The Evolution: Cypher Labs Theorem
So it seems that the next step in portable DACs is to have a built in amplifier to make a simpler stack. Following the footsteps of the earlier devices, Cypher Labs released their own version of the one box DAC+Amp in the Theorem. I tested the Theorem using multiple headphones the day it arrives on the store. As I wrote on the portable player article, I’m mostly an AK100 and Altmann Tera user these days. However, I do want to know how well Cypher Labs executed the Theorem so I had to take a listen for myself.
Lieven who’s been playing with the Theorem way before I had my chance, shared that the DAC part is more resolving than the Solo and the amp part is very neutral. Doesn’t really sound like a big amount of improvement, other than the fact that I now have a slimmer stack compared to the old Solo + ALO RX MK3 stack. Listening to the actual Theorem unit, however, and I immediately nod my head in approval and also in enjoyment of the music. The laid back signature of the previous CLAS Solo -R and dB has been retained but with a cleaner signal and lower noise floor. Darker background and less grain levels. Ignoring the huge size of the stack, I’d definitely take this over the AK100. It’s not really more resolving than the AK100, but music sounds more proper with a good bottom end weight and a nice analog sound that’s more in line with big desktop DACs, something that I think the AK still don’t get right even with the AK120. Oh yes, I’d still take the Theorem over the AK120, ignoring the size.
In the midst of all the current portable DAC including the Vamp, Fostex, Centrance, ADL, I really have a personal connection with the Cypher Labs sound. The first generation Solo, though good, was a bit flat and lacking air. The next generation Solo -R and dB improved ambiance and mid range a big deal, though added some grain to the sound and was not as black sounding as the first generation. The DAC in the Theorem however is an improvement over both generations, though not leaps ahead, managed to keep the deep analog sound reproduction of the second generation with the black background of the first generation, and some. The fact that I don’t have to add an amplifier on top of the CLAS box, is another big plus for me as I like things simple.
The amplifier section is very neutral and doesn’t add any coloration. From what I’ve noticed, a lot of portable DAC+Amp boxes tend to have neutral sounding amps and in that sense the Theorem amp is no different. However it does have more driving power than the built in amp of other offerings (i.e Fostex, ADL X1, Vmoda Vamp, Venture Craft) though maybe a little under the Centrance’s level (though I don’t have the Centrance here to do a direct A-B). So the good thing about the amp is that it allows me to hear the Cypher Labs DAC’s straight unaltered sound YET with plenty of impact not only for the average 300Ω Sennheisers but also Audez’e’s LCD-3.
Now, would the stack be better with a separate amp? I do belong to the camp who feels that external amps with their coloration, though often lower the resolution due to the longer signal path, does add pleasing coloration to the ears. So, yes, I’d probably be happier with the sound out of an RSA Intruder or an ALO Continental. And ignoring the coloration, the sound is indeed bigger and smoother out of the top end portable amps. Compared to the $300 bracket portable amps, however, I would stick with the Theorem amp. Not saying that the $300 amps are worse, but within the plus (different sound signature, perhaps more pleasing color) and minuses (less resolution and maybe also less powerful). Of course if you prefer, you can add in an external amp to the Theorem unit, since the line out quality of the Theorem is excellent and among the best line out quality I’ve heard. But I do think that it would defeats the purpose of having a built in amp inside the Theorem. I don’t know, maybe it would be good to have an opamp selection available for the Theorem (David: future versions?)
Other features with the Theorem that I consider as a bonus is the fact that it works with Android (Yeah! I use a Samsung S4 GE), works as a USB DAC, comes ready with a balanced out, and three levels of gain for a
noise free sound even with sensitive IEMs (no sound at MAX volume up to medium gain). With some IEMs, including the Sennheiser IE800, I didn’t get any hiss even at MAX volume up to medium gain. However with my custom 1964Ears V6S, I did get a small amount of hiss even at low volume. You know I can just do more comparisons with other portable DACs, but it really boils down to sound signature preferences, and personally for me, I’m a big fan of the Cypher Labs DAC sound so I thought I’d just stop here.