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Audial S4 Dac - Subjective Review

Discussion in 'audio' started by Alex S, Feb 26, 2020.

  1. Alex S

    Alex S carbon based lifeform

    The Audial S4 Dac is the current statement dac from Pedja Rodic, based in Belgrade and well known in DIY circles for getting the best out of the TDA1541A chip.

    The S4 itself has solid aluminium case work, is just short of full width and for a dac quite heavy at 7KG. There is a rotary USB or Spdif selector switch on the front and a small, centred light that tells you what you’ve chosen (green or yellow). There is also an etched and blacked out logo bottom left that I could have done without. There'll be a slight thump if you change from USB to spdif whilst the dac input is live; Pedja has yet to find a muting relay that does not impact sound.

    The Audial comes in a variety of configurations, I chose twice RCA out, one capacitor coupled, the other transformer coupled. Transformer coupling adds to the cost. Presently I’m using the transformer coupled output and it is marginally my preference. Connections are BNC Spdif and USB. There are two clocks, galvanic isolation and a bunch of power supplies for the various bits.

    By the time you’ve paid VAT it costs about €2,000, a touch more. It arrived within three weeks of ordering and was shipped in two days with DHL Express as part of the cost. It came well packed, no cables - who wants those? But with a set of measurements specific to the unit - okay I’ve no idea what they mean but it’s comforting. There is also a RCA > BNC adapter but you’re better off with a proper BNC > BNC cable of your choosing (I bought Mark Grant's for £30).

    I bought this blind, unheard; you kinda have to. I researched, thought, looked at the chip, the implementation, the measurements, took special notice of Yomanze of this forum, many thanks to him, read all three reviews and thought go for it. It was a particular risk since it costs twice as much as anything I have bought in over ten years and since it is pretty much unknown, would be difficult to move on. It’s probably the best shot in the dark I could have made.

    I’m using a newly acquired Densen 410 as a transport, thanks Paul. It has proper BNC out and a Class A, zero feedback output, much like the Audial, so I figured it would be a good match.

    Aldous Harding is no longer an exotic mannequin playing in a field, she’s here in the room, playing just for me. Astonishing. I think we define this as low noise floor, macro and micro dynamics. Who cares what it’s called; this is emotional connection and the main reason I listen to music at all.

    I went to see Karajan soon before he died as an homage to an old maestro. He conducted Schoenberg in a rather uninspired doddery way. Not any more. He’s been brought back to youthful vigour. Fritz Reiner is the maelstrom I was hoping for, you can almost taste the Chicago orchestra’s dislike but they were coerced into giving it everything.

    Leonard Cohen Live in London, yes I’m an idiot for not going, pure joy, the Webb sisters sublime. As sublime as on vinyl? Actually, not quite. Those who get vinyl know what I mean but this is close; closer than anything else I’ve heard. On other music it’s better. There’s no scratches for a start.

    The Egg, scrambled, poached and fried. The speed, the leading edge, it’s here. The top end is slightly rolled off, always is with NOS. Fine, so’s my hearing. And this is the most detailed, transparent NOS I’ve heard; Metrum Pavanne levels at less than half the price.

    Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra giving it some. Carbon Based Lifeforms are weaving their magic, delving into my cortex.

    How about some old favourites? Well, Miles is Sketching in Spain, Jimi’s on the Isle of White, Bowie’s in Berlin, the Stones are many light years from home, the Ozrics are on planet Zog. Prince is alive but the Comet is coming.

    Summing it up in one sentence: it makes music more intelligible, interesting without making it any less emotional or fun. It will pay for itself as I buy CDs with impunity at half or less the price of vinyl new releases. Vinyl now only for Extra Specials and second hand.

    I own other good dacs, very good at their price. The Audial is why you spend twice that and end up with a bargain; musically speaking, priceless. It would cost £5,000-ish if not sold direct. Take the risk before these joyful TDA chips are gone.

    A bit of blurb, some pics and downloadable manual and measurements can be found here: https://www.audialonline.com/s4/

    These are the three reviews I found of previous S version dacs (including Yomanze's): https://www.changstar.com/www.changstar.com/index.php/topic,2452.0.html

    No affiliations, no discounts, backhanders, just joy at a nailed purchase, subjective and sighted of course.
    Dark Lord, Mike P, igor_xxxx and 4 others like this.
  2. VanDerGraaf

    VanDerGraaf Member

    Thanks for that (subjectively) excellent review.:)
    I only have a little SPS3 NOS dac, but it's convinced me that if I had the money for something like this, I'd most likely go for it.
    Alex S likes this.
  3. Yomanze

    Yomanze pfm Member

    Nice review Alex, it’s not an easy decision to make, but you’re not just buying components, you are buying decades of obsessive engineering, and just as importantly IMHO, long-term subjective tuning. Most designers miss the last bit out.

    Pedja has also just released an AYA4 in kit or built options, which look like incredible value, 850EUR built, and a lot less for the kits.

    Alex S likes this.
  4. Yomanze

    Yomanze pfm Member

    PS, please pop the lid off and show us some pics if you can. :)
    Mike P likes this.
  5. myles

    myles Intentionally left blank

    I'll preface this with the fact that I'm not in the market for a DAC, but that was a really nicely worded review without the usual audiofool guff that we've come to expect in our hobby.Please buy more kit so you can captivate me with your writing!
    Alex S likes this.
  6. Alex S

    Alex S carbon based lifeform

    Thank you.

    Might take me a while to pop the lid.
  7. notevenclose

    notevenclose pfm Member

    Interesting. A client of mine was looking to commission Pedja to build a DAC a decade or so back. I was supposed to get a prototype, but the project kind of fizzled out.

    Anyway, Keith will be along shortly to explain why you're wrong about it.
    Alex S likes this.
  8. Alex S

    Alex S carbon based lifeform

    I’m surprised Keith hasn’t been along already. I was looking forward to explaining how the RME ended up in the the kids’ bedroom. They are lucky to have it though. With Temple monoblocs and Audio Note AX2s they have a really nice system.

    The CD players I’ve most enjoyed owning, an old Philips, Naim CD3 and CDS all have the same TDA chip. It was a big reason to go this route. That, and Pedja’s reputation for somehow preserving its strengths whilst negating most of its weaknesses.

    It has taken 17 years but my goodbye-Naim-system is nearly complete. The only thing left is to find out (rather than guess) whether good modern streamer/servers are indeed better than a Mac Mini.
  9. notevenclose

    notevenclose pfm Member

    Don't be silly. It's all just ones and zeroes...

    My experience would tend to suggest yes, but having said that I ditched a Melco and reverted to a Mac mini. Partly because since I've gone back to CD as my primary source, I've progressively lost interest in the computer/file-based replay thing, having in the past fannied about with Mac minis with external PSUs etc.

    Ironically the sound I get out of the current Mac mini (no 3 in this role) now is really good – as far as I can remember. I probably haven't listened 'seriously' to anything on it for 2 or 3 months, maybe more.

    This is not just down purely to sound quality vs the CDP, as has come up in other threads, a] there's the physical engagement and b] I spend my life in front of a computer screen, increasingly I don't want to know when I step out of the office.

    Whether the degree of improvement with a dedicated server is worth the extra cost is a personal call. The mini in the living room is a 2012 i5 model with 8GB of RAM, only cost me just over 300 quid off eBay. It does have over a grand's worth of power, Firewire and USB cables hanging off it, but of course they don't actually do anything so probably aren't really needed (ahem).
  10. Purité Audio

    Purité Audio Trade: Purite Audio

    Alex sorry for my tardy response, I presume you did try the NOS filter option of the RME before spending £2k on an NOS DAC?

  11. Alex S

    Alex S carbon based lifeform

    Of course not. x
  12. Alex S

    Alex S carbon based lifeform

    notevenclose, I know what you mean. My Mini/Audirvana is fine and there’s a lot of music tied there, but it is now noticeably behind vinyl and CD. I’m in no hurry, have no more money and want the dust to thoroughly settle before I dip my toe in those waters.
  13. Yomanze

    Yomanze pfm Member

    It isn't a NOS DAC though is it, the above is just a filter. The TDA1541A is doing true non-oversampling, no filtering, but the AK4490EQ DAC uses delta/sigma architecture, so needs oversampling to output an analogue signal at all.

    Here's the block diagram of the RME's DAC chip showing the delta/sigma modulator & the 8x interpolator:

  14. Purité Audio

    Purité Audio Trade: Purite Audio

    Mike P likes this.
  15. Alex S

    Alex S carbon based lifeform

    As it turns out, I would.
  16. Alex S

    Alex S carbon based lifeform

    As I ‘rediscover my CD collection’ I am becoming aware of a down/upside. This dac, whatever the supposed NOS sound, let’s you know very clearly the recording quality.
  17. notevenclose

    notevenclose pfm Member

    Is that the case only from the CDP or is it the same via the Mac?
  18. Alex S

    Alex S carbon based lifeform

    I’ll let you know. Mac testing is not really underway.

    What I can say is even my wife noticed that the soundtrack to the film Heat sounded shit.
  19. mansr

    mansr Well-Known Member

    A delta-sigma DAC does indeed always use oversampling. What the "NOS" mode does is bypass the digital interpolation filter. This results in the same frequency response characteristics as an R-2R DAC but with added modulator noise. Distortion and noise will be much lower than for the TDA1541.
    Shadders likes this.
  20. Alex S

    Alex S carbon based lifeform

    This is where I wear my subjectivist hat, glued on. The RME in NOS mode is not better than this implementation of the Philips chip. It just isn’t.

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