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Lavry DA10 vs Benchmark DAC1: DEATHMATCH
Reviewed by Dan Richards

The Benchmark DAC1 — the crowning champion for stand-alone D/A converters in the $1000 range — is now being challenged by the Lavry DA10; a newcomer from a highly-respected converter company, Lavry Engineering.

The two go head-to-head in a no-rules deathmatch.

And as the match gets underway the DAC1 lands a solid blow to the DA10. The DAC1 has a nice, big volume [attenuator] knob that feels great in the hands and turns like a dream. The DA10 has an Up/Down toggle switch for volume [attenuator] control. The toggle switch is small, feels cheap, and makes an audible clicking [ not in the monitors, but the physical toggle itself ] sound when engaged. Also because the weight of the DA10 is so light, the DA10 module can lift up from its resting position when the volume toggle switch is pushed up.

The DA10 recovers and, answering to the volume control threat, delivers a kick to the back of the knee of the DAC1. The DA10 uses detented volume control with digital parameters from 00 through 56 - allowing for exact levels to be recalled. The DAC1, sensing the danger, simultaneously lands a kick to the side of the DA10. The DAC1 has continously-variable volume control through the entire range.

The DAC1 moves in with its sleek styling - available in standard black and optional silver faceplate - and lands a solid punch right in the eye of the DA10. The DA10 goes down!

The DAC1 lands a right jab to the DA10 in the connectivity department. Both units come on strong on inputs, offering AES/EBU via XLR and Toslink optical. The DAC1 has S/PDIF coaxial connector, the DA10 an RCA S/PDIF connector. But the DAC1 edges out on outputs due to an additional set of RCA analog output jacks on the rear, as well as two headphone jacks on the front to the DA10's single headphone jack. Giving the DAC-1 a total of four analog outputs to the DA-10's two outputs.

The additional headphone jack on the DAC1 comes in handy for obvious reasons: when sharing an additional pair of headphones with another listener. And in project studio applications - often in one or two rooms when the engineer and musician or vocalist tracking both want to wear a pair of cans. Additionally, the extra set of RCA outputs on the rear of the DAC1 can feed source to wherever it's needed: a larger headphone/foldback system, a second pair of monitors, an extra analog tape machine - such as a 1" 2-track deck. In my case, I was driving an Amphony wireless headphone system from the DAC1's extra set of RCA outputs. We also sometimes used the RCA jacks to feed into an extra pair of NS-10's.

Most project/recording studio owners are typically getting into a stand-alone, two-channel DAC to drive the main pair of studio monitors. And, of course, everyone needs at least one headphones jack. As long as that's the only requirement, both the DA10 and DAC1 will do the job. But as soon as an additional headphone - even one, never mind enough cans for a band - or an additional set of monitors, a DA10 user runs into a roadblock, and the DA10 user will need to buy some sort of expensive switcher box, such as a Coleman product. [ There's no sense in buying a cheap splitter, because it will only degrade the signal of your nice DAC.] Whereas a DAC1 right out of the box will allow the user to run multiple sets of headphones and/or monitors without the need for an additional investment.

The DAC1 scores another point for having twice as many analog outputs.

The DA10 comes out strong with programmable features, knocks the DAC1 to the ground, and pounds it with:

1. Mode switch for mono or stereo.
2. Polarity switch for "normal" or "invert"
3. PPL selector for DA Clock mode between "Crystallock" [for stereo operation], "Narrow" [for use with multiple DA10's], and "Wide" [for use with non-standard frequencies]. Note: While the frequency selections on the DA10 are 44.1, 48. 88.2 and 96KHz. The DA10 can operate at 192KHz in "Wide" mode.
4. Power switch.

The DAC1 does answer back with the option - on the rear panel - to separately calibrate Left and Right output level independently with trim pots.

After covering a lot of aspects of the DA10 and DAC1 standing still, we take them into the area of sound and everyday use. This is not a "honeymoon" review. We've reviewed too many products over the last several years to worry about being the first review out, or trying something out of the box for a day or two - and then declaring to high heaven about the next product you can't live without.

We received the Lavry DA10 in February of 2006. I'd had a Benchmark DAC1 in my studio as my main DAC since it was introduced in 2002. We have had the DA10 and DAC1 in use and comparison listening tests for around five months. The listening tests have been conducted in several rooms and on several systems and sources. Source files and formats used to conduct the tests consisted of Audio CD's, 24-bit AIFF master stereo files, Nuendo 2 multi-track soundfiles recorded at 24-bit 44.1, MP3's of various bitrates, and internet streaming audio.

Monitors included Dynaudio AIR 15's, Dynaudio BM6A's, Klein and Hummel 0300D, Yamaha NS-10M's/Bryston. Headphones: Ultrasone Proline 650, Extreme Isolation Headphones, AKG K141, AKG K240 Playback systems included Mac G4 S-Drive, Tascam DV-RA1000, Nuendo 2, iTunes. Various interconnect cables were used by Gotham, Requisite Audio, Monster, Mogami. Source music over several months included a wide variety of genres. You name it: we played it.

A bias: If there's any bias here - it's towards the DAC1. I've owned one since they first came out in 2002. And ever since then had commented regularly that the DAC1 was the one single piece of gear I would not swap out of my studio in exchange for something else. Also, just the fact that I owned the DAC1 would somehow make things easier if I just liked it better and shipped back the review unit of the DA10. Liking the DA10 is more of a pain in the butt, 'cause then I've got to go to the trouble of selling the DAC1 and then ponying up for the DA10. Ah, decisions, decisions...

On the first evening of listening to the DA10, it was apparent that the soundfield is wider than the DAC1. It also seemed that there was a hole in the the middle of the soundfield on the DA10. But I later found out - as my ears adjusted - that there was, in fact, program material there in the middle, but due to my ears being used to the DAC1 it wasn't apparent at first. If your ears/brain have been exposed to one stimulus, it can take some time before traces of the old stimulus aren't engrained along with the new stimulus. That's why I feel it's important when doing comparisons - to do them over a longer period of time and in various situations.

I've read enough "honeymoon" reviews - where someone gets a new piece of gear and runs excitedly to the forums to post something on the order of, "Hey, I just got the BingBong 2000, and we've tried it tonight on female vocals and acoustic guitar, and it KICKS ASS!" I don't get much out of people's reviews until they've lived with the gear and have passed the initial excitement stage, and can at least attempt to give a sober opinion of the gear in various applications, on different kinds of music, and on different sessions.

So, after living with the DAC1 and DA10 for over five months - what's the conclusion? The DAC1 was sold about a month ago, and the DA10 is sitting snug in my rack as my main DA. And while the DAC1 was a formidable opponent to the DA10, in the end, sonically I found the DA10 to be superior on every level. I was happy enough with the DAC1 - until I was shown a better way. It's as if I'd gotten used to a pair of prescription eyeglasses, and then a visit to an optometrist and a new prescription yields clearer, more accurate vision with more depth of field.

After listening through the DA10 and then back to the DAC1, the DAC1 began to reveal what could be described as a "grainy" sound. And I found this to be most evident in the high-end. Compared with the DA10, the DAC1 could also be described as "colored" by some - even if small amount of - distortion. After using the DAC1 and then switching to the DA10 - everything just clears up. With the DAC1 instruments and sounds seemed less separated, whereas with the DA10 - instruments and sounds are presented in their own respective space.

The overall soundfield widens when the DA10 is employed, and shrinks when the DAC1 is put back on duty. And what I found most striking with the DA10 is that the three-dimensional depth of the soundfield is just - well - deeper. Everything is more alive with the DA10. In fact, after about a month of testing, unless I was specifically testing the DAC1 and the DA10, I was using the DA10 as my DA. On a few occasions I even tried to leave the DAC1 patched into my system after testing, but found I couldn't. The DA10 just sounds that much better. Once you go Lavry Black - you never go back.

I don't claim to know the precise inner workings of convertor chips. And even someone who does, and can read all the specs, still can't apply that to the way something's actually going to sound. You've gotta listen. I do know that there are only a handful of converter chip companies, and that as the technology of their chips increases - so, too, does the sonics of every company's gear that uses the more advanced chips. And many of us have heard the increase in better sonics over the last several years in converters. In that light - the DA10 is simply newer technology - by some fours years. And in computative years - that's a lifetime. And perhaps that's at least partially responsible for what gives it this sonic edge.

I have a part of me that's still old school, and I'm still coming off the shock of the loss of ubiquitous analog technology, and everything moving digital. In the bigger picture - I still think PCM digital sounds like ass compared to a good analog system. But year by year digital's getting there. And the DA10 puts across a much more relaxed and effortless soundfield - that makes both listening for enjoyment, as well as tracking and mixing, a much more pleasurable experience.

I still miss some of the added interconnectivity of the DAC1, and would like to see an additional headphone jack as well as another pair of outputs on the DA10... And, I can't say that I don't miss that nice, juicy knob on the DAC1. But sonically, I just can't go back. The DA10 offers too big of a step forward in DA technology. Whatever Dan Lavry and Lavry Engineering are doing - they're doing it right. Consider me converted.




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