Small is Beautiful was EF Schumacher’s advice to the world in 1973 and it seems that many of us have taken up the idea and started to make artisan gin among other things, some of them for the purposes of enhancing the enjoyment of reproduced music. DiDiT (Different in Design Different in Technology) is one such company, founded in 2007 by four Dutchmen with engineering backgrounds and a love of music. It started out with the first incarnation of the DAC212, which is a small but solidly formed converter that contains more ideas than usual and sounds better to boot. DiDiT is run by Rients Steenbeek who started out as a DIYer and went on to become a parts supplier for high-quality audio components, which proved to be a good way of getting to know the rest of what would become the DiDiT team.
The DAC212SEII is a compact converter that’s just over eight inches wide and two inches high, yet it crams in a broad range of inputs onto a back panel that is hidden by a deep overhang. This makes it a pain to connect up but improves the appearance the rest of the time, which for most users will be a more significant consideration. Inputs run the gamut from coax through USB, network connection via RJ45 and even I2S on an HDMI connector, but this DAC was built for the computer age and therefore USB is the key input. Indeed, this DAC is built around a computer, a Raspberry Pi CM3 module that DiDiT programmes to extract maximum performance from a 32-bit ESS ES9038 Pro Sabre DAC chipset. But as Rients points out the actual converter is only a small part of the story within a modern DAC (it ain’t what you use, it’s the way that you use it, as someone once said). There are two versions of the 212, a single-ended one and this, the balanced output model. Both are fully balanced from input to output with conversion to single-ended output occurring at the last stage. In the XLR version, they balance this already balanced circuit again and added Class A buffers before and after the analogue output stage. According to Rients these add nothing in terms of amplification but “they add a huge amount of authority”. Apparently, they “noticed that in order to achieve the best results eight buffers are really required. Beside the more authoritative sound, it also enhanced the sound stage. It becomes deeper and wider while individual instruments can be easier placed. Something we did not quite expect.” My experience certainly mirrors this.
The XLR version uses more than twice as many components compared to the RCA version and the PCB is so full that they had to place the op-amps for buffers on the bottom of the PCB. They also adjusted the case design so that these are cooled via the bottom plate. The DAC212SEII does get very hot and in some respects, you have to wonder why it was made in such a compact form. Part of the reason is that using a machined from solid casing gets significantly more expensive with size but I’m told they “wanted to make a design statement”. Apparently regular width versions of the DAC and AMP are on the drawing board which provide the opportunity to go further with each design.
The AMP212 is equally compact but has a more conventional array of connectors with analogue inputs on XLR only and speaker outputs of the regular variety. It’s a Class D design that they call HyperAmp which was designed in house by Sebastiaan de Vries. Creating a Class D amplifier module is a very unusual and time-consuming thing to do; pretty well all of the other examples on the market are based on modules made by third parties such as Hypex or ICEpower. I’m told that the DiDiT module took years to fully develop and originally only worked in simulations but with a lot of prototyping and research, it has been optimised. That said the first sample I received had a fan in that was audible from the listening seat; the second unit makes a fan noise at startup but is essentially silent thereafter, it does, however, get unusually hot. The power supply is limited to 300 Watts in order to avoid excessive temperature, but this is good for a 100 Watt specified output which can’t be bad for such a compact box.
The DAC and AMP both have capacitive on/off switches which is a nice touch and the DAC212SEII has a wide range of variables that can be accessed via a dot matrix display and the sonic screwdriver style remote handset. It’s a drill-down menu system with lots of options but names are limited to five characters so it’s a struggle to figure things out without the set-up manual to hand. Variables include display, output, input, headphone (which includes gain and volume options), DAC with jitter reduction, de-emphasis, bandwidth, FIR roll-off and oversampling filter options, etc. So if you like to tweak there is a lot to play with. Some options are essential; if you want to convert the balanced XLR outputs to single-ended with adaptors it’s necessary to convert the output via the menu as well in order to get it working.
I started out using the DAC212SEII with an AURALiC ARIES G1 streamer and converting the outputs as described above so that I could run it through the Allegri preamp. It followed an MSB Discrete in the system, which costs more than twice as much, but the DiDiT didn’t concede a great deal to it. It seemed a bit less clear-cut in the bass but well extended, possibly even a little colourful at this end of the spectrum. When I later started using the balanced outputs this completely changed to some of the best defined and most substantial low end I have encountered with a DAC/pre, so the adaptors were clearly not doing any favours. But they were good enough to reveal that the DiDiT has excellent precision of timing and a revealing, refined character that is essentially neutral. I like the way it can (usually) switch from PCM to DSD without squawking and particularly enjoyed Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ [Miles of Aisles, Asylum], a live track that was to become even more live when I added the AMP212. But with my regular ATC P2 amp things were pretty engaging, the multi-track layers being peeled open on Radiohead’s ‘Burn the Witch’ [A Moon Shaped Pool, XL] and providing more to listen to and enjoy. Lyrical intelligibility is also very strong as was proved on Espearanza Spalding’s ‘Ebony and Ivy’ [Emily’s D+Evolution, Concord] where the song was making a lot more sense than usual.
It started to become apparent that this is a rather good converter especially when it comes to separating out the characters of the various instruments and voices in a mix without sacrificing timing clarity. The more I listened the more this DAC grew on me, largely because it is so revealing yet also musically coherent. Some products manage the musicality side of things with subtle tweaks to the frequency response, but that always gets in the way of fine detail and ultimately tends to favour certain types of music. More neutral DACs have the opposite problem, they struggle to present music in a coherent and engaging fashion because the timing isn’t quite right. The DiDiT really does seem to do everything rather well, revealing that the Doug MacLeod release Break the Chain sounds better than Fiona Boyes’ Professin’ The Blues even though both were recorded by the same engineer for Reference Recordings. There are always variables with that sort of thing and taste of course. But taste shouldn’t be dictated by audio equipment, it should be something that it reveals and this does that rather well.
It also does image scale with some aplomb. I put on Sly and Robbie’s A Dub Experience [Island], a release that I’ve often enjoyed on vinyl but have never been overly impressed with on digital. It seems that I had failed to play it on a good enough system. On the DiDiT it is massive in all respects with phasey effects thrown out left and right of the speakers and very tight timing underpinned by beautifully muscular bass. There is an electric sense of immediacy that makes for maximum thrill power. A more relaxed recording in The Silver Jews’ Bright Flight [Drag City] was imbued with a vitality that it rarely delivers. Both these results suggest that the DAC is a little bit on the over enthusiastic side but with a clean ECM recording by Michael Benita – ‘Ethics’ from River Silver – it was calm with lovely depth and realism of tone. Listening to an interview with bass prodigy and sometime Jeff Beck side woman, Tal Wilkenfeld, inspired the streaming of her track ‘Killing Me’ [Love Remains, BMG], which is superbly played and composed, though the recording is a bit heavily compressed, on Tidal at least. It is, however, the best new rock track I’ve heard for a while. What all of this and further listening indicated is that this DAC is highly revealing of each recording it converts; it really lets you hear just what the original sounds like to an extent that is uncommon.
The next step was to add the AMP212 and see whether this could match the ATC P2. The transition suggested that the 212mm wide amp has a fuller low end and less clarity through the mid, but further listening made me start to wonder if the ATC has the less flat response. Now the soundstage with Sly and Robbie was not only wide but hugely deep with proper dubstep style explosions and remarkable depth and weight to the percussion. That was with USB from the Aries G1. After switching to coax from a Rega Saturn-R I was struck by the intensity and sheer physicality of the sound produced, and was also rather enjoying it. Continued listening had me totally hooked on the DiDiT pairing which is so open and revealing that I have rarely encountered better. It pulls out so much vitality but no glare from Van Morrison’s ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ [Astral Weeks, Warner], which is still tonally thin but musically as compelling as it’s ever been without vinyl as the medium. Putting on more and more tracks convinced me that this is one of the most open, well separated, and transparent digital systems I’ve enjoyed in a long time. So, I decided to remove the ARIES streamer and connect directly to the Innuos Zenith SE server to see if it would collapse, which often is the case but here the goalposts have been moved. Connecting the DAC212SEII straight to the server via a CAD USB cable relaxed the presentation and increased transparency – not much but enough to make it even harder to put down and get some work done. The AMP212 clearly works very well with PMC Fact.8 speakers; both are very strong when it comes to openness and the grip that the former has on the low end is positively inspiring. Class D has always been good in the bass but I don’t recall this level of nuance and clarity. But it’s helped in no small measure by the DAC sending the signal.
I wanted to try the AMP with an analogue source, a turntable and phono stage, so had to pull in the Townshend Allegri and use an RCA to XLR cable for the purpose. Once again, the level of transparency was very high indeed, revealing the way that the cartridge warmed up as it played – by the third track it was cooking with gas to an uncanny extent and much of layering and nuance found with the DAC became apparent. It’s a pity that there’s no analogue input on the DAC212SEII but there just isn’t the space for it; a balanced preamp is probably the way forward if you want to combine analogue and digital sources.
I hope that it’s clear by now that this Dutch pairing is both small and beautiful. It has the sort of foibles that you get with computer-based products that have been launched a little too early but delivers a level of transparency that is in another league to the price. I for one would be happy to carry on using the DiDiTs but that would make life very difficult when other DACs and amps need to be reviewed, I’d just have to stick to speakers!
- Type: Solid-state high-resolution PCM, DXD, and DSD‑capable digital-to-analogue converter/preamplifier
- Digital Inputs: one AES/EBU, one coaxial, one Toslink, one HDMI for I2S (PS audio compatible),
one RJ45 network connection, one USB (audio)
- Analogue Output: One balanced (via XLR connectors), two 6.3mm headphone jacks. (headphone jacks can be switched to double stereo or one balanced output)
- Gain setting: +6dB with independent selection for XLR/headphone outputs with automatic switching
- DAC Resolution/Supported Digital Formats: All PCM from 44.1kHz to 384kHz with word lengths up to 32-bit, DSD64 (2.8224MHz) to DSD512
- Frequency Response: DC – 50kHz (± 0.1dB);
DC – 90kHz -3dB
- Distortion (THD + Noise): 0.00035% @ 100kOhm
- Output Voltage: 4000mW/32 Ohms + 6dB gain (XLR and if balanced headphone mode is used)
- User Interface: IR remote control
- Dimensions (H×W×D): 212 × 212 × 50mm
- Weight: 2.7kg
- Price: €4,495
- Type: Class D stereo power amplifier.
- Analogue inputs: One pair balanced (via XLR jacks).
- Analogue outputs: One pair of speaker taps (via 5-way binding posts)
- Power output: 100 Wpc @ 8 Ohm/channel
- Bandwidth: DC – 22.5kHz
- Sensitivity: 4V(dBu) to rated power.
- Distortion: 0.00025%
- Signal to Noise Ratio: 130dB
- Dimensions (H×W×D): 212 × 212 × 50mm
- Weight: 3kg
- Price: €3,995
Manufacturer: DiDiT High-End BV
Tel: +31 646204775