MHDT Labs Pagoda, Stockholm, Atlantis, and Canary
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the privilege of owning several and having extended sessions with others, and I decided to put together a previously-unpublished comparison of the lineup a while back.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.
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)
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