Having reviewed a couple of Yulong products already now it certainly seems they have stapled their name down with a few other companies for a team that can build quality products in China at great prices. While I don’t ever feel they are the best products and they certainly are not flawless, you can’t help but feel surprised about the value proposition. For the last couple of years their top DAC has been the DA8 and it seems to have done well enough although I missed reviewing that and instead tackled the cheaper D200 (£416) which you can see how I found here. While I may have missed a go with the DA8 last time round, it seems they have been working on way to improve it and now have dropped the DA8II, at around twice the price of the D200, £840. While double the price the DA8II seems to offer very much of what the D200 did, everything has been pushed a little further and having used both, there is no doubt that this oozes more quality. Now don’t get me wrong and begin to worry when I say this offers a lot of what the D200 does because that thing done it all and this alike is a DAC, headphone amp and pre amp, which you can integrate into your system however you feel.
Sabre Does It
Most DACs these day pick an ESS Sabre chip. I know why, they are cheap, decent enough and handle everything that the modern, digital age audiophile wants being DSD and high res, regardless as to whether they even use these files. The result of this is they are in more DACs I am reviewing than not, BMC used one in both their PureDAC and UltraDAC, Aurender with their Flow, North Star Design in the Incanto and even the Simaudio Moon 430HA headphone amp, which I just received has a Sabre DAC lined in it. Now I have two things to note on Sabre and the first is while all of these products use a Sabre DAC and some are very much more expensive than the DA8, none use the official Sabre flagship chip that this DA8II does, the 9018. The most common in fact is the second in command 9016, which the D200 used and then you also see a lot of the portable intended 2 channel 9018, the 9018K2M. Because the likes of BMC and North Star deciding on the 9016 in more expensive products I can’t help but wonder if there is a reason for that, do BMC for example, genuinely prefer its performance? I can’t help but notice a real lack of the 9018 we have here. The second is an interesting chat I had with Børge of Henry Audio.
“The ESS chips don’t handle almost-full power square waves. If you have access to an oscilloscope you can see and provoke the bug. The chip has too much gain in an internal digital filter and overshoots in a nasty way. With access to special datasheets some people are able to fix the gain problems in 9012 and 9018, but 9023 does not offer access to those registers”
So the flaw is there but as far as I am aware only certain companies have the data sheets and I can’t be sure as to whether Yulong are using them.
That being said I am not some one to say Yulong don’t know what they are doing and with them implementing it in quad mono mode, maybe it has a chance. Trying not to focus too much on just the DAC ship because in reality thats only doing so much, and people put way too much faith on DAC chips and there is plenty of other stuff to talk about. My main reason for mentioning Sabre so much is more to say I just feel a lot of new DAC designs lazy and stagnating. Its just more and more of the same. Anyhow the amps section is based on a diamond buffer circuit, so in other words is discrete class A and the pre amp and buffer is a OPA1632. Like the much more expensive Lampizator Lite 7 this uses an Amanero Combo 384 USB module (this is a special Yulong version) that always seems to do well and one of the updates for this II version is a Crystek CCHD-950-25-100 audio crystal oscillator.
Nice LED Panel but No Remote
The unit it self has very little to note in terms of designs, it doesn’t look too different to the D200 before it or the North Star Incanto, which is supposedly an Italian luxury. In reality this is a unit typical of what you expect from China, with a simple metal chassis and clear labelling, not bad but nothing out of the ordinary like the BMC Pure line that looks just EPIC. That being said I am a big fan of the 2.4 inch display on this, which is full colour and good resolution. It does a great job of precisely giving all the relevant info and quickly reacts to any of the many options you may want to change.
Being a lot more than just a DAC after the power button on the front you have a 1/4 inch headphone jack (although you can use the XLR outputs for balanced drive), the screen and then you have the option buttons. For that we have the input selector, filter switch (sharp and slow for PCM and different cut off points for DSD), jitter elimination and phase shift. Finally we have the volume control for pre amp and headphone amp and if you choose to use it as a DAC only you give the volume knob a press and it give you a line out from both the XLRs (4.2Vrms) and RCAs on the back! Controls work great and everything is fluid although I will mention this does lack a remote. Yes it is made as a desktop headphone item but if you use as a pre amp, a remote would go along way.
Knob feel is ok, its a stepped attenuator that click for each dB, something I am a big fan of but the feel is very jolty as a trade off. Also with it being digital it rotates endlessly, which is odd, and while you have the volume level on the screen, you can’t use the knob as an indicator.
I must say I also had a problem with the optical input. I generally hate optical but for once I had to use it when I had taken it on the road and it just kept jumping in and out of receiving a signal, USB and coaxial though had zero issues and I did not have a chance to try the AES input.
Performance with Headphones
Yulong have always been a company that take headphone serious and while have played in both digital and analogue domains, pretty much all their DACs have head amps and they also have their own dedicated head amp options. At heart they are clearly a headphone company and while some other branded DACs have very much so-so headphone sections, Yulong always come in pretty strong. With this being class A and heaving a solid 1 watt per channel into 32 ohms it does not seem like they are messing here.
I went straight to my reference Sennheiser HD800s to try the amp section and with them putting 150mW into the Senny’s 300 ohms, power should not be a problem. That being said the HD800s quickly left behind the Yulong in terms of ability and things got strident and splashy quick. I have spent a lot of time getting the best out of the HD800s and the DA8II is not the way, you can certainly do better spending less. It however seemed less a case of driving ability and more of bad synergy so I swapped in the planar magnetic ZMF Blackwoods to see if we had more luck.
Thankfully we did and the sound was much easier on the ears and the control over their very inefficient driver was certainly surprising. Bass was fluid and thoughtful (but not with the biggest slam) in what it was doing and the treble was sparkly but not fatiguing like with the HD800.
I wanted to also see how they handled something completely at the over end of the scale and tried out one of my CIEMs, the Rhines Stage 7 to be more precise. I was a little worried as on the lowest volume, -60dB, I still got sound from the ZMF’s but gave it ago anyhow, even if I did proceed with caution. Comfortable listening was around -55dB but I got all sorts of weird bass distortion and pooping just from being plugged in, maybe IEMs are not a good idea.
I did find the bass to be slightly soft and the upper mids also seemed to have an obvious presence but the amp was certainly capable and while the HD800 was a bad match, it done well with others such as the ZMF to show quality.
Performance as a DAC
One of our local distributors Ikon Audio Consultants is a CD guy, his collection is huge and he has always just used CD players internal DACs. Very good ones from the likes of Jadis and Symphonic Line mind you but never has he ventured into stand alone DACs and for that reasons it has always been interesting to take over DACs and see how he responds. We have taken all sorts over such as our reference totaldac d1-tube-mk2 and we thought we would take over the Yulong and see what he thought before telling him more. Using Audioplan’s flagship Konzert speakers and the Audiomat Aria tube amp, we went back and forth with the DA8II and his Symphonic Line CD player (it had RCAs into the Aria and coaxial into the Yulong) it out sped the almost 5 times as expensive CD player and also had more bite to the treble. It didn’t seem as analogue and also had less dynamics and while we did give the nod to the Symphonic overall through some different CDs it was clear while they clearly had different signatures, we were certainly impressed by how close the Yulong kept things on a technical level and it certainly showed some impressive value in this comparison. It also shows merit with its price in the Northstar comparison with me preferring this as a DAC only as I mention here.
Now even though it was not as warm as the Symphonic Line, it certainly is a little on the warm side. Now my biggest bother with this product is while its warm, I just don’t find it to be so in a analogue, smooth or effortless way. It still presents music digitally, completely unlike my totaldac, which is like a chocolate fountain of loveliness. That being said the digital element does give that glassier detail to the sound. Upper midrange and treble have just a touch of a glare and shimmer of digital artefacts. It also does not have the most complete cohesion, with the bass being mellower and a touch soft, the treble is much harder. Still though the treble is surely calm compared to some Sabre solutions like the North Star so don’t stress too much. I also found the slow filter helped in relaxing things that little bit more and found that my main used choice.
Getting away from some limitations I found though and just taking the microscope away and listening this hardly offends. It is not complete neutral but is a pleasant and engaging sound. The lively treble often has merit and the bass is is plump and enjoyable. Into the middle of the sound and we still have a clear sound that does detail well, there is no doubt about it. This is not the most attacking DAC nor does it have the last say in dynamics, which keep things resolving and easily listenable and at the same time it keeps separated and agile enough for the most part, something some DACs cant manage under a grand. I also find its upper mids to not be pushed forward as much as the say the Incanto, meaning for a tame and balanced midrange.
A Safe Buy
I think people may get carried away with what Yulong offer. They certainly are not changing the game or anything and this product is far from perfect. The single most impressive thing to me though is how well it does at the price. It seems to perform just as well as products I am used to costing that much more, say the North Star which is almost double the price. It certainly isn’t the best DAC and also is not the best amp but a sturdy combo is never a bad thing. Its a better combo than say even the Exogal Comet, which has a weak headphone out. That all being said it still doesn’t have anything to really stand out or show itself different from all the other options coming in thick and fast and this price range is still packed with some other strong options. This could well be a safe bet but don’t count out other choices.