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After living with my Chinese SMSL M8 DAC for a while, I was getting kinda curious whether there’s still something better out there. Since I haven’t had much experience with pricier Chinese audio gear, I thought it was time for yet another experiment. During my research, I stumbled upon the Gustard X20u DAC which received mostly glowing reviews on Head-Fi. Gustard has quite made a name for onself in major audio forums. Specifically their USB to SP/DIF converters have stirred up the market quite a bit. When the X20u DAC – which was built to kill any DAC on the market was finally here, I just had to test it.
The Gustard X20u (u stands for USB input – you can also order a plain vanilla version without it, in case you want to use an external converter or don’t need USB at all. Other than that, the units are identical) looks like the resulting work of a serious designer. Power is internally generated by two(!) massive separate toroidal transformers. Both feed analog, digital and logical sections separately. To top it off, the engineers have built a separating wall between the PSU, the digital and analog sections . a truly nice touch and keeping those components in dedicated cabinet is exactly what companies like Teac Esoteric or Accuphase have been doing for years.
At its core, the D to A conversion process is handled by 2 pieces of tried and true ESS Sabre32 9018 DAC chips in fully balanced configuration. I personally love how much attention has been given to the PCB layout. High quality SMD capacitors are super-close to the DAC chip pins exactly as it should be.
Generally, material and component quality is absolutely first grade. A mixture of SMD and discrete components has been utilized wherever it obviously made sense. Low noise regulators keep electrical noise to the lowest levels. So far I haven’t noticed any compromises. If I want to do some nitpicking, I’d love to see fully encapsulated transformers but this is just a very small detail.
The anlog output circuitry is fully discrete – perfect for balanced operation. I run the balanced XLR ouputs straight to my KGSSHV headphone amplifier.
USB supports source material up to DSD256 which is great if you need high-res support and as always you won’t need drivers for Mac OS X and Linux systems. I do recall there’s a driver CD for Windows users included but I haven’t tested it since I don’t use Windows at all.
You also get I2S input (HDMI connector) in addition to the usual Coax and Toslink inputs if you want to use Gustards external USB to I2S converter or roll your own. Personally, I like to keep things simple and just hook up my Raspberry PI to either Coax or USB (cannot actually hear a difference between them). I advise you to make us of the BNC connector on the back if your music streamer or CD player offers BNC outputs. BNC is the most recommended connection type for an optimal 75 Ohms SP/DIF connection.
On the front panel you get two rotary switches controlling a TFT color display which is actually pretty nice. Viewing angles are OK but not perfect. Anyway, I usually just select an input and leave the DAC alone after that. I don’t need to make constant adjustments. You can control multiple clock modes as well or select different filters. I noticed some small audible changes as I toggled through the menu but I wouldn’t sweat over it. Once I found a suitable setting, I never touched the DAC anymore. One thing that’s much more important however is the ability to swtich output gain levels. You can even use the Gustard x20u as a high-end preamplifier powering active speakers or just a power amp.
Everything can be controlled via a supplied remote handset that pretty much resembles an Apple TV remote but the Gustard version feels pretty crappy in contrast. It’s just a piece of plastic and feels like a toy. I would have liked a nicer remote but for under 1000 Euros, I’d rather have a great DAC than a luxury remote.
The Gustard X20u currently retails for about $870 with free shipping on Amazon which is where I got mine. I highly suggest you purchase your audio gear on Amazon and not through some obscure dealer on the Internet because Amazon offers a warranty and you can always return products if needed.
My Gustard X20u is amazingly well built! Not only does it look and feel sturdy but the entire enclosure is made out of solid aluminium. Only the rotary knobs feel a bit plasticky but overall a great surprise. The connectors on the back side are super high-quality though. Be prepared to pay at least 3 times as much to get comparable quality from US or European manufacturers. You can also get the X20u in silver I believe but mine is all black.
To make it short, the Gustard X20U handily bested my SMLS M8 DAC. It wasn’t even close in many areas. The Gustard offers a massive, wider and deeper soundstage (through headphones!) along with much more details. I was honestly quite surprised because differences between DACs are usually not that big to my ears. After my initial shock, I decided to take it to my friends house. He owns a Weiss DAC202 – a DAC costing 7000 Euros and I just had to know how my Gustard stacks up. And you know what? The Gustard sounded even slightly better than the Weiss and about the same in terms of bass reproduction. How the heck could a DAC I bought on Amazon.com for about $800 even compete with a unit costing almost ten times as much? To me, the Gustard is a true slap in the face for many European or US audiophile companies. Audiophiles are oftentimes spending more on cables.
I’m not good at audiophile lingo. If you’re in the market for the worlds best DAC, don’t overlook the Gustard X20u. Some folks over at head-fi have tried to apply some rather obscure mods to this DAC but I personally like my gear stock. For the price you cannot get any comparable digital to analog converter in 2016 that comes anywhere near the performance of the Gustard. Oh, and it comes with a (Chinese) warranty, too. If things go sour, you have to mail back the DAC and the seller will repair it at their own expense. Not the easiest option but given my great experience with higher quality Chinese audio products, I wouldn’t hesitate. If the Gustard is too expensive for you, consider the SMSL M8 which is still the king of budget DACs in the sub-500 Euro region.
Updates as of December 20, 2016
Gustard has just released an updated version of their DAC called the X20Pro. It comes with the brand-new ESS9028Pro chipset featuring absolute killer measurements such as 129db dynamic range. Apparently, some changes have been made to the clock recovery circuits and the USB portion received some upgrades. Not that the DAC really needed improvements 🙂 If you’re in the market for a new DAC and had your eye on the X20u, I’d certainly recommend the X20Pro as it costs about the same and seems to have some incremental upgrades. But if you already own the predecessor, I see no reason to jump ships. The X20u is still an absolutely amazing DAC that will perform well for years to come.