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North Star Model 3 - 24/96 DAC

[North Star Model 3]

[Italian version]

Product: 24/96 DAC North Star Model 3
Manufacturer: North Star - Italy
Approx. price: 1,100 $ (complete) 900 $ (DIY kit)
Availability: Authorized dealers worldwide or directly from the factory (via Web)

North Star is a new Italian Company that has entered the HiFi market with a very interesting product: a 24/96 DAC ready to convert the new Audio standard for the DVD-Audio (24 bits, 96 kHz). Plus, for you DIYers, this DAC is available as a DIY KIT, very easy to assemble and even very cheap (less than 1,000 $, everything included!). Do you want to know more? Read on!

The Model 3 has a compact-sized black steel cabinet with a 8mm thick aluminium front panel: the quality of the finish and of craftsmanship is very good and the component seems sturdly built and designed to last, a quite uncommon feature for first timers which usually are poorly finished and have a cheapo-looking.
The on/off switch is placed in the rear panel, close to the IEC mains socket while the front panel has just the leds that indicate the sampling frequency of the digital signal (up to 96 kHz!!!). Actually the Model 3 can virtually convert ANY digital signal available today (till 100kHz @ 24 bit), both in the consumer and the pro market. For this reason it has been choosen by two famous recording studios: M&A recordings and Velut Luna Studios.
If you want to know more about the Model 3 and its tech specs please have a look at their Web site (available in English). Below you can take a look at the inside of the Model 3 which is quite impressive.

[North Star Model 3 - inside]

Tonal balance

The Model 3 is sturdly built and this confirms my suspects that this DAC has been designed as a workhorse, solid and reliable, in other words a total no-frills project. And so is its sound: it is a solid state component which does nothing to hide its nature.
Solid, compact and balanced, these are the key features of the sound reproduced by the Model 3, there's no room for softness and tubes sweetness here. It reminds me the sound of a good solid state power amp, that kind of correctness and solidity that makes the Model 3 sound like the real thing: precise and extremely analytic, it is capable to extract sooooo many details from your CDs (or DVDs) that you'll be surprised, especially considering the low price of the component.
The mid range is clean and polished, slightly forward, actually this is is the first thing you note when you listen to this DAC. It gives a slight monitor character to the sound so you shouldn't be surprised to know that the Model 3 has been choosen as a reference DAC by some audiophile recording studios: it is that kind of component that doesn't hide nothing, a perfect magnification lens, in other words.
The high range completes the work of the mid range with a touch of liveliness and accuracy that makes the Model 3 sound like live and the sensation of just being there is very, very realistic. If this is the kind of sound you're searching for, give this DAC a try. If you're looking for an extra-smooth, sweet and rounded sound, search elsewhere.
This presence effect, with certain recordings, is infected by a bearable harshness in the mid-high range (upper mid, lower high), nothing really serious but still clearly audible. The designers suggest to upgrade the Model 3 with better passive components just to add a touch of extra smoothness to the sound of their DAC, as clearly explained into their site, section Tweakings.
The bass range is like you'd expect from a solid state component: powerful and articulated, deep enough to make the Model 3 sound like a big amplifier. The sound is very coherent too and it is clear that the guys behind this project know how to use the computer, the soldering gun and....their ears!
The Model 3 is a very serious product, with a very correct and mature tonal balance, without serious youth drawbacks, as it was a design from a big Audio Company with many years of experience.


The North Star Model 3 is a solid state design and its dynamic performance reveals its nature: fast and punchy, there's no complex musical program that can seriously embarass it. For example, a fast attack followed by a continuos tone, which is a difficult test for any HiFi component, is reproduced without any problem by this DAC and this means the power supply section has been reasonably designed and conveniently sized (two toroidal transformers, have a look at the picture above).
Sometimes this ability to follow the signal with ease makes the pace a bit too fast and it seems that the DAC sounds faster than it should. For example, with legato piano tracks the notes follow each other in a hurry, while this particular playing technique should bring more air and relax to the Music. Instead of the link between a note and it subsequent, with the Model 3 your attention is mainly focused on the percussive attack of each note.
So, if it has to run fast, the Model 3 is a champion...when it has to slow down it seems to have some difficulty.
Finally, thanks to its excellent ability to extract any small detail from the digital signal that passes through its circuits, the microdynamics capability is simply outstanding.

3D imaging and soundstage

Its slightly forward sound affects the virtual position of the soundstage which is, hence, a bit nearer and less deep than usual. But then you get a surprisingly wide scene, and even the height is very good. Thanks to the precision of the sound of this DAC the focus of the image is very precise, especially in the center of soundstage where the details contribute, again, to the already cited just being there feeling.
Summarizing, the soundstage is wide, not very deep but very well focused. Once again, one can hear the monitor nature of the Model 3.

Some advice and tweaking

The North Star Model 3 seems to prefer soft feet to spikes. The stock feet are already pretty good and soft, though something better can be tried (for example, the ubiquitous Vibrapods).
The mains cable is detachable so it would be a big mistake not to exploit this feature. There's no need to use extremely expen$ive cords, if you take a look at our Tweakings section you'll find at least 3 different examples of cheap (and effective) DIY power cords, choose the one you like most.
Plus, consider that the Model 3 doen't need a mains filter since it has one already built-in (kudos to the designers!).
There are other tweakings that may be successfully applied to this DAC and I invite you to have a look at the North Star web site where a whole section is devoted to describe possible upgradings to their converter.
As any other DAC even the Model 3 prefers to stay permanently ON, as suggested by the rear-placed on/off switch.
Avoid to use the optical toslink input as it is the worst sounding: choose the electrical coaxial one whenever you can.

If you want to use the Model 3 like a hi-quality converter for your DVD be sure that the PCM output of the player is capable of 24 bits of resolution and 96 kHz of sampling frequency. Not every DVD player on the market can do this! As far as I know the Pioneer's and few others can manage a real 24/96 digital signal from a DVD-Audio.
Of course, this makes sense if and only if the 24/96 DVD-audio will be the next standard for digital audio. We're still waiting for the battle of formats to come to an end...


Considering the price and the quality of the craftsmanship I have very few complaints to make. For example I would have preferred another coaxial input instead of the optical/toslink one. BTW, it seems that this change can be made easily if you order the DIY version.
From a pure sonic point of view I would have preferred a softer and less aggressive mid-high range, together with a slower pace. Anyway, I think this can be obtained with some easy upgrade of the passive components, as suggested by the designers, though this can make the price go up seriously.


I'm glad to review such a clever product, designed and built to last, with a very serious tonal balance and good dynamic performance. The precision and the coherence of its sound make the Model 3 a must for any serious audiophile searching for a honestly priced and good sounding converter which is ready for any digital standard of the next future.

A BIG thank you to Marco Manunta, designer of the Model 3 and co-owner of North Star for having sent us this 24/96 DAC to review.

© Copyright 1999 Lucio Cadeddu

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