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DAC - Audio Note DAC4.1 Limited Edition
AUDIONOTE KITS DAC 4.1 LE


Serial number of the reviewed unit: N/A
Reviewer:
Nounours
Associated equipment: see. Reference System #4 → :
Source: Metronome Technologie T2A Signature with Reference Power Supply, DAC Counterpoint DA-10 fully upgraded by Mike ELLIOTT, Digital cable Stereolab
XV2-Ultra with BNC connectors
Preamp: Threshold Fet-10 He upgraded Level 1
Amp: Threshold SA/6e 125W class A monoblocks
Speakers: ProAc Response 3.8
Subwoofer: based on Audax 33cm, PR330M0
Modulation cables: Tempo Electric Silver/Teflon with Eichmann Silver bullets, Signal Cable Silver Resolution with Eichmann Silver bullets
Speaker Cable: Element cable
Power cable: Jorma super power cord x 4, custom cable based on Belden 83802 with Furutech connectors
Power conditioner: System and Magic, model Blacknoise Six
Stands: Target Audio
Accessories: Euphonia D-30 cones under everey device
Retail price: $3.275


I-.INTRODUCTION.

Since yesterday, I have a new baby in my
Reference System #2: it is the DAC 4.1 Limited Edition from AUDIO NOTE KITS.
This company specialises in the design and production of numerous kits, that are the cones of the commercial AUDIO NOTE products. AUDIO NOTE is a famous audio brand, particularly known for its tube based preamplifier and amplifiers.
The prices of the AUDIO NOTE kits appears to be on the high side for kits, but we have to recognize that it is the only way for the most of us to enjoy the AUDIO NOTE products ! Just remember that the commercial version of this DAC was sold around $11.000 in 2003...


II-.DESCRIPTION OF THE DEVICE.


The DAC 4.1 Limited Edition kit is the highest model amongst the ANK DAC kits, and its price is $3.300; some of you might believe it is a bit high for a kit, but read the remark above, and believe us: this price is fully justified by the quality of the parts, and the quality of the kit. You have to add to this price the cost of the various components required to build a kit: multimeter, solder iron, etc... but if you start this project you probably already own them !

Do not forget that this is a complex kit, nothing in common with the $100 cheap kits..., and you must not consider this project as your first electronic project...

This DAC 4.1 Limited Edition has another particularity: it is a limited edition. This is mainly due to the use of a lot of BlackGate capacitors, and as you probably already know, these excellent (best ?) capacitors are no longer manufactured. It is a pity, with no economical justification, but it is. Consequently, this DAC 4.1 Limited Edition will available until the Blackgates become out of stock...

The regular version is DAC 3.1, that costs $1.975 in the Standard version, $2.250 in the Signature version, both of them can receive a USB optional input for $129, and the beautiful ( ! ) AudioNote c-core (HIB) Balanced and RCA output transformers for an additional $1.000 bill.

Compared with the 3.1 version, this 4.1 Limited Edition version receives better quality parts:
  • the famous AudioNote c-core HIB XLR-RCA output transformers
  • a lot of BlackGate capacitors including in the Power Supply
  • the optional USB input is included


III-.DESCRIPTION OF THE KIT.

The DAC 4.1 Limited Edition kit is delivered in a big parcel, inside which there are a lot plastic bags hosting the electronics parts, the cables, the screws, cables and other necessary hardware. Each bag id perfectly identified by a number and its description, and the list of contents is included inside each plastic bag.
All the bags are located in the metallic cabinet that will become later the DAC enclosure.

In other words: the packaging is simply perfect.

A paper Manual written in English, perfectly printed in colors, is also provided perfectly describing the assembly process step by step, with a lot (we say a lot) of photographies: it is quite impossible to make a mistake ! (just take care about the tubes pins identification prior soldering because it can be confused, but this is not due to the manual, the problem occurs with any tube sockets).
The provided Manual relates to the version 3.1, but all the differences with the 4.1 version are carefully identified: it is probably the first time that I see such a Manual: congratulations. A CD is also provided that hosts all the documentation: the Manual of course, but also a lot of additional information that appeared useful during the assembly.

The first thing you must do when you receive a so big kit, is to perform an inventory, in order to check that all the parts are present: and there are a lot of parts ! In my case, this step was not so successful because a few parts were missing at the time. A few mails with Brian Smith (the AudioNote Kits owner) fixed the problem and I quickly received the missing parts. For commodity reasons I also ordered by myself a few other missing parts. A friend of mine leaving in the U.K. has built the DAC 4.1 at the same time than me and he also faced the same "missing parts" problem than me: but for him too, Brian quickly solved the problem !


IV-THE KIT ASSEMBLY.

As usual when you receive a kit, you should not try to quickly finish the assembly, but you must proceed with care to achieve the best possible work.
The 1st part relates to the Power Supply. You have to assembly the the following items:
  • the main 230V
  • the main power supply transformer
  • the Choke transformer
  • the M2X power supply card with its numerous BlackGate / Mundorf M-Cap supreme and Audionote capacitors, and the 6X5 and ECL82/6BM8 tubes. This card is shown herebelow without the tubes:

IMG_4837_small.jpeg

and here is the same card with the connection cables running out of it:


Dac4_power-supply_small.jpg

At this stage, in addition to the electronic parts quality, you should notice the quality of the printed circuits: they are 3mm thick and made in Canada (no, they are not made in China...).
When this assembly step is completed, you have get something (generating the desire to continue the assembly) that groups from right to left:
  • the main 230V (115V for the States version)
  • the choke
  • the main power supply transformer
  • the power supply card
DAC4_M2X_small.jpg

During the next step, you have to assemble the parts of the digital power supply card, which takes its source voltages from the main power supply described above, and delivers the necessary and filtered voltage to the digital conversion card. Here is this card fully assembled and screwed into the chassis:
DAC41_digital_ps.jpg
The newt step consists to build the output amplification card, that uses two 5687 tubes. My DAC 4.1LE copy came with two RAYTHEON tubes but this differs from a copy to another : my English friend got another brand of tubes. Here is the output card with the 5687 tubes (note that there are 2 Audionote capacitors soldered below the printed circuit):
 
5687_card.jpg
As previously mentioned, you should note the quality of the printed circuit boards and the electronic parts quality.

The digital conversion card is provided already assembled: you just have to connect and screw it into the chassis. It uses an Analog Device AD1865N-K conversion chip, which is the best (selected) version of the AD1865N chip. My copy was unfortunately delivered with the AD1865N (i.e regular version) of the chip, whereas my English friend has received the K version.
So I have bought a K version from a reliable vendor and installed it in the DAC 4.1LE: to be honest, I have not eared any difference at all. This is surprising because a lot of people having replaced the N version by the N-K version in their DAC (Audionote or other) have noticed a big difference:  as I have bought my K version from a reliable source, I do not believe it can be a counterfact chip (but we never know...).

The kit assembly process ends by the implementation of the superb (and expensive) c-core HIB XLR/RCA output transformers from Audionote (they cost $1.000 when bought as an option with the DAC 3.1).
When finished, the DAC 4.1 Limited Edition is superb with its glossy front plate, and no one can suspect that it is a kit:

Audio_Note_DAC41_devant.jpg



 
V-THE LISTENING SESSIONS.

The listening sessions were made through the standard RCA input because we are not fan at all of the USB inputs.... We precise that the provided RCA input has been replaced by a certified 75ohms CANARE with teflon insulation.
The RCA output connectors have been upgraded by the VAMPIRE CM1F/CB with using OFC copper and Teflon insulation, connected to the tube output stage through the Audience OHNO cable.
The solder is the WONDER Silver Signature leaded, from PERCY AUDIO, used for every solder throughout the DAC.
The care we bring into these details are essential in our opinion, because this DAC is a true high-end device.

The high end parts used extensively in this DAC, and particularly the Blackgate capacitors, require a long burn in period before the DAC reaches its optimum musicality: 350 hours seem to be necessary...
I have got the chance to lesson to a lot of high end DACs... There is a king, and a few princes...The other ones, although they are very good, deliver a more common and less "miraculous" sound ! To date, I only list 5 champions amongst the crowd of the high end DACs:
  • The fully upgraded (by Mike ELLIOTT, the ex Counterpoint Chief Designer) version of the COUNTERPOINT DA-10 (the King), with the Crystal CS-4396 based Rapture Premium digital card, new power supply, Plitron transformers, damped chassis, etc.... The cost of the upgraded version is around $3.500 but it is almost impossible to get as it requires to get the old DA-10 prior having it upgraded by Mike ELLIOTT.
  • The EMMLABS CDSA SE2 (do not forget the "2"....): it is an integrated player, but it is a prince.
  • The dCS Puccini, an integrated player and another prince: $12.000
  • The FIDETECH DSP-3 with a tube output stage and a Crystal chip: €3.500
  • The BENCHMARK DAC-1 using an AD1853 chip, that of course do not reach the same level of excellence than the 4 others, but it is exceptional for its price: €1.000
 
I recognize that 5 devices is not a long list, but it is really difficult to find the beauty of the timbres, the speed, a deep soundstage, the pleasure during the long listening sessions, etc...

Therefore the question is: does this AudioNote Kit DAC 4.1 Limited Edition competes with these 5 champions ?

Rear plate of the DAC 4.1 Limited Edition, showing the XLR/RCA/USB inputs and RCA/XLR outputs (although the USB input and XLR output have not been connected on this copy) assembled by my co-administrator
Nounours:
Audio_Note_DAC41_derriere.jpg

Full internal view: c-core HIB XLR/RCA transformers, Audionote parts, Blackgate capacitors, etc...: an impressive list of high-end parts !
Audio_Note_DAC4_dedans.jpg

The listening sessions have been particular becasue the burn-in period was 50 hours only when I received the device from Nounours. So the report has wait until we reach 300 hours of burn-in, and a few months of use !

It has also been compared with a home made DAC using NICHICON GOLD capacitors in the Power Supply and ELNA Silmic II caps in the analog circuits.

Musicality:
  • The DAC 4.1 LE brings more talent and more weight on the notes
  • The soundstage in really deep and its trebble is magic
  • I believe that the extensive use of tubes, including in the Power Supply, is a part of its musicality.

Speed:
  • It has reached the same speed than my transistors based DAC only after a long burn in period
  • The DAC 4.1 Le is much better in the bass than my transistors based DAC, and generally is very good in this area.

Transparency / Details:
  • Maybe is it due to the tubes, but the transparency does not always reach the same level than the Solid State DACs
  • When there are multiple voices on a record, they are not enough separated (to my taste). I do not know why...

It is frustrating for me to give this DAC back to Nounours !

Edit from Nounours:
do not worry, it will soon return in your home, .., with upgraded parts !

Pros:
  • large soundstage
  • a lot of energy in the low midrange
  • the tube output stage do not run hot
  • the bass is very good
  • you can lesson to it for more than 8 hours without getting tired : you just forget it !
  • the price is reasonable compared to the others: only $3.500


Cons:
  • there is aftersale service from Audionote (it is not a commercial version) but the quality of the manual makes it serviceable by any good technician
  • it is a kit, so you must have some skill to build it. But this can also be seen as an advantage !
  • more difficult to sale on the second market than the commercial version (but much easier to buy than the commercial version !)
  • the cabinet is maybe a little bit fragile
  • The voices are not enough focused
  • It is a limited edition: it will soon no longer be available, particularly because the Blackgate capacitors are no longer manufactured

Florent ranking:

TL_5.jpg
 
Edit by Nounours (27th August, 2011): 

This DAC 4.1 Limited Edition from Audionote Kits is , without a doubt, an excellent DAC, even more if we remind us its price ($3.500). I share the Florent feedback, but I add my comments based on the listening sessions in my
Reference System #4 that I had between 0 and at 50 hours of burn in.
The main frustration I have with this DAC is its lack of transparency compared with
my reference DAC. Even if this last one is the king amongst those I have lessoned to date, I still cannot give the ultimate "5 stars - State of the At" award to this DAC 4.1 LE because of this.
The main quality it has, is that you just forget it: you can lesson to it during many hours without any fatigue; it that way it is magic.

I will re-evaluate it in a couple of months, after having upgraded some strategic components: I am quite sure that it will increase its performance by a big margin !

Meantime do not forget that , if you buy it, you will just lesson to the music and forget it ! A very rare performance...


 
TL_5.jpg
 This article has been written by Florent (Provence13 on our Forum) and Nounours (Nounours18200 on our Forum).

Creation date : 18/07/2011 @ 18:56
Last update : 02/11/2014 @ 20:55
Category : DAC
Page read 110 times


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