Written by Andre Marc
Friday, 05 December 2014
The high resolution Digital Audio Convertor market is, to me, the most exciting and fastest moving sector in the audiophile industry. It is also global. There are superb products being designed and manufactured all over the world, including Eastern Europe, Australia, and especially Asia. Hong Kong, mainland China, and Korea have been hotbeds lately, as I found out with my recent reviews of several SOtM products, including the sMS-100 Mini Server and the sHP-100 Headphone amp/DAC.
Through a business contact I was able to touch base with Bill O’Connell of Morningstar Audio, the importer for all Eastern Electric products in the U.S.A. Bill is one of the nicest and most passionate people you will find in high performance audio. Based in Arlington Heights, IL, he serves the Eastern Electric brand well, with its varied line of tubed phono stage, preamplifier, power amplifier, several integrated amplifiers, a CD player, and two DACs.
Eastern Electric has been on my radar for a while, and I have gotten tips about their amplifiers and digital products, especially the Mini Max DAC. It turns out the folks at Eastern Electric, based in China, have updated the Mini Max to “Supreme” status. It now decodes DSD, along with other improvements. The DAC sells for $1350 and is one of the more complete packages I have encountered at anywhere near this price point.
So what makes the Mini Max Supreme such an impressive deal at its price point and beyond? There are dual power transformers, dual ESS9018 DAC chips, PCM decoding up to 384 Khz PCM and DSD128 via the USB input. There are also AES/EBU, BNC, coaxial, and TosLink inputs which decode up to 192 Khz PCM. There is also a phase selector, and an output selector, which may be the Mini Max Supreme’s secret weapon.
Yes, the Mini Max Supreme is loaded with a single 12AU7 tube, which allows you to choose between it and a solid-state output with a button on the front panel. The whole DAC seems like it was designed to provide maximum flexibility and sonics, and at a hard to believe price. The casework, connectors, and knobs are of superb quality. I also like the intuitive layout and the large display.
Set Up & Listening
I listened to the Mini Max Supreme in two separate systems. First in the main room with the SOtM Mini Server feeding the Mini Max’s USB input, connected to a CIAudio PLC-MkII passive controller, and a Conrad Johnson Lp125se amplifier. Analog cabling was all Audio Art, and the USB cable was the fabulous new DH Labs Mirage. I then used the Supreme with a McIntosh MA6600 integrated amp and the superb Simaudio MiND streamer connected via a DH Labs AES/EBU cable.
I first listened extensively to the Supreme’s solid-state output, before trying the tubed output stage. I thought the solid-state output was excellent in just about every category. Resolution was highly impressive, as was soundstage depth and imaging precision. I began to think after a few weeks this was a lot of sonic performance for the money.
Image sizing was spot on, with large-scale music filling the room and occupying a large soundstage, and more intimate recordings retaining a natural intimacy. Redbook CD quality music streamed through the SOtM was, to my mind, as good as the format can sound. Higher resolution, well-mastered albums in 24 bit, 88.2, 96, and 192 Khz were even more impressive, showcasing the Mini Max Supreme’s bandwidth and precision.
I used the Supreme to compare a recent batch of classic Billy Joel remasters, released in 96/24, to the remastered CDs. Albums such as 52nd Street, Turnstiles, and Streetlife Serenade sounded terrific, with the 96 Khz files sounding superior. The Supreme was able to let me hear nuances and little differences between the two.
I decided at this point to move on to the tubed output stage. All of the qualities noted above were intact, with a few interesting differences. The bass was a bit rounder, and there was more midrange bloom. But there was no clichéd, velvety warming-over. I ultimately preferred the tubed output stage by a slim margin. I should note I have never been a huge fan of tubed source components, as I always felt they should be as quiet possible, run cool, and low maintenance. But that is exactly what the Supreme turned out to be. Dead quiet when there was no music playing, and cool. It never once gave me any issues in the several months it was in the systems.
Eastern Electric Mini Max Supreme
I loved how the deluxe, 96 Khz version of the Rolling Stones ultra classic live Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out sounded with the tubed output stage. It was literally one step away from being onstage with the band, with all the grit, rawness, and swagger intact. Trying to resist dancing around the room as the band plowed through “Live With Me”, “Street Fighting Man”, and Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” was not easy!
Moving on to modern fare, the sublime new album by Ireland’s Damien Rice, My Favorite Faded Fantasy, in 24 bit, was simply beguiling. The Rick Rubin produced album features Rice’s trademark confessional songs, accompanied by his intricate guitar playing a small string section on many tracks. The Supreme made the album sound dramatic, with lots of dynamic flourishes handled with aplomb. Unfortunately the album is a bit of a victim of the loudness wars, but the Mini Max Supreme made what was good, even better. The strings has great texture and Rice’s close-miked voice was as present as the several times I saw him live.
The Owl Service are classic British folk revivalists, and their independently issued albums are wonderful. The Mini Max Supreme made albums such as A Garland Of Song, and The Pattern Beneath The Plow sound really clean and ambient, with the hypnotic rhythms and intricate arrangements easy to follow. More proof that care taken in recording and mastering are just as important as sample rate or bit depth.
Now to DSD. The Mini Max Supreme decodes both DSD64 (1 Bit/2.8 MHz) and DSD128 (1 Bit/5.6 MHz). By the way, they are called DSD64 and DSD128 because they are 64 and a 128 the standard sampling rate of Redbook CD, 44.1 Khz. I don’t have a huge DSD collection in my digital library, but what I do have is hand picked. I also have my own DSD64 recordings. The Supreme was absolutely superb with DSD files, in my opinion, making the format sound as good as I have heard it.
Some of the DSD albums I listened were a few of the excellent Opus3 samplers, available for a very reasonable price, and several of the High Definition Tape Transfers offerings. The Opus3 Sampler 3 is highly recommended, and my favorite track was a vintage one, Cyndee Peters doing “House Of The Rising Sun”, first released on an LP over 30 years, ago. DSD128 achieves an analog like presence that in my opinion PCM falls just short of when directly compared.
The ergonomics of the Mini Max Supreme are beyond reproach. I loved the large display, the rotary input selector knob and the whole look of the unit. One thing should be noted. Output voltages of the solid state and tube output stages differ, with the solid state outputting 2.8V and the tube outputting 3.2V. This required some volume adjustment when comparing and switching between them.
Eastern Electric Mini Max Surpreme
The Mini Max Supreme tubed DAC is simply a steal at $1350. I am not sure how else to sum it up. It offers sonics that are at once addicting, precise, and as close to the analog ideal as you are going to get without spending a truckload more. I found no shortcomings in its sound, and loved the ability to switch between a solid stage and tubed output stage. One also has the ability to tube roll, but I must say I found the stock tube to be perfectly capable.
The Mini Max Supreme leaves little on the table, decoding all PCM rates, and double DSD, and it does them all without flaw. If shopping for a new DAC under $2000, you can save yourself a lot of time by auditioning the Mini Max Supreme. Highly, highly recommend for digital lovers, and for that matter, for analog lovers.
Interview with Bill O’Connel, of Morningstar Audio, importer of Easter Electric products to the USA
How did you become aware of the Eastern Electric brand and what did you find attractive about their products? What do your roles US importer/distributor entail?
Bill O’Connel: I had purchased a EL34 amp that Alex built and was selling on EBay back in 2000.
We discussed the purchase and found that we had a lot in common. Our love of audio and just what happens between two people who share a common bond of loving music. I thought the EL34 amp was wonderful.
I asked if Alex had any other designs that he has made. He said he had a 6L6 amp but it only put out 5 watts which being a dual concentric lover…think vintage Tannoy’s gold 12 inch or Silver 15’s & Altec 604B or 604C’s. He asked what I preferred for a rectifier and Alex highly recommended the RGN2504 in the amp to. Mesh-plate Telefunken it was. Turns out I still throw in this amp 13 years later albeit with Western Electric 350B tubes with some black glass 6SN7 KenRad as drivers. To this day still one of my favorite amps on my 99dB sensitive horn!
After a couple of weeks talking about the differences in our cultures, our upbringings, politics, religion, and all the things that matter to the heart, we became friends and just knew we could trust one another. He called me one day and said he had made a preamplifier that folks were speaking very highly about. I ever so humbly asked if he would build me one. He accepted.
Upon the preamps arrival I placed this in an upstairs system, which at the time had the Hovland HP-100 in use as a preamp. Well not to slight the Hovland as it was a beautiful and sonic revelation but in this system the little preamp kicked the snot out of it. My first thoughts were “OMG people got to hear this thing”.
So with that being said, to start up Morningstar Audio I ended up taking the biggest chance of my life. I took a loan out on my house and sent $80,000.00 to someone I had never met and in a world only connected by the Internet. (Side note: can you imagine doing this today? LOL). Eastern Electric was now officially born along with Morningstar Audio Imports.
How in the world do you spread the word on a product that nobody in the world has never even heard of?
I loaded up my trunk with as many MiniMax (Mini in size, Maximum in performance) preamps as I could, took to the road using all the advertisements from publications of good hi-end dealers and visited them. I had already made the purchase of the MiniMax preamps so I just left them with dealers hoping that they would hear the sonic virtues and become my dealers.
Ended up with 50 or so dealers but after 3 years of wanting to hear future products before they would purchase as we then came out with matching MiniMax Amp (ECL82/6BM8 with tube 5AR4 rectification) and Tube CD Player and BBA (Booster Buffer amp/preamp) money was flying out my door as the dealers wanted to hear before committing, well it was a bit of a let down in regards to support. Plus all their customers were calling me to finalize any sales. I still have friendly on going relationships with a few of those dealers but a few of them I had to beg for money to get paid with every new product we were introducing.
I soon realized that this was not what I got into it for. For Alex and myself I can honestly say it truly is about the sound of the music. We both just love listening. The bottom line for me is does your system sound better with Eastern Electric components plugged into it? Absolutely! It is very rare that it doesn’t, and all I would say is system synergy where not every component matches well with another, system preferences the tone you seek might not be the tone others seek, SS or tubes? The end user has to decide.
OK, thats about as short as I can make it, with still trying to get our story told.
The Mini Max Supreme DAC seems to be a tremendous value considering the build, feature set, and price..how do they manage this?
BO: Our goal from the beginning has been to bring superb performance for the guys without the deep pockets, like myself. It is as simple as that. Take for example the Junior DAC, it cost me roughly about $650 to bring into the states, I charge $850, with a warranty and my support, I can’t possibly do it for less, I have very little overhead so I try. Is it a fantastic DAC? Without a doubt. We try our best.
Lastly, Are there any new Eastern Electric products on the horizon you can tell us about?
BO: Maybe an EL84 integrated or Pre/DAC integrated might be in the future, we have also discussed computer based loaded software music server.