I want to talk about some strange experiences I’ve had using DACs, and how it changed some of my ideas about the perception of sound.
The first dedicated DAC I ever bought was the Zen DAC, which I bought with the Sundara as recommended by Tony at Audio 46. I liked this a lot, but I heard that the Sundara sounded even better with the Zen Can added to it, so I bought that and I thought it did indeed sound better, fuller and more powerful, making the Zen DAC alone sound a bit limp by comparison.
I was happy for a while, and then the GoldenSound video on MQA came out, and there was the bit about how the iFi filter on the Zen DAC seemed to imitate the MQA sound. (I think I was confused about this—apparently this is only true if you change the firmware on the Zen DAC?, but I didn’t realize that at the time. The whole thing’s a little confusing, honestly.) In disgust I decided to rid myself of the Zen stack and, after doing some more research and buying into the whole objectivist/all you need is something clean idea I bought the JDS Labs Atom Amp/DAC+ to replace it.
In comparing the two stacks I kind of convinced myself that I preferred the Atom stack for its cleanliness and treble presentation, but in truth I was lying to myself. Paired with the Sundara in particular, I thought the Atom stack sounded harsh and unpleasant compared to the Zen Stack. This effect particularly stood out with distorted synthesizers like the ones found in the song “Time to Pretend” by MGMT or “Why We Fight” from the Kipo in the Age of Wonderbeasts season 1 soundtrack, making those songs almost intolerable to listen to on the Sundara.
Around this time I also bought the HD6XX and loved it. (I wrote up my comparisons of the Sundara and the HD6XX elsewhere on this site.) I also upgraded my amp to the RebelAmp which I still use and love today. Then, deciding I wanted to go all-in on the “musical” sound, I got the Modi Multibit (I think this is the v2 version, not to be confused with the Modi Multibit 2 which was just released and is different). The Modi Multibit and RebelAmp with the 6XX sounded wonderful and textured, with rich timbre and I was in love. The Sundara didn’t sound as good on this stack, and ultimately I decided it was too heavy for me to be comfortable anyway (I have a small head and am very weight sensitive) and loved the timbre on the 6XX better and I sold the Sundara off.
I needed a good closed back though, and after cycling through some I didn’t like that much (the K371, the DT770, an ATH-M30 I got for free) I ended up with the ETA Mini Closed. This headphone sounds clear and detailed in a way few headphones I’ve heard have, and it’s super light (240g), but it didn’t really sound that good on the Mimby/Rebel stack. I even ended up just listening to it on a $10 Abigail dongle instead, and that sounded really good, but it also sounded really good on my RU6 dongle with oversampling on, which convinced me there might be something I could change with my stack to make it more versatile. Also I read reviews of the Mimby that talked about it having a lack of dynamics and a “softness” to the sound that I’d kind of chalked up to the 6XX, but this made me think the Mimby might be responsible. Trepidatious about another “clean” DAC, I bought the Modi+.
The Modi+ fixed the problems with the dynamics and muscularity of the Mimby, and sounded really good, and finally made the Mini C sound good with the RebelAmp allowing me to put away the Abigail and the RU6. But on the 6XX it was missing something of the sense of dimension and texture I got from the Mimby.
After watching Cheap Audioman’s review of the Geshelli J2 with the AKM chip and how he thought it sounded better than the more expensive R2R DAC the Denafrips Ares II, I was convinced to give that DAC a try. And this is where things got weird.
So when I first got the J2 (after a long wait thanks to the backlog) and plugged it in (using the same Schiit Eitr DDC I used with the Mimby) I had a strange experience. The J2 seemed to clearly have more treble than the Modi+ or the Mimby, and this gave it a better sense of detail and “air”, and it was also a lot more muscular than either of those, just making stuff like metal music slam in a way I’d never heard before with the 6XX and didn’t know it was capable of. But coming off the Modi+, the treble felt strangely messy and uncontrolled in comparison. But more than that, it sounded echo-y, like everything I was listening to had extra reverb added to it. After listening the J2 for a couple days though, I switched back to the Modi+ and to my shock discovered I was hearing “echo-y”ness from it as well. In fact, now I heard it from the Abigail, from the Sonos speakers in my living room, from the little speaker on my phone, from the speakers in the stores when I went shopping that day. Like my hearing had been fundamentally altered in some way. This was scary and unreal.
The next morning though, I woke up, plugged in the Modi+ and listened to some music and it all sounded normal again.
Near as I can figure this is what happened: the extra treble presentation on the J2 just made me more aware of the reverb added to some degree in most music recordings, and once I was aware of it it was all I could hear in any recording. Like my brain had switched on a “hear the reverb” button.
I think this is something that’s missed or misunderstood when people talk about “expectation bias” or “placebo effect”. This was neither of those, it was like my brain was just attuned to a certain part of the sound in a certain way for a bit. And I think that if you’re used to a certain kind of sound it just changes how you perceive other kinds of sound signatures—like I feel like someone could just get used to Grados for example and think other headphones sound “wrong” because they don’t match the sound signature they’re used to. Also I think maybe some people who think DACs sound the same or not that different might just not be “mentally attuned” to the aspects that DACs make sound different.
When I plugged the J2 in again, I still heard the extra reverb, but now I think I was able to contextualize it better and after a bit the music sounded “normal” to me again. Well, not quite normal, it still sounded messy and uncontrolled in the high end compared to the Schiit stuff. Once again, though, the Mini C was the headphone that changed my perceptions. Because the Mini C sounded amazing with the J2. It just emphasized all the ways in which that headphone sounds crisp and controlled and powerful, and I’d put on like Tool or something and I’d be in heaven. Like it’s weird; despite the 6XX being much more lush and warm than the Mini C, the J2 sounded less harsh on the Mini C. I think the reason for this is the extra sense of control, like the Mini C cleans up distorted instruments to sound clearer and less grating. Which is not what I would have expected going in.
And once I’d kind of adapted to that, switching back to the 6XX or other headphones, I wasn’t hearing the treble as messy anymore, just more present and stronger. Though it still sounded a bit harsher and more fatiguing than the Modi+ or the Mimby. And all that muscularity was great when I wanted a pick-me-up but not so great when I wanted to chill out. And it still didn’t have the extra texture and dimensionality I felt like I got from the Mimby.
To be clear, I don’t want people to think that I think the J2 sounds dry or sterile at all. It sounds pretty natural and brings out timbre well, which I think makes it a clear step-up from the JDS Labs Atom DAC+ (and that stack I DO think is dry and sterile sounding to me).
But given what I missed about it compared to the Modi+ and Mimby, I bit the bullet and spent the money on the Bifrost 2/46 (the Mimby 2 wasn’t out yet, otherwise I might have gotten that instead). The Bifrost completely clocked the Mimby, doing everything it does better, just amazing dimensionality and texture from the instruments in a way I never thought possible. And it fixes the core problems with the Mimby, with the extra treble and muscularity of the Modi+. You can also tell that the three Schiit DACs were tuned by the same people, and have an overall similarity in sound signature.
The J2 on the other hand, still beats the Bifrost for muscularity and even detail with its extra treble emphasis. (Though the Bifrost beats the the Modis on detail easily.) And honestly maybe if I listened to it for long enough it wouldn’t sound so fatiguing to me anymore because I’d be used to it. And like if I only had the Mini C (and now I’ve also bought the ETA Mini S as well, which is wonderful and better than the Mini C but basically has the same kind of amp synergy and the same emphasis on clarity and control) then I might get the Geshelli E2/J2 stack because I think that combo would probably really sing. If I was the kind of person who wanted to have different stacks for different headphones, in fact, that’s pretty certainly what I would do. But I like the simplicity of a single stack, and overall the more relaxed, textured, dimensional sound of the Rebel/Bifrost combo. (For those wondering I do also have the Focal Elex as my most expensive pair of headphones (at least in terms of list price), but I honestly don’t use them that much because they’re heavy and while they have more soundstage and detail than the 6XX and more soundstage than the Minis, I don’t like their timbre and I feel like there’s something just off about the tuning, while my attempts to EQ them just makes them sound more boring. I’ll probably sell them.)
So yeah. I don’t blame anyone for preferring the J2 to something like the Bifrost. The J2 is more technical, I think, while still being natural sounding and not dry, and is fundamentally a very good DAC in my opinion. I just prefer personally the more relaxed, textured, and dimensional presentation from the multibit sound of the Bifrost 2/64.
Also note that while I did hook everything up to a switcher at one point so I could quickly switch between one DAC and another (and had some interesting experiences where I forgot which DAC I was listening to and wondered why the DAC I thought I was listening to didn’t sound right), I did not at all blind test any of this. So take that for what it’s worth. If you think that invalidates any of my listening, that’s your prerogative.
In any case, I hope though I’ve emphasized how subjective I think this all is. I think people don’t talk enough about how whatever you’re used to or are listening “for” can effect what you hear, and that’s even aside from HRTF and how people’s hearing changes over time and from damage. Like Cheap Audioman, the guy who said he liked the J2 over the Ares II, also said in another video that he lost some hearing on the high end while he was in the military. I can’t know for sure, but that may have something to do with his preferences, making the J2 sound more “neutral” and the Ares II sound too warm. (He’s also said he doesn’t like the HD6XX, which might be chalked up to the same thing.) But again, it could also be a lot of other things that shape his preferences, and at some level you never really know until you hear it for yourself.
Further when I say that the DACs have these qualities, I also want to emphasize that these differences are relatively small and more apparent when you’re A/Bing them and therefore sensitive to the differences than they are just listening to each one in isolation. I think the Modi+ is a great default recommendation for an affordable DAC, and sounds really good with more expensive DACs only ever being incremental improvements over it. The fact that I’d be willing to spend as much as the Bifrost costs to get the small level of improvement over the Modi+ still kind of boggles me a bit. I know “endgame is a myth” but I cannot ever see myself buying anything to replace the Bifrost, and if I was setting up a second listening station somewhere I’d pretty certainly pick something much cheaper. (Maybe the Modi+ or the Mimby 2, or maybe something else I haven’t heard before just for fun.)
The Mimby 1 I think is good on some headphones, but is ultimately flawed as an all-rounder. From the reviews it seems like the Mimby 2 fixes most of the problems with the Mimby 1, but I can’t say for sure as I’ve never heard it.
Thanks for reading this long ramble, I hope it’s useful to some of you in some way.