My Video Review:
I have a long history of reviewing all kinds of DACs, starting with regular chip-based, software-defined FPGA DACs and finishing with the ancestors of modern digital-to-analog converters that are called R-2R ladder DACs. I have tried plenty of units in any of these segments, including a substantial number of R-2R units that had unique traits and unforgiving weaknesses, but I could never omit their different way in dealing with natural harmonics. That’s precisely why I’ve ordered a high-end unit that will be showing up in the following months. Expect a world-first review for the Rockna Wavedream ULTRA somewhere next year…but until that happens, let’s focus on down to earth units like the one that I will be testing today.
After trying every single DAC released by Gustard and sharing my experiences with you, I didn’t know what to expect when their massive X26 PRO landed on my table about a year ago. After powering it on and letting it play for a few days…I refused to believe my ears and I wasn’t at peace with myself, as it outperformed my own, much pricier DAC. The following days, I succumbed and accepted the fact that X26 PRO was the very best Delta-Sigma oversampling DAC that I’ve tried at my place, that won’t break the bank, forever changing my preconceptions about chip-based converters, especially about their limitations. It outplayed and outgunned my beloved Matrix Element X without the right to appeal at less than half its price! In fact, it performed so well in both of my setups, that any other chip-based oversampling DACs felt muddy, dull, small sounding, but most importantly…dead with little to no dynamics left to excite me. Months passed by and I tried the very best units of Singxer, Topping and SMSL and yet, X26 PRO was still sitting on a pedestal as the true ruler of delta-sigma DACs coming from China, that wouldn’t cost you a small fortune. My X26 PRO review hit a home run, as believe it or not, it’s still the most read and discussed article around here and I thank you all for stopping by and leaving a comment, I’m greatly appreciating that!
When Gustard updated their website two months ago with a mysterious new flagship device that swapped ESS 9038 PRO chips with ladders of resistors working in a fully balanced configuration…I stopped from whatever I was doing and started translating every single word from Chinese to English, so I could better understand its inner workings. Knowing how impressive X26 PRO performed on all accounts, I just couldn’t sleep at night without giving it a try. Such is the life of the DACMan and since I couldn’t stay and do nothing, the next day I started shooting emails left and right and it didn’t take me a long to see a reply from none other than Aoshida Audio that once again obliged and sent me a review unit.
I’m a tinkerer of all sorts and I like checking the inner workings of the units that are passing through my door, regardless of their purposes, even before listening to the damn things. After receiving it, the next minute I was already disassembling the unit, so I could follow the trail, the signal path. I wanted to be sure that at such prices, you could still find linear transformers (plural), overkill filtering and regulation stages, while swapping op-amps with an all-discrete output stage (hence, its name), an impressive digital board and clocking system. Lastly, I wanted to see with my own eyes those splendid looking R-2R resistor ladders. I tried comparing them with other ladders previously seen on Rockna, Audio-GD, Denafrips, Musician and on many other brands…but these aren’t looking familiar to me, suggesting a custom design built from the ground up. Even without listening to it, Gustard already excited every cell in my body and knowing that it goes only for $1650, it makes me even happier. You see, that’s an entry-level price point in the world of expensive and ridiculously expensive R-2R converters. I’ve assembled it back and let it play for about two weeks before writing a single word. I’ve put another week in testing it in a stereo and headphone setup and for a good measure, I also compared it with its twin brother X26 PRO. You’ll find everything in the latest chapters that should trigger your curiosity. Be sure to check that out and until that happens, let’s unbox it and see what’s inside that package.
Please welcome Gustard team to the 21th Century and good riddance to mini-CDs found in their previous boxes. Trees are happier now too, as there aren’t user manuals in there, but you can download an English manual from here. If you’ll be using it via USB on a Windows machine, then I recommended installing its latest (V5.45) drivers from here, from which you can also download the latest firmware update (V1.21) which helped me with Roon integration via Ethernet. Be warned that the firmware update can be done only on Windows, there’s a simple tutorial that will help you out with the process. R26 is not the usual small and lightweight fellow, this one fights in the heavyweight division, so you should expect a bigger and heavier box. Double boxed is already a standard procedure, ensuring a safe delivery to your front door. The unit itself was cuddled with soft foam on both sides and there’s an accessory box put on top. In it you’ll find a high-quality USB cable – a mandatory accessory for a unit of this caliber, there’s a warranty card that doubles as an after-sales card, a Bluetooth antenna that’s slightly bigger to the one I’m usually spotting on Topping and SMSL devices, a power cable and a decent looking remote control. It’s made out of matte plastic, with rubberized buttons that offers nice tactile feedback.
It seems that Odin heard my prayers and Gustard heard them too, as finally there’s no longer a mini-CD in the package. You won’t find a single sheet of paper and for me, that’s a good thing, as you can download that information later will you need it. Gustard, you’ve changed a lot since we last met and I can only congratulate you for that!
Design & Build Quality
I expected a massive unit that would weight a ton and curb my back and that’s exactly what I’ve got, but it no longer looks like a Tiger I tank, as X26 PRO did for me. Sharp edges and pointy corners are no more and I find it sleeker and more elegant looking than ever. I can handle around it expensive equipment of all sorts, without fearing of leaving a dent on it or on the upstream equipment. There is a much wider monochrome OLED screen in the middle that has a better visibility when used in a stereo setup from a longer distance. Gustard took every word I’ve said about their X26 PRO and completely remolded that unpolished look. Even the lateral heatsinks are so much cooler looking now. I find them smoother and more elegant – an amazing design decision if you ask me. I complained about the raw look of the X26 PRO that wouldn’t win a beauty contest versus its competition, but R26 feels a lot more refined looking from any point of view. High-end electronics are slowly becoming modern furniture and I personally like when they blend together with their surroundings and I can certainly see that on the R26 Discrete. I like what I’m seeing already.
Obviously, it uses a machined case, carved from aluminum, you can have it in matte-black or in matte-silver, I’ve played with both finishes and I find them resistant to scratches and you should pick the one that suits your needs. You’ll find the same, legendary feet which are honestly, the best feet I’ve seen on any DAC. I like their knurly metallic texture and I like their elevation (not too close to the table) for a better ventilation and I also like their padding – that should absorb micro-vibrations coming from within its electronics. This thing is business, I see a high-quality craftsmanship and an excellent attention to the smallest details, I simply cannot complain about its fresh look and outstanding build-quality.
Controls & Connectivity
Gustard made it easy to operate, as there aren’t hidden menus and you won’t even need its user manual checking all and everything. On its front panel you’ll find a standby button to the left, a large monochrome OLED screen in the middle and on the right there’s volume wheel with a button in the middle, that will change digital inputs once short pressed or access its user menu once long pressed. You can access its menu via its remote control as well.
On its back you can spot the widest variety of digital inputs as: USB Type-B, USB Type-C (used only for firmware updates) I2S via HDMI, Coaxial, Optical, AES, a Bluetooth antenna socket, a 10Mhz clock input that we already seen on the X26 PRO and there’s a bigger surprise, an Ethernet port that lets you play music directly via Roon or UPnP servers and we’ll test that soon enough. The usual RCA and XLR outputs are present and those are fixed or variable, so it can be used as a preamplifier if you please. It has two voltage switches instead of one, you can select for either 115 or 230 V operation, those are connected directly to a pair of custom 50W toroidal transformers. Make sure that both are showing the correct AC voltage before powering on the unit!
Since there isn’t a user manual in the package, with several settings meant for advanced users, I decided explaining everything, so you can configure it to your liking. Once you long press the menu button to its right, or on the remote control, something like this will appear on its screen:
- PCM Filter, 3 positions: Fast (default), Mid or Slow. Gustard bypassed the stock ESS filters and developed their own with the help of a hardware DSP by Analog Devices. Select FAST for a faster and more detailed type of sound, MID for a well-rounded sound that balances technicalities and musicality or choose SLOW for a softer and mellower sound. In my case, FAST was more to my liking.
- PCM NOS, 2 positions: OFF (default) or ON. Turn it on if you want to bypass its internal interpolating FIR filters, working more like a NOS (Non-Over-Sampling DAC), sending the data stream directly to the R-2R resistor ladder. Please take note, that volume will be bypassed and maxed out once you engage it! Take care if you’re using power amplifiers, as those will blast full power into your speakers. Turn this setting OFF and you’ll be able to control its volume again.
- DSD Direct, 2 positions: OFF (default) or ON. The same, but for DSD material instead of PCM. Volume will be bypassed and maxed out once you engaged it, so again, take care when changing these settings if you are using power amplifiers like I do.
- Attenuation, 2 positions: OFF (default) or ON. Don’t bother enabling it, as it will lower the volume by around 10 dB. Gustard describes this feature with the following: “When there is no independent preamp, the DAC is directly connected to high-gain amplifier or high-gain active speakers, so it is very likely that a large digital volume attenuation (for example, -40dB) will be used to listen to music at a proper volume, which will bring big impact to the sound quality.”
- REF Clock, 2 positions: INT (Default) or EXT 10M (External 10 MHz). You are choosing either its internal clocking system – which is already a very high-performance one, or an external 10 MHz clock generator (like their C16 or C18 units). Leave it at INT.
- Phase Invert, 2 positions – DISABLE (default) or ENABLE. Self-explanatory, leave it at disabled.
- Brightness, has 8 brightness positions and luckily, there’s an AUTO feature that will dim the display after a minute of inactivity.
Tech Inside R26 Discrete
After opening it up, I was greeted with a beautiful layout, perfectly arranged and split into three rooms with thick metal plates in between them. Everything was built in a dual mono configuration, like having a mirrored symmetry of two DACs sitting in a single chassis.
As you already guessed, we aren’t dealing with an oversampling unit that uses an off-the-shelf DAC chip, but with an R-2R unit that uses resistor networks (also called as ladders) that will decode zeroes and ones into analog signals. After analyzing a substantial number of resistor ladders lurking inside such digital creatures, I don’t recall seeing anything remotely similar. It seems to be a custom built and a one-of-a-kind design (forget OEM work that can be spotted on a few brands). I was told that these are stereo ladders that use the highest precision resistors, meaning that we are dealing with a fully balanced unit from input to output.
In the first room, you can spot two shielded & encapsulated 50W linear transformers, these are quite big and very heavy and you can certainly feel their weight on that part of the case. One such transformer will be powering the analog section and another its digital section, which is already an amazing design decision.
In the second room, you can spot the second most important part of the unit – its timing that is being controlled by a Clock synthesizer, helped by an fairly large atomic (femto-second) crystal clock. Like the X26 PRO before it, R26 Discrete uses a custom built Ultra-Low-Noise Clock Synthesizer which was called K2, integrated into a jitter reduction architecture. K2 can work with either its internal femto-second clock or with external 10Mhz Clocks, such as their C16 or C18 generators and there are many other such units, even of a higher quality.
Custom made clocks and Synthesizers (PLL) are something that’s usually found in five figure units, certainly not at this price point and that makes me already excited. Besides dealing with the clocking system, the board in the middle also houses an overkill power filtering stage by the help of Nichicon Gold Tune KG capacitors, specifically designed for audio applications. There’s a voltage regulation stage before and after those caps, that will further clean up the power delivery. There’s a vertical daughter board in between the second and third room that Gustard labeled as CPLD or Complex Programmable Logic Device that houses its Streamer/Renderer, the digital receiver (XMOS XU-216), the Bluetooth chipset, the Clock management and a second order PLL. This isn’t only a very complex and highly sophisticated board, but the nicest looking clocking and data management board I’ve seen on a unit of this price.
The third and last room, houses a very beautiful and a perfectly arranged R-2R resistor ladders that are helped by an FPGA (there’s a sticker on it, but it should be an Altera MAX II FPGA) infused with Gustard’s own code. Last, but certainly not least, you can spot a fully discrete output (LPF) stage consisting of hundreds of discrete devices that are making me warmer inside, knowing their unlimited potential.
Everything you see in there is over the top, starting with its power supply, filtering stage, clock management, error correction and finishing with D/A conversion and output stage. I don’t see compromises and I don’t see copy/paste, only high-quality components that will certainly leavy a Big mark when music will start doing its mojo
I’m spotting technicalities easier in an end-game headphone setup, bypassing room acoustics, meaning that its detail-retrieval / transparency, transient and frequency response will be tested on a Hifiman Susvara planar headphone driven by a Trafomatic Primavera headphone amplifier. In a loudspeaker setup it was easier getting the feel of its soundstage size, depth and pin-point location (imaging) of the notes all around and that’s why it was used in two distinct setups.
- In a headphone setup, R26 Discrete was connected to a Trafomatic Primavera driving the most inefficient headphones out there, the legendary Hifiman Susvara. I’ve also tried it the Audeze LCD-5, Kennerton Rognir (planar) and Erzetich Phobos V2021. First ones for sublime technicalities and detail-retrieval and later ones for outstanding bass and midrange presence.
- In a loudspeaker setup, it worked as a DAC and Preamp combo, followed by two Benchmark AHB2 power amplifiers used in mono mode, driving a pair on KEF Reference 3 standfloor or Sound Of Eden Crescendo UNO bookshelves. Everything worked in balanced mode only for a lower channel cross-talk and a higher dynamic range.
I can’t wait to put it under a magnifying glass, so let’s hit some eardrums!
I. Preliminary Sound impressions
Luckily, hay fever is no longer a problem (lower those histamines they said), sun is no longer burning like a laser beam, but headbangs are still problematic, especially after following my morning coffee with a gin-tonic, whilst a beautifully crafted R-2R DAC is playing tunes on an end-game headphone setup. Can it get any better than this?
After trying a bunch of R-2R ladder DACs from the house of Denafrips, Musician Audio, Audio-GD, Rockna Audio and MSB Audio, from affordable to end-game units, I formed a very solid picture about how these units are performing. Affordable R-2R ladder DACs aren’t usually technical sounding, due to lower quality resistors and to their errors that are adding up in the ladder, outclassed by cheap Delta-Sigma Oversampling DACs from the likes of Topping, SMSL, Gustard, Matrix and many other brands. Making clean, detailed and fast sounding R-2R ladder DACs is extremely difficult, time consuming and costly, as usually these units need a custom FPGA that will solve of the errors made by the ladders. That’s precisely why technical sounding R-2R DACs are usually unobtanium material, sky being their limit price wise.
After listening to the R26 Discrete for a few days…I have a similar exclamation mark hovering over my head as I did after trying out their X26 PRO, at that time obliterating every Delta-Sigma Oversampling DACs I’ve had the pleasure of testing. X26 PRO outperformed even the Matrix Audio Element X – which was more than double its price, but more feature packed which saved its day.
While R26 Discrete and X26 PRO are different when rendering the timbre of the music, I am quite shocked by how…technical, clean, resolute and fast sounding R26 Discrete really is! Without a single doubt in my mind, there is not even a contest, as R26 Discrete seems much clearer sounding than the Denafrips Venus ($3000), it seems clearer than the Musician Pegasus ($1100) and dare I say…it’s more impressive than the Musician Aquarius ($3200). This is a strong statement coming from me, but my ears and my equipment cannot lie. R26 Discrete is more feature packed as well, offering a preamp output and even Roon/ UPnP integration via its Ethernet input.
Truth to be told, I wasn’t impressed by the entry level Gustard units, their X16 and A18 were lacking nerves in the bass and I didn’t find them having a good tonal balance, lacking midrange presence and a natural treble delivery. Their mid-level units like A22 and X18 were considerably better in all regards, but those were still far from impressive sounding. X26 PRO on the other hand, felt as a major improvement in every possible way and it seems that R26 Discrete is again pushing the boundaries of R-2R technology at such an affordable price point. Yes, affordable! As $1650 is a very attractive price for a well-made R-2R unit that trumps its competition for good. I dare saying this is the best R-2R ladder DAC you can purchase right now up to $3500, a point where a fierce competition starts building up. Big words from the DACMan, but how does it sound more exactly?
For starters, I find it extremely technical for an R-2R unit, especially when used with a nice DDC like their own U18 or with a Singxer SU-6, scoring huge points as usually resistor ladder DACs are slower, muddier, less focused and not that precise or fast sounding. Gustard bumped that resolution so high, that I no longer feel a gap in between it and the X26 PRO. The Discrete pushes forward all the smallest nuances and micro-details that I know for a lifetime, popping so naturally all around my tunes and it feels great experiencing delicate intricacies. The second thing that hit me was its depth and transparency…I was zooming in and out of my tracks like a veteran sniper, everything was so focused and defined, even deep down in the recording. Nothing was fighting for a prime time or for my full attention, everything felt spread out and so defined in its own bubble of air. The soundstage was massive…easily on the same level with the Musician Aquarius and approaching dangerously close to the Denafrips Terminator Plus – which so far, was the soundstage king in my book. R26 Discrete felt bigger sounding than any of the Delta-Sigma Oversampling DACs and the difference was literally…night and day, even with drivers sitting centimeters away from my eardrums. If I’m feeling such a drastic change via headphones, I can only imagine what it would do in my stereo the next day. Last, but not least, the transient response guy felt on top of the mountain with the R26 Discrete, which felt mean sounding, delivering painful uppercuts in the lowest octaves. Followed by a Trafomatic Primavera…sometimes I am getting too much bass definition and impact and mind you, I’m staying with a pair of Hifiman Susvara on my head, which aren’t known to be incredibly alive and impactful. Gustard’s latest creation slams and pounds like a gorilla and this is what I like about it. A few resistor ladder DACs weren’t that impressive with fast electronica tunes, but the same rule isn’t applying to the Gustard’s unit. Apart from a different tonality, depth and texture, I find the X26 PRO and R26 more alike than different and that’s a very positive thing to say about the later.
II. Transients Response
When R.A.T.M. – Killing In the Name (Qobuz / Tidal) started playing…I literally jumped from my chair, as there’s no way I could get similar bass riffs from the usual DACs that are sitting on my table. This thing rocked my world with hard rock and metal tunes, it was simply made for genres like these. It was raw and brutal, but pure at the same time and that’s what I want to hear from such musical genres. It was never gritty, it never made me dizzy, browsing through less than perfect recordings with a much brighter face. The voices, the guitars, the drums, everything felt revitalized and fuller sounding than ever before. Tom Morello played wilder guitar solos and Zack de la Rocha had bigger lungs in his chest, as if a much higher energy was oozing from this track. Everything felt pure fun, without missing on small details and never lagging behind in terms of speed.
A few minutes later Invisible Sun by The Prodigy (Qobuz / Tidal) entered the arena and sure enough, Hifiman Susvara started rattling my head with powerful sub-bass notes. Its bass definition & extension is nothing short of spectacular, it needs to be heard to be believed, especially after about two weeks of burn-in. I don’t know if those linear transformers are doing all this magic or the all-discrete output stage, but I’m dealing with a 10 out of 10 bass slam and impact, with a 9.5 out of 10 speed and decay of the notes – a point where X26 PRO sounded by a hair faster. Still for an R-2R DAC getting a lightning-fast speed and decay? I’m taking my hat off; it was masterfully done!
I’ll go and say it out loud, that this is one of the fastest sounding R-2R ladder DACs that I’ve tried to this day and it’s one of the most impactful one as well, as it somehow reminds about the kick of the Rockna Wavelight and Audio-GD R7, which were always explosive and mood-lifting. Instead of being ultra-linear to a point of becoming boring, R26 Discrete infuses pure joy, regardless of the musical genre or mastering quality. After powering it on, every morning I’m again surprised by how engaging and fun it sounds, while never messing with technicalities or bumping the notes into each other, messing them into a bowl of sounds. I’m glad that this product exists and I hope it will leave a mark on this industry. I have a feeling that a few manufacturers will start tinkering with higher-performance & affordable R-2R DACs soon enough. If oversampling DACs can sound amazing below two grand, why ladder DACs can’t do it too?
A few minutes later, Hanuman by Rodrigo y Gabriela (Qobuz / Tidal) started wildly playing and I again jumped from my listening chair. I swear…those dynamic swings are cursed, as other DACs that have been reviewed in the latest months around here, weren’t doing this to me. Acoustic guitars sounded juicy, heavy and powerful, as if somebody connected them to an amplifier and turned it all the way to eleven. Even if my microphone was still picking the same 90 dB SPL, guitar plucks were more defined and powerful, dynamics were definitely jumpier and livelier sounding. The overall experience was more pleasing, like I’ve went from a 14-bit dynamic range track to a much higher 22-bit one, the change was immediate and it was a big one. Long story short, if you love modern and impactful tunes, but still want that life-like and natural presentation of R-2R ladder DACs, then R26 Discrete is so far, the easiest recommendation to make.
III. Detail Retrieval & Transparency
Its last name comes from discrete components (transistors, resistors and diodes that are sitting inside) that replaced limited op-amps. With big units like these where internal space and heat dissipation aren’t big concerns, there’s no reason going with a limited current and voltage delivery of the op-amps, nor with their limited bandwidth. With discrete components…sky is the limit; nothing can limit their application and the imagination of engineers that are using them and that’s precisely why in high-end audio you’ll never see a single op-amp. Gustard ditched them in X26 PRO and they did the same with R26 that freed up the sound, leaving it roam in all directions, never to be stopped. While this unit completely discards over-sharpness and remaining traces of listening fatigue, it never discards bits of information, as I’m still being bombarded every second with sounds that shouldn’t be there in the first place. My 8-year-old boy favorite tune is Hello by Martin Solveig & Dragonette (Qobuz / Tidal) – a very simple track that we’re listening together on week-ends. Even with such an oversimplified three-note chorus, I am hearing a few nuances that I don’t remember getting before, especially the sub-bass region felt invigorated, playing on multiple levels, as additional information started appearing in the most unusual places. We listened to it together while I was still writing and music…is music, regardless of genre, status or quality.
When I moved to Still Loving You by Scorpions (Qobuz / Tidal) I kid you not that my chin started shaking, I was almost crying alone in my office. This is a very emotional sounding unit as the track was so touching and soul-grabbing. Just a few minutes ago I was joking and smiling with a big month and now a tear was rolling on my cheek…if a unit can do this in a span of half an hour, then words are really, unnecessary. Instead of reminding me about cassettes and vinyl collection of my father, R26 Discrete reminded me when I’ve tried a Studder tape-player for the first time back in the 90-ties. I was a kid loving and collecting cassettes, spending all my pocket money on new records and I’m somehow still doing it, one way or another. It had such a profound impact on me and for no particular reason, memories started passing through as I was again listening to that magic-making Studder tape player. It is clear to me than R26 Discrete is not only an amazing goose-bump machine, but a very technical sounding unit as well, merging everything I want a high-end DAC to be.
It needs to be said that while I find it excellent via USB coming from my PC, it was clearer and faster sounding via Ethernet running Roon and even better when I’ve added a Singxer SU-6 / Gustard U18 DDC in between my PC and R26. I don’t own a dedicated Roon Core / Server, but I can only presume that it might sound as clean as transparent as it sounds via high-performance DDCs, but that’s an educated guess at this point, so take it with a small grain of salt.
IV. Soundstage & Depth
When This Is Mongol by The HU (Qobuz / Tidal) started playing, I’ve immediately felt The Golden Horde invading my listening space, picking that horsehead fiddle like it was an Ibanez or Fender guitar and throat singing so loudly that I hummed this track for the rest of the day in a fabricated language. There wasn’t a track that made me pause and take a break from my listening marathon, as it was still infusing positive vibes, nicely decompressing my tracks and putting them under a magnifying glass.
When Gates of Istanbul by Loreena McKennitt (Qobuz / Tidal) started playing…I was surprised that R26 felt airier, dwelling deeper compared to the already exceptional sounding Gold Note DS10 Plus Streamer/DAC/Preamp. Loreena’s voice was piercing the veil, shushing gently and beautifully into my ears. While I’m not a huge fan of such music, you really can’t dislike a performance like this. There was more emotion pouring from my loudspeakers and that percussion work was purring like a cat, so smoothly and gently without raising the treble output to dangerous levels. The sound had no boundaries and I was somehow sitting in a bigger room, completely surround by music and not by mere soulless sounds. While sounding bigger than life, R26 was bonding musical notes together and keeping them in a very strict control. I’ve heard hollow and veiled sounding R-2R converters that had little to no transparency and depth, but R26 seems like a very different animal, zooming in and out with so much ease, that I don’t see the point of (much) pricier R-2R converters anymore.
The war drums of Helvegen by Wardruna (Qobuz / Tidal) were playing silently for about a minute and 28 seconds and then in a split second, a thunderstorm erupts and skyrockets dynamics from a cool 30 dB to 100 dB! My jaw hit the floor as a powerful rumble touched the lowest octaves, pressurizing the room to excess and filling every single corner with weighty notes. This track hit the G-spot, it put me into a Nirvana state, somehow talking directly to my subconscious. The way everything was circling around me, putting a blanket of sounds all over my body will be hardly forgotten anytime soon. The sounds of the crows, drums and northern winds made everything a little more special, disconnecting me entirely from reality. This is a very well-spread track, like all Wardruna masterpieces are. Tunes like these might cripple a mediocre converter, but that wasn’t happening on R26’s watch. Even if it doesn’t have an actual line amplifier circuit, its powerful output stage was felt immediately, sending deep tremors, pushing down on my shoulders with a higher force, getting a higher density and more colorful sound palette, while still adding a sense of spatiality in between the notes.
It goes without saying that R26 is an exceptional converter when it comes to layering, width and depth, exactly as the biggest majority of well-made R-2R converters are performing.
V. R26 Discrete in a Stereo setup
You know what I dislike the most about R-2R ladder DACs? Yep, that’s right! They lack preamp functionality & volume control. Not a single Denafrips, Musician, nor the newest Schumann ladder DACs have volume controls, but once you go past a certain price point, several options will be appearing like mushrooms after the rain, rocking dedicated preamp circuits from the likes of Holo Audio, Rockna Audio and many others. Gustard proved everybody’s wrong and included a decent preamplifier section in their R26 and you can enable or disable it completely if you will. If you are still using integrated amplifiers, then use it in fixed voltage mode and if you’re rocking power amplifiers, then use its remote and volume controls. For that, you’ll need to disable its PCM NOS and DSD Direct options, after which the volume control will be unlocked.
Since my dedicated wireless streamer is still flying somewhere across Asia, I decided replacing the Gold Note DS10 Plus that’s usually used as my digital front end with a Shanling EM7 that will be helping with the streaming part, passing the signal to the R26 Discrete via Optical that will be working as DAC and Preamp, followed by two Benchmark AHB2 used in mono mode, driving a pair of KEF Reference 3 standfloors.
I like two specific things about the R26 PRO: 1) That is has a super low output impedance of 100 Ohms via both RCA and XLR, controlling better the power amplifier that follows. 2) That it can reach a higher voltage output to the industry standard 4V via XLR or 2V via RCA. R26 Discrete, as X26 PRO before it can reach 5V via XLR and 2.5V via RCA – which in remote cases can have beneficial effects not only in a stereo setup, but also in a headphone setup, squeezing more power from the amplifier that follows.
R26 performed with my stereo exactly as I have envisioned it. It was only by a hair bigger sounding to the already excellent Gold Note DS10 Plus, but I immediately felt a higher engagement factor and a more prominent sub-bass delivery. DS10 Plus already proved itself as a marvelous piece of engineering, having a much richer and fuller tonality to the usual linear and neutrally tuned units. I found these two more alike than different and that’s works in favor of the R26, as it is by about ~3 times cheaper to the DS10 Plus powered by PSU-10 Evo.
R26 was pulling more information from my tunes, while arranging everything on individual shelves and providing a better control of the low-end delivery. I never felt that something was lacking or missing from R26 Discrete’ s performance, on the contrary – it proved that great sonics can be had for less if we spend our income wisely.
When Hey Eugene! By Pink Martini (Qobuz / Tidal) started playing, I’ve immediately felt that the system brought voices and instruments back to life. China Forbes was perfectly centered, with backing vocals filling up the air around her, every treble, pipe, drum or tambourine playing gently in the background felt so discernible and outlined. Their texture felt clean, but weighty, real and palpable in a silky-smooth way. My stereo setup is on the neutral side of things, so I could determine what’s going north or south, and I immediately felt a better flow and a higher midrange presence when R26 was added, bringing a fuller-bodied tonality into a dead-neutral setup. Maybe R26 wasn’t as sweet and organic sounding as the Denafrips Terminator Plus, but it never felt far off, transforming my Reference 3 into smooth and relaxing speakers with the right selection of music. Considering its custom nature and everything that makes it tick, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve got a natural and a life-like presentation, bringing forth a feeling of ease and rightfulness.
VI. Noise Floor
I have no idea why I’m still putting this chapter in my DAC reviews, but feel free to skip it if you please. All the latest generation converters, even affordable ones aren’t increasing the noise floor in a highly sensitive stereo or headphone setup. There are several exceptions from this rule, but only if entry level devices are used with oversimplified power supplies, that usually carry switching mode power supplies. From the ones that I’ve tested lately, only several SMSL devices were increasing the noise floor. R26 is obviously built at much higher standards and at this size and weight, I would be surprised if it wouldn’t block all types of noise, regardless if their inception points.
Putting it near a powerful wireless router and two smartphones on top of it, didn’t alter the signal’s purity. Its digital board and clocking system are looking way better than most DACs coming from China and you’ll be surely getting one of the cleanest and noiseless performances that I’ve heard in a headphone or stereo setup. Connecting two Benchmark AHB2 power amplifiers directly to it didn’t increase the noise floor…not in the slightest. I’ve paused my music and I approached stealthy those Uni-Q driver arrays, blasting full power into the KEF Reference 3 and yet, their tweeters remained in a pitch-black darkness. There weren’t hisses, nor hums, with or without music playing in the background and if you’re searching for the darkest background that wouldn’t increase the noise floor with sensitive speakers or headphones, then I can’t recommend you enough the Gustard R26 Discrete. With a signal-to-noise ratio of 122dB via XLR output, you can drill holes into your eardrums trying to hear a noise floor. All things considered; I would be surprised hearing anything less than an immaculate performance in a stereo or headphone setup.
As X26 PRO before it, R26 Discrete knows how to juggle that Mjolnir hammer and deliver the full might of the low-end when it’s called for. If you tried only chip-based converters by now, then you’ll be surprised (gently speaking) by the immediate change. It didn’t only bring the thunder and a higher pressure in the bass, but it added more air in between those low-intensity sounds, as oversimplified bass notes became complex renditions, playing on so many levels, improving bass quality in the process. I’m rarely hailing R-2R DACs in here, with just a few exceptions as Rockna Wavelight and Denafrips Terminator Plus, but it seems that R26 tries to be as impactful and hard slamming without costing you an arm and a leg. R26 rocked my world with electronica and rock tunes and I could never had enough of that juicy bass. It easily sustained longer bass notes without dropping their intensity. It was effortless and sometimes over-powerful, it’s certainly one of the biggest highlights of the R26, very much in line with its twin brother X26 PRO. If a Trafomatic Primavera or Enleum AMP-23R follows, regardless of the headphone that would be used, you’ll be getting punchy bass lines even with old smoky jazz or blues. It is kind of weird hearing a long-forgotten tune with a double-bass player popping in the background, playing as if it’s his last tune, plucking those strings with a higher force than usual.
Another highlight of R-2R ladder DACs and quite probably the biggest reason you might invest in such a digital creature is a very different midrange rendition. I find it meatier and richer sounding than a Musician Aquarius and while these two share a lot of traits in common, R26 felt by a hair more organic and freer like listening to unamplified music. X26 PRO was pretty good in here too, but it never put as much meat on the bone as R26 did so abundantly. Neutral tuned setups like mine will be getting a much-needed presence and soul, changing their tonality upside down, adding richness into your listening space and dopamine into your blood stream. There wasn’t a single musical genre that R26 didn’t do well…something that I can rarely write about chip-based converters as of late. From electronica to acoustic music of all sorts, I always enjoyed my time with it, even manifesting physically about it (it’s in my nature) by usually tapping my feet, headbanging or raising my hands. Non-oversampling, native 1-Bit DACs are all sounding like this…adding so much flow and effortlessness, like gently pouring music into my eardrums, instead of forcibly pushing it. Yes, this is quite a romantic and smooth sounding DAC, but it has so much character, a freedom of expression and a different view. It will feel like a different animal if you’re coming from chip-based converters, even its twin brother X26 PRO felt different, especially in here, in the midrange.
On one hand it doesn’t roll off parts of the upper treble, like all Denafrips units are doing by default, I also don’t find it sharp sounding & overly contoured. If on most chip-based Delta-Sigma converters I feel the music as an empty walnut shell, with R26 I see the shell, but I feel the walnut inside a lot more, its shape, color and taste. Musical notes will be taking a clear form, while sounding like real music at the same time. Getting snare drum hits on time while decaying them naturally is no easy task, due to vibrations they generate, but all that sounds so simple and real, R26 it’s not even trying hard. It wasn’t just natural, smooth or sweet sounding, it was just right. It doesn’t roll-off treble information, not in the slightest, as I’m constantly hearing low-intensity bells and brush sticks hitting the drums and crawling under my skin. I also like that R26 never shouts trying to get my full attention with a metallic treble delivery. It gets the right intensity, weight and decay, just enough to feel that this is how treble needs to be rendered. Alas…very few chip-based converters fully mastered this skill.
Please note that I never mentioned that something is elevated or dropped from linearity, not even a single bit. Sure enough, everything’s more colorful, there’s a punchier bass and a meatier midrange delivery, but the frequency response is still fairly neutral and nicely balanced.
X. Battle of the Gustards
Alright everybody, time for a proper showdown between one the best oversampling delta-sigma DAC and one of the best R-2R ladder DACs I’ve tried so far. To my right sits the undefeated champion for about a year now wearing silver shorts, please give a round of applause for the Gustard X26 PRO! To my left sits a fresh and young contender, wearing black shorts and smelling bad attitude from afar, give a round of applause for the Gustard R26 Discrete! Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s get ready to Ruuuuumble!
Gustard R26 Discrete ($1650) VS Gustard X26 PRO ($1500)
Build quality wise, both are carved on CNC machines with very tight tolerance numbers, they both look and feel like expensive units. Although in terms of looks, I’ll give an edge to the R26 Discrete which looks sleeker and more elegant. They certainly have the same size ‘n weight, the same feet ’n high-quality craftsmanship, I just find R26 to be cooler and more future-fi in a way.
When it comes to features, both are going neck and neck as everything that can be found on X26 PRO made its way into the R26. With all that said, R26 has an ace under its sleeve and that’s the Ethernet port that can unlock a tremendous value for Roon users. I didn’t transit to Roon entirely, but I didn’t have a problem connecting it and discovering it via Roon on my PC. There is definitely a huge appeal in bypassing an OS and a noisy sounding computer with the help of an Ethernet connection. R26 is a little more advanced and feature packed, immediately transforming it into the most feature-packed R-2R ladder DAC I tried so far.
I won’t describe their inner workings and everything that makes them tick, as you already have a dedicated article for the X26 PRO right here. Apart from swapping ESS 9038 PRO chips with two resistor ladders that added an additional FPGA, I find them very similar looking on the inside, which is a good thing. I didn’t need to volume match anything, as both units are outputting a steady 5V voltage output via XLR, only my beloved was swapping the XLR cables on the Trafomatic Primavera as my tests were done blindly.
The very first track that I’ve used was U Plavu Zoru by Pink Martini (Qobuz / Tidal) where I felt that everything is exactly where it should be located via X26 PRO, with a single caveat that music wasn’t popping so vividly. It sounded great, amazing even, it was correct, everything was well spread, music was nicely breathing, but the musical involvement wasn’t as obvious. Switching to R26, there’s an immediate bump in naturalness and weight…it was so obvious, that I’m already questioning myself if we should continue this blind test. R26 felt exactly as clean, as detailed and defined, but it started speaking directly with my soul, everything had a different meaning altogether. This track is filled to excess with musical instruments playing all around, there are pipes, guitars, trumpets, pianos, violins and cellos and all made me feel alive, enjoying every jump in dynamics and every change of pace. R26 brought back missing emotions like missing Lego pieces, putting them back where they should belong, without limiting the technical performance in any way.
Then we moved to Hard As A Rock by AC/DC (Qobuz / Tidal) which is far from an audiophile masterpiece, but a very good track when testing the transient response, guitar distortions and tight control of the drums. With X26 PRO, I instantly felt its nasty attitude, hitting me hard with strong and punchy dynamics. This unit knows how to make a show, especially with impactful tunes like this one. The guitar solo towards the end felt so zingy and alive, yet so defined and outlined, never interfering with the vocal performance. I feel that I must reiterate my statement that you’re dealing with one of the best chip-based converters I’ve heard at my place. It was so fun and engaging, highly dynamic and technical sounding at the same time.
When R26 Discrete started doing its thing, I felt a darker entity entering the room. Guitars were weightier, always weeping at my feet, the sounds were coming from a black void on nothingness and drums had a very natural pitch latched to them. Vocal performance felt deeper and a more guttural, even scarier by a little. Everything felt harder and more expressive, like the band wanted to capture a rawer and a more authentic version of this tune. Guitar plucks were stronger too, the backing voices were deeper buried into the mix, traveling a longer sound tunnel, creating a deeper and more holographic experience. So does the R26 knows how to rock…hard? You bet, it does! It’s incredibly good with all rock, blues and jazz, exceptional even and so far, I can’t fault a thing.
Increasing the pace and trying a few electronica tunes, X26 PRO felt by a hair tighter and more defined, especially the leading edges felt clearer and sharper, exactly how I would describe a good sounding chip-based converter. The spatial cues felt so precise and the soundstage did get a small boost, sounding outside my body via headphones, which was an amazing experience on its own. R26 added a little bit of weight down low and made the bass heavier sounding little by little. The sound became taller somehow, the stage deepened and widened by a little for a more three-dimensional experience. R-2R ladder DACs aren’t usually the best option for electronica tunes…but R26 seems a different beast.
Lastly, when I moved to good-old gangster blues, I’ve observed that X26 PRO had a slight, almost unnoticeable treble ringing, while R26 Discrete lacked any of that grittiness. Neither were sharp or rolled-off, but there was less bite and more texture on the R26. Overall, I still find X26 PRO an exceptional sounding unit in every possible way, it is still one of the most technical and highly engaging sounding chip-based converters. It will win you over with its immaculate technical performance, whereas R26 will conquer your heart with a higher accent on textures and innards of the music. There’s something that bonds the notes nicer via R26, an invisible silk that holds everything hand in hand even if the stage is wider spread around the listener. There’s a better flow of the notes and this is exactly what makes it so different and ever so slightly more special sounding to me. R26 Discrete will pair better with a wider selection of amplifiers, speakers and headphones and X26 PRO with a lesser number of components, due to a less involving character. Which one would be more to your liking, is really up to you to decide.
As an epilogue, I think I just found an upgrade path for owners of chip-based oversampling converters that want a different flavor, never skipping or overlooking the technical performance and I see it as a clear upgrade path for all entry to mid-level R-2R units. R26 Discrete will easily brawl with some of the best DACs out there, regardless of their size and price point, performing like a high-end DAC from any point of view with just a mid-fi price tag attached to it.
I know what you’re feeling, I feel it in my gut too, but I assure you that everything I wrote came from my mind and heart alone. I never tried making it look better or worse, it’s not in my nature. No one influences these reviews, nobody pays for them, these aren’t sponsored show pieces, these are honest and objective impressions after trying tens of D/A converters of all sorts. All things considered, starting with its build quality, impressive feature set, component selection and most importantly, sound quality, this is one of the most impressive DACs that I’ve heard at my place. Top 10? Make it in the top 5 best units I tried and that should tell you how I honestly feel about it.
In two weeks’ time, I tried finding some cons and I tried it hard. I was running with it to my office and back to my stereo, searching for something that would make me exclaim and furiously write about an overlooked feature. I’m sorry, I failed, to me…this is a flawless sounding unit. I’m not sure if somebody cherry picked this one up, but I seriously doubt that as I didn’t get it directly from Gustard.
If I would nitpick a little…that would be about its cheap plastic remote, which isn’t doing it justice and, in their stead, I would release a metallic remote control as an extra accessory down the road, exactly as Topping did with their RC22 remote. Having an oversimplified user manual in English would be nice, as it took a while enabling its wired streamer via Roon. After updating it to FW 1.21, Roon saw it immediately and I suggest you doing that too.
I know that I sounded overenthusiastic about it, but if you checked at least a few reviews around here, then you already know that I’m rarely hailing things so high. Please check some of my latest DAC reviews, especially my latest Denafrips Terminator Plus. If Gustard R26 Discrete would cost two times its price, I would still be recommending it left and right and if it would be even pricier, then it would still perform great at a less appealing price. I don’t recall having such a great time while writing and maybe you’ll have a different experience, but this is all I felt and I’m sorry for being carried away by music, R26 made me do it. It goes without saying that R26 Discrete is more than an impressive sounding unit and from this very moment, I will be recommending it as the best R-2R ladder DAC bellow $3500. Please don’t take my words for granted and if you have an opportunity, go and give it a try…you won’t be disappointed.
Even that simple and uninspired case of X26 PRO was taken care of and it seems that my words hit their mark. It’s (much) cooler looking now, it has a better heat dissipation, there aren’t rough edges and pointy corners and it has a bigger display as well. Everything went up a notch and for all of the reasons combined, R26 Discrete deserved my absolute highest Gold Award! Congratulations to the team, it was fully deserved!
Gustard R26 Discrete was kindly provided by Aoshida Audio and it can be purchased from their web-store right here. It goes for $1650 that includes worldwide shipping to your front door and for that price…it’s an absolute steal and I mean it! Chip-based converters move away, there’s a new sheriff in town.
- The best looking Gustard unit to date, it has the perfect size, weight and style
- Still built like tank, but it’s more refined looking from every angle
- The most impressive part selection I’ve seen on a DAC of this caliber, flawless looking on the inside!
- Rocks an all-discrete analog output stage
- There’s an overkill power supply, filtering and regulation stage as well
- The nicest clocking system I’ve seen thus far
- Noise and distortion free unit, it’s dead-silent unit it any situation
- Considerably clearer and more detailed sounding to R-2R ladder DACs of the same price bracket and the difference wasn’t small
- Massive, huge and holographic sounding at all time, layered and well-spread around the listener
- Incredibly transparent sounding, focusing on things playing in the background felt as a child’s play
- Hefty and bold, punchy and visceral sounding with bass intensive music, amazing transients and quick shifts in dynamics!
- Dynamics were always playful and a joy ride at all times
- Full-bodied, organic and natural sounding, carries a warmer tonality
- Covers the frequency response in full, without rolling off anything
- A wide selection of digital inputs, including a 10Mhz clock input and an Ethernet port
- Could still be improved with external Clock Generators and/or external DDCs
- The highest bang for buck I’ve experienced thus far
- Cheap, plasticky remote control
- You won’t find a user manual in the package
- DACs: Gustard R26 Discrete, Gustard X26 PRO, Chord Electronics Dave, Rockna Wavelight, Audiobyte HydraVox & HydraZap, Musician Aquarius, Gold Note DS-10 Plus & PSU-10 EVO, Ferrum ERCO, Shanling EM7
- DAPs: Hiby RS6, RS2, FiiO M17, M11 Plus ESS, Shanling M7, M6 Ultra
- Headphone Amps: Trafomatic Primavera, Trafomatic Head2, Enleum AMP-23R, Ferrum OOR + Hypsos, Flux Lab Acoustics Volot, Burson Audio Soloist 3X GT, several Topping, SMSL & Gustard units
- Preamps: Musician Monoceros
- Integrated Amps: Enleum AMP-23R, Burson Timekeeper 3i
- Power Amps: Benchmark AHB2 (x2), Burson Timekeeper 3X GT (x2), Chord Electronics Ultima 5
- Loudspeakers: KEF Reference 3, Reference 1 Meta, Sound Of Eden Crescendo UNO
- Full-sized headphones: Hifiman Susvara, HE1000SE, Arya Stealth, Audeze LCD-5, LCD-4, Sennheiser HD800S, Erzetich Phobos V2021, Phobos V2018, Erzetich Mania, Kennerton Rognir, Magni, Gjallarhorn, Vali, M12S, Apos Caspian, Sendy Peacock, Apollo, Aiva & others
- IEMs: FiiO FH9, FH7, FA9, FD7, Meze Rai Penta, LittleDot Cu KIS, Kinera Skuld, 7Hz Timeless & others
- Interconnects: QED Reference (x2), Topping TCX1 (x2)
- Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
- Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x3), iFi Audio SupaNova (x2)
- Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC1500 (stereo setup), Elite BAC400 (headphone setup)