What I do making buying decisions is listen for common traits. For example, I've only had a chance to hear the Wadax stack in two systems so far, and was irritated by what they shared in common despite their differences: digital playback sounded dynamically flat to the extent of sounding dull, whereas analog playback did not. And I don't mean to discuss the superiority of one format over the other, as I happen to find either to have their pros and cons (remember I cherish piano recordings…). That is right at the opposite end of what I mean when I say gear must be good for longterm listening. Sure, there was no "digititis", but such a lack of dynamic jump and a lively sense of realism simply won't do. Not going to jump to conclusions when I don't like something, as experience has taught me all kinds of things can go wrong in the setup and demo of a system, looking forward to another opportunity to hear these.
What, if memory serves, Ron says about dCS, that "mentholly" quality, I'm hearing the same in many systems and/or recordings, what makes me scratch my head, however, if this were indeed a trait, how come it's completely absent from some systems and/or recordings. Logic has it, it would have to be something dCS DACs "superimpose" onto all playback, in every system, with every recording. And that's not the case. Something all dCS playback has in common is a sense of realism, offering a very direct, almost raw connection to the musical and artistic content of recordings, over which at its best I get really emotional, or at worst, makes me perk up and be annoyed with flaws, including elsewhere in a system. Amplifon designer Andrzej Piwowarczyk echoes my experience building loudspeakers in that he likes dCS because it allows him to hear exactly what his tube amps do and don't do. I never think of dCS as benign or beautiful sounding, but when I play back recordings of artists I've heard in real life, this is where I'm getting flashbacks of what e.g. a Leon Fleisher (R.I.P.) sounded like in person, and not just in its "glory", no, including that slight metallic "ping" in his playing that one would never hear from e.g. Iván Moravec. I've always thought it fitting that dCS uses classical composer names for their products as I do find differentiation (between performances and interpretations, instruments, instrumentalists, orchestras, recording venues etc. & etc.) to play a unique and much greater role than in any other type of music where, basically, the question is not so much how it sounds rather than whether one likes it.
MSB is another brand that I wish I knew better than to have heard it many times in systems whose sound, and this is something dCS, MSB and Wadax demos and private systems tend to share, I would probably not have liked no matter what the source equipment might have been. The common trait is smoothness to the point where music seems to be sculpted to an almost plasticky extent, with transients and decay overlaid by that tiny residual whitish resistor noise that I remember pointing out to Christoph in Munich, much less audible as a separate entity than in other R2R DACs such as TotalDAC (which, by the way, I also like, especially with tube output stage). Would be fun to hear the full potential of a Select 2 stack in a system built around more "alive" speakers and amplification, as in terms of longterm listening ease, my gut instinct would place it in the top three.
Another brand whose sound has this "sculpted" and therefore "HiFi" character (the problem is, I'm one of those audiophiles who want it all, i.e. including a more raw and direct, "warts and all" emotional connection to the musical and artistic content of a recording) I've been impressed with particularly with DSD, less so PCM playback, is Playback Designs. From a quality/price ratio perspective, one might as well get that and be done with it. Except, most of the 15-20TB worth of music I have (I'll admit I'm a music lover first, audiophile second, and maybe that is my problem) is PCM, or else I might have gone that route.
Lampizator to me falls into the "beautiful" sounding category, the Pacific in particular sounds positively "tubey" and benign while being the fist Lampizator DAC I found and still find sufficiently resolving, the Horizon somewhere between that and the above solid state DACs. I'm not trying to be ironic, but frankly, I'm not entirely sure I like one less than the other, as much as, being Swiss, I'm in favor of compromise. As much fun as there's to be had in tube rolling (and I do it all the time in my amps), it's true that it somewhat defeats the purpose of using a SOTA DAC and compare a number of recordings/performances/interpretations of any classical work whatsoever. Last time Christoph rolled tubes in his Horizon, we were able to take the voice of José Carreras all the way from almost feebly girly to sonorously manly, and multiple "versions" in-between, granted, some seemed closer to what the man sounded like in person than others. It's a way of tailoring the sound to one's liking. Mind you, I think that's cool. We're human, not microphones, and "realism" seems elusive. I thoroughly enjoy all of it as long as I'm listening to music I don't know, or artists I haven't heard live. But it can be irritating listening to a piano recording wondering what brand of concert grand it might be, and whether the sound could be tweaked to where it actually sounded like what the booklet reads was used for the recording…
To come full circle: comparisons are "odorous". And I'd like to add something here: they're really only valid if one gives each component the best chance to strut its stuff. I've participated in blind tests where every single time I interrupted to say I liked the sound better, it wasn't just that a dCS Rossini was playing, but via Ethernet, a great audiophile switch and the somewhat crude Mosaic renderer software (note I'm hesitating to call it a media player)! By the same token, a Lampizator DAC without dedicated USB server? Not going to show at its best, so what's the point?
To end this rambling rant, it's not without a morsel of disappointment when I conclude that I'm hearing different brands or types of "artificiality" in digital playback, even among DACs I could easily live with and would be happy to own (certainly my top three "longterm listening ease" brands mentioned above), because on the face of it, given their price point, wouldn't one expect perfection?
Given the choice, I'd probably want to own one of each, i.e. the most benign to a variety of recordings ranging from good to bad, and the most direct and revelatory. Because no one is going to convince me that one is per se "better" than the other, when I like both for different reasons.
Greetings from Switzerland, David.