So, how does this hybrid tube DAC/amp sound? It sounds pretty darn good if my ears are telling me the truth. SMSL refers to the sound as warm and moving, and that seems to be a pretty accurate description. It certainly has a bit of that “tubey” warmth, but it isn’t excessive with it either. Still, when describing this unit, the word warm will probably be the first one out of your mouth. It is the bass section that really nails down this sound. The bass has quite a bit of body to it, not to the point where it gets bloated, or overpowers the rest of the sound, but it has some good weight to it. The impact is very, uh… impactful as well. When hearing the sound in the bass, I immediately thought of the HE400i, and it proved to be a terrific combo. The extra bass body gives the Hifiman HE400i some wonderful extra presence in the lower region. Yet, even using the Soundmagic HP150, which already has good bass body, that goes plenty deep, the bass never felt excessive. The bass is clean and has pretty good detail. It never felt muddy. Its biggest issue is that, although not bloated, the bass isn’t the tightest either. I never found it a problem by any means, but it does lack the final word in control. It never is anything but fun.
The segue into the midrange happens pretty seamlessly, and continues to follow the path set by the bass with good body and detail. Voices have good presence, but, I find vocals, and the upper midrange, and maybe the lower treble as well, maybe a little bit… splashy? Strident? Harsh? Thin? I am not sure exactly how to phrase it. Nothing that renders the sound bad or unenjoyable by any means, but listening to a more refined (and expensive) setup does reveal a small lack of polish. My instinct is to blame the tube here, as the few Chinese made 6N11 (ECC88. 6922, 6DJ8) tubes I have heard have all been harsh or screechy when we start getting to the upper reigns. And I should reiterate, it quite minor here, and not a big deal, but it is there. The tube can be rolled, so at some point (presuming I get to keep the T1), I will probably try a few other tubes just to see what I can tweak here.
Treble, despite the niggles I just mentioned, still behaves itself pretty well, with a little sparkle. Once the tube was burned in a bit, I never felt the need to make the bitter beer face during any really high notes (and the 3rd movement of Shostakovich’s 6th symphony has some real screechers). If it can pass that test, it has to be pretty decent. Still, I am looking forward to seeing if I can refine it that little bit more with a good roll.
The T1 throws out a pretty good soundstage. Width is better than depth, but with the exception of the Resonessence Labs Concero HD (HP), I almost always find that the case. Claustrophobic, it is not. The image is about what you would expect for the price. It does not have pinpoint accuracy, but then neither do most seats in a concert hall. I have no complaints here.
Extras (if I can still call them that)
So, while I start writing the review, I thought I would plug the DAC of the T1 into my Violectric V100, and see how it does. I did, and it is better than the RS 06. Moving on the the amp… wait, what did I just write? Better than what I just called the best DAC I ever heard? That can’t be right. Perhaps I better back up. So, I plug the T1 into my V100 and I start to listen, and my jaw hits the floor. The soundstage is about the same as the solo T1, with maybe a touch better imaging, but everything else… The little bit of loose bass has tightened up and is driving hard, and that little bit of harshness I heard in the upper mids and voices is gone. It is now nice, full and smooth. I can’t get over it. Those little tweaks, and I have the HE400i sounding EXACTLY how, in my wildest dreams, I want it to sound. Now surely, I am saying to myself, I just forgot how good the V100 and RS 06 combo sounds. I just need a refresher. So, I plug that back in and there it is… No, wait… There it isn’t. I actually prefer the DAC on the T1 to the RS 06. Surely, there is something wrong in my head. I have an idea, however. I have an old friend coming over tonight. We go to a lot of concerts together, and he has a solid pair of ears. He likes to listen to some of the review samples I have float through my house. I sit him down with a bunch of tracks I like to use for reviewing, hook him up the T1/V100 combo, and let him go to town. When he finishes, I switch the DAC over to the RS 06, and have him return to town. I make no mention of price, or what’s what. I just let him listen. I a little bit, he will tell me the second combo with the RS 06 is better, and I will realize that I had just gone a bit silly in the head. I will listen to both setups again, and correct my obvious wrongs.
But no. Of all things. My friend hears EXACTLY what I did. He describes the T1/V100 sound as having a robustness that is absolutely intoxicating. Its attack is stellar; the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem is beyond savage. He feels that, especially in the classical tracks, the RS 06 just doesn’t compare. What am I to do? Dejected, I hook up the HP150 to the T1/V100 to have a listen, and… huh, nothing special. It is a fine sounding combo, but it isn’t rocking like with the HE400i. Weird. What’s more, the RS 06/V100 combo just kills it with the HP150. So, what am I hearing? What is really going on?
What happened is I simply got ahead of myself. The RS 06 is the better DAC. My friend also said, and I concur, that, with the RS 06, the soundstage is bigger, and you can pick out some details that just aren’t as present with the T1. It is higher end. Even with the HE400i, you can hear the RS is more refined, especially in the treble. What this really is, to me, is a reminder to something that I don’t always remember. That is how damn important synergy is between your audio components. With the HE400i/T1/V100 setup, everything else just falls away. Technicalities become unimportant. It is just me and the music. What a brilliant, exciting reminder!
Plugging the RS 06 into the amp section of the T1 also yields good results, but not to quite the extent it did before. The soundstage is certainly a little bigger, but the bass is still a bit on the loose side. The upper mids and low highs are a bit less intense, however, that just the T1 by itself.
I have to say, this review was quite a journey for me. What I thought was going to be a solid performing, DAC/amp for the reasonable cost of $350 ended up taking to a place I never expected to go. A low price, good sound quality, versatility, a rollable tube. It’s really hard to go wrong with this one, especially should you have a Violectric V100 and an HE400i lying about.