A small footprint DAC from this Shenzhen-based Chinese company, Paul Rigby checks out the DS601
I say Lavaudio (a rather unfortunate choice of monicker, I think) but the parent company is, in fact, 1Mii Technologies Limited who produce a host of products, in addition to the DS601, including headphones, earphones, cables, Bluetooth receivers and transmitters, microphones and Bluetooth speakers for your car. Lavaudio is but one part of the empire, so to speak.
Oh and if you want a small slice of a cultural differences between the ‘West’ and China itself, change the company’s website language to Chinese and click the far top left menu option to see how the company presents its tech to the Chinese public via the deeply ‘trad’ webpage furniture.
Designed for desktop use, the DS601 looks like an Apple TV in terms of the chassis’ basic size and shape.
The front of chassis is bare apart from labelling while the rear – looking left to right – offers a pair of RCA outputs plus coax, optical and USB inputs and a Bluetooth aerial port and screw-in aerial. To the far right is a barrel-port for USB-loaded power cable. You’ll need to find your own USB plug to attach the cable so budget for that.
The only issue I had with the rear of the chassis was the length of the power lead which – to me – is too short. Of course, the importance of my criticism depends on you and your set up but the included 1m lead was a bit on the short side for me. I’m used to leads spanning round 1.5m or longer which allows the lead to run from an elevated shelf to a power block on the floor below without any tension tugging on the lead.
The top of the chassis is where the real action is, though. The top sports a circular touch control panel within which you’ll find the power button, volume up/down and next/previous menu, left and right function switch, mute and menu settings plus a relatively small OLED screen in the centre.
I would have liked to have seen a larger screen but the example used here is perfectly usable and readable.
The menu offers the usual array of filters – seven in all. I chose linear phase slow roll off but I encourage you to make some sort of choice, don’t leave the filter ‘as is’ in the default position because, at least to my ears, the choice does affect final sound quality. If you’re familiar with my DAC reviews you will know that I’m not a fan of user-defined filters or – especially or – their labelling and presentation but, if I must select one then Filter 3 is the one I’d opt for myself. Again though, please sound test them for your own hearing bias.
The menu settings relate to Bluetooth on/off, screen on/off and factory reset. The manual, ultimately a fold-out, long piece of paper featuring a micro-font, doesn’t really explain how to navigate the interface. I wasn’t particularly impressed with this paper streamer but, if you wish to tackle the menu settings, then turn on the DAC, long-press the Mute button to enter the Menu Settings. Then press the ‘+’ button to cycle through the menu. When you stumble across a Setting you wish to change, press the lower arrow keys to change the menu selection then long-press the Mute to save to memory.
Inside the DS601 is a pair of ESS9038Q2M DAC chips, supporting up to 32bit/768kHz or up to DSD512, Bluetooth reaches version 5.0 and supports aptX HD and LDAC.
One point of note. There is no remote included in the box and there was no app recommended for use with the DS601. So operation was only possible via the chassis interface. I did ask the company for advice on this point but I’m still waiting for a reply, I’m afraid.
Available in black, the unit spans 115 x 115 x 25mm and weighs in at 484g.
So, how does this one sound?
I started by hooking the DAC up to my Audiolab 6000CDT and played Mark Knopfler’s Sailing To Philadelphia (Mercury, 2000) from the album of the same name with co-vocalist, James Taylor.
First impression? The mids moved towards a slightly clinical presentation. The mids were not bright but they were certainly not neutral either.
I tweaked the internal filters which didn’t help at all except to confirm that my filter choice was the correct one.
I stayed in the Menu Settings and switched off the Bluetooth feature. This option actually helped. The effect was subtle yet the change was there and switching off the Bluetooth option did open up the mids a little, aiding treble too which was a little tinny to this point.
Even so, switching off Bluetooth didn’t swing the overall personality of the mids enough to move the pendulum towards full neutral.
As I say, I wouldn’t use the word ‘bright’ here but you could hear, during Knopfler’s guitar solo, when strings were plucked, there was an over emphasis that hung in the air. The same effect was present when the vocals moved towards any sort of crescendo.
For many users out there, of course, this effect will not be an issue. If you prefer a slightly more solid state effect in the upper frequencies then this move towards the midrange edge will be wholly welcome.
The effect did add emphasis to upper midrange detail, though. Subtle detail was brought out into the open, front and centre. It was now fully exposed. In addition, bass received added precision which may have removed some of its naturalistic feel but did give bass additional impact and solidity.
I then moved to a rather more energetic piece and Nektar’s 1973 release, Remember the Future (reissue via Eclectic) which stressed the bass impact and the pushed towards midrange emphasis. Actually, the move from the pastoral Knopfler track toward Nektar also lead me to feel that this DAC would work well within the rock genre. Adding corners to those guitar solos and bombast to the bass.
Again, there was plenty of detail on off here. Nothing was hidden across the soundstage.
FLICKING THROUGH CODECS
I then changed to Bluetooth and the aptX HD version of The Dove’s The Universal Want from the album of the same name.
Bluetooth sounded broad and large and quite impressive in terms of the size of the musical presentation from the spacious soundstage. The mids found it hard to keep control. The midrange emphasis not only remained to mirror the effects mentioned above but because we’re talking about an imperfect compressed stream, the effect was actually accentuated. Vocals were pushed towards an actual clinical brightness now with guitar chords sounding a little harsh at high volumes while percussion was a mite thin and weedy.
I transferred the codec to the supported LDAC.
Actually, LDAC single-handedly saved Bluetooth on this DAC. It was like moving from single-ended mode to balanced. The mids settled a lot via LDAC, grounding themselves to offer a measure of stability. The presentation was not neutral, the mids remained forward and moving towards clinical but frankly, aptX HD was not listenable. It was not fit for purpose, you might say. LDAC certainly was, though.
Even for those who admire a solid state sound, I would not recommend aptX HD on this device. LDAC is the codec to go for and I would strongly recommend a LDAC-supporting player if this DAC is in your sights. In fact, I would recommend a LDAC-supporting digital audio player for anyone interested in Bluetooth play, on any device. I would say that aptX – in whatever variant you might care to hear – cannot match LDAC in performance terms. Such is the superiority of LDAC as a basic codec.
Here, LDAC-derived bass remained powerful but organic in its naturalistic presentation, much more representative as a lower frequency.
I finally turned to jazz and St Thomas from Sonny Rollins at 24bit/96kHz via USB which actually sounded the most neutral of all the outputs in this test. Yet, even here, the mids sounded a little out of control.
It was as if you’re talking to someone who really wants to have a nervous breakdown there, right in front of you but is desperately keeping it together. It’s just that you can see the cracks. All is basically ok but the cracks keep showing so you’re waiting for the whole thing to come crashing down. That was USB on the DS601. Basically ok but…not.
Lavaudio’s DS601 is a well made, weighty, nicely packaged DAC that offers enough features to satisfy any digital fan.
The sound quality across the board: USB, RCA, coax and Bluetooth is neither strictly balanced nor neutral. Anyone hoping for that specific level of presentation will be disappointed.
Saying that, for those who lean towards solid state play, the DS601 will definitely be of interest. Midrange emphasis will lift detail from the midrange floor while added bass focus will push the basic low frequency power to the fore. Just be sure to come at Bluetooth with your LDAC codec switch to the On position and you’ll be fine.
LAVAUDIO DS601 DAC
Price: £202.81/$250 (Right now? That price is £199 with a further £50 off if you click a voucher box on the page, via the ‘Buy Here’ link below. Valid until 31 December 2022.
For my American friends? If you go to the Lavaudio shop link – which appears to be US centric – that takes you through to Amazon.com which declares that the 601 is out of stock – the UK office apparently has stock plus the deal so it might be an idea to buy from there).
GOOD: midrange detail, LDAC Bluetooth performance, bass impact
BAD: no remote facilities, solid state emphasis, bright aptX HD codec
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