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REVIEW: MHDT Labs - Orchid - An Awesome Analogue Sounding DAC

Discussion in 'audio' started by The Chronicals, Sep 15, 2018.

  1. The Chronicals

    The Chronicals Disruptor


    My journey to finding an affordable vinyl sounding DAC led me to finding a NON-OS, non-filtered, valve buffered unit. I found a considerable lack of information on the web about NON-OS units, and it was like wading through contradictions that could end up being quite costly, so I wrote this review for anyone taking a similar journey or just for those with just an interest in new products. It also hopefully provides good hifi forum content away (from the grumpy old men arguing about cables and politics!)

    I have a humble vinyl set up with a modified Gyrodec, Hana SL and Icon Audio PS Valve phono stage. Some nice Herron Audio interconnects, and a sound like thick salted creamy butter. I wanted to get as close to this as I could with digital as I have thousands of MP3’s, FLACS and CD’s, I can’t afford vinyl all the time, nor do I have the space to store them!

    I aim for a warm, full bodied sound for mostly acoustic, americana, folk, blues, a little country, rock, with some jazz and swing thrown in so this review won’t be of any interest to those wanting the ultimate in definition and ice shattering treble explosions.

    I was using a Chord 2Qute but I found that my problem with it, while being very good, was that it was not a ‘real’ sound. The ‘presentation’ was beautifully detailed, airy, but elements of that sound where not natural and more an obvious ‘processing’ of a natural sound, which constantly grated me. Some may say ‘it’s your system’, but my argument to that is that I have many of my own recordings, so I know exactly what the instruments on those recordings sound like, sounded like, both in the studio and on stage. The Chord didn’t replicate them at all well, “acoustic guitars do not sound like that! neither does a snare drum” kept going over in my mind so alas my search for a unit that could replicate a sound closer to what my vinyl setup achieves - a natural full bodied and truer representation of the original sound.

    MHDT – The Buddhist-Made DAC’s

    This brought me to a Taiwanese company, MHDT. Although rarely noticed in the UK, certain US forum groups had been raving about for periods of time, but they still hadn’t broken into the UK market in any major form and therefore have remained somewhat a well-kept secret. After viewing their website, they have a range of self-designed and manufactured NON-OS R-2R DAC units all utilising tube buffers. Prices range from $699 for the entry level Canary through to the $1320 Pagoda with a balanced version of the Pagoda hitting a not so insignificant $1680. I spoke to Jiun, the head designer at MHDT and he felt the new Orchid DAC would be a good call for me for what I wanted, utilising the legendary Philips TDA1541 16-bit chip output, but allowing 24 bit/192z input. The Orchid retails at $1110 , and comes ready to accept four digital inputs – BNC, USB, Coaxial (RCA) and Toslink, all controlled by the ‘BURT’ array of buttons of the front.



    Tubes and Chips

    The main design of the Orchid is centred around the Philips TDA1541 R1 DAC Chip. It is regarded in some circles as the most analogue sounding of all renderers, with extraordinary premiums being charged for the single and double crown ‘S’ versions. Audio Note themselves designed some of their DAC units around the Philips 1543, I remember reading that Peter of AN openly admits to preferring the 1541 yet wasn’t able to obtain enough of the 1541 for long term production so opted to use the 1543 chip (He now has circa 20k units of the 1543 chip to keep up foreseeable production).

    In terms of the Philips 1541, it could take an entire thread it itself to detail the variations and attributes of them (Dutch made, Taiwan made, best years, R/S/A/N versions) but suffice to say, this chip may be old, but it packs a lifelike punch like waking up from a deep sleep and having the sun shine through the blinds. The basic Taiwanese made R1 version is fitted to the Orchid as Jiun was able to secure enough stock for manufacturing, allowing you to begin your journey at the start, and possibly go in search of the Holy Grail, a Taiwanese made circa 1998 S2 Double Crown version. But you’ll need deep pockets. Many settle for the more affordable S1 Single Crown version, but even those are still rare, although if you fancy a Chinese re-stamped Alibaba special they are readily available on a well-known auction site (yes, the counterfeiters even picked up on the importance of these chips and began re-stamping basic chips with the S1 and S2 logos and crowns).

    Another great element of the Orchid is its Tube buffer utilising a GE5670 3 mica (a spare is also included in the box) and has selectable 115/230v power from internal PCB pins. The tube can be swapped out for a variation of other tubes, and Jiun lists the ones he prefers on the MHDT website, although admits, this is purely his opinion and others will form their own. From my own prior research, the MHDT DAC's are apparently very sensitive to tube rolling. Jiun did state he hoped to one day produce an adaptor so the user can choose to bypass the tube buffer and run in solid state as an option.



    I won’t even attempt to say I understand much of the technical qualities of using a tube buffer or the way the DAC is designed internally, and nor I do want to know, I don’t ever want to be a person who constructs a Hi-Fi based on a set of measurements. I know some basics, and I like what I hear when a tube is involved correctly, so the real basis of this review is just the sound. That’s all I really care about.

    In some ways I wasn’t expecting much from the DAC as I was unpacking it. So many times I have had my hopes up of finding that ‘analogue’ sounding DAC, only to be disappointed once its turned on. So many reviews, opinions, system matching etc, nothing had ever gotten me close to my digital files sounding like my vinyl. The unit has a weighty quality feel to it, its anodised black aluminium chassis (silver is also available) with a Brown tinted Perspex front cover housing the single touch input switches which light up behind the screen allowing you to view the internals. Gold hardware and gold trimmed feet keep it all together. There is a cut out in the top for the tube lighting up in a traditional orange hue with the MHDT logo laser etched into the chassis. For a non-commercially produced unit, it’s extremely well put together. Even the RCA plugs have a quality solid feel to them. You do get the sense this isn’t a mainstream piece, it’s like a cross between a homemade science project and a polished mantlepiece object – I think this a really nice element; you can imagine the designers workshop; an array of resisters, components, wires, the smell of solder and electricity while his ‘mind’ figures out how to transfer what he hears, but at the same time having his ‘heart’ equally involved which is represented by the attractive casing and thoughtful design. Science and nature, together in harmony, and that’s exactly what I feel MHDT is about.


    I had been letting the unit run in for a few days looping a few cd’s with the amp off, so the first time I heard it, it would be a better representation of what it was about. Jiun feels 24 hours is enough burn in for the DAC itself, but recommends a month till the Tube is at optimum. As the first notes hummed through the speakers, that viewpoint, that expectation, changed, this was something special. Although a little dark sounding at first, a little muffled but over the following hours and days a sparkle began to happen, as if all the manufacturing and the man-made materials began to merge into a continuous flow of components working in harmony with each other and the atmosphere around them.

    The effortless natural transitions move up and down the scales, notes ringing out and disappearing, exactly how they do in real life, with real instruments, without feeling like they are under a veil of computerised binary digits forced to be bigger or more impressive than they really are. There is nothing generic; its linear where it’s needed, delicate when required, wider where it counts. Each contour is linked seamlessly without any battle from the opposing frequencies to outdo one another. It’s the vinyl-esque mid-range depth that really grabs you – I have never really heard this type of three-dimensional presence and space in digital playback. It’s wide. It’s big but it’s not fat, it isn’t bloated, it’s just massive but gentle. If you have ever met an actor/actress or a ‘personality’, a rockstar, even an athlete, you’ll find that they have an energy, a presence about them, they can be tiny in stature, but their energy field huge, commanding a room, a moment, in a natural manner by just ‘being’. This is exactly what the Orchid is like. It’s like Natalie Portman crossed with Christina Aguilera, humble but huge, and beautiful. The type of girl that you want your friends to meet, want you parents to meet, the one that just fitted into your space without dominating it. The one that just flowed and became the centre.

    The instrument and vocal balance are exceptionally good without any major force in any department, but still with the detail to hear the vocalist catching a breath or knocking the microphone. The bass is full bodied, it has slam with a resonance, there is a slight bit of blurring to merge it into the midrange yet it’s still articulate and so very buttery smooth. The highs are slightly recessed, as ever with a NOS DAC, they won’t shatter your windows nor rupture your ear drums, but they are there, defined, clear and natural. It’s just so natural and real. I feel I will use those words a lot when talking about the Orchid. That high hat doesn’t get tapped the same way every stroke in the studio or on stage – and you know it with the Orchid, it feels like the whole band are together in a room and you are in there with them, sitting back on a comfy chair with a pair of slippers and cosy blanket. At times when things get busy it can sound a little congested, (but then again so did the 2Qute) but it does stay out in front, it never merges into distortion which I’ve found some other DACs do around this price point. It’s completely non-fatiguing but it can be exhausting, in a truly good way. It doesn’t blow your senses like an Oversampling DAC will, but it engulfs you with such energy and thickness that it’s like smoking a huge block of Moroccan’s finest and allowing you to float within your own comfortable weight. It’s compelling but anesthetising.

    The Orchid is not perfect, don’t expect it to be, but I think that’s the point, it’s organic. Nature is beautiful but it’s far from perfect, yet it creates such amazing things, it continually grows and evolves and we may not be able to follow or understand it, but it’s still there, engulfing you within its very existence. That’s what the Orchid does, it just allows you to sit back and enjoy your music without you wanting to scrutinize the presentation. At first, this actually made me restless, for months I had been constantly doing this while trying various DAC units. I now felt uneasy actually just enjoying everything I was hearing. I was even noticing new things in my favourite music because I think I was finally content with what I was hearing and was relaxing, and that I realised, was priceless. Sure, there could be a little more definition, a little more instrument separation, it’s not that it lacks these, it’s just not as obviously compartmentalised like it is in an OS DAC, and I feel that’s where the real magic is. Your brain can relax rather than analyse. The detail is there, but its fed to you as a smooth cup of hot chocolate rather than a shot of ice cold Russian vodka. It’s romantic, it holds your hand and takes you on a journey wrapped in cotton wool.

    Always Modify, Never Conform, Always Evolve

    Working through the inputs with the same track in various formats, they all sounded pretty much identical. I feel this is a positive sign for a DAC, all inputs in my opinion should sound the same, but on so many I’ve heard differences between each one, and that never really made sense to me other than build discrepancies. Admittedly, and being very finnicky, there are times when the Orchid can sound a little scratchy, and I feel that is a limitation of the R1 chip, the S variants being knowing to be a lot smoother in the extremities. At this stage I changed the tube for an original Western Electric 1950’s NOS 396JW Military Spec from a lovely HifiWigwam member, one of Jiun's favourites – and boom. It changed. It cleared up all the nasty edges and the congestion, clarity became unreal and the bass edging that I mentioned earlier cleared up. Separation increased and it sounded, well, just more ‘solid’. Defined. It did bring the vocals and treble slightly more forward, which in my system was welcomed, it may not in someone else’s – but this is exactly what makes the Orchid special, nature changes all the time and evolves daily, the Orchid can do that with a little manmade input. Think of a modification as planting a new tree or plant, for it will adapt to its surroundings and those surroundings would then mould around the new entity creating a new living, breathing harmony. For most, the unit will sound heavenly right out of the box, and for those with curious minds, there are plenty of modifications you can try to mould the sound into exactly what you want. It’s almost like it can evolve with you as a person.


    Jiun did mention that the tubes can take around thirty days to settle in, so I may not have been fair saying it could sound scratchy. That’s just the Western man’s impatience in me I figure. I imagine Jiun would prefer to build these units with the S series chips and old school NOS tubes, but sadly in this day of oversampling and solid-state affairs and dwindling stocks of NOS tubes, we have to take the best of what we can get, so he has utilised the materials he can find available and transformed them into something quite special. The man is a magician, or a wizard.

    The Never Ending Story..

    My experience with the Orchid has been the wonderful journey. From my initial conversations with Jiun (a man of few words!) to delivery to the first hours, now to the first week, every day is enjoyment listening to music. I no longer scrutinize or analyse, I just turn on, sit back, and get lost in the sound. This is what I was searching for, and I believe I have found it.

    MHDT need bigger exposure, they can only build on what they have already done, and I hope indeed to sample more of their magic in the future.

    "The most important characteristics of Orchid is that it produce "real" sound. The real sound is hard to hear now in the new audio units"
    Jiun, Head Designer at MHDT Labs

    One day I would love to do a comparison between the Orchid and the Pagoda, but sadly, my bank balance doesn’t run to owning two DAC at this price level. Maybe a time will come when the gods look favourably on me but until that day, I feel blessed owning something like this and I am more than content taking my time walking through the Orchid.

    Well done guys, and thankyou.


    P.s I have since sourced original S1 and S2 chips thanks to some lovely guys on The Art of Sound forum, so will report back once I’ve had these installed and a listening.

    Digital Receiver CS8416
    D/A converter TDA1541A - R1
    I/V stage: discrete ideal transistors (OPA861 used as transistor) , no feedback
    Frequency response: 20 Hz to20kHz (± 2dB)
    Output impedance: 32 ohms
    Output level: 3 Vrms
    All inputs support 16/24 bits/ 32 kHz up to 192 kHz
    Dimensions clear (W x D X H) 276 x 150 x 60 mm
    Dimensions w/ socket (W x D X H) 295 x 170 x 60 mm
    Weight 2 kg


    Some of my reference listening albums

    Jason Isbell - Southeastern
    Gregory Isakov - with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra
    John Smith - Great Lakes
    Alice In Chains - MTV Unplugged
    The Cranberries - No Need to Argue
    Natalie Merchant - Paradise is There
    Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
    Israel Nash - Rain Plans
    Paul Simon - Graceland
    Jeffrey Foucault - Miles From The Lightning

    jamjar784, duckworp, Fretbuzz and 5 others like this.
  2. russel

    russel ./_dazed_and_confused

  3. The Chronicals

    The Chronicals Disruptor

    Its absolutely fantastic, and sadly what is only available these days and are still very rare new. The 1543 is technically 'worse' but AudioNote use them. Its not about the chip solely, its how they are implemented. I know Peter Beunk who runs Dutch Audio Classics and he loves the TDA1541, but yes initially it was a cheaper chipset, yet earned it status as legendary for its attributes. How they where 'sold' matters not.

    Thanks for reading the review though and thanks for the insight and respect for the time taken to do it.
  4. Yomanze

    Yomanze pfm Member

    There are small differences between different TDA1541A, but there also seems to be this cult around them. The consensus seems to be that the Taiwan chips are generally as good as S1s (which were just hand-selected i.e. well binned TDA1541A), but the S2 are extremely expensive now. However, the R1 is a slightly worse component (maybe the designer found some boxes of them), and I notice that your DAC is socketed. I have a spare in my parts bin if you'd like to try it, it's a 'stripe' 1988 I think... just use a spudger to 'walk' the chip out of its socket. :)

    I did find a very good price a while back on a spare Taiwan chip, as these chips do run HOT, so a spare is recommended.

    And yep, there is some magic about a TDA1541A, non-oversampled, with a proper I/V stage, your DAC uses the OPA861s, which are great in this application. in terms of 'analogue feel' nothing really comes close. :)
  5. The Chronicals

    The Chronicals Disruptor

    Thanks Yomanza, I'll drop you a PM about that, and thankyou for the offer!

    Yes, the TDA's have variants between the standard A chip, the R, S1, S1 Single Crown, S2 Double Crown and variations with them as well! It was 90's afterall...and many variants of the year of production. As you rightly say, the 1988 Taiwanese production runs are meant to be the best. There is a newer N chip that Peter at Dutch Audio has a selection of also. There is definitely a cult, hence why I wanted to get involved with them because there must be a reason why, and boy I am glad I did. :)
  6. Yomanze

    Yomanze pfm Member

    As far as I know there were Taiwanese runs between 1997 and 1998. One of my chips is '98 (in the DAC), the '97 as a spare, and also another 1988 that was made in Eindhoven. :)
  7. The Chronicals

    The Chronicals Disruptor

    Ah good advice, cheers. The N Chips where made in Holland as well...I actually visited the Philips factory back in the late 90's- if I only I had the foresight back then! What DAC/CD player do you use?

    Yes it does use the OPA861, Jiun was talking about those being a key to utilising the 1541A. I dont have any good understanding about this, all I know is this is as close to vinyl as I've gotten from digital, and Im very happy with it :)
  8. Yomanze

    Yomanze pfm Member

    The Audial Model S mk1, and yes, you can get a very natural, organic and analogue sound with a TDA1541A NOS DAC, something missing from the 'hyper etched detail' of today's digital IMHO.
    The Chronicals likes this.
  9. The Chronicals

    The Chronicals Disruptor

    Ah I looked at that one also before going with the MDHT. Definitely a great unit from what I have heard/read.
  10. Guest432

    Guest432 Guest

    PQ prefers the AD1865N chip over the TDA1541/1543 and is only using them in the level 0 ranges as they aren't as good as the AD. There's nothing wrong with the TDA1543 though as Gary Dews used it with great success in the BP DAC (I had one for a while)

    I've got a DAC 2.1x Signature which uses the AD1865N and I've never heard a DAC sound as good as this.
  11. The Chronicals

    The Chronicals Disruptor

    I'll pop over for tea sometime for a listen ;)

    Your 2.1x is massively different priced. On price comparison to the MHDT he had to use the 1543 in the 0x but preferred the 1541, yes was unable to obtain enough stock, so went with the 43. I like the 43, but the the MDHT definitely beat the AN 0x for me.= when listening.
  12. Yomanze

    Yomanze pfm Member

    The TDA1541A is a completely different class to the TDA1543, very different design. I agree that the TDA1543 will be no match for an AD1865. I have a pair of AD1865NK in my parts bin too, somewhere... :)
  13. The Chronicals

    The Chronicals Disruptor

    Don't start me off on another exploratory trip, I have just gotten to a happy dacplace :) but I would like to rummage in your bin one day.
  14. Yomanze

    Yomanze pfm Member

    I think just enjoy the tunes and you can roll a tube, DAC or two. ;)
    The Chronicals likes this.
  15. Hempknight

    Hempknight pfm Member

    Good reveiw, I was tempted by MHDT before I got my Deltec SX128 (another very analogue sounding DAC) and I use an X-10D for some valveyness. I think the Orchid is more elegant though, and much more compact :)
    The Chronicals likes this.
  16. The Chronicals

    The Chronicals Disruptor

    Thanks! Its a lovely DAC, I''d like to try to PAgoda one day, from what I have read its still got that MHDT sound but a little more 'hifi' orientated. I've never heard of a Deltec, I'll check those out sometime.
  17. piccadilly

    piccadilly pfm Member

    I'm saving up for a new DAC to replace my Musical Fidelity V-DAC. I had intended to buy a Chord 2 Qute.This new DAC has just gone to the top of my shortlist alongside the Teddy Pardo DAC. I know no comparative review has been done, but I wonder how this new Taiwanese DAC would sound compared to the Teddy Pardo DAC. They seem to be of the same organic/musical spirit.
  18. The Chronicals

    The Chronicals Disruptor

    The Teddy DAC was one that always interested me too, but again no direct comparison. I was tempted to do a 2Qute comparison but the 2Qute just annoys me after listening to the Orchid, so it will going up for sale soon. The 2Qute is a good DAC, there is no denying that, but for me, its nota completely real sound and lacks a mid range presence which the MHDT has in volumes which is what I wanted. The 2Qute will give you more precision and instrument seperation, but for me, it was a computer generated precision and I want a guitar to sound like a guitar not an obvious digital render.
  19. k90tour

    k90tour pfm Member

    Thanks for the review. I'm enjoying my 'new' Marantz CD94 with TDA1541. Detail is missing, soundstage is missing, but very musical. A DAC that could take it further would be great but I wouldn't want to lose the flavour that I have.
    The Chronicals likes this.
  20. Robby

    Robby pfm Member

    I had a 2Qute in my system a couple of years ago. Lasted less than a month.
    I can see why they are liked but it was certainly not for me.
    The Chronicals likes this.

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