streamer, storage, DAC and digital amplifier on the market today. While this abundance of choice and competition in the marketplace is very appealing, it makes consumer decisions difficult.
Should you opt to keep things somewhat conservative and complement a traditional stereo setup with a DAC, there’s still the decision of storage and playback. Run a full-scale computer as source & server with either a good sound card that has AES/EBU out (or at least a good coax S/PDIF implementation) to the DAC, or try to make the choice between Firewire and USB? Or, perhaps, stream from a NAS to another component that in turn feeds the DAC? The sprawling delta of possible upgrade paths with their individual considerations, trade-offs and possibilities is perplexing.

These choices get even more overwhelming if you consider the emerging category of digital amplifiers. The alluring possibility of getting to skip the DAC as a separate component must be weighed against the inherent compromises of such a setup. You can’t upgrade a Lyngdorf TDAI2200, a NAD M2 or a Devialet D-Premier with a new DAC, because they either have no analogue inputs or make an A/D conversion internally, ruling previous D/A pointless. While future upgrade paths are worth at least some basic consideration, such concerns should not get in the way of the more important question of what component(s) bring the most musical enjoyment and solves the signal logistics problems you’re facing right now. If you’re buying high-end audio components with no intention to keep them more than a year or two, you’re either making some very poor decisions or you’re filthy rich. Perhaps both. So while I already have a great amp, what if there’s a better one that’s a DAC too? I owe it to myself not to exclude that category in my quest to finalize the digital side of my system upgrade. What I want is to invest in the best sound my money can buy, not in something that only sets me up for another arduous decision down the road.

Ever since I first saw it mentioned in a report from a hifi show in Paris in late 2009 I have been intrigued by the Devialet D-Premier. By the time it made a sneak appearance at CES 2010 I had already read the patent application for its new amplifier technology and was bugging them over Twitter to find out who’d be getting the distribution deal for Sweden. Their social media marketing prowess showed room for improvement—I received no reply—but after the Munich show in May that year the distribution eventually landed in the capable hands of Audionord and at long last I got to see and hear the unit in person. Already having spent some time with the Weiss DAC202, I decided to pit it against the French newcomer.

Getting to compare component candidates in the same system is the only way to form a truly useful opinion on their differences, as otherwise the unknown parameters make the equation impossible to come to any solid conclusions. Ideally it should be in your own home and over many days or even weeks—even your own system in a different room is likely to throw you off on several parameters. Second best would be your own system, or identical components, in another, yet familiar room. Thanks to the generous hospitality of Robert Grubstad of Audio Concept, my girlfriend and I got to spend an entire Sunday alone in his store comparing the Devialet D-Premier with a combination of my own Pass INT-150 with a Weiss DAC202. Doing it on a Sunday was probably in everyone’s interest as it ensured we were not disturbed, and our rather eclectic taste in music didn’t scare the living daylight out of any other customers.

The setup was done with Focal Scala Utopia speakers, as the store’s second set of Diablo‘s had been sold (I bought the first pair). Not only are the Scala’s the closest sibling to the Diablo’s, but I’ve heard them many times before in various settings. Aside from the Pass amplifier we also brought with us our Squeezebox Duet, whose electric S/PDIF output is likely to end up feeding whatever DAC or digital amp we buy in the end. From a Macbook Pro we streamed lossless versions of our sonically, and sometimes musically, challenging test material to the Squeezebox, connected via Wireworld Platinum Starlight digital interconnect cable. All the music we played was 16 bit, 44.1kHz, and I know from experience that some hi-res zealots will balk at this. The argument goes that since these components are capable of handling up to 24/192, this cannot be said to be a fully thorough evaluation. My counterargument is that we do this evaluation for our own sake and reality is such that our digital music collection is to well over 99% in this resolution. Future-proofing is nice, but it’d be impossible for us to justify purchase of the lesser Redbook performer no matter its hi-res abilities. Theoretical potential is not one of my favorite genres.

Starting off with the Devialet, it was easy to hear why this slab of mirror polished futurism has captured the minds and hearts of so many in such short time. It plays music with an ease, fluidity and confidence that is mercifully devoid of flashy show-off parameters. Track after track went by with the D-Premier effortlessly clearing all obstacles but before it, while never straying from its rich, full sound. Dynamics had a sense of familiar rightness to them, soundstaging—we did bring some music that wasn’t all studio trickery—was wide yet truthful and timbres exquisitely detailed but with no sense of excessive hardness or listening fatigue. The often scorned unmusicality of class D is not even remotely an issue with this amplifier. By the time we finally decided to plug in the Weiss/Pass combo, we’d been listening for two hours already, which speaks highly of the D-Premier’s enthusing charm and passionate delivery.

Switching to the separates required another set of cables, and the Wireworld Starlight Platinum digital interconnected was now accompanied with the equally luxurious top line Platinum Eclipse XLR interconnects, ensuring that inferior cables would not be a factor in the evaluation.

In critical listening, when you’re actively trying to hear faults or differences, it’s very easy to lose track of the music, and with that also lose track of which component you actually prefer. It is, after all, the music and its resulting emotional response that we’re after, not any individual characteristic or parameter. A/B testing is often a game of minute nuances, only discernible under the most benign of conditions and then only in certain passages of certain pieces of music at certain sound levels. One tends to balance on an edge between placebo and imagination on one side, and actual, certain differences on the other. Longer exposure such as proper reviews or home loan can reveal more insight over time, but that is a luxury afforded only a select few, and a difficult business model to sustain.
The differences evident with the switch to Pass & Weiss should be considered against the above background, in that the things I will describe were clearly evident and repeatable with many kinds of music. There are likely a lot of other differences that would emerge over time, some of which we thought we might hear on a few occasions, but that I can’t describe with any great certainty. Longer listening and higher resolution material is likely to reveal more.

In my previous experiences with the DAC202 I remarked that it seems to whiff out a lush cloud of sound, with a depth, breadth and even height that I haven’t quite heard the likes of. This difference was less striking compared to Devialet than when matched against Esoteric D-05, yet still very clearly there. I have seen remarks that some feel the DAC202 is somewhat laid-back and recessed in its soundstage, but I’m inclined to think this is a misapprehension. It does extend the soundstage further out behind the speakers than most other digital sources I’ve heard, in a very convincing manner at that, but it also extends in all other directions. If you have had a flat soundstage before, one that sat against a proverbial brick wall lined up between the speakers, that rear extension is the thing you will notice first. But listen again and you’re likely to find the sound has taken on a more voluminous character overall, where sounds are unimpededly slung out like dandelion seeds, as opposed to the easily congested single-lane precision beam of sound delivered by many other components. This is a rather exaggerated description of course, but it is nonetheless the synaesthetic imagery that is triggered in me.

What is the chicken and what is the egg is unclear to me, and quite possibly irrelevant in the end, but an effect of this lushness—or vice versa—is the Weiss unit’s deeply fascinating ability to convey the very end of each note, reverberation or breath. Yet the effect is nothing like that of a compressor, where weaker sounds are amplified to come forward. Even in extremely dense music there were suddenly little echo effects that even in headphone listening had never been apparent before, bringing a sense of increased dynamics or at least dynamic resolution. The mixing desk was laid bare, the very slight differences in reverb settings between instruments suddenly clearly discernible.

The midrange of DAC202 is something that deserves a lot more attention than it’s had so far. Chris Connaker of Computer Audiophile did praise it in his lengthy piece, but most other reviews seem to focus on its overall sound, which is certainly fair and valid. The bass is as deep as I’ve heard with any other digital source, yet taut and nuanced with no sign of bloat or rumble whatsoever. The treble rides high on that ethereal cloud of sound, with infinite resolution somehow combined with an silkiness and serenity that is intoxicating. Yet that midrange is still above all else. Could it be, perhaps, that it brings out something in Focal Utopia speakers that other DAC’s fail to do? After all, that’s how I’ve mostly listened to it. Those that reviewed with other speakers may not hear that same midrange, but it’s difficult to say. My imagination is not sufficient to envision a similar quality applied to the bass or treble, partly because I can’t fault its performance in those ranges. The midrange performance seems to be something truly intangible—It frustrates me that I can’t articulate what it is about it that touches me so.

In fairness, there were plenty of tracks where differences between the two setups were slight at best. I’m sure I would struggle to identify them in a blind test with at least half of the tracks we played. But on those tracks where things stood out more, there was no question about it. It wasn’t the stuff you’d expect either; Acoustic instruments or voices with little sonic processing applied seldom did the trick, and the same goes for the few well engineered live recordings we brought. In the end, the tracks that revealed the greatest differences were probably those from Deathspell Omega. Who’d have thought black metal could be used to evaluate high-end audiophile equipment? The sound of that band will be the topic of a separate blog post here some day.

Going back to Devialet, it was possible to recognize most of the nuances and note end tails revealed by Weiss, but it took a little more effort. With Weiss we hadn’t even been looking, instead being genuinely surprised when these seemingly new details in the music were laid out in plain sight. Objectively, the difference even on the most telling tracks were far subtler than what you might deduct from my colorful descriptions. I found it excruciatingly difficult to fault the D-Premier on any single parameter, hadn’t it been for the direct comparison to Weiss. While volume matched blind A/B testing with the built-in DAC of the Squeezebox Receiver versus Weiss was very easy—we took turns switching for each other—it bears repeating that I would have likely failed versus the D-Premier on several tracks. On some parameters there was never a winner, to my ears. Bass would be the prime example, where Devialet may have been ever so slightly warmer, but not necessarily more colored. But here the amplifier part plays a greater role so it would be presumptuous to ascribe bass performance of the Weiss/Pass combo to the DAC alone.

Historically when I’ve read reviews I’ve been frustrated by the ambiguity and roundabout descriptions, lusting for clear-cut non-nonsense answers. Good or bad, right or wrong. I suppose this little write-up reflects that in some sense; There shouldn’t be any doubt regarding my judgement. I have however developed a great deal of respect for some hifi writers, now that I’ve had the pleasure of becoming more familiar with the subtle nuances of component design and sound philosophy. While I am not in any way a professional audio journalist, I realize that what I based my choice on will only be relevant for a small minority of people. So, for the record, I do realize and appreciate that there are systems, people and preferences where the Devialet D-Premier would be the better choice. The fantastic design of both box and remote is very important for something you will live with for perhaps 10 or more years. The units connectivity, versatility, efficiency, stunning power and the fact that it’s a single box with amp, DAC and soon network streamer will for many outweigh the sonic characteristics that saw Weiss DAC202 win my heart. The comparison was extremely interesting and I am lucky to get such an opportunity. To anyone in the market for a DAC and/or amplifier in this price range, I would urge you to seize every opportunity to audition both of these components. Or all three, should we count the fantastic Pass INT-150.

Ultimately though, we listen for the emotional impact of the music and not for judging individual parameters in a comparison table. My emotional response to the Pass/Weiss combo was clearly greater, and even if I didn’t already have the Pass amp I’d go for the separates. Perhaps the jitter suppression from Weiss was superior, meaning that a better transport would make the contest more even, or maybe higher resolutions would alter the outcome somewhat. In the end though, we were so enchanted by the Weiss sound that almost all curiosity about the Devialet had ebbed away. The price is roughly the same, here in Europe at least. For me, I have decided to navigate one more step down the delta of choices, following the path towards Weiss DAC202.

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