Stellos DA220 DAC is one of a handful of products that I mention often in my reviews and talk about a lot as well. I cant say enough good things about it. In fact, sometimes I feel that I didnt praise it enough when I reviewed it in 2004, even though it received Reviewers Choice recognition as well as our Best Product Debut end-of-the-year award. For $1195 USD, it was ridiculously good, not just for the way it sounded but for the way it was built. I bought the review sample and, what is further testament to the "soundness" of its design, I grew to like it more over time. That rarely happens.
The DA220 has been in my reference system for three years and I havent looked back. Ive been using it with my ol Theta Data Basic transport connected with either an I2Digital X-60 or Silver Sonic D-75 digital cable. Never, not once, has the DA220 been outclassed. In fact, the only time Ive heard better is when the Aurum Acoustics Integris CDP came along, I have to admit that that state-of-the-art-contending CD player/preamplifier inched past the DA220 here and there; on the other hand, its 12 grand, so it should.
However, as the old saying goes, "All good things must come to an end." Or, in the case of high-end audio, perhaps it should be revised to "All good things must eventually be upgraded." Last year Stello released the DA220 Mk II along with an upgraded price tag: $1650. Can the newest DA220 still be considered one of the best deals around?
Cosmetically, the DA220 and DA220 Mk II are identical, which Im happy about. The only two differences are "Mk II" beside the "DA220" silk-screened on the front panel, and the USB input connector (1.1) thats been added to the back. So the build quality is still to be praised, as is the styling, with the attractive silvery-white finish and the brushed-aluminum top cover that I liked so much with the original version.
The rich feature set also remains: variable upsampling options to 192kHz (including bypass); phase inversion; four digital inputs, including one AES/EBU, two coaxial, one USB, and one TosLink; three digital outputs (AES/EBU, coaxial, TosLink); single-ended and balanced outputs; a fully balanced analog stage; and on and on. Usually, affordable DACs are devoid of features, but not the DA220. It has more than most, regardless of price.
The Stello engineers have made the most significant changes inside. Theres the new USB input that will be important for those who want to connect to computer-based sources. The company says theyve made some small circuit changes, including to the incoming digital-filter section. However, Stello didnt get into much more detail than that. An older DA220 cannot be upgraded to Mk II status, which doesnt really surprise me. This seems to be the way with digital products, where most of what goes inside them goes onto the circuit board and any upgrade amounts to upgrading everything.
With those internal changes, the sound has changed slightly too -- although, admittedly, it took the transparency of the Simaudio Moon Evolution i-7 integrated amp and the ability to switch rapidly between the DA220 and DA220 Mk II to get a firm grasp on what those changes were. I used the DACs with a few different speakers -- YG Acoustics Anat Main Module, Mirage OM Design OMD-28, and Usher Audio V-602 -- all connected to the i-7 with Nirvana S-L speaker cables, and the i-7 connected to the DACs with Nordost Quattro-Fil single-ended and balanced interconnects.
Suffice it to say that with the effort that went into exploring the sonic details, the differences were subtle, though they were consistent with whatever speaker system I used. To sum up the changes in as few words as possible, Id say that everything from the bass through the mids through to the highs was slightly tighter and more controlled. In other words, a little more focused and precise. As well, the DA220 Mk II was a little more refined-sounding, particularly up top.
Years ago, I learned that a plucked guitar could bring about telltale differences in the high-frequency presentation of CD players and DACs. Even with a so-so-sounding cut like "Never Going Back Again" from Fleetwood Macs Rumours [Warner Bros CD3010], the difference between these two DACs was striking. Both DACs showed the same amount of extension and revealed the same sense of air, but the Mk II was slightly cleaner, while, in direct comparison, the DA220 exhibited a hint of splashiness that I never really noticed before. Likewise, cymbals through the DA220 Mk II sounded more precise and without any hint of tizziness or that splashiness. Had I never had the Mk II in my system I wouldn't have criticized the DA220, but with high-resolution gear and rapid switching, the differences were apparent.
I also heard small improvements in the midrange and bass. I listened to Livingston Taylor singing Stevie Wonders "Isnt She Lovely" from the Chesky compilation disc called The Worlds Greatest Audiophile Recordings [Chesky SACD323]. The title of this disc says it all, and this track is a great way to evaluate male vocal. Again, through the DA220 Mk II, the mids took on a more focused sound, which revealed more texture. In contrast, the DA220 showed a bit more warmth -- which can be a good thing if you like a fuller-sounding midrange -- but that warmth also obscured a touch of detail there. The level of extra warmth was commensurate with the amount of splashiness I heard up top, but it manifested itself in a different way. The warmth in the mids, for instance, wasnt that objectionable, whereas splashiness in the high frequencies always is.
I could hear similar things in the bass. When I played Blue Rodeos "5 Days in May" from Five Days in July [Discovery 77013], the kick drum had more impact through the Mk II, and the lines of the bass guitar were a touch easier to discern. Again, the differences came down to the same thing as with the mids. The DA220 was tighter and more controlled, which resulted in more texture and a more focused sound. However, again, the DA220 sounded a touch fuller, although not as textured. I liked the DA220 Mk IIs presentation.
Although there were areas in which the DA220 Mk II marched ahead -- that tightness and control from top to bottom, and a more refined sound up top -- there are still reasons to like the DA220. The fullness and warmth I mentioned give the original DA220 a hint of grandness thats pleasing to the ear, not unlike what some hear when using tube amps. On the other hand, the DA220 Mk II seems to keep a tighter grip on the music, akin to what most solid state does. Is it possible, then, that someone could actually prefer the original DA220? Yes. However, I favor the DA220 Mk II. I like the tighter, more focused sound despite still appreciating what the original DA220 can do. The original DA220 is certainly no slouch. For its asking price, its still an extraordinary bargain, and more so if you find it for a lower price on the used market. So, if you own one, dont think that you have to take it out to the driveway and put it behind the back wheel of your car. I wont be selling mine anytime soon.
The new Mk II's $1650 price tag represents an almost 40% increase, and thats quite a lot. However, there are two things that can justify such an increase. First, I believe that the original DA220 was actually priced too low. Im not one to fight for the right of manufacturers to charge more -- Im often criticized for being too much about "high value." But when I evaluated that unit, I knew the company had under-priced it. In fact, I suspect that there are many consumers who overlooked the DA220, thinking it was too cheap. Too bad for them. It could have been twice the price and still have represented good value. So, $1650 for this new model is certainly not out of line; in fact, its very much in line with what it offers.
The DA220 Mk II, like the original DA220, is still one of the best DACs available at its price -- or regardless of price -- and a Reviewers' Choice.
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