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Monday, January 18, 2016

Audiophile DAC Review!
TEAC UD-503 D/A Converter/Preamp
“New Flagship Way Above Price Point”


Brevis...
Price $999
Likes: Smooth, high-end projection
Dislikes: Lacks word length/bit status
Wow Factor: TEAC hits a D/A home run
More info: TEAC UD-503

by John Gatski
  There are numerous good sounding hi-fi  DACs in the high-end hi-fi marketplace, but I have been impressed with TEAC’s run of low-cost converters over the past four years. For example, the UD-501, with its DSD via DoP and the ability to resolve up to 32-bit integer/384 kHz sample rate PCM, is a first rate DAC/preamp/HP amp.
  Its new flagship sibling, the UD-503 is even better, selling for under $1,000, boasting an expanded DSD compatibility (up to 11.2 MHz) — as well as PCM up to 384 kHz and 32-bit integer word-length decoding

Features
  The key to the UD-503’s impressive performance is the use of the AKM VERITA AK4490 DAC chip. This new, lower-cost DAC boasts great specs, yet costs a lot less than some of the premium chips from other manufacturers, such as ESS. The AKM chip has the ability to resolve even the most intricate audio detail — with the smooth definition of the ESS D/A chip. It is a significant upgrade in the audio output’s subjective refinement over the UD-501’s Burr-Brown DAC/analog section.
  The key to the UD-503’s impressive performance is the use of the AKM VERITA AK4490 DAC chip. This new, lower-cost DAC boasts great specs, yet costs a lot less than some of the premium chips from other manufacturers.

  Starting with the toroidal core power transformers, which feature the ability to supply stable current, and the high-performance VERITA AK4490 DACs, the UD-503‘s dual-mono design has a complete mono circuit for each channel — optimizing headphone amp performance, which is quite good.
  Furthermore, by processing the output signals of each channel completely with a differential signal from immediately after D/A conversion to the final output stage, common-mode noise is removed.
  The UD-503 looks very similar to the UD-501; the black unit is quite snazzy in its appearance. The unit is 3/4-rack sized with mini-rack handles on either side. Front controls include the power-on toggle switch, input selector, volume control, and the menu selection button, which is also pushed to activate menu functions. The 3-inch x 1-inch display is not particularly large but it has enough resolution to reveal the menu settings, sample rate, filter status, volume level, etc.
  The UD-503 includes a nice, full-feature remote that mimics most of the front panel functions: volume, input, up conversion filters, etc. The large remote is a refreshing package, considering the move toward smaller and smaller remotes for audio products these days.

Just enough connections, including word clock

  Like the UD-501, the UD-503’s display  reveals the sample rate, but not the word length, a feature I have been pushing all DAC manufacturers to implement. The UD-503’s front panel also includes an extra optical input (mini-barrel), as well as a digital clock input indicator. The headphone amp section features twin 1/4-inch inputs
  The back panel is packed with connectivity, including analog unbalanced RCA I/O, balanced XLR outputs,  and SPDIF coax, TOSLink and AES/EBU XLR and USB digital inputs. The digital clock input terminates via BNC.

Filters and upconversion
  The UD-503 features a number of adjustable parameters that are enabled through the Menu button. Once the Menu is engaged, rotating the input selector toggles through the various options, while a push of the knob engages the desired option. The options include: unbalanced/balanced/active ground headphone operation, PCM upconversion  (2fs, 4fs, 8fs or DSD); PCM filter (FIR sharp, FIR slow, SDLY sharp, SDLY slow and filter off); DSD filter cutoff (50 kHz or 150 kHz); clock sync on/off; line-out options (balanced or unbalanced RCA); and display brightness.

The heart of the UD-503: AKM AK4490 DAC chip

  All the functions are easy to access and I confirmed their operation. The ability to turn off the anti-alias PCM filter is atypical of digital audio converters, and the unit automatically turns off the filter at 352 kHz and 384 kHz. There are designers who believe that the anti-alias PCM filter creates undesirable artifacts in the DAC’s subjective performance (even if it measures better with the filter in place). If you are one of the filter detractors, the TEAC gives you the option to turn it off at all sample frequencies.
  Versus the UD-501, the functions and controls are similar, though I noticed that the UD-501’s volume control has minimum and maximum stops, while the UD-503’s control is continuously variable (it keeps turning after it hits the maximum and minimum).

The set up
  I was fortunate to have the UD-503 in for review when I had numerous other DACs on hand for comparison, including the UD-501, Benchmark DAC2-DX, Mytek Manhattan, Oppo HA-1, NAD C5105 and an Essence HDACC. All these DACs featured the ESS Sabre DAC chip. The aforementioned TEAC UD-501 utilizes the Burr Brown chip.
  Other components in the test rig included: Rogue Audio Medusa digital/tube hybrid amplifier, Coda High Current solid state preamp and MartinLogan Montis electrostatic loudspeakers. For headphone listening, I plugged in my AKG-K702 Anniversary edition, the new AKG K812 flagship, Shure SRH1840, and the Oppo PM-1.
  All line and speaker cables connectivity were courtesy of the Wireworld Eclipse 7 cable line. All components were plugged into the AC via Essential Sound Products Essence Reference II power cords and an Essence Reference II power distribution strip.

The audition
  When connected to the audiophile rig, I was immediately impressed by the UD-503’s qualitative sonic improvement over the UD-501. In direct comparison, the UD-503’s sound  was much smoother with an accurate airiness in the instrument spacing. Bass was tight and balanced, the imaging first rate. The UD-501 is a quality D/A, but the ‘503‘s smooth factor makes it much easier to listen to.
  My initial impression is that the AKM-chip equipped TEAC’s overall sound quality is on par with the high-end ESS Sabre DACs.  The ‘503 exudes a deep soundstage and upper end detail without a hint of harshness. For example, the drum cymbals on the track, “Autumn Leaves,” from the Warren BernhardtSo Real SACD (a Tom Jung recording that I converted to 24/192), sounds about as good as I have ever heard it. Metallic without being exaggerated — with tons of air, very similar to what I hear with The Benchmark DAC2 and Mytek ESS-equipped converters.
  Switching to the first movement of Marianne Thorson — Mozart Violin Concerto in D  (2L 24-bit/352 sample rate download from 2L), the UD-503, again, sounded superb, the violin’s harmonic structure was live like in its presentation  — without the smearing you get from lesser converters. The complex overtones are the sum of
  And the smooth descriptor is entirely appropriate for the Mozart track as well — not a filtered smoothness that detracts from transient projection of the recorded audio. It is more of a natural ease without harsh digital artifacts. The instrument sounds as it should: dynamic, complex and complete. And this is a sub $1,000 converter!

Bring on the ultra-high fs DSD

  Shifting music genres, I played the Acoustic Sound’s download of Waylon JenningsHonky Tonk Heroes LP from 1973; the high-res 24/96 RCA transfer reveals a minimalist, eight-track analog recording that is a Country Music gem with great separation  between the electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, pedal steel guitar and, of course, Mr. Jennings booming voice. I downloaded the album to a SanDisk Extreme USB drive and plugged it into the Oppo BDP-105, which was connected to the UD-503.
  As I listened to the “Anything You Ask Me To” track, I could not get over how well this converter conveyed the rich analog textures of Ralph Mooney’s pedal steel guitar and its lush reverb. I must have listened to the track ten times in a row.
  As a preamp, the UD-503 is pretty darn good as a one-input analog source, as well as the DAC input. It is competitive with a lot of $1,500-$2,000 preamps, but not as transparent as the best analog preamps. However, as a fixed output DAC, it is quite a performer and at a bargain audiophile price.
  I switched to headphone listening and was even more impressed with the UD-503. I focused on HPs using the free TEAC HR Player software for Mac, which though not as full featured as J-River or Audirvana, is their equal in sound quality and ability to play ultra-high res tracks in DSD and PCM. My 2014 Macbook Pro was connected to the TEAC via a Wireworld Starlight USB interconnect.
  I plugged in the Oppo PM-1 balanced headphones (utilizing an adapter to correctly mate with the UD-503’s dual-TRS balanced scheme) and listened to Channel Classics DSD download of Florilegium Telemann - Suite in E Minor / Rejouissance. The Baroque period music sounded splendid on a high-end DAC — with a revealing sense of musical space created by the 10-piece string and woodwind ensemble.
  Completely shifting gears, I put the HD Tracks download of Van Halen’s “Running With The Devil,” from the a 24/192 transfer of the band’s debut album. Holy smoke! is this a great transfer —  better than the LP, CD, etc.

The UD-503 does EVH proud in 24/192

  Listening through the AKG K812’s open back HPs, the succinct delivery of Eddie Van Halen’s  overdriven rhythm guitar track in the left channel, vocals in the center and that killer EVH lead in the right channel. And with all this going on, you can still fear the drum cymbals and cow bell as clear as a, er, bell. I have heard this track on dozens of converters, but I have to say that the headphone output delivery of the UD-503 is up there with the big boys.
  Delving deeper into the subjective assessment of the UD-503, I played my own recordings, including a very familiar 24-bit/352 kHz, stereo recording of a Taylor 810 acoustic. The recording was originally made with a pair of Audix SCX-25 microphones, a True Engineering P2 discrete microphone preamp and Antelope Eclipse A/D, recorded via  the Macbook Pro.
  Played through the TEAC HR software player, the UD-503 relayed the stereo image with a nice, wide spread, and I could easily hear the intricate pick attack against the guitar’s phosphor bronze strings, via the alternate picking and strumming. On this track, through the HPs, the ‘503 was not quite as open as the Oppo HA-1’s discrete HP output, but not as far off as I assumed it would be. And it lacked the extra color of the Mytek Manhattan’s velvety analog attenuator, but I liked the 503's ability to resolve the musical truth, For under $1,000 the HP performance is amazing! The Manhattan costs $5,500; the Oppo. at $1,199. is a closer in product pricing parity.

Balanced assessment
  So as you can tell, I like the sonics of the DAC, but what about all those menu options designed to enhance connection flexibility and the listening experience. The headphone menu item allows for unbalanced, balanced and active ground termination.
  I sampled the balanced connection on the Oppo PM-1, and as well with the unbalanced cable. I could not hear a difference between the two connections. Audiophile with different headphones and cables may be able to hear subtle differences, but I could not with my setup. I did not have an active-ground wired headphone to test.
  The upconversion mode allows PCM to be upconverted from 4X-fs to 8X-fs PCM, or  alternatively, 2.8MHz DSD. Normal high-res, to my ear, does not benefit from the PCM upconversion. A 16-bit/44.1 CD does seem to gain a little space when upsampled to 192 kHz, but it is not a major league difference.
  The UD-503 steps up the sonic performance feature set over the previous flagship: the UD-501. And, as important, the UD-503 is as good as much pricier DACs on the market. With its vigorous space presentation and clean, easy-to-listen sonic persona, the UD-503 earns the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award

  Upconverting PCM to DSD makes the most audible difference depending on the music. On several 80s new wave/pop CDs (Til Tuesday, Elvis Costello, Tears For Fears), the DSD smoothing that occurs via the upconversion often made the music more listenable, but with a slight reduction in upper-end detail and focus. sometimes, the trade off was worth it. I will leave it up to the owners to make their own sonic observations of enabling upconversion.
  As for the adjustable digital filters, those options also impart very little sonic difference. With 24-bit content, I preferred to leave the filter off. There is a slight openness and smoothness that I hear with acoustic instruments when the filter is turned off. With the various filters engaged, I could hear no major difference between them.

The verdict
  So there you have it: my headline is “TEAC makes a super, fully featured DAC for less than $1,000.” Using the latest AKM DAC chip, dual-mono design and with lots of connectivity, including balanced HP amp and XLR output, the UD-503 steps up the sonic performance feature set over the previous flagship: the UD-501.
  And, as important, the UD-503 is as good as much pricier DACs on the market. With its vigorous space presentation and clean, easy-to-listen sonic persona, the UD-503 earns the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award. Its relatively low price is just gravy.




 John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net






8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have the UD-503. How do you turn off the digital filter? Using the remote control, the only settings available are 50k and 150k, no off setting.
Thank you.

B. Andersen said...

Can you recommend buying the 503? I´m also looking at the Marantz HD DAC1.

John Gatski said...

The filter adjustment is in the digital filter menu. You can turn it off manually up to 192 kHz. It is automatically turned off at 352 and 384.


John Gatski

John Gatski said...

I wholeheartedly recommend this DAC. For the $1,000 price tag, it is a steal. Feature filled and sounds great. It is a preamp as well. The new AKM chip is quite smooth versus 502's Burr Brown.


John Gatski

B. Andersen said...

Thanks buddy. Because of you I have now ordered it from an onlineshop here in Denmark.

David Marshall- gbakmars said...

I want to thank you for your extremely well-balanced review. You were able provide the objective perspective, but because this UD-503 had such a positive impact on you personally, it was clear; you hadn’t reverted to a subjective and biased commentary; but because of your integrity, it would have been wrong to attempt to conceal what appears to be, in this review, truth experienced; which even if one tries to temper its voice, it will find a way into a review.

Right up front, before I get lost in writing another chapter for a book; my most pressing question for you: Is there any reason to give up the UD-503 in favor of the NT-503? Does the gain of a network port sacrifice anything of value found in the UD and not the NT? There must be something lost for something gained; or who would ever buy the UD, unless they wanted both Balanced, and Unbalance headphone support? I do have a couple questions below for you but first things first, protecting your time. THANKS!

Thanks, and read on if you are in a waiting room with no magazines!!

My 2 non-negotiables are; to achieve the best headphone sound I can, while staying in this price range, and secondly, is to feed two Klipsch Reference RP-280’s. These other speakers; though great sounding for a movie, have lost my interest: two Klipsch 62 surround rears and a RP-450 Center and lastly a Klipsch reference SW

I have one UD-503 and UD-301, with a Senn HD 800 and HD650, right at my feet. I have been plugging and unplugging for 12 hours; into a PC which I couldn't afford to buy, but built it, with sound, photography, and video as my motivators. This PC begs to provide more than its Asus Xonar Essence STX II & optional 7.1 Analogue output card is able to deliver.

Just a few days ago I thought I had built a system with "Audio Bragging Rights"; and then UPS dropped off two Teac boxes!

**Skip this if you are not a PC builder or gamer type, or just don’t care. Sharing this pricey list of components tends to increase, not devalue the two little Teac’s; dwarfed by a Corsair T-760 fully windowed hinged side-door Case housing an Asus Z170-WS motherboard, 64 GB of Corsair Dominator Platinum 2400 memory, a quad Core Intel 6700K Cpu, an EVGA 980 Ti Classified 6GB Graphic Card. An amazing Samsung 950 PRO 512GB NVMe PCIe fed storage-type SSD (Latest in non-SATA SSD tech.) spits out the Windows 10 Pro OS at 2700 MB/Sec! (a fast hard drive tops out at 120MB/sec!). Music, photos, and video are stored on several Samsung 850 PRO 512 GB SSD's; and it is all powered by an EVGA 1000 W Platinum P2, and cooled by a Corsair Liquid H115 Extreme liquid cooler.

Amazingly, the cheapest item inside this very expensive PC, beside the very high end PWM fans, is the $39 DVD Burner!! There may be better but in my quest to find it, I came across several Audiophile reviews which said the Plextor SA951 DVD Burner was the best out there for accurate duplication of music files.

No knowledgeable sales rep in Hi-Fi stores has been able to provide me with an explanation as to why they will convince buyers that they need a $2500 CD player, if he/she wants the full benefit of all the data in its purest form, which is on the disc; only to then turn around and with the same confidence tell me to quit looking; that I already have the best option burner!

Anonymous said...

Hi John. Thank you for such a nice review. So happens, I have shortlisted the UD 501 and UD 503. My needs are pretty straight forward. I am seeking the fuller, warmer and more romantic of the 2 dacs. From your review...the UD 503 is definitely smoother at the top end. How does it fair from mids down to bass against the UD 501? Besides the top end, is there a significant difference from mids down to bass?

Regards,

csB.

Anonymous said...

This would be a win if they had separate transformers for the analog and digital sections, and an analog volume control. At the price, it really is just a run of the mill preamp/dac.