SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced Review


Many audiophiles and music lovers have shown great interest in the SW1X Audio Design DACs. These DACs are the brainchild of Dr. Slawa Roschkow and were designed from the ground up with music in mind. 


Dr. Slawa Roschkow's proud creations have already set foot on the high-end audio DAC market and are known for their analog-like qualities in dealing with transcoding zeros and ones. 

The very first sonic encounter with the SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced coincided with various observations, reports, and claims made by Dr. Slawa Roschkow.


There is something quite different going on at the core of the SW1X DAC, which was audible from the first few songs in the piece. 

Aficionados and connoisseurs of NOS will immediately recognize the top-notch TDA1541 chip and, of course, the lack of a digital filter stage in this non-oversampling tube DAC.

I owned an Audio Note DAC a few years ago, have tried many NOS DACs over the years, and currently own such digital paraphernalia.

Because of this predisposition, I was pleased to expect the review. Especially after Dr. Slawa Roschkow's detailed insights into his products, the materials and parts used, his philosophy, and tenacity, I need to hear one of his proud creations. 

The Magic of the Red Book


Here and then, some challenges shake our basic beliefs and make us rethink a modern way of thought. The 16-bit Redbook was introduced in the early 1980s, and its recent revival is certainly one of the standouts that keep coming back for more to be dug out of this proposed limited playback resolution. 

While many have moved into the high-resolution camp, interestingly there are still many audiophiles and music lovers who hold on to 16-bit 44.1 kHz quality for CD, local file playback, and even streaming. 

And here seems to be the rub, which is not at all related to a certain nostalgia. Similar to vinyl records, it is closely related to the way the music sounds. 

It gives an idea of how 16 bit 44.1 kHz represents the arithmetic balance between dynamics, frequency response, bandwidth, distortion, and noise.

If you think about it further, the concept follows, among other things, the logic that with higher bits and frequencies, not only bandwidth increases but also noise.

As bits and kHz decrease, the energy changes, as does the relationship between harmonics and fundamentals. 

This is a well-known effect of 12-bit samplers that many studio musicians and producers still prefer. And I can confirm this because I used to own some of these music machines myself. With 12-bit, something "magical" happens with vocals and especially with the leading edges of instruments. With drums, especially the snare and metallic percussions, the attacks gain a real-life snapping. 

To make things even more interesting, doubling the frequency also doubles the clock phase, theoretically increasing the noise by a few dB. 

Our ear and the mechanisms of our brain process sound in a very special way and we are extremely sensitive to phase and delay. This could be one of the reasons why even a slight change of phase and timing alienate the music. This review is not the place nor do I have the space to go in-depth on the subject, but it is more than worth pointing out. 

A similar phenomenon can be observed when playing back streaming services at 44.1 kHz with a startlingly large number of tracks, as well as with locally stored files. It is known that some albums are upsampled, but I am not talking about that here. 

I am talking about 44kHz versus 88,2, 96, or 192 kHz. On a well-balanced system, there is this constantly occurring phenomenon that has bugged me on too many occasions. 

The "lower" resolution versions sound better, fuller, more music-like than the higher resolution versions!?! Same thing and even more noticeable with local playback. I am not sure exactly what this is, but it may be closely related to the findings in the paragraph above.

The flow of the music feels different, as does the nature of the music density. Theoretically, high-resolution files have higher resolution, and they do, but in addition to the specifics already mentioned, it could also have something to do with psychoacoustics. Anyhow, it is something that anyone can research without too much effort. 

SW1X Vs


Several factors explain why SW1X Audio Design DACs can convey the low-level musical complexity and subtle spatial nuances that other DACs have difficulty with. Among other things, SW1X Audio Design products intentionally eschew "bells and whistles" - a plethora of features that most mainstream DACs boast. 

Dr. Slawa Roschkow firmly believes that while these features make the product more attractive and help sell it, they ultimately come at the expense of sound quality. 

Features that help eradicate the musicality of a high-performance audio product include indicators, meters, volume controls, switches, buttons and relays, multiple inputs and outputs, and last but not least, extensive compatibility with all sorts of media formats and standards, to name a few.


All SW1X Audio Design DAC1X DACs operate without digital filters, meaning there is no over-sampling, no jitter reduction, no noise-shaping, and no re-clocking. 

Since all SW1X Audio Design DAC DACs are designed to operate without digital filtering or any type of digital signal manipulation required for oversampling, all filtering is done in the analog domain to ensure the best possible signal integrity. 

SW1X's best DACs use the high-quality TDA1541, PCM56, and TDA1543 converter chipsets, which are known for their analog sonic character, only because SW1X considers them to be the best sounding on the market (yes, even much better than the more modern 24-bit or 32-bit versions!).

Dr. Slava Roschkow again boldly declares that SW1X's products continue to make music even when the fashion is over, making SW1X DAC products timeless and even more valuable. 

In other words, SW1X Audio Design DACs focus on the music, concentrate on the factors that matter in music playback, are optimized for a single format (PCM), and intentionally omit the fashionable features and other function-related factors that may add to convenience but are counterproductive to the quality of music playback.

Operative


As expected and suspected, the SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced took a few days to stabilize and the slight differences slowly evened out. After a longer music-only playback (no signal or white noise burn-in), overall stability was introduced and critical listening took place. 

Like many signature versions of the AN DACs, DAC III Balanced has black gate capacitors inside. They behave like batteries and require a certain charge.

When the DAC III Balanced is new (like the review sample), it needs at least a week of continuous use for things to continue to improve significantly. The sound opens up and becomes more dynamic over time.

Similar to Aries Cerat and Audio Note UK, SW1X Audio Design uses 1980s DACs that have come a long way in refining since the original R2R designs.

Dr. Slawa Roschkow boldly acknowledges that these 1980s DACs were intended to be used for local playback, local being the keyword!

I followed the suggestion with different CD players, and some of those might be considered obsolete by today's standards. Still...

I also used the flagship Pink Faun 2.16 Ultra music server, which has both AES EBU and Spdif outputs, as the provided review sample did not have a USB input, which by design is not considered equal by Dr. Slawa Roschkow.

And yes, even though the 2.16 proved to be an excellent music server, there was an organic synergy with the CD players/transporters that acted as digital front ends. Less complicated and more straightforward the CD transport was, the merrier the music intoxication. 

Indeed, intriguing and beyond interesting. 

The Music


Despite all that has been mentioned, listening is of paramount importance and not of fleeting value.

With music, there is always a rhetorical question, "Does music sound different!"? It should!

If different albums do not differ from each other by default, then something is wrong. 

As always, here is a selection of music where SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced has proven its merits in comparison.



The Language Of Life is unique in many ways, but it is close to my heart as it was produced by Tomi Li Puma, who also produced many of Michael Frank's albums, an artist I hold in high regard, and whose music I have followed since my early years. 

I would not call Language Of Life a typical pop album. It's influenced considerably by jazz and fusion. 

SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced quickly demonstrated that it leaves an emotional mark and that Everything But The Girl is a work of art. 

Different frames were projected without losing the individual virtues. This was noted repeatedly in my listening notes. Language Of Life's astute rendition offered details that stood out sublimely in most cases. A most refreshing and unexpected turn in the performance. 


King Singers multiple vocals can too often sound like hieroglyphics, as if the singers have no context. 

SW1X Audio Design DAC III  Balanced reproduction of King Singers was once again outstanding. Voices expanded in three dimensions with a refreshing sense of presence. Something that falls more in the domain of vinyl reproduction. 

Interestingly, DAC III Balanced did not apply to the sound. It followed the energy without a dizzying delivery and small textural pulses were delivered in plethora and high-minute increases deciphered in ear-opening density. Period!


Yes - The Yes Album has further disclosed SW1X Audio Design DAC III  Balanced ability to ponder deeper into the unexplored realms. 

DAC III  Balanced mapped the details and anchor points with refreshing vibrancy. 

The iconic sonic canvas was portrayed without an indication of slenderest fractions of reality, which is too often faux in presentation even with some exorbitant priced DACs.  

Many DACs can dim the Yes album. On contrary, DAC III acted in consonance with rhythm never sounding like a tapered illusion. 


DAC III balanced disclosure of its merits put Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! in a new light. 

For a refreshing change, Fitzgerald's vocals did not seem formless. On the contrary, it underscored his unique talents by 

Normal sign language falls in the meager 80-300 Hz range. This is where the magic happens, and DAC III Balanced was not shy of showing its merits. 

SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced untransmuted appeal gave Fitzgerald's spirit a higher sense of personality and gave full meaning to her lyricism. 

I do not know what else I can say to highlight the uniqueness and outstanding character of DAC III Balanced. 


Charles Munch conducts Berlioz & Brahms

SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced unique inner potency acted as a glue that binds the fabric of music with holographic movement, extraordinarily rendering the orchestra like aural synesthesia with a rare combinatorial quality echolocation Loom of sound. 

The cavernous feel of the orchestra was not lost and a higher density and more anchor points allowed the inner tremors of the orchestra to provide a higher resolution that should not exist. 

We only have two-directional receptors, but we can decipher so much spatial information, and SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced stood out in spatial imaging, regardless of the genre of music. 

Using DAC III fixed a spatially enriched horizontal and vertical extension, as well as a more opulent holographic projection. All while keeping the golden trinity of timbre, tone, and color in place and not drowning.

SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced may not satisfy the preferences of audiophiles, but music lovers will appreciate the unique flow in the right direction.

In addition, unlike most DACs, DAC III Balance features a remarkable collective spatial order in which sound waves move freely, just as in reality. Enough said!
ss recordings. 

SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced reproduces the details and anchor points with a quite refreshing vividness. 

Normally this plate is masked out on many fronts during DAC decoding. With SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced, the sound is reproduced with full scope, presenting the actuality with the least fragmentation and without fragmentation of the sound image. 

All too often, even the best DACs sound like a beaten up-mirroring in sound representation. On the contrary, DAC III Balanced expands with a fuller effect and is in tune with the rhythm. 

Regardless of genre, from album to album, from track to track, SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced returns energy to the music, not takes it away. This happens too often, even with some highly rated and far more expensive DACs, where the music can sound more like a caricature than a larger portion of believable reality.

Conclusion


After a good century of dealing with the analog, we are just beginning to decipher the possibilities of the digital. And despite some recent developments, analog is far from out of fashion. On the contrary, it will stay and have much more to offer. 

SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced is not a novelty, and Dr. Slawa Roschkow did not exactly start with a blank sheet of paper. It's obvious where his inspirations come from, and even the leveling of various products from the portfolio reflects an already proven working idea. Nevertheless, he has managed to find his niche and direction and create something of his own and of noteworthy difference.  

The kind of product segmentation SW1X offers is a clever way to give a clear idea of where a particular SW1X Audio Design DAC sits and what it proffers. 

In addition, each product line offers numerous upgrades that extend each line up to X level. And DAC III can have some powerful expansions:
  • Fully Hardwired Tube Output Stage on the Bakelite Board
  • Fine Silver wiring on the Input, Bakelite Board, and Output
  • SW1X Audio Design™ Custom Designed & Fully or Partly Silver wound Ultra HiB DC core Signal Output Transformers
  • Black Gate VK capacitors in the B+ power supply
  • Black Gate capacitors in LV power supply and decoupling capacitors for TDA1541A DAC
  • AN 2W non-magnetic Niobium resistors on a Hardwired Bakelite Board
  • Super HiB double C-core mains transformers for the digital and DHT/DHD power supplies
  • TDA1541R Selected or optional TDA1541A S1 or S2 Selected Crown version
  • Silver Foil capacitors Inter-stage signal de-coupling capacitors
  • AN 2W Silver, non-magnetic, Tantalum resistors
Yes, those are some seriously drool-worthy upgrade options and materials... 

Of course, such a wide variety of options falls into the domain of trial and error and discovery and combination, where various parts are either measured, evaluated by listening, or both methods are combined to produce a meaningful and better-sounding result. Otherwise, the scope is simply too wide to apprehend its possibilities. 

From the perspective of seeing DAC as an enclosed system, this is certainly a retort to one of the biggest reservations about digital fronts end; the obsolence. 


In recent years, we have witnessed an obscure shift in dominance of high-resolution concept that is too often imperceptible in terms of performance.

As with many other things surrounding the SW1X Audio Design, Dr. Slawa Roschkow does not follow the numbers game that more bits and higher resolution equal more music. 

Modern high-end audio is certainly seen and presented with a focus on complexity and impressive specifications, and since digitization is a driving force, complex filters, upsampling, FPGA, etc. are often used in marketing blur. 

However, the phenomenon of over-processing, even in its theoretical form and as seen in various other fields, leads to elusive confusion that does not always translate into better music performance. 

Some companies can and do cross the threshold with serious engineering, but the results are not always as expected. Of course, one cannot simply reduce this to two poles, but it's definitely an interesting juxtaposition. 

On the one hand, there are very sophisticated processor operations connected to the ever-improving hardware that may or may not be at full capacity yet. On the other hand, there is a filterless design that does away with such complexities and various kinds of sonic processing and manipulation.

Following these two antipodes, the question that many audiophiles and music lovers ask themselves follows: Is the music more visceral and soulful, with less cerebral framing taking place?

Even though the high resolution provides more information, there is always the question of sonic balance, which is more than often than not upset. It seems that these higher resolution files and streams can often emphasize and organize the bits in an agitating way. 

SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced does a particular justice to the deeper communication with the music rather than the empirical and analytical transcoding of the music. 

But the key attribute is also the natural transparency that evokes a higher degree of contrast, and that is not necessarily the modus operandi of many higher-priced DAC with the ability to operate at higher sampling frequencies and bits.

When it comes to sound, less is more is a viable approach, and that has proven to be the case for many high-end audio products. But while it can be simple, it certainly can not be simpler, and that's another topic that deserves its essay. 

Among many things, it's about not reducing the essentials, and SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced is good at keeping the music as a sonorous and harmonious whole. 

Dr. Slava Roschkow has taken his path by following the sonic path that does not evoke any particular audiophile attributes or patch the sound with various peculiarities.

At first listening, this might confuse even the experienced connoisseur. And yet... After the inner mechanisms adjust to this new experience, the real shift-of-perception takes place. 

As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and DAC III Balanced certainly needs hands-on experience to fully appreciate it. 

This is a very different kind of music machine, with the core values lurking very formidable with analog realms! 

That alone is a compliment worthy of the praise of a higher order. 

I recently acquired Metaxas TR -X tape machine to have another reference point for my evaluations. Some of the recorded tapes are truly a completely nonnative galaxy when it comes to recorded music. 

It was more than riveting to encounter how SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced ascertained a greater grasp of reality than expected with some of the density echoing and anchoring an exceptional amount of analog attributes within the digital habitat. 

In this age of ubiquitous lookism, algorithms, and overprocessing of almost everything at each turn of our lives, Dr. Slawa opposes with an assertive antidote, one that expresses deep concepts with supreme simplicity.

I am always on the lookout for notable differences in playback. But a single discrepancy is not enough to be called an exceptional distinction worthy of embrace as rudimentary. Only when such differentiation results in better music reproduction I'm ready to lift the flag and wave boldy.

And SW1X Audio Design DAC III differentiate by no small margin.


For what it represents at reproducing the music and for how closer it moves to the analog as well to the sonic fundaments of reality, I give the SW1X Audio Design DAC III 2022 Mono & Stereo Highly-Recommended Product Award. 

SW1X Audio Design DAC III Balanced sets the bar extremely high, making it a sort of immediate heritage classic product to start with. 

DAC III Balanced has left a lasting impression and raised some highly interesting questions. It has also oppugned some of the key fundamentals of digital audio canvassing. 

To answer and research these points in detail I'll be most probably looking at the SW1X Audio Design top-of-the-line, cost-no-object DAC in not to distant future.  

Matej Isak

Manufacturer comment: "Is not it all about pleasure enjoying music? In order to maximise that pleasure we went great lengths with our ongoing Research & Development. We made a choice to go the long and hard way i.e. not for the cost saving, quick money by following current fashion & trends in the mainstream industry. What seems simple, it is not- we can assure anyone with that. If only complexity in the circuit design gave us the best results we would certainly have opted for it. However it is all about elegance in the simplicity and not simplicity for the sake of simplicity- that elegance in itself is very hard to achieve because every detail matters more than in a complex design. If simplicity was the objective, would otherwise have ended up with just a bare board, wires and a couple of passive/active components. Contrary to simplicity, we could have chosen any modern DAC design, the low cost & widely available, noise-shaping & digital filtering Delta Sigma type + DSD - only if they offered the desired results in terms of musical performance. If we ever go into noise shaping technology, then it would only our very bottom of entry level product. We deliberately chosen not to follow that trend of chasing the numbers game as numbers are totally meaningless in the end if the music does not move you emotionally.

All our design is what I would call functional designs. All it means is that form (circuit & material design) follows function (musical performance) and not other way around. That implies that one will not find any fashionable gimmicks, unnecessary "bells and whistles" such as displays, lights and switches just for the sake of having them, which help to sell a product because they make the product more appealing to the customer. We have taken the purist approach with some Eastern influence to amplifier design. It is all about performance- therefore some lack of convenience features is a bargain price to pay for some extra performance. The results speak for themselves. The music sounds more articulate and alive than most people are expecting it to be... musicality, natural timbre, dynamic articulation and spatial separation are all present in abundance even in our entry level products. So, the most serious audiophiles and music lovers are bound for a pleasant shocking experience. 

Furthermore, we went beyond any traditional approach in a circuit design as we realized that like with the Stradivari cellos, the devil is in the details. Nothing, absolutely nothing is randomly chosen or ended up by chance inside our products, not even a direction of a fuse inside. Everything has been carefully voiced, specially selected and harmonically matched to produce an overall musically pleasing sound. Even if one tried to copy our designs because of their performance or because they look so simple, one will eventually fail to producing anything sounding close to the assembled products we offer. Even we get sometimes reminded of this, trying to replicate our recipe every time, we sometimes get different results. So, voicing is an integral part of a production process because the series production is still relatively small. 

Thank you Matej for the great review, which turned out pretty spot on accurate. Most of the qualities that our products display in reproducing music cannot be put into words. As the saying goes, the proof is the pudding. And every accomplishment starts with a decision to try."

Price

  • GBP 9.600 excluding VAT, GBP 11.520 including 20% UK VAT

Features

  • Pure & Elegant NOS (Non oversampling – zero digital domain filtering) Design
  • Balanced (& Single Ended) Signal Output Transformer de-coupled Valve Output Stage Topology
  • EL84 Power Output Tubes, Zero NFB, Class A, Valve Output Stage
  • Passive I/V conversion via a specially selected resistor with the shortest signal path directly connected to the tube grid
  • Dynamic Element Matching (DEM) powered by an asynchronous E180F Valve Clock powered by EAA91 Valve Rectified & Choke Filtered Power Supply
  • Discrete Transistor, Shunt Voltage Regulated Low Voltage Power Supplies
  • 5U4GB Directly Heated Valve rectified CLC (choke filtered) B+ Power Supply
  • Digital Input supports up to 24Bit/96kHz S/PDIF Signal Input
  • Specially Selected and Harmonically Matched Component & Material Quality
  • SW1X Audio Design™ Copper wound Super HiB DC core Signal Output Transformers
  • M6 grain orient EI core Mains Transformers & Chokes
  • Circuit is wired with Specially Selected copper conductors of various geometry (single strand and Litz)
  • AN Copper Foil in Oil inter-stage signal de-coupling Capacitors
  • Black Gate de-coupling Capacitors for TDA1541 DAC
  • AB 2W non-magnetic Carbon film Resistors in selected places 
Tube Compliment:  2 x EL84, 1 x 6N6P, 1 x 5U4GB, 1 x E180F, 1 x EAA91

Contact


SW1X Audio Design
Clartes Ltd
10 Feering Road
Coggeshall
Essex
CO6 1RN
United Kingdom

Tel.: +44 (0)13 7656 2402