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NET Audio Sonance DAC

Digital simplicity

[Italian version]

Product: Sonance DAC
Manufacturer: NET Audio - UK
Cost: 750
Reviewer: Maarten van Casteren - TNT UK
Reviewed: December, 2006

[Sonance DAC]

Introduction

NET Audio is a small one-man company based in Ramsey, UK, run by David Pritchard. David started a few years ago with upgrade products like low-jitter clocks for CD players and power supply boards, mostly for Quad amplifiers. The Sonance DAC is one of the first complete products from NET Audio, and it certainly is an interesting debut. For a start, the case work is beautiful.
Not overdone with huge slabs of aluminium or large pieces of wood, but simple, understated and very nicely build. The box is very compact and therefor easy to accommodate. Fit and finish are excellent and the connectors at the back are of superb quality. The unit is as simple as a DAC can get with a single coaxial S/PDIF input, a pair of RCA outputs and a switched IEC mains input at the back. No more, no less.
The only luxury is a stylishly engraved name on the front. The single tiny flaw is that the hemi-spherical sorbothane feet have a tendency to fall off when you lift the unit. I can live with that. Apart from that, it behaved impeccably during the review period.

[Sonance DAC]

The internals look as good as the outside, with nice separate compartments for the power supply, the digital circuitry and the output stages. The power supply has two transformers, I assume for digital and analogue parts. Everything looks very neat and component quality seems excellent. The unit uses a Crystal CS8414 receiver and digital to analogue conversion is handled by a single delta-sigma Burr-Brown PCM1716E chip. An 8 times over-sampling digital filter is used. The output stage does contain an opamp, but also some discrete components.

[Sonance DAC]

Sound

First impressions are good. The sound is pleasantly warm, and detailed at the same time. It beats my modified Micromega Stage 3 with ease. There's also an evenness to the sound that makes it difficult to point to clear strong or weak points. Nothing is less that satisfying, but there are no extremely positive properties that jump out either. I have to quickly add that I think this is a good thing. It is all too easy to create something that will impress during the first few hours of auditioning, only to disappoint in the following days. The Sonance DAC certainly isn't like that. It's clearly going for the long term relationship. Actually, it did immediately impress me with its overall balance, detail and dynamical energy, and then, during the next 3 weeks, it only got better. This DAC really gives you excellent insight in a recording, and its energetic nature makes it good fun too. This certainly isn't a source that will only work with audiophile recordings. The top end is very open and airy, and in combination with the excellent bass this results in a presentation that is enthusiastic, rhythmic, detailed and slightly forward. Soundstage is large, although mostly wide and not very deep. Focus is good, with only strong sibilance and very complex bits causing some blurring towards the speakers.

Overall, I do have to say that the personality of the Sonance was perhaps a little bit more towards the analytical that the musical, accentuating recording more than performance. All the hifi parameters are taken care of: soundstage, bass, mids, treble, rhythm, tonality etc. It's all there. The only comment is a slight residual digital edge, a little bit of grain, from time to time. But that's a logical result of the high amount of detail and energy this DAC provides. I think a good audio component should not add anything, nor take anything away. But I realise that with all but the most expensive components there's a trade-off between these two things. Try to let the complete signal through and you will also add some distortion. Try to add as little distortion as possible and the signal itself will inevitably also lose something. Only the very best products can more or less do both these things, but at a price considerably higher that the Sonance. It is my impression that this DAC is trying to get as much as possible from the incoming digital signal, without adding too much. It is a completely valid choice, and I was able to listen to it for hours on end, without any trace of fatigue. Just don't expect a complete absence of digital artefact. If that is what you want, you will have to sacrifice some detail or pay a lot more.

There's nothing to criticise about the bottom end. Nicely full and deep without getting boomy and woolly. This also extents to the middle frequencies, which have a pleasant, ever so slight richness. Another positive point is the stability and realism of central images. Voices have real presence without vagueness. Spatial separation is very good.

Thing is, you do need to combine it with a decent transport. I initially tried it with a cheap Sony DVD player, as my own Micromega CD player had broken down. It sounded pretty good with that, especially the bass was fully there. But when I received the ESound CD5 SE player and started to use that as a transport, it did improve the sound. The top end was more detailed and a lot cleaner too, making for a more relaxed and more engaging sound at the same time. Sadly, the ESound player is about the same price as the Sonance DAC, with the combination costing about 1600, including a digital cable. For that money you should be able to get a single-box player of comparable quality, which might be more practical. I'm sure it will work well with more affordable players and cables too, but clearly not with a really cheap and nasty DVD player.

The rest of my review system comprised of a Django passive preamp, an Electrocompaniet ECI-2 amp and a pair of Dynaudio Contour 1.8 mk2 speakers. NET Audio provided me with a Stereovox XV2 digital interlink, which is about 100 and seems to work very well with this DAC.

[Sonance DAC]

Conclusion

This is a very good DAC and will be an excellent upgrade for many CD players. Build quality is outstanding and the unit is simplicity itself. It isn't cheap, but it does represent very good value for money. Its sound is detailed rather than romantic, but basically even and without any clear flaws. It creates a very lively and open picture of the music without being fatiguing or adding too much of itself. Recommended.

Copyright 2006 Maarten van Casteren - www.tnt-audio.com

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