Gustard DAC-A22 Review

Gustard DAC-A22 Review

  • Thursday, 14 May 2020
  • 0
  • 709
  • 0

Subjective Product Test from the Sandu Vitalie 

Once I started testing a lot of digital sources from all over Asia, few of our readers suggested testing some of the digital to analog converters from the Gustard team. After some research, we found that Gustard is quite popular in China, especially over Erji.net they have quite a cult following. At first, they started developing products for headphone enthusiasts releasing several headphone amplifiers working in Class-A, hence the long discussions over Head-fi.org and Erji.net about them. At a rapid rate they started tinkering with digital and released some all-in-one combos and dedicated DACs. They clearly want to be recognized in headphone enthusiast circles, but also by the speaker-philes crowd.

For few years now, they starting pushing their products to the Western market and they seem to slowly gather trust. We got your suggestions, but without an official website or contact form, that seemed like a mission impossible. Luckily, Aoshidacame to the rescue and supplied one of their newest devices, called DAC-A22 that is relying on the newest dual AK4499 DAC chips plus some interesting stuff that I will mention soon. It is currently their flagship AKM based DAC, so let’s dive deep into this one and check if it knows how to impress a music addict.

Unboxing & Package Contents

A22 came double boxed, the product box seems to be larger and heavier than usual, suggesting a relatively bigger unit. The left and the right sides of the unit are surrounded by lots of foam for protection. There was some empty space left under the unit where all the accessories were stored. It is a first seeing a branded USB cable from Power Sync with gold contacts on both ends – really nice quality cable if you ask me, there is a warranty card with the serial number stamped on it and there is a really nice remote control. It is a higher quality remote compared to the likes of Topping and SMSL. The plastic seems to be of better quality, with a better texture to it and the rubberized buttons have a nicer tactile feedback which I like. There is a clear description of every button, which is nice to have too.

A big surprise was seeing a Mini CD in the package which I presume holds the USB drivers on it. I use a desktop computer and a laptop on a daily basis, my wife uses another laptop too, sadly none of them have an optical drive. I went out and bought an external bus-powered optical drive so I can check the contents of that Mini CD. Gustard stored in there the drivers for all their units, a firmware upgrade for their U16 and user manuals for all their units, except for…A22. I’m sure it was simply a mistake, A22 is their newest device, so most probably the ones that will hit the market will have a user manual for it in there too. There isn’t a single paper in the package, a spec sheet or some basic operation instructions, nothing like that. I would personally advise the Gustard team putting all those drivers and user manuals on a server and just leaving an URL on a piece of paper, or on the warranty card so we can download them. I guarantee that younger generation of audiophiles don’t have optical drives either in their PCs or laptops. So far, this is my only gripe with this unit.

Design & Build Quality

Gustard A22 has all the bells and whistles a high-quality DAC should have. Its case it made out of thick metal plates, beautifully crafted on a CNC machine. I like that the tolerance numbers are really tiny, it almost makes me think that this is an uni-body design. All the screws were moved on the back plate and under the unit, so it would have a simple but clean look. I see that those side plates have few ventilation holes suggesting that it has a strong output stage which always is a great sign to have. It weights a whopping 7.5 Kg, already telling a story about the power supply and its filtering. It feels really solid and well put together. You can choose from a silver or a black unit, both have anodized finishes for protection, I do slightly prefer the back in black color. Under the unit, I was impressed to see some really solid aluminum feet padded with foam to absorb those nasty micro-vibrations.

From pictures it might look like the body is having rough edges, but that is not the case, those are sanded and rounded on a very small scale, so I will not damage my headphones while I’m handling them near it. I like that is has flushed buttons, that volume control and menu wheel on the right is cleverly designed too and it is looking almost invisible. The monochrome OLED screen is looking good and it is bright too. Overall, I am dealing here with a very serious piece of kit, it’s big, imposing and it looks pretty good too.

Controls & Connectivity

The front panel is milled on a CNC machine, it has 8 mm in thickness. On it you’ll find an On/Off button, a big OLED screen in the middle and on the far right there is a volume wheel in case you want to use it as a preamp and a button in the middle that will select the desired digital input. A long press on that button will enter its main menu, where everything can be controlled via that joystick or via the remote control. I quite like that all the settings can be accessed with or without the remote, unlike Topping that is forcing on using their remotes to access most of its features.

On the back you can spot a wide variety of digital inputs as: USB, I2S, Coaxial, Optical and AES. The usual RCA and XLR outputs are present. It is a first seeing two voltage switches instead of a single one, you can select between 115 and 220 V input, those switches are connected directly to a pair of custom 50W toroidal transformers so it makes sense. Make sure that both are showing the correct AC voltage before powering the unit.

Menu Settings

Since there isn’t a user manual for A22 and some of the settings are meant for advanced users, I decided explaining all of them so you can configure it to your liking. Once you long press the button on the far right or the menu button on the remote, you will be seeing something like this:

  1. PCM Filter: 6 different positions. Those are implemented on the hardware level of the AK4499 DAC chip, they slightly alter the FR past 20 kHz, subjectively speaking there is a very small difference between them or none at all. In a controlled environment, I can’t tell which is which, but since I’m very much against slow transient response, I’m always choosing anything that has a “fast” or “sharp” in its description. Choose the one you like the most.
  2. DSD Filter: has 2 positions, L-BW or H-BW, L is for Low and H is for high. You will be altering the cut-off frequency of the DSD files. If you want a crispier sound, go for H and if you like a smoother top-end, go with L.
  3. Jitter Atten: has 2 positions – MODE1 and MODE2. This is the Jitter (timing errors) attenuation setting. Leave it MODE1, if you are using it with a low-quality digital transport then MODE2 will try to suppress more jitter.
  4. DIR BW: 2 positions – NORMAL and HIGH. I’m pretty sure this setting is playing with those advanced Accusilicon femtosecond clocks. Leave it at NORMAL, if you get dropouts with some of the digital inputs, then try going for HIGH to eliminate those issues.
  5. USB Mode: 2 positions - WIN PC and MAC/PI. This is probably changing some settings of the XMOS XU208 chipset, WIN PC meaning a Windows PC will have a better compatibility and MAC/PI is probably the driverless mode for MAC OS and for Raspberry Pi users that run mostly some kind of Linux.
  6. Phase Invert: 2 positions – DISABLE or ENABLE. Self-explanatory, leave it at disabled.
  7. Brightness: has 8 brightness positions, none of them is completely dimming the display. The lowest position (1) worked great at night though.

Tech inside the DAC-A22

This is where it gets interesting, at least for me it is. First of all, I tried my best opening up the case, but I got stuck at removing the back plate so I couldn’t go any further (you had one job to do!) so I will be relying mostly on the official pictures and specs.

I have already tested two AK4499 designs by now (Topping D90 and FiiO M15) and both of them sounded quite musical and super engaging. Listening to the A22 for more than a week now, I can safely say that AK4499 designs have a very distinct sound to them which I enjoy quite a lot.

Compared to the Topping D90, Gustard team went with two AK4499 DAC chips, wanting to squeeze the best this chip can offer. I see that they used all those 8 channels (4 channels per chip) so obviously a very advanced and powerful I/V conversion needed to be implemented which they did.

On the digital side, they went with a programmable Altera FPGA infusing their own code for PLL shaping, clock management, DOP modulation and so on. They also went with the most advanced femtosecond clocks from Accusilicon and they used two of them.

Now, the interesting part is that Gustard completely separated the analog and digital power supplies, by doing that they lowered any kind of noise. They encapsulated both 50W custom toroidal transformers so that hum will not move to the rest of the electronics.

The output stage (the LPF) uses only discrete components unlike its competition, I’m seeing four output transistors, so clearly it’s a fully balanced and fully discrete Class-A design.

There are two independent and separated signal paths for both AK4499 chips, meaning the cross-talk on the XLR output should be zero or close to zero which is always nice to have (especially while listening to headphones, as the stage from right to left widens considerably).

It was quite unusual, but interesting seeing the voltage output of both RCA and XLR outputs. A22 offers a really powerful 3V on RCA and a whooping 6V on XLR! Even without listening to it, I can already say that this one will work great as a preamp especially on the XLR output. Having such a powerful analogue stage, A22 should blow even my own reference DAC in a speaker setup, so I’m pretty sure it will have something to say in the comparison that will follow later on.

Test Equipment

I tested the A22 in a headphone setup and in a speaker-based setup. In my office it was connected to the Benchmark HPA4, Sparkos Labs Aries and for fun to an xDuoo TA-30 for some extreme musicality and warmth. Headphones ranged from sensitive in-ears, to portables and to heavy duty planar-magnetics. Since some of the headphones are more sensitive to changes in resolution, speed and impact, I tested it quite a lot in my office. A22 was also tested in the living room as a DAC only device connected to the Benchmark HPA4 working as a preamp, followed by a KECES S125 as a power amp, powering the Buchardt S400 loudspeakers. Lastly, I removed the HPA4 as a preamp and left the A22 alone working as a DAC + preamp just to see if it comes close to a dedicated preamp.

OK everybody, it’s time to hit some ear-drums!

Sound Performance

I. Tonality & Timbre

When you take the best delta-sigma (D/S from now on) DAC chip, add a powerful output stage and some impressive power filtering you can be sure you will be listening close to the best sonics those chips could offer. Seeing those big caps and a decent number of output transistors, I knew some hours of burn-in will make it sing, so I added more than 160 hours of burn-in before making any judgements.

A22 is all about warm midrange and deep sounding bass, it is also impressively extended in the top octave, more so than the former AK4499 designs I have listened to. Another interesting aspect was hearing the stage impressively wide especially from left to right - there is quite a lot more room compared to my reference DAC. Gustard infused quite some naturalness in this one, I’m sure those discrete electronics and the class-A output stage left a big stain on the overall sound signature. It leans more towards an effortless and musical approach but doesn’t skip a single bit when it comes to resolution and transparency. It sounds slightly warmer to usual AKM designs and considerably more musical and involving to the ESS Sabre designs. Since I am still listening to the Audio-GD R7 quite often, I was quite surprised to hear so many similarities between the two. When it comes to D/S DACs, A22 is the closest one I’ve tested that carries some of that R2R magic. Its sounds musical, very imposing, incredibly natural, very extended in the FR, there is more air between those notes and most importantly it sounds like music playing in front of you and not like some kind of digital decoding. The treble is extended, yet free of any grain and harshness. I just finished a longer listening spree and my ears are not ringing but are craving for more thanks to its laid-back presentation. A22 is a quite an easy rider and can be listened to long periods of time, its will not tire you down with lightning fast transients and this is probably the only area that could see some improvement.

The moment I connected it to the xDuoo TA-30, my headphones transformed by having way more midrange presence and meat to the bone. If you want, you could make it even warmer and smoother sounding. A22 seems to be changing quite drastically depending on your acoustic chain. Subjectively speaking, I prefer matching the A22 with very accurate and fast sounding amplifiers. It will be a very good match, since you can have some warmth and layering of the A22 and all the details, speed and impact of a good solid-state amplifier. Benchmark HPA4 worked extremely well with it, Sparkos Labs Aries as well, but the biggest surprise was hearing it in the speaker setup.

II. Using A22 in a speaker-based setup

When I connected it to the HPA4 and then to the KECES S125, A22 presented itself open wide sounding, with a precise pin-point imaging. It was slightly smaller sounding compared to the Audio-GD R7 but at the same time the sharpness and leading edge was considerably better defined on the A22. It sounded impressively clear and detailed; I was particularly impressed by the top-end. Usually, AKM designs never really won me over with their smooth treble and slight roll-off of the top octave. The newest AK4499 chips solved all those issues and are presenting detail information in an easy and natural manner.

While listening to Radiohead – Airbag (Tidal / Spotify) I was impressed by how defined and how clean the tambourine and the bells sounded, both were very defined and outlined, those sounded clearer compared to any other AK4499 designs. The location of those sounds in the room was easier to spot and even much easier to focus on. This particular song worked better in my room with S400 compared to R7, because it improved the slight mellow nature and blurriness of S400 loudspeakers. R7 sounded bigger than real life, hurting the impact and speed of S400 in the process.

The biggest surprise was completely removing the HPA4 from the acoustic chain, remaining only with the A22 as a DAC + preamp and S125 as the power amp. There was a hit in the transparency, layering, speed and control of the drivers, but everything else remained intact. I played the guess game with and without the HPA4 in the acoustic chain and sincerely the difference was there but it wasn’t as big as it was the case with other DACs. The job of a good preamp is taking the analog signal of a source and increase its output voltage, so that the power amp that will follow wouldn’t work as hard, preserving a lower total harmonic distortion and offering a higher damping factor.

A22 works so well as a preamp just because it can offer up to 6V on XLR, usually its 4 or 4.5V on the XLR. A22 just outperformed any other DAC in a speaker-based setup. As a DAC + preamp combo it sounded bigger, bolder, more imposing, more layered and really effortless even compared to costlier units like Matrix Element X, Mytek Brooklyn DAC+, Benchmark DAC3 and others. If you are wondering, Topping D90 sounded less impressive as a preamp too.

The lesson is really simple, the more voltage a DAC can offer, the less stressed would be the power amp that follows, preserving the best of the source and of the amplification.

Manufacturers that are calling their DACs with 4V outputs (on XLR) as preamps - are not really dedicated preamps, I am calling them digital preamps, because in reality those work more like attenuators and not like actual pre-amplifiers. As a point of comparison, HPA4 can offer up to 20V on XLR, it works as a real high-performance preamp.

I can congratulate the Gustard team for thinking in advance about the speaker users, especially those without a preamp will be glad to know that it works really well as one. Add a power amp and you are good to blast your neighbors.

III. Background Noise

I connected it back to HPA4, since it really works as the best DAC tester considering its low THD and complete lack of any noise, especially when you like to search for a dirty background or check the detail level of any DAC, I don’t really know a better unit for the job.

I connected sensitive IEMs as FiiO FH7, I pushed the volume much higher than my comfortable level and started listening to some of my favorite tracks. No matter how hard I pressed myself, the good power filtering said its final words in here, background is simply as black as I’ve heard on any other top-performing DACs. While I was listening to Billy Joel – An Innocent Man (Tidal / Spotify) – I was so impressed by how clear was the reverb of the finger snaps in the background, so crystal clear and so defined, yet so far away from the listener. A mediocre sounding source will have them buried behind the rest of the sounds, yet here those are super defined and clear. Close to end when some bells are making an appearance in the background, they again sounded so vividly clear and so outlined. This is an impressive record that works great at testing background noise and transparency.

I’m pleased to report, that I experienced absolutely the same in the speaker setup, there isn’t any disturbing hiss or any kind of noise, even staying near the speakers there is an absolute silence between passages. Noise is nowhere to be found and this is already a great sign of what we should expect in terms of detail retrieval and transparency.

IV. Resolution & Transparency

The hardware inside it is a very capable one, a dual mono configuration, with all 8 channels unlocked, dual power supplies, two separate signal paths and so on is something that gets me really excited about.

Listening to Bay Of Pigs by Destroyer (Tidal / Spotify) that is a masterpieces by itself and the way it was recorded needs to be heard to be believed. I strongly recommend listening to it and if you do, please listen until the end. The guitar plucks are sounding so real, I am hearing how the hands are touching it. Those cymbals are probably among the cleanest ones I’ve heard in any song. I’m simply bombarded with so much micro-details in such an effortless and transparent way. The transparency and the pin point location of all notes is absolutely perfect and always wakes up the imagination of the listener. It is so pleasant spotting all that so easily without stressing myself too much.

DAC-A22 is a very resolving and transparent sounding DAC and if resolution is your thing, it could be easily compared to the best ones. This is still the second AK4499 based DAC that I have listened to, but boy, it already outperformed most of the ES9038 PRO based DACs and some of them at higher price points.

I moved to Hell Freezes Over (2018 Remaster) by Eagles (Tidal / Spotify) – this is probably the best remaster of this album and while listening to the good old Hotel California, the first two drum hits felt so good and satisfying, especially when hearing the notes disappearing in a black mist. A masterpiece when it comes to detail and stage size. The tambourine, the snares, the guitars and the crowd sounded simply stunning. A22 presented a great dose of naturalness, plus an amazing detail retrieval. The drums felt having impressive dynamics, slam was there in decent doses, everything simply clicked into place for me. I’m so looking forward to comparing it with the most detailed sounding D/S DAC very soon.

V. Transient Response

I returned back listening to Destroyer – Savage Night At The Opera (Tidal / Spotify) and even from the first seconds, I started nodding and tapping my right foot with a big n’ wide smile on my face. The impact those drums created was impressive to feel and hear, the bass guitar in the background sounded really punchy and authoritative. The groovy nature of this song was preserved and I quite enjoyed my time with it.

One of my favorite local bands just released a new album, SubRadar – by Implant Pentru Refuz (Tidal / Spotify) is a really punchy sounding recording. The mastering is not really top notch, as their past records were a bit clearer sounding, but when it comes to pure heft, punch and impact in the chest, they know how to do it and I’m not feeling losing any of that with A22. In terms of pace, rhythm and timing, A22 was quite good as all the brute force and punch I craved about was there, but it will probably not outperform the hardest slamming digital sources I’ve tested.

Generally speaking, A22 is more impressive in terms of heft and how much energy it is carrying with every note than how quick and agile it can sound. In terms of speed it is more than decent, but there are still faster sounding sources in the wild. Class-A output stage always offered a harder and a heavier tone at the price of a slight decrease of agility and speed of delivery.

VI. Soundstage & Depth

It’s not hot news to anyone that out of all D/S sigma DACs, a dual mono AKM design can’t be beaten at their own game and A22 is not shy in showing that off. Even the cheaper Topping D90, sounded exceptionally airy and almost limitless in terms of width. A22, with a close to zero crosstalk, especially on the XLR output is making even crowded hardcore very manageable and easy to focus on anything you want. The left to right space is decompressed, spread out and while listening on headphones this effect is becoming so apparent that I almost want to enable some kind of crossfeed to have everything closer to me. Stage size is up there with the nicer units, it is still not on the same size with the best R2R units, but it follows the same footprints and offers the same spatial cues.

After attaching some detailed amplifiers to it, it was clear that depth was going really deep into the room, there is no stopping those notes on Hotel California, they flew simply to the abyss. It will not stop you from dwelling deep in your records finding more layers, maybe more spatial cues and tiny amounts of air passing by. The same song by Billy Joel had a life-like decay of the notes, a really nice trail of its finger snaps and a natural echo that can observed on a nicer equipment.

A22 is without a doubt a good sounding DAC when it comes to simple things as stage size on all three axes, depth information and spatial cues. Even up-front sounding headphones started showing improvements, those drives can still show more air and spatial cues with just a better audio source in the chain. D90 from Topping will get back to us soon, but I feel that A22 is a teeny bit wider and deeper sounding and that small difference on headphones can make a whole lot of a difference in a speaker setup with live recorded music.

VII. Frequency Response

I was really not very surprised to hear a perfect rendering of the sub-bass, it went really down in an instant. A22 always delivered the lowest notes with a bit more extra topping, it went an extra mile and added a bit more weight to it, a bit more presence and a bit more oomph. It is not really overdone in the sub-bass, but it is very present and you feel its presence with the right set of drivers. S400 of Buchardt Audio can unleash some of the low end, but only when a snappy amplifier and DAC is connected to them. I’ve heard them sloppy and mellow too, I’ve heard them bright on the wrong setups, but with A22 as the front end, S400 delivered subterranean bass notes and spread them out filling the room nicely. Mid-bass is also extremely textured, clean, defined and can be easily felt on most of the tracks. Once I’m on A22, bass guitars, organs and double bass would always stand out from the crowd and would wink few times for my attention. If you love bass, A22 would be right up your alley.

How about the midrange? This is my favorite frequency range as it is among the hardest one to playback naturally and close to the real thing. A22 sounds full of substance, quite meaty, slightly raw around the edges but nonetheless naturalness is a big part of this unit. If you are coming from a super linear sounding DAC, you might think that midrange level is elevated, making the music sweeter, less digital in a way, but that is not the case. Most of the cheaper digital sources just don’t know how a proper natural midrange should sound. I always get a healthy dose of dopamine while listening to any kind of acoustic music on this unit, it simply becomes smooth, liquid and natural sounding, offering strong textures and full-bodied voices.

I was already expecting it to be awesome in the bass and midrange and I thought that treble response would be just passable or pretty good, but how wrong I was. There is definitely a healthy dose of crispness in there, everything that has to do with upper-treble is unexpectedly clear and defined. Harshness, digitus and teeth-clenching moments were missing in action, I didn’t spot any of that. A22 is again reminding me a little about some of that R2R goodness, having everything at its place, sounding detailed, but also natural and extended without a trace of digital glare.

A22 is scoring high points in terms of bass, midrange and treble, it tames the unwanted glare and grain and manages to have a nice tonal balance across the board.

VIII. A Comparison

Since Topping D90 is on loan, the second most requested comparison was with my own Matrix Audio Element X, so here goes nothing.

Gustard DAC-A22 ($1100) VS Matrix Audio Element X ($3000)

In terms of build quality, both are made out of thick aluminum plates on a CNC machine, A22 is considerably heavier as it has bigger transformers and more power filtering. In terms of looks, I like the Element X a lot more, it simply looks elegant and very modern, it has smooth lines, a very clever positioning of passive radiators and simply looks like a very refined and expensive unit.

In terms of features, Element X again wins the game as apart from being a world-class DAC, it has a full blown MQA decoder, it has a balanced headphone amp section, a preamp section, a high-performance streamer via Wi-Fi, it is Roon and DLNA compatible, it has an internal music player by attaching USB drives filled with music to it and a really nice app to control all those features with your phone. This is why Element X is almost 3X the price of A22.

Before listening to them, I needed to volume match both sources since Element X is outputting 4.5 V and A22 a much stronger 6V signal. Using MiniDSP EARS and REW 5.1 software I generated a 300 Hz Sine-wave and it shown a difference of 2.9 dB between them. That is a really big difference and without any volume matching, I could easily prefer the much stronger sounding source, it is how our brains work. I volume matched both of them using the HPA4 and commenced my listening tests.

There is a little more resolution on Element X, having a clearer leading edge and having a faster transient response. Slam is improved too, Element X hits harder and goes in and out faster offering shorter decays. With faster executed music that sounds great and dandy, but with slower acoustic music, the smoother performance of A22 was more impressive, easier to follow and be carried away by music. I was quite surprised to hear very close levels of transparency and upper-treble, A22 offered the same crispy top end, that was sharp but without hitting dangerous bright levels.

On the other hand, A22 presented by a hair a wider picture to me, the distance between the most far left and the most far right sound was bigger, it sounded deeper too and slightly more holographic. When I moved to Hell Freezer Over (2018 Remaster). I was immediately impressed by the extreme resolution and transparency of Element X (with MQA disabled), I could just feel more and see more of every note, those drums punched harder and it was a really detailed, jumpy and engaging experience. Moving on to A22, I felt a hit in resolution and speed, but the texture of guitars, drums and of the voices was more life-like, it sounded more like real music performed in from of you and less like a digital playback of that song. I like both of them, but considering my type of work, Element X is better at showing tiny amounts of details in a record and it is still the best at showing differences in the transient response between two amplifiers.

Moving to older music like folk, jazz and blues, I was carried away by music while listening on A22, it offered a slightly fuller tone, guitars and voices were deeper sounding too and it hid away some of those imperfections of old recordings. By comparison, Element X was showing every mastering error, vinyl scratches, I wouldn’t overlook the hiss and the noise in the background, it was much too obvious and that stole some of the magic of that particular music.

If you enjoy lots of old recordings, A22 worked better in that case, showing all the best and hiding some of the worst. With modern and punchy music, Element X sounded always engaging, with it I wanted to head-bang and toe tap every second.

When I moved both of them in the speaker setup and ditched the HPA4 working as a preamp, the situation changed quite a bit. I again volume matched them and I started listening to the same music. All of the above is still standing with the exception of slam, control and stage size as A22 simply pulled ahead. It simply sounded punchier, offered a better control of the speaker drivers and a bigger image was presented to me. It was throwing it farther away in a more holographic manner compared to Element X. In a speaker setup, A22 presented itself exemplary and it could easier replace a dedicated preamp until you have the funds for one.

All in all, Element X is a more refined sounding source and will extract more of everything, but in reality, it really depends on the listener and on your particular setup. If extreme detail and transient response is not that important to you, then by any means, A22 could be a better digital source for you. If you want to use a DAC + preamp in a speaker setup, then again A22 seems like a much better choice, so I will leave you being the judge of this comparison.

Conclusion

This is my first contact with Gustard and I hope it will not be my last. DAC-A22 shown to me that if you know how, musical and smooth sounding sources can still be made with flagship D/S chips too. I had absolutely nothing to reproach in the frequency response as from the lowest to the highest octaves, everything was preserved clean, defined and transparent. I consider it having an amazing tonal balance, offering a warmer and heavier tonality, add that impressive holographic image, a wide soundstage on all axes, a smoother presentation and you could listen to music all day long without any listening fatigue.

It also got the title as the best preamp from all DAC + preamp combos that I have tested around here so if you are searching for a nice All-in-One, this just might be the best option for you.

Speaking about its price, considering its build, the flagship chips, its fully dual mono all discrete and class-A output stage, plus that powerful preamp, at just $1100 I consider it a really affordable solution and a no-brainer in a speaker setup. Gustard DAC-A22 can be purchased directly from Aoshida by following this *link (they offer free shipping, free 30-day returns in case you don’t like it, an extra 1 year of warranty and lowest price guarantee).

*If you are interested in getting it, please support my work by purchasing it from the affiliate link above, it will cost you the same amount, but it will help me tremendously in maintaining this website and Youtube channel.

PROS:

  • Big, heavy and solid device
  • Nice build quality, glad they went for a monochrome display
  • Open wide and deep sounding too, as far as D/S DACs go, this is their limit
  • It is quite holographic sounding; I could easily pick the notes around me thanks to that precise pin point location
  • Slightly warm and smooth presentation, makes it perfect for long listening sessions
  • Extended frequency response at both ends
  • Transparent and detailed sounding too
  • Good slam and impact, even better while working as a preamp
  • Clean background with low levels of distortion
  • Great tonal balance, sounding life-like most of the time
  • Wide selection of digital inputs and outputs
  • So far, this was the best DAC + preamp in a speaker setup
  • A great value considering its great performance

CONS:

  • Would prefer faster transients as a DAC only device
  • If your name is Gustard, ditch the Mini-CD, put the drivers and all the manuals online, make an official website in English and leave a contact form so that people can take you seriously

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT:

  • DACs: Gustard DAC-A22, Audio-GD R7 (2020 version), Matrix Audio Element X, Denafrips Venus, Flux Labs Acoustics FCN-10
  • Headphone Amps: Benchmark HPA4, SparkoS Labs Aries, xDuoo TA-30
  • Preamps: Benchmark HPA4
  • Integrated Amps: Hegel H190, Keces E40
  • Power Amp: Keces S125
  • IEMs: FiiO FH7, FA9
  • Full-sized headphones: Audeze LCD-4, Erzetich Phobos, Hifiman Arya, Quad ERA-1
  • Loudspeakers: Buchardt S400, KEF LS50W
  • Interconnects: QED Reference XLR (x2), Aune AL3 XLR
  • Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
  • Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x2)
  • Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC400, KECES BP-600

Overall score 97/100


0users like this.

Leave a Reply