Vintage Audio Lab USB – DAC review

Well it has been more than a few weeks but here it is the review of the valab v-dac that I purchased from a fellow named Kevin in Taipei Taiwan, from his eBay store – it cost $320.00 USD.(including courier shipping)

First off Kevin is a great guy to deal with the DAC showed up via international courier about 5 or 6 days after I executed the “buy it now” on ebay. I bet it would of shown up sooner if I had not paid for it late on a Friday afternoon. It was packed very well with a ton of foam and bubble wrap, since these appear to be homemade units there was no box per say; but who cares if the thing  comes with  some molded foam and a box with a logo as long as it sounds good…

After unpacking the DAC and outboard power supply I quickly connected the included umbilical between the two machined extruded aluminum chassis, plugged it into my system a Pas3 / Joe Curcio inspired home brew preamp, and an HH Scott LK150 tube power amp.  Next I plugged the usb cable into my then my Lenovo x201 laptop, booted up windows 7 and watched the drivers magically install, after about 45 seconds I launched FooBar2000 and started playing an uncompressed 44hz flac file. Low and behold MUSIC and very nice sounding music at that. From reading reviews from other owners on Kevin’s eBay store I learned that I should “burn in” the Valab prior to critical listening so I left my laptop on and connected for the recommended 40-60 hours. I am not sure how important this is because after I first fired the thing up it sounded awesome.

The Valab TDA1543 comes with Optical, Coax and USB inputs; and 2 high quality Gold plated analogue outputs. The sound quality of the optical and coax is far superior to the USB input due to the noise generated by the USB interface and USB cable. I discovered that if I move the cable away from my preamp the sound improves this could be due to my preamp not being shielded enough or because my USB cable cost me a buck at the local Goodwill storeJ. Even with this noise the USB interface was quite a bit better than my old USB DAC an M Audio Fast Track interface.

After my less than stellar experience with the USB interface I switched to spdif on my desktop computer. I connected the Valab TDA1543 to the M-Audio 24-96 audiophile soundcard spdif port and started listening, the results were startling – they were very good, the sound was significantly better than the USB interface. I compared the Valab to the analogue out of the Maudio sound card and again the Valab was the winner, more transparency. My testing consisted of connecting my Maudio soundcard analogue outputs to one input on my preamp, and the ValLab to the other, and switching back and forth. As you may of guessed the Valab produces far better in sound stage, with more definition and clarity than the analogue out from the sound card. After switching It was like wiping the dirt from a window.

My next test took place using some extremely high end gear, more specifically a Shanling TD-100 cd transport with an upgraded dac/clock and believe it or not this 3k retail device only sounded slightly better, again it was clearer with a wider sound stage, this tells me that until you want to spend 2k+ you are better off with the valab.

In Search of – USB DAC

I have been in the market for a DAC – a USB / Optical / Coax DAC to be specific and on a whim I went into one of our long time audiophile stores and asked the sales person to show me what they had, and I was presented with 3 options, DAC #1 was a Music Fidelity V-DAC for about 300.00; next up was a Music Hall 25.2 headphone amp – DAC retailing in the $500.00 USD ballpark;  DAC #3 was the Bryston BDA1 coming in at $2100.00 USD.

When I enquired about which one sounded the best I was told the Bryston, then I asked if the Bryston sounded as $1800.00 better than the Music Fidelity? And instead of letting me listen to both in the same system, the sales person told me that of course the Bryston would sound better… then he went to explain that it has a “very thick machined aluminum faceplate”, then I was told, “some people spend $200,000 USD on a car or drink $500.00 bottles of wine and a DAC is similar!” Now I want know how a heavy machined aluminum faceplate helps something sound better unless it is a musical instrument. After the monologue Mr. Audiophile Salesman took me into a dimly lit room full of high end gear and directed my attention to the magical Bryston BDA1 next he pointed out that it had every connection on the back that I was looking for, in addition to a few that I would never use, he then explained that is would handle all of the current high end bit rates and sampling rates. Still without turning it on; all I wanted to do was compare it with the 300.00 Music Fidelity V-DAC.

So why was I not trying to learn about the 25.2 DAC, well it has a headphone amp and that was something that I do not need since I rarely listen to headphones unless I am at work.

After about 10 minutes of this I asked him if I could make an appointment to come back and A-B the Bryston with the Music Fidelity, and at that time he figured he didn’t have a sale so he emailed me the link to the Bryston website so I could research the product and so I could email him a time when I could come in and audition the Bryston.
So here we are, I am skeptical of Mr. Audiophile Salesman, (even though it most likely sounds fantastic), if the high priced DAC is that good it should make the cheap DAC sound bad by comparison; I bet it sounds better but not enough to make it worth the price. If it did then they would use the low cost DAC to sell the high cost DAC  why not put them head to head and let the consumer decide? I bet I would not hear $1800.00 USD difference. What did I learn from my interaction with Mr. Audiophile Salesman?

  • Once you get to a certain plateau all gear will sound great provided you are listening to music you like, and your speakers are placed correctly
  • All DAC’s have the same chips in them, with the biggest difference being the analogue output stage and power supply
  • Your brain is wired so that if you think something is better or are told it is better, you will hear or feel that it is actually better. When you know something costs more, your brain has to justify the cost and will trick your consciousness into thinking that it SOUNDS BETTER – TASTES BETTER – LOOKS BETTER
  • When you get home from the store and are no longer A/B’ing the device in question,  whichever one you purchased will sound good, and will continue to sound good until you compare it with another device perceived to sound better.

In case you are wondering what DAC I ended up purchasing… well it is a VALAB- TDA1543 Non Oversampling – RE-Clocking USB DAC, with an independent power supply that is connected through an umbilical. Stop back in a few weeks and I will post a review.