Home DAC test - Legacy Boulder VS Bartok VS Bel Canto E1X

Thetiminator

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It’s been around 6 years since I’ve had itchy feet re my DAC’s performance against newer models. The last time I tried MBS, TotalDac, antelope and Bricasti among a few others. Back then I found that Dac quality at similar price points was more alike than different, tending to offer a slightly different flavour of the same level of SQ. I did find quite large increases in SQ between £2-£4k, £4k-£10k and around £10k-£20k plus price points though. The rest of the system is the same both then and now (I removed any tweaks I’ve added since the last test - so all the results are as comparable as possible).

So I contacted both the dealer I bought my Boulder from and Paul at HiFi Lounge for the Bartok. Both were extremely helpful, Paul doesn’t ask me for any money (I’ve used hol a lot in the past few years, and if I don’t buy the item I always send a ‘thank you’ in the box back….for a bite of dinner for him and the Mrs). The dealer I bought the Boulder from (BD from here on) asked me for £1k in my card. I pay and sort couriers both ways…

I rang BD, told him I fancied a change, budget was flexible and what were his thoughts. He strongly suggested the Bel Canto (around £6k IIRC), saying it was as good as anything, particularly with all the room correction software etc. I was surprised (thought he’d recommend something much more spendy, but happy days).

On arrival I plugged both in for 24 hours so let the warm up. Had a quick listen to 3 test tracks and slotted in the BC, turned off all the gizmos and gave it an hour or so.

The result…meh. It was ok, everything was kind of there in a near well organised soundstage, but it lacked the class of the Boulder in a big way. Fiddling with the room corrections and settings over the next day or so made the sound a bit more even, but there wasn’t improvement in SQ.
I disconnected the BC and fired up the Boulder (which needs 24 hours to get into its stride) and bang! Soundstage exploded, detail increased, you could feel the breath from the singers coming towards you again, the bass power and depth was much much better, and it was just much more real, transparent and natural.

Years ago I had the Benchmark Dac(3?) and the AHB2 in another system, and I tried them in the main system out of interest. The Bel Canto sounded as close as to make no difference to the Benchmark…everything there but not in the same league as the Boulder and just very meh. (The AHB2 was pretty awful compared to my Boulder Amps).

On to the Bartok. Standard filter and 3-4 hour warm up. Bugger…wish I hadn’t tried it as this caused my some sleepless nights. The Bartok was a touch meatier than the Boulder (which was preferable on some tracks, but not others), the soundstage was a touch more organised, bass depth and tunefulness didn’t quite the Boulder, but it did have a touch more punch. Naturalness, transparency, detail and ‘breathyness’ was better on the Boulder.
One thing I really didn’t like about the Bartok was that bloody app thing. If you wanted to adjust the volume between tracks, you had to open the app and use a slider thing. It only took a few seconds but a nuisance all the same.

In the end I stuck with the Boulder for a few reasons. First it’s SQ was comparable with the Bartok, just a different flavour. My speakers have trim on the treble and mids, so you can adjust these down which gives you more bass, which closed the gap between the two even more.
Secondly, money. If I’d tried both at home and they were the same price (and the Bartok had a remote) I may have been in flip a coin territory, but at possibly £10k to change…err nope.
Thirdly, the Boulder has a properly tasty phono stage (although I don’t have a TT anymore, but you never know the day), and an excellent analogue preamp built in. Also it has two outputs so it’s handier for my subs.

There you have it. I hope that’s of any interest to someone….

Edit - Lastly…I rarely post on the forums anymore, (for obvious reasons), so I’d really appreciate that the thread doesn’t descend into a fight….
Genuine experience of comparison of other good dacs much appreciated though.

Finally, a huge shout out for Paul at HiFi Lounge who was brilliant and a total gentleman. The other dealer did surprise me, he didn’t even reply to my email saying it didn’t work for me and there was £100 in an envelope to say thanks. A side note - he described the Bel Cabto as open box, but it had more scratches than a scabby cat.
 
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JamieMcC

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Ive been taking a interest in the Boulder 866 but finding info on comparisons of the DAC section are hard to come by maybe I'll have a look for some comparisons to the 1012.

Edit forgot to say thanks for posting your write up.
👍
 

Thetiminator

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Ive been taking a interest in the Boulder 866 but finding info on comparisons of the DAC section are hard to come by maybe I'll have a look for some comparisons to the 1012.

Edit forgot to say thanks for posting your write up.
👍
Hi Jamie
Id definitely try and give one a listen. I’ve tried other brands without success. Boulder just don’t make a bad product, and I think you’re better off buying the entry model of a Boulder than the top of the range of something else.
The 866 Dac won’t be quite as good (Boulder say - I considered reducing my box count), but I’ll bet there’s very little in it when you factor in cables etc…
Warning though, you have to have a well balanced system…some people think Boulders can be bright, but they’re really not, they are fast with exceptionally deep but tight bass. In some systems that can tilt the balance upward, but it is shortcomings elsewhere…
Good luck and keep us updated..
 
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Hi Jamie
Id definitely try and give one a listen. I’ve tried other brands without success. Boulder just don’t make a bad product, and I think you’re better off buying the entry model of a Boulder than the top of the range of something else.
The 866 Dac won’t be quite as good (Boulder say - I considered reducing my box count), but I’ll bet there’s very little in it when you factor in cables etc…
Warning though, you have to have a well balanced system…some people think Boulders can be bright, but they’re really not, they are fast with exceptionally deep but tight bass. In some systems that can tilt the balance upward, but it is shortcomings elsewhere…
Good luck and keep us updated..
Generally I agree, however a friend has a Boulder Phono stage and TBH I preferred the Luxman 500 he had before, the Boulder has more gain, but also hardness and a lack of depth. Each to their own.
 
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Thetiminator

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Hi Tim,
I sometimes wonder whether there is a new tech DAC that can markedly better my own top of the range DAC. In brief, my own DAC has separate digital and analogue power supplies, valve output stage and NDK ultra low phase clocks reclocking the data. I use USB on this at the moment via a Phoenix USB. I'll soon be reinstalling the RPI4 as that direct i2s combo has not been bettered by any streamer I've tried up to around £20k. So I compared a few DACs to my own NOS build top of the line model. I've put very brief summaries below. The dcs and MSB DACs were listened to by a group of hi fi friends. The Mola Mola was given a big unprompted negative vote for SQ by my wife, as well as me. The Rockna was listened to solely by me at a dealers with my preamp and an expensive valve amp:

DCS Bartok
Its best performance was on high res but worse on standard CD quality material. Eg on Joan Armatrading Walk Under Ladders the vocals are very recessed in the mix compared to my own DAC. Radio quality limited to 320kbps which is a pain if you like Radio Paradise as I do. I wonder if that changed with the Apex upgrade? USB input using Phoenix reclocker bettered the Ethernet input (it uses a standard relatively cheap Ethernet card).

Summary
A decent buy all in one box solution at its secondhand price of around £7,500. Not worth new price IMO and personally I don't like its looks, n. or can you turn off upsampling.

MSB Discrete and Reference DACs
Surprisingly perhaps I preferred the Discrete circa £16k to the Prestige at £52k. The Discrete just pumped out music and made me want to keep listening whereas the Reference sounded more hi fi. Didn't like the fact it is designed to be permanently powered up. Overall SQ very similar to my own DACs.

Conclusion
Apart from the price and permanently powered up part I could happily live with the Discrete but of course wouldn't pay £16k for similar SQ.

Rockna Wavedream
Of all the Dacs I listened too I only hear this at a dealers, not in my own home. Very disappointing in NOS mode, and some very strange artefacts with upsampling. Eg Bird on The Wire Leonard Cohen Live in Dublin. Leonard has a chesty voice of course but this DAC in upsampling mode makes him seem to be in the later stages of a serious chest infection.

Mola Mola Tambaqui
I really didn't get along with this DAC. It could sound very decent but also horrendously bad depending on the music. It also did strange things to dialogue on Netflix, a key requirement for my lounge DAC.

Conclusions
There was nothing among these DACs to make me pay for one for better SQ. I do wonder how upsampling on the DCS, Rockna and Mola Mola can affect the mix and /or sound so much when these DACs measure with such low distortion. Of course, there's plenty of DACs out there and you've sampled some others. The only one that tickles my fancy ATM is the Chord Dave + scaler which I'd love to hear at some point.

Hi David
Yes I think there’s a lot of reinventing the wheel in hifi. This was hammered home to me when (about 5 years ago) I had the top esoteric rig and a friend brought round his 30 year old Wadia system…it was perhaps the best digital id heard. To add insult to injury he was selling it for c£2k!

Like you I rate the MSB stuff. The last time I did a comparison the Boulder, the MSB and the TotalDac came out on top. With the TotalDac being the best by around 5%….again, not worth the money to change. I’m surprised at the Rockna though, that was on my list years ago as I thought they were just an MSB with a few minor changes? Maybe it’s different now though…

I found the likes of the Mutec made a much bigger difference than Dacs of similar price points. In fact the Uptonr Regen at a couple of hundred quid (whether you like what it does or not) made a vastly bigger difference than the difference between dacs at a similar price point.

Next week I have the full fat Vox Olympian outboard crossovers arriving from Kevin. I’ll hold off for a few months until I see what they do. And then maybe look at a good PS for the Mutec…

Haven’t heard the Dave/M-Scaler as Paul thought it would sound very similar to the Boulder…so I didn’t try one.

Keep us updated…
Cheers
Tim
 

Thetiminator

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Just a foot note. The in both cases connections were via AES through the Mutec as I always find it better than USB direct. I did try the Bartok direct USB but it sounded much better with the Mutec…
 

Thetiminator

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Link to old Dac test in case you’re interested…you only need to read the first post…

 
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'I found the likes of the Mutec made a much bigger difference than Dacs of similar price points. In fact the Uptonr Regen at a couple of hundred quid (whether you like what it does or not) made a vastly bigger difference than the difference between dacs at a similar price point.'

I too use and have good results with the Uptone Regen. Your conclusions generally match mine but it sounds like I should add a Boulder to my list of DACs to hear 😁
My experience is that a top notch streamer negates the need for usb regen/reclocking. Adding a mutec to my G2 made it sound worse!
 
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JamieMcC

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Hi thanks for the comments. I'm at a bit of crossroads at the moment mid 50's (nearly) and time for a change looking for something a bit special etc and was pondering over about trading in my Chord Dave towards the 866 for a versatile all in one and stream line all the cables and clutter etc. However when you start looking at the numbers the cash component say £10k there is not actually much in it between going for say something like the Luxman M900U (some good deals about due to the arrival of the 2022 M10X) and keeping the Dave which seems an attractive option. Not in any rush at the mo but it's a move that's been on my mind for a little while now and I continue to look at possible options.
 

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Great to see the write up especially about bel canto . I like simple easy to use stuff and the e1x does not sound that simple !,
 

hexx

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Ive been taking a interest in the Boulder 866 but finding info on comparisons of the DAC section are hard to come by maybe I'll have a look for some comparisons to the 1012.

Edit forgot to say thanks for posting your write up.
👍
I believe that 866 needs to be considered as a package. I replaced 865 + Hegel HD30 (see classifieds) with it. I prefer in some aspects Hegel + 865 and in others 866 with DAC.

They’re quite different as DACs, with 866’s DAC a bit more forward than Hegel plugged to 866 but because of that maybe more exciting, but depends on the music you listen to.

Most of my focused listening is through vinyl so didn’t pay that much attention to it (mostly Apple Music or internet radio); was rather looking for one box solution to replace amp, DAC and streamer. Once thing to be aware of - 866 does get quite hot!
 
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JamieMcC

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I believe that 866 needs to be considered as a package. I replaced 865 + Hegel HD30 (see classifieds) with it. I prefer in some aspects Hegel + 865 and in others 866 with DAC.

They’re quite different as DACs, with 866’s DAC a bit more forward than Hegel plugged to 866 but because of that maybe more exciting, but depends on the music you listen to.

Most of my focused listening is through vinyl so didn’t pay that much attention to it (mostly Apple Music or internet radio); was rather looking for one box solution to replace amp, DAC and streamer. Once thing to be aware of - 866 does get quite hot!

Thanks for your comments it certainly looks a interesting option to streamline a system. I wasn't aware it ran particularly hot so good to know as I work from home and often have a amp running 8-10hrs a day just streaming roon radio etc so heat build up is definitely a consideration.
 

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Flash you didn’t get the PS upgraded by any chance? I’m having a look at that at the mo. Was just going to ring Tony at Coherent, but if you have any other suggestions?
Cheers
Tim
My Mutec was bought off eByGum with stock SMPS removed and an ungainly wire with 3.5mm (I think) plug hanging out of the hole where the IEC inlet would have been ie. wouldn’t have worked without an external psu of some sort, which it so happens was exactly what I wanted = LPSU ready.

I use an SBooster which was the best of a handful Fourlegs and I tried in a Chord Hugo. Obviously can’t say it made a difference as I didn’t have a stock Mutec to compare it with! Hope this helps
 
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