Mhdt Labs Balanced Pagoda DAC by Terry London
In the last seven months, I have received scores of emails from readers on two superlative balanced DACs (Bricasti Design M3/Rockna Audio Wavelight, which retail for around $5000). Many readers wanted to know and seek a DAC that was a truly balanced design yet would come in at a lower price point. Many less expensive DACs provide XLR analog outputs, but build-wise, they are not an authentically balanced design.
When I was writing for 6moons Audio, I reviewed the Orchid DAC in 2019 from the Taiwanese company, Mhdt Labs. This company and its head designer, Jiun-Hsien Wu, have a worldwide following for their different non-oversampling ladder DAC’s, based on a terrific performance, excellent build quality, and very reasonable pricing. Another exciting aspect of their DACs is that each is designed around some legendary NOS R-2R DAC chipsets (PCM56P/AD1862/TDA1541a/TDA1545A). The circuitry is constant between the models, and each one has a tube-based analog conversion section. You can do a tremendous amount of tube “rolling” in all the Mhdt Labs DACs to get the most appealing sonic signature you want in your system. I discovered my favorite tube was the NOS Western Electric 396A, which is easily obtainable and inexpensive. The primary retail source for obtaining Mhdt Labs DACs here in the U.S. is the excellent tube company, Linear Tube Audio (LTA), located in Maryland. My contact person is Nicholas Tolson, the resident DAC “guru” who answers all the questions regarding the entire Mhdt Labs stable of DACs. Three years later, I still find the Orchid my favorite inexpensive DAC. It retails for $1,210.00, and I recommend it to anyone seeking a DAC at this price point.
The subject of this review is the Mhdt Labs Balanced Pagoda DAC which not only hits the price point that my readers were looking for (it retails for $2,220), but its performance equals the level of sonic beauty of the DACs that I have reviewed, which are at least double the price. Like all the Mhdt Lab’s models, the Balanced Pagoda is housed in a sturdy black aluminum chassis with an acrylic front panel. The Balanced Pagoda dimensions are 13” length 8” width 3” height. Its weight is 5.3 pounds. The Balanced Pagoda has AES/EBU, USB, and coaxial RCA/BNC inputs. All the inputs support 16/24 bits/32 kHz up to 192 kHz. The DAC offers two outputs, balanced XLRs and single-ended RCAs. In all the systems I used it in, it “shined” the most when using the balanced XLR outputs. The Balanced Pagoda uses four legendary R-2R multi-bit NOS Burr Brown standard PCM 1704 (24bit) DAC chips.
It employs a pair of NOS Western Electric 396A tubes in the analog conversion section since it is a balanced design. In the words of Mhdt Labs, “The balanced version of the Pagoda was designed; i.e. two Pagodas, one in positive signature and one negative. Total 4 PCM1704 DAC chips were used, each chip is independent for right and left as well as positive and negative signals.” I find the Balanced Pagoda’s overall look to be quite attractive and enjoy seeing the glow of the WE 396A tubes through the acrylic front panel. As a very brief side note, I tend to like non-oversampling ladder DACs slightly more than single-bit Sigma-Delta DACs because I experience a touch more liquidity, purity of timbres, and image density with this approach to digital reproduction. Since all the Mhdt Labs DACs are based on this circuit topography, I find them quite musical and a pleasure to listen to because they present the music in a very natural manner. Now, let’s get on to describing the performance of the Balanced Pagoda, which led me to put it on the Stereo Times “MOST WANTED COMPONENTS 2020 LIST.”
My first album selection was by tenor saxophonist Houston Person, who is still playing great creative jazz at 86, “I’m Just a Lucky So and So.” This album’s sound quality is very high in overall dynamics, crystal clear timbres/tonality, and an extended high-end presentation. The Balanced Pagoda captured the beautiful tonality of Person’s tenor with a rich and vibrant take on his warm and full timbres that just oozes out of his horn. The excellent work of guitarist, Rodney Jones, was brought to life by the Balanced Pagoda’s ability to pick-up all the micro-details of his finger work at bending specific notes to get all the emotions he could wring out of that part of his solo. I believe this is where the Balanced Pagoda’s true balanced circuit design becomes apparent. The absence of a noise floor allowed minor details and nuances of the music to be effortlessly and easily discerned.
My next selection, by the great jazz pianist, Cedar Walton, was his album Latin Tinge, which will test a DAC’s ability to get the speed and dynamics of his powerful performance, along with the high-end extension and quickness of Ray Mantilla’s percussion instruments. If I had any concerns regarding that the tube-based analog conversion section of the Balanced Pagoda would somehow “slowdown” the pulse of this music and would subdue to a certain degree the thunderous drumming of Mantilla. These concerns were dismissed as the drum kit’s speed, mighty whacks, and full dynamics of the Steinway Grand piano bottom-end notes effortlessly flowed through my speakers.
The last album I selected, by the delightful jazz vocalist Jacintha, The Girl from Bossa Nova, is a studio recording that can measure how well a DAC can render spatiality in two specific ways. First, the recording gives each individual in the band accurate placement front to back and side to side in a realistic layered soundstage. Secondly, what I refer to as image density/palpability with “air” around each player is reproduced to a high level on this recording. The Balanced Pagoda did not fall short in rendering either of these beautiful spatial qualities at a level that at least matched any of the other DACs that I have reviewed that cost double the price of the Mhdt Labs Balanced Pagoda!
The readers that were requesting if I could find and review a truly balanced DAC that would be under $2,500 and offer superlative performance to add to their system, you now have a great option in the Mhdt Labs Balanced Pagoda DAC. The Balanced Pagoda provides:
- Excellent build quality.
- Legendary NOS Burr-Brown PCM 1704 DAC chips.
- The ability to roll tubes to tailor the sound that you want in your system.
Its sonic performance revolves around beautiful timbres, excellent transparency allowing easily discernable micro and macro details. Its overall powerful overall dynamics and fabulous high-end “shimmer,” where you hear the details and decays without harshness. Overall performance is excellent if you use it single-ended. However, its true beauty occurs when you use its XLR outputs, especially if you use balanced components throughout your system. Based on my above comments on the Balanced Pagoda’s performance and the cost-to-performance ratio, you can see why I bought the review piece and selected this DAC for inclusion on the Stereo Times “MOST WANTED COMPONENTS 2020 LIST.”
Digital Receiver CS8416
D/A converter PCM1704 (standard no grade)
Frequency response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz (± 1dB)
Output impedance: 32 ohms
Output level: 3 Vrms
All inputs support 16/24 bits/ 32 kHz up to 192 kHz
Dimensions: (W x D X H) 276 x 150 x 60 mm
Dimensions w/ socket (W x D X H) 295 x 170 x 60 mm
Weight: 2 kg
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