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User Review: C 390DD Direct Digital Powered DAC Amplifier - With Correct Speaker Setting Now Even Better

May 21, 2012

Products: C 390DD Direct Digital Powered DAC Amplifier

This is an update of a previous review I did. Well, well, well, things have now got really interesting. I lent the amp to a friend and he found a setting change: Menu -> Setup -> Speaker Compensation set to 8 ohms instead of 4 - the speakers they were used on were 8 ohms. Evidently when it was done - holey (insert expletive) Batman - the sound improved a HUGE amount. This was done on the reference system of a speaker manufacturer we both know that uses a PDX DAC and MAC 501's. A Playback Designs MPD 3 was also available. It was felt it was now above the Playback Designs DAC and Mac 501's - amazing. Even more amazing was that systems reference components - the PDX and Mac 501's - were under threat. Evidently the only thing that saved them was a very slight (and the person I spoke to emphasized very slight) trace of a SS mechanical type sound. Careful listening did show - yes the reference DAC and amp were better - but that this amp got in the same ballpark was - well mind-blowing really. The reviews of the M2 said it was really close to some much more expensive separates and for once what reviewers say seems to be true. Anyway my friend took it away and here is what he had to say: For ages I've wanted to hear an NAD M2 with some Lenehan ML3 speakers. Having had both products in my home at different times, I know enough to be almost terrified of what that combination might do. (Apparently there is one guy around here somewhere using these together, and there's been no unexplained seismic tremors or spontaneous black hole formation so I guess it must have gone OK.) But anyway today I got to put their little brothers together: C390DD and ML2s. With a battery-powered Audiophilleo 2 as their nerdy little friend. Hory clap. The dynamic range is unbelievable. ML2s are not particularly efficient speakers (~86dBm I think) but the 390 had them absolutely stomping, slamming and shaking the room with the kind of controlled power that class D is renowned for. And now here at home with my 92dBm Aurora 3s I can turn the dial down to -69dB, stick my ear to the tweeter and still hear more music than hiss. Compared to the McIntosh 501 monoblocks (hooked up to the C390's pre-outs), the NAD's amplification stage is a little less composed under pressure. Well - duh. The Macs are rated for over three times the power. And the Macs have a slightly smoother, silkier finish to the sound, just as you might expect when comparing a digitally-switched circuit to a linear-transistor-transformer one. But frankly, initial impressions are that the C390DD is in the same league. Different, yes, but comparable. It's hard to write about the 390 because it's so technically different to all the other components I usually play with. The "DAC stage" is not an R2R multi-bit, nor a typical delta-sigma. It's more like the second than the first, but even that gives the wrong impression because of the unique digital feedback circuit. In essence it's a digital-to-digital (PCM-to-PWM?) converter with highly capable processing for things like gain adjustment and parametric EQ, plus a just-in-time corrective digital input which responds instantly to any deviant trends at the speaker terminals. And it just sounds... right. Take all the sonic things I like about my Metrum Octave and combine them with all the sonic things I like about the PDX, toss them in a box with an iron-fisted descendent of class D amps and that pretty much sums up my first thoughts. I did some serious back-and-forth switching between the internal USB and my AP2. Didn't have an opportunity to do it blind, but I am pretty convinced that the AP2 brought an improvement which, while not perceptible in terms of frequency response or loudness or PRAT etc, took the system a bit further away from one which projected audio information at me towards one which created an audio experience around me. It brought the soundstage into better focus and made the performance more convincing. I really like that. So, bottom line: if I could spend my hifi budget over again, the C390DD is what I'd buy to replace my current amp and DAC and I'd have a whole lot of coin left over. It's an absolute fricking bargain with flat-out brilliant performance. Well with those words I had to get into my system which also has ML3's. These speakers are ultra accurate and ultra revealing being lined with steel and using very high quality crossover components such as Dueland VSF Copper capacitors and heavy gauge air coil inductors. Popped it into my system and decided to do a quick comparison with with the new setting. Queued some of my favourites - Celine Dione - Live In Las Vegas and the old standby - Dianna Krall - Case Of You - first by HDMI, then USB, then using the Off-Ramp USB converter. Had problems with HDMI - played the first two songs fine but then started to drop in and out out - no problem though - USB easily and obviously better - the HDMI sounded a bit lifeless and muffled so really that's not how you would use it anyway. The USB only up-samples to 96k. Holey (insert expletive) Batman this does sound good - more life and less veiled - can hardly wait for the Off-Ramp. OK sorted out the drop outs - my computer can't handle 192k upsampling using Bit Perfect. Switched to Audirvana and no problemo. Definitely better with the Off-Ramp - but in a slightly different way than with other stuff I have tried it on. Often it sounds more liquid, fluid and analogue like. Here it's slightly starker but with greater detail, clarity, purity and more life - and indeed it sounds a lot like the speaker guys reference system with the PDX into MAC 501's - a very lot like it actually. The issue is the slight starkness - the Macs are definitely non SS sounding - this thing is simply neutral with with a capital N - but that does lead to an impression of a slight starkness, a mechanical quality etc. However it's still friggen AWESOME. Bottom line here - you can buy this product with absolute confidence it will match or exceed virtually any product out there at any price. The stuff that exceeds it does so by such a small amount that even on very revealing equipment (and believe me the equipment I checked this out on is extremely revealing) you would likely end up saying - yea I can hear a difference but really do I care - its that good.

Bill Hobba - Australia

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C 390DD Direct Digital Powered DAC Amplifier

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