Review: HotAudio DAC WOW vs Wood DAC
I wouldn’t consider myself to be an audiophile. I love music, and I love gear, but I don’t believe you have to spend vast amounts of money to get the most out of both.
That all being said, I recently purchased a DAC WOW from Dave over at Hotaudio. It seemed to fit my 95% perfect for 20% of the price rule.
I had been using it for a few weeks and had some questions, so I emailed him. Through a little back and forth, he offered to ship me one of his hand made Wood DAC’s so I could do an unbiased listening comparison for him.
I have two systems that I use in my house. Both were built with a desire to have as few components between source and speaker as possible.
First is my everyday work/gaming computer desk. It’s simply setup with one of these two DAC’s directly connected to a set of Audioengine A5+ speakers. I use custom built RCA cables.
My other system is very custom. I designed and built a set of infinite baffle line arrays.
The speakers consist of:
• Dayton Audio PT2C-8 planar tweeter (4 per side)
• The Pioneer 4” buyout nicknamed NSB (16 per side)
• Dayton SD270A-88 10” DVC Subwoofers (2 per side)
Gear consists of:
• Crown Com-Tech 800 (2) and Com-Tech 200 amps
o Low and Midrange = 800
o High Frequency = 200
• Behringer ULTRADRIVE PRO DCX2496 speaker management system
• Custom RCA->XLR cables
• One of these two DAC’s
If you want speakers with extremely low distortion and amps with enough power to make you feel like you are at a live concert, this is the system for you. It is capable of creating a soundstage that kind of freaks a lot of people out the first time they hear it.
Individually, these DAC’s are both great products. That being said, they are each great products in a different set of circumstances, or for a different type of audience.
The Handmade wood DAC is a great looking product. It looks like it would be just as comfortable sitting on a desktop, or on a shelf in a living room beside other high end stereo gear. The one I received is stained a nice natural wood color. Unfortunately, the speakers in my system that it sits on are the black Audioengine A5+. If I owned the Bamboo versions it would blend in beautifully. I would feel terrible if I dented or scratched it. It’s that nice.
The DAC WOW is a non-descript black box that you stuff behind your computer. It’s functional and tough. In the process of doing this review I must have knocked it off my desk 4-5 times and never felt bad about it, or worried about breaking it.
I generally listen to alt rock/classic rock/live recorded music. I have also been known to dabble in other genres such as electronica, and metal.
All my source music is coming from Tidal Hifi streaming service.
Here is a list of some of the music I auditioned. These were all picked because I know them all very well, they serve as a good mix of genres and music that a wide range of people listen to, not necessarily because they represent the greatest recordings ever.
- Foo Fighters – Dear Rosemary
- Coheed And Cambria – Pearl of the Stars
- Crash Test Dummies – The Ghosts that Haunt Me
- Incubus – Dig
- Blue Rodeo – 5 Days In May
- AC/DC – Moneytalks <- Live version
- J. Roddy Walston & The Business – Heavy Bells
- Coldplay – Fix You
- Muse – Supermassive Black Hole
- Pink Floyd - Mother
- Led Zeppelin – Trampled Under Foot
- Dr Dre – The Watcher
- Infected Mushroom – Heavyweight
- Beastie Boys – Intergalactic
- Everlast – Lonely Road
I started playing with these two DAC in my home office with my Audioengine system.
My initial impression of the Wood DAC was “that’s nice”. It was smooth and unobtrusive. I found that I could listen to all sorts of genres of music and not fault it in any way. Highs weren’t too harsh or sparkly. Mids weren’t too forward and in your face. Lows weren’t bloomy or hollow. Though I don’t feel it did anything wrong, after a few hours of using it I did feel that it was missing some “fizz”. Especially on live recordings I found that it didn’t image as well as I would like.
It did integrated easily into my system. It looks great on my desk. Installed instantly and worked with all the volume settings in Windows.
I also play a lot of video games on my desktop. Things sounded great on the Wood DAC and the fact that the windows volume controls work makes the user experience even better. Though I did notice that in multiplayer shooter games I found it harder to use my ears to help with positional awareness (footsteps in the distance, direction of gun shots, etc).
When I swapped out the Wood DAC for the DAC WOW it was a very different experience. It has a high end sparkle that I personally prefer. I found the midrange to be nearly identical to the Wood DAC. The lows on this system seemed to be identical, but I believe it’s because I don’t use a subwoofer with this system and the Audioengines are really only reliable down to about 40-50hz.
When playing video games I found the positional imagine to be spot on.
What I did find to be very irritating is the lack of volume control over this device. Windows volume controls have no effect. I did reach out to Dave and asked him about this and he told me that this is intentional. I’ll let him get into technical details if he wants, but it comes down to the DAC WOW doing as little as possible to color the sound.
Using the remote control for my speakers isn’t the end of the world, but it did irritate me.
When I moved these two DACs to my larger system I found that the differences I noticed on my desktop system were GREATLY exaggerated.
The DAC WOW presented a soundstage that was almost jaw dropping. Every detail could be heard and I could close my eyes and hear where each instrument was located. Bass was very well defined and controlled. Midrange was raw and uncolored. Highs were sharp, crisp and fast. This DAC lets well performed and recorded music shine as it was supposed to. The flip side of that is that poorly recorded or over compressed music sounds like the garbage it is. This thing is relentless in its pursuit of trueness.
The Wood DAC had a wonderful warm low end to it, but I found the stereo imaging to be seriously lacking. I found that it took the sound stage from what the DAC WOW created as wide and expansive, and made it very narrow and focused. Midrange was warm, but refined. It seemed as though there was a low pass filter that was causing the highs to roll off to soon. It felt as though some of the energy and liveliness was taken out of the music. Lows were smooth, but lacked punch and extension. The only music that I came across that I preferred played through the Wood DAC to my larger system was the Crash Test Dummies – The Ghosts that Haunt Me album. The smoothness of the DAC complements his voice wonderfully.
As I said at the beginning, these two DAC’s are likely to appeal to two different audiences. One that wants to hear every possible detail on a very high end system, listens exclusively to high quality source, sitting at the tip of a perfect equilateral triangle between the speakers, in a chair at just the right height, and the walls treated just so. DAC WOW
Then there are those who want to just listen and enjoy music without the hassle of the perfect setup and room. Just turn on their favorite record and go about their day enjoying wonderful room filling sound. Wood DAC
There is nothing wrong with either scenario, but they truly are two different types of music lovers.
If you have a mid to high end living room or desktop setup that you love to play music on while you are working or just around the house, the Wood DAC is probably the best for everyday listening to all sorts of different genres. It does a lot right, and almost nothing wrong. It makes the listening experience more about the music, and less about the recording methods and the gear you have.
The DAC WOW on the other hand is pretty much relentless in its desire to reproduce EXACTLY what it's being fed. You feed it high quality source from a high quality recording it will blow you away if you have the right setup. On the other hand, it makes poor source and poor recordings almost unlistenable.
I find myself liking both these product for exactly the reasons and scenarios I outlined above. The Wood DAC will live on my desktop and the DAC WOW has found a home with my larger stereo.