Sonic Frontiers SFD-1mk2 Vintage DAC for $750 That Stomps Most Modern DACs

Discussion in 'Digital: DACs, USB converters, decrapifiers' started by purr1n, Nov 9, 2015.

  1. lehmanhill

    lehmanhill Almost "Made"

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    That's what I love about this forum. Two years ago, I didn't know anything about Sonic Frontiers, even though I had been buying DIY parts from Chris Johnson for years. I certainly didn't know about the SFD-1 & 2. And now I play my SFD-1 everyday in my office rig.

    Until a couple of days ago, I didn't know about the Processor 3. I guess I need to do more reading.

    @dankef,

    I have no idea what a good price would be for the Processor 3, although the "sold/expired" tab on a hifishark search might give you some idea. It certainly is a nice design and should be a step up from the SFD series. Of course, synergy counts pretty heavy, so you don't know how a technical upgrade changes the character or synergy, but it would be an interesting listen. If you get a chance to listen to it, I hope you will share your impressions.
     
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  2. ColtMrFire

    ColtMrFire Writes better fan fics than you

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    Dying to hear this DAC.
     
  3. Azimuth

    Azimuth FKA rtaylor76, Friend

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  4. M3NTAL

    M3NTAL Friend

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    There are like only a handful of people on this planet that probably have heard all of them at the same time on the same systems. I think @Xecuter and possibly a couple others who don't post as actively have heard them in a significant way.
     
  5. Huhnkopf

    Huhnkopf Friend

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    I have the Processor 3 as my main DAC for a good while now and I love it. It takes a lot of space with its external PSU, making it quite bigger than e.g. an Yggdrasil placement.

    Mine has been upgraded a lot though and is a bit far from stock, the previous owner must have loved them a lot. I absolutely love it even though I really neglected sleep for it. No kidding, it made me stay up so late for many weeks. I pushed a lot movies aside because I couldn't stop listening and I went late to bed before work. Don't do that too long.

    Now after summer's heat kicked in the usual everyear's period began where I don't listen to headphones at all and thus also regained my late youth. Now that we've gotten a lot of rain in the past weeks I reconnected with the DAC recently and I am back on the train. However as I am going to the Gym again now I've gotten better at managing the long nights. lol
    The P3 is just so damn good, it's hard to go back to other DACs. I wanted to have an extra DAC to not burn tubes during non-musical sessions but I sold the Gungnir A1 that was meant to be the workhorse DAC. It didn't cut it.

    Still looking for a good workhorse DAC that's a bit better.

    Anyway:

    The P3 builds upon the technical traits that make the SFD such a desired choice here but expands on it with bigger and deeper staging and layering, more resolution and texture. Seriously, even with headphones the staging is really something else. Bigger than the Yggdrasil v1 I had. It has all the other goods but presents it on a more open field, more "laying bare" yet never dry or sharp. I'm sure it doesn't match the ultra resolution and texture of modern DACs like the Rocknas, Holos etc. but I still hear a lot of the good stuff that makes me move and connect deep inside. So much of the good stuff that can almost be felt and sound "physical". I am not a great or overly long Jazz or Classic listener (e.g. for many hours) but here listened for hours because all the instruments would come out alive, pop out of the darkness, through the black, startle me with a little shock and presence. And nothing sounded unnatural. I am more in terms with acoustic music and I appreciate the intensiveness, "depth" of the tone, timbre so much. Again I would call it "presence", stealing the term from VR. I am sure you get what I mean. Instruments and especially mid tonality is "full of it", I could take a bit out of them and appreciate the material, texture. Ok, this is a lot of glowing right now. Let me calm down.

    This DAC is more neutral than both SFDs, this is quite noticable. It still has slight traits of that seductive romance but it is cleaner, more articulate and nuanced. It's not dry or "technical" like many modern DACs, it still is a vintage DAC in heart and brain (no 24/96 if you care for it). I am still kinda surprised how a 20 year old DAC can be so damn good but honestly, I trusted Marvey on this (and yes, all you guys too) and took the dive and came out more happy than ever before.

    I went from stock russian tubes to some TAD Premium E88CC to really good Siemens tubes and every new tube was a slight noticable upgrade but I don't advise to go crazy. The TAD felt a bit blunted in the upper extremes and the images felt more constrained, more austere. The Siemens are more open, expansive and add to the fabolous stage.

    stuff used: Susvara, HE-6, HD 800, JAR 650, Niimbus HPA, custom Pass HPA-1

    not the indepth take but owning it for the whole year and still taking special time for a long listening session and being happy about that kind of luxury I am honestly telling you just to go for it.
    Maybe it's also that modern DACs do have more negative traits for me that I cherish this DAC so much. Haven't looked at Rockna and Holo May for now but I am not planning to. The price is too steep.

    Fun fact: a friend of mine got his P3 after my recommendation and he went into the same abyss. His regular DAC is a Soekris 1541 with custom PSU.
     
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  6. M3NTAL

    M3NTAL Friend

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    Wonderful write-up and I think that basically covers everything you get from going up the SFD scale. The SFD-1 for me is the perfect "fancy everyday-man" type unit at the current sub 1K pricing. All this new crap coming out isn't making me enjoy the music anymore. Only DAC I've been fortunate to hear that changed my mind a touch on digital was the high-end Metrum stuff (Pavane for me) The CHORD stuff all sounds fine and dandy, but it's just lacking. Too vanilla and safe.

    I heard esoterics top stuff with the RAAL SR1A and the experience was not transcendental in a full way. You are still drawn out by the sacrifices or trade-offs I guess.
     
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  7. lehmanhill

    lehmanhill Almost "Made"

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    I agree. Nice job.

    I wonder how long prices will remain in check. Presently, on USAM, there is a SFD-2 Mk2 listed for $2400 and a P-3 listed for $4000. I would love to sample the P-3, but not at that price.

    I am fortunate enough to have both an SFD-1 Mk2 and a Pavane L3. The Pavane is an end game dac for me, but it is surprising how close the SFD-1 comes with the right tubes. I still pick the Pavane, but they are both so good.
     
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  8. dankef

    dankef Rando

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    Thanks @Huhnkopf for the impressions. I had talked myself out of buying the Processor 3 but now might have second thoughts! It does just seem like a lot to spend on a vintage DAC with the issues that may bring, especially when the cost of shipping to Canada for any repairs would be prohibitive.
     
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  9. ColtMrFire

    ColtMrFire Writes better fan fics than you

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  10. loadexfa

    loadexfa Friend

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    For shipping costs, it is surprisingly affordable. I paid less than $50 each way for the SFD-1 going from California to Canada and back. The people at Parts Connexion supplied the shipping label which is what made it so much cheaper. Of course cost will vary depending on your location but it should have cost me at least double that for this huge box at 35 lbs.
     
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2021
  11. dankef

    dankef Rando

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    I'm in Australia so I think it might be a bit more expensive sadly.
     
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  12. lehmanhill

    lehmanhill Almost "Made"

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    @dankef,

    Given your location, the question I would ask is how are you at DIY? Based on my limited SFD-1 experience, the Sonic Frontiers stuff is well designed and most of the issues are electrolytic caps drying out with age and switches wearing out. Replacement parts for those are available, so if you were willing to replace all of the electrolytics and any suspicious switches youself, the P-3 might be worth a shot. Anyone else care to comment on aging Sonic Frontiers issues?
     
  13. ogodei

    ogodei Headphone Heaven Gatekeeper

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    First time I plugged in my SFD MkII it smoked two resistors on one of the analog boards. Repair was four new resistors and the low-droput regulators. Shipping was ~ $100 round trip from Chicago to partsConnexion, I had them recap it while it was there.
     
  14. dankef

    dankef Rando

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    Thanks - unfortunately my DIY capability doesn't go much further than putting together a Pi2AES (ie no soldering). I'd like to learn but I'm not sure a fairly expensive vintage DAC is the best way to do that!
     
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  15. loadexfa

    loadexfa Friend

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    Impressions and Comparisons

    Chain
    Roon -> Pi2AES -> DAC (I2S for Pavane, AES for SFD, BNC for Gungnir) -> Freya S (passive mode) -> A&S XLR to RCA converter (for Pavane & Gungnir) -> Stratus

    Headphones
    Auteur, Clear, HE 6se (RD modded), HD 800 (SDR mod), Atticus

    I was comparing 3 DACs, Pavane L3, Gungnir MB A1, and SFD-1 MK II with a partial SE+ upgrade. I used to own the A2 Gungnir MB which I found too dry and a bit cool. My impressions below are mostly stream of consciousness. I think DAC comparisons are challenging, you can easily go nuts trying to listen closely to the nuanced differences.

    The Gungnir is a bit sharper and the Pavane smoother. I could see either one being better/worse depending on mood, etc. I think the Gungnir sound stage is a bit less real sounding? The SFD is kinda in between the two. Not as smooth and rich as the Pavane but a bit richer and smoother than the Gungnir.

    Sometimes I'm hearing more bass/slam on the Pavane, other times on the Gungnir. DACs are confusing.

    I think the upper mids or lower treble on the Gungnir is elevated and could explain some of the forward detail I was hearing. The drawback is this can be a bit sharp at times.

    They all have great tone, it's a matter of how rich you want to go. Pavane is best for clarity, SFD is great for overall presentation and is great at being smooth without being smoothed over. If I had purchased the A1 Gungnir instead of the A2 I would have been much happier with the tone.

    Pavane wins
    Rich/full tone
    Smooth presentation

    Gungnir wins
    Attack
    Details sometimes more obvious, this might be staging or the smoothness of Pavane, or both.

    SFD wins
    Overall presentation
    There is something very right about this DAC but I can't quite put my finger on it.

    I'm noticing more clarity with the Pavane vs SFD. Interesting, sometimes it's a toss up between Pavane and SFD (Gold Dust Woman), other times it's a toss up between Pavane and Gungnir (As, Stevie Wonder).

    Taste Ranking
    1. Pavane/SFD (I'm having a really hard time deciding which is "better". I'm only speaking of listening enjoyment and taste preferences.)
    2. Gungnir (a close second, if I didn't find it slightly sharp this would be really hard. This probably means I don't need a Yggdrasil, lucky for me).

    Earlier in the thread there was an assertion that the SFD + upgrades is overpriced at around $1200. I strongly disagree, if this DAC matches your taste, it is fantastic. If I wasn't so overly sensitive to fatigue I'd probably rank it higher than the Pavane but sometimes I need that extra smoothness. The extra clarity of the Pavane is also nice.

    Other Thoughts
    I wanted to add some details about working with PartsConnexion and my upgrade path. They are the standard repair/upgrade shop for this DAC and eventually parts will die on a DAC this old.

    Good things
    • Very affordable shipping. "Affordable" is location dependent of course but this would have cost me a lot more if I didn't use them for shipping both ways.
    • Reasonable labor. They did a partial SE+ upgrade, added an AES input, and repaired two issues (a broken front switch and the constant gain drops I posted about earlier). Labor time was 7 hours which I think is reasonable for multiple upgrades and repairing two issues. Of course I could save money and do this myself but I haven't developed these skills and think the money is totally worth not having to stress over doing this properly.
    • To the previous point, to save money, they offered to only upgrade the single ended outputs which I agreed to. I knew this would mean the DAC is basically RCA out only but I don't care, my primary amp is single ended anyways.
    • Detailed and patient answers to a pile of questions over a phone call with one of the DAC designers (Glenn)
    • The upgraded output caps are clearer, more detailed, and more open. I also had them replace some other parts including tube sockets because they are super old and looked it (I realize that is mostly cosmetic but whatever, it's my DAC and I can make it pretty if I want to).
    Meh things
    • Some questions got lost in email. Eventually this was handled in the email thread by Glenn saying, "give me a call at ....".
    • They seem to be busy and took a couple weeks to respond to my initial inquiry. This doesn't bother me, audio toys aren't urgent. Once they did respond, communication was fast the whole time.
    • Two screws were over tightened and I stripped them trying to open the DAC (you need to take it apart periodically to replace tubes). Glenn emailed useful advice I could try to open up the case and they sent a full set of replacement screws (something like 20 of them) very quickly at no charge. I only asked for 2 screws since that was the number I stripped.
    I intentionally didn't call anything "bad" in my experience with them and "meh" happens. I would send my DAC to them without hesitation if I wanted to update my SE+ upgrade (for the XLR outs) or other repairs/upgrades.
     
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    Last edited: Sep 20, 2021
  16. lehmanhill

    lehmanhill Almost "Made"

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    Nice comparo.

    Please let us know what tubes you ran in the SFD-1 and, if possible, an overview of the SE+ parts in the partial upgrade. Tubes in particular seem to have a big influence on the SFD-1. A month after I first got mine, I was going sell it. It was good, but not as good as more modern dacs. Then I rolled a few tubes and won't be selling it soon.
     
  17. loadexfa

    loadexfa Friend

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    Currently has a pair of Phillips tubes, don't know the details, they came with the DAC. I have some other options that I will be trying with it including some Amperex PQ 7308's and some recommended Russian tubes (forget the details on those).

    The list of parts is long, mostly capacitors with some resistors and diodes. Perhaps I'll post more later, kinda in a rush at the moment.

    Edit: The Russian tubes are Voskhod Rocket Logo.
     
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2021
  18. lehmanhill

    lehmanhill Almost "Made"

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    Assuming those are the 6H23N Rocket, I think you will like those. I am currently running those and they have bested other tubes i tried.
     
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  19. JeremiahS

    JeremiahS Acquaintance

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    Is this same as the Reflektor that was talked about earlier here? I am testing the less rare 1974 version with silver shield right now in the SFD-2 and it seems promising...
     
  20. loadexfa

    loadexfa Friend

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    A brief tube update, I found the Voskhod's too sharp or incisive for my taste, so far Amperex 7308's are my favorite with Philips 6922 in a distant second place. Of course my ears want the super expensive option. I'll be putting a couple of Voskhod pairs up for sale once I'm satisfied I've done enough comparison listening, perhaps the Philips pair too. They were not expensive and I will pass that on of course. :) Going to try some Telefunken that I picked up on the FS channel and perhaps purchase some Mazdas to try as well.
     
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