MHDT Labs Pagoda, Stockholm, Atlantis, Canary, and Orchid
August 21, 2016 Luckbad 1
It’s no secret that I’ve become a huge fan of MHDT Labs. They make non-oversampling R-2R tube DACs with no digital, op-amp, or feedback, and they’re all gorgeous to listen to. I’ve had the privilege of owning several and having extended sessions with others, and I decided to put together a previously-unpublished comparison of the lineup a while back.
Since initially writing this, I picked up the Canary. I was never able to compare it directly to anything other than my modded Atlantis, so I’ll add on a brief snippet at the end about the Canary.
The original comparisons were done with a range of amps and sources. Currently, I use a Lynx E22 DDC and ampsandsound Mogwai amplifier at home, and a Singxer SU-1 DDC and Garage1217 Project Sunrise III amp at work.
My main headphones are the ubiquitous Sennheiser HD650 and the lesser-known JVC HA-DX2000.
NOTE: Addenda can be found for the Canary and Orchid toward the end of this review.
The DAC Chips
- MHDT Labs Pagoda: Burr-Brown PCM1704 (24-bit)
- MHDT Labs Stockholm: Burr-Brown PCM56P-J (16-bit)
- MHDT Labs Atlantis: Analog Devices AD1862N-J (20-bit)
- MHDT Labs Canary: Philips TDA1545A (16-bit)
- MHDT Labs Orchid: Philips TDA1541A – R1 (16-bit)
ComparisonStockholm = Hot Cheerleader
Pagoda = Hot Librarian
Atlantis = Hot Girl Next Door
They’re all hot! Different flavors.
The Stockholm is the most euphonic tuning of the three. Warmer, weightier sound with an undeniable musicality. She’s gorgeous and popular, and teases the hell out of you. But damn she’s fun. You lust after her.
The Pagoda is the most detailed and accurate, but it has a wild side. She’s intelligent, calculating, and utterly capable of rendering you hopelessly in love. She also makes more money than you.
The Atlantis is a little more unassuming, but give it the right tubes and it sings. She’s beautiful without makeup and unaware of how pretty she really is. Her kindness, honesty, and sense of humor enrapture you and make your heart skip. You can’t stop thinking about her.
These rankings are based on what I perceive as the character of the DAC itself, absent of tubes (I’ve rolled so many that I can roll ~3 tubes and know roughly what the DAC is imparting on the character at this point).
These differences are subtle. All three have a rich, organic, natural musicality and all render instruments with a gorgeous timbre. Differences are +/- a few percent, with gaps tightened or even closed depending on the tubes used.Detailed: Pagoda > Atlantis > Stockholm
Organic: Pagoda = Atlantis = Stockholm
Timbre: Pagoda = Stockholm = Atlantis
Musical: Stockholm > Pagoda > Atlantis
Soundstage Width: Pagoda = Atlantis > Stockholm
Soundstage Depth: Pagoda = Stockholm > Atlantis
Accurate: Pagoda > Atlantis > Stockholm
Dry: Atlantis > Pagoda > Stockholm
Warm: Stockholm > Atlantis > Pagoda
Liquid: Stockholm > Pagoda > Atlantis
Adaptable: Atlantis > Stockholm > Pagoda
Bright: Pagoda > Atlantis > Stockholm
Speed: Pagoda > Atlantis > Stockholm
Vocals: Atlantis > Pagoda > Stockholm
Euphoric: Stockholm > Pagoda > Atlantis
Thickness: Stockholm > Pagoda > Atlantis
Smooth: Stockholm > Atlantis > Pagoda
Some advantages of each:
Atlantis: The Atlantis is the most responsive to tube changes of the three, imparting the least of its own flavor to the music. It can range from bright and dry with a Bendix tube to warm and liquid with a GE Triple Mica.
This is a blessing and a curse. If you give it a bright tube, it can become too bright. If you give it a warm tube, it can be too rolled off. The Pagoda and Stockholm are less responsive to tube rolling–you can nudge each in different directions with tube changes, but you’re not going to roll a tube and suddenly think, “well, my dac sounds like crap.”
That said, the relative rankings can be shifted significantly by rolling tubes.
Stockholm: Absolute musicality. This is probably the most fun to listen to of the three. You aren’t going to hear as deep into the music as the Pagoda, nor can you effect as much change with different tubes as you can with the Atlantis
But, it has a gorgeous, toe-tapping sound. The GE Triple Mica tube makes the Stockholm too warm and syrupy, so you’re likely best going with a Bendix/AEG/Sylvania tube or their ilk with this dac.
Pagoda: The refined approach. Euphonic? Yes. Detailed? Yes. This is the brighest of the three both to my ears and as far as measurements are concerned (-1dB at 20kHz as opposed to -2dB for the Atlantis and Stockholm.
It’s technically the most impressive of the three and will get you the audiophile-desired clarity, dynamics, accuracy, and refinement that many people want. But, it also delivers it with an organic timbre just like the Stockholm and Atlantis.
The stock sonic emphasis goes something like this in overall frequency response. Again, keep in mind that this is +/- a few percent.Treble = Pagoda | Mids = Atlantis | Bass = Stockholm
Based on my basshead preferences, that would usually mean I’d lean toward the Stockholm as my preferred choice. But life is complicated, mkay?
Bass impact is superior on the Stockholm, and the Pagoda even punches quite hard. However, what makes me lean toward the Altantis is that it’s a freakin’ chameleon.
Rolling tubes in the Atlantis can yield significant changes. I generally use GE Triple Mica tubes in the Atlantis (at the time of this review… I now use 6N26P most of the time and 6N3P-DR at times), as it thickens the sound a bit (removes the dryness) and adds nice weight to the bass. And, most of the weight is lower in the bass regions toward sub-bass, so it doesn’t muddy the sound at all. The Stockholm with the same tube gets a little too muddy and encroaches on mids.
I finally bit the bullet a bit ago and grabbed Tesla 6CC42 Pinched Waist D-Getter tubes. They’re harder to find than Western Electrics, but they’re around the same price. These tubes are outstanding to my ears. They add many of the qualities of the Bendix in clarity and detail without emphasizing treble as well as much of the euphoria of the Western Electric tubes without going too smooth. The bass is also well extended. Highly recommended with an Atlantis and Pagoda, perhaps not with the Stockholm.
If you fancy yourself a modder, you can mod these DACs with various upgrades. The Pagoda seems largely upgraded as is, and the Stockholm has a few more bells and whistles than the Atlantis. I upgraded one Atlantis, which added additional detail and clarity to the sound while retaining its largely mid-focused character. It also has the larger toroidal transformer, but (as Jiun pointed out to me in an email), it’s really only necessary for their balanced DACs.
Where was I going with this?
The Stockholm wins in overall musicality between the three DACs. The Pagoda wins in overall audiophile-ness. The Atlantis wins if you want a tube-rolling DAC and enjoy optimizing sound.
Differences between any good DAC are minimal. Differences between R-2R DACs designed and built by the same manufacturer are smaller still.
Frankly, if you have an MHDT Labs DAC, you win.
As I mentioned, I acquired a Canary after doing my original comparison. This is an update to the old version of the MHDT Labs Canary and uses 4x TDA1545A chips, no op-amps, no digital filter, and no feedback just like the rest of the current lineup.
The new MHDT Labs Canary is outstanding. It’s a very romantic and musical sounding DAC.
I now understand the infatuation with its predecessor, the Paradisea.
It’s a bit thicker sounding and wetter than the Atlantis. It has a bit less authority to the sound than the Stockholm and isn’t as dynamic as the Pagoda.
It has an airy quality and a relaxed euphony in its presentation (which I understand now as a characteristic of the old Philips R-2R chips after owning a few DACs using them).
It is technically “inferior” to the others, but it’s still a gorgeous listen and the best value of the four.
If you’re looking for an excellent value or are curious what a non-oversampling R-2R tube DAC sounds like, grab a Canary.
Since people will likely ask me what type of hot girl the Canary is, it’s that sexy rocker chick who is secretly a straight A student.
This is what was modded in my Atlantis to make it what I’ve dubbed the Atlantis+ [Click here for a comparison picture]:
- Output capacitors are Russian K40Y9 1uF/200V (paper in oil)
- Main power caps are ELNA SILMIC 2200uF/35V instead of Nichicon Fine Gold 3300uF/35V
- All 100uf Nichicon MUSE caps replaced with Elna Silmic II 100uf/35V
- RCA digital input now uses Murata DA101C transformer instead of cap input
- Digital input cap: 0.01uf WIMA FKC instead of SMD 0.01uf
- Audio grade fuse: 1A 250V slow blow
- Larger toroidal transformer
- I/P:0-115V 0-115V 50/60Hz
- O/P:15V-0-15V 0.7A
- 8V-0-8V 2.0A
MHDT Labs Orchid Addendum
In mid 2017, MHDT Labs introduced a new DAC to the lineup. This one uses a chip many of us have been asking for: The Philips TDA1541A. This chip is one of the most famous from the glory days of R-2R, mentioned in the same reverent breath as the Burr-Brown PCM63, Analog Devices AD1862, and Ultra Analog D20400A.
It uses an R1 version of the chip, which is not one of the famous late production ~1998 chips or a “crown” chip (S1/S2). While the R1 is not a famed variant of the TDA1541A, it is socketed in the DAC and is extremely easy to replace if you want to buy a better version of the chip.
My impressions of the Orchid can be summarized rather succinctly as: jack of all trades, master of all trades.
It is, quite simply, the best overall DAC that MHDT Labs has ever produced. Even with the R1 chip, it has the most stage depth of any of their offerings, width at a similar level to the Pagoda, and a wonderfully vivid, dynamic presentation.
If you want a non-oversampling, R-2R tube DAC that can do it all very well, the Orchid is the best I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. The bass digs deep without ever getting flabby or encroaching on the mids. The mids are luscious and elegant. The highs have detail and air without being fatiguing.
To sidetrack a little bit, I’ll briefly talk about a famous DAC that uses the TDA1541A chip: The Audial Model S. Audial’s Pedja Rogic is a pioneer of building modern digital-to-analog converters with the TDA1541A chip.
I mention this for two reasons: First, the Orchid utilizes a zero-feedback output stage scheme very similar to Audial by utilizing the OPA861 as an I/V transistor. In the DIY community, this is often believed to be the best way to implement an output stage using the TDA1541A, and MHDT Labs appears to agree.
Secondly, Pedja did some very in-depth research to find the best examples of the TDA1541A apart from the rare and expensive S2 chips, and he discovered chips made in 1998 in Taiwan to be exemplary. I hunted around and found one to use as a replacement for the R1 that came stock.
Was it worth it? Undoubtedly, yes. To replace the chip, I basically took two screwdrivers and slowly removed the R1 chip from the sockets to prevent any bending of the pins. Then a quick installation of the 1998 Taiwan chip (lining up the pins and pushing it down) and I was ready to go.
Were the changes audible? I believe so, yes. Everything sounded effectively as described earlier, but slightly better in every way. If you can source a genuine TDA1541A chip, I do recommend replacing the stock R1. If you can’t find one, no big deal. You’re missing out on placebo and less change than a solid tube will get you.
Briefly touching on tubes, I’ve found that different tubes complement the various MHDT Labs DACs. I wouldn’t use the same tube in the Pagoda and Stockholm because the DACs themselves have different characteristics. That said, I find the Orchid to respond to tube changes nearly as dramatically as the Atlantis. While the Pagoda and Stockholm are sonically influenced by the chosen tube, the Atlantis changes quite significantly, and the Orchid nearly as much.
This means you have a potential chameleon on your hands and you will be able to find a tube that pairs well with your ears and the Orchid. The Pagoda, Stockholm, and Canary are all set well enough in their ways that a simple tube change isn’t going to push things far in any direction, while the Orchid and Atlantis can be tuned to taste.
Since people keep asking what kind of girl the Orchid would be: The Orchid is a gorgeous schoolteacher. Sophisticated, tempting, and, romantic.
So I’ve been gushing about the Orchid for paragraphs. Is it my favorite DAC from MHDT? It may very well be. Previously, my favorite of the bunch was definitely a heavily modified Atlantis (dubbed the “Atlantis+”), but the Orchid has so many beautiful qualities it might take the cake. Time will tell.
Musical, dynamic, vivid, airy, and gorgeous, the MHDT Labs Orchid is sure to gain a cult following among fans of this style of DAC.