Over the weekend we gathered some DAC's for my friend to listen to, potentially to purchase. He has a CJ preamp, PV14ls2 into a Levinson 400 series power amp driving an older set of Paradigm Studio 100's. There was an Audio Note 1.1x, Onkyo Reference, Cambridge Audio 851 & the Marantz NA11s3.

The 1.1x was already set up so we started by listening to a track on it, then switched to the 11s3. The Marantz was different but the abilities wasn't clear to me yet. The reason being the 1.1x was very natural and the only tube DAC, I suspect it had good synergy with the CJ, the sound although not the most detailed of the 4 as we would eventually discover but a very nice presentation. Then the 851 which immediately impressed me by it's separation and detail, it really dissected the sound stage, however, I had to agree with the other 3 who were there the 851 came off analytical. The Onkyo Reference is about the same price as the 851 and although some softer or warmer in the vocals compared to the 851, the 851 was clearly superior in all other aspects, the Onkyo sounded compressed by comparison. After all this the 11s3 went back in and was the clear winner, it was also the most expensive at a retail of $3495.00. We played a track that had background singers the 11s3 was able to separate the voices to where you could hear each singer, not coming through as voices meshed together like the others sounded, even the 1.1x. The 11s3 lived up to the Reference title, it was able to give good detail without sounding analytical yet it was not overly warm either. It really seemed to do everything right from Miles Davis to U2's Techno version of New Year's Day. I understand the 11s3 now has a Stereophile Class A rating and I heard why, to provide this quality of sound along with the networking and other features really is quite good at it's price. Something I heard in each DAC and always fascinates me is how the sound stage changes from DAC to DAC, one may have vocals centered where another to the right some, one may have piano in one area while another may spread it out more, that type of thing.