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Thread: REVIEW: MHDT Labs - Orchid - The Ultimate Analogue Sounding DAC ? - TDA1514

  1. #1
    Join Date: Apr 2016

    Location: SE London

    Posts: 224
    I'm Michael.

    Post REVIEW: MHDT Labs - Orchid - The Ultimate Analogue Sounding DAC ? - TDA1514

    Travelling

    My journey to finding an affordable vinyl sounding DAC led me to finding a NON-OS, non-filtered, valve buffered unit. I found a considerable lack of information on the web about NON-OS units, and it was like wading through contradictions that could end up being quite costly, so I wrote this review for anyone taking a similar journey or just for those with just an interest in new products. It also hopefully provides good hifi forum content away (from the grumpy old men arguing about cables and politics!)

    I have a humble vinyl set up with a modified Gyrodec, Hana SL and Icon Audio PS Valve phono stage. Some nice Herron Audio interconnects, and a sound like thick salted creamy butter. I wanted to get as close to this as I could with digital as I have thousands of MP3’s, FLACS and CD’s, I can’t afford vinyl all the time, nor do I have the space to store them!

    I aim for a warm, full bodied sound for mostly acoustic, americana, folk, blues, a little country, rock, with some jazz and swing thrown in so this review won’t be of any interest to those wanting the ultimate in definition and ice shattering treble explosions.

    I was using a Chord 2Qute but I found that my problem with it, while being very good, was that it was not a ‘real’ sound. The ‘presentation’ was beautifully detailed, airy, but elements of that sound where not natural and more an obvious ‘processing’ of a natural sound, which constantly grated me. Some may say ‘it’s your system’, but my argument to that is that I have many of my own recordings, so I know exactly what the instruments on those recordings sound like, sounded like, both in the studio and on stage. The Chord didn’t replicate them at all well, “acoustic guitars do not sound like that! neither does a snare drum” kept going over in my mind so alas my search for a unit that could replicate a sound closer to what my vinyl setup achieves - a natural full bodied and truer representation of the original sound.

    MHDT – The Buddhist-Made DAC’s

    This brought me to a Taiwanese company, MHDT. Although rarely noticed in the UK, certain US forum groups had been raving about for periods of time, but they still hadn’t broken into the UK market in any major form and therefore have remained somewhat a well-kept secret. After viewing their website, they have a range of self-designed and manufactured NON-OS R-2R DAC units all utilising tube buffers. Prices range from $699 for the entry level Canary through to the $1320 Pagoda with a balanced version of the Pagoda hitting a not so insignificant $1680. I spoke to Jiun, the head designer at MHDT and he felt the new Orchid DAC would be a good call for me for what I wanted, utilising the legendary Philips TDA1541 16-bit chip output, but allowing 24 bit/192z input. The Orchid retails at $1110 , and comes ready to accept four digital inputs – BNC, USB, Coaxial (RCA) and Toslink, all controlled by the ‘BURT’ array of buttons of the front.






    Tubes and Chips

    The main design of the Orchid is centred around the Philips TDA1541 R1 DAC Chip. It is regarded in some circles as the most analogue sounding of all renderers, with extraordinary premiums being charged for the single and double crown ‘S’ versions. Audio Note themselves designed some of their DAC units around the Philips 1543, I remember reading that Peter of AN openly admits to preferring the 1541 yet wasn’t able to obtain enough of the 1541 for long term production so opted to use the 1543 chip (He now has circa 20k units of the 1543 chip to keep up foreseeable production).

    In terms of the Philips 1541, it could take an entire thread it itself to detail the variations and attributes of them (Dutch made, Taiwan made, best years, R/S/A/N versions) but suffice to say, this chip may be old, but it packs a lifelike punch like waking up from a deep sleep and having the sun shine through the blinds. The basic Taiwanese made R1 version is fitted to the Orchid as Jiun was able to secure enough stock for manufacturing, allowing you to begin your journey at the start, and possibly go in search of the Holy Grail, a Taiwanese made circa 1998 S2 Double Crown version. But you’ll need deep pockets. Many settle for the more affordable S1 Single Crown version, but even those are still rare, although if you fancy a Chinese re-stamped Alibaba special they are readily available on a well-known auction site (yes, the counterfeiters even picked up on the importance of these chips and began re-stamping basic chips with the S1 and S2 logos and crowns).

    Another great element of the Orchid is its Tube buffer utilising a GE5670 3 mica (a spare is also included in the box) and has selectable 115/230v power from internal PCB pins. The tube can be swapped out for a variation of other tubes, and Jiun lists the ones he prefers on the MHDT website, although admits, this is purely his opinion and others will form their own. From my own prior research, the MHDT DAC's are apparently very sensitive to tube rolling. Jiun did state he hoped to one day produce an adaptor so the user can choose to bypass the tube buffer and run in solid state as an option.






    I won’t even attempt to say I understand much of the technical qualities of using a tube buffer or the way the DAC is designed internally, and nor I do want to know, I don’t ever want to be a person who constructs a Hi-Fi based on a set of measurements. I know some basics, and I like what I hear when a tube is involved correctly, so the real basis of this review is just the sound. That’s all I really care about.

    In some ways I wasn’t expecting much from the DAC as I was unpacking it. So many times I have had my hopes up of finding that ‘analogue’ sounding DAC, only to be disappointed once its turned on. So many reviews, opinions, system matching etc, nothing had ever gotten me close to my digital files sounding like my vinyl. The unit has a weighty quality feel to it, its anodised black aluminium chassis (silver is also available) with a Brown tinted Perspex front cover housing the single touch input switches which light up behind the screen allowing you to view the internals. Gold hardware and gold trimmed feet keep it all together. There is a cut out in the top for the tube lighting up in a traditional orange hue with the MHDT logo laser etched into the chassis. For a non-commercially produced unit, it’s extremely well put together. Even the RCA plugs have a quality solid feel to them. You do get the sense this isn’t a mainstream piece, it’s like a cross between a homemade science project and a polished mantlepiece object – I think this a really nice element; you can imagine the designers workshop; an array of resisters, components, wires, the smell of solder and electricity while his ‘mind’ figures out how to transfer what he hears, but at the same time having his ‘heart’ equally involved which is represented by the attractive casing and thoughtful design. Science and nature, together in harmony, and that’s exactly what I feel MHDT is about.


    Sounds

    I had been letting the unit run in for a few days looping a few cd’s with the amp off, so the first time I heard it, it would be a better representation of what it was about. Jiun feels 24 hours is enough burn in for the DAC itself, but recommends a month till the Tube is at optimum. As the first notes hummed through the speakers, that viewpoint, that expectation, changed, this was something special. Although a little dark sounding at first, a little muffled but over the following hours and days a sparkle began to happen, as if all the manufacturing and the man-made materials began to merge into a continuous flow of components working in harmony with each other and the atmosphere around them.

    The effortless natural transitions move up and down the scales, notes ringing out and disappearing, exactly how they do in real life, with real instruments, without feeling like they are under a veil of computerised binary digits forced to be bigger or more impressive than they really are. There is nothing generic; its linear where it’s needed, delicate when required, wider where it counts. Each contour is linked seamlessly without any battle from the opposing frequencies to outdo one another. It’s the vinyl-esque mid-range depth that really grabs you – I have never really heard this type of three-dimensional presence and space in digital playback. It’s wide. It’s big but it’s not fat, it isn’t bloated, it’s just massive but gentle. If you have ever met an actor/actress or a ‘personality’, a rockstar, even an athlete, you’ll find that they have an energy, a presence about them, they can be tiny in stature, but their energy field huge, commanding a room, a moment, in a natural manner by just ‘being’. This is exactly what the Orchid is like. It’s like Natalie Portman crossed with Christina Aguilera, humble but huge, and beautiful. The type of girl that you want your friends to meet, want you parents to meet, the one that just fitted into your space without dominating it. The one that just flowed and became the centre.

    The instrument and vocal balance are exceptionally good without any major force in any department, but still with the detail to hear the vocalist catching a breath or knocking the microphone. The bass is full bodied, it has slam with a resonance, there is a slight bit of blurring to merge it into the midrange yet it’s still articulate and so very buttery smooth. The highs are slightly recessed, as ever with a NOS DAC, they won’t shatter your windows nor rupture your ear drums, but they are there, defined, clear and natural. It’s just so natural and real. I feel I will use those words a lot when talking about the Orchid. That high hat doesn’t get tapped the same way every stroke in the studio or on stage – and you know it with the Orchid, it feels like the whole band are together in a room and you are in there with them, sitting back on a comfy chair with a pair of slippers and cosy blanket. At times when things get busy it can sound a little congested, (but then again so did the 2Qute) but it does stay out in front, it never merges into distortion which I’ve found some other DACs do around this price point. It’s completely non-fatiguing but it can be exhausting, in a truly good way. It doesn’t blow your senses like an Oversampling DAC will, but it engulfs you with such energy and thickness that it’s like smoking a huge block of Moroccan’s finest and allowing you to float within your own comfortable weight. It’s compelling but anesthetising.

    The Orchid is not perfect, don’t expect it to be, but I think that’s the point, it’s organic. Nature is beautiful but it’s far from perfect, yet it creates such amazing things, it continually grows and evolves and we may not be able to follow or understand it, but it’s still there, engulfing you within its very existence. That’s what the Orchid does, it just allows you to sit back and enjoy your music without you wanting to scrutinize the presentation. At first, this actually made me restless, for months I had been constantly doing this while trying various DAC units. I now felt uneasy actually just enjoying everything I was hearing. I was even noticing new things in my favourite music because I think I was finally content with what I was hearing and was relaxing, and that I realised, was priceless. Sure, there could be a little more definition, a little more instrument separation, it’s not that it lacks these, it’s just not as obviously compartmentalised like it is in an OS DAC, and I feel that’s where the real magic is. Your brain can relax rather than analyse. The detail is there, but its fed to you as a smooth cup of hot chocolate rather than a shot of ice cold Russian vodka. It’s romantic, it holds your hand and takes you on a journey wrapped in cotton wool.

    Always Modify, Never Conform, Always Evolve

    Working through the inputs with the same track in various formats, they all sounded pretty much identical. I feel this is a positive sign for a DAC, all inputs in my opinion should sound the same, but on so many I’ve heard differences between each one, and that never really made sense to me other than build discrepancies. Admittedly, and being very finnicky, there are times when the Orchid can sound a little scratchy, and I feel that is a limitation of the R1 chip, the S variants being knowing to be a lot smoother in the extremities. At this stage I changed the tube for an original Western Electric 1950’s NOS 396JW Military Spec from a lovely HifiWigwam member, one of Jiun's favourites – and boom. It changed. It cleared up all the nasty edges and the congestion, clarity became unreal and the bass edging that I mentioned earlier cleared up. Separation increased and it sounded, well, just more ‘solid’. Defined. It did bring the vocals and treble slightly more forward, which in my system was welcomed, it may not in someone else’s – but this is exactly what makes the Orchid special, nature changes all the time and evolves daily, the Orchid can do that with a little manmade input. Think of a modification as planting a new tree or plant, for it will adapt to its surroundings and those surroundings would then mould around the new entity creating a new living, breathing harmony. For most, the unit will sound heavenly right out of the box, and for those with curious minds, there are plenty of modifications you can try to mould the sound into exactly what you want. It’s almost like it can evolve with you as a person.




    Jiun did mention that the tubes can take around thirty days to settle in, so I may not have been fair saying it could sound scratchy. That’s just the Western man’s impatience in me I figure. I imagine Jiun would prefer to build these units with the S series chips and old school NOS tubes, but sadly in this day of oversampling and solid-state affairs and dwindling stocks of NOS tubes, we have to take the best of what we can get, so he has utilised the materials he can find available and transformed them into something quite special. The man is a magician, or a wizard.


    The Never Ending Story..

    My experience with the Orchid has been the wonderful journey. From my initial conversations with Jiun (a man of few words!) to delivery to the first hours, now to the first week, every day is enjoyment listening to music. I no longer scrutinize or analyse, I just turn on, sit back, and get lost in the sound. This is what I was searching for, and I believe I have found it.

    MHDT need bigger exposure, they can only build on what they have already done, and I hope indeed to sample more of their magic in the future.

    The most important characteristics of Orchid is that it produce "real" sound. The real sound is hard to hear now in the new audio units’ – Jiun, Head Designed at MHDT Labs

    One day I would love to do a comparison between the Orchid and the Pagoda, but sadly, my bank balance doesn’t run to owning two DAC at this price level. Maybe a time will come when the gods look favourably on me but until that day, I feel blessed owning something like this and I am more than content taking my time walking through the Orchid.

    Well done guys, and thankyou.




    P.s I have since sourced original S1 and S2 chips thanks to some lovely guys on The Art of Sound forum, so will report back once I’ve had these installed and a listening.

    Specifications:
    Digital Receiver CS8416
    D/A converter TDA1541A - R1
    I/V stage: discrete ideal transistors (OPA861 used as transistor) , no feedback
    Frequency response: 20 Hz to20kHz ( 2dB)
    Output impedance: 32 ohms
    Output level: 3 Vrms
    All inputs support 16/24 bits/ 32 kHz up to 192 kHz
    Dimensions clear (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

    MHDT LABS

    http://www.mhdtlab.com/


    Some of my reference listening albums

    Jason Isbell - Southeastern
    Gregory Isakov - with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra
    John Smith - Great Lakes
    Alice In Chains - MTV Unplugged
    The Cranberries - No Need to Argue
    Natalie Merchant - Paradise is There
    Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
    Israel Nash - Rain Plans
    Paul Simon - Graceland
    Jeffrey Foucault - Miles From The Lightning
    Last edited by The Chronicals; 15-09-2018 at 11:38.
    Pathos Classic Remix HiDAC - Dynaudio 160 - Michell Gyrodec SE - Hana SL - Icon Audio PS1.2 Genelax - Yamaha CDN301 - Townshend Isolda Speaker Cable - Herron Audio Interconnects

    ....and some Bruce.

  2. #2
    Join Date: Apr 2016

    Location: SE London

    Posts: 224
    I'm Michael.

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    So, I thought I’d update the thread with some extra info on the chips I’ve been playing around with in the Orchid. I managed to secure a new S1 Single Crown and the holy grail in the form of an unused S2 Double Crown (at a fair but large cost), and boy are they very different. I found that each chip needed a fair while running in before they opened up, after that, there were no further audible changes. At first both had a minimalised top end (which I actually preferred being treble sensitive) but opened up quite considerably.


    S1 Single Crown

    The immediately difference in the S1 from the R1 is the smoothness. The instrument separation is widely increased and the performers can be heard in more exact placement, yet in doing this there is a distinct removal of the ‘mid-range’ warmth from the R1. It’s a more delicate listen, it’s almost the sound the Chord 2Qute is trying to conjure up (but failing), so those of you that like the 2Qute but want more ‘realism’, then this would be the chip for you.

    It’s extremely clear and natural and that ‘thickness’ that’s in the R1 is gone – this can be either a good or bad thing depending on taste, but distortion is definitely less when things get busy. Bass is a little down on both the R1 and S2, but articulation is increased from the R1, and vocals sound adorable. It sounds the more ‘Hi-Fi’ out of the three chips, it has a slightly hollow clarity to it, which brings a ‘wow factor’ initially, but can at times leave you wanting for more. Yet in saying that, it is just an exquisite listen, and I felt that if I couldn’t change anything in the system from this stage, I’d be more than content with the S1. It removes the niggles that I had with the R1, but it does remove some of the elements that wowed me about this DAC in the first place, the thickness, the muddy midrange warmth, but it brings so much else to table, it’s a tough call, but overall, I would choose the S1 over the R1. For the money, it would be the best upgrade for this DAC in my opinion, or you can source the N2 chip, which I have on good authority is equal or better than the S1. I may try one of these in the future when funds allow.


    S2 Double Crown

    So... this is where things get big. If you read what I wrote about the R1 when I first began listening to the DAC, and now read the S1 impressions above – the S2 is the mix of what is great about both of those chips, it’s taken the mid-range thickness from the R1 and combined it with the separation and delicacy of the S1, together it creates a mind blowing sound that has all the ‘factors’ of a great modern DAC but with a slightly retro tint to the whole proceedings. Its big, musical, warm but completely detailed and articulate with great separation. The Soundstage is probably a little narrower than a modern OS DAC, but it manages to keep a midrange thickness but remain airy at the same time. The bass is thundering, and drum rolls can be pretty epic. The energy that fills the room from this chip is immense. It’s almost valve like it its presentation. Analogue and valve driven digital – perfection?

    It’s not entirely forgiving though, listening to the a typical 90’s recording, say Soul Asylum’s ‘Grave Dancers Union’ can sound a little harsh, the R1 that ‘covers’ up things like that with its muddy sound, the S2 is clear enough to let all the bad producer decisions come through (like what’s on all 90’s albums!). But put something on that’s been recorded right, like Jason Isbell's ‘Southeastern’ and you’ve got the ultimate NOS DAC sound. It really loves vocal harmonies and high-hat beats. Put on the opening track from Natalie Merchants ‘Paradise is there’ LP, and it’s like the sound is alive. There’s a natural resonance from all the instruments that blends it together, yet there is still definition and clarity, it really doesn’t sound far away to listening to a recording being put together in a studio… (making me feel a little nostalgic for the good old days in the process)

    I am torn though, I must admit. I really like the S1 for its ‘fine’ print, it’s a peaceful relaxing detailed sound, the S2 has those elements but its BIG and THICK, which for me can be a little overwhelming on a busy track – but then if I put on something quiet, I go weak at the knees for its smoothness and body. The S2 sounds noticeably more ‘retro’, the S1 sounds more modern. So maybe the S1 may suit some better, getting come of the characteristics of the NOS style DAC but with a modern flavour. The R1 is the hot quirky student, the S1 is a hot librarian, the S2 is Christina Hendricks. Enough said.

    I’ll definitely be swapping the S1 and S2 back and forth from time to time and at some point, stick with one and probably come up with some extra thoughts.

    One thing to mention is that I did switch this up with a cable change – I use a Mark Grant HDX1 interconnect, but I had an RFC Reference Venus at the same time – the RFC is a much smoother sound, but can bring the top end out too far for me and is much less congested than the MG – but some who aren’t as treble sensitive might find that appealing. It’s a very good cable, they both are, but the RFC does bring a bigger ‘Hi-Fi’ sound to the proceedings. It’s probably one of the best IC’s I have tried, but for my delicate and sensitive ears and brain it’s just a bit too much for me. But combined with the S2 chip, it’s an amazing sound – when you first hear the combination, you literally sit back and think ‘wow. The Mark Grant is a little less smooth, a little distortion but sounds more ‘rough and real’.

    The Orchid continues to be a Chameleon though, evolving within its surroundings. Its such a versatile, well build and great sounding unit, I am thorough impressed with the Taiwanese team. I think Jiun should make up a Orchid+ with some of the N2 chips still available, its probably closer to what he originally intended to create, but was limited with what was available. But in saying that, theres no actual reason to modify the Orchid, its a beautiful DAC in its own right, I just like modifying things. First it was my hair, then my car, and now everything I own has been modified in some way or form, I am never content with 'off the shelf'

    To summarise...the chips in this dac....

    The R1 is being in the room with the band, in the band – with all the good and bad that that brings, the S1 is like being in the studio listening through cans in a pre-production guise with a gentle mix, and the S2 is full post production mode but without finalising – meaning its ALL there and hasn’t been ‘digitised’ to within an inch of its life. That’s the best way to describe these chips.


    Pathos Classic Remix HiDAC - Dynaudio 160 - Michell Gyrodec SE - Hana SL - Icon Audio PS1.2 Genelax - Yamaha CDN301 - Townshend Isolda Speaker Cable - Herron Audio Interconnects

    ....and some Bruce.

  3. #3
    Join Date: Jan 2012

    Location: Exeter

    Posts: 56
    I'm Paul.

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    What an excellent review! Thank you for investing the time to write it.
    Paul

  4. #4
    Join Date: Aug 2017

    Location: Hertfordshire, U.K.

    Posts: 236
    I'm Graham.

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    This is why I hang out here! Thank you, Michael, for this insightful review and for the info about the various ADC chips.

    Perhaps the moderators could make this thread a sticky?
    GrahamS - It's not what you hear that counts, it's what you think you hear........

    Present Kit: NAD 326BEE, NAD C515BEE CD player, JVC QL-7 DD turntable, JVC Tonearm, Shure M97Ve, Audio Technica AT95EX, Pickering V15, JVC Z1E, Wharfedale Diamond 230s, Visual Rio interconnects and My Ears.

  5. #5
    Join Date: Apr 2016

    Location: SE London

    Posts: 224
    I'm Michael.

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    Thanks guys, appreciate the comments
    Pathos Classic Remix HiDAC - Dynaudio 160 - Michell Gyrodec SE - Hana SL - Icon Audio PS1.2 Genelax - Yamaha CDN301 - Townshend Isolda Speaker Cable - Herron Audio Interconnects

    ....and some Bruce.

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