To DAC or Not to DAC? : Musical Paradise MP-D1 and Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11 Review

Discussion in 'Write Your Own Review' started by Gord Gee, Nov 18, 2012.

  1. Gord Gee Enthusiast

    Gord Gee
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    A friend kindly offered to loan me a Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11 (Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11 D/A Converter) last week to play with and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to see what a DAC could do for my system. I know that DACs come in all shapes and sizes and prices range from a few hundred to well above stratospheric amounts, but the GF seems to be very well reviewed at a reasonable price ($350) and compares favourably to some DACs at up to 3 times its price.

    Owning a wonderful little tube amp from Musical Paradise, the well reviewed MP-301 MK2 (Tube Amplifiers) which has been very positively reviewed and hits well above its price range and really liking it (my son loves it and it’s since become a part of his vinyl system), I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to see how the Musical Paradise MP-D1 DAC (MP-D1 24Bit USB Asynchronous Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC)) would compare to the Grant Fidelity.

    Since Garry Huang, the Engineer and designer of Musical Paradise products is conveniently local, I called the number on the website and was pleased to speak with Garry himself! When he heard I had the Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11 on hand and wanted to compare, he graciously volunteered a new-in-box unit and I promised him I would purchase same if I liked what I heard.

    As an audiophile since the early 70s, I’m primarily a vinyl listener and as a second choice of medium, I occasionally listen to CDs but am well aware of some of the limitations of same in terms of musicality. One area besides CDs sounding a bit harsh and brittle at times, is that quality known in the audio world as PRaT, or Pace, Rhythm and Timing which I’ve always found lacking compared with vinyl. For me, PRaT is the sense of musicality that I get when I close my eyes, or focus on the soundstage presented by the speakers in front of me when I listen to a good 2 channel system and the notes seem to have a cohesiveness, when each note seems to naturally flow into the next having a sense of rhythm congruent to its content. It’s also that quality of the music that makes you unconsciously tap your foot or bob your head when you listen to a piece of music when played on a really good system. Enough of me PRaTtling on!

    Now for my impressions.

    A note about the Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11; There is a DAC direct out-put as well as a tube out-put option. I found that the tube out-put sounded a bit smoother and presented a slightly better soundstage, so I did my listening sessions using the tube out-put.

    First off, let me tell you that I was very surprised at how much difference either of these DATs added to my enjoyment of CD listening. My normal CD playing conveyance is a Pioneer Blu-Ray player. I haven’t taken the time to listen to the mega-buck audiophile CD players nor even the highly regarded Oppo decks that I’ve read do a great job at CD sound reproduction. But for under $200, my humble Pio seemed to do a reasonable job and which I’ve found to be as good or better than most players out there. Connection is through a cheap (free) TOS-link cable that came with a budget external soundcard that I recently purchased. Rather than have expensive digital coax cables or high end TOS-link come into play, I decided that the cheapie cable could provide even more of a challenge to the DAC’s job.

    On Eric Claptons’ Unplugged CD, track 6- “Nobody Knows When You’re Down & Out” with the Grant Fidelity, the piano sounded less recessed and “rounder”, Clapton’s voice became smoother with slightly less stridency and the guitar was fuller, sounding more “guitar-like” and much less thin. With the Musical Paradise, everything took a big step up from the GF with a noticeable improvement in PRAT and the bass was better defined with better impact. I instantly noticed in the background what sounded like a double bass adding to the music when it wasn’t noticeable before, and even the crowd seemed to have better separation between the claps and whistles, all occupying their own spaces.

    Dave Grusin ‘Discovered Again’, track 7- “Cripple Creek Breakdown”; the GF provides a deeper soundstage, piano more distinct, xylophone stands out and the drum becomes more defined. Again, the MP is a significant step up from the GF with noticeably increased dynamics and with the piano, there is a palpable sense of the player’s fingers on the keys.

    Ani Difranco ‘Knuckle Down’, track 5- “Modulation”; the GF sounds much more “quality guitar”-like, almost like it was a different instrument from what was originally presented with the Pioneer deck alone. Ani’s voice is richer and smoother, double bass string vibration sounds less harsh and more controlled. The MP furthers improvements again, the guitar tone sounding purer and there is a better sense of PRaT. The double bass becomes more defined with greater impact.

    I have 2 copies of Joni Mitchell ‘Court & Spark’, one Canadian and one US, both pressings from Asylum. It was on the Canadian album that I first really noticed what I didn’t like about CD in the relatively early days of CD in the early ‘80s. The Canadian pressing sounds very harsh and un-musical and I really disliked listening to it! I find the sound quickly fatiguing and unpleasant. In comparison, the US version sounds like a totally different album and much more typical of what I thought CDs should sound like. More compression in the Canadian version perhaps? Something else? Anyway, I felt using the Canadian pressing in this review should prove to be a unique challenge to the DACs.

    Joni Mitchell ‘Court & Spark’(CDN), track 2- “Help Me”; the GF sounds much less harsh, almost listenable now relative to playing with the Pioneer alone. The MP gives a further slight improvement in tonal quality over the GF but the big difference here is in the sense of PRaT which is noticeably improved. This CD is much less fatiguing to listen to now and is actually bearable to my ears!

    I bought my Musical Paradise MP-D1 then and there on November 11th and will certainly ‘Remember’ this date (Remembrance Day in Canada, as one where I came to the realization that digital music can be a very enjoyable experience. I also got a pair of GE 5670 Black Plate tubes to play with some tube rolling.
  2. Gord Gee Enthusiast

    Gord Gee
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    Tube Rolling and Final Thoughts

    Now armed with my very own MP-D1 we go to the rolling of tubes from the stock (still good sounding as previously noted) NOS Bejing 5670s to the American manufactured GE 5670 Black Plate tubes. Wow! There is a noticeable difference in PRaT, and impact of the bass on Court and Spark. Vocal cohesiveness is much improved as well.

    Jennifer Warren’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, track 5- “Ain’t No Cure For Love”; removing the GEs and replacing them with the stock tubes resulted in a softer sound and introduced a slight harshness to the vocals which seemed to lose some tone. The soundstage was shallower as well.

    Going back to the GEs, on Feist’s Metals, track 6- “The Circle Married the Line”; everything just sounded smoother, improved PRaT, and expanded, wider and more defined soundstage, the guitar having better tonal quality, and Feist’s voice sounding slightly warmer and now possessing a slight resonant quality that I didn’t notice with the stock tubes.

    The Musical Paradise MP-D1 can certainly benefit from experimentation with different tubes! This flexibility is a big advantage over other very good DACs and is worth considering for this reason alone. Remember, I already thought that the MP-D1 with stock tubes was a significant and worthwhile improvement over the well reviewed TubeDAC-11!

    Okay, of course now I have to compare the MP-D1 with the GE tubes to my analog source, a Marantz TT-15 which is basically an up-graded Clearaudio Emotion that has the very well regarded $1000 Virtuoso cartridge and has a $1275 Clearaudio Satisfy tonearm. Set up properly, I find my turntable is one of the best I’ve heard for under about $4000. A fellow that I spoke to said it sounded better than a very well regarded mega-buck ($30K) turntable that he’d heard! It’s my belief that this particular mega-buck table may not have been well set up. Regardless, I like my TT-15.

    Anyway, in comparison to my new digital system, my TT-15 wins with its noticeable improvement in PRaT, adding a sweetness to the sound with a deeper, wider, better defined soundstage and air around the voice and instruments. To my ears, vinyl remains a more musical medium. How the MP-D1 converted sound would compare to a more modest turntable would be another question. For the cost of a decent CD transport and the price of the MP-D1, a turntable of equivalent cost may very well lose.

    Interestingly, I played my vinyl copy of Gino Vannelli’s Powerful People and the CD equivalent. On this particular album, the CD sounded almost identical to the vinyl on the tracks that I listened to. I even sync’d a few songs so I could switch back and forth and other than the level matching, the CD was able to keep up with the sound of the vinyl extremely well! I started wondering, at least on this particular album, how a mega-priced DAC could possibly improve on the Musical Paradise MP-D1! Well done!

    Further experimentation with a different TOS-link cable and/or digital coax interconnects might well bring me closer to audio nirvana with digital media in general, but as it is, I’m very happy with my new Musical Paradise MP-D1.

    To sum up, I’d say the Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11 yields a significant improvement over the built-in DAC of a normal player. I also found similar or the same improvement on a few other decks that I had on hand, so I’d say that as long as you use a good transport, these DACs would yield similar results of increased musicality.

    To those of you that wonder about whether an external DAC is worthwhile, I’d say give it a try. Based on my admittedly limited experience using an external DAC, I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

    I’d say the stock MP-D1 makes as much difference over the TubeDAC-11 plus a noticeable margin more vs. the TubeDAC-11 over the straight player. With the GE 5670 Black Plates rolled in, it’s a level above and I’d expect it to compare very well to some of those much higher-end ($2000 +) DACs that are out there. I heard a $2000 47 Laboratory DAC yesterday along side an MP-D1 and thought overall, the MP-D1 was miles above. The 47 Lab had been plugged in for a short while and I’m told it sounds much better after it’s warmed up for a week +, but I didn’t get the chance to hear it this way.

    I’m really happy with my Musical Paradise MP-D1 which now brings my digital listening much closer to my love of music as played on vinyl!

    I’d recommend checking out the other Musical Paradise equipment offerings as well. Other reviews are starting to appear that suggest Garry Huang’s products could be one of the lesser known bargains in the audiophile world, comparing well to other equipment 3-4 times the asking price!
  3. Gord Gee Enthusiast

    Gord Gee
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    More Rolling

    More Rolling

    I had the chance to play a little more with tube rolling after obtaining a set of Sylvania 5670 tubes.

    After spending a few hours listening and taking notes, here are my impressions comparing the Sylvanias to the GE 5670 Black Plates:


    On Eric Claptons’ Unplugged CD, track 6- “Nobody Knows When You’re Down & Out”; With the Sylvanias the piano sounded ‘thinner’, but there was more ‘air’ around the instruments. Soundstage was very slightly deeper and there was a very slight improvement in PRaT.

    On Dave Grusin ‘Discovered Again’, track 7- “Cripple Creek Breakdown”; With the Sylvanias there was a bit more ‘shimmer’ around some of the instrument sound (airiness?). The keyboard suffered a bit as the fingering was less distinct. PRaT with the GEs was better.

    Ani Difranco ‘Knuckle Down’, track 5- “Modulation”; the Sylvania showed a little more air around the instruments but lost some of the smooth, liquid quality of Ani’s voice. Again I felt a better connection with the music with the GEs.


    In summary, I found most of the differences very slight, and I had to swap the tubes several times for each track and review the notes I made each time. My overall preference goes to the GE 5670 Black Plates on the material that I listened to. I would have no problem living with either set of tubes and they are both worthy up-grades to the stock tubes as supplied with the MP-D1.

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