Well, in the course of a weekend I typically listen to a lot of music, but there are a few favorite CDs that I like to use when trying to evaluate things:
Piano Music of Chopin, Brahms & Prokofiev, Lincoln Mayorga, Sheffield Lab SL505
The Leinsdorf Sessions: Erich Leinsdorf Centennial, Sheffield Labs SL10043-52
Debussy Preludes Books 1 & 2 Joan Rowland, Sheffield Labs SL10087
Mozart Requiem, Herreweghe, Harmonia Mundi, HMG901620
J.S.Bach Orchestral Suites 1-4, Harmonia Mundi, HMG501578.79
Bruckner No.8 v. Karajan Weiner Philharmonica DG427611
Bruckner No.7 v. Karajan Weiner Philharmonica DG439.037
Tchaikovsky No.6 Pathetique Bernstein NY Philharmonic DG419 604-2
Cello Suites 1-6 J.S. Bach Rostropovich EMI Classics 55365/4
J.S. Bach Great Organ Works, Peter Hurford, Decca 443 485-2
As for any other methodology, I borrowed my acquaintance's DAC - the effects of which I am quite familiar with in combination with my Marantz CD5004 - in order to have some point of comparison with the Emmlabs. This Audio Aero La Fontaine unit I used for about half a day in order to re-accustom myself to the effect of a halfway decent, if slightly saccharine-sounding DAC, upon my CD player. That done, I swapped in the (allegedly very superior) Emmlabs DAC for the majority of the rest of my listening period, before finally swapping in the Emmlabs transport for a few hours at the end. Hardly scientific, but it yielded some interesting results nonetheless.
As I said before, I'm rather lacking in audiophile argot, but I will do my best to describe my findings. These two DACS are rather polar, in fact, as the Audio Aero isn't exactly the last word in detail, but does possess a sweet musicality that I find quite compelling; there is a great improvement in transient decay and soundstaging over the base CD player - not surprising, I suppose, given that it is quite old - and the sense of space between instrumentalists is more evident in chamber music in particular. There is a palpable warmth, particularly in strings and woodwind, that is not there without the DAC, and whether or not this is detail or coloration, I find it pleasant. Vocals, too, were greatly improved, particularly on a Diana Krall CD I like.
As for the Emmlabs DAC in conjunction with my CD player, it's a little odd, but I can find precious little fault with any single aspect of the presentation, and yet I preferred the former DAC. The soundstage was broader, deeper and slightly better defined, something particularly evident on orchestral works. There was without question more detail, transients were more sustained, and yet there was a slightly clinical aspect to the presentation that remained throughout genres. Curiously, I cannot think of an aspect of the Audio Aero's presentation that was notably "better" than the Emmlabs, yet as a whole I found the latter, at least in conjunction with my Cd player, less compelling.
Finally I swapped in the Emmlabs transport, which in conjunction with the DAC seemed to actually compound the sensation of sterility that was noticeable, albeit subtle, when the ye olde Marantz was in place. Again, I cannot fault these units for extraction of detail, soundstaging and/or any other audiophile tricks that I can think of, yet I found a subtle lack of emotive engagement even in pieces that I love as much as the Mozart requiem. Very curious. Suspecting that the transport was more or less jitter-free and extracting more of less as much detail as it was possible to extract from CDs, I swapped in the Audio Aero DAC, and voila; the combination of great detail, stability etc that the transport brought to proceedings when in combination with the sweetness of the Audio Aero - which could be coloration, but it was the most satisfying Cd presentation I've heard in my system by some distance - seemed as fulfilling in terms of musicality as I can imagine CD replay in my system to be.
This is not an outcome that actually helps me much in the immediate, since as you, Romy, pointed out, it will be quite some time until my "big" system is constructed and firing on all cylinders; I was, however, hoping that spending a few thousand dollars on a DAC would greatly improve CD playback in the meantime, but unless I'm permitted to tout my old Marantz down to Montreal - not an unreasonable request, I would have thought - the Antelope audition that I've arranged for during my visit to Montreal would be of academic interest only, and even if I can bring my CD player, who knows what part of an unfamiliar system will be imparting what? This is the problem with certain, relatively obscure but interesting components only being available for audition here and there, but if it turns out that I like what I hear in Montreal, perhaps I will be able to work something out with the dealer in question. After all, from what I've read these units need 500+ hours of burn-in to perform at their optimum; if I'm able to put a deposit down and keep it for a few weeks, this is something that I may be able to achieve - otherwise, not. Since this long burn-in period seems to be commonly understood, it's hard to imagine the dealer not being aware of it, so the demo unit may already be fine, but all this remains to be seen.