I have mixed feelings about this entry level DAC/Amp box from Audio-Gd. In contrast to the Ref 7.1 flagship model which I absolutely love, this Audio-Gd isn’t quite as lovable as the big brother. You may say that should be obvious, given the price difference, but that’s not what I’m talking about. This is not about the price, as there are products sold at entry level prices that I absolutely love, such as the $60 JDSLabs Cmoy, the $145 HRT Music Streamer II, the $189 Audinst HUD-Mx1, and the $250 Schiit Asgard comes to mind. Those products are all relatively entry level, and yet they manage to pull out such an incredible sounding performance that I really makes me forget about their price tag. This entry level Audio-Gd, however, is just not it.
I am going to talk about the sound a little bit so you know why I’m feeling this way about this product. Plug in the AC power, plug in the USB cable, choose the TE7022 audio output, and start playing some basic songs in my playlist. I started with a Beyerdynamic T1 initially. The Audio Gd had a nice weighty bass body, but that’s just about it. The sound was grainy and rough in the treble and mids, and somewhat felt sucked in (as in the opposite of feeling spacious or full). No good, for sure. If you’ve heard me talk about the Audio-Gd Compass, then let me tell you, I think I may be having a déjà vu right now.
Maybe the Beyerdynamic T1 is too revealing, too high-end, and so I switched to the Superlux HD661. The sound somewhat improved, perhaps due to the $50 Superlux not being as revealing as the $1,400 T1. The grain is gone, but something about the sound is still not right. The treble is dry and thin, the midrange seems to have conflicting opinions with itself. On one hand vocals can be good and present with a solid midbass supporting the beats. But between the vocals and the midbass, there seem to be a small blackhole sucking out midrange body. Clearly, I don’t quite understand how to explain this “conflicting midrange” phenomenon, except to put it simply, “it sounds bad”. I don’t mean to offend NFB-12 owners there, but I just want to tell the others what I really feel about the product.
I decided to pull out the Audinst HUD-MX1 that I borrowed from my friend Peter and do an A-B. Certainly that tiny, USB powered Audinst, full of SMD components can’t possibly sound better than the well-engineered Audio-Gd? Well, here is what I heard: The Audio Gd has a cleaner background, most probably due to the much better power supply regulation section versus the Audinst’s USB power. Soundstage was half an inch wider on the Audio-Gd, bass weightier, but the advantage stops there. The Audinst had an overall deeper soundstage, though less clear separation. The Audinst had a more proper tonal balance with a fuller sounding, sweeter sounding midrange (proper tonal balance and midrange: those are the words you should be paying attention to). Yes the Audinst comes a bit short on the technicalities, but to my ears, midrange body and overall tonal balance is far more important than a tiny bit improvement in instrument separation. Overall, music just sound better and more coherent on the Audinst.
I did a quick google on NFB-12 and found out that this device is based on the WM8741 wolfson DAC, and the TE7022L USB receiver chip. Funny since I’m also working on the review of the Fiio E10, which is based on the same DAC and USB receiver chip. Although the NFB-12 is superior on the technicalities (looking at the size I would expect it to), but the tonality is totally dry whereas the Fiio is nice and full sounding. Somehow Audio-Gd had tuned the NFB-12 to carry a similar signature to the PCM1704 based Ref7.1. The sound is dark and with weighty lows, but the similarity stops there. Where the Ref7.1 sounds amazing even compared to other DACs in its price bracket, the NFB-12 feels dry and sucked out. I certainly don’t feel the signature WM8740 smooth sound that makes the WM8740/1 so lovable on other DACs say the Cambridge Audio Dacmagic.
I actually like how the Audio-Gd has a weightier bass section than the Audinst (regular readers probably know that by now), but given how things sound as a whole, sorry I just can’t take what the Audio-Gd throws at me, whereas the Audinst still sounds very sweet, almost two years since I first listened to it. This is not about the price, as I’ve been making recommendations for the Audinst to a lot of people, and will continue to do so. And this is not about anti-China either, as I have given the Ref7.1 Audio-Gd one of the best praises I’ve written so far (people who reads my twitter feeds know that very well). But the way this Audio-Gd is behaving just makes it hard for me to like it.
It is quite a pity that the sound ends up to be like that since this box had a lot of potential to be a very strong performer in the $200 range. Dual Wolfson WM8741 chips, Tenor TE7022 receiver chip, WM8805 S/PDIF receiver chip, USB, Coaxial, and Toslink inputs, a discrete solid state headphone section out. This box had it all, and for $200 I don’t think I can find a more full-featured DAC as the NFB-12. But at the end what matters is the sound, where all those additional features really comes second.
I tried spending a few more days with the NFB-12, but my feelings toward it doesn’t seem to change, and so I think I should stop writing right here.
Thanks to Yaska for the Audio-Gd loaner. Yep, you’re welcome dude, you deserve something better.