DIY Paradise: Monica III DAC

DIY Paradise: Monica III DAC

May 21, in Hi-Fi Systems Reviews


  • 1 digital input, 1 analog Output
  • Non-oversampling TDA 1545A DAC Chip Asynchronous Reclocking
  • Dimensions H 2 x W 2 x D 4 inches
  • Weight ~2 lbs
  • Price: ~$375.00 (Depends on exchange rate.)

I have had a wonderful extended interview with a beautiful supermodel that has had amazing exposure on the web these last few years. I arranged the meeting with her manager, Yeo of DIY Paradise, and from the moment she arrived in my home there has been a warmer and cleaner sense to every piece of music she touches. Wait, supermodels don’t work with music? Well, after seeing this cute little DAC in action, it is easy to see why Yeo refers to his signature DAC as Monica, and speaks of her like she is a true lady. The equipment has all the right characteristics. It is talented, warm, and friendly–and not a bad looker, either.

Before this lovely lady arrived, I wasn’t dissatisfied with the system that came into existence in my living room over the years, but now, I may be ruined forever. Yeo jokes about this on his website, about how

“…the Monica III DAC has ruined music without her forever.”

I am very skeptical of product claims like that from a DAC. I mean after all, they are almost never really necessary, right? Only the most expensive CD transports don’t have them included. All of the affordable players come with a DAC built right in. Since I am always looking for the most affordable, best quality system, it just makes sense to pick a player with a nice DAC in it and be done with the whole DAC question. What intrigued me about this Monica DAC from DIY Paradise is that it is what is referred to as a NOS or Non-Over-Sampling DAC. This logic seems counterintuitive at first to what I thought I knew about digital audio conversion. The theory I was taught was the more oversampling you could get, the better. First was 2X, then 8X, then up-converters to “higher resolution.” Don’t you want that digital signal cleaned up, reorganized and up-converted as much as possible? Well, according to the Monica III methodology the answer would have to be ”No.” Yeo and Monica are of the opinion that it is best to leave that data at the original sampling, accurately clock it, then convert it to analog and send it on to your preamp. Well, this line of thinking sure had the part of me I like to refer to as “the purist” intrigued. Lucky for me, Yeo was interested in an A$$A review, so we were off to the races!

I was surprised when this DAC showed up in a little FedEx envelope-no fancy box or other knick-knacks to add to the expense. The package contained a Monica III DAC wrapped in bubble wrap, and a wall-wart style power supply. This Monica III, she is power hungry. The power supply is adjustable between 12-20 volts DC. Monica is rated to run at between 15-20 volts. I found that with my particular equipment combination, it sounded best at around 17, but my understanding is that every match of Monica and source likes a slightly different setting. So feel free to play with this; just please stay in the recommended range for the young lady’s safety!

I personally love the chassis, but I love wood and particularly Asian and South American woods. The chassis of my review model is made out of linseed oiled teakwood. This beautiful box features a removable lid. If you’re interested, you can look inside to see the pretty lights, as well as check out the quality components used to make this budget piece. The previous generation of Monica was available in a metal alternative, but Yeo has decided that wood equipment sounds better, and after researching some vibration issues, I would tend to agree. Sorry to those wood haters out there. The wooden chassis size is about 2” wide, by 4” deep, and 2” high. The entire presentation from the packing material to the final finish on the chassis has a useful, utilitarian theme that I, personally, really appreciate.

Monica III DAC

Previous versions of the Monica were available as DIY projects at one third of the assembled cost, but for sound quality reasons the Monica III has been redesigned as a surface-mounted board instead of using easier-to-assemble through-hole components. The surface-mounted components have forced DIY Paradise to offer the Monica III only as an assembled product. The original Monica and Monica II also had the issue of lowering the output volume to levels that were unusable without an active preamp. This version, I am happy to report, doesn’t appear to modify the output level at all. I was able to A/B test the DAC with the internal DAC on my Roku Soundbridge without any noticeable volume changes. Other changes were very noticeable though, as you will read about shortly.

As previously mentioned, I used the Roku Soundbridge for this review. Normally, the Roku Soundbridge is an adequate player that compares very well to the NAD, Rotel, or Cambridge Audio products I have heard all the way up to around the $500 range. Much past that, it can’t compete. I consider the Roku part of the “Super Bargain” products category. The Roku can be found for $119 at most Best Buy stores, and easily sounds better than any player I have heard at twice the cost. The Roku is a digital music player that is able to use many computer music sources as its server, including iTunes and Microsoft Windows Media Player. As with iPods and other digital media players, they can only sound as good as the files you feed them. The garbage in/garbage out methodology is just as true in audio as it is in education. I only use uncompressed WAV files, ripped with bit-for-bit comparison. (You can’t compare a computer file player to a CD player if you’re feeding the CD player better data; that just isn’t fair.) I own several Roku Soundbridge devices, and I am familiar with their weaknesses, primary among those being a lower quality DAC. My discussions with the engineers at Roku about this, and the possibility of making a higher end product, possibly similar to the Squeezebox Transporter, have not been well-received. Their opinion appears to be that people who want better quality will most likely be hooking this device up to a better quality receiver or processor that has a high-end DAC built in.

Needless to say, I was very excited by the possibility of improvement I might experience by adding a nice DAC to what is already a pretty good player. At around $500 for the pair, a Roku and a Monica III could be a knockout punch for a budget system.

Even knowing that the DAC in the Roku was lacking, and also reading reviews of other NOS DAC offerings, I was still expecting the changes between my internal DAC and the Monica III to be somewhat subtle. I was pleasantly surprised when they were anything but. I started out by playing “Fields of Gold,” the first cut on Eva Cassidy’s “Songbird” album. I immediately noticed a dramatic difference, before switching back to the internal DAC for comparison. The background was much blacker, and the subtle breathing and timbre changes in Eva’s voice made the presentation so much more alive. That initial impression of added life was something I really couldn’t find a better way to describe throughout my time with this piece. All of the music I played, blues, jazz, classic rock, bluegrass, classical, and even pop standards were all more emotional and, yes, alive through Monica then they were without her. I have heard CD players in the past that had something similar to this presence, but they were all either much more forward—and, in the end, somewhat fatiguing–or very expensive. Somehow, the Monica III manages to add life and presence with a laid back attitude. I have heard players by Esoteric and Electrocompaniet which easily sounded more alive and real than this combination, but nothing I have heard for under $1500 matches the brilliance of this combination. Earlier, I mentioned that the Roku compares very favorably with $500 CD players on its own, but with the Monica III clearly the combination is easily 2-3 times as good.

I was wrapping up this review when Yeo from DIY Paradise contacted me about a last-minute upgrade he had recently released, a $46 digital cable that just had to be heard to be believed! Well, after spending this time with Monica, when Yeo makes those claims, I want to give it a listen! He packaged up a Whitesnake Digital cable and sent it on its way. Two days later, I was once again impressed by the simplicity and quality of the product at my doorstep, a shielded, stark white cable with BNC connections on both ends. Monica has been modified to accommodate the BNC, and the cable comes with 2 BNC-RCA adapters for your source. Before Whitesnake arrived, Monica was playing with a couple of different combinations. The first was a Dayton Digital Cable, and the other was a Blue Jeans Digital Cable. Neither one was even close to the league of the DIY Paradise Whitesnake. I borrowed some Cardas Lightning and Audio Quest VDM-3 digital cables so I could compare Whitesnake to something a bit out of its league. It held his own, but the Cardas was a superior cable. The Audio Quest did not appear to be a better built or better sounding example, but it was over 3 times the cost at $165. I have to say, the braided fabric was a cool look though. The Cardas was almost 5 times the cost at $255 per meter. I give this $60 upgrade two thumbs up. I tried several cables and I couldn’t justify the large cost differences for the small audible difference I could hear in the more expensive cables.

DIY Paradise: Monica III DAC inside

The soundstage changes with Monica III were essentially a deepening and widening of the total soundstage. My Fritz Monitors with the Roku have an acceptable width and depth to their sound, but with the Monica III, the sound filled the room in a way I hadn’t experienced with any other changes or tweaks I have made in the past. The instruments seemed to be originating in a place just slightly beyond the wall behind my speakers, and spread out much further then I ever remember before. We have a local ragtime jazz band, called Hobo-Jazz, a very simple arrangement of acoustic guitar and stand-up bass in front of a simple, three–piece drum set. This little arrangement is an act of simplicity. They do an amazing live show. They have a studio album that isn’t the best recording ever made, but with the Monica III, it is much more similar to the energy and presence of their live show. The Monica III did all of this without smoothing out the rough edges that to me are what jazz is supposed to be. Jazz and blues to me are different variations on the most emotional and raw events of a songwriter’s life. These are not things that are supposed to be “smooth.” and the Monica III was able to recognizably improve the heart and soul of what is already a very emotional genre.

Monica III DAC inside

Something entirely new and exciting happened when I heard what I consider my imaging “Gold Standard” song. It seems like I can’t do a review without mentioning “The Unionhouse Branch” on Alison Krauss and Union Station’s “Lonely Runs Both Ways” album, but until I find something that is as pinpoint precise for imaging, it is going to have to remain my reference. I know this song and, when Monica plays it, all of a sudden, it becomes a much more musical, and far less analytical piece of music. “The Unionhouse Branch” has always had a cool, almost jam session feel to it, except that the musicians stay in specific locationsthroughout the piece which is why it has always been perfect as an imaging standard. But now, with the Monica III, somehow everything just clicked in a whole new way. So after I got over the initial shock of how musical and energizing the piece had become, I found something else new and unexpected. The group was more spread out and there was this wonderful “black” space between each instrument. Even after noticing the improved soundstage with previous pieces, when combined with this new imaging aspect, the improved soundstage was completely fresh and unexpected.

I wouldn’t expect a $375 component to be perfect and this one really isn’t. It is close enough, though, that some competing products have shamelessly ripped off the Yeo’s designs. That aside, my list of improvements would be rather short. I would add an external power supply that uses a standard IEC connector instead of the wall wart. I would also like to see a through-hole version that could be a DIY project. I know it wouldn’t have the same sound quality, but with a name like “DIY Paradise,” a DIY version seems an obvious and worthwhile option!

The combined effect of the improved soundstage, imaging and clarity leaves me with the feeling that maybe Yeo is right. Maybe I am now forever ruined for music without this cute little Monica DAC. She is cute, and when she sings, she can make you fall in love, or despair, depending on the emotions the musician, not the equipment, is conveying. This elegant little gal had me digging through my music library, including those older greats I seldom dig up, and not just relying on my current favorites. For the first time in a while, I feel like it really is all about the music, and you just can’t beat that for any price.

Review Equipment:

  • Roku Soundbridge M1000 Network Music Player
  • Quicksilver Audio Silver Mono amplifiers Ideal Innovations Elite-80+ Amplifier nOrh ACA2b Preamplifier
  • Fritz Frequencies loudspeakers Dayton Audio interconnects (3 foot) Dayon Audio Digital Cable (3 foot) Audioquest VDM-3 Digital Cable (3 foot) Cardas Lightning Digital Cable (3 foot)
  • Audioquest CV-4 speaker cables (10 foot)

from affordableaudio, By Jeff Brown

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