Verity Audio Montsalvat DAC/PRE
Stereophile|August 2021
D/A PROCESSOR
JOHN ATKINSON

I was aware that Canadian company Verity Audio, founded in 1995, made loudspeakers, like the Sarastro II that Fred Kaplan reviewed in May 2009.1 But when Jason Victor Serinus and I attended the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, we were both impressed by the sound of an all-Verity system that featured Verity’s Monsalvat AMP-60 power amplifier. Jason Victor Serinus favorably reviewed the AMP-60 in May 2019;2 I didn’t have to be asked twice, therefore, if I wanted to review Verity’s Montsalvat DAC/PRE (see later).

The DAC/PRE

The DAC/PRE, priced at $25,000, is an example of an increasingly popular product genre: a D/A processor that incorporates a volume control to allow a system’s preamplifier to be dispensed with. Although Verity refers to the DAC/ PRE as a “DAC/Preamplifier,” it doesn’t have analog inputs. (The $36,000 Montsalvat PRE-2 does have analog inputs and a DAC.)

With its massive, black-anodized aluminum chassis—the side panels are 3/4 thick—and silver-finished upper front panel dominated by a central rectangular display and black-ringed volume control to its right, the Verity Montsalvat DAC/PRE is an impressive-looking product. Four small buttons between the display and control are for power On/ Standby, the setup menu, source selection, and mute. An Apple remote control is included—its large central button operates the mute function, the top and bottom buttons adjust the volume in Preamp mode, the buttons on the sides select the source, and the button marked “Menu” adjusts the display brightness.

Round back of the chassis, there are three digital inputs— one AES/EBU, one coaxial S/PDIF, and one USB Type B—balanced and single-ended output pairs, and the IEC AC power jack. The DAC/PRE’s complexity, courtesy of electronics engineer Maxime Julien, lies inside.

The D/A section uses the high-performance, 32-bit ESS Sabre 9018 “HyperStream” chip, one per channel. Each chip has eight individual DAC sections, which are operated in parallel to increase linearity and dynamic range. The digital signal processing, including upsampling PCM data to 384kHz and DSD data to 256Fs (the latter without being converted to PCM), is performed upstream from the DAC chips using an FPGA.

“We adjust some things upstream in the FPGA automatically, depending upon sample rate,” said Maxime Julien.3 “But I don’t change from slow to long filter or anything like that. I just adjust what needs to be adjusted; … people get lost in the settings when you offer a large number of choices for filters. I think you can create more damage than good because you can find settings that only work well for specific pieces of music. Once you change the music, the filter doesn’t work. Playing with filters can allow you to do a lot of things, but if you rebuild the music to your taste, that’s something different. … The less you have to deal with filters and the like, the better your user experience is. … I built many applications for iPhones and other devices, and I always felt that the best user experience was something that worked automatically.”

Each channel has seven independent power supplies. “The construction is designed to eliminate all crosstalk and is extremely immune to all noise that could come from the power supply or the digital portion of the DAC,” Julien said, adding that the goal was “to build the perfect device that is immune to noise—[both] digital and analog noise. These two parts of the [DAC/PRE] are on the same printed circuit board, but they are completely separated electrically. Everything is perfectly isolated. The analog section is completely floating with regards to the digital section of the DAC.”

“I built my first speakers at age 10, and my first amplifier at 14. I’ve always built my own equipment,” he wrote. “I’m passionate about audio, but I’d never designed professionally until 2015 when I decided to take my hobby to the next level.” Verity’s president, Bruno Bouchard, is a teenage friend from the same neighborhood. They reconnected because Maxime wanted to hear his electronics on very good speakers.

“My task as a designer is to perfectly reproduce what has been recorded. I always strive to reproduce perfectly what was meant when the piece was recorded. I’m trying to avoid modifying or hurting the sound. I want to hear all the details, the bass if there’s a bass—if there’s no bass, I won’t invent bass. I’m not a record producer; I’m an electrical engineer who wants to reproduce perfectly what is on the medium. That means perfect bandwidth, perfect phase, very low noise and distortion.”

Operation

The Montsalvat DAC/PRE has two modes: Preamp and Pure DAC. The Pure DAC mode disables the volume control, setting the output level to “0.0dB,” so that the Verity can be used with a line preamplifier or integrated amplifier. In this mode, the unbalanced output level is 2.0V, the CD Standard. The volume control is functional in Preamp mode, offering settings of –72dB to +12dB in 0.5dB steps. The Setup/Audio menu allows you to switch between the two modes. If you select DAC mode, the top right of the display says in red “Warning changing to DAC mode—Full Volume.” If you select Preamp mode, the display says in white “Changing to Preamp mode.” The unit keeps the latest mode setting when the DAC/PRE is powered off then on again, so you don’t have to select the mode every time you power on the unit.

The source in use, the display color—white on black or black on white, with the Mute indication in red—and the display brightness are all remembered when you turn the Verity on again after powering it down. The volume in Preamp mode resets to “–40.0dB” and the polarity resets to positive, however.

The DAC/PRE is not Roon certified. However, it will work with Roon as the USB port conforms to the ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture) standard, which is recognized by Roon. The DAC/PRE doesn’t decode MQAencoded datastreams.

Problems

Jason Victor Serinus was originally scheduled to review the Verity Montsalvat DAC/PRE but encountered what he thought might be incompatibility issues with his system. In particular, he was bothered by what sounded like intermittent distortion in DAC mode. As I was going to measure the DAC/PRE, Editor Jim Austin asked me to take over the review from Jason. Before it arrived at my place, the review sample was shipped to Maxime Julien for him to check that it was performing correctly. (The review sample was from the first production run, in March 2019.) After I received the DAC/PRE, I found that its measured performance was initially superb, with very low distortion and noise. However, just before I started auditioning the Verity, I repeated some of the measurements. To my dismay, the right channel now featured 4.3% distortion at both the balanced and the unbalanced outputs, in both DAC and Preamp modes, regardless of the volume control setting in Preamp mode.

I shipped the DAC/PRE back to Maxime Julien so he could investigate what was wrong. A week or so later, he emailed me: “I was able to quickly identify the faulty component which was a cold solder [joint] on a surface-mount resistor.” Maxime returned the repaired DAC/PRE to me, and I returned to the review.

Setup

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